Spinifex and Sand/Part V/Chapter XII

Part V: The Outward JourneyEdit

Chapter XII: Helena SpringEdit

My native valley hath a thousand springs, but not to one of them shall I attach hereafter, such precious recollections as to this solitary fount, which bestows its liquid treasures where they are not only delightful, but nearly indispensable.

So spake Sir Kenneth of Scotland in "The Talisman."

Surely the Christian knight, dragging his way across the sands of Palestine, was not more pleased to reach the "Diamond of the Desert" than we were to light upon this charming little oasis, hidden away in the dreary solitude of the surrounding sandhills; the one spot of green on which one's eyes may rest with pleasure in all this naked wilderness. At the bottom of a hollow enclosed between two sand-ridges is a small surface outcrop of limestone of similar character to that in which Empress Spring is situated. In this is a little basin, nearly circular, about 2 feet 6 inches in diameter and 3 feet deep, with a capacity of about seventy gallons. This is the spring, fed at the bottom of the basin from some subterranean source by a narrow tunnel in the rock, a natural drain, not six inches in diameter. Through this passage, from the West, the water rises, filling the rocky basin, and evidently at some seasons bubbling over and filling the clay-pan which abuts on it on the Western side. On the East side of the spring is an open space of sand; surrounding it and the clay-pan is a luxuriant growth of pig-face — a finger-like plant, soft, squashy, and full of moisture, but salt; it is commonly seen on the margin of salt-lakes. Beyond the pig-face, tussocks of grass and buck-bush, beyond that again a mass of ti-tree scrub extending to the foot of the sandhills. On the inner slopes of these can be seen the crowning glory of the spot viz., an abundance of splendid green thistle (Trichodesma zeylanicum), tall and juicy, growing amongst acacia and other bushes. Outside this, beyond this area of perhaps four hundred yards in diameter, stretching away to the horizon, ridge upon ridge of desolate sand, black and begrimed by the ashes of recently burnt spinifex, from which the charred stumps of occasional gum trees point branchless to the sky. What chance of finding such a place without the help of those natives to whom alone its existence was known?

The winds and storms of past years had filled in the basin with sand and leaves, and except for the extraordinary freshness and abundance of vegetation around it, its peculiar situation, and the absence of the usual accompaniments to rock-holes, such as heaps of sticks and stones which, having served their purpose of protecting the water from evaporation, have been removed and thrown aside by the natives, there was nothing at first sight to lead one to suppose that any further supply existed than was visible in this natural reservoir. This small amount soon vanished down the throats of the thirsty camels; it was then that, having cleared out the sand and leaves, we discovered the small passage through which the spring rises. By continual baling until all the camels were satisfied (and of this splendid spring water they drank a more than ordinary amount) we kept the water back to the mouth of the passage. Within an hour or so of the watering of the last camel, the hole was again full to the brim, of the most crystal-clear water. How we revelled in it! What baths we had — the first since we left Woodhouse Lagoon over seven weeks back! What a joy this was, those only can understand who, like us, have been for weeks with no better wash than a mouthful of water squirted into the hands and so rubbed over the face. Whenever possible Godfrey, who made our damper (bread), washed his hands in the corner of a dish, which was used by each in turn afterwards — and at our work in the wells, a certain amount of dirt was washed off. But to splash about with an unlimited number of buckets of water ready to hand, to be got by the simple dipping of a billy-can — this was joy indeed! This luxury we enjoyed from October 5th to October 10th, and every day the camels were brought to water, and with this and the green feed visibly fattened before our eyes.

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Helena Spring [Missing image]

So soon as we had proved the supply of our new watering-place, I had intended giving our guide his liberty. However, he forestalled this by cleverly making his escape. For want of a tree, his chain had been secured to the iron ring of a heavy pack-bag. His food and water were given him in empty meat-tins. With the sharp edge of one of these he had worked so industriously during the night that by morning he had a neat little circle of leather cut out of the bag round the ring.

With a blanket on which he had been lying, he covered his cunning trick and awaited his opportunity. It soon came; when our attention was fixed on the building of a shade, and, in broad daylight, he sneaked away from us without a sign or sound, taking with him some three feet of light chain on his ankle. What a hero he must be thought by his fellow-tribesmen! and doubtless that chain, which he could easily break on a stone with an iron tomahawk, will be treasured for many years to come. Had he not been in such a hurry he would have returned to his family laden with presents, for we had set aside several articles designed for him.

Our camp was specially built to protect us from the flies, and consisted of a framework of ti-tree poles and branches, roofed with grass and pig-face; under this we slung our mosquito-nets and enjoyed perfect peace. A few days in camp are by no means idle ones, for numerous are the jobs to be done — washing and mending clothes, patching up boots and hats, hair cutting, diary writing, plotting our course, arranging photograph plates (the majority of which were, alas! spoilt by the heat), mending a camera cracked by the sun, making hobble-straps, mending and stuffing saddles, rearranging packs cleaning firearms, and other like occupations. The heat was extreme; too great for my little thermometer which registered up to 140 (degrees) F., and intensified by hot winds and "Willy-Willies" (sometimes of great violence), which greatly endangered our camp. Godfrey excelled himself in the cooking department, and our usual diet of "tinned dog" was agreeably varied by small pigeons, which came in numbers to drink — pretty little slate-grey birds with tufts on their heads, common enough in Australia. Of these we shot over fifty, and, as well, a few of the larger bronzewing pigeons. The tufted birds come to water just after daylight and just before sundown, and so are more easily shot than the bronzewing. Throughout the day, galahs, wee-jugglers, parakeets, diamond-sparrows, and an occasional hawk or crow, came to the spring, evidently a favourite resort. Curiously enough, but few native camps were to be seen, nor is this the first time that I have noticed that the best waters are least used. The Australian aboriginal is not usually credited with much thought for the morrow. These desert people, however, have some provident habits, for first the small native wells are used, and only when these are exhausted are the more permanent waters resorted to. As an instance of their powers of following a "spoor," it may be mentioned that on several occasions our captive suddenly darted off at a tangent with eyes to ground, and then started digging his heel in the sand to find where a lizard or iguana was that he had tracked to his hole. Warri, amongst his other accomplishments, was most useful as a retriever of any wounded pigeon; he would hunt about until he spotted a fresh track, and before long had captured the bird. Any one who has noticed the number of hen-tracks in a poultry yard will appreciate this delicate performance. Warri, I am sure, would have been invaluable to Sherlock Holmes.

Pleasant as our camp was we could not stay too long, for we still had a considerable tract of unknown country before us. As the result of numerous observations I make the position of Helena Spring to be lat. 21 degrees, 20 minutes 30 seconds South, and (by dead reckoning) long. 126 degrees 20 minutes East.

From the native I extracted the following words, which I consider reliable:

English. Aboriginal.
Eagle Hawk Gunderu
Gum tree Waaldi
Sand Nuah
Spinifex Godadyuda,
* Fire or Smoke Warru
* Water Gabbi
* Dog Pappa

*The same as used by natives at Empress Spring.