Deaths and diamonds

Australia is quietly remembering a series of events that the country hopes never to repeat.

It’s 76 years since the Australian mainland, airspace, offshore islands and coastal shipping were attacked at least 97 times during World War II.

I know it’s not the most cheerful subject for a travel reviewer to tackle. But, as usual, there’s a story behind the headlines – and this one is fascinating.

So here goes, (with apologies to military historians) ……

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Remains of Customs House, Darwin – Wikimedia

Between February 1942 and November the following year, Australia and its shipping was the target of bombs, shells, torpedoes and bullets  from Japanese aircraft and submarines.

Aircraft flew 64 raids on the city of Darwin alone – and 33 attacks on other Northern Australian targets, including the towns of Broome, Townsville and Port Hedland.

In all, it’s said that the air attacks killed about 900 people; destroyed civilian and military facilities; and cost 77 aircraft and several ships.

The diamonds

And now for the story behind the story: in one incident, a Douglas DC-3 airliner operated by KNILM (KLM) and carrying eight passengers was shot down over Western Australia.

The plane, which was headed for the coastal town of Broome, crash landed on a beach at Carnot Bay, but was subsequently strafed and then bombed the following day.

Four passengers died.

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Broome

The fate of part of the plane’s cargo – a package of extremely valuable diamonds – has become somewhat of an Aussie mystery.

I remember my late father’s explanation that the diamonds – destined for Australia’s Commonwealth Bank – were “nicked by fortune hunters who swarmed over the wreckage”.

Apparently, the downed plane did attract a strange cast of visitors in the aftermath of its crash – and more than £20,000 worth of diamonds were later handed in to authorities. In May 1943, three men were tried in the Supreme Court of Western Australia for theft of the diamonds.[5] All were acquitted – and no one else has ever been tried for the loss of the diamonds.

During the air campaign over Northern Australia, the Japanese lost about 131 aircraft.

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Darwin Post Office – Wikimedia

Submarine attacks

It’s also heading for 76 years since Japanese submarines attacked Sydney harbour and the city of Newcastle, on Australia’s east coast, as part of a wider blitz of shipping in Australian waters.

Two midget submarines penetrated Sydney harbour defences and sank the depot ship, HMAS Kuttabul, killing 21 seamen.

On the night of June 8, 1942, a submarine bombarded the eastern suburbs of Sydney and another fired shells into the coastal industrial city of Newcastle.

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The guns at Newcastle’s Fort Scratchley returned fire.

See our review of this historically significant fort – and the night it sprang into action.

Aussie stories

How the Pasha Bulker storm almost sent us deaf

The ‘Pasha Bulker storm’ has a certain ring to it.

In our case, the ‘ring’ sounded like five fire engines wailing inside our house.

Australians have been remembering the day, just over 10 years ago, when an east coast low grounded the coal ship, ‘Pasha Bulker’, on a beach at Newcastle north of Sydney.

The storm that drove the 76-tonne bulk carrier ashore brought flooding, gale-force wind and high seas – and claimed nine lives.

And almost sent us deaf

No power

After navigating tricky flooded roads, we made it safely to our Newcastle home, only to find that the electricity supply had been cut.

Without lights, TV or stove, we adjourned early, completely forgetting about the house burglar alarm that (you guessed it) was electrically-operated.

The back-up battery ran low during the night, triggering the alarm at about 3am, when a near-deafening siren bounced us from our bed.

Disoriented by the ear-shattering wailing, we ran from room to room in the dark, desperately trying to remember where the alarm’s main controls were located.

“Get a torch and check the closet”. Of course, even at a time like this, Sue made sense.

The control box was locked.

Through curses, I remember briefly appreciating the logic of that. Otherwise a thief could simply open the controls and disable the alarm – exactly what we wanted to do.

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“Where did you put the key”?

Me?

The alarm had been installed nine years before, yet somehow this was now my fault.

I forlornly tried to smother some of the sound by putting a cushion over the ceiling speaker. It didn’t work.

As we continued to frantically search for the key, Sue’s look suggested that, if given a choice, she would willingly smother me.

As is often the way, the key had never been used – so it had been misplaced.

In frustration, we used a mobile phone to call an emergency locksmith – and sat in the dark with pillows over our head awaiting his arrival.

He silenced it in seconds. Our ears continued to ring for hours.

We didn’t dare face the neighbours for quite some time.

Tragic and costly

Although our personal experience is humorous in reflection, the Pasha Bulker storm was a tragic and costly event.

East Coast Lows have been a key feature of Australia’s eastern seaboard for centuries, with the first case studies published in 1954.

However, in June 2007, much of the Newcastle area was in the grip of one of Australia’s regular droughts and the thought of heavy rain was remote as people prepared for a three-day holiday weekend.

Then came a reality check.

It started bucketing down on the Friday morning and, within a few hours, the area was being pummelled.

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A friend lost her car to rising water outside our office while another colleague was forced to transfer her wedding location when the bushland setting became a river.

However, the grounding of the Pasha Bulker stole the show, made international headlines and weaved itself into the already-rich folklore of Newcastle.

A decade on, visitors to the city are sometimes puzzled by a red lump of metal on a pathway adjoining Nobby’s Beach.

A piece of public art, the metal was taken from the rudder of the Panamanian bulk carrier and is significant indeed for those who lived through the Pasha Bulker storm and its aftermath.

 

 

Aussie stories

Windsor, Australia: contrasts

Finding a greater contrast would be difficult.

Drive one direction and it feels like you’ve entered a time warp, whirling back to the early 1800’s.

Head the other way and you’re soon in a futuristic landscape of sweeping concrete and steel.

Welcome to the Windsor district of eastern Australia, an area that offers a snapshot of colonial times, with many grand examples of 19th century British architecture.

At the same time, the area also features Australia’s biggest public transport project, the sleek, multi-billion dollar Sydney Metro NorthWest rail link.

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Sydney Metro

Courtesy Plenary Group

This stark contrast between the old and the new, is a reminder that, although Windsor is a wonderful link to Australia’s colonial past, it is also on the edge of the Sydney beltway – a bustling, modern commuter channel.

But it was the Windsor of the 1800’s that we came to find.

Our ancestors were humble farmers in the area when it was Australia’s third city, a settlement established to provide fresh produce for the fledgling penal colony of Sydney.

Many of their graves can be found in the pioneer cemetery at nearby Wilberforce, which stands in the shadow of Australia’s oldest church, dating to 1809.

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Sue’s ancestors, in particular, hold a special and prominent place in the local community, descending from Australia’s first group of free settlers.

Thomas and Jane Rose and their four children – originally from rural Dorset in England – had arrived in the colony in 1793 and started farming in the Windsor area about 1802.

‘Rose Cottage’, their house at Wilberforce, built in 1811, remains the oldest slab timber dwelling on its original site in Australia.

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After exploring the pioneer cemetery, we headed for one of Windsor’s best known landmarks, the Macquarie Arms hotel, which claims to be the oldest pub in mainland Australia.

Sitting high above the Hawkesbury River, the pub certainly has an olde worlde feel, complete with resident ghosts – or perhaps that should be ‘spirits’.

First licensed in 1815 and operated continuously ever since, apart from the period between 1840-1874, the Macquarie Arms was built by convicts who are said to have constructed tunnels between the building and the river for secretly transporting illegal rum.

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Courtesy Macquarie Arms Hotel and Gary Bell Pub Sketches.

Whether it is really the oldest pub on the Australian mainland seems to depend on who you ask. Apparently, colonial Sydney was brimming with ‘sly grog’ shops and hotels from about 1800 onwards.

One thing is for certain: the old pub is just one of many colonial buildings in Windsor still in use.

These include the local court house, designed by famous colonial architect Sir Francis Greenway and built in 1822; several historic churches; Windsor post office; and any number of grand Victorian mansions.

And, to prove that the area was indeed a land of opportunity, there’s Thompson Square which was named after a convict pioneer who went on to become a magistrate at law.

Next on our list was a visit to Rose Cottage which is truly a priceless piece of Australian heritage, followed by a tour of the adjoining Australiana Pioneer Village which strives to promote the area’s history.

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The village combines historic buildings and demonstrations of traditional crafts.

Both these attractions are maintained by hard-working groups of volunteers.

Windsor is on the north-western outskirts of Sydney, about 56 kilometres from the city centre.

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A forgotten train

Australia Day is held each January: a time for Aussies to, once again, reflect on the country’s achievements.

However, at about the same time, an important milestone in the field of Aussie transportation usually slips by unnoticed in our home city of Newcastle, New South Wales.

It’s headed for 190 years since the railway came to Australia – not far from where we’re now standing.

On December 10, 1831, the Australian Agricultural Company officially opened the continent’s first rail line on high ground overlooking the fledgling British settlement that is now the bustling eastern sea port of Newcastle.

A gravitational railway

Australia’s first railway was established specifically to carry coal Newcastle’s A Pit to ships awaiting loading in the Hunter River. Cast iron rails carried wagons on what is technically known as an ‘inclined plane gravitational railway’.

Today, this would probably be called a ‘cable railway’, where a trip downhill is powered by a wagon coming back uphill on an adjoining track.

On a gravitational railway, the weight of the loaded descending cars is used to lift the ascending empties. A well known Australian example is the scenic railway – shown in the main photo on this page – at Katoomba, west of Sydney. This railway was also initially used to haul coal.

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Another example is the Monongahela Incline, at Mount Washington, Pennsylvania, in the US (shown above)

After the railway arrived in Australia at what is now Brown and Church Streets, Newcastle, it was another 23 years before the first steam-driven railway appeared between Melbourne and Port Melbourne.

From then, the railway systems of the various colonies developed rapidly.

Meanwhile, the humble beginnings of rail at Newcastle also played a key role in the development of the nation’s coal industry and Newcastle as Australia’s biggest coal port.

A load sent from Newcastle to India was Australia’s first export shipment – and in December 2016, for example, coal shipments from the port of Newcastle hit a record 15.9 million tonnes.

Credits: Main photo courtesy Flickr, Wikimedia and Charlie Brewer; Mt Washington photo courtesy Wikimedia and pennsyloco

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Stark reminder of bridge collapse

On a picturesque section of Australia’s Mitchell Highway, travellers often stop at an unusual roadside sculpture made largely of twisted metal beams.

The ‘Gateway’ sculpture is a rare reminder of a tumultuous day – almost three decades ago – that cut a key rural road link in New South Wales, the most populous State in Australia,

On January 6, in 1989, a truck carrying machinery for digging trenches was travelling along the Mitchell highway when it approached the town of Wellington, in the State’s central-west.

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As it crossed the Macquarie River on the town’s fringe, the truck and the 70-year-old highway bridge collided – sending the roadway plunging into the water below.

The truck also dropped into the river, but miraculously no one was killed.

In a few moments and a gigantic cloud of dust, Wellington was cut almost in two – and a major traffic artery to the State’s north west was severed.

Politicians quickly converged on the site to determine what could be done to reopen the major thoroughfare.

Lengthy diversions were soon set up around the area and Wellington residents used the adjoining railway bridge to get between the town proper and the area of Montefiores, across the river.

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After some emergency work, cars were eventually able to drive across the rail bridge.

We were far away when the bridge dropped – but Wellington is our hometown, so we travelled there in the weeks after the incident and experienced at first hand the isolation and frustration caused by the closure of such a vital road link.

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Although Wellington’s commercial sector suffered from the loss of passing traffic and isolated rural areas, wily entrepreneurs were able to tap into widespread publicity by producing T-shirts to mark the bridge collapse.

Meanwhile, a low-level pontoon bridge was installed about 500 metres downstream by engineers from the Australian Army, thus re-opening the highway link.

Vehicles continued using the low-level crossing until the Macquarie bridge was replaced in December 1991.

Wellington is located 354 kilometres north-west of Sydney via the Great Western and Mitchell Highways. The ‘Gateway’ sculpture can be found about eight kilometres south of the town.

As a direct result of the collapse, authorities undertook a comprehensive safety audit of similar bridges throughout the State of New South Wales.

Photos of the collapsed Macquarie Bridge and the temporary rail crossing are courtesy of The Wellington Times and Marie Hoffman

Aussie stories

Earthquake memories: a Christmas feature

It sounded like a train passing outside the office.

And it felt like one had passed clean through the office.

Anyone who has been in a big earthquake will, I’m sure, remember the feeling of helplessness as the movement and shaking becomes more and more violent.

I certainly remember feeling that way in Australia’s Newcastle earthquake.

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The quake – Australia’s deadliest – killed 13 people when it hit the east coast industrial city of Newcastle mid-morning on December 28, 1989.

I was on the third floor of an office building in the heart of the city. It was the first day of work after Christmas and many were away on holidays.

The 40 or so people in the office mostly froze in their seats at 10.27am as the walls shook, swayed and cracked around us – and the rumble of the quake gave way to the crunching sounds of breaking masonry.

Neither the lightweight desks nor flimsy partition doorways offered much protection, so we rushed from the building down damaged stairwells into streets littered with bricks and swelling crowds of bewildered office workers.

No one had dared take the lift and, in the confusion, there wasn’t time for a headcount.

So it was that, after making it out of our office unscathed, I joined two colleagues in venturing back to free a woman trapped in the restroom and help a tradesman who had been working in the ceiling and had been temporarily knocked unconscious.

Minutes later, the building was declared structurally unsound.

Some inner-city buildings had disappeared in piles of rubble. Others had lost their facade, or had huge jagged cracks through the brickwork.

Royal Newcastle Hospital had been evacuated, with patients taken to the adjoining beach; the Returned Services Club was flattened; and people were trapped inside the damaged Newcastle Workers Club, where nine people eventually died.

The Newcastle earthquake caused damage to over 35,000 homes, 147 schools, and 3,000 commercial and/or other buildings, with significant damage caused to 10,000 homes (damage worth over $1,000) and 42 schools (structural damage), within the immediate Newcastle area.

Damage to buildings and facilities was reported over an area of 9,000 square kilometres.

With public transport halted , pay telephones mostly out of operation, mobile phones yet to come into general use, no electricity in much of the inner-city, and roads blocked by debris, I then walked out of the heart of Newcastle.

A few hours later, the Australian Army arrived to seal off the most dangerous areas.

On the way out of the crippled city area, I discovered yet another unAustralian impact of the quake – without electricity, even suburban pubs that had escaped damage were unable to serve cold beer.

Our home in the Newcastle suburb of Charlestown had suffered several thousand dollars worth of damage and large parts of the metropolitan area became a sea of scaffolding for many months as the city underwent massive reconstruction.

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Scientists and travellers sharing

Visitors to an Australian underground attraction, from time to time, find  themselves side-by-side with a scientific investigation.

A hunt is on for ancient fossils, animal bones and teeth deep within Wellington Caves, in New South Wales, Australia’s most populous State.

Paleontologists from Flinders University, in Adelaide, are digging and sifting through silt deposited in the limestone caves, which are a popular tourist attraction and  known world-wide as a rich source of megafaunal bones.

The dig, which may extend 10 metres into the silt, is helping develop a picture of surface life in the area through the centuries.

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Findings from the project are being taken to Adelaide for detailed examination at Flinders University, which is highly regarded in the field of palaeontology.

No interference with tours

The work isn’t interfering with tours of Wellington Caves, which are a leading tourist attraction in the central-western area of New South Wales.

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The first known source of marsupial fossils in Australia, the caves have provided specimens to collections world-wide.

Megafauna fossils discovered there are said to date back two million years and include marsupial lions and giant kangaroos, wombats and goannas.

The caves are about 353 kilometres or four hours and 40 minutes from Sydney on the Mitchell Highway – or 504 kilometres (five hours and 41 minutes) from Sydney via the Golden Highway. They are on the southern outskirts of the town of Wellington.

Wellington Caves were opened to the public in the 1870’s.

A hill of bones

The display caves are complemented by a former phosphate mine, from where megafaunal bones are visible in the mud walls.

Mining in the early 1900’s apparently revealed the ‘Bone Cave’  which shows, embedded in the walls, the bone fragments of prehistoric creatures who existed long before man.

The cave burrows into what has been described as ‘a hill of bones’ – said to be the largest deposit of its type in Australia

There are handrails in the Cathedral and Gaden caves, which are accessible to people with reasonable mobility. In the Cathedral Cave, there are 150 steps, while the Gaden Cave has 120.

Neither cave has wheelchair access.

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However, there is a ramp to the former phosphate mine, which can be used by both wheelchairs and strollers.

Fossil photo courtesy www.wellington-nsw.com/Phosphate_Mine.html

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