30 August 2014

Books & Bats in Bendigo

I could smell them before I could see them. Not that they are that difficult to spot as they are quite large creatures. And they’re quite noisy too, all chattering away. There were several hundred of them in the colony. They looked like strange, dark fruit pods dangling from the tallest branches of the trees: wild, grey-headed fruit bats. It was quite comical at times watching them hanging upside down whilst the strong winds disconcertingly see-sawed the tree branches they were hanging onto like some kind of catapult-thrill ride at a fun fair.

This colony of bats has only very recently set up camp in Bendigo’s Rosalind Park, not far from the centre of town. Grey-headed fruit bats are the largest bats native to Australia but they are relative newcomers to the Melbourne area; it’s thought that they might perhaps be increasingly drawn to the urban areas because of the heat. I’ve always been interested in bats since I was a child. I remember going to a children’s lecture on bats with my sister at the Zoological Society in London. And, of course, we’d visited the fruit bats in the ‘nocturnal creatures’ enclosure at London Zoo on many occasions; but this was the first time I’d ever seen so many fruit bats all together in the wild. Unlike the tiny wild bats which live in the UK these fruit bats don’t use echolocation to pin-point their food, instead they have a highly developed sense of smell which they use when they go out foraging at night, covering vast distances when they do. Subsisting entirely on fruit and nectar they perform an important function in the ecosystem, helping to pollinate the plants they feed upon.


These weren’t the first wild fruit bats I’d ever seen though. The first bats of this kind which I’d seen were in Egypt. Egyptian fruit bats, interestingly enough, are unique among the fruit bat species as they do still retain their echolocation skills because they often live in caves and so they still need their sonar to navigate in the dark amidst the narrow rock faces. I remember inadvertently disturbing a small group of these bats when entering a small ruined side temple at Karnak. My friend and I became aware of a movement above us and we looked up to see the bats dangling from the ancient stone ceiling directly over our heads. Naturally enough they looked a more muted brown and dusty colour compared to the bats I saw in Bendigo, which had very shiny black, leathery wings and bright red, soft furry bodies – it’s easy to see why they are called ‘flying foxes’ by some people. They are quite large animals and so it’s quite a strange feeling to see them clearly looking back at you just as inquisitively. Unlike the bats in Egypt, the bats in Australia congregate out in the open, roosting in the treetops (much to the chagrin of many of the local residents of Bendigo, so I was told, as they do create quite a stink). When they do all take to the wing at night, however, it is truly an impressive sight to behold.


There were plenty of other interesting kinds of wildlife in and around Bendigo too. Green Lorikeets (I'm not sure exactly which kind, possibly Mallee Ringnecks or Red-winged Parrots, maybe even both?), large white Sulphur-crested Cockatoos with yellow tufts on their heads, Galahs with their striking red bodies and grey wings, and Kookaburras – which surprised me as they look similar in shape to the British Kingfisher, but are much, much bigger! And, of course, Kangaroos … (which were first mentioned in the diary of Sir Joseph Banks on July 12th 1770, and by Captain James Cook in his Journal of the Endeavour voyage on August 4th 1770 - exactly 244 years before these ones were seen and photographed by me on August 1st 2014!):

On the road travelling up to Bendigo from Melbourne I’d been eagerly scanning the countryside having seen the distinctive, yellow diamond-shaped ‘beware kangaroo crossing’ signs along the highway, but hadn’t seen any, and so I consoled myself by the fact that UK highways have similar signs warning of ‘deer crossing’, yet it’s very rare to ever see this actually happening when there is a lot of traffic on the highway. Telling this story to my colleague who’d made the same journey the following day I was stunned and somewhat crestfallen when he said: “Oh no, I saw a whole group of them jumping about on a hilltop as we drove up here!” Consequently, when we were told of a group of kangaroos which were currently living in an open space in the suburbs of Bendigo we simply had to go and take a look.

They really are strange looking creatures, like oddly enlarged and slightly anthropomorphized giant brown hares. They can move very fast, but, when not on the go, they also have an odd way of sitting back on their tails as though they were sitting on a bar stool! … We thought it wise not to venture too close.

Bendigo itself is an old colonial era town. The area was originally inhabited by the Dja Dja Warrung or Jaara people who were displaced by European settlers who moved in at some point probably in the early 1800s and set up sheep stations. Gold was discovered here in the 1850s which is when the settlement really took off. A gold rush ensued and the town’s prosperity rose along with the rush. Much of this colonial heritage remains in evidence today, predominantly by the large number of grand buildings, statues and fountains still standing from that time. Wandering around the town the street names, such as ‘Pall Mall’, and statues of Queen Victoria and King George V, as well as the old tramways with their trolley buses still running for tourists and visitors, give an idea of what this town might have once been like in its hey-day, when it was once a part of the independent colony of Victoria.


Another highlight for me was discovering two wonderful second-hand bookshops. The first I noticed when arriving into town driving along ‘Kangaroo Flat’, called Book Mark. The shop looks deceptively small from outside, but inside it stretches back a long way and even has a small upper floor, with books crammed from floor to ceiling throughout; all neatly and somewhat eclectically categorised – it seemed very strong on local history, as well as fiction.

My favourite though was located not far from the bats. Book Now is housed in a beautiful, self-contained little building, but the real treat is the wonderful interior – a real booklover’s paradise! Again, it is chock full of books, with an upper gallery which encircles the shop beneath a high pitch vaulted ceiling. Up here I found fantastic travel and history sections – with a fair few scholarly titles; as well as a few intriguingly titled sections, such as: Nostalgia Fiction (with a complete set of ‘Miss Read’ books), and, Bush-Ranger History (full of titles about Ned Kelly). The section titles are also given in Chinese because the shop is located close to the Golden Dragon Museum, the Yi Yuan Gardens, and Guan Yin Temple. 

In the nineteenth century Bendigo had a sizeable Chinese community, but the temple and museum are both relatively new. Built in 1996, the Temple to Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy (Avalokitesavara), is built in the traditional style of Chinese temple architecture with a marble statue of Guan Yin as its centrepiece. The statue depicts the Goddess enthroned with her bare foot resting on an open lotus flower, holding a flywhisk as a symbol of authority, and a pearl, symbolising purity and knowledge. Curiously enough, this was the second Chinese temple I’d visited on this particular trip – the other being the Man Mo Temple on Hong Kong Island which was built in the 1840s, around the time when Bendigo was being founded.

I should add too that Bendigo has a very fine Art Gallery, which was where I was working for the few weeks I spent in Bendigo in wintry July. Founded in 1887 and opened to the public in 1890, the original building is a wonderful mix of Victorian and Edwardian era architecture both inside and out, which has since been augmented with a new modern building that has significantly expanded the Gallery’s space and facilities. The Gallery’s collection covers both Australian and international artworks from the 19th century, as well as modern artworks in all types of media.

For more on the history of Bendigo see the Bendigo Historical Society webpage.

Thanks to the proprietors of 'Book Mark' & 'Book Now' for very kindly letting me take photos of the interiors of their wonderful bookshops.

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