Bendigo Easter

Wednesday 7 April 2010

There are bats living in Bendigo’s beautiful Rosalind Park. Grey-headed flying foxes, to be precise. Their arrival is the most preposterously unlikely thing to happen in the city since Phil Carman joined the local umpires’ association. Apparently, the heavy rainfall and storms up in Queensland and New South Wales sent the flying foxes in search of some new digs. The sturdy, century-old elm trees in central Bendigo’s main public garden are now home to about two thousand of the creatures.

At first, the local Council tried to move them on, before accepting it could do little. The local press declared the “invading” intruders a threat to health and crops. To curious Bendigonians, the animals might as well be from outer space. Those brave enough to study the unknown wander along the paths through the park, craning their necks to see the bats bunched like pieces of ripe fruit in the treetops. The local chiropractors must be doing a roaring trade treating all of the bat watching-related strains. The flying foxes just spend their days dangling nonchalantly upside-down.

I really shouldn’t be hanging out in Bendigo, either. I should be living in Dublin. I should be writing about County Mayo’s re-emergence as a Gaelic football star, or the crisis in the Catholic Church, or Ireland’s financial turmoil. But all that fell through. So, here I am.

It could be worse. I grew up in Bendigo. I know the city and its people. I know its grand buildings and unseemly estates, its manners and contradictions. It’s also Easter, and it’s hard to sustain self-pity at this time of year in Bendigo. The mid-Autumn weather, almost unfailingly, is perfect. This April is no exception. It’s the parade season, so we citizens take to the closed-off streets in the centre of town to bask in the sunshine. We sit and listen to music, gaze at the polished classic cars and marvel at the Chinese community’s annual celebrations. The bats have timed their visit very well.

The footy begins at this time of year, too. For the last few years a match has been played on Good Friday and it seems the Bendigo Football League’s decision to play on the religious holiday has proved a masterstroke. Like in other parts of country Victoria, the attendances are healthy and the local clubs thrive in the vacuum created by the AFL’s absence.

This year the game is between Golden Square and South Bendigo. I was brought up a Blood. Grandy took me to games. We’d listen to the races on a barely decipherable 3UZ signal in the car on the way to the Queen Elizabeth Oval and stand with his group of mates in front of the South Bendigo social club rooms at the Barnard Street end. Sometimes, I’d wedge my way on to the Bloods’ interchange bench and annoy the club doctor, Greg Hickey, who’s now working for Richmond. I idolised Frankie Burke, a dashing wingman whose hair colour meshed perfectly the red of his jumper and the football. I was taught that Sandhurst, which shares the QEO with South, was the enemy. I still have the red-and-white striped beanie, minus the pom-pom, that I wore to South games in June and July, when the skies were grey and an icy wind gusted out of the south-west. Back then, the Bloods were successful. They had great players such as Peter Bradbury, Peter Hinck and Peter Tyack. The club won four flags in five years in the early 1990s. But that’s when the party finished. South’s premiership drought, stretching back to 1994, is now the longest in the league.

As a casual observer three or four years ago, I formed the opinion that it might be best for the Bloods to merge with the Strathfieldsaye junior club, which was trying to put together a team for senior football. South’s president and some senior players were backing the idea. Sandhurst was also weighing up a possible union with the club from Bendigo’s growing eastern suburb, which gave the situation added urgency. While Strathfieldsaye appeared young, energetic and full of ideas, I looked aghast at the shrinking number of ageing men and women working tirelessly to keep the Bloods running on and off the field. Surely it can’t go on like this, I thought.

The courtship never flourished into a marriage. Strathfieldsaye pressed on alone. The Storm, as the team is unfortunately nicknamed, is embarking on its second season as a fully-fledged senior club in the BFL. My contact with South has been increasingly rare in recent years, but I’m told some of the Bloods’ former players got involved in the committee and helped renew the club’s volunteer base. I underestimated the resilience that seems to be at the core of most clubs. I’m glad South still wear red and white and play at the QEO.

South Bendigo has been near the top of the ladder for the last few seasons and found itself a niche as a perennial, but ultimately unsuccessful, preliminary finalist. Last year, under the leadership of nuggety on-baller Rick Coburn, the Bloods finally won their way through to the grand final. Unfortunately, they ran into a powerful Golden Square combine. I followed the build up and match from faraway Dublin. I was informed the Bulldogs led for almost all of the decider and rarely looked troubled. The final margin was 37 points.

On Good Friday, the grand finalists are re-matched for the new season’s opening game. I jump in the car and wander over to Golden Square’s home ground, which is separated from the main road, High Street, by the local swimming pool, bowling greens, a row of houses and the Bendigo Creek. Just a couple of bends downstream from the footy ground is the spot where it’s believed the first gold discovery in this part of the world was made. More than 150 years later they’re still digging the stuff out of the ground around town.

Golden Square might have cried out a collective “eureka!” when it talked Nick Carter into coaching the senior footballers this year. Carter began his AFL career as Fitzroy’s ended. He was best-afield in the Lions’ last win. After the merger he had brief stints with Brisbane and Melbourne before winding up back in Bendigo, where he forged a reputation as a brilliant and tough midfielder with the Diggers and Bombers in the VFL.

I walk through the Wade Street gate in time to see the two teams running in tight bunches along either wing. The sun is set to three, medium brown, and my skin is toasting nicely. Fans are playing countless games of kick-to-kick on the oval, too. I see a handful of faces around the ground that I recognise and try to catch their attention, but it seems my memory is better than theirs. Away to my right, the rectangular, brown-brick double-storey clubrooms loom large over the wing. The rooms have been extended since I was here last and now stretch down beyond the forward flank at the southern end.

My first glimpse of Nick Carter comes as the teams line-up in front of the clubrooms for the national anthem. The players face their opponents. They wait for the music to blast over the speaker system. And they wait. Carter, dressed in jeans and a royal blue polo shirt, glares at the upper storey and waves his arms. The players shift awkwardly from one foot to the other and look either up into the sky or down at their laces. Maybe staring your foe into submission is impossible without musical accompaniment. This being Bendigo, the players slink away to take up their positions and the crowd smirks. I imagine if this sort of thing happened at a GAA game in Ireland, the crowd would either let fly with humorous asides, or step into the breach and fill the air with song.

The lack of a rousing opening to the day’s proceedings seems to deaden the atmosphere. When the Bulldogs leap out of the blocks and tear into the hapless Bloods, their efforts are greeted with an underwhelmed shrug. Maybe it’s the sunshine. Perhaps it’s South’s lack of fight. Square’s veteran midfielder, Aaron Hawkins, has five touches in the first two minutes of play and Grant Weeks leads hard and straight from the goal square. Weeks kicked 100-odd goals playing district footy last year and is a gun recruit for the team chasing back-to-back flags. He’s not as big as I pictured him, but he knows how to get the footy. When he kicks his third major for the term, it seems like he might kick 100 more by 5pm today.

Weeks really has it pretty easy, though. Unlike the running track at Stawell, Luke Hammond and Nathan Bell’s scything passes from the centre square are perfectly measured. Matt Klein-Breteler is a rangy wingman with an ungainly stride that defies all sorts of physiology theories to send him racing across the turf before he tumbles kicks deep into attack.

In the opening quarter, South fumbles, or gives the ball straight back to Square. In the second term, they can’t get near it. I’m using my hand to shield my eyes from the sun, all the while considering just covering my eyes completely and hoping it’s all over soon.

The only positive for the Bloods is the presence of Michael Leech. The defender’s face was shattered in a sickening collision in last year’s grand final and there was talk he might never return to the game. Yet, little more than six months later, here he is. Leech is busy early in the game, but that’s mostly because he’s deep in defence, standing on the beach trying to turn back the ocean.

The margin is nine goals at half time. South’s only kicked two majors. The Bloods have been contemptuously swatted aside by a brilliant opponent. And still the crowd murmurs away in a stupor, the breath-taking speed and skill of the home side unable to overpower the sunshine and public holiday mood’s sedative qualities.

And so I make my skulking exit; head down, hands in pockets. I’ll admit it’s the coward’s way out to leave at half time, but wait! I have an excuse, honest! The in-laws are in town and I have duties. I need to show them the beauty of Bendigo at Easter. Getting away from the ugliness of South Bendigo’s performance is, regrettably, a necessity. (Weeks finished with nine, and Square snuck home by 14 goals)

So, we play hole-in-one golf at Kangaroo Flat, ride an antique tram down Pall Mall, sip on spiders by the shores of Lake Weeroona, listen to rockabilly from the balcony of a Bull Street pub, and take in the rich aroma of kerosene lamps held aloft by fire fighters marching in the Torchlight Procession on a clear and warm night. Pyrotechnicians take over the QEO, using the oval as the stage from which they send dozens of colourful and deafening fireworks screaming into the night.

On Sunday afternoon the sun beats down as the Bendigo Chinese Association holds a ceremony in town to awaken the dragon, Sun Loong, before he takes his annual, winding stroll through Bendigo’s streets on Easter Monday. Performers acting the part of ancient lions leap across tiny platforms to the rat-a-tat rhythm of drums, crackers and the applause of an appreciative audience.

The ceremony’s climax is the lighting of 100,000 crackers, all tied together and hung from a gateway in the Chinese Gardens, in a bid to stir Sun Loong from his slumber. The crackers explode soon after being lit; sending fingers into ears, smoke billowing into the air and debris across the gardens and on to McCrae Street.

Normally, this is where the show ends. The crowd disperses and tries to regain its senses after almost being knocked off its feet. Volunteers sweep up the shavings of spent crackers. But this year is different. The racket has not only stirred up a dragon, it’s upset our visitors. Overhead, hundreds of bats take flight, screeching in disgust, circling Rosalind Park with outright contempt. We can only crane our necks, laugh and marvel at most preposterous sight you could hope to see in Bendigo at Easter.

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