Wildlife Among the Gumtrees

Give me a home among the gumtrees, with lots of plum trees, a sheep or two, a kangaroo, a  clothesline out the back, verandah out the front, and an old rocking chair’  – John Williamson

Craggy Peaks. An old golf course at the foot of Ben Lomond that has been reconditioned as a holiday camp, containing fifteen self-contained cabins nestled among the trees, overlooking Mistletoe Creek. No plums, sheep or rocking chairs, unfortunately, but gallons of gumtrees and a plethora of native Australian animals.

We have taken a somewhat circuitous route to get here, around the rim of the Ben Lomond National Park, and along miles of dirt tracks, but you can always choose the rather smoother route on bitumen roads through farmland, wooded hills and the old mining town of Rossarden that ensure an easy and attractive ninety minute drive from Launceston.

The trees are full of birds – kookaburras, a family of tawny frogmouth, and many others that remain out of sight, but make lots of noise – and the surrounding woods are alive with wallabies, wombats and quolls. And, strangely, deer, that were introduced into the area, wander freely through the nearby town of Rossarden, where they are much loved and protected. The gushing, rushing creek hurtles down the hill and across the middle of the property. The wind soughs through the trees like the Whispering Woods of Enid Blyton’s imagination. Frogs chortle around the rim of the dam, invisible among the bulrushes. The craggy outline of Ben Lomond looms above us, cast in shadows as we pour our first G&T and relax on the deck. And we are soothed to sleep by the sound of rain on the tin roof.

We have been advised to bring everything we needed in the way of food and drink, as the nearest supermarket is in Campbelltown, 60kms away. But once we were settled, there seemed little need to wander so far. Strenuous hikes up Stacks Bluff or gentle strolls through the bush, sunny days and cool nights, fresh air, space and the scent of eucalyptus… what more could a girl want? It is blissfully relaxing and a welcome escape from tv and the internet, phones and newspapers, with the added joy of spotting the local wildlife.

One night, we leave some ham on the deck and watch with fascination as two quolls pop in for a bite to eat. The quolls are smaller than I had imagined. Knowing them to be carnivorous, I have expected something the size of a fox, but these are only the size of small cats.

The quoll – once known as the tiger cat despite the fact that it is spotted, not striped and not much like a cat at all, apart from its bushy tail – is nocturnal, and will build itself a nest underground, in a crevice in the rock, or under a fallen log. Some can also climb trees. Its soft, thick fur comes in a range of colours from strawberry blond to dark chocolate brown, spotted with neat white dots. Bush Heritage Australia explains that quolls have up to eight pups per litter, which spend the first weeks of their lives in a pouch. They have a limited life span in the wild – even without our help – of two to four years.

Once prolific across the continent of Australia, new Australians have unfortunately had a huge impact on quoll populations. Cars, trapping and loss of habitat, not to mention species we have carelessly introduced, have wiped out quoll populations everywhere. Apparently cane toads have decimated the Northern quoll population, and the Eastern quoll is now extinct on mainland Australia, thanks to feral cats and foxes. It is surviving in Tasmania by the skin of its sharp, pointy teeth. It uses those same teeth to keep down the population of rabbits, mice and rats, and also likes to munch on spiders, cockroaches and grasshoppers. As this helps to maintain a natural balance in the ecosystem, there is good reason to ensure that we don’t eliminate them entirely. Many wildlife charities are working hard to preserve the ones we have left and boost their numbers.

Then there is the possum, also a marsupial, also nocturnal. In the wild, he can be appealingly cheeky – unless protecting young – but possums are generally unpopular in towns, and considered a pest for their tendency to get into one’s roof space and demolish your fruit trees. Actually, I find them appealing, even in suburbia. They have big, dark eyes and soft, woolly fur, and an ability to hold onto things with an almost human grip. The common brushtail possums eat flowers, fruits and seeds, and occasionally grubs, birds eggs and even fledglings. They spend most of their time in trees – if they are not clattering about on your roof!  Supposedly somewhat solitary, they nonetheless communicate in a very noisy fashion,  using hisses and grunts, alarming screeches, chattering, and deep, guttural coughs. In. the wild, minus a busy road, they can live up to thirteen years

A couple leap onto our deck one night, with heavy thumps, just as we are falling asleep. Startled to see us peering through the window, they quickly retreat, but the following night, a braver – and larger – male arrives, who vacuums up all the ham we have left out with the alacrity of a drug addict snorting cocaine. Before long, he has worked his way along the deck to the sliding door, and is peering through the glass, obviously keen for more. The One & Only carves up an apple, offering him a piece at a time, which he grabs firmly with both hands. Apparently, this was insufficient to quell a rumbling stomach, and our uninvited guest clambers onto the railing, to peer in through the door that we have left open just a crack. We know if we invite him in, he’ll soon be sitting at the table, demanding dessert. So we don’t.

Down by the creek, wallabies drop by at twilight, knowing the staff are happy to provide sundowner nibbles. Deborah, who has worked here for a couple of years, tells us there are five friendly wombats who occasionally waddle through the camp to say hello, but sadly, we don’t get to meet them this time. Pademelons and potoroos are also abundant, but I have yet to learn the difference. So, for now, they are all wallabies!

While it rains every night in this temperate forest, the days are glorious: clear and sunny and warm, and the clouds are cotton puffs of lightness. Yet, in winter, the pond freezes over, the grass glistens with frost, and there is snow on Ben Lomond, which brings cross-country skiers and toboggans to the national park. I am keen to come back in winter – armed with Ugg boots and thermal underwear, and tyre chains of course. Oh, to see a wallaby in the snow!

*With thanks to the One & Only for his lovely photos.

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Return to Tasmania

This summer, we finally realized a dream of long-standing: to return to Tasmania. You may remember that I wrote about my first visit in the late 1980s, when the One & Only took me on a trek to Frenchman’s Cap? Thirty five years on, and I have refused point-blank to lug a rucksack through the wilderness and live off Deb and freeze-dried meat for days on end. Instead, we are having a civilized road trip, exploring the highways and byways of this remote island state of Australia.

According to my sources, over 20% of Tasmania is protected by UNESCO as a Wilderness World Heritage Area and just over 40% of the entire island is designated as a national park or reserve. A good portion of the remainder is farmland. The scenery, almost everywhere, is breath-taking.

Tasmania’s economy once depended largely on mining, food production, fish and forestry, but in recent years – COVID years aside – tourism has become its backbone. (Thus, the huge carpark at Cradle Mountain to accommodate the ever-increasing influx of visitors.) Sadly, tourism may be good for the economy, but it is, without doubt, a disaster for the native wildlife. Currently, the number of resident Tasmanians is around 550,000. Tourists can add more than double that number to the population every year. That’s not to say that tourists are responsible for all the deaths, but the extra cars on the road obviously don’t help. One report I read suggested that an average of 32 animals die every hour on Tasmanian roads – and it is estimated the native animal roadkill toll reaches at least 500,000 annually. And that’s just the ones that get counted.

The carnage on the country roads quickly becomes distressing, as we pass the corpses of potoroos and possums, quokkas and quolls, wallabies and the occasional wombat. Small, fluffy brown mounds on the side of the road, or dead centre (pun intended), are carrion for either crows or the rare and carnivorous Tasmanian Devil, foraging for dinner. I pray that each battered body died quickly and didn’t suffer.
The Tasmanian Conservation Trust, among others, works to preserve and protect the state’s flora, fauna and cultural heritage. The website for Wildlife matters provides a few tips on how Tasmanians and tourists here can help reduce these deaths:

Drive more slowly at night, particularly at dusk and dawn. These are the times when animals are most active.
• Always expect that there could be an animal just out of sight. Many animals are killed on road bends, rises or dips.
• Be alert. Watch for shadows and movement at the road edge.
• If you see one animal or bird crossing the road, expect others to be following.
• Never assume an animal or bird will move before you hit them. Modern cars are very quiet.
• You shouldn’t swerve suddenly as it is dangerous: just slow down enough to give the bird or animal time to escape. Or toot your horn.
• Be aware that in spring and summer reptiles appear on the roads so look closely at anything on the road that at first glance appears to be a stick.
• If you do hit something, stop to check if it is still alive and call a rescue service for advice.

So, we are driving very cautiously, And, despite the sadness of so much death and destruction, the scenery is awesome. Inland, we discover an almost Scottish landscape of rocky riverbeds and mountain tarns, boggy moorland and craggy hills, with gum trees and marsupials thrown into the mix to differentiate Tassie from its northern hemisphere cousin.

And we soon spot enough living wildlife to give us a buzz: five echidnas in one afternoon, strolling along the verge, and one in the garden where we are staying, known to our host as ‘Ed’. Wallabies, black cockatoos, a snake, a couple of hawks hover near the road. But could someone please teach them not to play in the traffic? Even the increasingly rare Tasmanian Devil often loses the fight against the armoured invaders (cars, trucks, utes, buses), as he heads for these ‘rivers of death’ to dine on the proliferation of roadkill. Reptiles especially like the roads because they are warm. And roads often cut across the territories of native animals such as wallabies and pademelons, who try to cross to the other side, unaware of the danger. High banks or thick undergrowth along narrow country lanes can also prevent a quick escape, as cars bear down upon them with blinding headlights.

The coast road, too, is strewn with small bodies. Yet, lifting my eyes from the deadly asphalt, the view is glorious. Bite-sized bays are strewn with or interlocking, dark grey, hexagonal basalt columns that look like man-made forms of vulcanized tyres, miniature versions of The Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. We found some of these up in the hills too, paving the way for a waterfall above Burnie. The amount of water, in rivers, creeks, tarns, dams and reservoirs, is astounding to this South Australian woman.

Many of these waterways also create treasures below the ground, in the form of a stunning series of caves. Nearby, Gunns Plains has an incredible number of them, but only one that is open to the general public. This limestone tunnel was formed by an underground river, the limestone dripping through to create an astounding collection of stalactites, stalagmites, helictites and flowstone. This cave was accidentally discovered by a local farmer while out possum hunting. Early visitors had to descend down a rope, through a hole in the ground, until a staircase was finally constructed. For two months last year, floodwaters filled these caverns, after which all the electricity boxes needed replacing. Currently, the accessible path is only 275m long, but apparently a further kilometre of caverns has been mapped.

In a group of ten, we descend the steep concrete staircase into the bowels of the hill. Known as an ‘adventure cave’, the steps and pathways are uneven, damp and sometimes slippery. Often, we need to duck, or even bend double to squeeze through the narrow gaps between rocks and formations into subsequent caves. Trish explains that ‘her’ cave is home to a variety of animals. Fortunately, it is too cold for bats, who would inevitably draw the snakes if they were to roost here, but fish, eels and freshwater crayfish have all found their way in, and recently, a platypus has nested here to raise her puggles. Isn’t that the best word for a baby platypus? (And also used for a baby echidna.) Glow-worms sparkle on the roof – a much prettier name than the gnat larva they actually are, as bioluminescence is a more attractive name for the blue-green light they emit from their luminous bottoms. Long strings of saliva hang from the ceiling of the cave twinkle like fairy lights in the torchlight. These are created by our predatory little glow worms, who use their light to lure insects into the long strands of stickiness they have created. Talk about beauty being skin deep.

Above the ground, Tasmania abounds with names that would be familiar to any visiting Brits: the Tamar Valley and Launceston (Cornwall), Ulverstone (from Ulverston in Cumbria), the English counties of Somerset and Hampshire, Devonport (near Plymouth on the south coast) and Sheffield (from the midlands of England). There’s even a Mersey River. Scotland rates a mention too, with Leith also sitting beside the Forth River. Abel Tasman, the Dutch explorer and the first European to come across this island, officially named it Van Diemen’s land, to honour a superior. Later, it would become better known as Tasmania, for Tasman himself, in an attempt to detach it from its past: an horrifically infamous penal settlement and the European destruction of the island’s aboriginal tribes.

We have spent gentle days weaving up and down winding lanes, through farmland and forests, along deep gorges cluttered with blue gums soaring towards the sky. The memories of the past may overshadow the present, but it is easy to forestall those historical miseries as we zip along the ravishing coast road between Ullverstone and Stanley, on the lookout for lighthouses and penguins.

Despite Antarctica’s relative proximity to Tasmania, its various penguin species remain aloof. Only the 33 cm high mini penguins, (eudyptula novaehollandiae) live and breed around the Tasmanian coastline. Fairy penguins – or Little Penguins, as they are known locally, are the smallest penguins in the world. Common to southern Australia and Tasmania, many of the colonies on the mainland have been destroyed, or seriously diminished by dogs and foxes. However, they are apparently still breeding along the northern coast of Tasmania. So, on our last day in the area, we head down to the beach at sunset to see if we can catch a glimpse of them arriving home from a day’s fishing.

Our hostess recommends Lillico, a Conservation Beach between Devonport and Ullverstone. Here, a watching platform has been built above the penguins’ nesting grounds. As the sun starts to set, the platform fills up with families keen to see these little fellows at close quarters. We wait and wait, and eventually someone spots an adult penguin just below the walkway, denuding itself of last year’s coat. Until the new one grows in, this bloke is landlocked. But come the autumn, when the chicks, too, have replaced their soft down with thick, waterproof coats, they will all head out to sea, where they will spend the next few months fishing, until the next breeding season calls them back to shore.

Little penguins don’t fly, but their stubby wings make excellent flippers for swimming in the ocean. They spend approximately 80% of their lives at sea, only coming to shore during the breeding season (August to February) to raise their young, and moult. Before landing, they apparently gather offshore in groups or ‘rafts’, waiting for dusk to cross the beach, in order to evade any waiting predators.

The pack of sightseers in the front row prevents those further back spotting the adults coming into shore and waddling up the beach, but there is now plenty of activity backstage, where the babies – full height but still fluffy – are emerging from their holes. One pair keeps us amused for ages, flapping its stubby little wings frantically, as if determined to become airborne. One even clambers awkwardly up on a rock, in the hope that gravity will launch his flying career. A friendly guide spotlights them with a torch covered in red cellophane so as not to harm their eyes or distress them. Gradually, others emerge, waiting patiently for their parents to appear with dinner. Two young teenagers of the penguin variety are canoodling right beside the boardwalk, where kids of the human variety squat down, knowing not to touch, but so close that it would only take another inch or two…

The penguins must be aware of their audience – we are virtually breathing down their necks – but are they bothered? Not at all. One actually looks up and waves a flipper at the smallest child peering over the wire. It is a magical night, and the efforts of local conservationists to support the penguins survival is encouraging. Numbers are gradually increasing as practical initiatives such as weed eradication, habitat restoration, fencing, and the installation of artificial burrows, as well as educational programs, have led to recolonisation and increased breeding at many sites .Perhaps something will eventually be achieved for those native mammals, birds and reptiles, who so regularly and abruptly lose their lives on the roads, or due to the conflicting interests of farmers and forestry. After all, would Tasmania be so well worth visiting if there were no wild animals to enjoy?

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“Core of my heart, my country!”

An opal-hearted country,
A wilful lavish land –
All you who have not loved her,
You will not understand –
Though earth has many splendours,
Wherever I may day,
I know to what brown country
My homing thoughts will fly.

For many Australians, the words of poet Dorothy McKellar ‘I love a sunburnt country’ are more familiar as a song, and, like the National Anthem, we may only know one verse. This Christmas, however, I was given a beautiful book of traditional bush poetry by my younger son, which introduced me to the fact that this is actually the first line of the second stanza of her iconic poem. And my favourite verse is actually the last one, that I have copied above.

In Australia, it is common knowledge that our population is now – and has been since the settler colonials first encroached on this glorious southern continent – largely urban. And yet the romantic myth of the past persists: that we, as the second wave of Australians to inhabit this sunburnt country, are as embedded in the stark contrasts, challenges and ethereal beauties of rural Australia as the First Nations peoples. Even my One & Only, raised in the suburbs by the sea, a first generation son of European migrants, has recently discovered an attachment to the outback that has crept unexpectedly over him.

In the early days it was all about plunder: grabbing land we could develop as we had done in Europe, planting crops and breeding animals that did nothing to sustain the fragile environment onto which we had trespassed and unwittingly, ignorantly despoiled. Today, there is a strong sense that the time has come to reverse that trend and redress the balance.

In the Hindmarsh Valley, on the traditional land of the Ramindjeri people, is a farm of around 600 acres. Owned by the Retallick Family for over twenty two years, Gary and Sandy have been breeding alpacas and providing sanctuary for endangered native animals such as the brush tailed bettong and the southern brown bandicoot, both previously threatened to the point of extinction by feral cats and foxes. They have also planted around 65,000 trees, thus reinvigorating land that had previously been aggressively cleared for grazing sheep and cattle. Alpacas were chosen to replace the ungulates, as their soft, padded feet are kinder, minimizing the impact on pastureland. Originating in South America, these gentle, doe-eyed animals are bred for their super-soft fleeces, and the Retallicks’ brood have become incredibly successful, boasting a room filled with ribbons, cups and awards for their excellence.

We first visited Softfoot Farm last year, to dine at the Swagman, another great business venture on the property. Beautifully situated above a billabong, the Swagman is rural chic with a nod to poet Banjo Patterson:

‘Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong,
Under the shade of a coolabah tree.
And he sang as a watched and waited till his billy boiled,
“You’ll come a waltzing matilda with me.”’

In the old days, particularly in the 1890s and the Great Depression, many swagmen wandered the country roads looking for work. With few possessions, they carried a bedroll (a swag, ‘shiralee’ or ‘matilda’) and slept under the stars. A ‘tucker bag’ held basic ingredients for cooking, and a billy can for making tea or cooking stew over the fire.

In my teens, I discovered the Australian writer, D’Arcy Niland. His novels ‘The Shiralee’ and ‘Call Me When the Cross Turns Over,’ are both about itinerant Australians, a habit we seem to have caught by osmosis from First Nations peoples, who traditionally, go “walkabout” as a rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood.

The Swagman restaurant is a hidden gem. As it says on the website, ‘Our passion is bringing you a taste of Australia. We lovingly create delectable foods with native bush herbs and spices, the majority being grown on-site in our native gardens. We are committed to providing signature house-made flavours unique to the Swagman.’

As always, we all try to order something different. A rack of lamb, chicken pie, crocodile tagliatelle and grilled flathead are preceded by oil and salt bush dukkha served with damper style bread. It is a slow food experience, and surely, there is no rush. We are more than happy to take our time, sipping bubbles from the Adelaide Hills, admiring the display of pottery in the next room, and enjoying the view. And the food is worth the wait. We all savour and share what we have chosen. The chargrilled lamb smells divine, served with salsa verde and wedges tossed in native herbs, and my chicken, leek and mushroom pie flavoured with lemon myrtle, and also served with those tasty wedges, is delicious. The crocodile did not come out of the billabong at the bottom of the hill, (thank goodness!), but is still firm and fresh. And there is more perfectly grilled flatfish than my friend can possibly eat. Shall I help?

After lunch, I have booked a tour of the farm with Gary. He escorts us to a buggy fit for five, and we rumble off down the dirt track. While explaining the history of the place in his quiet, slow voice, Gary briefly interrupts himself to rev the engine and race across a creek, filling the footwell (and the One & Only’s boots) with water, and splashing the rest of us with mud. It’s obviously the highlight of his afternoon, and we all shriek in what must be a very satisfactory result. Gary also introduces us to the remaining herd of alpacas in their variety of newly shorn coats: black, chocolate brown, honey, blonde. Often used on the farms in the Adelaide Hills to ward off dogs and foxes, they are generally docile animals, and greet us cautiously.

The Retallick family has a strong focus on sustainability and reducing its carbon footprint on the world. Planting trees, digging out billabongs and creating wetlands, there are also four fenced sanctuaries. All these areas provide a variety of natural habitats for endangered marsupials, rare native fish and freshwater crustaceans, a huge variety of birds, echidnas, and long neck tortoises. They have also effectively eliminated the need for chemical pesticides and their dreadful effects on flora and fauna.
We weave our way through the scrub and around the sequence of billabongs, two natural, and a handful more that Gary has dug out himself with his trusty earth mover. Towering eucalypts shade the creek and the wildflowers bloom, brightly pink among the native grasses. We follow the fence line surrounding one of the sanctuaries that range in size from two to fifty two acres.

Over the creek, and we come across three cabins – Billabong, Coolibah and Ironbark – the latest additions to the family business, completed only last year. With huge windows looking out on native forest, paddocks and grazing alpacas, it is a serene and alluring retreat from city life. There is even an outdoor bathtub on the veranda, and the opportunity to join Gary on a night tour of the nocturnal animals on the property.

All these business ventures – alpacas, restaurant, cabins, tours – help to fund the Retallicks’ numerous conservation projects. One of their most recent projects has been the construction of a three kilometre fence across the neck of the Dudley Peninsula on Kangaroo Island. This will give them a chance to clear out those ubiquitous foxes and feral cats, and thus provide a safe refuge where they can relocate their growing family of endangered marsupials. Sandy, Gary and daughter Clancy see their role ‘as custodians of the land during their lifetimes, and to be responsible for the health of the soil, plants and animals that fall under their care.‘ They seem to be doing an impressive job of fulfilling their remit.

And so, back at the Swagman after our tour, we sit down to a final glass of wine and/or dessert, where I indulge in my new favourite: an affogato with Cointreau. Happy, happy, happy….

  • With thanks to my friend and partner-in-crime, Vicki, for sharing her photos.
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Of swimming, surfboards, and River Cats…

Broadbeach, Queensland

It’s only 7am, but already the beach is awash with bodies: walkers, joggers and surfers, canoes and paddle boards skim along the edge of the sea. The coffee shop is buzzing, and families are hoeing into enormous plates of eggs and bacon, bowls of chips, vast mugs of coffee. A family of Pacific Islanders are setting up camp on the lawn for a pre-Christmas picnic that promises to last till dusk. Toddlers skip between the tables. Tweenies are down on the sand kicking balls to their dads. Young teenagers are training with the surf lifesavers. An older man emerges from the waves and heads to his bike to ride home for breakfast. An elderly couple stroll gently along the promenade, another perch on towels on the dune. Young women in lycra, and clutching coffee cups, march along to the beat of a tune only they can hear. Young men are washing off their surfboards, already finished with their dawn surf. Every demographic is accounted for.

Surf lifesaving originated in Australia in 1907, and many other countries have adopted the idea since then. Volunteers patrol the beaches, trained to keep bathers safe from drowning by promoting water safety and providing surf rescue services.. Today, with around 190,000 members and 314 Surf Life Saving clubs across the country, Surf Life Saving Australia is a huge volunteer organization.

This morning, decked out in brightly visible yellow and red, the Broadbeach Lifesavers are gathered on the foreshore. Back by the dunes, their watch tower is decorated in Christmas baubles. While the Pacific Ocean is much warmer than our own Antarctic waters in the Spencer Gulf, the surf is much rougher, and I retreat to a coffee shop on the promenade to watch.

These days, people flock to beaches all over the world to swim and surf. Yet, swimming in the sea is a relatively new pastime, and only started becoming popular during the second half of the 18th century when it was suddenly proclaimed to be good for your health. In the UK, bathing at Brighton became popular under the patronage of the Prince of Wales, the future George IV. Of course, bikinis and lycra were non-existent back then, and both men and women were expected to be modestly covered to swim in woollen costumes that covered you up neck to ankle – presumably till they got wet!

Children’s book

Bathing Machines, something like a wooden caravan, were pulled into the water by horse or pushed in by muscly men, so one could enter the water discreetly. Women would change in the privacy of the bathing machine, then descend into the sea from the rear end so as not to be seen from the beach. A female ‘dipper’ would then hold them afloat, as few people could swim. Queen Victoria had her own bathing machine and personal dipper whenever she stayed at Osborne House on the isle of Wight, as Prince Albert was an ardent advocate for sea bathing.

Up on the thirtieth floor, we have heard the surf in our dreams, crashing along mile upon mile of white sandy beach. The horizon stretches forever, iced with soft, cotton-wool clouds. The sea is a cerulean blue frilled with white foam, the sun twinkling on its ruffled surface. People, like ants, scurry along the sand. Bodies in black wetsuits lurk a hundred metres out to sea, awaiting the perfect wave. Between the flags, swimmers launch themselves into the curling waves, rinsing out their sinuses. The breeze whispers in through the open doors, kissing my toes. We have no agenda, and I am perfectly happy with that. It is rare for us to live without a plan, or at least some idea of what the day ahead may look like.

Back in Brisbane, we board a river cat (catamaran ferry), and spend the late afternoon buzzing along the Brisbane River from West End to Hamilton and back again. It’s a great way to see the city, at the tiny price of public transport for a three hour cruise. Peckish and chilled, we disembark at Hamilton to check out Eat Street. The riverside is chock-a-block with families decked out in Christmas attire and waiting for the fireworks show. Eat Street has been created on a disused wharf beside the Brisbane River. Covering several hectares, the stalls have been built from recycled shipping containers. Almost two hundred of them. We wander past a variety of food stalls offering a taste of cuisines from around the globe, before settling on a Mee Goreng and some spring rolls. Then its off to watch the fireworks before boarding the ferry back to the city with a boat full of sleepy kids.

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Post Production Ponderings

November arrived with a clash of cymbals, a tarantara of trumpets and thunderous drum rolls. I submitted my thesis on the first of the month, which was a huge weight off my shoulders. The following day, the Lyceum Club Adelaide launched its fabulous Centenary book, 100 Years of Women’s Voices. Of course, I would say it was fabulous, as I played a small part in creating it. Nonetheless, it is a wonderful book. It is the work of a team of driven, strong-minded women who all volunteered their time and talents over many months to produce a history of the Lyceum Club, and stories about many of its members, past and present.

Since then, I have been catching up on a little travel and a lot of reconnecting with friends and family that I have neglected this year. So, in the calm before the storm of Christmas and the New Year, I have put aside some time for a little reflection…

Firstly, as I said earlier, my history honors thesis is complete, so I can now begin pondering my next step into the deep waters of academia.

Constance Smedley

Secondly, this has been the year of the Lyceum Club’s centenary, and there is much to report. “What is the Lyceum Club?” you ask. Well, the idea originated in London in the early twentieth century. Constance Smedley, a British artist, playwright, and novelist, was keen to provide a club house for women writers and artists. So, her father – fortunately a wealthy Birmingham businessman – bought a suitable building on Piccadilly, the former home of the British Imperial Service Club no less, and ironically, given our own Adelaide home (read on) currently the home of the Royal Air Force Club. The Lyceum Club was launched on June 20, 1904. Grace Brockington wrote that ‘the International Lyceum Club for Women Artists and Writers… earned itself a prestigious reputation and set up sister clubs throughout Europe and the British dominions. It became… a social and cultural centre for women all over the world.

128 Piccadilly, London

The Lyceum was not the first women’s club in London, however. The times were a’changin’ and, according to Brockington, by 1906, there were thirty-six clubs for women, catering for ‘all interests and social classes, from aristocrats to actresses, university lecturers to city clerks. Their sudden popularity bore witness to women’s changing aspirations, and their willingness, if not to challenge, at least to match, the Victorian institution of the gentleman’s Club.’

Smedley, an ardent feminist, also used her club to promote women’s suffrage, wishing to free them from the limitations imposed by nineteenth century ideals of femininity and the role of middle-class women as merely domestically decorative. As Brockington says, ‘the Lyceum’s solid, institutional presence allowed it to negotiate controversial feminist debate with tact and decorum. It was able to reconcile traditional models of womanhood with radical new ideas about women’s liberation, giving professional women a passport to respectability at a time when many objected to their working outside the home at all.

Dr Helen Mayo

In 1922, Dr Helen Mayo, one of South Australia’s early female medical graduates, gathered a group of like-minded friends and colleagues (including a handful of my predeccessors), to discuss the establishment of a Lyceum Club in Adelaide. This report in The Critic made me giggle. ‘There are so many brainy women in Adelaide now that they feel the absolute necessity of forming a club, where brain will meet brain, and a community of kindred spirits can foregather away from life’s piffle. The Lyceum Club promises to fill the need.’

And fulfill a need, it did. Lyceum members gathered for pertinent discussions on all sorts of topics and interests. And, unlike the London Lyceum, it was not just for writers and artists, but was open to any female university graduate; women eminent in art, music, or literature, or women who had ‘rendered distinguished public service.’

The Lyceum Adelaide spent its early life in two rooms. Within five years, the Club had outgrown its limited space (twice) and had moved – with its 200 members – to 209 North Terrace. Since then, the Lyceum has continued to lead a somewhat nomadic existence, moving several times around the Adelaide CBD for one reason or another. Today, it is, rather bizarrely, sharing space with the Naval, Military and Air Force Club, in a beautiful, heritage-listed building on Hutt Street, where it has continued to thrive.

111 Hutt Street, Adelaide

At the beginning of 2020, Janet Gould, then Lyceum President, and Vice president Dianne Campbell, thought it would be a great idea to produce a history of the Club to celebrate its centenary in 2022. Although short histories had been produced for both the 50th and 80th celebrations, this project planned to be much more sophisticated. A team was put together that would expand as fast as the ideas for the book. Not only would we write the history of the last twenty years to add to earlier editions, but we wanted to tell the stories of individual members, past and present. To include every member would have meant a book of encyclopaedical proportions, but we did manage to compile more than eighty cameos of members who have worked in a veritable rainbow of professions. There are doctors and nurses, politicians and lawyers, writers and artists, scientists and architects, educators and aviators, to name but a few. Talent and trailblazing abounded, but whatever their chosen paths, all have contributed to the life of the Lyceum Club, Adelaide.

The book looks beautiful: a handsome coffee table book, with plenty of meaty reading. And on November 2, 2022, Her Excellency the Honourable Frances Adamson AC, Governor of South Australia, and Patron of Lyceum, came to launch it. She spoke in praise of our rich history and mentioned some of the women who had contributed to moulding the Lyceum into the special club we enjoy today. It seems particularly fitting that she has agreed to join us as our Patron – only our third female Governor in SA – in this auspicious year.

And, as someone commented when the team had a sneak preview of the finished product, it was a truly amazing achievement. Not only had we created a spectacular book, but this group of volunteers, despite some tense moments and fervent debates throughout its production, were still smiling, and still friends.

The Lyceum really is a very sociable and friendly club. I only joined eighteen months ago, but I already feel fully immersed, and have been totally accepted by this wonderful group of educated, intelligent women. Club Circles provide a great opportunity to meet people with similar interests – and there is so much variety. Art Appreciation, Opera and Music, Film Club, Current Affairs, Bridge and Mah-jong, Asian Culture and History, Travel and the Theatre Collective, Poetry, Literature, and French. There are special events throughout the year as well: regulars dinners and lunches which always includes a guest speaker discussing something captivating. This year, for example, there have been talks on Provencal Gardens and Architecture in Adelaide during the 1930s, a performance by Fringe artiste Michaela Burger on our Steinway baby grand, and another by world renowned Russian pianist Konstantin Shamray. I have managed to get to most of these events and have been duly impressed with the quality of the speakers and performers, the food and the conversation.

Queen Adelaide portrait at the Town Hall

Special centenary offerings this year began with a Civic Reception held in the beautiful Queen Adelaide Room at the Adelaide Town Hall, and hosted by The Right Honourable Lord Mayor of Adelaide, Sandy Verschoor (only our third female Lord Mayor in 100 years and a past Lyceum member). In July, a centenary lunch – complete with a huge and delicious birthday cake – included seventy members and two special guests: an Honorary Life Member, who also celebrated her 100th birthday this year, and our Patron, Her Excellency the Honourable Frances Adamson AC. As a bonus, last month there was a super exhibition of Lyceum Art Treasures at the NMAFC.

In October, Lyceum Adelaide was finally able to host the Australian Association of Lyceum Clubs, an event that has been postponed by COVID shutdowns more than once over the past three years. Participants enjoyed various social gatherings and two days of back-to-back lectures on the theme ‘A is for Adelaide’, with performances from the Melbourne Lyceum Choir. Guest speakers covered a fascinating range of topics, from fashion to folklore. Adelaide Atelier Paul Vasileff, of the Paolo Sebastian Couture House, introduced us to his incredible talent for exquisite dress design. Associate Professor Diego Garcia-Bellido discussed world famous paleontology finds in South Australia. Lainie Anderson spoke about her novel based on the transcontinental air race from England to Australia after World War One, which was won by South Australian aviators Ross and Keith Smith. There was a talk by Emeritus Professor Carol Grbich on the book she co-wrote with her partner John Gerber, The Accidental Heiress: Journey of a Glencoe squatter’s daughter, and another by Pamela Rajkowski OAM, on the history and heritage of the Australian Afghan cameleers. The brain food over the course of the conference was as filling and satisfying as the delicious meals provided.

And so we marked the end of our centenary year with our annual Christmas lunch. This included a terrific talk on Ukrainian Christmas traditions by the president of the Ukrainian Women’s Association in SA, who had also cooked a Ukrainian Christmas dessert for us to try. Now, after such a stimulating year, I think we are all looking forward to some R&R and the hope that summer will finally put in an appearance in South Australia!

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Christmas Cards: Setting the Mood

Then its zippity jingle and dash away ping
Hang holly and berries in all the halls
The tassels on all the thermostats and
Write merry Christmas on all of the walls…

~ from Eloise at Christmas Time by Kay Thompson

One upon a time, we wrote armfuls of Christmas cards and strung those we received around the sitting room, perched them on the mantlepiece, stuck them to the fridge. Today, with snail mail elbowed out by email, sending Christmas cards in the post is no longer the prolific tradition it once was.

And yet, my first – possibly my only – card arrived yesterday to kick-start the joy of Christmas.

Sending Christmas cards began in England in 1843, inspired by a government employee, Henry Cole, who had helped to establish the modern postal service. In fact, I could write pages about Cole, a man of incredible vision, who was knighted by Queen Victoria for all the work he did on the Great Exhibition of 1851, and for establishing the Victoria and Albert Museum. He was even caricatured as “King Cole” in Vanity Fair, in August 1871, but that is another story. His importance here relates to his involvement with the Post Office, where Cole introduced the Penny Post, a public delivery service that everyone could afford. Then, to accommodate the growing number of people sending Christmas greetings through the system, he ordered 1000 hand-coloured cards from John Callcott Horsley that were sold in London as the first commercial Christmas cards. And so the tradition of sending seasons greetings kicked off with a vengeance, with the aid of 19th century improvements in printing and transportation. In the USA, when John Hall and his brothers started selling postcards in 1910, it did not take them long to introduce greeting cards as well. Today, Hallmark cards has become the most recognizable brand in the industry, printing cards not only for the Christmas season but for every other event imaginable.

My solitary Christmas card is beautiful, as you can see above. Yet, I find myself wondering why we antipodeans still cling to images of a wintery Christmas and traditions more fitting to a cold climate. For anyone originating in northern climes, such images are nostalgic, but for those who have only known Christmas full of sunshine and sunburn, carol singers in the snow and sleigh bells jingling are as much a fairy tale scenario as princesses roaming the forest in search of a handsome prince. Yet we all grew up on a diet of fireside stockings and the likes of Eloise reminding us that there’s ‘a blizzard outside and four below zero or more.’ So firmly are these images entrenched that we still expect poor Santa to don a red winter suit, boots and a thick white beard in thirty degree heat on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. (Although persona non-grata these days, Rolf Harris did at least suggest that Father Christmas would be more likely to find a collection of kangaroos to pull him across Australia.)

These days, we seem more inclined to produce the odd Santa-on-a-surfboard and ungainly emus up a gum tree instead of those rather drab partridges.  Julian Dennison certainly put Ronan Keating right with his alternative lyrics to Winter Wonderland, reminding us that the summer heat makes us glisten with sweat, as we devour pav and ham, and ‘we’re happy and bright, not a snowman in sight’… except on Christmas cards and in the shopping malls.

Perhaps, in the spirit of a truly Australian Christmas, I should replace my fir tree with a eucalyptus – but the decorations just wouldn’t hang as neatly on the sparse limbs of a gum tree. And there will be a Christmas pudding, because it wouldn’t be Christmas without one. Should I then admit I am already playing carols from King’s College, Cambridge that sing of bleak midwinters and poor old King Wenceslas trudging through the rude winds and the bitter weather with his page? Why not, when I have interspersed my playlist with those beautiful Australian carols about brolgas dancing and the milky way lighting up the sky. And I do have a wreath made of seashells this year.  Also, we will be putting the Christmas beast on the BBQ so the oven doesn’t heat up the house.

Maybe the fun is in the mix of traditions we all add, sprinkling different scents, sounds and flavours from all parts of the globe to make a unique blend of summer and winter, old and new. Paper chains and tins of Quality Streets fit the bill in any climate. And as long as we keep the joy of Christmas at the forefront of the celebrations, what does it matter whether there is snow around the manger or Baby Jesus needs to be smothered in sunscreen?

So “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!” and “Joy to the World” wherever and however you will be celebrating.

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Of sheep and seaside daisies…

The first sign that the town had a connection with Scotland was its name: Glencoe. The second sign: a redheaded ‘Weasley’ walking down the main road…

Glencoe Woolshed

Glencoe is a small country town in south-eastern South Australia, to the north-west of Mount Gambier, an area known for its volcanic landscape and crater lakes. A town so small that it would be called a hamlet or village in Olde England. Its population? About 650 souls. It was named after the birthplace of the property manager of the nineteenth century Leake estate. Glen Coe in the Scottish Highlands is derived from the Gaelic for ‘narrow glen’. The original Glen Coe is only half the size of its Australian namesake, but like our Aussie version, it’s also situated in volcanic soil. And in the middle of town is a vast, beautifully crafted shearing shed.

I heard about this unique woolshed at a conference last month, when local academic, Carol Grbich, gave a talk about its history.  Having a lovely view of the structure across the paddock, Carol and her partner, John Berger, spent months researching the story of the building and the convoluted tale of the Leake family, eventually producing the book ‘The Accidental Heiress: Journey of a Glencoe squatter’s daughter.’ In 2020, the book won the Keain medal for the best history book about South Australia, and the profits from sales go to the National Trust. The front cover shows a picture of this extraordinary woman with unusually short hair and clutching a boomerang. No one knows why, although an ABC documentary suggests she spent her early years at Glencoe playing with the local Boandik people.

So, in brief…

In 1844, Tasmanian pastoralists Edward and Robert Leake brought 7,000 Saxon Merinos, cattle and horses along the Coorong. They established a sheep station that eventually extended over 53,000 acres, even crossing the Glenelg River into Victoria. They were the first permanent European settlers in the region and wasted no time clearing it of the Boandik people.

Robert died in 1860, and his brother Edward inherited the property. Wishing to make his mark on the district, he employed a well-known architect of the day to design ‘the finest woolshed in the colonies’ and luxury quarters for the shearers. Quality craftsmen were engaged to erect the buildings, using local limestone. A sturdy stone structure, it is not the corrugated iron shearing sheds we are used to seeing in the Outback. (We thought it would have made a beautiful – and enormous – home conversion, if it were not safely in the hands of the National Trust.) When the job was completed, Leake threw a ball to celebrate, and invited two hundred guests. The woolshed was designed to hold 38 shearers at a time, who could sheer 2,000 sheep a day with manual blade shears.

The property was inherited by Edward Leake’s only legitimate child, his seven year old daughter Letitia. This wealthy young lady eventually married a Sydney lawyer. The couple sold the Glencoe Estate and moved to England, where they bought Harefield Park, a country estate near Uxbridge, now on the outer western rim of London. During WWI, they offered the property to the military, to be used as an ANZAC military hospital. It is now part of the Royal Brompton Hospital.

Today, I drove to Glencoe with the One & Only to visit the shearing shed and a beautiful garden…

Woolshed key

Armed with a magical key – well, it certainly looked magical – we entered the woolshed, immediately hearing the ghostly bleats of anxious sheep, and the ghostly shouts of sweaty shearers calling for tar. Apparently, there is a real ghost here, but it was obviously shy, or took exception to us, and stayed hidden behind the hefty wool sacks. We wandered through this shadowy old woolshed, empty of sheep for so long that even the cloying scent of lanolin had vanished.

Eventually, when we had explored every nook and cranny, we locked up, returned the key to the friendly lady at the post office. Then we drove up the road to meet Carol Grbich, who was busily preparing for an Open Gardens event this coming weekend. Carol lives a couple of paddocks away from the woolshed, in a homestead built in 1898. Here, she and partner John have designed and planted their magnificent garden in black volcanic soil. It is ridiculously lush when compared to the sparsely growing plants on our sandhill on the Fleurieu Peninsula. Like an old fashioned English cottage garden, it is over-run with colour: blue love-in-the-mist, deep purple irises, wisteria and lilac, and roses and poppies in pink and red, orange and white.

Feeling like Alice in Wonderland, I took the proffered map and we headed off to explore. We found three orchards. One is full of Nashi pear trees. Apparently much loved by the Japanese, their floury texture is unpopular with Australians. Even the sheep will only touch them if there is nothing else to eat! The neighbouring orchard produces organic, old-fashioned favourites like kumquats and loquats, plums and crab apples. The third, nearer the house, provides the local birds – and occasionally the owners, if they are quick enough – with a feast of figs and cherries, grapefruit and lemons, plums, pears and apples. There is a forest of Blue Gums and Redgums, inhabited by aforementioned sheep. The One & Only found a Willow Walk near the back fence, while I favoured a heart-breakingly beautiful golden elm at the centre of a small round garden oh-so-perfectly shaded by the broad, lime-coloured leaves of this glorious tree.

The couple had also created a large walled garden on a defunct tennis court, topped by a stage-like folly, the backdrop decorated in tiles painted with the ubiquitous poppy. Beyond, a firepit huddles beneath an ancient walnut and a weeping willow. White and pink ‘seaside’ daisies proliferate in the sunshine, a variety of succulents multiply in the shade. A kitchen garden, a huge rosemary bush, the Hills hoist tucked behind it for a touch of homely nostalgia, and we have completed a circuit. And as we reluctantly drive away, a nearby paddock is awash with Highland cattle. A third sign of the region’s Scottish heritage!

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In Essence

Mating dance of bees
Or dance to the death?
Short and sweet.

Years ago, in Manila, I joined a workshop to write poetry. I had read myriad poems, but never turned my hand to writing anything except creating silly rhymes for the kids. I decided it was time to be brave.
At our first gathering, in a classroom devoid of natural light or character, we were asked to get in touch with nature and write a haiku. “A what?” What an ignoramus, with an English degree, no less! I had studied all things English, and occasionally Australian: Chaucer, the Romantic Poets, the War Poets, a smattering of Yeats, Thomas Hardy and T.S. Eliot, Judith Wright and Bruce Dawe. But I had never read – never heard – of a haiku.

A haiku is like a breath. A concise, pared back, three lined poem, as minimalist and slender as those Japanese flower arrangements. Using a simple pattern of syllables, the haiku evokes the essence or impression of a feeling, paints a picture in the mind. It focuses on the senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, taste. A sparsity of words to capture and communicate a fleeting moment in time. Haiku connect us to the natural world – birds, animals, trees, flowers, rivers, rain, seasons – using carefully selected words to show not tell.

Originating in Japan, haikus have roamed the world, adopting different traditions in different languages. In Japanese, haiku are traditionally printed as a single line, while haiku in English have three lines with 17 syllables following a 5-7-5 structure. Although, once you’ve got the hang of it, only the purists stick to the rules. I’m no purist, and I generally baulk at rules, as you can see from my effort above.

So, what to write? Describe the moment. Then bring in a twist. It doesn’t need to rhyme, but there should be an ‘aha’ moment that resonates with the reader, creates an unexpected image, twists the meaning of the words in a surprising way, to give your reader a new perspective on something familiar. Use simple language and avoid clichés. The present tense will provide that sense of immediacy. Of intimacy.

Once upon a time in Manila, I had to write a haiku in a classroom full of bright unnatural light, trying to imagine myself in a forest, by the sea, over the rainbow. Last week, it was far easier, as I wandered over the hills and far away above Rapid Bay, roaming past gumtrees, wattle and wildflowers, seeking inspiration from the trees and flowers, the shape of the clouds, the distant sea, a glimpse of birds, the traffic noise of bees…

Diuris, commonly known as donkey orchids or bee orchids.

I followed a trail through the trees to a brimming dam. I sat on a log among the donkey orchids in claret and custard, and wattle bushes, brightly covered in pom-poms of yellow. I breathed gently, listening to the birds squawk and twitter, hearing the dull thump of kangaroos bounding through the blue gums, watching the insects crawl over a piece of curled, dry bark, grey and cracked as elephant skin. It was a glorious afternoon, cool but sunny; a blessing after so many wetly dismal days this winter. Writing haikus in a mac or under an umbrella may not have been fun at all, but this was therapeutic. To escape from the library and domesticity and meander at will through the afternoon.

I am far from being an expert, yet it was fascinating to play with words, to condense and purge, to try and pinpoint that essential thought, the essence of the moment…

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Christina & Her Sisters

These eight, somewhat startled-looking women were all born during Queen Victoria’s reign, in the colony of South Australia. Meet Annie and Clara, Edith and Grace, Lily and May, Christina and Kathleen. All sisters. Another sister, Alice, died as a toddler. The industrial revolution was changing the social and global landscape, but in the face of such great and rapid change, people tended to cling more tenaciously to traditional social norms. In settler-colonial South Australia, a middle-class woman’s accepted role was to be subservient wife and mother, ‘domestic goddess’ and ‘moral keeper of the keys’.

Yet, if we look more closely at the lives of these eight women, we can see that very few of them followed that remit. Born in Adelaide, to colonial settlers from Herefordshire, Matthew and Elizabeth Goode, these middle-class ladies all led unusual lives. As single women, two went as missionaries to China, two more to support them. Two were feared lost during the Boxer Rebellion. One was a doctor in England and Shanghai. Lily, the artist, travelled the world. Four ended up living in Canada. Two married in Peking, two in Portage la Prairie, one in Tokyo, one in London. Only one of them married an Adelaide boy and remained in South Australia, and even she made several trips overseas, in the days when it was not a simple twenty four hour flight to Heathrow, but four weeks on a ship to Portsmouth.

We will learn more about those seven sisters another time. For now, I am going to focus on just one: Christina Love Goode. Born on June 16, 1874. Died, August 25, 1951, her death remarked by a brief two lines in the Adelaide Advertiser.

Christina, Chrissie, ‘Johnny’, Dr Goode, Auntie Chris, Dr Krakowsky, Mummie, Madame Krakowsky, Grannie … and my great grandmother. For years, I have been fascinated by her story. So many different names, so many different roles, but who was she? How did she live her life? And why? White, well-to-do and intelligent, she was born into privilege. Yet, she also had the determination and ambition to make her own way in the world.
In 1899, at the age of twenty four, Christina became the second South Australian woman to register as a medical doctor in Adelaide. She then went to England, where she worked for fifteen years, eventually marrying a Russian doctor with whom she had one daughter. They lived and worked together in China, before returning to Australia.

For years, this was all I knew. As I got older, I wanted to know so much more, but could find little information beyond this cursory synopsis. So, who could tell me about her? By the time I seriously went looking for her, my grandmother – her only daughter – was dead. If she ever did speak about her mother, I was too young to take any notice. My father, her only grandchild, remembers very little. He was only nine when ‘Grannie’ died and by then she was old, frail and blind. The only relatives who might have remembered her were far away in the Canadian prairies.

From the little I know, I assume she was a bright, independent young woman, keen for adventure. She showed no interest in following the beaten path to marriage and motherhood, a dependent spouse with little to do but drink tea, play bridge and wear pretty hats, defined by her role as dependent spouse, mother, sister, daughter. Instead, she grabbed the opportunities for education and travel in both hands and chose a more adventurous road.

I hit the library, but the history books were no help. I had to read between the lines, trawl through various Minute books in the Mortlock archives, delve into university calendars at the Barr Smith library, rummage through second handbook shops and disappear down the mighty wombat hole that is Trove. At least there she had a presence: a doctor at Renmark Hospital; a society hostess; a Girl Guide Commissioner; a doctor on North Terrace; a President of the Lyceum Club, of the Mothers and Babies Association, of the Woodlands Parent Teacher Committee.

Other fishing lines that I flung out into the murky waters of memory got caught up in flotsam from long-lost Canadian cousins, jetsam from another third cousin in New Zealand I had never met, two volumes of diaries written by a would-be minister who grew up in Japan and introduced Christina to Dr Alexander Krakowsky, the man she would marry. My father has attempted to write his biography but ended up with more questions than answers.

In the Barr-Smith library, I discovered that she completed her medical studies with Violet Plummer, Adelaide’s first female GP; that she worked alongside Dr Helen Mayo OBE, who has her name on a plaque in front of the Natural History Museum for her strong social conscience and her promotion of children’s health. On a trip to Renmark, I saw the hospital where Christina had a maternity wing named in her honour, and a small country church where her name is on a foundation plaque. In Wakefield Street, Adelaide, I found the house they bought when they first returned to Adelaide (Trove again). Another home in Glenelg was bulldozed years ago.

Christina received an award from the French Government, another from Lady Baden Powell, and a letter from the Tsarina Alexandra of Russia. Yet not one word about her could I find in the history books. And her husband? He turns out to be even more mysterious. A man of smoke and mirrors, with a past we could not pinpoint: five children from a previous marriage, no fixed abode and an assumed name, who fled from exile in Siberia in his twenties. Who was this remarkably unremarked couple?

I was bequeathed a Chinese cedar chest in which Granny kept a glorious selection of dress-ups – clothes both she and Christina had worn in the 1930s, including a wedding dress. My first real connection with Christina was her grey chiffon evening gown that I wore to a school dance.

I have spent two year trawling through the Mortlock Library, the Genealogy Library in Unley, the Barr Smith library, and a box of secrets my father unearthed in the cellar. This last turned up all her medical certificates, that letter from the Tsarina, a family bible, some stray photos and a diary. Then we found a wallet full of letters from her sisters. I spent weeks transcribing them. They illustrated how closely these women had kept in touch, despite the miles that separated them. I was hooked. Here were eight feisty, strong-willed young women who exhibited no fear, who took the road less travelled, supported financially by the family business, sent out in the service of God.

In this day and age, where a family of more than four or five (2 adults, two or three children) stands out like a sore thumb, imagine being one of eight girls, then add three brothers to the mix.

My great grandmother Christina was daughter number eight (counting Alice), the penultimate child of twelve. I discovered she went to boarding school in McLaren Vale, before going to the University of Adelaide to study medicine. She moved to Melbourne University to complete her studies, when a dispute between the Adelaide Hospital, the Medical School staff and the Government closed the Adelaide Medical School for five years. She then sailed to England, where she worked and studied in London, Dublin and Bristol. She travelled extensively. Just as World War I broke out, aged forty, she met and married a Russian/British doctor Alexander Krakowsky. Together, they went to China to work in Shanghai. In 1916, aged forty two, she returned to Adelaide with her husband, for the birth of their daughter, Olga Elizabeth. Here, the couple had a medical practice together on North Terrace, and Christina became deeply involved in charity work.

So, what makes her story significant? Is it just because she is my great grandmother? I believe not. Christina was an enterprising, unconventional, ground-breaking young woman in an extraordinary age, who followed her dreams to a university education only a year after South Australia’s first female medical student, Laura Fowler, had graduated. Not for her, the Victorian premise of woman as wife and mother, economically dependent on her husband. She had a good brain, and thanks to the added advantage of an encouraging and well-to-do family, she was able to study medicine and work abroad, without the need for a husband to support her financially. Women in South Australia were being accepted in tertiary education, and by the age of twenty two, Christina was also allowed to vote and stand for parliament. The opportunities were there, but it took a strong-minded woman to grab them, to buck the social conventions of the time, and to choose her own road to self-fulfillment. She deserves a place in the history books.

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Cycling Through Normandy and Beyond…

Life has been reduced to three suburbs over the past couple of months, and the winter glooms have given me no incentive to expand my horizons. But with a couple of free days up my sleeve to sort through piles of notes and papers and the general shemozzle that is my office, I revisited some old travel diaries. Procrastination? Yes indeed!

So, this morning I found myself back in France, cycling furiously uphill to keep warm, heading for Mont St Michel. In case you are not familiar with the image, this ancient abbey is perched on a granite outcrop on a vast stretch of tidal bay on the coast of Normandy. It was built in the 11th century by Italian architect, William of Volpiano, who designed the Romanesque church within the abbey walls at the summit of the hill, supported by a plethora of underground crypts and chapels. The original natural causeway to the island was only accessible at low tide, which made it relatively easy to defend. As the tide came in, would-be attackers would be stranded or drowned. A raised causeway built in the late 19th century allowed tourists easier access, but caused the bay to silt up, changing the landscape quite significantly.

Since we camped in the poppy-spotted meadows on the mainland way back in 1991, there have been a lot of positive changes. A dam has been built on the River Couesnon which emerges into the bay opposite the island, to reduce the silt. The car park has been moved further away from the island, and a bridge has replaced the causeway, which allows the sea to flow around the island and wash away the mud.

Back in the summer of 1991, in the height of hay fever season, we were on mountain bikes. Between fits of sneezing, a distinct lack of signposting and a gusting wind determined to toss us into the path of passing trucks, the final lap to Mont Saint Michel was less than pleasant. However, the occasional glimpse of our destination across marshes or wheat fields was energizing. Against all odds, we eventually reached our campsite among the poppies and made a short foray along the causeway before dinner. At that time of day, we had the place almost to ourselves, and could wander unhindered through the cobbled lanes and up to the abbey. By mid-morning, the alleys were awash with coach tourists and tacky souvenir stalls, undeterred by a regular baptism from the heavy grey clouds above our heads. It was a damp and chilly day, but the climb to the abbey was worth it for the views across the bay to Tombelaine, another rocky outcrop a few kilometres north of Mont Saint Michel. (Apparently you can walk across the sand at low tide, but you wouldn’t want to linger.) Inside the Abbey, the maze of vaulted halls and stained glass windows was stunning, but there can’t have been much joy in the draughty place for the monks during winter.

Eventually we found our way back down the hill to a doll-sized restaurant tucked against a wall, where we shared an enormous, light fluffy omelette – a local specialty – and a bottle of Muscadet, leaning back, sated to admire this tiny town. Narrow, mediaeval stone houses, squished together and balancing precariously, are decorated with jaunty wooden signs, the steep roofs topped in wooden or lead tiles, small gardens gripping grimly to the granite. These days, the island is shared by only a few locals and a handful of nuns and monks. Tourism is the main source of income, bringing in about $63 million and three million tourists a year, eager to inspect the august Abbey looming protectively above the town.

The next morning, we packed up the tent and set off through meandering lanes, the verges thick with a veritable rainbow of wildflowers: white, fluffy cow parsley, wild foxgloves, yellow dandelions, miniature white daisies, pink campions and blue love-in-the-mist. Summery scents hung in the air, birds twittered from the depths of the hedgerows, noisy but invisible. We passed farmhouses with potted geraniums on doorsteps and balconies, doorways strung with multi-coloured roses, the ubiquitous dogs barking histrionically on the end of their chains. We stopped for morning tea at a patisserie in La Croix-Avranchin, the only persuasion I needed to get over the more strenuous hills.

There were not many smiles from the passers-by – perhaps they were discouraged by the fierce glare of Graham Gorilla, a grumpy stuffed toy I had bought on the ferry and sat in the basket on the front of my bike. He made me laugh with his surly sneer, but apparently the French found him less than amusing. I did, however, get a round of applause from a friendly group of workmen as I struggled to the top of a hefty slope into Baille. Here we had a picnic in a glade we shared with mossy tombstones, on the edge of a beech wood, chockablock with bracken, beechnuts and foxgloves.

Our next campsite, in Saint Aubin, was beside the village pond and below some old castle ruins, six stone towers rising high above the trees. We clambered across overgrown ramparts to see huge fireplaces still intact some thirty feet above the ground, clinging to the stone walls like hanging baskets. No fires here tonight, though. The countryside was largely rural: green fields full of calves and cows, lambs and sheep; pretty white farmhouses and old barns…

We were heading for the Loire Valley, where my heart was set on visiting every chateau we came across. A week in, and we had completed almost 350 km to Ancenis, once a port, now known as the key to Brittany. The sun had finally emerged from behind the dark grey clouds that had followed us all the way through Normandy and Brittany to the Loire, and the sky was deep blue. It wasn’t perhaps the prettiest town in the neighbourhood, but the weather was perfect for a mediaeval festival, which kept us in town for an extra day. The pageantry was superb: knights on horseback, royalty and peasants, musicians – it seemed as if the whole town had found costumes for the occasion. Even the shopkeepers had gone to the trouble of dressing up their shops and themselves. The streets were strewn with straw and there was a wine stall on every corner. With terracotta roof tiles, a mediaeval castle, and an ancient bridge, Ancenis is one of the oldest towns in the region, settled as early as 984 AD, and we felt as if we had gone back in time as the festival got underway. A final picnic lunch by the river with a soft, creamy brie and a fresh, crusty baguette, and then onwards to the land of fairy tale castles…

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