30 May, 2011

Building Bridges

Bridges are useful things, but we do tend to take them for granted. You can cross over them, jump from them, be pushed from them, fall from them and even - as I discovered - throw murdered bodies off them. When they are not there, life becomes significantly more difficult.
During the recent floods, the bridge over the Barwon at Breakwater was, as usual, out of action forcing a significant amount of traffic to use other crossings. Imagine the inconvenience then, when the only real bridge over the river - the Barwon Bridge on Moorabool Street - was swept away in the major floods of May, 1852. It had only been built in 1848.
Construction of the new bridge at Breakwater
It was not until the end of the year that the government organised a punt to carry those wishing to cross the river from one side to the other. This situation continued for another year until two more punts were rigged to form a floating pontoon, which then had to suffice until a two-lane iron bridge was built in 1859. One imagines that private vessels were also used to cross the river and that some private operators charging a fee may not have been so unhappy with the loss of the bridge as the general community.
The current bridge - widened in the 1960s and again last year to meet requirements for the International World Cycling Championships held in Geelong - was built in 1926 to allow trams to cross.
As a quick search of Wikipedia will tell you, that in addition to the Barwon Bridge there are a number of bridges crossing the Barwon along its lower reaches. There is the controversially rebuilt Barwon Heads bridge at the mouth of the Barwon, joining Barwon Heads and Ocean Grove. In addition to the Barwon Bridge, Geelong has the ovoid sewer aqueduct, the Breakwater Bridge and the rail bridge which crosses both the river and the road bridge at this point, the James Harrison Bridge, the McIntyre Bridge, the Queen's Park Bridge and even the little foot bridge which crosses the Barwon at Fyansford. Then there is the soon to be completed replacement for the Breakwater Bridge which will re-align Breakwater road and flood-proof the river crossing at that point.
John M McIntyre Bridge
Whilst not always the most aesthetically attractive examples, several of these Bridges are significant from an architectural perspective. The John M McIntyre Bridge was built in 1968 to carry sewerage across the river to Black Rock. It is a "post-tensioned, prestressed stayed girder"which at the time of its construction was an Australian first.
John M McIntyre after whom the bridge was named was the Engineer-in-chief of the Geelong Waterworks (precursor to Barwon Water) and was involved in the the construction of the West Barwon Dam and reservoirs at Bostock and Lal Lal and extension works at the Wurdee Boluc Reservoir. The bridge which bears his name also provides pedestrian access across the river and - if memory serves me correctly - makes a handy reference point on the rowing course. Word has it that once your boat reaches the "Sh*!t Bridge" you row hell for the finish line.
Queen's Park Bridge
At one time, the ovoid sewer aqueduct served the same purpose. It is an architecturally important structure, built over three years between 1913 and 1916 which I think I have discussed in a previous post. Its 14 reinforced concrete cantilever spans however, are in a crumbling state despite the structure being listed on the Victorian National Estate Register and access to and thoroughfare under the aqueduct is prohibited. The pipe was decommissioned in 1993 and its eventual fate still hangs in the balance.
The Queen's Park Bridge is another historically significant bridge across the Barwon. The present single-lane steel structure dates to 1930. The site was initially serviced by a punt and was used as a cattle crossing with a wooden bridge built for the purpose in 1861. This was twice washed away in floods, first in 1870 and again in 1909. Purely functional are the new twin bridges which cross the river to the west of town. They were built in 2009 as part of the Geelong Ring Road which allows coastal traffic to avoid the congestion of local roads through the city.
Likewise, the James Harrison Bridge which crosses the river just upstream from the original Barwon Bridge, is designed purely for road traffic. Although this does not stop it being taken over for an hour or two on the third Sunday in November by the several hundred runners who have for the past two years completed the "Run Geelong" fun run event.
Pollocksford Bridge
Then of course, there is the Princes Bridge which appears to be the favoured point from which to dump the bodies of murder victims as I have noted previously. The present bridge is the third structure to stand near this site. The previous two, located a little further downstream, were named for Queen Victoria's husband Albert, the Prince Consort. The initial timber structure was built the year after Albert's death, in 1861. A second bridge with the same name was erected in 1889 to replace the first which was in a poor state of repair. This in turn was extensively repaired in 1959 and then replaced with the present bridge in 1965.
Once out of Geelong,  the bridges become more widely spaced. Heading further upstream, the first is the Merrawarp Road Bridge and then the Pollocksford Bridge - a five span bluestone bridge built in 1859. The next crossing point is on the Inverleigh-Winchelsea Road just out side of Inverleigh, near the confluence of the Leigh and Barwon Rivers.
Winchelsea Bridge
Possibly the most picturesque bridge across the Barwon is the bluestone Barwon River Bridge, built in 1867 to replace two previous timber structures. This bridge was replicated in later years with a prestressed concrete structure being built slightly downstream of the first.
Other bridge crossings I have yet to investigate include the Winchelsea-Deans Marsh Road which appears to cross a shallow stretch of the river at a natural ford, Kildean Lane and Conn's Lane. Another road bridge lies just outside of Birregurra on the Birregurra-Deans Marsh Road, then one on the Colac-Murroon Road and Dewing's Bridge Road. All appear to be modern concrete structures of little aesthetic interest.
At this point I become somewhat confused, but know of at least one more bridge just past Barwon Downs and another on the outskirts of the township of Forrest, below the West Barwon Dam. Then finally, at the base of the dam is a little foot bridge designed for pedestrian access.
In general it would seem that most of the bridges over the Barwon have been built for function rather than appearance, however several have long histories which tie in with the story of Geelong and the farming communities through which the river flows.

22 May, 2011

"Currawong! Currawong!"

Pied Currawong
One of my favourite bird calls is that of the Currawong. I have read that the name is onomatopoeic, meaning that it derives from the sound of their call and it doesn't take too much imagination to translate the repetitive, double-barrelled "caw-aw, caw-aw" into "currawong, currawong". It has been said that in the early days of European settlement in Australia, the unfamiliar calls of the Currawong were mistaken for the voices of ghosts, so haunting and unfamiliar were they to those who did not know the environment.
Grey Butcher Bird
The species of Currawong most commonly found on the Barwon is the Pied Currawong which at first glance is similar to a Crow or Raven but is only distantly related. Currawongs are actually more closely related to  Butcher Birds and Australian Magpies, all being from the same family group, however the Currawong is generally larger and has less white on its body than a Magpie - parts of the wing tips and tail - and a yellow eye.
The diet of these birds is broadly similar too, with Currawongs feeding on insects, small animals, berries and some smaller species of birds. Its propensity to eat fruit makes the Currawong responsible for a significant amount of seed distribution within its habitat. In addition, I have first-hand evidence of their taste for Sparrows, having watched from my back doorstep as a Currawong made a meal of one such unfortunate creature, sitting in a tree and spitting small feathers all over my backyard.
Like Butcher Birds, who are named for the trait, Currawongs will sometimes use the fork of a tree or a convenient hollow to store food for later consumption, even hanging it on on a convenient branch.
Australian Magpie
Another, quite eerie experience with Currawongs occurred on a still, overcast day last year. It was one of those days when the atmosphere felt so heavy you had to push your way through it. I was on one of my regular walks around the river, camera in hand. What sounds I could hear were muffled and most of the birds seemed to be in hiding. As I made my way upriver towards Queen's Park the weather became increasingly gloomy.
There is a section not far from the bridge where a stand of sheaoks line the path on either side, meeting overhead in places and on this occasion, further adding to the dim, oppressive atmosphere. As I approached, I could hear Currawongs calling from up ahead. Once inside the stand of trees, I was greeted by the sight of a dozen or more Pied Currawongs perched on the branches of one of the sheaoks. For the most part, they remained where they were, looking at me with their yellow eyes, not moving, just watching, seemingly unconcerned by my presence. There was no doubt in my mind at that time that the Currawong is a bird of prey.
Pied Currawong eating
a Sparrow
Like Crows, Ravens and other similar species, they have the long, curved beak which marks them as a meat-eater and their predominantly black plumage on this occasion added to the foreboding atmosphere. In combination with their unearthly calls, this created a distinctly eerie scene. I in turn stopped to watch them for a time, before moving on and heading up and across the bridge. As I once again passed by that section of the river - this time on the opposite bank - I could still hear them calling from amongst the branches. I find their call one of the most evocative sounds of the Australian bush - a call I have known for decades, even before I knew what Currawongs were.
Whilst I have never again seen them congregate in such numbers in any one place, I occasionally hear them calling from those same trees and sometimes in my backyard - no doubt looking for another Sparrow or two.

21 May, 2011

A Murder on the Barwon

As I walked my way around the river on Tuesday I was witness to a murder - a murder of crows. Well, to be more precise, they were probably Australian Ravens.
There are three species of crow (the Little Crow, the House Crow and the Torresian or Australian Crow ) and three species of raven in Australia - the Australian Raven, the Little Raven and the Forrest or Tasmanian Raven. Not all of them are found in Victoria but all of them are similar enough to make telling them apart difficult.
Various sources inform me that the base of crows' feathers are white whilst those of ravens' are grey. I can't say I've ever been close enough to a crow or a raven to study the base of their feathers, but perhaps next time I come across a stray feather I'll investigate.
Australian Raven
I am no expert, but I believe those on the Barwon are most likely Australian Ravens. On any given day, there are ravens (commonly called crows) here and there, often flying overhead or calling from the trees. Everyone knows their call - loud, coarse, common. But listening more closely, you notice other aspects like the tailing note which dies away with a long, continuous creak which I find quite intriguing, or the short "creak-creak" which sounds very much like a squeaky door being opened.
Their behaviour is likewise interesting to observe. Generally as I said, they call from trees or scavenge at ground level, but occasionally - and this was definitely the case on Tuesday - they will congregate in a large group of a dozen or more and circle overhead, calling loudly. It is at times like these, or when walking past a tree full of the birds that the collective noun "murder" makes sense. They can be quite ominous in large numbers, circling and calling. I have no idea why there were so many on this occasion, or what had set them off, but they along with various other species were particularly active this time.
Australian Raven
Crows and ravens are considered quite intelligent birds, showing signs of communication, the use of simple tools and the ability to mimic human speech. Perhaps because of this, crows and ravens have  often played a part in the mythology of various cultures. The Norse peoples considered them a symbol of wisdom whilst the ancient Greeks considered them a sacred bird. Several pre-Christian deities were associated with crows. Many European cultures associated the crow or raven with death and doom. Other legends involve the transmogrification of humans into the form of these birds. Such stories have even been associated with the legend of King Arthur. To various Aboriginal tribes the crow was considered a trickster and as an ancestral being.
In modern times, they are often viewed with distaste due to their tendency to eat carrion or prey on weak animals such as sick lambs. Whilst their diet is predominantly carnivorous, also including insects, other small animals, eggs and human rubbish, they also consume grains and fruit, placing them further in the bad books of many farmers whose crops can be damaged.
Murder of the other kind is not completely unknown on the Barwon either. A glance at newspapers from bygone eras will reveal several stories. One of the very earliest reports talks of a white woman who was killed on the river at South Geelong. The murder on this occasion, was attributed to the mythical bunyip, but little more is mentioned.
The next mention in the media of murder on the Barwon River was in July, 1946 when the murdered bodies of William Stewart Sheargold and Ernest Frederick Dew were pulled from the river. They had been shot and dumped in the river downstream of the current Princes Bridge (at that time a timber bridge named for Prince Albert located further downstream), with Dew's body being disemboweled after death. Two men were arrested and charged with murder, however this charge was reduced to one of wounding with intent to murder and an inquest concluded in September, 1946 with an open finding.
Princes Bridge, Newtown
In August, 1953, the grizzly remains of a dismembered human body were found in the Barwon River. The victim was Donald Brooke Maxfield, a Colac man who had disappeared some months earlier in May. Two other Colac men it was alleged, had beaten Maxfield, dismembered his body and dumped it into the river from the Prince Albert Bridge, the various parts contained in bags and a kerosene tin. Another tin containing Maxfield's clothing was eventually located about half a mile down river the following February. Maxfield and the others were believed to have been involved in an earlier shop breaking incident. Fearing Maxfield would give evidence against one of the offenders, it was decided to silence him. Like all well scripted murder trials, the co-accused, laid the blame on each other with one offender claiming police coercion. 
The pair was found guilty of Maxfield's murder and sentenced to death, however these sentences were commuted to a sentence of life with no parole and one of twenty years imprisonment.
In recent years, there have fortunately been no further reports of murder.

11 May, 2011

Running the "Half"

For those in the know, the first Sunday after Easter can mean only one thing - it's time to run a half marathon. The Geelong Half Marathon to be precise, hosted by the Geelong Cross Country Association along the banks of the scenic Barwon River. This year I saddled up and participated for the third year running (pardon the pun). As usual it was a battle to find the motivation to get out there and do it and as usual, once I'd finished I was pleased I had completed it. Not as pleased as the last two years when I'd run better times, but still happier than if I had not done it at all.
Start of the Geelong Half Marathon 2011
So, what is the half marathon, where does it go and who participates? As the name indicates it is a race run over 21,097m - half the distance of a full marathon. The Geelong Half Marathon starts under the James Harrison Bridge at 9am on the first Sunday after Easter. From there, runners take the scenic route around Belmont Common before heading along the path to Breakwater where they cross the bridge and head upriver to Fyansford. Next come a couple of twists and turns around the Fyansford Pub (unfortunately the only beverage on offer in the vicinity is water and that grabbed on the run from a helpful volunteer) before heading across first the Moorabool River, the anabranch which connects the Barwon and Moorabool Rivers and then across the Barwon itself for the long haul to the finish line.
All very scenic as I have previously described, but probably somewhat lost on the puffing populace propelling themselves with varying degrees of difficulty around the course. I wish I could say that I am so distracted by the pleasant surroundings as I run, that I feel no pain, but that is never the case. By the time I hit the 14/15km mark it is just hard work and the fact that I can envisage every rise and fall between there and the finish line doesn't help either.
Having made it as far as the finish line, the successful competitor is greeted by a variety of enthusiastic supporters and a battalion of over-anxious officials keen to retrieve the timing chip you've just taken for a 21km trot. The only thing left at this point is to stagger towards the drinks table, engage in a little rehydration and hang around to watch the remaining competitors finish and the winners receive their prizes.
And so to "who". Well, anyone who thinks they can make the distance really and with a little training that probably includes most of the healthy population. Over the last few years the field has been growing as more people decide to give it a go, but at the pointy end of the field, it also provides an opportunity for the local up-and-comings to have a crack against a wider field as there are always a few decent runners from out of town. A half marathon is also a good distance for those in training for the full marathon and in particular, the Great Ocean Road Marathon which is run only a few weeks after and which boasts an international field of some repute and a view to die for.
By comparison, the Barwon may not be quite so spectacular, however it is a comfortable course with a few rises here and there to break the monotony, but nothing too soul-destroying. The trees which line the route also provide some welcome shade should the weather be a little warm for running (although there's been no serious risk of that in the last couple of years).  And when I really need some distraction from the state of my legs and my lungs, there is always the river to watch or birds to count.
So far, I haven't ventured much beyond half marathon distance which I have run many times (although only three times under competitive conditions) but for some time I have been considering running from Geelong to Queenscliff along the Bellarine Rail Trail (about 34km from the Show Grounds to the Queenscliff Station). However, that's for another time. On Sunday, 1st May, along with exactly 799 other runners, I hit the river trail and ran the "half".
So, how did I do? In comparison to my previous two runs it was a disappointment and I by no means troubled those at the front of the field, but then, I never do. I did however, finish in roughly the top 25% of women in my age group and in a similar position relative to all women (318) in the field. Overall, I came 366th of 800 runners, so I beat most of the field home - men and women. Maybe by next year I'll have improved my times again - or at least come to terms with my dwindling pace.
I should I guess express my thanks to the unknown runner who, in the last hundred metres or so, decided that a sprint finish was the way to go and thereby no doubt improved my time by some several seconds. I'd overtaken him a short distance earlier and thought I had him, but he pipped me on the line.
So, after handing over my timing chip, knocking back a water or two and catching up with a friend who'd made it home before me, there was nothing to do but wait for the presentations and head for home and a hot shower.