Spinifex and Sand/Part III/Chapter I

Part III: Second Prospecting ExpeditionEdit

Chapter I: The Joys of Portable CondensersEdit

November 8, 1894, was a red-letter day in the history of Coolgardie, for on that date the foundation-stone of the first brick building was laid by Mr. James Shaw, the mayor. Under the stone was deposited a specimen of each coin of the realm, and these, by the way, were purloined in the night. This great day was made the occasion for feasting and jubilation, the feasting taking the not uncommon form of a gigantic "Champagne Spree," to which the whole town was invited.

When once a wave of inebriety swept over the settlement, something a little out of the ordinary was likely to occur. Fights and rows would be started with the most bloodthirsty intentions, only to end in peace and harmony after the swearing of eternal friendships. A good fight in Coolgardie in those days would attract as much attention as a cab accident in the streets of London. The well-known cry of "A fight! a fight!" would bring the greater part of the population from their dwellings — from stores, banks, offices, bars, an excited and rushing crowd would hurry to the scene of the fray, all eager to witness a good row; they were not, as a rule, disappointed, for, as one fight usually breeds several, a fair afternoon's or morning's entertainment could be safely counted on. A mining community must have excitement; even a dog-fight would command a considerable amount of interest.

File:Spinifex and Sand Illustration 9.jpg
Bayley Street, Coolgardia, 1894 [Missing image]

On the celebrated night of the laying of the foundation stone I had the pleasure of witnessing a rough-and-tumble fight between two of the most powerful men in Coolgardie. The excitement was intense as one seized his antagonist, and, using him as a flail, proceeded to clear the room with him; he retaliated by overpowering the other man, and finally breaking his leg as they fell heavily together out through the door on to the hard street beyond. How much ill-feeling this little incident engendered may be judged from the fact that the maimed man was employed by his late adversary as clerk until his limb mended, and subsequently held the billet for many months.

It was my misfortune to be engaged in organising a prospecting expedition at this time — misfortune, because of the impossibility of getting any one to attend to business. Camels had to be bought, and provisions and equipment attended to. A syndicate had engaged my services and those of my two companions whom I had chosen in Perth: Jim Conley, a fine, sturdy American from Kentucky, the one; and Paddy Egan, an Irish-Victorian, the other. Both had been some time on the fields, and Conley had had previous experience in South Africa and on the Yukon, where he had negotiated the now famous Chilcoot Pass without realising that it was the tremendous feat that present-day travellers represent it to be.

There are few men more entertaining than diggers, when one can get them to talk; there is hardly a corner of the habitable globe to which they have not penetrated. Round a camp-fire one will hear tales of Africa, New Guinea, New Zealand, Australia, America from Alaska to the Horn, Madagascar, and other strange countries that would be a mine of information to a writer of books of adventure — tales told in the main with truth and accuracy, and in the quiet, unostentatious manner of the habitual digger to whom poverty, riches, and hardships come all in their turn as a matter of course.

Having chosen my mates, the next thing to be done was to procure beasts of burden. Of numerous camels submitted for inspection I took three, which were subsequently christened "Czar," "Satan," and "Misery" respectively; the first from his noble and king-like mien, the second from his wild and exceedingly unpleasant habit of kicking and striking — habits due not to vice but to the nervousness of youth — and the third from his plaintive remonstrances and sad-eyed looks of reproach as his saddle and load were placed on his back.

The price of a good pack-camel then varied from 60 pounds to 80 pounds — and such prices as 100 pounds to 130 pounds were given for first-class riding-camels. For South Australian-bred camels, the descendants of stock originally imported from India by Sir Thomas Elder some thirty years ago, a higher price was asked than for those brought into the Colony direct from Kurrachi; and rightly, for there can be no doubt but that in size, strength, and endurance, the camel of Australian birth is far ahead of his old-world cousin. Not only are Indian camels smaller and less fitted for the heavy work of the interior, but their liability, until acclimatised, to mange and other diseases makes them most undesirable acquisitions.

The near approach of midsummer, and the known scarcity of water, had induced me to include in my equipment a portable condenser, by means of which we should convert the brine of the salt lakes into water fit to drink. It seemed an excellent plan and so simple, for lakes abound — on the maps; and wherever a lake is, there, by digging, will water be found, and thus we should be independent of rock-holes and other precarious sources of supply. Plans so simple on paper do not always "pan out" as confidently expected and a more odious job, or one which entailed more hard work, than prospecting with condensers I have not had to undertake. "Prospecting" is generally taken to mean searching for gold. In Western Australia in the hot weather it resolves itself into a continual battle for water, with the very unlikely contingency that, in the hunt for a drink, one may fall up against a nugget of gold or a gold-bearing quartz reef.

On November 10th we made a start from Coolgardie, and, travelling along the Twenty-five Mile road for some fifteen miles, we branched off in an easterly direction, to try some country where I had previously found "colours" of gold, when journeying from Kurnalpi to the Twenty-five Mile. Finding that in the meantime others had been there and pegged out leases and claims, we passed on and set up our condensers on the "Wind and Water" lake, and began to get an inkling that our job was not to be of the pleasantest.

More than one hole six to fifteen feet deep had to be sunk before we struck any water. To lessen the labour we at first dug our shafts near the margin of the lake; this proving unsuccessful we were forced further and further out, until our efforts were rewarded by a plentiful supply, but alas! some three hundred yards from the shore. This necessitated the carrying of wood from the margin of the lake to the condensers. The boilers required constant attention day and night, the fires had to be stoked, and the water stored as it slowly trickled from the cooling tray. Thus the duties of the twenty-four hours consisted in chopping and carrying wood, watching the condensers, attending to the camels, occasionally sleeping and eating, and prospecting for gold in spare time. I think my readers will readily understand that it was hard indeed to find much time to devote to the proper object of the expedition, however willing we were to do so.

There were one or two others engaged on the same job at that lake, and from one party Czar sneaked a cheap drink by thrusting his head through the opening in the lid of a large two-hundred-gallon tank. His peculiar position was specially adapted to the administration of a sound beating, nor did the infuriated owner of the water fail to take advantage of the situation.

With our tanks filled and our camels watered, we set forth from the lake on November 21st, having prospected what country there was in its immediate neighbourhood. The heat was intense, and walking, out of training as we were, was dry work; our iron casks being new, gave a most unpleasant zinc taste to the water, which made us all feel sick. Unpleasant as this was, yet it served the useful purpose of checking the consumption of water. Our route lay past the "Broad Arrow" to a hill that I took to be Mount Yule, and from there almost due east to Giles' Pinnacles. Our camels were most troublesome; young, nervous, and unused to us or to each other, they would wander miles during the night, and give two of us a walk of three or four miles in the morning; before the day's work began. Two were not content with merely wandering, but persisted in going in one direction, the third in another.

One morning Conley and Egan were following their tracks each in a different quarter. I meanwhile climbed a neighbouring hill to spy out the land ahead, hoping to see the white glitter of a salt lake, for we were in likely country, ironstone blows, quartz, and diorite giving evidence of its probable auriferous nature; we were therefore anxious to find water to enable us to test it. On return to camp, after an absence of not more than half an hour, I was astonished to see it surrounded by the tracks of numerous "black-fellows." I guessed they had paid us a visit for no good purpose, and was hardly surprised when I found that they had not only stolen all our flour, but added insult to injury by scattering it about the ground. Not daring to leave the camp, lest in my absence they should return and take all our provisions, I was unable to follow the thieves, and had to wait in patience the return of the camels.

So far had they wandered in their hobbles, that by the time we were ready to start the blacks must have gained too great an advantage in distance to make it worth our while to follow them; nor, since they started off in the direction from which we had come, was it any use tracking them with the hope of getting water. So we pushed on eastwards, through open forest of gums, scrubs, and thickets, broken by occasional small plains of saltbush, seeing no signs of water or lake, when presently we entered a belt of sandy desert — rolling sandhills, spinifex-clad, with occasional thickets of mulga and mallee.

Monotonous work it was, dragging the wretched camels for eight to ten hours at a stretch, inciting them to fresh exertions by curses and beatings, kindness and caresses, in turn. In some respects a camel resembles a bullock; not only does he chew his cud, but he loves to be sworn at; no self-respecting ox will do an ounce of work until his driver has flung over him a cloud of the most lurid and hair-raising language. Now, a camel draws the line at blasphemy, but rejoices in the ordinary oaths and swear-words of every-day life in much the same way as a retriever. There is no animal more susceptible to kindness than a camel; but in a sandy sea of scrub with the blazing sun almost boiling the water, milk-like from zinc, in the tanks, loads dragged this way and that, boilers and pipes of condensers rolling, now forward, now back, eventually to slip clattering down, bearing camel and all to the ground — with these and other trials kindness was not in us.

Soon after sunset on the 27th, from the branches of a high gum tree we sighted the Pinnacles almost dead on our course; and late that night we reached the lake, and found to our joy a condenser already established, by means of which two men earned a precarious livelihood by selling water to travellers — for these lakes were on the direct track from Kurnalpi to the Mount Margaret district. Thus enabled to assuage the seven days' thirst of the camels forthwith, at the cost of a shilling per gallon, we lost no time in setting up our own plant, and were fortunate in finding water and wood easy of access. The next four days were spent in prospecting the surrounding country, but no gold rewarded our efforts, though numerous reefs and blows of quartz were to be seen in the hills which the lake nearly surrounds.

Whilst camped here, I took the opportunity of breaking in Satan as a riding-camel, and found him at first a most untameable customer, trying all sorts of dodges to get the better of me. Twisting round his neck he would grab at my leg; then, rolling, he would unseat and endeavour to roll on me; finally tiring of these tricks he would gallop off at full speed, and run my leg against a tree, or do his best to sweep me off by an overhanging branch, until I felt satisfied that he had been rightly named. At last he realised that I was master, and after that I hardly remember one occasion on which he gave any trouble; for the three years that I afterwards possessed him, we were the best of friends, and he the most gentle and biddable of beasts. Alas! that I should have had to end his days with a bullet, and leave his bones to be picked by the dingoes of the Great Sandy Desert.

Failing to find any gold, and being in need of flour, we made south to Kurnalpi, through country flat and uninteresting, and arrived at that camp just in time to secure the last two bags of flour. The town was almost deserted, and had none of the lively and busy appearance that it presented when I had last seen it. All who saw us praised our equipment and forethought in having portable condensers. I am not quite sure that we agreed with them.

Hearing that some promising country existed near Lake Roe, I decided to make for that place, and more particularly for a small rock-hole named Beri, at the west end of the lake. Very rough, stony hills covered with dense scrub surround Kurnalpi on the south; once across these, flat, open country of saltbush and samphire, rapidly changing into salt-swamp, made travelling easy; passing over another low range of diorite, from which we got an extensive view of Lake Lapage to the west and Lake Roe to the east, we reached Beri, hitting off the rock with so much accuracy that even Paddy Egan was surprised into praise of the compass. For some bushmen, be it known, can neither understand nor appreciate the use of a compass, and, being quite capable of finding their way back, are content to wander forth into the bush with no guide but the sun, taking no notes of the country, no record of their day's march, and making no observations to help either themselves or anybody else; unable to say where they have been, how they got there, or how they got home again. Some men have a natural instinct for direction, and I know some who could start, say from Coolgardie, to ride seventy miles east and return, then perhaps sixty to the north, and from that point ride across to their seventy-mile point with great ease and certainty, having no notion of the distance or point of the compass.

A good many prospectors, depending on their black-boys almost entirely, wander from one range of hills to another, dodge here and there for water, keep no count or reckoning, and only return by the help of their guide when the "tucker-bags" are empty; others make a practice of standing two sticks in the ground on camping at night, to remind them of the course they have travelled during the day and must resume in the morning. To such men as these a map or compass is useless and therefore of no value; and yet they are often spoken of by the ignorant as "best bushmen in Australia."

In my time I have seen and mixed with most prospectors in the West, and as far as my experience goes the best bushmen not only use the compass, but keep a reckoning, rough though it may be, of their day's travel. Such a man is Billy Frost, to quote a well-known name on the goldfields, a man who has had no chance to learn any of the rudiments of surveying, and who started life as a boundary rider on a cattle station. He has shown me a note-book in which he has jotted down directions and distances from water.

In mountainous country where landmarks are numerous the traveller may manage it; but no man could travel for any length of time without keeping some sort of reckoning, in a flat country like the interior of Western Australia, where for days together one sees no hill or rise, without before long becoming hopelessly lost.

Paddy Egan had been content to travel in this haphazard way, and it was long before he would acknowledge the benefits of a compass and map. That he could travel straight there was no gainsaying, for if, as I sometimes did, I pointed out our line and sent him ahead, he would go as straight as a die, with now and then a glance at the sun, and a slight alteration in his course to allow for its altered position, and require but little correction. Indeed, even when using a compass, one instinctively pays as much and more attention to the sun or the stars, as the case may be.

The rock-hole at Beri was dry, so we pushed on for Lake Roe, and, though we worked sinking holes until past midnight, and nearly the whole of the next day, we were unable to find water. It was only salt water we expected, but a stiff pipeclay, continuing to a depth too great for our limited means of sinking, baffled all our efforts. I followed the lake some six miles to the eastward, carrying a shovel and digging trial holes at intervals, but this pipeclay foiled me everywhere.

I do not know how far this lake runs east, and fancy its limits have never been laid down on the map; not that there is anything sufficiently inviting in its appearance — the usual flat expanse of mud, with banks of sand fringed with low straggling mallee and spinifex — to warrant further investigation.

Lake Roe having failed us, we turned on our tracks for the nearest point of Lake Lapage, some nine miles distant. Here we were more fortunate, and obtained a splendid supply of salt water at a depth of only three feet. Timber was not easily got — that would have been too much joy! It had to be carried nearly half a mile on our shoulders, for the camels, having travelled all day, deserved a rest. The condensers worked well, now that we had had some experience, and produced water at the rate of four gallons an hour. With our casks replenished and our camels filled, leaving the condenser standing, we turned south to some hills that were visible; we intended to be absent for four days, at the end of which the camels would again require water, as the weather was exceedingly hot.

Nothing of interest was met with until we came upon a huge wall-like reef, standing some fifteen or twenty feet above the ground, from ten to twenty feet wide, and running almost due north and south for nearly five miles, without a break of appreciable extent, as we subsequently found. Breaking the quartz at intervals, hoping at each blow of the pick to see the longed-for colours, we followed this curious natural wall, and finally camped, sheltered by it from the wind. A violent storm of dust, wind, thunder, and lightning swept over us that night, tearing the "fly" we had pitched, in the vain expectation of rain, into ribbons.

Leaving the others to continue prospecting, I turned my steps, or rather those of Satan, whom I was riding, towards Cowarna, a large granite rock, some fourteen miles distant, and due south from our camp, if I had reckoned our position on the map correctly. Twelve miles of open forest, alternating with scrubby thickets, brought me to the edge of a fine little plain of saltbush and grass, from the centre of which a bare rock of granite stood out. Arrived at the rock, I hunted long and diligently for water. Numerous rock-holes were to be seen, but all were dry, and my hopes of making this our base from which to prospect in various directions were at first short-lived; but before long I was overjoyed to hear the twittering of a little flock of Diamond sparrows — a nearly certain sign that water must be handy; and sure enough I found their supply at the bottom of a narrow, round hole, down which I could just stretch my arm.