Bendigo has a Lot to Show

by wandering freditor / Jul 30, 2011 / 0 comments

She trembled beneath me, more of a quiver than a quake. This was not her scene, nor her speed. It was cold. She was a country girl, more used to sidings than stations, the wind on her wipers, the clean air of the climb, not the meaningless graffiti frescos that adorned the factory walls and backyard fences that crowded her in. Restlessly, she waited for the clock to show 9.11, numbers forever strickened with memories, but such a curious time for parting. She would slink away from the station like a punter leaving an Ashes cricket match, moving slowly not to attract attention, but sprinting with unbridled joy after the stop at Diggers Rest. Ahead would be the paddocks, sheep, and fields of grasses, the parallel tracks climbing into the hills, through chiseled cuttings, and over culverts. But until then, she felt far from home.

I have relatives in Bendigo, the Victorian town, 150 kilometres north of Melbourne. From 1850, for a further half centrury, Bendigo was one of the richest places in the world, all through the discovery of gold. Then men – and a few women – of every creed and colour, traveled to Bendigo ‘to try their luck’. Ships lay idle in Melbourne’s ports as their crews shot through as well, establishment staff were nowhere to be found. For the ‘better off’, it was on one of the horse drawn coaches of Cobb and Co, but most went by the old “Shanks’ Pony” (their two feet). The railway to ‘boom-town’ didn’t go through till 1862. By then Bendigo was more than a town of tents, and with indubitable dithering for the sake of British twang, given two official names, first Castleton then Sandhurst! But those irreverent Aussie forefathers, used to dropping ‘aitches’ and ‘ay’s’   preferred the sound of Bendigo, named after a sheep tenderer (no not in the Kiwi sense!) who fashioned himself after an English pugilist, with the old biblical name of Abednego. No doubt there was a Shadrack among the miners, for certainly many there spoke about having “me shack”. And so it was sealed, hardly with the backing of the local aboriginal tribe, the Dja Dja Wrung, themselves sounding like a backing group for Bob Dylan. But that was how it was in “them thar days”.

As in most cities, the leaving of the ‘burbs’ by rail, is seldom pretty. Melbourne is no exception. Small gritty houses, with grim yards and grimy lines of washing, turn their butt end to the tracks, the earth black, the trees sooty, and lots of left tackle showing their years in rust. There is the brick of factories, full of window panes that have clashed with rocks, land covered by seldom gleaming tracks, on which stand lonely freight-cars and turd-like tankers, all covered in the crap of the rats who come nightly with their pressure packs of paint, the Picasso’s of the wastelands. The morning was cold, the scenery stark, and the only sign of life, here and there, were people in motor vehicles or intrepid souls being pulled along by steaming dogs. Like the earth’s gravitational pull, it took time to drag the scenery away from mills, chimneys and workshops, and a field of container vans waiting, like jilted brides, for prime movers to whisk them away! But finally, I saw neater homes, further from the railway line, and football fields too, not quite affluence, but markedly different from the earlier effluence. Here, even the sun peeped out from the brooding clouds, and as we passed through places named Sunshine and Sunbury, I too rejoiced. We were in the country, my train and I.

The mere word “countryside” brings its own rejuvenation to city dwellers used to fervor, noise and clutter. It offers us escape. Sheep like dollops of cream on the green pastures, which a year ago were in drought, dairy cows in a bundle, as though at the store, waiting patiently, to buy an Ipad, and for a milking! Farm houses stood on distant ridges, surrounded by a stand of gum trees, dams and billabongs, now thirst quenched, mirroring all that was tranquil. Oh we might not want to live there, in a place in the country, but boy, through the big windows of the Flyer, it sure looked attractive – in a Paris Hilton sort of way.

Cosily cocooned in my capsule, the train growled only on the climbs, none of that puffing that I remembered about train travel in my youth, and practiced now if I had to climb an over-the-line railway bridge, where I used to stand, just to breathe in the coal smoke! No more little signs in the tiny toilets telling you not to pee while the train was in the station! Not even a black clad ogre who walked down the carriage yelling “Tickets Please!” Now it was a pleasant smiling woman, armed with only a little hole-punch, and a smile. Then again, most of my fellow passengers shared her vintage, and like them I smiled back. “Good on yer, love” she said when I proffered my little blue stub, “Pretty isn’t it”, nodding at the passing bush-land, picking me at once as a city dweller despite my checked shirt, jeans and ankle boots! Maybe it was my eyes, wide open in wonder, the awe on my face, or the fact that I was looking around while others burrowed into books or were on their phones, texting. Maybe they just took the beauty of the countryside for granted. I certainly didn’t!

From Castlemaine, we climbed, the ironbark gums dense, old disused water tanks at a siding, and piles of concrete sleepers when once they would all have been timber. The axe-man was the champion of the bush, with axe blades as sharp as a mother-in-law’s tongue! Then, the ringing sound of axe-men at work was as familiar as the gurgle from your Google, when you open your laptop. Where a V-cutting had been dug in the ochre earth, there also gleamed lumps of white quartz, sights that would have lit up miners eyes, for quartz is to gold, what salt is to pepper. And then we were there, Kangaroo Flat, now with modern housing where the tents and rough bush humpies had stood, where there was a glint in every man’s eye, and where all eyes were cast downwards after the rain, just in case it had exposed a nugget. Moments later we rolled into Bendigo’s slightly curved railway station platform. My niece was waiting there, with a nice, warm, “Welcome to Bendigo” smile.


Rosalind Gardens and the conservatory

Rosalind Gardens and the conservatory


The first thing that strikes you in Bendigo is the wideness of the streets, enough to turn a bullock dray, or a coach and horses. And then you see the splendid Victorian, Second Empire architecture, for the wealth of Bendigo is reflected in its stately buildings, many in blue-stone granite, its plethora of fountains and statues, the beauty of its carefully tended parks. We started our walk in Rosalind Park, its public face lush lawns, with a myriad of tulips in the spring, though now full of men burying bulbs for their spectacular blooming in September. The conservatory, built close to the ancient sluice of Bendigo Creek, was still full of the waft of chrysanthemums from Mother’s Day, a week ago, and nearby stood a handsome school-cum-college. Bendigo is built in a bowl, surrounded by low hills, but in the park, there is a virtual “camel’s hump” on which there is now an old mine poppet-head, which the fit, and foolhardy, such as me, can climb to the top and get a panoramic view of the city and the surrounds. Knees still a-trembling, I arcanely described the scenery, which spoke for itself, and probably did so without my laboured and wheezing narration. Up on my own spiel berg, I should probably have yelled “Cut” and waited for composure, but like the miner’s rush, there was more glinting down there in the town and besides, coming down was just marginally less jelly-fying on the legs, than the ascent had been!

View Street is a handsome street, not just for its views of the city, but for the views of the facades along its reaches, a superb theatre and art gallery of renown, buildings in neo-Greek style including a former bank building which is simply called the Wine Bank, and is its own repository of ‘liquid gold’. The smell of smoke from the wood fire in the Manager’s old office gave rustic ambiance to quaffers, who paid their dues to a chap in a teller’s cage, while all around the walls, and in a giant safe, in place of files, banknotes and bullion, there were dark bottles of the vintner’s art. I yearned to linger and taste, but time itself was pressing, and it was not the sort I could bottle.

Now permit me to confuse you but a little. I wandered past the charming Alexandra Fountain at Charing Cross, and along Pall Mall passing a statue of she herself sneering, Victoria Regina, as usual, looking down her nose at the domain and the passing subjects. And had she come to her namesake, she could also look upon a Masonic Temple and a Mechanic’s Institute, grand stores and old insurance buildings. Yes, in those days, you couldn’t even take the boys out of London, because they simply rebuilt it abroad, and with all the longing of ‘home’. The Post Office, built in 1852, the Town Hall, the Law Courts, the later War Memorial with the names of so many who died at Gallipoli, Flanders and the Somme, are straight out of Blighty, solid, grand, impressive, with griffins, gargoyles, Corinthian columns and ornate Victorian lighting. I could well imagine a couple of well oiled miners, doing the Lambeth Walk-Oi, down Pall Mall and feeling right at “home” – well except for the weather!

And across the Mall, there is the magnificent Shamrock Hotel, a Palazzo style masterpiece, full of stucco, iron lacework, a grand staircase, parlours, verandahs, ornate acid etched and stained glass work, splendidly regal as befits a grand dame. Here, Lola Montez, the vixen of the goldfields, danced like an early Tom Jones, but instead of knickers, there were nuggets thrown on to the stage. The opera singer, Dame Nellie Melba demanded that the hourly chiming of the town hall clock opposite, be silenced during her hours of sleep, and had her demand answered (now that is real power!) while in 1983, at the completion of a multi million dollar refurbishment and listing under National Heritage, the Prince and Princess of Wales stayed the night in a sumptuous Shamrock suite. Charlie’s “lack of pull” was measured by the fact that the Post Office clock chimed all night! 

While many of the miners who came to Bendigo were Cornishmen and Irish, there were also many Europeans as well as Americans, some of them ‘49ers’ from the California rushes. But there were also large numbers of Chinese who battled prejudice and resentment to mine, and to stay later as businessmen and market gardeners. They called Bendigo the “Great Gold Mountain”, and subsequently, Chinese philanthropists and the greater community, have built the magnificent Golden Dragon Museum, which includes a Joss House, and is dedicated to the history of the Chinese in Australia, but to Bendigo in particular. The museum also houses Sun Loong, the longest Imperial Dragon in the world, and each Easter festival, he comes alive with cymbals and fire-crackers, much to the joy, and consternation, of the little kids!


The Post Office tower with the Shamrock hotel opposite

The Post Office tower with the Shamrock hotel opposite


Mind you, the Chinese are not the only people to believe in luck; it is something that Australian have in spades … or hearts, for the veritable ‘lucky country’ comes up trumps every time. Riding his luck, down on his luck, strike me lucky are all phrases which have passed into Australian lexicon. But the greatest ‘good luck’ story happened in Bendigo where a syndicate started shaft mining at the Central Deborah mine, right in the heart of town, and did all the hard yakka (work) of sinking the shaft to a considerable depth before money, and hope, ran out. The mine lay unused for many years and after the Depression it was sold for a song to a new syndicate which deepened the shaft another few feet and “Eureka”, they hit the mother lode, making the Central Deborah, from 1939 to 1954, one of Australia’s richest mines and responsible for a large portion of the 22 million ounces taken out of Bendigo mines. Now, the Central Deborah is mining tourists, and its underground tours still offer rich pickings. Gold is still mined in the district, and the old tailings, continue to be worked over, to retrieve minute flecks of gold which were too small to be recovered previously.

Mind you, a man from Bendigo ‘invented’ an Aussie icon, the Chiko Roll, which looked like a Chinese spring roll, but was made up of thick wheat pastry, so it “stayed hot”. It was filled with a grey-green glutinous sludge, made up of celery, cabbage, barley, carrot, onion and green beans, with not a scrap of chicken! It was then deep fried to a crisp, margarine yellow. Chiko’s sold in their tens of millions, at hamburger joints and drive in movies, fish and chip shops, local deli’s, and especially at the footy where I am sure you could kick it further than the football, and it was guaranteed to survive in tact! From 1950 to the 1980s, the Chiko was the fryer king, but then, like gold, its luck ran out when Australians discovered “real food”. Oh you can still find them at odd places, but that after the first bite, nostalgia eaters quickly realize just why they gave them up in the first place!

We lunched at a pleasant restaurant on the shores of Lake Weeroona, once a giant bog where the Bendigo Creek ran into a swamp, and a favoured place to pan for alluvial gold, till big dredges came in and turfed out the little man. Now the area it is an attractive lake with boating and rowing regattas, all surrounded by green lawns and shady trees. Trams came to Bendigo in the 1890’s and now a ‘talking tram’, which Bendigonians call “the old rattler”,   travels through the city, and out to Lake Weeroona.

Beyond Bendigo, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was settled by the Gullies, because they are everywhere! Maiden Gully, California Gully, Sailors Gully and Spring Gully were just some of the names I saw. The land is undulating with stands of eucalyptus forest amid the pasture with livestock. Everywhere, the bush is near, because Australians love to live with the bush at their door, although recent killer bush-fires, now inclines more people to keep the bush at arm’s length. Nearby, there are quaint and historic towns, pottery kilns, bric-a-brac antique places, and boutique wineries, as well as up-market spa towns catering to the taut and trim as well as the rich and flabby, or a combination of both. All come to “take the waters” while enjoying contemplative scenery, fine accommodation and excellent gastronomy. Bendigo, with its historic edge, attracts them all, whether to stay or to come as day trippers. There is much to see, and to enjoy.

My stay was all too brief and the train beckoned, farewells too. There was a brief “barp” from the train horn and we glided out of the station, waving beyond fair measure, then settled into the comfortable seat for the journey back to Melbourne. “Tickets please” coo-ed a different conductor, a lanky man, more suited to a horse, but again, with a country smile and country friendliness. The bush grew darker, then the night too. I imagined our train as a firefly, flitting over the fields, travelling through the terrain. It was all downhill.  


 Winfred Peppinck is the Tales of the Traveling Editor for Wandering Educators