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Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Changing the date


I got into writing history because I am science-trained. As a young bushwalking botanist, I saw walking tracks maintained by walking feet and wondered if those tracks were formed by the feet of the first inhabitants.

They must have been, because within a few days of landing in 1788, some convicts walked along “the road to Botany Bay”, an established foot track through the bush and asked commodore La Pérouse to give them a passage back to Europe. La Pérouse refused their request.

That was history, yet as a schoolchild, I learned only about intrepid explorers forcing their way through impenetrable bush when, as they admitted, they just followed established tracks. I thought this was a story worth telling, so I told it.

I heard about massacres in colonial Australia, and looked for hard evidence. It was there: in 1883, Emily Creaghe travelled from Normanton to Darwin, exploring in the Northern Territory, and she wrote in her diary on 8 February 1883, about Hann and Watson’s Lorne Hill station, where there were “40 pairs of blacks’ ears nailed round the walls”.

Writing about this, I acquired the label “historian”. The National Library of Australia asked me to write history for younger readers, and my science-biased Big Book of Australian History includes Gondwana, the extinct megafauna and the role of steam and electricity in shaping modern Australia.

In gold rush times, Indigenous people could see their dispossession. In 1853, an Indigenous man at Sofala asked a mounted police sergeant “how it would be if a black fellow went to England and ‘turn em Queen out’?

The original Australians were in the same position as the Saxons in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. The Norman invasion lacked guns, bands and flags, yet we call 1066 an invasion, because of the way they looked around and took the land, changed the laws and the language. Social disruption is what invasion is about, and it happened here.

Face it: 1788 was an invasion, and white Australia needs to be courteous. We need a less offensive date for Australia Day than January 26, but the present holiday comes at a useful time of the year, so I’ve been looking, idly, for a more neutral date.

Some years back, I met Inga Clendinnen when she won an award for her Dancing With Strangers. Looking at early white and Indigenous contacts, she tells of the first meeting of significant groups of invaders and what she calls “the Australians”. I mentioned Clendinnen’s story of how they danced in my first edition.

The fourth edition comes out soon, and I wanted to add more detail on the dancing from William Bradley’s journal, the source for Clendinnen’s story. I photographed the relevant pages, and headed home on the Manly ferry.

Crossing the Heads, I read that the dancing with strangers was on a beach at the eastern end of Middle Harbour. Unarmed Indigenous men used their woomeras to point to a good landing place, which just had to be Castle Rock. When Bradley’s party landed, “… these people mixed with ours & all hands danced together.”

The sailors slept at anchor that night, which was 29 January 1788, and next day, they crossed the harbour to Spring Cove. Three men in canoes came in and landed, leaving their spears in the canoes. “Our people and these mixed together and were quite sociable, dancing & otherwise amusing them,” Bradley wrote.

I realised in a flash that as we passed North Head, I was sitting directly between the two dancing places: there was an easy fix for the casual insult lying within white Australia’s celebration of the anniversary of the invasion as ‘Australia Day’. The practicality: we need a late summer public holiday, so what can we hang our ‘day off’ on?

I dashed off this paragraph for the very end of The Big Book of Australian History”:

“Changing the date
“One thing that must change during this century is the insensitive date for ‘Australia Day’ of 26 January. Surely, our national day of celebration should be 29 January, the anniversary of the day on which old and new Australians first danced together, in harmony?”
Perhaps the youngsters will care?

Mind you, 30 January would also do:

On that day in 1813, the word "Australia" appeared in print for the first time. This pre-dated that Flinders use, the one that second-rate politicians cite, later that year.

Here is the passage, in a rather dreadful piece of "poetry": note the fourth line.

FROM Albion's blest Isle have we cross'd the wide Main,
And brav'd all the Dangers, of Neptune's Domain—
The Hurricane's Whirlwind, the Tempest's loud Roar,
An Asylum to find on Australia's rude Shore
For the Genius of Britain sent forth a Decree,
That her Sons should be exil'd—once more to be free!

Source: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/628623

Sunday, 27 January 2019

The $ecret Touri$m Plan

PLANNING DOCUMENT, 
DEPARTMENT OF TOURISM, CULTURE AND COMMERCE.

The following information is embargoed.  Under no circumstances is it to be shown to any person who cannot prove Australian citizenship.  In appropriate cases, loyalty oaths may be administered as a precursor to granting permission to view the following.

It is a well-known fact that public museums do not pay their way: it is time they looked to private industry, which always pays.  The public sector should examine more closely the specific activities which pay.  They should seek to move our museums into the New Age of economically rational cultural experience.

Instead of displaying old bones and other relics of an increasingly irrelevant and bygone age, our museums must begin to address the needs and concerns of today.  They must present useful and memorable cultural experiences, compressed to allow the maximum variety and the widest geographical coverage, all within the shortest possible time.  Museums must be forced, if necessary, to give value.

We need look no further than one recent development to see how public museums are at present completely missing the commercial point.  I was recently fortunate enough to visit ‘The Australian Experience’.  It was a truly eye-opening to see just how much can be done commercially with just a small amount of flair and imagination.

The Australian Experience is a train of eight exhibition carriages, running from the Gold Coast down into northern New South Wales and back each day, with inbound tourists (that is, foreigners with plenty of disposable income) as the main targeted market.

It is hauled by a steam locomotive fondly known as ‘The Mauler’, (having been involved in 106 confirmed human fatalities: a definite draw-card for the non-traditional museum demographic).

The Australian Experience aims to give the busy tourist all of the experiences and photo opportunities which would otherwise take many days to achieve, and always with the risk of bad weather spoiling some of the shots.  The Australian Experience guarantees that there will be no such problems with photography for its guests.

On boarding at 9.30 am, passengers are welcomed to their seats in one of the lounge cars by Aboriginal hostesses in traditional gold bikinis.  There, they are given a choice of cocktails (named, for their principal flavours, ‘Billy Tea’, ‘Draught Beer’ and ‘Bluestone’).  The soothing background music in the lounge cars is a medley of traditional railway songs and ballads, including ‘Casey Jones’, ‘The Wreck of the Old Ninety-Seven’, and ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’.  Once the train is under way, passengers can wander at will through the exhibition cars, trying all the varied delights that our wide brown land has to offer.

Car 1.

This carriage re-creates the parched outback.  Authentic smells (the carriage doubles as a working cattle truck each night), authentic lighting (cracks in the walls are covered with red cellophane), and a realistic cow depict life in the outback.  Staff are at present working on synthetic wool coats that will allow them also to use the cow in a scaled-up demonstration of genuine Australian shearing.  The carriage is heated to outback levels by a ducted system running from the locomotive's fire-box, demonstrating the designers' concerns for both parsimony and for the conservation of energy.

At a quarter to each hour, coinciding with the simulated low tide in the Great Barrier Reef car, the Wet Season arrives, followed by the projection of time-lapse images of the desert bursting into bloom.  Visitors will be able to purchase colourful souvenir ‘Snowy River’ raincoats of reinforced paper (seen being manufactured later in Car 7), or they can remain within the protective plastic tunnel which extends down one side of the carriage, five minutes before the start of the Wet Season.

Car 2.

After the heat of the parched outback carriage, the tourist next enters the air-conditioned comfort of the ‘Great Australian Pub’ carriage.  Here we see trained blow-flies performing in one corner of the carriage, and two stunt men re-enacting a variety of famous Australian bar-fights.  There are broken bottle fights on the hour and half hour, with audience participation by prior arrangement.   All guests are provided with one complimentary drink from traditional Australian beer-cans (reusable, but hygienically sealed prior to use).  Further drinks may be purchased by guests.

Car 3.

Here the Great Barrier Reef is re-created.  Entering by a raised area, guests move down a ramp between long narrow tanks filled with brightly coloured fish and preserved corals.  This carriage has elliptical wheels to give the impression of sea motion, and to ensure appropriate smells of motion nausea from those patrons who spent too long in Car 2.

As patrons move down the ramp, they gain the impression of dropping below sea level, entering the secret world of the fishes, complete with recorded whale songs and sea shanties.  A small beach panorama is available at the far end, where guests may be photographed, along with a range of cardboard cut-outs.  Masks and snorkels are available for photos in front of the Reef tanks (realistic bubbles in the tanks are strategically placed for guests to pose near).

Car 4.

Here, guests meet the Australian Bush.  With a surround-sound system of taped bird-calls, Australian aborigines demonstrate their traditional Dingo Circus, and show videos of their boomerang-throwing skills (due to insurance problems, management have required them to use only cardboard boomerangs inside the car), and a small shop sells traditional Australian bush scents (Lantana, Prickly Pear, and Salvation Jane), plastic didgeridoos and other authentic Aboriginal memorabilia.

Car 5.

This is a marvellous Chamber of Horrors where guests see at first hand the problems of the early settlers.  There are tableaux of families dying of the Barcoo Rot, a face-painting activity where children's faces can be made up to simulate Sandy Blight, giant models of blow-flies (photo opportunity!), live Hexham Grey mosquitoes, depictions of dingoes stealing settlers' children, and, behind a fire-proof screen, a real bushfire, complete with recorded screams and simulated burning bodies (to allay the worries of the squeamish, guides point out that the bodies are actually those of bush-rangers).

At the far end, a children's jumping castle features a user-friendly range of giant goannas, crocodiles, taipans and other snakes and spiders.  With the exception of the taipans, which are de-fanged to protect the fabric of the jumping castle, all of these animals are inflatable rubber models.  Smaller inflatable versions of these may be purchased from the concessionaire.

Car 6.

Aussie tucker and Aussie self-sufficiency are the themes here, and guests are invited to participate in a shooting gallery activity.  No live animals are used: white metal targets with projected images of assorted mammals and birds on them are used.  Sensors identify where the target is hit, and sophisticated circuitry generates a scream appropriate to the shot's accuracy.

In any case, prizes are awarded to all.  For example, hitting five kangaroo targets causes a cup of kangaroo tail soup to be automatically dispensed, and other prizes include roast meat in damper sandwiches (pure reconstituted beef, but with an authentic aroma of koala meat), and savoury ‘possum stew’.

All food is cooked under the patrons' gaze on a gas-fired barbecue, and stuffed toy replicas of all the Australian wildlife targets will be on sale.  Guests who wish to be photographed with the tastefully posed giant dead Diprotodon may borrow a replica of a semi-automatic rifle to improve the authenticity of the photo.  This segment is augmented by one of the staff who collects road kills on her way to work each morning.  As a trained make-up artiste, she adds realistic bullet holes to each body.

Car 7.

The Australian city is recognised as the natural habitat of most modern Australians.  Along one wall, are panoramas showing the major cities of Australia, with strip-lighting from above, to allow these backdrops to be used for taking souvenir photographs (for the sake of convenience, Uluru will also be depicted here).  All of the expected icons are depicted in these panoramas.

The other side of the carriage features typical Australian city scenes: a typical sweat shop where newly arrived migrants make the ‘Snowy River’ coats for sale in Car 2.  Nearby, famous multiple murders are re-enacted against rear-projected backdrops (allowing a later expansion to international coverage), drug addicts inject themselves (using only the safest organically-grown and Australian-made materials), and convicts are flogged.  Products on sale include replicas of Arvie Aspinall's alarm clock, and the sweat shop staff and addicts perform multicultural dances when their other duties permit, adding a delightfully realistic air to the proceedings.

Car 8.

Known as ‘The Big Car’, this last carriage features scaled-down versions of thirty of Australia's favourite ‘Big’ icons: the Big Merino, the Big Banana, the Big Pavlova, the Big Prawn, and others.  By a clever application of optical systems, the guests may be photographed alongside apparently full-size icons.

This is the end of the exhibition, and guests can now return to the lounge coaches until they reach their destination, where they can have a two-hour visit to the ‘Las Vegas’ room of the local RSL club, complete with authentic poker machines, designed to accept and pay out in all Pacific Rim and EEC currencies, or they can join in the community singing of German beer hall songs, directed from a Karaoke machine.  On the return journey, they are free to visit the exhibitions again.

As you can see from this brief outline, the example is there, completely ready for us to emulate.  Even if Sydney ignores the chance of offering the same or similar experiences in other parts of Australia, The Australian Experience has by no means completely capitalised on the commercial possibilities

For example, many of the photographic props are provided free of charge, when they could be hired or sold, there is no rain forest experience, there are no crocodiles, no psychic sheep dogs, no albino, mutant or deformed animals, and there are no trained birds able to swear in many languages on command.  There is no option for conservation-minded patrons to shoot feral cats.

Looking again at the high end of the market, they offer no surf experience, no surf boards, no video games or simulations, and there are no plans to offer virtual reality experiences.  There are no thoughts of providing computerised interactive videos where the purchaser's image is electronically inserted into a wide range of pre-filmed Australian adventures, ranging from soft focus sex in the tropics to skiing naked down Kosciuszko (naturally, with tastefully placed simulated icicles covering the rude bits), to more family-oriented fare, such as a kangaroo-back ride across Arnhem land.

The operators have totally missed the perfect opportunity to offer paravane sports from the rear platform of Car 8.  At this point, The Australian Experience has no special rides for the under five age group, no publishing plans, and no awareness of the franchising possibilities of their scheme.  That being said, they have still done well, and the way is open for a forward-looking organisation to seize this opportunity with both hands.

This madness is, in fact, based on a real submission that passed over my desk at one point, because the institution I was working for had a few hare-brained Marketing types who wanted a slice of the action.  I have toned down some of the more excessive suggestions, but there are definite echoes of the original to be found in Car 1.

I have recently found a long-lost file called Rudes, which contains many of my best minutes, notes and correspondence, written during a surprisingly long career as the world's only anarchist-surrealist bureaucrat. This was among them, and there are more of what my colleagues usually called Acid Drops to come.


Saturday, 26 January 2019

How to tell when an elephant is joking


Elephants walk at a sedate 7 km/hr or 4.5 mph, and they can keep that up for a considerable time. They have large territories, and need to keep moving, so as not to eat one area out, but when it comes to fighting their main enemy, humans, they accelerate to a higher pace.
Asian elephants know they are safer.

African elephants will sometimes engage in what is called a mock charge, but at other times, they are deadly serious. In either case, the elephant will approach, people say, at some 50 km/hr (30 mph), and reversing at this speed can be risky, so safari drivers need to know the difference when 6 tons of elephants is heading your way.

In a mock charge, the elephant’s ears are standing out wide from the head and the trunk is curled. In a serious charge, the elephant has his ears back and trunk down, but there is more to the charge than that.

They even stop by to look at the cameras.
Researchers have discovered that elephants hear through their feet, sending out rumbles at 20 Hz, so low that humans can hardly hear them.

Sound travels through soils at around 3300 metres a second, or 10,000 feet a second (that’s around 6800 mph, close to 12,000 kph), almost ten times as fast as in air, and the low sound travels amazing distances: as much as 10 kilometres or six miles.

In nature, female elephants use the mock charge to chase off lions or hyenas, and the effect of moving the ears away from the head is to make her look even larger than she is. It is possible that the sounds emitted and transmitted across the African plains also vary, but that only other elephants can tell the difference.

And given that the speed of the elephant sounds through the ground exceed the escape velocity of our planet, it is just as well that elephants cannot charge as fast as their sounds can travel through the soil!

There is just one problem with the safari-driver claims, and that is the speed attributed to the elephant: John Hutchinson and his colleagues studied and videotaped large numbers of elephants, and found the highest speed observed was more like 25 km/hr or 15 mph.

And interestingly, the elephants don’t run, even at top speed, not according to Olympic standards. The official definition of a walk is that at least one foot must be on the ground at any one time, and while elephants have been snapped with three feet off the ground, they have never been caught lifting all four at once.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

The bulls of Pamplona and other stampedes


Another excerpt from The Speed of Nearly Everything. Not the toads, though: they came later.

I have been to Pamplona in quieter times,
to here is a toad stampede in Whistler BC
Each year, locals from the Spanish town of Pamplona and quite a few tourists, join in the running of the bulls, part of the festival of Sanfermines. If you have your head about you, it is easy enough to do, because the bulls need to travel 848.8 metres from the point where they are started, and the average time is 3 minutes 55 seconds.

Note: that is the average time. These bulls are young, know no fear, and weigh 600 kg (about 1300 pounds) each. In 1959, one bull completely lost interest in running, and took more than 30 minutes, which would have made a bit of a hole in the average. Some of the bulls must run faster to make up for it.

Then there is the human side of the statistics. There are 2000 runners a day on week days, and as many as 3500 on weekends, and at least some of those know that each year, about 300 people are injured, around 3% of them seriously.

That means there is a lot of nervousness (or to be honest, panic) in the hearts of those waiting to run, or running. It means a lot of people who will be happy to trample on you, in order to avoid being trampled by some bulls.
Here are the stampeding toads, slower than
any house mouse, heading off to mate.

So while the average speed of the bulls is only a bit over 13 km/hr, less than 10 mph, no faster than a house mouse, a few of them will have heard about the chap who drowned in a lake with an average depth of six inches. Besides, house mice are lighter, have less staying power, and don’t travel in herds.

Without the other runners, Pamplona would be far safer than running in front of a herd of buffalo which can reach 50 km/hr or 30 mph if they are American buffalo. Make that 55 km/hr or 35 mph if they are African buffalo.

Friday, 11 January 2019

Bicycles replace horses

At the end of the 19th century, the bicycle was a cheap alternative to the horse for many people in the bush. Bicycles needed no feeding, so bikes quickly became a popular form of transport (and sport), after a lot of development that began with primitive velocipedes, which unsurprisingly failed to catch on at first. Some of the voyages were epic:


The spirit of the Nomad is evidently very strong in Mr. Francis Birtles, a calm-eyed, wiry-looking Australian, who called at "The Daily News" office this morning to announce his future wanderings. Mr Birtles contemplates a journey into the great unknown interior of Australia on a bicycle, and in this weather he is likely to find the trip sweeter in contemplation than in realisation.

Speaking to a reporter, he said: "I have been a wanderer for ten years since I left my native State, Victoria. For the last five years I have been in South Africa, and have travelled all over that country with the mobile columns of the constabulary, from Capetown to Koomati Poort, and from the Orange River to the Limpopo. As a cyclist, I have done a deal of racing on the Transvaal roads, and have crossed the Karoo and Kalahari deserts. Now I want to ride from the Indian to the Pacific Oceans. Next Wednesday I shall mount my machine at Fremantle, and will call at the Exhibition at Hay-street East for a final send-off at 4 p.m. From Perth I shall ride to Laverton, and will then strike north-easterly to cross the border into South Australia. I want to go through country which has not yet been traversed, and if I get through all right will come out near Alice Springs, on the overland telegraph line. The ride to Adelaide will be comparatively easy, and then I shall cross to Ballarat, Melbourne and Sydney."

You are taking on a big task, Mr. Birtles, said the reporter, thinking of natives, waterless wastes, and miles of rolling sand dunes and spinifex, so bitterly cursed by well-equipped explorers.

"I know,'' replied the wandering one. ''I may have trouble with the natives, but I'll watch them. What will be the greatest difficulty will be finding water in unknown country. However, I shall carry a week's supply, and if I can't replenish it by finding water in a week, the country must be bad. I am sending my food supplies up to Laverton by train. All I am afraid of is a bad break-down in mid-desert."

Would be a bit awkward, wouldn't it? the scribe said.

Well, I'm going to ride a springframe machine of B.S.A. parts made by the Davies-Franklin Co., and, with ordinary luck, I'll get through." Why make the ride at all? "Oh," said the cyclist, "I fancy the trip. It will fill in time and will satisfy my passion for wandering. I'm only 25 years of age, and I've travelled a bit. No, I don't expect to make much money out of it, seeing that I'm paying all my expenses. I shall write all about it.

You may have seen my articles, "An Australian Trooper in Zululand," in "Life." I expect to be about two months on the journey, and, as I say, I have only myself to look after. No horses or camels to trouble about, so I ought to get through."
Daily News (Perth), 20 December 1906, 11, http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/82427099

In January 1907, Birtles had made it to Kalgoorlie. It has  to be understood that Birtles was an “adventurer”, alsways grifting for sponsorship or handouts, so in part, he was writing for unseen audiences. Here is part of a letter he sent back to Perth.

“I am travelling along quietly through the various inland towns; I will not be leaving Laverton before the end of this month. I want to catch the rains which generally fall in the beginning of the year. The people have treated me well on the 'run up' here. From Grass Valley, to Kalgoorlie the pipe tracks are good travelling. As for the main road it is best left alone. The roads over the ranges are very gravelly, the wheels skidding all the way. A man could make a hundred miles a day here. As for myself, I pedal along four or five hours a day on an average. There are so many people to see; that one loses a lot of time. But I do not mind: I am in no hurry. I feel in splendid going order now. I have had two water-tanks fitted to my 'bike.' They will have to carry me through the dry, country. The holding capacity of the two is five gallons. Pretty weighty, certainly, but I shall want it. In conclusion, I wish to thank you and all brother cyclists for your hearty send-off and good wishes.”
The West Australian (Perth), 10 January 1907, 8, http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/25693432

In February, he was back in Laverton.

A telegram form Western Australia states that the transcontinental cyclist, Francis Birtles, who was endeavouring to ride from Perth via the goldfields through to Alice Springs, in the centre of Australia, had, after many hardships, been compelled to return to Laverton. After leaving Laverton, Birtles struck due east into the Victorian desert, and endeavoured to get through to the nearest known water. 56 miles distant. He failed in the attempt, the country being found impassable, and after being away four days, during which period he cycled or pushed his machine 107 miles. Birtles was compelled to return to Laverton again. Whether the overlander has definitely given up his attempt is not stated, but it was a dangerous task to endeavour to cycle across the great Victorian desert in midsummer.
Evening Journal (Adelaide), 8 February 1907, 1, http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/208606379

Meanwhile, there were others on the road as well. Note the careful mention of their benefactors at the end:

Two cyclists, named Robert Lennie and A. Warren, left Perth yesterday at about half-past 12 o'clock, on a trip across Australia. The route which they will adopt will be from Perth to Coolgardie, via the old goldfields road, through Northam and Southern Cross. Thence, they will journey to Widgemooltha, to Fraser's Range, and to Balladonia, where they will be joined by Francis Birtles, who has failed to reach the McDonnell Ranges in South Australia from Western Australia. From there the three riders will travel to Port Augusta, where Birtles will leave them, and probably proceed to the MacDonnell Ranges in the interior, in furtherance of his search for the "long armed blacks." Lennie, who is secretary of the Bonnievale Cycling Club, and a member of the Council of the Goldfields League of Wheelmen, and Warren, will then proceed to Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney, their object being to break the record from Perth to Sydney, which is said to stand at present at 31 days. Both men carry light equipments, their Davies-Franklin machines being fitted with path-racing parts, and heavy Dunlop tyres.
The West Australian (Perth), 26 February 1907, 6, http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/25697126

Birtles pushed on to Adelaide, but there was to be ill-feeling ahead: I leave it to the more patient reader to trace the rest of the tale.

Adelaide, April 16. Francis Birtles, the cyclist who left Fremantle on Boxing Day with the intention of coming to the Pacific Ocean, arrived at Adelaide this afternoon. He had travelled 3,185 miles. His worst experiences were in the early part of the journey, when he essayed to travel the coastal route from Western Australia, and was driven back for want of water. Finally he went through Laverton to Kurnalpi—a trip which cost him much difficulty through lack of water. After he had reached Eucla he had very little trouble.
The West Australian (Perth), 17 April 1907, 8, http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/25701110

In May, he reached Sydney, but Lennie and Warren were less than happy:

Bounder Blatherskite Birtles Claims Unentitled Kudos. A Blown-out Bladder of Bluff.
The following copy of a telegram received locally has been handed us for publication:
"Completed journey Indian to Pacific Ocean. All well. Fremantle to Sydney. Francis Birtles."

Our Sydney correspondent wired on Thursday morning as fol[l]ows: Birtles arrived at noon yesterday, boomed as the rider from oce[a]n to ocean. It is alleged he did part of the journey in the train to get a lead on Lennie and Warren, who arrived at "Truth" office five hours later.

There were no league officials to welcome them here, although Lennie, and not Birtles, is the accredited West Australian League representative.

Lennie is indignant at the scurvy action of the New South Wales League, and says they do things better in the West. The secretary of the Cyclists' Association welcomed them at the Gaiety on Thursday night.
The Truth (Perth) 11 May 1907, 6, http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/206695533

Still, Birtles kept it up, but when I accidentally passed his grave in Waverley cemetery as I walked from Bondi to Coogee, I had never heard of him. Still, there, he is, described as "The Australian Explorer", but back in 1912, that headstone was still three decades away.

Francis Birtles, the well-known cyclist, who has gained fame by circling, crossing, and re-crossing the Australian continent in his many rides in the little known territories of the north-east, north, and north west coasts, was, at the latest advice, going so strong that he should succeed in his attempt to lower the existing bicycle record from Perth to Sydney.

From advices received by Anthony Hordern and Sons the overlander has been forcing the pace on the wild track from Norseman (W.A.) to the South Australian border, and, despite his strenuous efforts, arrived at Nullarbor (S.A.), nearly three days ahead of his time. Birtles, who is mounted on a Universal bicycle, of B.S.A. parts, and Dunlop tyres, had ridden 1150 miles in 12 days 10 hours, and that over the worst possible roads, and it now appears as if he will be able to arrive in Sydney well up to his schedule of 30 days. The cyclists of New South Wales have followed Birtles’ ride with more than usual interest, as he has always started and finished in Sydney, and there will be a large crowd to welcome him on his return.
Sydney Morning Herald, 17 January 1912, 22, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/28134732#pstart1294727

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Bicycles in the Antipodes

The northern hemisphere velocipedes were exported to many distant places, and in 1831, a “Sydney Exquisite” was seen riding his velocipede on “the Race Course”, one of the names given in those days to what is now Sydney’s Hyde Park. The southern section featured Sydney’s water supply, which came from a nearby swamp through a tunnel (“Busby’s Bore”) before discharging from an outlet pipe that carts could drive under.

The unused water drained away into Sydney’s original water supply, an open sewer called the Tank Stream, but at least near the bore outlet, the water was clean. This was just as well because, as a newspaper report said, “…the Exquisite was chuckling inwardly at the admiration he excited…” but this ended when he ran into a drain and capsized head over heels, with a wheel wrenched off.

He appeared considerably chagrined at the accident.
The Sydney Monitor, 19 March 1831, 3, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/32075151/4294298

Any Australian enthusiasm for cycling faded until January 1845, when a sporting gentleman made a bet undertaken “to ride a dandy horse one mile along the turnpike road between the first toll-gate and Parramatta, without touching the ground with either hands or feet.” The bet was for £50, and the side bets were for 2 to 1 against the rider. So what was a dandy horse? The newspaper Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer, was quick to explain.

…it is a remnant of English recreative mechanism, very much in vogue 25 years ago, amongst the gentry of Great Britain, and consists of two wheels, placed one before the other, connected by a curved shaft, upon the concavity of which is fixed by steel springs, to afford an elastic movement, a species of saddle. Here the rider must sit, with knees flexed and feet resting upon two projecting bars of iron, attached on either side of the front wheel. It must be observed that great dexterity will be required to balance the machine, and upon this the whole difficulty of performing the task seems to rest; but as the front wheel moves to a guide under the control of the rider, this can be materially lessened by what would be termed upon the turf, a “fine hand.”
Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer (NSW), 4 January 1845, 2.

At the end of the year, that attempt was still to take place. In November, it was specified that “…the match is to ride a dandy horse upon a turnpike road, the distance of one mile, during which transit the adventurous desperado is to have his legs tied to an iron bar, and to be thereby prevented from either touching the ground or using them in any other manner.” Then in December, the match was definitely to occur:

MONDAY next is the day appointed for this long talked of and singular exploit. Our readers may remember that a wager of £50 to £20 was made that a Mr.—— could not, within one month, find any person to ride the ordinary two-wheeled velocipede one standard mile, during which transit the rider was not to allow either foot or hand to touch the ground. It was purposed to make the last deposit at Parramatta, but at the request of several Sydneyites, the parties interested have resolved to run as near the metropolis as possible; and the Woolpack, opposite Petersham, has been named as the place of rendezvous. The final sum will consequently be made good at the above Inn, at 11 o’clock in the forenoon, when the ground will be named and the effort made for the accomplishment of this novel, and, as far as we can learn, unexampled feat. The betting can with difficulty be quoted, as persons are offering 5, 6, and 10 to 1, against its being accomplished.
Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer (NSW), 6 December 1845, 2, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/59765340

Still, nothing seems to appear in the newspapers, which are full of “dandy horse brushes” and a horse named Velocipede. As 1851 progressed, there was a report of five men riding a velocipede towards the Victorian goldfields, in company with a drag hauled by four bulldogs, attended by fierce looking men who had two more dogs of the same breed as spares. The velocipede riders were all on board a curious vehicle:

One single piece of wood mounted on three wheels (one before and two astern) straddled across by five strapping fellows, seated comfortably on saddles and working away with their feet, which propelled the strange vehicle at a rapid pace.
The Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News, 21 November 1851, 5.

Another was seen heading for the Victorian goldfields in 1858, travelling “at Cobb’s coach speed”. It was:

…a hobby-horse or velocipede, piloted by a sturdy driver, whose chiropodical strength and pluck had propelled the slight but well knitted machine, carrying himself and upwards of two hundred weight of ‘swag’ through the mire and macadam of the road from Melbourne to Sandhurst in the short space of two days and a half. This is a feat which we do not remember to have seen equalled even in the old country when velocipedes were the fashion; and when we take into consideration the present heavy state, and the numerous ups and downs of our roads, it seems highly probable that the introduction of this mode of locomotion may, in the fine weather, be a mighty rival to Bill and Deaken, and chaw up Cobb.
The Age, 19 July, 1858, 6.

(While Cobb and Co are still well-known today, the rival coaching firm of Bill and Deakin, owned by the father of later Australian Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin, has been almost forgotten.)

By 1869, the British newspapers were reported in the South Australian Register as talking about bicycles, and how they were better than velocipedes, but “ARGO” warned the paper a month later that the “two-wheelers” weren’t up to the task, and that velocipedes were better on Australian roads. The writer painted a picture of doctors running about to their patients, postmen with their letters, butcher boys with their chops and joints, and asked: how would they stand their “bicycular machines” up? No, Argo told his readers, there was a better choice.

With a three wheeler, I know all about it. I place my machine at the door, where it stands by itself, all alone; I quietly step into it, sit on the seat, put my feet in the slipper straps of the treadles, and when quite ready I depress the treadle that is higher, produce an immediate forward motion, and by the continued alternate action of the feet propel myself at such speed as may be convenient. 
So the bicycle could lean against a wall or a post, but how did you get moving?

Next, I suppose, when the perilous feat of mounting is accomplished, you get somebody to give you a shove, perhaps to run along with you for 20 or 30 yards, and then, I can imagine, if a practised hand, you can trundle yourself along gaily enough; and if you were going to the Bay or to Mitcham, you would have a fine bowl along the hard roads.

But suppose you want to call at 20 places in an hour. What then? How do you stop the two-wheeled machine? Do you run it obliquely against a wall at the risk of ruining your pants, to say nothing of your knees! Or do you bring it to a stand in the middle of the road, when of course it falls over on one side or the other, and you and your velocipede are sadly mixed up together; then getting up, do you transact your business, leave the joint or the letter, and getting on again, ask some passing stranger to give you a shove, and so you repeat the process ad infinitum.

To my view the bicycle may be grand for a journey, but disgusting for morning calls.
 South Australian Register, 1 June 1869, 3.

The earliest use I can find of “penny farthing” as a name for a bicycle is 1914, but these bicycles that Argo wrote about were clearly of that variety — and merely the only bicycles there were. Still, this type of bicycle proved superior, the very next month, when bicycles competed with velocipedes on the Melbourne Cricket Ground. A newspaper report denigrated the velocipedes as “mostly clumsy looking vehicles”, and the results supported this view.

Even so, the winning bicycle took eleven minutes and a half to complete two miles, but even slow bicycles could be a problem. In October 1869, a cyclist appeared in Bathurst and frightened the horse drawing a fruit cart.

On Friday evening a person named Vaughan was riding down George street, Bathurst, in a fruit cart, and when near the store of Messrs. Webb and Co. a person rode up the street on a bicycle; Mr. Vaughan’s horse was a spirited animal, and having never before seen a man “riding on a wheel,” became considerably frightened, and, anxious to get out of the way of the strange-looking affair as quickly as possible, bolted with his own conveyance. Mr. Vaughan, by a sudden movement of his horse, was thrown out of the cart on to the road, but fortunately sustained no damage beyond a severe shaking. The horse did not run far before it came to grief, for on turning the corner of the street by the Bank of New South Wales the cart turned a somersault and the horse was laid upon its back. No material damage was, luckily, done.
Empire (Sydney), 19 October 1869, 3, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/60890846

By 1875, Australian explorer Ernest Giles commented that the Nullarbor Plain was ideal for camels — or bicycles, because the ground was clear of traps and impediments.

It was splendid country for the camels to travel over; no spinifex, no impediments for their feet, and no timber. A bicycle could be ridden, I believe, over the whole extent of this plain, which must be 500 or 600 miles long by nearly 200 miles broad, it being known as the Hampton plains in Western Australia, and ending, so to say, near Youldeh.
— Ernest Giles, Australia Twice Traversed, 1889.

Then, in 1882, came the “safety bicycle”, which was more or less the equal-wheeled bicycle we know today. In December 1882, a Dr Richardson addressed a London tricycle club dinner, noting that several tricyclists and bicyclists could travel at twelve or fourteen miles an hour, and some experts had reached eighteen miles an hour.

(Prophetically, given that the Wright brothers were bicycle mechanics and makers, he said that he “…did not think he would be a false prophet if he assumed that the first principles of the problem of aerial flight would originate from the tricycle and bicycle.” That was 21 years before the first Wright aeroplane took off!)

Warming to his theme, Richardson said that cycling was healthy, though he regretted that some people were trying to power bicycles with electricity. Postmen used bicycles and tricycles, and one day, soldiers might ride into battle in the same way.

When this was reported in The Queenslander in September 1883, the paper reminded its readers of the specialist machines coming from the Coventry Machinists Company in England. Amongst their specialities were machines made to order for India, designed to be propelled by coolies; and these are of sufficient strength to carry one or two, as the case may be, with an umbrella for shade and, according to the number, one or two coolies additional -- and other of the company’s products were already available in Brisbane.

In fact, Messrs. Shaw and Co.’s establishment, in Queen-street, was displaying the “Special Club” bicycle, with one of which the one-mile amateur championship of New South Wales was won in August, 1882. Another of their models, the “Boy’s Own” bicycle, was also on view at the same place. Some of these, at least, were still of the “penny-farthing” variety.

At the same time, there was the “Otto” safety bicycle. This had two large wheels, and the seat over the axle between. There was an art in working this, but the experience of those who have tried it was “The more we ride it the better we like it.”

Then comes the alarming part. The brakes were “very effective and prompt, bringing up the machine with ease at a moment’s notice,” but the steering was done by the slacking of the driving gear on the one side and the use of the brake at the same time, which keeps that wheel motionless while the other travels as far round as is necessary.

In other words, the wheels were on each side, rather like “White’s improved bicycle”, a few pages back. By 1884, the market was sorting itself out, but the “Kangaroo” safety bicycle, which quickly became a record-breaker, was still one of the penny-farthing style.

There were drawbacks, though.

The velocipede mania is spreading. It must have its run like any other fever. It may become chronic, though some wise heads are predicting a speedy crisis and collapse; or perhaps the collapse is to come before the crisis, or they may be simultaneous! Just at present, however, the inventive genius of many countries seems to be concentrated upon the construction of velocipedes of every novel style. If announcements may be credited, there is—or is going to be, which amounts to the same thing in this fast age—a monocycle, which can be driven sixty miles an hour; a bicycle warranted to run a hundred miles an hour on a single rail of a railroad track; and probably tricycles and quartercycles of indefinite speed. The machines are gradually being furnished with all conveniences, even to lanterns and lunch-boxes! Nobody feels terrified, even when such accidents occur as did recently in Cincinnati; when a young man taking a velocipede lesson in the fourth story of a building, lost the control of his machine, and was precipitated through a guarded hatchway to the cellar beneath. Such an occurence only incites story-makers to circulate reports that in certain cities the velocipedes are driven so fast that every collision results in the total disappearance of both rider and machine! No fragments are ever found!
The Queenslander, 10 July 1869, 3, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/20324863

If you believe that yarn, wanna buy a bridge?

The end of the penny farthing bicycle

The old style bicycles seem only to have been called “penny farthings” after about 1914. Before that, they were just “bicycles”, as we can tell from the passing reference here to the “high wheel”.

The Brisbane Courier says:-In order to thoroughly test the capabilities of his “Kangaroo” safety bicycle, Mr. W, Johnson, captain of the Amateur Cycling Club, started at 5.40 a.m. on Wednesday for Southport, with the intention of breaking the records all along. There was a slight head wind, and Mount Gravatt was not reached under 35 mins., the best time to this place being exactly half-an-hour.

However, from this point the speed improved, and the Eight Mile Plains Hotel was passed in 58 mins. (quickest on record), and still quickening the speed, Palm’s hotel at Beenleigh was reached in exactly two hours, being about twenty minutes quicker than the previous best.

This is about twenty-one miles from Brisbane, and the Logan has to be crossed, which takes up some few minutes. Pimpama (31 miles) was reached at 9 a.m., and finally the Labrador Hotel at exactly 12.15 p.m., the whole journey from start to finish, which is fully fifty miles, occupying just 6 hours 35 mins. All hills as far as Beenleigh were ridden with comfort, but beyond Pimpama they are of such a rugged and steep nature that very few indeed of them could be ridden on any machine.

Mr. Johnson’s “Kangaroo,” which has a 36 in. wheel, geared to 54 in., and weighing about 50 lbs., stood the work well, and carried its rider with safety down hills that it would be folly to try to ride down on an ordinary bicycle. The machine was a source of curiosity, and inquiry all along the road, spectators wondering how such a little machine could attain so high a rate of speed. Mr. Johnson is thoroughly satisfied with his new machine, and says he will never return to the high wheel again. The “Kangaroo “ is thoroughly safe, and very little, if any, behind the ordinary bicycle in speed.

Mr. Johnson starts front scratch in all races in Brisbane, and has never yet been beaten by any Queenslander off the same mark. During the past eighteen months he has started in seventeen races, winning thirteen; was three times placed second, and once third. Three of his losings were against Sydney men. Mr. Johnson will be in Rockhampton in a week, or two, and we are told that he will bring his wonderful little “Kangaroo” with him.
Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 19 December 1884, 5, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/52033136

Two cyclists named Gault and Cox set out in 1885 to ride from Adelaide to Melbourne, and got there, although Gault’s “Kangaroo” had to be replaced by another machine, along the way. It’s a story worth reading in full:

ATHLETIC SPORTS.
CYCLING.
By ROADSTER.
ADELAIDE TO MELBOURNE.

Another transcolonial ride-Adelaide to Melbourne-has been successfully accomplished, the heroes being Messrs. A. Gault (South Australian B.C.) and R. C. Cox (Ariel B.C.), who arrived in Melbourne a week ago, and after having been well fêted by Melbourne cyclists have returned to Adelaide per steamer.

Mr. Gault, who is perhaps the most representative cyclist of the neighbouring colony, speaks to me in felicitous terms of the trip over, and his experience is certainly in favour of long-distance rides. The riders left their city on Saturday, 21st March, Gault mounted on the newly-introduced and quaint looking safety bicycle “The Kangaroo,” and Cox on a Royal by Hilman and Cooper.

The first stage of the long journey was made at Aldgate, where the first “tea” of the journey was disposed of, and{a fresh start made for Strathalbyn (80 miles), which was made at 11.30 p.m. in the face of a strong head wind. The next day the River Murray was reached, which they crossed in a small boat, and arrived at East Wellington (66 miles) in time for the midday meal.

Twenty miles of sand and hillocks made the afternoon a prolonged one, and it was not till reaching Menindie at 8.20 that they halted, where they gladly put up for the night. Monday was the next day, and a chilly frost met them on their start at 8.20 a.m., but, however, sand had given way to good roads, and some quick travelling brought them to M’Grath’s Flat (109 miles) at 9.45. Between the flat and Wood’s Wells (121 miles) sandy patches intervened, and the trip was rendered lively with “over the handles,” &c.

The wells were reached at 12.10, where for 25 minutes they rested, and on their way again they made for Salt Creek (132 miles), reaching the creek at 3 p.m. They were here treated very courteously by Mrs. Sherwood. Salt Creek has a history of crime in the career of the desperado, Malachi Martin, who, it is recounted, had a partiality for cutting off the existence of the natives by drowning them in bags and other original tortures. Martin, however, met his fate on the unhallowed beam for the murder of an unfortunate servant girl, which he was found guilty of. He deserved his fate.

At 5.30 they leave, and arrive at the Coorong Beach) and Chinaman’s Wells at 8 p.m. Ten minutes suffice them then, and they push on for Cantara (148 miles), meeting on their way the picketed waggon of a teamster. With rough bush hospitality they drained tea from the humming billy, and by the aid of flickering lamp wrote letters to those at home, and which they afterwards gave to the mail coach, which they met before reaching Cantara.

Coolattoo (154 miles) was the next place of accommodation, reaching well-earned repose there at 12 o’clock. At 9 they are again on the road, and arrive at Kingston (180 miles) at 1.15 p.m. From this point to Narracoorte the journey was unrideable, swamps and hills vying with one another to make matters unpleasant At Narracoorte a fresh machine was obtained for Mr. Gault [he was riding the “Kangaroo”], and at 11.15 they started and reached the border at 1 p.m., where they were welcomed with rough roads.

Messrs. Kay and Harslett, two cyclists, met them at Apsley (260 miles) and paid them every attention. The prettily situated Edenhope was reached at 6. 45, and Barrow (295 miles) at midnight. By persuasion they made for Hamilton via Coleraine, instead of via Balmoral and Cavendish. This they regretted, as the roads are beastly. The ride was also rendered more uncomfortable by the rain, and they were glad to seek repose at Coleraine.

Next day they reached Hamilton (358½ miles), where they were cordially entertained by Mr. Farrell. The rest of the journey is familiar to my readers, and was safely negotiated by the South Australians putting in one day no less than 103 miles. At Geelong they were met by Messrs. Killott and Moffatt They express themselves highly favoured at the attention they have met with from Victorian cyclists during their stay.
The Australasian (Melbourne), 11 April 1885, 22, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/138096892

Soon enough though, equal wheels and a chain drive became standard, and cycling spread across the land. By 1899. Miles Franklin wrote of bicycle tourists:

Several jackeroos, a neighbouring squatter, and a couple of bicycle tourists turned up at Five-Bob that evening, and we had a jovial night. The great, richly furnished drawing-room was brilliantly lighted, and the magnificent Erard grand piano sang and rang again with music, now martial and loud, now soft and solemn, now gay and sparkling. I made the very pleasant discovery that Harold Beecham was an excellent pianist, a gifted player on the violin, and sang with a strong, clear, well-trained tenor, which penetrated far into the night.
— Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career, 1899.

And in April of that year, the Wombeyan Caves were also seeing cyclists.

WOMBEYAN CAVES. — Quite a large number of visitors passed through en route to the caves during the holidays, including an unusually large number of cyclists. Owing to the weather turning wet much inconvenience was felt by visitors at the utter want of accommodation at the caves, and many returned much sooner than they would otherwise, and many more were prevented from going. Matters would be even worse than they are if it were not for the obliging caretaker, Mr. Chalker, who, I understand, generally takes a “roost” somewhere in the bush and gives up his own apartment to visitors. Now that new roads are being made at a huge expense, and every facility afforded to tourists for visiting the caves, I do hope that something will be done in the way of increasing the accommodation for them when they arrive. Practically the whole of the visitors came via Taralga, as the new road is not yet, of course, passable. I understand about 150 men are engaged working about the caves.
Goulburn Evening Penny Post (NSW), 15 April 1899, 5, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/98681602

The bicycle was out of its swaddling clothes: its fifty years were up, and accidents began to happen:

Bicycle Accident.-Mr. Colin Mackenzie, who some time ago went in for cycling, met with a severe accident on Sunday evening last, returning home from Yalbraith Church. When within about three miles of Taralga after coming down Byrnes’ Hill, Mr. Mackenzie was “coasting,” and when rounding a sharp turn on the road he ran into the causeway, causing the machine to bump badly, and the rider was ultimately thrown heavily on his shoulder and head. As a result the shoulder was badly dislocated, and in addition the head and face were much cut and bruised. For a time Mr. Mackenzie remained half-conscious, but fortunately came round and struck out for home, pluckily riding the machine a part of the way. After much difficulty, Mr. Whiting with assistance managed to get the shoulder fixed up again, and at the present time Mr. Mackenzie is progressing favourably though suffering much pain. It was Mr. Mackenzie’s intention to have gone to Goulburn Sunday morning to hear the Rev. Buchanan preach, but owing to one of his children being taken suddenly ill, he was compelled to abandon the trip to Goulburn, and went to Yalbraith instead.
Goulburn Evening Penny Post (NSW), 1, 12 October 1899. http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/98689887


Tuesday, 1 January 2019

True high summer

Yes, I know I'm supposed to be chatting about bicycle history, but the weather's getting to me.  Later, OK?
*
Even in winter, we swim and surf.
Sydney's high summer has to make a few trial attempts before it really gets going.  Once the cicadas have started to sing in the trees, a day will come when it seems as though the oven door has been left open.  On that day, the pigeons in the city parks squat in the dust beneath the trees, seeking coolness from the soil.  At home, dogs lurk in the shadows, cats disappear, and people drive quickly to the beach, where they fight tooth-and-nail for a shaded parking spot.

Shade is a highly valued commodity at this time.  In high summer, walking in the street becomes a matter of scuttling from shaded spot to shaded spot, and otherwise mild and inoffensive citizens will stride down the wrong side of the footpath when it is the shady side, glaring at oncoming pedestrians, and daring them to contend for the right to remain in the shade.  High summer is a time when there is a tinge of madness in the Australian air, but not even mad dogs or Englishmen would go out in our midday sun.

The next day may be just as hot as the preceding one, but it may end in a cooling thunderstorm, or it could be more normal.  At other times, a cool gale, a ‘southerly buster’, may come rushing up the coast.  Whatever happens, over a few weeks the oven-door days get closer together.  That is when the holiday mood starts to show, for it is mood, rather than weather, which marks the true onset of high summer.  High summer is a state of mind, not a meteorological phenomenon, running from one point in the calendar to another — but assume it runs from about December until mid-March.

High summer in Australia means Christmas, warm nights, droning cicadas, and a gentle laziness and relaxation, warm sand as the sun goes down.  By late November, Australian school children have finished their annual tests and examinations while the oldest students in the high schools have moved into the limbo that lasts until the university places are announced.  No exertion will change anything, so nobody tries too hard.

Even the adults start to relax in early December, planning for the coming summer break.  Ties are left dangling on a hook behind the door, coats are hung up in the cupboard, and the sights, sounds and smells of summer are all around us.  Australia is the Lucky Country, we tell each other, and as December progresses, we feel even luckier than usual.

In mid-December, the morning rush hour gets progressively lighter, and the evening rush hour extends to a restful thinness as people try to fit in as many parties as possible.  The shop workers are still rushed off their feet, but even they get to party after hours, to look forward to the break that is coming.

But even if December brings us our first tastes of high summer, it can also be a time of heavy rainfall.  The rain will put off the bushfire risk, at the same time promoting growth and increasing the fuel that bushfires can feed on later.  And the rain has another marvellous effect for somebody who thinks like me.  When it rains, it brings out the frogs.