Spinifex and Sand/Part III/Chapter VII

Part III: Second Prospecting ExpeditionEdit

Chapter VII: Sale of MineEdit

During my convalescence in Perth, I occupied my time by drawing in the Government offices, a map, compiled from the various notes and journals I had kept during the prospecting expeditions in which I had been engaged. I also took the opportunity of getting some knowledge of astronomical subjects, likely to be of service in the more extended expedition I had in my mind. My thanks are due to Mr. Barlee, chief draughtsman, and Mr. Higgins, of the Mines Department, for the kindness they showed in helping me in this work.

It was not very long before I felt it was necessary to return to my duties at Lake Darlot. Timing my arrival in Coolgardie to coincide with that of Mr. Wilson from the mine, we met; and from him I was pleased to hear how well the claim was turning out.

Since it was not necessary for both of us to be on the spot, I took one of the camels, of which we now had five, and made all speed to a reported "new rush" near Lake Lefroy, that was causing much excitement. Knots of men could be seen in every corner of the town eagerly discussing the news; gold, to the tune of 30,000 ounces, was being brought in; was in the town; was actually in one of the banks! Many had seen it (or said so). Where was this Eldorado? Every man knew; every man had directions how to get there, from quite unimpeachable sources. It was actually in the local papers; indeed, there could be no doubt about it. I knew of course that all this must be discounted, but the matter was worth looking into, and I was fortunate to get the very latest information from one who was an old mate of the supposed lucky digger. I found my travelling companion had equally well authenticated information. On comparing notes we soon discovered that our directions were entirely at variance.

To make a long story short, we at length found that, like hundreds of others, we had been fooled, and that the whole thing was bogus. The diggers' indignation was righteously intense, the office of the offending newspaper was attacked, and much damage narrowly averted. One unfortunate man, on whom fell the wrath of the crowd, returning from the supposed rush, lied profusely when "in drink," said that he had found the spot, that hundreds of men were gleaning rich gold in fabulous quantities, that the world had never seen so wonderful a find, that gold would soon be as cheap as lead in the market — in fact told a thousand and one similar fairy tales, engendered by whisky and excitement. When sober he foolishly stuck to what he had said; and, in consequence, was sent by the diggers, under escort, to point out the spot, which of course he could not find. His reception in Coolgardie may be imagined! Doubtless on the Western goldfields of America, "lynching" would have been his portion. Even in order-loving Australia he might have had an unpleasant time, had not Mr. Finnerty, the popular Warden, quelled the turmoil, and placed the offender under Police protection. For want of the real article, a well-attended procession burnt this idiot's effigy, and thus the great rush ended.

It was supposed by some, if I remember rightly, that the fire which gutted nearly half the town had its origin in this effigy-burning. What a blaze that was to be sure! Tents, shanties, houses of hessian, shops of corrugated iron and wood, offices, hotels, and banks, consumed in one sheet of flame in a matter of half an hour or so, the blaze accompanied by explosions of dynamite caps, kerosene, and cartridges. Nothing could be done to stay its fury. To save the town, houses were demolished, to form wide gaps across which the flames could not reach. It was the general impression that corrugated iron was more or less fireproof. However, it burnt like cardboard. Ruinous to some as the early fires were, they benefited the general community, as more substantial buildings were erected, and hessian shanties forbidden.

After a good deal of unpleasant business over the mine at Lake Darlot, which the syndicate wished to abandon, for reasons best known to themselves, I was at length on the road for that district, with the agreeable news that our mine was for sale, and would soon be off our hands.

I had a rather more enjoyable journey than my previous one, for not only was I free from fever, and the mine in a fair way to being sold, but winter had changed the face of the bush from dull dead yellow to bright smiling green, dotted here and there with patches of white and pink everlastings. One could hardly believe it was the same country. Instead of the intense heat a bright warm sun dissipated the keen and frosty air of early morning, while the hoar-frost at night made one glad of a good possum rug to coil oneself up in. I did not envy the cyclists, for sometimes, failing to hit off a camp on the road, they had perforce to make the best of a fire as a substitute for a blanket, and to be content with a hungry stomach, in place of having a meal.

Before the erection of telegraph wires, which now connect all the more important mining towns, cyclists made good money by carrying special messages from Coolgardie to the outlying districts. Except where the sand was deep they had a good track, well-beaten by the flat pads of camels, and could do their hundred miles a day at a push. Travelling at express rate, they were unable to carry blankets or provisions except of the scantiest description, and took their chance of hitting off the camp of some wayfarer, who would always be ready to show what hospitality he could, to messengers of so much importance. To have to part with one of your blankets on a cold night for the benefit of another traveller, is one of the severest exercises of self denial.

These little kindly services are always rendered, for a man in the bush who would not show courtesy and hospitality to a fellow-wayfarer is rightly considered a cur. No matter what time one strikes a man's camp, his first thought, whether for stranger or friend, is to put on the "billy" and make a pot of tea.

Arrived at Lake Darlot, I found work being carried on well and with energy, as could not fail to be the case where Dave Wilson was concerned. Poor Jim and Paddy had had hard times, before Wilson arrived, to make the provisions last out. Nevertheless they had worked away on the reef without complaint, while others around them were waxing rich on the alluvial.

The population had increased to some two thousand men during my absence: two thousand men working and living in order and peace, with no police or officials of any kind within two hundred miles — a state of affairs of which we may justly be proud.

Evil-doing, however, was not entirely absent, and occasional cases of robbery of gold, or pilfering of tents occurred; the offenders in such cases were usually caught and summarily dealt with.

A "roll up" would be called, and those who cared to put themselves forward, would form judge, jury, police, and all. The general verdict was notice to quit within so many hours — an order that few would dare to neglect. A case in which this did happen occurred at Kurnalpi when a man was caught passing bad notes in the "Sunday School." He refused to budge, and, seeing that he was a great giant with the reputation of being the roughest and hardest fighter in the country, the question arose who should "bell the cat." The man who had been swindled was a stranger, and unwilling to fight his own battle; who, therefore, would volunteer to get a sound hammering from one of the toughest blackguards in Australia.

The "roll up" slowly dispersed, every man muttering that it was not his business, and that, after all, passing a "stiff 'un" on to a new chum was no great crime as compared to stealing gold or robbing a camp. In this I think they showed sound judgment. The prize-fighting gent, however, became too bumptious, and was eventually hustled out of the place.

Our camp at Lake Darlot was rather pleasantly situated on rising ground by the side of the blow; behind us, sheer cliffs of conglomerate, worn and weathered into queer little caves, the floors of which were covered inches deep by the droppings of bats and small wallabies; and, stretching away to the South, an open plain enclosed in an endless sea of scrub. Every morning we witnessed the strange phenomenon of a lake appearing in the sky to the South, miles away, above the scrub, a lake surrounded by steep white cliffs. This mirage would last perhaps half an hour, and was, I suppose, a reflection of Lake Darlot, which lay at the back of us, some five miles distant to the North.

Our camp consisted of the usual tents and bough-shades and for the first, and probably the only, time in our lives we cooked our pots on a golden fireplace. To protect the fire from the wind, so that a good pile of ashes should collect for baking purposes, we had made a semicircular wall of stones. The nearest available stones, quartz boulders from the blow, were used, and so it came about that we had a gold-studded fireplace! We used to have a curious visitor from the caves — a small black cat, which was tame enough to wander between our legs as we sat round the fire, but too wary to be caught. I can hardly imagine a prospector carrying a cat as companion, and yet how else did it get there? Its shyness inclined us to think it had strayed from civilisation. Jim tried to catch it one evening, and not only got scratched and bitten for his trouble, but so startled the beast that it never returned. Our party was now increased to five; for an extra hand, Alfred Morris, had been engaged. Between us the duties of the day's work were divided.

Our daily labours included hunting up the camels, lest they strayed or were stolen, cutting timber for mining or firewood, packing water from the rocks five miles away, and working on the mine.

I had occasion to make a journey to Lawlers, where a Warden, Mr. Clifton, had lately been established, and I mention here an illustration of one of the many intelligent traits in the character of camels.

Not wishing to follow the road in its many turns from water to water, I cut through the bush for some fifty miles. The first part was over hard, stony ground, then came sand, then more stones, and then I struck the road again about two miles from Lawlers. I stayed there two or three days, intending to return on my tracks. Wishing to test the intelligence of my camel Satan I allowed him a free rein, either to keep on the track or turn off for a short cut. As soon as we came to the spot where we had first struck the road, he turned into the bush without hesitation with his nose for home. After some eight miles of stones, on which I could distinguish no trail, we came to the sand, and at once I could see our former tracks right ahead, which little Satan had followed with the precision of a black-fellow.

In repassing old camping-places on the road, camels will often stop, and look surprised if made to go further. They have, too, an excellent idea of time, and know very well when the day's march should come to an end. With what sad reproof they look at one with their great, brown eyes, that say, as plainly as eyes can speak, "What! going on? I am SO tired." I fancy the reason that camels are so often described as stupid and vicious, and so forth, is that they are seen, as a rule, in large mobs under the care of Indian or other black drivers, whose carelessness and cruelty (so far as my experience goes) are unspeakable. For that reason I never have had an Afghan driver in my employ, nor can I see any advantage in employing one, unless it be on the score of cheapness. Camels are infinitely better managed and treated by white men — of course, I speak within my own knowledge of Australia — and in consequence their characters develop, and they are properly appreciated.

In due course the expected inspecting engineer came to see our mine, and, as he had several reports to make, we had the pleasure of his company at our camp, and very glad we were to do what we could for such a fine specimen of an expert and gentleman as Mr. Edward Hooper. He was satisfied with what he saw — indeed, he could hardly have been otherwise at that period of the mine's existence; and on our arrival in Cue, wither we had travelled part of the way together, a bargain was struck, and before many days Jim and I returned with the glad tidings that the mine was sold, and would be taken over forthwith.

The road from Cue was as uninteresting as all others on the goldfields — miles of flat, sandy soil covered with dense scrub, an occasional open plain of grass and saltbush round the foot of the breakaways, and cliffs that are pretty frequently met with. Travellers on this road had been kept lively by a band of marauding black-fellows, most of whom had "done time" at Rotnest Jail for cattle-spearing, probably, on the coast stations. Having learnt the value of white-fellows' food, they took to the road, and were continually bailing up lonely swagmen, who were forced to give up their provisions or be knocked on the head, since hardly any carried firearms. The finest prize that they captured was a loaded camel, which in some extraordinary way had got adrift from the end of a large caravan, and wandered into the scrub. The Afghans, when they had perceived their loss, tracked up the camel, only to find it dying in agony, with its knees chopped nearly two. This was Jacky-Jacky's way of putting the poor beast down to be unloaded. Happily, after a Warden was appointed at Lawlers, a trooper was sent out, who broke up the gang and captured most of them, at the expense of the life of one black tracker.

One of these thieves paid our camp a visit, but the sight of a rifle, combined with a smart blow on the shins with a stick, quite satisfied him that he had come to the wrong place.

Returned to Lake Darlot, we impatiently awaited the arrival of those who were to take over the mine from us. At last they came, and it only remained to pack up our traps, take the road to Coolgardie, and finish up all business connected with the syndicate. There we parted, Conley and Egan leaving with their shares; and with regret on both sides I think, that our ways no longer lay together: for months of close companionship in the bush, facing hardships and sometimes mutual dangers, make a close tie of friendship between men, that is not easily broken.

File:Spinifex and Sand Illustration 12.jpg
Miner's Right [Missing image]

Wishing to pay a visit to the old country, and yet not caring to part with the camels which had been my property for some months past, and of which I was very fond, we formed a syndicate, composed of Dave Wilson, Charles Stansmore, and Alfred Morris, who found the money, and myself, who found the camels, the profits of the venture, if any arose, to be divided in a proportion agreed upon. I could depart, therefore, with the satisfactory feeling of knowing that my faithful animal-friends would be well cared for.

Shares were rising, the mine was sold, and the work done, and it was with a light heart that I booked passage for London in October, 1895.