Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 6/Out of the world - Part 1



In these latter days of southern exploration and discovery, I know not if adventures of twenty years since will be found sufficiently attractive to meet with attention from a public well nigh satiated with accounts by every mail of fresh gold discoveries, and who are accustomed to read of undertakings in our Australian colonies involving consequences of vast magnitude and moment.

Several of the early years of my manhood were spent in the bush of the great island-continent. It has not been my lot to be

"Ever reclining on the bank of life,
Ne'er wrestling with its flood."

Let me, however, at once assure the reader that in all my wanderings I never found one grain of native gold, and that however vividly certain incidents of my bush life are impressed upon my memory now, this cannot be caused by any importance I attached to them at the period of their occurrence. It was quite as much a matter of course for me then to sleep under a gum-tree as it is now to seek repose in my bed. After this open confession, no very thrilling adventures or hair-breadth escapes must be looked for in the following pages. In a few words, I am not a "sensation" writer, for I trust entirely to a literal adherence to facts, clothed, too, in homely language, to secure attention to what follows.

I simply purpose to give an account of a six months' residence—sometimes alone—on French Island, one of two islands, the other and seaward one being Phillip Island, situated in the Bay of Western Port, on the southern coast of Australia. I was a sort of Robinson Crusoe on a small scale, without the excitement of the wreck or the advantages of having a Man Friday; and should the personal pronoun be used rather freely in some portions of this narrative, let me plead the necessities of the case, for how with any propriety could a solitary man on a desolate island write of himself as we?

French Island was and still is uninhabited. It is of considerable extent, having a most uninteresting muddy coast studded with mangroves-trees usually found growing in perfection on mudflats over which the tide flows,—and it was with these same mangroves that my business lay. But of that by and by. Thrusting your boat between these formidable obstacles, you reach a belt of low marshy country intersected by knee-deep creeks of salt water, and extending some quarter of a mile inland. Then succeed undulating sand-hills producing coarse grass, dwarf myrtles, and tea-trees, but otherwise lightly timbered. A high range in the distance forms as it were the backbone of the island, which derived its name from having been visited by a French expedition many years ago. Although I thoroughly explored all its penetrable parts in the years 1842-3, I never discovered any evidence of a settlement having been attempted on its shores. Nevertheless the account of a French invasion is authentic. There was little to be got there, and probably our gallant allies made but a short stay. At all events, I never noticed any old marks on the trees, felled timber, or broken bottles.[1] The most notable of its natural productions were aquatic birds, snakes, rats, mosquitos, and sand-flies.

It was to this uninviting locality that my friend S—— and I betook ourselves for the modest purpose of making our fortunes by the manufacture of barilla, an article then largely used and of considerable commercial value.[2]

The modus operandi was primitive enough. The mangrove is a tree growing from eight to twelve feet high, with clumsy branches protruding at irregular intervals from a thick, crooked, gnarled stock. When burnt, the ashes of these trees become the barilla of commerce. Oh, that I had preserved the elaborate calculations which poor S—— and I made to convince each other that nothing short of death or the submersion of the island could prevent our becoming wealthy men before many years had passed over our heads! As I remember, our reasoning was in this wise. Here, we said, are unlimited supplies of the raw material, and turning it into money was simply a question of hard work and perseverance. The only doubt we had was whether we should retire upon forty, sixty, or one hundred thousand pounds. We settled at last that one hundred thousand pounds was the most convenient and respectable sum. S—— was to have pocketed one half, and I the other. I may as well state at once that a mistake must have crept into our calculations, for on my voyage back to England a few years afterwards, on leaving Rio Janeiro, where our ship touched for water, I found myself with a solitary Brazilian coin in my pocket. I think it was called a dump, and represented a thousand somethings, but I am quite sure it was of copper and not altogether unlike one of those fat pennies of George III., now happily nearly all withdrawn from circulation.

The manner in which we reached the island I will now relate. A settler on the main, named J——, the proprietor of a large cattle station, kindly lent us one of his two boats. It is true she had a bad reputation, inasmuch as she had caused the death of more than one person, by reason of a knack she had, unless delicately handled, of turning bottom upwards. She bore the ominous name of "the Coffin." It was in this frail craft we ventured our lives and fortunes, and sailed from Tobinyallock creek on the evening of a cold July day.

The means at our disposal, with which we purposed combating all kinds of adverse circumstances, and erecting our fortunes in spite of them, were as follows:—Imprimis, two light hearts; the clothes in which we stood, six axes, a crosscut-saw, a spade, auger, hammer, six files, a bottle of brandy labelled "poison," in case it should fall into unscrupulous hands, a five-gallon water-keg, two pairs of blankets, a rifle, a double-barreled gun, powder and shot, a frying-pan, and a few nails. We also had a three months' supply of the usual bush provisions, viz., tea, sugar, flour, salt-beef, soap, &c., &c. Two shirts, and a portion of another, a night-cap, no socks, and no stockings comprised the whole of our spare wardrobe. S—— always slept in a nightcap, he said it reminded him so of Old England. By the bye, I must not forget to mention here a pair of canvas trousers, which we were eventually compelled to apply to a novel purpose, for the rats became so bold, as our stores diminished, that we had the greatest difficulty to preserve them from their attacks. We bothered them, however, at last, and I shall trust to my pencil to inform the reader by what expedient we did so.

Our literature consisted of a Bible, the complete works of one Mr. William Shakspere, "The Course of Time," a poem, and sundry wrappings of old colonial newspapers, the bulk of the intelligence they contained being conveyed in the form of advertisements. With this well-assorted cargo we found ourselves, at nightfall of a cold mid-winter day, under a bluff on the main land, opposite French Island, a sand-spit of which presented its nearest point. On the crown of the bluff, my friend, and every man's friend but his own, M—— had erected his hut. He was the best rider in the whole district, and truth compels me to add that whenever he could lay himself alongside a rum barrel, he drank even harder than he rode. His heart, poor fellow, until it ceased beating, was in the right place, though his elbow, whenever he was near liquor, never was. He would make nothing of riding fifteen miles or so to a neighbour's, on the chance of finding strong drink. Well, we hauled up our boat, presented ourselves at his hut, and met with the usual bush welcome. We talked over our plans, and devised a code of signals with our friend. In case anything happened to us of a really serious nature, such as our boat becoming disabled or lost, sudden illness, or the like, three fires were to be lit on the sand-spit opposite his hut, when he promised to reply to them, ride over to J——'s, nine miles off, and come across in his remaining boat. Two fires meant that we wanted help, but not so urgently; and one was to be regarded as a sort of general invitation, and that we should be glad of a visit when convenient. In case, however, any vessel put into the bay, and by some stroke of unexpected and improbable good fortune we obtained a supply of liquor, then there was to be no mistake at all about it, we were to set fire to the island, and if he could get hold of anything in the shape of a boat that would float, he would paddle across. So we all shook down for the night on the floor of the hut, kept quite dark about the brandy-bottle, enjoyed refreshing sleep, and awoke on the morning of a squally and disagreeable day. There was a nasty lop of a sea up, and "The Coffin" would not stand any nonsense; but the distance to Sandy Point was under three miles, and we thought to slip across between the squalls, and creep up under the shore to our intended location. We were not, however, allowed to leave until towards evening, when we took advantage of a lull, and stood for the Point. The boat had reached about mid-channel when the wind died away, and we got out the oars, leaving the sail standing. Presently a squall came sweeping up the bay, and we had just time to make everything snug, when with a shriek and a whistle, we found ourselves fizzing over the water on a sheet of foam. I use the word "fizzing" advisedly, for I know of no other which expresses my meaning so clearly. We were, as it seems to me now, on a sea of ginger-beer, and were nearly blinded with foam. Our boat, with her wonted crankiness, took advantage of every opportunity to roll gunwale under, but we kept her well before the wind, and although she shipped more water than was pleasant, on the whole we were not disposed to find fault with her performance. After we had run some six miles out of our course the squall abated, and although wet to the skin, at all events we were right side uppermost. "The Coffin" was not so bad a sea-boat after all! She wanted baling, though, for the water had penetrated into the locker, and damaged the provisions; to what extent we could not then ascertain, but when consuming them I recollect they had a disagreeable salty flavour, and that our sugar was transformed into treacle.

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Soon the stars shone out brightly, the wind shifted off the land, and a gentle breeze laden with the aroma of myrtle and mimosa wafted us under the shores of French Island. We determined to take advantage of the first practicable opening in the mangroves and to land at once. Fortunately it was high water, and finding a convenient spot, with a little careful piloting and a few hearty strokes of the oars, we were soon high and dry on the muddy beach. After securing the boat, we set to work and gathered a pile of drift wood and withered grass. A cheerful blaze soon lighted up the landscape. We were only too glad to dry ourselves, "all standing," becoming for the time animated clothes-horses. The light of the fire, however, revealed the fact that we had not been altogether fortunate in pitching upon that particular spot, for it was very low ground, and long lines of sea-weed showed that during spring tides it was partially covered with water. A sand hill at no great distance, to which in case of necessity we might retreat, relieved our minds on this score. An inviting hillock nearer seemed formed by nature for our accommodation, and having taken from our stores such as we needed for the night's consumption, we made everything comfortable and pitched our camp. We rigged up the sail with the mast and oars, and were soon on the broad of our backs, with the Southern Cross overhead, smoking and making light of our mischances. Oh, for the buoyant heart again of one-and-twenty, when there was no such word as hardship in our dictionary, and enough afforded us more satisfaction than all the superfluities of after years.

"Man never is, but always to be blessed."

Supper time came, so a "sticker-up" of salt beef was soon spluttering over the flames, some leather jackets, cakes made of flour and water, baking in the ashes, and a pot of tea bubbled away merrily alongside. I was giving S—— an account of the island so far as my explorations had extended,—for I had been on it several times previously,—and had just informed him that for mosquitos, sand-flies, rats, and snakes, it beat all nature, when he gave a sudden shriek, hopped about on one leg, and rubbed the other violently. I looked for the snake, and great was my relief to notice several large red ants—"soldiers," in colonial par1ance—performing a quick march up his trousers, and evidently bent on mischief. And no wonder, for the hillock we had pitched on was nothing but a huge anthill or barracks, and the regulars and volunteers were rushing out in myriads. By the time S—— had somewhat recovered his equanimity, I too had received a share of their attention. I never had a red hot darning needle thrust into my flesh, but I imagine it must be very like a sting from one of these pests. The pain for the moment is intense, but happily it soon wears off, and is seldom followed by any ill effects. A million or so to two, however, is rather long odds; so holding discretion to be the better part of valour, we fairly ran away, lit another fire, destroyed the dozen or two of ants which still clung pertinaciously to our clothes, and after giving our enemies time to return to their quarters, formed ourselves into a foraging party, advanced, seized the several delicacies comprising our supper, and retired in good order, dragging with us the temporary shelter we had erected, first making a breach in the citadel with one of the oars. It did not take us long to sup, erect a fresh quamby, roll ourselves in our blankets on the soft, peaty ground—the very idea of such a thing now gives one the rheumatism—and wander away into the land of dreams. Towards morning we were awakened by a beating of the water off the shore, as by paddle wheels, and a flock of black swans, some five hundred strong, rose from the bay, and with outstretched necks flew over our heads, emitting their plaintive cry. In native language the swan was called "Cournawarra," a designation evidently derived from its note; so the crow was i named "Wāng," the Menura superba of naturalists, or native pheasant, "Bullen-bullen, and a bird known to the colonists as the More-pork, "Whuck-whuck." As day broke, the flight of swans, ducks, pelicans and cranes became for a time incessant. They all headed up the bay, and we let them go, for powder and shot was to us as gold and silver.

And now we heard in the gum-tree forest hard by, the first chuckling notes of a bird, sometimes called "The Settler's Clock," but more appropriately the Laughing Jackass. The early bird of Australia does not catch the worm, but turns his attention to snakes. There, of all the feathered tribes, the Laughing Jackass is the first abroad, if we except a few dissipated varieties which turn night into day, and go to roost when all decent, well-conducted birds are thinking of turning out to look after their breakfasts. Many causes tend to render the Jackass a favourite with bushmen; first there are his snake-destroying habits, then he is a punctual time keeper; but perhaps the quality of all others for which he is held in especial favour, is his mirth-moving notes.

As the first blush of sunlight was bringing out in strong relief the straggling branches of the gum-trees, near us, we could distinguish on the bare boughs, several uncouth~looking creatures, with beaks out of all proportion to the size of their bodies. One after another they leisurely stretched their legs and wings alternately, and a sound as of subdued laughter fell on our ears, repeated again and again at short intervals, for all the world like a party of old gentlemen enjoying a racy joke over their wine. By-and-by one, unable longer to control his risible propensities, burst out into a side-splitting peal, which made the old woods ring again. Other old gentlemen, many of them suffering from asthma, seemed suddenly to comprehend the joke, and joined in chorus. So the fun grew fast and furious, until we were constrained to add our shouts of laughter to the general uproar. Whether the presence of strangers was disagreeable, or the leader of the assembly was struck with apoplexy, we never clearly made out, but in a moment the mirth subsided, and a dead silence ensued.

By this time the morning had unfolded, and the sun shone in his splendour from a sky without a cloud. Our first business. after breakfast, was to look about us for a convenient locality for the erection of a hut. After a fatiguing tramp-for the ground was spongy where it was not muddy, and exceedingly difficult to get over—we came to a spot about four miles from Sandy Point, which bid fair to suit our purpose. The forest approached nearer to the bay than usual, and there was a good supply of straight tea-tree polls growing at hand. More important still, every appearance indicated a supply of fresh water without having to sink very deeply for it. This was of course the first consideration, so we erected a landmark by flying a piece of white rag from the bough of a tree, and returned for the boat. Having brought her round—catching a few fish, schnappers and flat-heads, by the way, we came in on the top of the tide, and very soon transferred all our valuables to the spot on which we purposed building, thus reversing the order of things in this old-fashioned country where furniture and stores are usually brought to the house, not the house to them. Having first protected our goods from all accidents likely to befal, we set to work well-sinking. The base of a sand-hill, about four hundred yards from the stores, appeared the most promising spot, and at about six feet from the surface a small puddle of water appeared. Hurrah! it was sweet and good, though rather gritty just then. I had commenced a spell with the spade in order to make good another foot in depth, when, in the most insidious manner in the world, the bottom of the hole gradually contracted. and held my legs as if in a vice, and presently I found myself up to the middle in quicksand, and utterly helpless, so far as being able, unassisted, to extricate myself from the dilemma. For some minutes S—— could not help me for laughing, and when he did, and by our united exertions, I was again on terra firma, my only pair of boots were left behind, and there they remained for the night. During the succeeding day, however, all these disasters were remedied—the boots were recovered—we completed the well after another cave in, and it bid fair to render us an ample supply of water for the present. True, it was the rainy season, and as summer advanced we might find ourselves deficient, but bushmen are not given to meet difficulties half way. We had enough and to spare for the present, so we thanked God for that, and trusted to Him and to our own right arms for the future.

Will the reader pardon me for enlarging on the seemingly trivial occurrences with which I have hitherto endeavoured to engage his attention? Desiring to give a general idea of life on a solitary island, these are but the first little touches in the picture, which I hope to set before him as a whole.

G. H. H.

  1. By the bye, the broken bottles are rather a peculiarity of British than of French colonisation.
  2. An alkali, an impure carbonate of soda, used in making glass and soap, in bleaching linen, and for other purposes.