WHEN I was five years old I had a botched tonsillectomy. At the time and for months later I suffered bad haemorrhages. It took me 12 months to get over the problem. Then when I had just turned six, I was on the block again getting my appendix hacked out before it exploded.
These events meant that I missed quite a bit of school during the early years and a lot of time in bed for a while. I read a lot of books and stared out my window. It was a nice view: across the front garden, Murray Street, a row of big gum trees, paddocks, the train line, farm and scrubland to the Bass Hills. There were lots of birds to see, cows, steam trains hauling coal, the ‘Lizzie’ from Dudley Brace dumping rock waste from Twenty Shaft and smoke rising from the chimney at Archies Creek butter factory.
There were also lots of sounds to keep me company.
Murray Street had very little traffic and if you paid attention, all sorts of sounds could be heard. Even when I was not sick, I used to like lying in bed and listening to the night-time or early morning sounds: they were man-made, animal and environmental, depending on the time of day and year and the prevailing weather conditions.
1. The mine whistle
Unusually, Wonthaggi had its own power station. Installed high on a chimney was a steam-operated whistle of exactly the same design as the Titanic’s. It was loud enough to be heard all over town and was sounded at particular times each day to give warning of mine shift change times. In earlier times it was also sounded as a long repeated warning blast after a fatal mine accident, but I never heard it in that mode. There was a special sounding at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
When the mine closed in 1968 the power station closed with it. The whistle made its final sound with the last of the steam from the power house boilers. The blast started at its usual pitch and volume with normal steam pressure and slowly trailed off over a few minutes like a dying beast as the steam was exhausted.
I liked the mine whistle: it was a comforting certainty that was always ‘there’. Others in town obviously felt the same way, because The Historical Society rescued the whistle from the defunct powerhouse. Some years later it was re-installed on a replica mine poppet-head in a park near the train station. It now sounds each day at midday.
2. The drop hammer
Behind the train station at the end of our street, Cyclone Forging’s biggest piece of manufacturing equipment was the drop hammer, which produced hammer and axe heads from ingots of red hot steel by dropping a die fixed into a frame weighing several tonnes.
The drop of the hammer made a dull crash that could be easily heard from our place. It operated on a cycle of several seconds between drops and the factory used to work until 11pm. For most of my childhood I went to sleep to the comforting music of the drop hammer: “crump, crump, and crump” every few seconds.
Just before I left Wonthaggi for Melbourne I worked a few months of afternoon shift at Cyclone Forging. For most of the time I operated presses for punching post caps or drilling handle holes into hammer heads. But I spent a few nights on the team operating the drop hammer.
It was uncomfortable work: it was the middle of summer and the furnace for heating the steel to red heat made the worksite unbearably hot. The drop hammer was much noisier at close range. There was no hearing or eye protection and some of the regular factory staff members were missing one or more fingers.
3. The Bulliphant (*see note)
Mines require air circulation so the environment underground is sufficiently oxygenated for people to work and so toxic or explosive gasses can be removed. Banks of large above-ground fans pump air down the mine and/or pumping it out. They make a noisy whirring sound and at night sound can travel long distances.
To a young kid who’s been terrorised all day with tales of The Bulliphant who eats naughty kids, lying in bed alone in the dark, it was easy to re-imagine the sound of the fans as the breathing of the beast as he searches for his prey. At these times, you clutched your blanket tightly and pulled it over your head.
4. The train
The train line was only about 500 metres away and ran parallel to Murray Street. To the east, the Wonthaggi train station was about a kilometre away and to the west a similar distance away was a level crossing. Lots of train noises could be enjoyed from bed.
Steam train noises were far superior and more varied than the noise from the diesels that replaced them. The steam and smoke made steam trains more visually attractive as well.
The morning train left for Melbourne at 7.30am and returned at 9.30pm. On several days each week trains left and arrived in the opposite order in late morning and early evening. Goods trains and coal trains could pass at any time of the day.
Trains tooted their horn as they left and arrived at the station and as they approached the level crossing. They made a nice clickety-clack sound as they went by. When I was little, if I was out of bed, I would stand on the front gate and wave to passing trains. With the old steam trains, the nicer drivers would wave back and even give a little toot sometimes: that always made my day.
When steam trains left the station, you could see and hear the effort involved in their clouds of steam pumping out and the loud “choof-choof-choof” noise.
On New Year’s Eve when the night steam train from Melbourne neared the level crossing, the driver would start playing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ on his train whistle and kept it going all the way to the station.
By far my favorite animal sound at bed time was the chorus of frogs from the wetlands near our place, and after rain, from the garden as well. It became louder when frogs were breeding. The noise was very loud on hot summer nights when house doors were left open in the hope of getting cool breezes during the night.
There was a constant background sound of thousands of small frogs all calling together and individual large frogs would make distinguishable individual calls over the top of that, like a solo performer at a concert.
Large numbers of black crickets joined in during the hotter months. After rain, mole crickets joined in too with their unique sound. Cicadas were quite rare in Wonthaggi: I can only recall hearing them add to the chorus on a few occasions.
Magpies and/or kookaburras greeted the dawn most days and also sang at sunset.
Mud-larks and wagtails sang at night during breeding season. Blackbirds sang in the evening.
Many small birds visited the garden during the day and I liked to try and identify them by sound. The chatter of wagtails, the cackle of wattlebirds and the peep of silvereyes were easy. But the noise made by other honeyeaters, wrens and robins were more difficult to segregate.
A particular favorite when walking in nearby paddocks was the sky-lark. It had a very penetrating and tuneful song. Often they could only be heard but not seen because they were so high.
Sometimes at night, an owl would be heard, and more often the hyper-excited cries of plovers from the wetlands.
Every now and then there would be an invasion of loud squawking cockatoos – white or black – from the surrounding hills.
1. The Sea
Surf beach stretch from Kilcunda to Harmers Haven. When the wind is in the right direction and especially when the surf is high as well, the crash of the surf can be heard.
Sometimes the sound is very clear and individual wave crash can be distinguished. It is a very nice sound to go to sleep to.
2. The Wind
There is always wind at Wonthaggi. Sometimes it is a raging gale force wind blowing the mutton birds to and from Siberia and sometimes it becomes a gentle zephyr.
The pine trees to the west were originally planted to provide a windbreak and they did that job. When the wind hits a certain speed it sounds spooky, or it did when I was little. It used to give me the creeps.
Sometimes stormy winds brought other sounds like the crash of branches falling from the gum trees opposite or the clanging of roofing iron as it works loose and threatens to blow away. I can remember Dad being up on the roof in the middle of the night, dressed in pyjamas and dressing gown, hammering down loose iron as a storm raged. On another night a loud crash signaled the end of next-door neighbor Webby’s fern house which collapsed in a storm.
3. The rain
As well as wind, there is always rain in Wonthaggi. Often drizzle but some heavy downpours and hail.
I liked to snuggle further into my warm bed as the rain pounded the iron roof.
The sounds of that time all elicited a particular feeling and left very vivid memories of them. I can hear them in my head still.
Generations of Wonthaggi parents use the Bulliphant to intimidate their kids into good behavior. The Bulliphant ate naughty kids, leaving only their clothes buttons behind. Its stronghold was said to be Tank Hill, to the south of town near East Area mine. It roamed nocturnally looking for naughty kids to eat, making use of dark laneways to travel about unseen. It also made use of old mine workings as routes and might unexpectedly emerge from underground.
Like the Bunyip (perhaps the ancestral source of the Bulliphant?), the Bulliphant was never clearly defined. There was general agreement that it had a trunk like an elephant, but beyond that its appearance was uncertain. I imagine a combinational creature, like the modern, popular “Gruffalo”, except with a trunk.