Ten Tunnel Train Trip

Recently I caught the train from the upper Blue Mountains to Lithgow. In recent years the only time I have taken this journey was when I was on the Indian Pacific. We had crossed the mountains on dusk, which was beautiful, but by the time we began the descent from Mount Victoria to Lithgow, it was dark.

So off I set on a gorgeous winter’s day. It was warm and mild for a change. The train was on time and before long I was settled in a carriage, watching the scenery as the track ran alongside the highway before detouring through patches of the country that you can only see from a train. The views opened up on the approach to Blackheath, with the Megalong Valley spread out on a clear day. Mount Victoria was a major station, and the end of the line for a while until the Lithgow Zig Zag railway was completed.

View over Kanimbla Valley

View over Kanimbla Valley

From Mt Victoria, the train passes through the sidings at Bell and Zig Zag, and a guard needs to be notified if a stop is required at either of these locations. Near the Zig Zag station, there are blackened stumps and trees; a legacy of the 2013 fires.

The descent from Mount Victoria to Lithgow initially comprised of a series of switchbacks to manage the steep grade, and it included three viaducts which can still be glimpsed today. The Zig Zag was replaced in 1910, and the track travels through ten tunnels cut through sandstone. These tunnels vary from 70 metres to 825 metres in length. In addition to making the journey safer, the ten tunnel deviation saved up to thirty minutes on journey times. The gradient was reduced, enabling increased loads on trains. The tunnels are considered to be an engineering achievement and included the deepest cutting on the NSW rail system.

Zig Zag Viaduct

Zig Zag Viaduct

At the entrance of each tunnel, the driver gave a soft toot on the horn. On the return trip, I noticed that each tunnel is numbered in descending order from the Sydney end with a firm directive of ‘WHISTLE’ emblazoned at each entrance. There is something about tunnels; the compression of air, the sudden darkness. I only spotted the occasional blur of white light in a couple of them.

As the train sweeps along from Mount Victoria, there are views over the Hartley Valley. There was some low cloud at one point but it cleared quickly to reveal views of the valley. Bright bursts of wattle livened up the passing scenery, which was a mixture of trees, heath and ferns for most of the trip. Travelling between the ten tunnels there were large sandstone outcrops.

Lithgow Station

Lithgow Station

I had a quick wander around Lithgow before catching the return train back, enjoying the views as the train moved smoothly along the tracks. There is the whisper of metal on steel, interlaced with station announcements.

It was great to be able to enjoy the trip and to be a passenger for a change. It was good to travel to a familiar place but on a different mode of transport.

When was the last time you travelled to a familiar location a different way?

[Photo: Mt Victoria Station]

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Book Review: Taboo by Kim Scott

Sometimes books cross your path at the right time. Taboo had been recommended by a fellow avid reader as one of several books that I should keep an eye out for. When I started to read Taboo, it coincided with a week with some travel and much time in the air and waiting for flights or on trains was spent with Gerry, Tilly and Dan in the south west of Western Australia.

Recently ABC aired a series called Mystery Road, which is about two young men including a local Aboriginal who go missing from a large cattle station. The background setting is a small town with a mix of locals and backpackers frequenting the local pub. One of the characters is a young woman who was sexually abused when aged thirteen. There are echoes of streets with houses and yards that need attention, a community in disarray and the sexual abuse of children in Taboo as well, but there is also a strong sense of trying to understand and reconcile what has happened in the past.

Whilst there are various viewpoints and characters in the book, the main players are Dan, Tilly and Gerry. Dan is the link with the white colonial past. Recently widowed, he lives on the family farm which is run down and eking an existence in lean times. He is on his own with two small dogs for company. His brother, Malcolm, keeps an eye on him and their sibling bond includes a religious connection. There are early hints of a disconnect between Dan and his son, Doug. There is also a sense of foreshadowing: Dan had thought he’d spotted Doug somewhere, in the city perhaps, and was surprised at his appearance, his shaved head, and even at a glance could see that there was something amiss both with Dan and the woman he was with.

Tilly is at the heart of the story. In her early teens, her mother tells her that her father is Aboriginal, in jail, and wants to see her. They travel together to see him but Tilly is left to go into the jail alone and is guided by an Aunty who she meets there. Aunty Cheryl is to have a significant impact on her life. Tilly meets her father and continues to go to see him with Cheryl’s help and encouragement. Cheryl offers a different way of life, something more exotic and glamorous than what her mother can provide.

Gerry is the link between Dan and Tilly. Gerald is one of the twins – his twin brother is called Gerard. We meet Gerry just as he leaves jail, having been inside for a few months due to a misdemeanour of Gerard’s. It isn’t always clear in some parts of the book, especially from Tilly’s perspective, which twin is the good twin and which is the other as they both are called Gerry and are nearly identical in appearance and dress. Even tattoos are similar. During his stints in jail, Gerry has connected with Tilly’s father, Jim Coolman. Jim has lived a life in and out of jail, marred by drugs and drink and violence. But he has found a sense of connection and belonging by bringing the local Noongar language back into use. Jim has been running sessions in the jail and he speaks to Tilly of the importance of language in their visits.

The early introduction to Tilly is when she travels to a remote location to be picked up by Gerry (both Gerrys are there) and shuttled out to the ironically named Hopetown. There is to be an unveiling at a Peace Park, a plaque to acknowledge the town as the site of a massacre of Aborigines in the late 1800s. The actual site of the massacre is on Dan’s family farm.

There are elements of the supernatural in Taboo, with the people of the past never really that far away. Dan sees his wife in a doorway and is comforted by her presence. Throughout the landscape around Hopetown and Dan’s farm, in particular, there are quickening shadows at various times, including when Noongar people are walking around the property to visit old watering holes and the like. Tilly feels their presence too, especially when danger circles around her.

There are symbols and echoes of images. Early on, Dan reaches for a smooth stone on a windowsill which has been warmed by the sun. Towards the end of the novel, there are stones in Gerald’s pockets as he makes a pilgrimage of sorts across the pathways of his ancestors. When he stops to drink water, he sometimes exchanges one stone for another, then resumes his journey with them heavy in his pockets. There is a circularity to the narrative, starting with an out of control truck with unidentified occupants which becomes clear at the end of the novel. There is also the repetitive cycle of abuse by the powerful over those without power, across the generations. And a sense of the visiting mob being unwelcome in their own country, being met a couple of times with resistance and it is made clear that they should move along, that they have no right to be there.

But the book also brims with moments of humour and sharp observation. It is difficult not to wince at the naive enthusiasm and obliviousness of the newly appointed Aboriginal Support Officer at Tilly’s school who seems determined to create a token performance of dancing, art and didgeridoo.

‘Lots of people lost their culture down this way. We can fix that up. I’ll get some workshops, some classes or something happening. We’ll have excursions – we had one this morning, to the Aboriginal Community College.’ She named the suburb. ‘But it was terrible, those poor kids.’

‘How do you mean?’ asked Tilly.

‘None of them could play didj. Some of us, some of our kids, will have to go and teach them.’

‘Didj doesn’t come from down here.’

‘Oh, Tilly, but it’s so Aboriginal. Didgeridoo means Aborigine to everyone, surely!’

‘Well, I don’t know.’

Then there is the warmth and kinship of the busload of Noongar people, collected by Wally the bus driver, for the gathering and unveiling of the plaque at the Peace Park. One of my favourite minor characters was Beryl, one of those bossy women who help ensure people are fed and things happen, but with an edge that cuts through any insincerity. There is the cheeky elder, Wilfred, who makes bird puppets and recognises the importance of Tilly as one of the next generation, ‘tough and precious’.

It was the kind of book which stays with you, and which challenges assumptions and creates characters that you wonder about, long after the final page is read.

There is an excellent review of this book by Lisa Hill here.

[Photo: The Company of Trees by Ro Murray and Mandy Burgess spotted at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, Katoomba]

History Herstory Our Story: Parramatta Female Factory – 200 Years

The foundation stone for the Parramatta Female Factory was laid on 9 July 1818 by Governor Lachlan Macquarie. The bicentennial of this event was marked by a community gathering in which stories of women, children and men who were linked to the history of this place were acknowledged.

The day’s events included a dedication ceremony, historical re-enactments, speeches and the unveiling of a commemorative wall. There was also a Welcome to Country, acknowledging the Barramattagal ancestral ground.

The Parramatta Female Factory was commissioned by Governor Macquarie in response to the growing challenge of creating an environment where convict women could be housed, gainfully employed, be selected as possible servants or wives, and punished if required.

North Tower of Ward 1 featuring clock that was once located on Female Factory main barrack

North Tower of Ward 1 featuring clock that was once located on Female Factory main barrack

The role of women in the colonial society was contentious on various fronts, and not least of all because the female population was significantly lower than that of men. An anonymous letter had been sent to Earl Bathurst accusing Macquarie of condoning prostitution by not providing accommodation for unmarried women. Macquarie had requested approval to build accommodation previously but had been denied. Reverend Samuel Marsden had plans already drawn up; these plans were passed on to Colonial Architect Francis Greenway by Macquarie. The plans were to build a factory and barracks to lodge 300 women on four acres enclosed by a nine-foot stone wall.

The factory model was used for a further twelve factories around the state and the country as the colony expanded. It was to be built alongside the Parramatta River, in part to provide access to the river for spinning flax and bleaching linen. Government House was on the other side. The Factory “stood on the edge of its large barren grounds as if straining across the river to the settlement.” (Macquarie’s World, Marjorie Barnard).

Female Factory Store and Dispensary

Female Factory Store and Dispensary

Factories were designed with multiple purposes in mind including British bridewells, workhouse and prison. Various work was carried out by women on the site, including producing linen, wool picking and spinning, stone breaking and working within the factory itself. It is estimated that about 5,000 women passed through the Parramatta factory. Women were employed as servants by private settlers and returned for various reasons, such as reassignment, the birth of children or court-ordered punishments.

The site had a history of overcrowding, mismanagement and poor conditions, and there were various riots at the site as a result. A class system was put in place to separate women eligible for assignment, women approaching the end of their imprisonment, and women who had committed crimes in the colony or had broken the strict factory rules.

View from riverbank towards industrial sections

View from riverbank towards industrial sections

In Women Transported: Life in Australia’s Convict Female Factories, a handbook to an exhibition compiled by various researchers and contributors, it is noted that it was estimated that at least 25,000 convict women were transported to Australia. Of these, between nine and ten thousand are estimated to have passed through one of the colonial convict female factories. There were two in Parramatta (the original one had been located above the gaol) and two in Moreton Bay; others were located at Newcastle, Port Macquarie, Hobart Town, Cascades, Launceston, Ross and George Town. Many of the factories were developed as adjuncts to gaols.

The description below of a typical journey to the Parramatta Female Factory is from A History of Australia (Volume 1) by Manning Clark.

These women were taken by boat from Sydney Cove to Parramatta. This journey lasted from morning to evening in fair weather, but with an adverse wind darkness came down before the end of the journey, when great irregularities took place and the women frequently arrived at Parramatta in a state of intoxication and plundered of their property, to begin their servitude the next day in destitution and on a hangover. By an odd irony this was generally their first experience of life in a colony which had been created for their reformation as well as their punishment.

The Factory, located in Fleet Street in North Parramatta, formed part of a complex of government buildings in the Parramatta area which played an important part in the development of the colony of New South Wales. Some of the original factory buildings remain; others were demolished when the site was later repurposed as an asylum. The high walls that are a familiar sight in locations including Gladesville Hospital (a custom built asylum) are present here too. The factory is now part of the Cumberland Hospital complex, under Western Sydney Health, and NSW Institute of Psychiatry. The Parramatta Female Factory Precinct, which incorporates the Female Factory and Roman Catholic Orphan School (later Parramatta Lunatic Asylum and Parramatta Girls Home) has been in continuous use as an institutional site since 1818.

Hospital administration building, built c 1910 over the original gated entrance to the Female Factory

Hospital administration building built c 1910 over the original gated entrance to the Female Factory

A walk around the grounds shows a mix of heritage sandstone buildings and other buildings from different decades. On one perimeter there are the high walls of the defunct Parramatta Gaol. A short bridge over the Parramatta River provides access to the modern Cumberland Hospital.

There were a variety of stall and historic displays set up in the airing yard, a grassed space protected on three sides by sandstone buildings. Beyond a fence, the ground slopes down to the river and there was much bird activity and a colony of grey-headed flying foxes. They were mainly suspended from branches, tightly bound and resting, but the group of noisy people below may have been disturbing them as there were regular squawks and squabbles as positions were jockeyed for and the odd bat took to the sky before circling back to nudge someone else out of position.

Grey-headed flying fox

Grey-headed flying fox

Other colourful displays during the day included several people dressed in historical costume, including a man playing the role of Samuel Marsden (with a flogging whip, striding about and asking who the owners of children were), a schoolmistress and a matron. They provided a lively touch to what was, for the most part, a day of sharing family stories connected to a difficult time and place in our history.

Historic Actors at Commemoration

Historic Actors at Commemoration

As part of the bicentennial ceremony, following a number of interesting and personal speeches commemorating some of the many women and children who passed through the factory site, a plaque was unveiled. This contains the first names of some of the women who entered the factory gates as part of their journey through the colony.

Parramatta Female Factory Memorial

Parramatta Female Factory Memorial

There is an excellent site created by the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct Association Incorporated (Parragirls) which provides an overview of the site over its many decades of institutional life. There are common – and devastating – echoes across generations of women with stories linked to the area.

Snatches of Songs

There are snatches of songs that come to mind at different times. Sometimes these are situational based prompts, providing a familiar kind of comfort. At other times, the mind seems to throw up surprising references that require a bit of further reflection.

If I stay up late, for whatever reason, and feel a bit sleep-deprived the next day, one of my favourite song snatches is from Late Last Night by Todd Snider:

Well could you try to keep it down, I was up kinda late last night?
Now I’m feeling’ like I usually feel after I feel alright
I don’t want hear another word about mornin’
I can’t take the light … 
Well could you try to keep it down I was up kinda late last night?

For those moments when a big decision is required but the whole thing feels a bit overwhelming? Try Little Decisions by Paul Kelly:

Little decisions are the kind I can make 
Big resolutions are so easy to break
I don’t want to hear about your big decisions

Sometimes for no particular reason at all, Anna Begins by Counting Crows reappears as an ear worm to hum:

… kindness falls like rain
It washes her away and Anna begins to change her mind

But it isn’t only lyrics that come to mind. Sometimes it is a tune, such as Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin. Or Sing, Sing, Sing by Benny Goodwin. Just writing it out makes me start to whistle. And perhaps not tunefully. But that doesn’t matter!

I like to have musical references in my fiction sometimes too. In a flash fiction piece I managed to work in a reference to The Honeymoon is Over by The Cruel Sea which still makes me smile when I think of it.

What musical moments come to mind for you?

[Photo: servants bells at Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta]

Scratchings At The Heart

Driving home tonight I listened to a podcast interview with a clinical psychologist. Dr Chris Blazina had completed a study on the relationship between men and their dogs. One of the findings was that for the majority of the middle-aged men who participated in the survey, the relationship they had with their dogs was one of the most safe and trustworthy relationships in their life.

This was in part a reflection of how, in general terms, men may have a smaller group of friendships and people that they are willing to confide in when compared to women of a similar age.

But it also highlights the importance of dogs in people’s lives. A couple of men had called in and left voicemail comments about their relationship with their dogs which provided further insight. John, a farmer, had sadly lost his working dog, Ned, after many years of faithful service. He spoke not only of the usefulness of dogs in a working sense – along with the frustration when they act of their own accord when they believe they know best – but of the sense of loneliness when that constant positive presence is no longer there.

Another caller was a carpenter who had a young border collie called Pip as a working companion. Pip made the workday better, helped with handling stressful situations, and was great at breaking down barriers with customers and other tradespeople on work sites. Tradies felt a bit freer to play with the dog, or speak to her in a high-pitched voice which they normally wouldn’t use.

The study confirmed the important role played by dogs in our lives and relationships in general. Losing a much loved companion animal can be as devastating as the loss of a friend, loved one or the end of a relationship. Animals also play an important role in enhancing our relationships with the people that matter in to us.

Our lives are richer on many levels for being shared with our companion animals.

Scratchings at the heart was one man’s description of his relationship with his dog.

[Photo: dog in bathtub at Gunning, NSW]

Poem: Ode to Spring

It must be spring
The jasmine’s out
And all the bees
Are buzzing about
The sun is bright
And wouldn’t you know
I think I can hear
The garden grow
I close my eyes
And what do I see?
Acres of blooms
All around me
Freesias and pansies
And daisies too
Jonquils and roses
To name but a few

And then it begins
With the slightest twitch
My poor old nose
Begins to itch
First just a little
Then quite a lot
My vision shrinks
To the size of a dot
I distract myself
Looking up at the light
And give myself
A hell of a fright
The sneeze when it comes
Knows no bounds
I lose myself
In a wall of sound

The dog jumps up
And leaves the room
Frightened no doubt
By the sonic boom
And the cat leaves too
Giving one last glare
Before she struts
Into the spring air
I sniffle and sniff
Then dig deep
For a tissue to mop
The tears that I weep
I curse myself
I must be insane
To always forget
That spring is a pain

Inspired by writing group prompt of ‘pain’.

[Photo: flowers from the garden]

A Winter Bird Walk at Blue Mountains Botanic Gardens with Carol Probets

A visit to the Blue Mountains Botanic Gardens is one of my favourite immersive experiences. I have been there several times over recent years and have enjoyed different aspects of the extensive gardens throughout the seasons. Sometimes I head over for a wander with a specific purpose in mind, such as looking at Australian flora or to enjoy the beautiful autumn colours. At other times I will just go and have a walk and see what I find.

Each season there is the opportunity to join in a bird walk with birding guide Carol Probets. The walk involves an early start (8 am at the garden gates) and provides a rare opportunity to explore parts of the gardens before the usual opening times (9 am on weekdays, 9.30 am on weekends). There are a wide variety of plants and paths throughout the garden to explore, and on a frosty winter morning, there was a lot of bird activity.

New Holland honeyeater

New Holland Honeyeater

Carol led the small group through the Proteaceae section, which was very popular with the honeyeaters. There were quite a few New Holland Honeyeaters flying about and perching atop tall, bare trees to survey the area. There were also quite a few Eastern Spinebills enjoying the nectar, as well as Little and Red Wattlebirds in the area.

Eastern spinebill

Eastern Spinebill

We headed through part of the rock garden and near the bog garden where there were some very busy White-browed Scrubwrens fossicking through the undergrowth. Several Crimson Rosellas were picking through the lawn throughout the Brunet Meadow, and a male and female Satin Bowerbird perched on a table and chair setting before joining the rosellas on the hunt for treats through the grass. A kookaburra looked on from a nearby branch before spotting something and flying off.

Eastern yellow robin

Eastern yellow robin

As we walked towards the conifer species section, we passed by the remnants of a bower with flashes of blue and yellow. The bower wasn’t being maintained as it was not breeding season, but it was protected by hedges. An eastern yellow robin appeared and seemed to pose on lower branches for a spell, then our attention was caught by a mixed flock of birds high up in some gum trees. Carol identified a Golden Whistler along with Lewin’s Honeyeater and a White-throated Treecreeper. There were also Brown and Striated Thornbills flitting about the branches.

White-browed scrubwren

White-browed scrubwren

We returned to the Visitors Centre for morning tea and a general discussion about birdwatching. This included the chance to review some of the bird and field guides along with a discussion of some of the apps that are available to help identify birds and enhance the experience. Guidance was provided on setting up binoculars along with tips on how to spot and identify birds in general. Carol spoke about bird behaviour along with the challenges of identifying birds as their feathers change throughout the year and can also vary in different geographical areas.

Kookaburra

Kookaburra

It was a perfect winter day for enjoying the gardens and the abundant birdlife in the area, and Carol is a generous and very knowledgeable guide. I am looking forward to my next visit to the gardens, and the next, and the next!

[Photo: red-browed finches spotted bouncing around the lawns]

Flash Fiction: Trapped

It had come to this. Thirst had hounded them all for days until the ceaseless circling of the roped off waterholes created tracks deeply rutted by their hooves. All of the usual spots had been blocked, barricaded with old fencing wire and tin. In desperation, one or two brumbies had charged and stomped, aiming flying kicks at the covers, but there was no reprieve. Smelling the water but not being able to drink was torture.

Two dry nights were spent warily watching the last waterhole. On the third night, some of the brumbies were on their knees, trying to inch closer to the moisture contained within the maze of fence runs. With a frenzied whinny one entered the compound despite knowing there was no way out. The gulping sounds drew the others in, no longer able to resist the trap.

This piece was a writing group challenge to write a piece of up to 150 words inspired by the word ‘Trapped’. It was based an image that had been rattling around since I had listened to a podcast about Eric Rolls and the Pillaga, months before. I couldn’t shake the image of the brumbies from my head, so the only solution was to write it out. You can find the section about brumbies around the 14 minute mark of the podcast.

[Photo: horses on Norfolk Island]

Tai Chi at Eastwood on a Saturday Morning

Pigeons swirl about as music guides scores of people through gentle movements, conjuring ancient rhythms in smooth concerted actions. A mix of ages and nationalities united perhaps by the need to connect with something deeper, yet not alone. The rustle of jackets, bright glimpses of velvet satin.

It is hard not to be entranced by the motion, the coordination, the gentle sway of limbs. A sense of calm, reconnection; something personal performed in a public space. Ritualised movement in dappled winter sunshine with white cockatoos crying overhead.

Fans are used in some of the movements, the sharp flick of a wrist unfurling brightly coloured designs. Various leaders move amongst the large group to demonstrate actions or provide individual support to some of the participants.

The sense of tranquility is tangible, and people passing by on the way to somewhere else often pause to take in the scene, to stop for a brief moment to take in the atmosphere. Some people take photos, and others take short videos. It is enough to be here and to enjoy the moment, to marvel at the measured sense of calm rhythm and to witness something that has been a tradition for generations upon generations of people.

In a world in which the rate of change seems to be increasing exponentially, it is something else to simply enjoy a slower pace for a moment or two, even if it is vicariously.

[Photo: Tai Chi at Eastwood Mall]

Writing Groups: Every One Is Different

It is well known that the writer’s lot can be a lonely one. Regardless of whether you are an occasional scribbler or someone who dedicates their working life to the task, it is seldom a group activity. In order to grow and develop as a writer, it is helpful to put on a brave face and go forth to find other writers.

The first writing group I joined was a well-established group in the central west. The meetings were structured, with writing news, the sharing of success stories around publications and submissions, mini-workshops and a session on critiquing work that had been prepared based on a prompt provided at the previous meeting. Feedback was also provided on work in progress if requested.

As is usually the case, there was a wide range of experience in the room, from published authors and a particularly prolific and successful bush ballad poet to new writers. The group was very supportive and even though I felt self-conscious, the group helped me develop my own writing style. It was also beneficial in learning how to present your work when sharing, to read it out clearly and with confidence, even if the piece was still a work in progress.

I did find the critique work challenging. It wasn’t just learning to be able to listen and take on critiques of your work but to be able to assess the work of others and to provide useful feedback. Liking a work isn’t enough in these situations: it is far more helpful to the writer to be told what worked well, what created ambivalence, and what jarred for the reader.

Since then I have experienced a couple of different writing group styles. I prefer an informal organisation, by which I mean a group that isn’t run as a writing group with not-for-profit reporting requirements. This requires administration and seems to take time and energy away from the writing. What I also like are groups where writing takes place. You might think that’s a given but it isn’t. There are groups where critiquing takes the focus, which is good, but I like it to be balanced somewhat with writing practice.

For me, that’s the gold of a writing group. Maybe it is due to the link with writing comprehension pieces in primary school where everyone had paper, a pen and their imagination. Once the topic was provided, the scratching commenced. Scratching on the paper, scratching of heads as ideas were coaxed into existence. A particular joy is the sheer variety of ideas that emerge from a single writing prompt, even from groups of people that have written together for a while. Sometimes there are eerie similarities in a writing prompt session or echoes of an image or idea that appear across the work of usually disparate writers. Being able to share these rough and raw pieces of writing, if you choose to, provides a jumping off point for extended pieces in the future.

Having the chance to meet fellow writers is an interesting experience, which can be exhilarating on a number of levels. It can genuinely foster growth in writing style, and open your mind to possibilities beyond what you might have come across if you remained chained to your desk at home.

Do you belong to a writing group?

[Photo: old typewriter]