Even though many of the people who had come from Finland knew Australia to be a warm country, the heat of the Christmas season was still quite a shock to most of them. Air conditioning in the migrant camps was virtually useless. On top of the agonising sweat, tears of agony also flowed down the faces of many a mother. How on earth could they and their children survive in this furnace!
One of the worst heat affected migrant camps was Bonegilla, three hundred kilometres north east of Melbourne in Victoria. Amongst the three or four thousand other new comers there were several hundred Finns also struggling to cope with the heat….
Organisationally Bonegilla was a good place for Finnish migrants. But no one could alter the heat of the 1959 Christmas season nor change the decision of employers to only offer work sometime in the new year. Letters were sent from Bonegilla to Tasmania as well. I myself received one of them not long after my first fishing and camping trip.
The letter was from my old friend Ensio Rastas. He and his family had left Finland before me travelling by ship. We had been neighbours at one stage in Finland….. Ensio and I often discussed moving overseas especially when we met in the autumn and winter months. To our wives, who were less enthusiastic in the beginning, we painted pictures of how wonderful it would be to live in a warmer climate. Women only wore grass skirts. Of course this was a bit of playful teasing really.
The idea became more of a serious matter in early 1959 when my wife’s brother, Taito Piispanen announced that he was moving to Australia with his wife Anja…. After receiving the first few letters from Taito Piispanen in Tasmania in the summer of 1959 Australia became a definite option for us for the first time. Initial enquiries about the possibility of moving to Tasmania quickly resulted in the lodging of an application. It was not long before we had passports and visas ready.
In the beginning we didn’t tell anyone of our plans. During one of our meetings with Ensio Rastas he mentioned in passing that he was planning to move to Australia with his family. He asked whether we would follow. It became clear that the Rastas family would travel by ship in November. I had plane tickets for the end of November. Therefore I would be in Tasmania two weeks before they arrived in Bonegilla on a hot 21st of December.
Bonegilla’s heat was as terrible a shock to the Rastas family as it was to many other Finns. This was made abundantly clear in Ensio’s first letter to me: Well, we have finally arrived in a place where the cold is not a problem! How I regret those flippant remarks of ours when we used to dream of a place where even our wives would only need to wear grass skirts. Perhaps the Almighty took our joking seriously. Or maybe he doesn’t have a sense of humour at all?
In one word – this is terrible – even the children can’t bear it. Every scrap of clothing in this furnace is too much. The thermometer barely drops below 40 even in the shade. Eggs cook in no time at all when you lift the frypan into the sun. But that doesn’t help because a million flies eat them before a cold-blooded Finn can take a hold of the handle. It’s lucky our good cast iron Finnish fry pan isn’t taken as well!
Voitto, good friend, this is not my usual flippant repartee, but a cry for help from the very bottom of my heart. I could say that this is the dejected cackle of the seven of us. In other words, this is an SOS in really big letters. We’ve heard that the weather in Tasmania is good and cool even in summer. Is this true? If so, could you rent us a house somewhere? Even though we have five children, as you know, we take care of the property.
They won’t let such a large family leave from here unless I have a job to go to. I’ve never been afraid of work and especially so not now. You know full well my capacity and experience. I can tell you I would even be prepared to empty outhouses with a wheelbarrow if I could just get away from this horrific abyss.
However, I need to have written evidence of work, otherwise they will not let us leave. If you get to know of accommodation and work for me the government will pay our air fare to Tasmania. I don’t know how, but someday, somehow, I will make all this up to you. Your speedy answer will freshen us up, just like a cold shower after a sauna.”
Finding a job and work was not new for Pastor Lawrence Grieger and he set about the task straight away. A few days later I had enough information available to be able to write to Ensio. Pastor Grieger and I had visited both the Migration Department and the Good Neighbour Council. We were strongly advised to encourage Mr Rastas to come over on his own first. Should he accept both the accommodation and the job, arrangements could be made immediately for his family to follow. They had had ample experience of the problems encountered by new settlers. It was wise to listen to their counsel and advice.
Immediately after the New Year I wrote to Ensio and told him of the wonderful weather we had in Hobart. Although you didn’t need a jumper every day it was often good to pull it on of an evening. I also told him there was a choice of jobs although emptying out-houses was not one of them. Car repairers would more than likely provide a metal worker like him with work. Accommodation may be harder to find but with our combined effort that too could be organised. It would be best to come alone.
I received a reply by return post. Because of the busy holiday season it was difficult to get a plane fare from Melbourne to Hobart. Ensio would arrive at the Hobart airport on the 13th January. We were waiting as the plane landed. In the evening we were thankful for Hobart’s good weather. Ensio painted colourful pictures of Bonegilla’s awful heat as we listened enthralled.
The picture got even better when a young man just out from Western Australia’s dam works joined in telling about his experiences with hot weather. Water was brought to the work site by train from somewhere far away. Washing water was pumped into metal tanks but became so hot it wasn’t possible to shower with it until the early hours of the morning. Drinking water, stored in large concrete tanks was much cooler. There just wasn’t enough of it to use for anything else.
Sleeping quarters and work camps were absolute furnaces. The night before St Stephen’s Day two young children had succumbed to heat exhaustion. This man from central Finland gave notice and hit the accelerator. When he finally reached the city of Perth he bought a one way ticket to Hobart. And here he was sitting with us in the cool of the evening declaring that Tasmania would become his new home. With the first winter gusts of the cold Antarctic wind this very same fellow disappeared over to the mainland to warm himself.
To the surprise of everyone the temperature soared to 40 degrees the next day. Ensio Rastas threw enquiring glances at me throughout the day and by the end of it could not help but ask What about that jumper tonight then? Of those present no-one had experienced anything like it in Hobart. Tomorrow could very well be jumper weather again. It wasn’t. By mid-day it had reached 40 degrees C in the shade and in the afternoon the temperature reached 42 degrees!
Somebody suggested we go to the beach for a swim. The beach at Sandy Bay was only a two mile walk away. You could even catch a bus there. Why not! A few drove off in their own cars. Others waited at the bus stop. Ensio suggested we walk seeing it was suitably warm and the cold weather would not bother us! Our troubles started as we were walking up the side of Battery Point where the sun shone. The sun had heated the asphalt so much that every step left a footprint.
We quickly moved across to the shady side of the street and went to the next stop to wait for the bus. As we stood there waiting Ensio turned to look at me seriously and said Voitto, after years of knowing you in Finland I learnt to trust you as a man who always stood by his word. What’s happened? Has this continuing heat softened and damaged your brain? If so, I hope the damage isn’t permanent. Or were you so homesick that you had to tempt me over here to die in this heat? Nevertheless, I will ask your opinion one more time for friendship’s sake, before that melts away as well. Do you think it is not possible to escape this heat without going back to Keljonkangas?
After recovering from a near hysterical bout of laughter I told him I could answer those questions in a few months’ time. By then both our families would be in Hobart. The best we could do about preserving his sanity for now was to go swimming in Sandy Bay. Apparently sea water was a good health tonic. It was known that many had recovered from trauma induced madness by immersing themselves in sea water up to the neck.
Full to the hilt, a bus stopped and picked us up. Room was found for us as well. All the doors were wide open. The cold draught didn’t seem to be a bother . Soon we saw a beautiful beach in front of us with not a soul on it. Everybody, children included, were immersed in the sea up to their necks. Obviously the health benefits of sea water were widely known. In we went with the rest of them and stayed for a long time.
Listening to the happy sounds we found ourselves always drawn to where Finnish was being spoken. Before long there was quite a crowd of Finns near a small inlet. We stayed contentedly late into the afternoon paddling in the warm- water. Nobody complained of the heat. I introduced Ensio to many a person as the man who had escaped from the heat of Bonegilla to come to the cool climate of Hobart.
Those who had wintered in Hobart assured him that in a few months he would need two jumpers. This news improved my reputation with Ensio no end. In the dusk of the evening we walked back to our rooms. The temperature had dropped to below 30. The temperature the next day barely reached 20.
Ensio’s face broke into a huge smile. A few days later he found himself suitable work. And accommodation was found in rental premises where several other Finnish families were already living. Two weeks later Enni arrived with five children in tow. They settled quickly into their accommodation. Together we waited for the arrival of my family from Finland.
© Raili Tanska