19 August 2022

What do you get when you honour the Queen, country and wombat? Gold, pure gold

| Sally Hopman
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Wombat on coin

Mothball the wombat, complete with carrot, shines on the front of the new 20-cent coin to mark the 20th anniversary of the classic Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French. Photo: Royal Australian Mint.

Turns out being the naughtiest wombat in Australia pays off – literally.

Mothball the wombat, known more for her grump than her social skills, was the star attraction on Thursday, in spirit at least, when the Royal Australian Mint launched a 20-cent coin to mark the 20th anniversary of the favourite Australian children’s book, Diary of a Wombat, written by Jackie French and illustrated by Bruce Whatley.

“Mothball would have loved it,” Ms French said from her home at Araluen after the coin’s launch at the Mint.

“I can just imagine her stalking around the floor, looking for carrots.”

Ms French, who describes herself as an author, historian, ecologist and part-time wombat, has been living and writing about the animals of the Araluen Valley, near Braidwood, for more than 50 years. She has written more than 200 books, almost all of which feature wombats and has known about 400 animals and been the “almost immediate slave” to about a dozen of them.

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But having one of her favourites, Mothball, on a coin with the Queen, is about as good – and quintessentially Australian – as it gets.

“Although this project has been a while in the making, I only saw the coin for the first time today,” she said on Thursday (18 August).

“And I really think they did Mothball justice.

“The wonderful thing is that it should be incongruous to have a very dutiful Queen on one side of a coin and a stroppy wombat on the other, but it’s not. Of course, it’s the wombat who faces the front of the coin and the Queen is almost invisible – and that’s absolutely appropriate – as far as a wombat is concerned.”

Ms French said one of her favourite memories of Mothball was many years ago when she held an open garden at her Araluen sanctuary where she makes a home for just about any animal that needs one.

Jackie French in front of greenery

Araluen author Jackie French said Mothball the wombat would have been pleased to be represented on a coin – but would have been even happier with carrots. Photo: Supplied.

She said there were about 120 people there, and the event had been going for a while when she saw Mothball come out of her hole and straight across to the marquee – and all the humans who had infiltrated her territory.

“I remember how she looked at me with absolute incredulity, as if asking how I could have let all these humans into her territory. She was such an affronted wombat. She kept stalking me, would not leave me alone, continuing to be affronted.”

Was she ever forgiven? Yes, but it took a lot of carrots.

Ms French said she hopes her books and the new coin help people understand more about wombats.

“You just can’t not grin when you see one,” she said.

“That’s what I hope my books do, bring joy, comfort, tolerance – and a love for wombats.”

Although Mothball died in 2012, her legend lives on, literally quite sharply, with her granddaughter, Wild Whiskers, who lives in the burrow Mothball dug – under Ms French’s bedroom.

“When I go out, Whiskers is usually lurking behind me, waiting to bite. But I reckon she only bites because she’s fond of me. She doesn’t know that her teeth can actually go through human skin.”

Diary of a Wombat book

The 20th-anniversary edition of the Australian classic, Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French is now available – complete with a freshly minted 20-cent coin. Photo: Royal Australian Mint.

But even Wild Whiskers was brought to heel during the horror bushfires, when hundreds of animals, from wombats to quolls to wallabies, made their way to Ms French’s garden for sanctuary – and the food and water bowls.

“We had so many animals sheltering here, but I will never forget this one, tiny emaciated wombat that almost got over to the water station we had set up. I couldn’t see very far in front of me because of all the smoke, but I’ll never forget seeing this little one. She eventually got to the station, and I watched as all the other animals moved back so she could stagger over to the food and water.

“Even Whiskers moved for her. It was the most moving thing I’d seen in my life.”

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For Ms French, be it a coin, one of her books or a talk she gives to children about why we should respect our wildlife, it all matters.

Chief Executive Officer of the Mint, Leigh Gordon, said: “The Royal Australian Mint has a long history of celebrating classic Australian children’s literature on coins. Diary of a Wombat is a timeless book that has been enjoyed by Australians for 20 years. This special coin will resonate with generations of Australians and will be treasured for years to come.”

The Diary of a Wombat coin program is the second developed in partnership with the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA). Released to coincide with the CBCA’s annual Book Week, the coin program helps promote reading in schools and libraries across Australia.

The coins and anniversary copies of Diary of a Wombat are available from the Royal Australian Mint.

Read more about Jackie French’s life, work and wombats on her website.

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