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6 Jul 2018

The Garden’s oldest visitor tells her story

Eileen Kramer was born in 1914, and visited the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney recently to refamiliarize herself with a place that she remembers so fondly from her youth. Upon meeting her, she was such an interesting person with a rich history with the Gardens and some great stories to tell.

Eileen is a dancer, still performing, choreographing and making costumes at 103 years old. An original member of Australia's first modern dance company, the influential Bodenwieser Ballet. She has lived and danced everywhere from India to Paris, London and New York – but one of her favourite places is the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney.'

Eileen​ dancing with the Bodenwieser Dance Company c.1940 (on top)

She remembers 1937 to 1940 fondly, as she lived on Philip Street in Sydney’s CBD, and was a student of the Conservatorium of Music. During this time, she and her friend and then housemate Rosaleen Norton – the infamous artist known as the Witch of Kings Cross – would use the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney as their back garden, wandering down to spend time amongst the flowers. On Sundays she would visit the Domain to see the soap box speakers, such as wannabe politicians and health advisers, who would preach the important social issues of the time.

Eileen and the Time Travelling Tortoise

One of Eileen’s fondest memories are of the Garden’s Tortoise. Known in the Gardens as the ‘Time Travelling Tortoise’, the Garden’s Tortoise is an ancient individual who was originally given as gift from a merchant captain in 1872. She lived her life roaming the Gardens and welcoming members of the public who came through the gates.

Eileen and her boyfriend used to visit the Garden to see the Tortoise, who would stick out her neck to be scratched whilst they debated over her name. Eileen called her Tilly, whilst her boyfriend believed she was a boy and called her Fred. To this day, there was no known name for the tortoise, so Eileen may have indeed been correct.

This particular tortoise was a Yellow-foot tortoise (Geochelone denticulata) and was one of the last representatives of the Garden Zoo, which relocated in 1883. Even for a female, she was particularly large for her species. We can’t say what the exact age of the tortoise was, but she first arrived in 1872 and died in 1967, so she was at least 95 years old.

A regular visitor to the Garden feeds the animals (c.1926), with the tortoise pictured on the left

Returning to the magical land of Oz and the Garden

The first time Eileen saw the Bodenwiser dance company perform, she knew she wanted to be a dancer. From that moment on, Eileen travelled the world to dance, eventually settling in New York. It wasn’t until 2014, when she turned 100, that she decided to return to Australia. Her reasoning behind this was that she “wished to hear a Kookaburra again”, which was coincidently one of the first things she heard on her return.

She visited the Garden recently to refamiliarise herself with the place that she has such fond memories of and to visit the tortoise who is now preserved and on display in the Red Box Gallery.

The tortoise is now a family favourite on display in the Red Box Gallery

Eileen’s memories of the Garden and the tortoise will be part of an upcoming book Eileen is writing about her years at Phillip Street, telling the tales of her experiences in Sydney in the 20th Century. We thank Eileen for being such a fantastic part of the Gardens history and her visit.

If you would like more information about the history of the Gardens, then see our three-part blog series, or visit the Red Box Gallery and say hello to the Garden tortoise yourself.

Eileen​ visits an old friend
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