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.

25 August 2014

First Crossing the Equator

I’ve clocked many air-miles in the last ten years or so. I’ve even circumnavigated the globe on one particular trip, but this summer was the first time I crossed the equator. As I’ve written before (see here), a lot of the journeys I make are done on freighter flights where the lack of the usual creature-comforts of standard air travel are sometimes compensated for in other ways. Watching the world passing by below, charting rivers, mountains, seas and lakes with your own eyes, surveying an endless cloudscape, or watching the night time stars merge with the growing glow upon the horizon really allows you to gauge the vast expanse of the globe beneath you.


This was another long haul trip. Travelling from London via Mumbai to Hong Kong; then Hong Kong to Sydney and Melbourne, finishing up with a truck ride several hours overland. Quite an exhausting itinerary with the shock of transitioning the whole spectrum of climate zones. From a sunny but mild London summer’s day to the torrential downpour of Mumbai’s mid-monsoon, to Hong Kong’s tropical 40ºC with matching humidity, to Australia’s frosty winter mornings with lows of -3ºC.


The journey took four days in total which meant I slept for long portions of two of the flight’s four stages. Consequently I missed what route we flew from London to Mumbai, but I suspect we may well have flown over or close to the Ukraine, where only a few days later the tragedy of Flight MH17 occurred. From Mumbai we flew across India and Bangladesh, where I had a good view of (what the pilots told me was) the confluence of the Rivers Ganges and Brahmaputra, before crossing Burma into China, where we then headed down to Guangzhou. I sat in the cockpit for what was quite a spectacular night landing at Hong Kong. Below we had good views of the bright lights of Guangzhou, the Pearl River, Macao, Hong Kong Island and Kowloon as we weaved our way between dark fluffy lumps of cloud in which tropical lightning was flickering on and off. What the pilots (when speaking over the radio to air-traffic control on the ground) calmly referred to as “patches of weather.” This was quite an otherworldly spectacle to behold and far better than any firework display I’ve ever been to!

On the flight south from Hong Kong to Sydney I asked the pilot to let me know when we crossed the equator as it was my first time travelling to the Southern Hemisphere. He joked that he’d come and pour a glass of water over my head in honour of the traditional ‘crossing the line’ ceremony! Thankfully he didn’t, especially as it turns out I was asleep at the time. He did give me a map with our exact route printed-out as a souvenir though, consequently I could easily pin-point the place where we crossed the line of zero degrees latitude over the Molucca Sea between the northern point of Indonesia’s Sulawesi (Celebes) and North Maluku, islands which resonate in my imagination as the setting for Joseph Conrad’s novels, Almayer’s Folly (1895) and An Outcast of the Islands (1896). After which we crossed the Banda Sea which, ever since watching Lorne and Lawrence Blair’s Ring of Fire films, I’ve always wanted to cross – except I’d rather hoped to do so in an old Bugis sailing prau as they did, but hey-ho, you can’t always have your cake and eat it, I suppose!


When not reading I spent much of the daylight hours of this journey cloud watching or trying to interpret the physical features of the landscape below. Along with the two great rivers of Bangladesh I had some wonderful views of the interior of Australia. Coming into land at Sydney I had an excellent view of Sydney harbour, the famous harbour bridge and opera house. As the aircraft banked round and came back along the coast, descending into land I watched the cliffs and beaches growing closer and I couldn’t help thinking of Captain Cook sailing along that same stretch of coast in HMB Endeavour. Thinking how much has changed in all that time, and yet still how each new landfall we make is a similar personal voyage of discovery of our own – and, of course, without a doubt it’s always fun to make such new landings in novel and unconventional ways, like arriving in your own private 747!

5 August 2014

'No Time For More Notes' - A Diary of the Great War

On 4th August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany. The following day, my great-grandfather, Farrier Sergeant James Joseph Creighton was mobilized to active service. He left Cork docks with his "destination unknown." He travelled via England on a long and arduous journey to the Western Front in France near the border with Belgium. From August 5th to October 22nd, his 28th birthday, he kept "notes." These neat but spare pencil jottings describe his journey from Cork to France, writing the bare essentials of what he saw and experienced during the opening months of the First World War.

The reason the diary ends rather abruptly, according to my grandmother, is because he was told to stop writing by one of his commanding officers for fear it might fall into enemy hands and cause harm. Although his notes are short, they create a concise and perceptive record using a language which is very clear. The diary (measuring 90mm x 60mm x 4mm) is very fragile, and, in part because of this, a few years ago I decided to transcribe it; I then made up copies of the transcription, complete with photographs of each page, so that the diary could be shared by everyone in our family.

James Joseph Creighton survived the Great War. He had served in the Army since the age of 18, and once the War was over he was stationed in India between 1919 and 1923. When he eventually left the Army he continued to work as a farrier and had an expert knowledge with regard to horses. He wrote another larger and more detailed notebook, illustrated with sketches and diagrams, detailing how to nurse and care for injured or unhealthy horses. We also have a cine film reel of him shoeing a horse in his forge.

In 1968 one of his daughters described him in a long poem which was probably written to celebrate his 82nd birthday:

Our Josey was tall dark and handsome
Blue eyes and with dark curly hair
A brogue you could cut with a knife edge
His back like a ram-rod, I swear

At eighteen he entered the Army
He wanted to travel the world
He landed in India and Egypt
Wherever our flag was unfurled

For Josey all life was the Army
He stayed there for twenty-one years
Life was good, he was happy, no worries
To troubles he just closed his ears

Although I was still only very young at the time I have very vivid memories of my great-grandfather. He was a very kind and gentle man with large warm hands and a large white Edwardian moustache. Born in 1886, an Irishman from Banbridge in County Down, he died in 1984 when I was 8 years old.



Reg No 32122.
Farrier Sergeant J Creighton.
111th Battery R.F.A. 
24th Brigade R.F.A. mobilized [...] active Service, 5th August 1914. Embarked Cork docks, 18th Aug.  Destination unknown. Arrived Cambridge, England, 2am, 21st Aug. Remainder of 6th Division on the way. Entrained 8th Sept. Arrived Southampton 4pm, same day. Embarked on ‘The City of Benaires’ Arrived Saint Nazaire, France, 11th Sept. Had a nice voyage. Corporal of 110th Battery fell overboard while disembarking horses. Had narrow escape. […] Entrained 3am, 12th Sept, St. Nazaire. Detrained at Maarle 8am, 13th Sept. Lecture by O.C. Marched 25 kilometres camped for the night. Wet through to the skin. Horses standing over the fetlocks in mud. Had a very miserable night. 

'The City of Benares' (6984 tons - built 1902, scrapped 1933)

14th Sept. off again, done 30 kilometres. Guns booming in the distance. Did not bother about the names of these places. Bivouacked again for the night at Paars, near the River Aisne. 

15th Sept. got into a bit of a billet, resting ready for the final Battle of the Aisne. Wounded going down from the fighting line in dozens to the hospitals. Gunners entrenching & making gun pits. One Gunner killed & Lieutenant Eyse 112th Battery wounded, Gunners name Rutherford, by a German Coal box / shed nicknamed by the troops. 

29th Sept. Germans retiring to Belgium. British forces to move […]nto left wing from left centre. March by night, keep under cover by day. Entrained at small station South of the River Ouse. Passed through Crepy St Dennis. St Just Amiens Abbeville. Stopped one day [...] night in Saint Ormans. Marched about four miles. Guns booming. Came into action 1.30pm. 


13th October. Fired 172 rpounds. Guns remain in action all night. Been raining hard all day, wet through. Village on fire in the distance. Enemy retiring at day break. Ordered to advance passed two houses on fire in village by German shell, also grave of Private Piper L.N.S. killed in action last night. Billeted for the night. 

14th Oct. still advancing, marching all day. Darkness coming over, getting very cold. Germans start pelting again. Wind up. Getting fired at from an un[...]ed Position. Expecting an attack halted on roadside, no talking. Gunners get round first line with rifles " guns come into action on roadside, but all passed off quietly. Battery moved off. No one knew of any orders being passed down. Capt. G M S., S S Cpl, all went off with firing Battery. Left with 1st line to find them in the darkness, got stuck in road expecting to meet some [?villains] who are known to be prowling about in the woods about there. But would sell life dearly. Arrived at Billet safely about 1am 

15th Oct. Lay down tired out. Germans took two boys belonging to people of billet. Used them to dig their trenches. Women weeping everywhere. Church on fire. Moved off about 10am, passed German dead Trooper, shot through the head. 11 others buried on roadside. They were a German Cavalry patrol caught by a patrol of the Royal Fusiliers. One in cottage dieing. More dead horses. Their horses well shod for frosty weather. But it would take them longer to put [...] the screws than it would for to rough our horses. Entered the town of Stumurecl[?], just on Belgian frontier. Town turned upside down. Off again 7pm. Keeping them on the go. Very cold. After an hours march we halt on roadside. Two hay stacks on fire. They think we are going to walk between them & show ourselves up. But no. We remain in the darkness all night. Myself, G M.S & Davy huddle behind a hay stack, try to have a nap but cannot for the cold. Two bridges taken by Liensters during the night. Only 1 killed 9[?] wounded. Camped again for a few hours sleep. 

16th Oct. off again. Once more arrived at some town also turned upside down. Women again weeping in doorways. Most of them crying with joy at seeing our troops. They know they are safe when we enter a town or village. 7 Germans just brought in. One spy shot. 

17th Oct. off again. Just passed 30 dead horses. German Cavalry. Just halted. Bivouac. 


Oct 18th arrive at Chappe Le Armantiers. Came into action on left of church. Shells flying on. One hit. Three shells burst between 110th wagon line. Very narrow escape for horses & Drivers. G.M.S. & myself watch them going into the church in dozens. Then the fire is directed into dwelling houses. Smashed to bits. Germans start sweeping. Cannot shift find our guns but find our wagon but may have to shift it. 

Oct 19th firing continues all night. Sure to be heavy casualties. Mr Leach wounded but performed a gallant act. 1pm shells bursting all around us. Just slightly windy. 6pm wind up. Enemy supposed to be advancing. Harness up. Be ready to move off at a moments notice. Every one in suspense. We do not like retirements. 9pm all quiet. Gen sends down. This position to be held at all costs. 11pm. Enemy drove back. Awful slaughters to the Germans & Prisoners taken. All quiet 6am. 

Oct 20th more shells. 1 Cpl 43 Battery killed. The roar of guns is awful. You can hear it roaring off for miles. Heavy firing all day. No casualties. Our guns are well concealed. 

Oct 21st. guns at it again. As G.M.S & myself were having dinner of boiled peas & Bully one came whizzing over our heads. We lay flat on the ground. Then we set to dig ourselves in. 


22nd Oct. My birthday. What a night we had last night. The heavens were alight with Rifle & Artillery fire. The Germans attacked us. Three army Corps to the 6[?]th Div. Never will I forget it. They attacked us at about 11pm. But our orders were to hold that position at all costs. The Germans are lying in hundreds dead. R.B. killed 80, captured 100. Our casualties amounted to 6 wounded. This morning they did not repeat this attack, but keep shelling us. They have had enough of British doggedness. The spire of this church on my right is just about to topple over.* As I write the ground is shaking with the bursting of their heavy shells, but doing no damage to our troops. Absolute waste of ammunition. We drove them back after one hours terrific fighting. Lord but it was awful lay down beside brimber[?] Teeth chattering in my head. No time for more notes.


* For more information regarding this battle, see the opening pages of the Michelin Illustrated Guides to the Battlefields (1914-1918): Ypres and the Battle of Ypres (Michelin, 1919) here & scroll down to p. 49 onwards for photographs of the Church of St. Waast, Armentieres before & after the fighting (possibly the church he describes?).

 Me (aged 4) with my Great-Grandfather (aged 94) 

Photo credit for 'The City of Benares' by Gordy, the late Don Ross Collection at ShipSpotting.com