Part V: The Outward JourneyEdit
Chapter XIII: From Helena Spring to the Southesk TablelandsEdit
On October 11th we reluctantly left the "Diamond of the Desert" behind us, travelling in a N.E. by N. direction over the interminable sand-ridges, crossing a greater extent of burnt country than we had yet seen, and finally camping on the top of a high ridge so as to catch any breeze that the night might favour us with.
We made a long march that day of eighteen miles a very creditable stage in such peculiarly configurated country. The camels had so benefited by their rest and feed that it made little difference to them that they had nothing to eat that night; they were well content to lie round the camp all night and chew the cud. I have often noticed how much camels like society; under favourable conditions — that is to say when travelling in good camel-country like the Southern goldfields — they will feed for an hour or so before dark, then slowly make their way with clattering hobble-chains and clanging bells back to the camp-fire, and there, with many grunts of satisfaction, lie peacefully until just before daylight, when they go off for another feed. On moonlight nights they like to roam about and pick choice morsels of bush on and off until daylight. In this waste corner of the earth where now we battled our way, the poor brutes wandered aimlessly about, now trying a mouthful of sharp spinifex and now the leaves of a eucalyptus; turning from these in disgust, a little patch of weed might be discovered by one lucky camel; no sooner would he hurry towards it than the others would notice it, and then a great scramble ensued and the weakest went without — though I have seen the strong help the weak, as in the case of Czar, who, with his powerful jaws, would break down branches for Misery, then quite young and without the requisite teeth. How fine they look with their long necks stretched upwards with the heads thrown back and the sensitive lips extended to catch some extra fresh bunch of leaves! How cunningly they go to work to break a branch that is out of reach; first the lowest leaf is gently taken in the lips and pulled down until the mouth can catch hold of some hanging twig — along this it is worked, and so from twig to branch, a greater strain being exerted as the branches increase in size, until finally the main limb of the branch is seized, and bent and twisted until broken. Often they try for one branch time after time, for having set their minds on a particular morsel, nothing will satisfy them until they have it.
No such scene could be watched from our camp on the ridge. But still we had something out of the common to look upon in the shape of hills ahead, and my hopes were high that we should soon see the last of the desert. Away to the North high points and bold headlands stood out black and clear above the sea of sand, tablelands and square-edged hills with some high peaks rising from them — the most imposing hills we had seen since passing Mount Burgess, near Coolgardie. From this point little could be determined as to their character even with glasses, for they were, as we afterwards found, over thirty miles distant.
Between them and our camp numerous low detached, table-top hills and conical mounds could be seen — none of any size, but remarkable in shape and appearance. These I named the Forebank Hills, after a hill near my home. These hills gave promise of better country, and, choosing a prominent headland, I altered our course towards it the following morning. We had not been travelling long before a smoke rose quite close to us, and we had another opportunity of seeing native hunting operations without being seen ourselves. A fine upstanding buck was dodging about amongst the blazing spinifex and was too engrossed to notice us; presently his occupation led him over the ridge and we saw him no more. From the earliness of the hour — for the smokes as a rule do not rise before 9 a.m. — it was clear that he could not have come far, so, picking up his tracks, we followed them back to his camp. Though we were not in great want of water, I considered it always advisable to let no chance of getting some slip by, since one never can tell how long the next may be in coming.
The tracks led us along the foot of one ridge; along the next, some three hundred yards distant, the ladies of the tribe could be seen marching along, laughing and chattering, and occasionally giving forth the peculiar shrill yell which only the gins can produce. It is impossible to describe a noise in writing, but the sound is not unlike a rather shrill siren, and the word shouted is a long-drawn "Yu-u-u." There is no mistaking the women's voices, the men's cry is somewhat deeper. Both are rather weird sounds, more especially when heard in thick scrub where one can see no natives, though one hears them all round. In the spinifex they were easily seen, and to their cry an answering yell came over the ridge and other women and children appeared. Presently they saw our caravan, and the "Yu-u-u" became fainter and fainter as the group scattered in all directions, and was lost to view. At the end of the tracks we found a camp, and in it the only attempt at a roofed shelter that we saw in the desert, and this merely a few branches leant against a small tree. The camp-fire had spread and burnt the spinifex close by, which gave the spot anything but an inviting appearance.
Under the shelter were huddled together, asleep, two gins and a young man. I have never seen more intense astonishment expressed in any one's face than that shown by these three when we roused them. All in their way were peculiar and deserving of description. The young gin was by no means uncomely; well-shaped and healthy-looking, with a skin black and shining as a well smoked meerschaum, with beautiful teeth which were shown off to advantage by an extensive smile, when she found that we had no murderous intentions. The other gin was the most repulsive object I have ever seen — like a hideous toad with wrinkled, baggy skin, with legs and arms so thin as to be no more than skin stretched tight over very meagre shinbones; and the face of this wretched being was a mass of festering wounds, on which no one could look without pity and horror. The man, too, was remarkable; an exceedingly smart young buck with an air of irresponsibility about him that suggested madness — a suspicion amply confirmed by his subsequent behaviour. His decorations added to his queer appearance; scarred by deep gashes on chest and arms, his body was daubed with red ochre, and his ribs picked out with white; on his head a kind of chignon formed of grass, hair, and string held his matted locks in place, like a bird's nest on his crown; he had neither beard nor whiskers, and was not blessed with any article of clothing whatever.
He showed us their well, which was nearly dry, and then volunteered to lead us to others; and away he went, swaggering along and clicking his tongue in great glee, occasionally breaking out into shrieks of laughter. When we arrived at one dry rock-hole and then another, it dawned upon me what the secret joke had been that so amused our friend; and I determined that he should be of some use to us before we parted company.
Of these dry rock-holes, one would, after rain, hold a fair amount of water, and is situated on the shoulder between two low table-tops. To the South, about two miles distant, are three conspicuous conical hills, close together, and about the same distance to the North-West a hill that at once calls to mind an old fort or castle. On camping, our native friend became a most intolerable nuisance, and proved himself a cunning wrestler, suddenly bending down and diving between Breaden's legs, which he seized at the ankle, nearly succeeding in throwing him to the ground. With a chain formed of spare hobbles held together by wire, we tethered him to a tree, scraped out a nest in the sand for him to sleep in, and lit a fire to cheer him. There he lay quiet until, on making signs that he was thirsty, one of us went to give him his food and water, when he darted at his benefactor and fought most viciously. After that, all through the night, at intervals, he was yelling and dancing, now upright and now on hands and knees circling his tree and barking like a dog, now tearing his headgear and stamping it in the sand, threatening us with hands raised, and finally subsiding into his sandy nest, crying and whining most piteously. It was an act of some danger to unloose him in the morning, but before long he was laughing away as heartily as before. There is no doubt he was as mad as could be. During the day's march he was up to all kinds of pranks, going through all sorts of antics, idiotic, sorrowful, angry, and vulgar in turn. The space between the ridges was greater now, and on them were numerous pointed ant-hills some two or three feet high. One favourite trick of this lunatic was to rush towards one of these, and sit perched on the top with his knees up and feet resting on the side of the heap, a most uncomfortable position. Another dodge he tried with indifferent success was that of throwing himself under a camel as he passed, with the object, I suppose, of diving out on the other side. The camel, however, did not understand the game and kicked him severely. He was a most extraordinary person, and indeed I can understand any one going mad in this dreary region; and to think that these black folk have never known anything different!
I could enumerate a score of strange tricks that our friend exhibited. What surprised me most was to see him make use, in unmistakable pantomime, of a vulgar expression that I thought was only known to English schoolboys!
Between the Forebank Hills and the tablelands we were now approaching is an open plain of spinifex some ten miles wide, bounded on North and South by sand-ridges. From these in the morning the long line of broken tablelands could be seen ahead of us, and running for a considerable distance to the eastward. The highest point of those more immediately to our front I named Mount Fothringham, after my cousin. The headland for which we were steering was too far off to be reached that night, so we camped on a ridge, and during the night noticed a small fire in the hills ahead. It could only be a camp-fire of some natives, so, noting its direction, and being unable to see anything further, we retired to rest.
The next morning, with the help of the glasses, we could see several black figures moving about on the sloping foot of the cliffs, and therefore steered in their direction. Our mad friend had to be accommodated on the top of a camel, as he refused to walk or move, and I wished to leave him with friends, or at any rate with fellow-countrymen, though we no longer required his services as guide, in which capacity he had been singularly useless. Five miles brought us to the hills, and close on to the natives' camp whose fire we had seen, before they discovered us; when they did so they fled, seven or eight of them, and hid in caves in the sandstone. We had now been only four days since the last water, but the weather was so hot, feed so scarce, and so much ground burnt and dusty, that it was time we gave the camels another drink if we wished to keep them in any sort of condition. From the native camp a few tracks led round a corner of rock; these I followed, with the camels coming behind, and soon saw two small native wells sunk in the sand and debris, held in a cleft in the rock. Nothing but bare rock rose all round, and on this we made camp, turning the camels out at the foot of the cliffs where a few bushes grew.
Godfrey and Warri meanwhile had followed the blacks into the caves, and now returned with two of the finest men I have seen in the interior. One, a boy, apparently about eighteen years old, splendidly formed and strongly built, standing nearly six feet high; the other a man of mature years, not so tall but very broad and well-made. The boy had no hair on his face, the man a short beard and moustaches, and both had a far better cast of features than any I have seen further south. Their skin, too, instead of being black, was a shining reddish-brown colour; this was perhaps produced by red ochre and grease rubbed in, but in any case it gave them a finer appearance. Both were quite without clothing or ornament, nor did I notice any of the usual scars upon their bodies; their well-fed frames made us hope that a change in the country was close at hand.
These natives showed no fear or surprise when once in the camp, and, examining our packs and saddles, sat "jabbering" away quite contented, until Breaden struck a match to light his pipe. This so alarmed them that they bolted. We did not attempt to stop the boy, but detained the man, as I wished for further information about waters, and was also anxious to study his habits. He had evidently been in touch with blacks from settled parts, for he knew the words, "white-fella" and "womany," and had certainly heard of a rifle, for on my picking one up and holding it towards him he trembled with fear, and it was some time before his confidence in us was restored. He really was a most intelligent man, both amusing and interesting, and by signs and pantomime, repeated over and over again until he saw that we guessed his meaning, he told us many things. Plenty of women, old and young, were camped in one direction, and were specially worth a visit; he knew of several watering-places, in one of which we could bathe and stand waist-deep. So I made a compact that as soon as he showed us this wonderful "Yowie" (his word for water) he should go free. He seemed perfectly to understand this. Our mad friend he hardly deigned to notice, and pointed at him in a most contemptuous way.
Now that he, the lunatic, was free to go where he liked, nothing would induce him to leave us — he would start to go, and after a few paces return and take up a crouching position close to the mouth of the well where we were working, and as each bucketful of mud or moist sand was hauled to the surface he eagerly watched it being emptied, and then proceeded to cover himself with its contents, until at last he was hardly distinguishable from a pyramid of mud — and a stranger object I never saw! Towards dusk he slunk off and sat on a rock below the cliffs, where he ate the food we had given him; and for all I know he may be there yet.
Work was carried on all night, which was divided as usual into shifts, and this I have no doubt saved us from attack. Before sunset we had seen several bucks sneaking about the rocks, and during the night they came round us and held a whispered conversation with their fellow in our camp. Between them a sort of telegraphy seemed to be going on by tapping stones on the rocks. They may have been merely showing their position in the darkness, or it is possible that they have a "Morse code" of their own. I was on shift when they came, and as the well wanted baling only every twenty minutes, I was lying awake and watching the whole performance, and could now and then see a shadowy figure in the darkness. As soon as I rose to work, our buck lay down and snored heavily, and his friends of course were silent. I awoke Breaden on my way, as it would have been far too much in their favour should the blacks have attacked us and found me down the well and the rest of the party asleep. They were quite right in wishing to rescue their friend, since they could not tell what his fate was to be, but we could not risk a wounded companion or possibly worse, and lay watching for the remainder of the night. Evidently they were inclined to take no risks either, for they left us in peace.
The wells, situated as they are in the bed of a rocky gully, would after rain hold plenty of water, though we extracted no more than thirty-five gallons. Their position is lat. 20 degrees 46 minutes, long. 126 degrees 23 minutes.
From the rocks above the wells the tablelands to the East have quite a grand appearance, running in a curve with an abrupt cliff on the Western side, and many conical and peaked hills rising from their summit. These tablelands, which in a broken line were seen by us to extend Northwards for over forty miles, and certainly extend Eastwards for twenty miles and possibly a great deal further, are of sandstone. Looking Westwards, a few detached blocks may be seen, but we seemed to have struck the Western limit of these hills. I have named them the Southesk Tablelands, after my father. Between the curved line of cliffs and the wells are several isolated blocks. Seven and a half miles to the Westward a remarkable headland (Point Massie) can be seen at the Northern end of a detached tableland. Again to the West, one mile, at the head of a deep little rocky gorge, whose entrance is guarded by a large fig tree, is a very fine rock-hole. This was the promised water, and our native friend was free to return to his family; he was greatly pleased at the bargain being carried out, and had evidently not expected it. Possibly what he has heard of the white-fella is not much to his credit! The fig tree afforded a splendid shade from the burning sun, and in a recess in the rock close by we could sit in comparative coolness. Here the native artist had been at work, his favourite subject being snakes and concentric rings.
A steep gorge, not very easy for camels to pass along, led up to the rock-hole, which lies under a sheltering projection of rock. From the rock above a good view is obtained; sand-ridges to the West, to the North and East tablelands. Most noticeable are Mounts Elgin, Romilly, and Stewart, bearing from here 346 degrees, 4 degrees, 16 degrees respectively. These hills are named after three of my brothers-in-law. They are of the usual form — that is to say, flat-topped with steep sides — Mount Elgin especially appearing like an enormous squared block above the horizon. To the South-East of Mount Stewart are two smaller table-tops close together.
As I walked over the rocks I noticed numerous wallabies, of which Godfrey shot several later; they were excellent eating, not unlike rabbit. Leaving the rock-hole, we steered for Mount Romilly, first following down the little creek from the gorge until it ran out into the sand in a clump of bloodwoods. Then crossing a plain where some grass grew as well as spinifex, we came again into sand-ridges, then another plain, then a large, dry clay-pan West of Mount Stewart, then more ridges up to the foot of Mount Romilly. It was here that we must have crossed the route of Colonel Warburton in 1873, though at the time I could not quite make out the relative positions of our two routes on the map.
Colonel Warburton, travelling from East to West, would be more or less always between two ridges of sand, and his view would therefore be very limited, and this would account for his not having marked hills on his chart, which are as large as any in the far interior of the Colony. In his journal, under date of September 2nd, we read: ". . . There are hills in sight; those towards the North look high and hopeful, but they are quite out of our course. Other detached, broken hills lie to the West, so our intention is to go towards them." Then, on September 3rd: "N.W. by W. to a sandstone hill" (probably Mount Romilly). "North of us there is a rather good-looking range running East and West with a hopeful bluff at its Western end" (probably Twin Head). From the top of Mount Romilly a very prominent headland can be seen bearing 7 degrees, and beyond it two others so exactly similar in shape and size that we called them the Twins. For these we steered over the usual sand-ridges and small plains, on which a tree (Ventilago viminalis) new to us was noticed; here, too, was growing the Hibiscus sturtii, whose pretty flowers reminded us that there were some things in the country nice to look upon.
Near the foot of the second headland we made camp. Leaving Charlie behind, the rest of us set out in different directions to explore the hills. There are four distinct headlands jutting out from the tableland, which extends for many miles to the Eastward and in a broken line to the Southward, the face of the cliffs on the Western shore, so to speak, being indented with many bays and gulfs, and, to complete the simile, the waves of sand break upon the cliffs, while in the bays and gulfs there is smooth water — that is to say, flat sand. Grass and other herbage and bushes grow in a narrow belt around the foot of the cliffs, but everywhere else is spinifex.
The hills present a most desolate appearance, though somewhat remarkable; sheer cliffs stand on steep slopes of broken slabs and boulders of sandstone, reminding one of a quarry dump; from the flat summit of the cliffs rise conical peaks and round hills of most peculiar shape. The whole is covered with spinifex, a plant which seems to thrive in any kind of soil; this rock-spinifex, I noticed, contains much more resinous matter than the sand-spinifex, every spine being covered with a sticky juice. From our camp I walked up the valley between the first and second head, and, ascending the latter, which is crowned with cliffs some thirty feet high, sat down and examined the hills with my glasses. Two black objects moving about caught my eye, and as they approached I saw them to be two fine bucks decked out in most extravagant manner. From my point of vantage some three hundred feet above them, I could watch them, myself unseen. Each carried a sheaf of spears, woommera, and shield, and in their girdle of string a number of short throwing-sticks. Round their waists were hanging sporrans formed from tufts of hair, probably similar to those we found at Family Well that were made from the tufts from the ends of bandicoots' tails; their bodies were painted in fantastic patterns with white. Their hair was arranged in a bunch on the top of their heads, and in it were stuck bunches of emu feathers. Seen in those barren, dull-red hills, they looked strange and almost fiendish. They were evidently going to pay a visit to some neighbours either to hold festival or to fight — probably the latter.
When almost directly below they looked up and saw me; I remained quite still, watching all the time through the glasses. After the first surprise they held a hurried consultation and then fled; then another consultation, and back they came again, this time very warlike. With shouts and grunts they danced round in a circle, shaking their spears at me, and digging them into the ground, as much as to say, "That is what we would do to you if we could!" I rose from my hiding place and started to go down towards them, when they again retired, dancing and spear-waving at intervals. At the end of the valley, that is the third valley, there is a sheer cliff to a plateau running back to the foot of some round hills; across this plateau they ran until, on coming to some thick bushes, they hid, hoping, I have no doubt, to take me unawares. However, I was not their prospective victim, for no sooner had they planted themselves than I saw Godfrey, all unconscious, sauntering along towards them.
The whole scene was so clear to me from my lofty position that its laughable side could not help striking me, but this did not prevent my forestalling the blacks' murderous designs by a shot from my rifle, which was sufficiently well aimed to scare the bucks and attract Godfrey's attention. As soon as possible I joined him and explained my seemingly strange action. We tracked up the natives, and found they had been following a regular pad, which before long led us to a fine big rock-hole in the bed of a deep and rocky gully. A great flight of crows circling about a little distance off, made us sure that another pool existed; following down the first gully and turning to the left up another, deeper and broader, we found our surmise had been correct. Before us, at the foot of an overhanging rock, was a beautiful clear pool. What a glorious sight! We wasted no time in admiring it from a distance, and each in turn plunged into the cool water, whilst the other kept watch on the rocks above. Sheltered as it was from the sun, except for a short time during the day, this pool was as ice compared to the blazing, broiling heat overhead, and was indeed a luxury. By the side of the pool, under the overhanging rock, some natives had been camped, probably our friends the warriors; the ashes were still hot, and scattered about were the remains of a meal, feathers and bones of hawks and crows. Above the overhanging rock, in the middle of the gully, is a small rock-hole with most perfectly smooth sides, so situated that rain water running down the gully would first fill the rock-hole, and, overflowing, would fall some twenty feet into the pool below. The rock is of soft, yellowish-white sandstone. Close to the water edge I carved C96 and Godfrey scratched the initials of all of us. The pool, which when full would hold some forty thousand gallons, I named "Godfrey's Tank," as he was the first white man to set eyes upon it.
Having finished our bathe, we set about looking for a path by which to bring the camels for a drink; the gorge was too rocky and full of huge boulders to make its passage practicable, and it seemed as if we should have to make a detour of a good many miles before reaching the water. Fortunately this was unnecessary, for on meeting Breaden he told us he had found a small pool at the head of the first valley which was easy of access. This was good news, so we returned to camp, and, as it was now dark, did not move that night. And what a night it was! — so hot and oppressive that sleep was impossible. It was unpleasant enough to be roasted by day, but to be afterwards baked by night was still more so! A fierce fire, round which perhaps the warriors were dancing, lit up the rocks away beyond the headlands, the glow showing all the more brilliantly from the blackness of the sky.
The next morning we packed up and moved camp to the pool, passing up the first valley — Breaden Valley — with the first promontory on our left. At the mouth of the valley, on the south side, are three very noticeable points, the centre one being conical with a chimney-like block on one side, and flanking it on either hand table-topped hills.
Down the valley runs a deep but narrow creek which eventually finds its way round the foot of the headlands into a ti-tree-encircled red lagoon enclosed by sand-ridges. Near the head of the valley the creek splits; near the head of the left-hand branch is Godfrey's Tank; in the other, just before it emerges from the cliffs, is the small pool found by Breaden. Several kinds of trees new to me were growing in the valleys, one, a very pretty crimson-blossomed tree, not unlike a kurrajong in size, shape, and character of the wood, but with this difference, in leaf, that its leaves were divided into two points, whilst the kurrajong has three. One of these trees had been recently chopped down with a blunt implement, probably a stone tomahawk, and a half-finished piece of work — I think a shield — was lying close by. The wood is soft, and must be easily shaped. It is rather curious that the natives, of whom, judging from the smoke seen in all directions, there must be a fair number, should not have been camped at such a splendid water as Godfrey's Tank, the reason of their absence being, I suppose, that camping in the barren hills would entail a longish walk every day to any hunting grounds. To the native "enough is as good as a feast," and a wretched little well as serviceable as a large pool. The nights were so cloudy that I was unable to see any stars, but by dead reckoning only the position of the pool is lat. 20 degrees 15 minutes long. 126 degrees 25 minutes.
From the top of the highest headland, which is divided into two nipple-like peaks, an extensive view can be obtained. To the South and the South-East, the Southesk Tablelands; to the East, broken tablelands and sandhills; to the North, the same; to the North-West, nothing but hopeless ridge upon ridge of sand as far as the horizon. To the West, some ten miles distant, a line of cliffs running North and South, with sand-ridges beyond, and a plain of spinifex between; to the North of the cliffs an isolated table-top hill, showing out prominently — this I named Mount Cornish, after my old friend and tutor in days gone by.
Leaving the hills on the 21st, we soon reached a little colony of detached hills of queer shapes, one, as Breaden said, looking "like a clown's cap." From the top of the highest, which I named Mount Ernest, after my brother-in-law, a dismal scene stretched before us, nothing but the interminable sand-ridges, the horizon as level as that of the ocean. What heartbreaking country, monotonous, lifeless, without interest, without excitement save when the stern necessity of finding water forced us to seek out the natives in their primitive camps! Every day, however, might bring forth some change, and, dismal as the country is, one was buoyed up by the thought of difficulties overcome, and that each day's march disclosed so much more of the nature of a region hitherto untraversed. It would have been preferable to have found good country, for not only would that have been of some practical benefit to the world at large, but would have been more pleasant to travel through. So far we had had nothing but hard work, and as the only result the clear proof that a howling wilderness of sand occupies the greater area of the Colony's interior
By going due East from Mount Ernest I could have cut the Sturt Creek in less than one hundred miles' travel, which would have simplified our journey. But taking into consideration that an equal distance would probably take us beyond the northern boundary of the desert, I determined to continue on a Northerly course, as by doing so we should be still traversing unknown country, until we reached the Margaret River or some tributary of it; whereas by cutting and then following up the Sturt, we should merely be going over ground already covered by Gregory's and subsequent parties.
Careful scanning of the horizon from Mount Ernest resulted in sighting some hills or rocks to the North-East. Excepting that higher ground existed, nothing could be seen as to its nature, for it was ever moving this way and that in the shimmering haze of heat and glare of the sun, which, intensified by powerful field-glasses, made one's eyes ache. I find it hard indeed to render this narrative interesting, for every page of my diary shows an entry no less monotonous than the following:—
- Same miserable country — roasting sun — no feed for camels — camp on crest of high ridge in hopes of getting a breath of air — thousands of small ants worry us at night — have to shift blankets half a dozen times. Val's feet getting better — she can again walk a little.
The high ground seen from Mount Ernest turned out to be bare rocks of black ironstone, from which we sighted a very large smoke rising to the eastward — miles of country must have been burning, a greater extent than we had yet seen actually alight. Probably the hot weather accounted for the spread of the flames. Though apparently at no great distance, it took us all that day and six hours of the next to reach the scene of the fire, where spinifex and trees were still smouldering and occasionally breaking into flames, whirlwinds of dust and ashes rising in every direction. Having camped we set out as usual to find tracks, Breaden and Warri being successful in finding a pad of some dozen blacks going in the same direction. This they followed for a few miles, and returned long after dark, guided by a blazing bank of spinifex; very worn and thirsty they were too, for tramping about in sand and ashes is a most droughty job.
Having kept the camels in camp, since there was not a scrap of feed, we were able to be well on our way before sunrise. Luckily the tracks led us between two ridges, and we had only one to cross, which was fortunate, for our beasts were famished from hunger, having had no food or water for five days. At every halt, however short, if whoever was leading them stopped, even to pull out a piece of spinifex which had found its way through some hole in his boot, they would take advantage of it and "plump" down on the sand; and whilst one was being goaded up, down would go the rest. Poor Prempeh had to be unloaded and dragged behind.
Less than a mile beyond where Breaden had turned back we came on the biggest camp of natives we had seen — quite a village! Perhaps a dozen little "wurlies" or branch-shelters were dotted about the foot of a sandhill. Camped under them we found one buck, several gins, and numerous picaninnies; it was clear that more were not far off. The first thing that struck us about the man was his complete assurance, and secondly his pronounced Jewish cast of features. With an ulster and a few tall hats on his head he would have made a perfect "old clo'" man. An oldish man this, with grizzled beard brought to a point, and in the end a tuft of a rat's tall was twisted, others similarly adorning the ends of his moustache. His hair was done in a round lump at the back, held in place by a sort of net of string. His hair in front had been either pulled out or shaved off, giving him a very fine forehead. His nose and lips were Jewish to a degree. His womenfolk showed no such characteristics, most of them being remarkably plain, with the exception of one pretty little gin, who, poor thing, was suffering from a similar disease to the man we saw at Family Well. We dressed her wounds with tar and oil, and I think relieved her sufferings somewhat.
Our next patient was a small boy, who, from his swollen appearance, had evidently enjoyed a hearty breakfast. He had sore eyes, literally eaten away at the inner corners into deep holes, prevented from healing by the myriads of flies that hung in clouds round his head. I made an application of some eye-lotion, at which he shrieked horribly, poor boy. I had never used that particular brand before, and did not know its strength. He was quite a small chap, and the old Jew held him in his arms whilst I doctored him, and nodded his head in approval. They showed us their well close by, the usual sort, just at the foot of the sandhill, and we set to work in the customary style, the buck watching us with interest. Feeling that there must be more natives about, and not liking a treacherous look in the old Jew's eyes, we brought a couple of rifles to the mouth of the well.
Before long we heard the "Yu-u-u" of approaching black-fellows, and in a minute fifteen naked savages came bounding down the sandhill towards us. Fortunately for them we saw they had no weapons; even so, it was a dangerous proceeding on their part, for some white men would have shot first and inquired about their weapons afterwards! They were all big men — the finest we saw anywhere excepting the two near Point Massie, and most of them had a marked Jewish look. [This peculiarity has been remarked amongst the natives of the McDonnell Ranges, Central Australia — but nowhere else.] They were very friendly — too much so — for they crowded round us, patting us, and jabbering so that our work on the well was much hindered. Presently more women came on the scene, and with many cries of "white-fella," "womany," their men made it clear that we might take the whole lot with us if we so desired! This was hospitality, indeed; but underlying it, I fear, were treacherous designs, for the game of Samson and Delilah has been played with success more than once by the wily aboriginal.
We took but little notice of the natives, as obtaining water was of greater interest at that moment than the prosecution of ethnological studies. Charlie worked away down the well with perfect unconcern, while the rest of us were occupied in hauling up the sand from below and keeping the blacks at a distance. Wonderfully cunning fellows they were! I was standing close by a Winchester which lay on the ground; one man came up, patting me all over and grinning in the most friendly way, and all the time he worked away with his foot to move the rifle to his mate beside me. However, he did not succeed, nor another who tried the same trick on Godfrey, and after a time they all retired, for reasons best known to themselves, leaving only the old man and the children behind.
Godfrey pressed the old man into our service and made him cut bushes for a shade; it seemed to me that an axe was not just the best thing for a man who would probably sooner have used it against us than not, so he was deposed from his office as woodcutter. As soon as the well was ready for baling I walked off to see if anything of interest could be found, or if another camp was anywhere near. The instant the old Jew saw me sling a rifle over my shoulder he ran like a hare, yelling as he went. He was answered by similar calls not far off. As he ran he picked up his spears from a bush, and I could see the marks of the weapons of the rest of the tribe, which had been planted just over the rise of sand. They evidently knew all about a rifle, yet we were still over a hundred miles in a bee-line from Hall's Creek. I saw their fleeing figures scattering in all directions, and followed up some tracks for some distance without finding anything of interest.
I noticed a considerable change in the country to the East, over which there spread a forest of desert oak, and near the sandhills thickets of ti-tree. The well seems to be at the head of an ill-defined watercourse, which, lower down, runs between an avenue of bloodwoods. Close to the well are several large ant-heaps, and from the sandhill above it little can be seen; but north of the well one mile distant is a high ridge of sand, from which is visible a prominent square hill, bearing 334 degrees distant eighteen miles; this stands at the Eastern end of a tableland, and is named Mount Bannerman, after my sister-in-law. The well had an abundant supply, though a little hard to get at, as it was enclosed by two rocks very close together, necessitating a most cramped position when baling with a saucepan on the end of a stick.
By daylight we had watered all the camels and were glad to rest under the shade we had made with boughs. Our rest lasted three days to allow Prempeh, who was very poorly, to recover. The flies, as usual, worried us unmercifully, but I was so thankful to regain once more my sense of hearing that I rather enjoyed their buzzing. I had for some weeks been so deaf that unless I had my attention fixed on something, I could not hear at all. I must have been a great bore to my companions very often, for frequently they talked for a long time to me, only to find that I had not heard a word!
We were greatly entertained by two small boys, the sole representatives of the tribe, who showed intense delight and interest in all our doings, and were soon tremendous chums with Warri. One was quite a child, very sharp and clever; the other a young warrior, very proud of his spear and shield — a well-built youngster whose appearance was somewhat spoiled by a severe squint in one eye. They showed no fear whatever of us, or of the camels, and were soon on quite friendly terms with the latter, patting and stroking their noses; they lost confidence before long, when the small boy inadvertently patted the wrong end of a camel and was kicked violently.
The position of the Jew Well is lat. 19 degrees 41 minutes, long. 127 degrees 17 minutes; from it we steered to Mount Bannerman, over the usual ridges of sand, now further apart and lower. On some of the flats between we found splendid little patches of feed [Amongst it Goodenia ramelii], where the spinifex had been burnt and was just sprouting up again. One plant, new to us, was growing in profusion and resembled nothing so much as bunches of grapes with the fruit pulled off. We camped early, as such feed was not to be passed by. The next morning, we found that our axe had been left behind at the well; so, as it was a most useful article, I sent Warri back for it, whilst Godfrey and I put in the day by following the young warrior, who volunteered to show us a very large water — a ten-mile walk with nothing at the end of it was not at all satisfactory, nor did we feel very kindly disposed to our small friend. I suppose he wanted to find his tribe again, for when we stopped we could see a smoke in the distance.
We saw quite a number of spinifex rats, and though Godfrey carried a gun one way and I carried it coming home, we never bagged one, and only had one shot, which missed. Every rat got up quite 150 yards off in the most annoying way. We started burning a patch of spinifex, but since we were not pressed for food we concluded that the weather was quite hot enough without making fires! I fancy that only by taking a leaf out of the blackfellows' book could one have any success in spinifex-rat hunting. I have read in Giles's book, and Sir John Forrest has told me, that when he was in the bush the rats were easily secured. Possibly they were more numerous in the better country that he passed through, or larger and not so quick. All our efforts were unavailing, the only occasion on which we slaughtered a rat being when Val caught a young one; the full-grown ones were far too fast for her and too quick in turning round the hummocks of spinifex.
Warri returned with the axe in the evening and reported that no natives had visited the well since our departure. The next day as we approached the hills the two boys, sitting aloft on the top of the loaded camels, were much excited and made many signs that water was not far off. The hills we found to be the usual barren, rocky tablelands, scoured into gullies and gorges, which, forming small creeks, disappear before many miles amongst the sandhills.
Mount Bannerman stands at the eastern end of the hills; a little to the west is a deep and narrow gorge, the bed of which is strewn with great boulders and slabs of rock. The hill is capped with a conglomerate of quartz, sandstone and ironstone pebbles, some of the quartz fragments being as large as hen's eggs and polished quite smooth. From its summit an apparently high range can be seen to the North; to the East and South nothing but sand-ridges; to the South-West a prominent square hill, the highest point in a broken table-range, bears 226 degrees. This hill I named Mount Erskine, after the Kennedy-Erskines of Dun.
Travelling West from Mount Bannerman, we had five miles of very rough and jagged rocks to cross, worn away into a regular network of deep little glens, very awkward to get over. The rocks were burning hot, and the walking was not at all to the liking of our small guide. The young warrior led the way, but was continually turning round for instructions to the little chap riding behind, who directed him with a wave of the hand in a most lordly manner. It is a most noticeable thing how much the natives seem to feel the heat, and I am inclined to think that in the hot weather they hunt only in the morning and evening, and camp during the day. I was walking with the youth, and whenever we stopped to allow the camels to catch us up he would crouch right up against me to get the benefit of my shadow; and he was so fearfully thirsty that I took pity on him and got him some water, though WE had all walked since sunrise without a mouthful.
In crossing these small ravines, I noticed again how much easier it is for camels to step down a steep rock than up — in stepping up they hang their front foot out, and paw about for a place to put it down upon in a most silly way.
In the main channel of a number of conjoining glens we came on a nice little pool under a step in the rocky bed. A few gums shaded the pool, growing in the sand by its edge. On arrival we found a large eagle-hawk with a broken wing flapping about; this our two boys soon despatched with sticks, and I looked forward to getting a handsome bird skin. However, the youngsters had it plucked and on a heap of burning sticks before we had done looking for a way, down which to lead the camels.
We made camp just above the pool, and were lucky in finding a patch of camel feed within a couple of miles across the rocks, for around all was barren excepting a few stunted gums. The next morning I went with Breaden for the camels, and noticed what I had suspected before, viz., that Breaden had lately become very thin and weak. This morning he collapsed, and I was thankful I had seen it; for he is a man who would never complain, but just go on until he dropped. He could not conceal his sickness now, and in a very short time was suffering from severe dysentery. Luckily we had plenty of water close at hand, for he could not possibly travel. For three days he lay in the recess of a sheltering rock near the pool, and we nursed him as best we could. Condensed milk and brandy, thin cornflour and chlorodyne, I doctored him with; he was a very obedient patient, whose pangs of hunger were aggravated by watching us feeding daily on bronzewings, wallabies, and galahs. This pool was a favourite resort for hundreds of birds — crows, hawks, galahs, parakeets, pigeons and sparrows — and numerous dingoes. Of the bronzewings, which at sundown and before sunrise lined the rocks literally in hundreds, we shot as many as we wanted. How thick they were can be judged from the result of one barrel, which killed fourteen.
It was a pretty sight to watch the birds drinking, as we sat in Breaden's sick-room, the cave. By keeping quite still we could watch them all. All day long the sparrows, diamond and black, are fluttering about the water, chirping and twittering, until the shadow of a hawk circling above scatters them in all directions. Then morning and evening flocks of little budgerigars, or lovebirds, fly round and round, and at last take a dive through the air and hang in a cloud close over the water; then, spreading out their wings, they drink, floating on the surface. The galahs make the most fuss of any, chattering away on the trees, and sneaking down one by one, as if they hoped by their noise to cover the advance of their mate. The prettiest of all the birds is a little plump, quail-like rock-pigeon or spinifex-pigeon, a dear little shiny, brown fellow with a tuft on his head. They arrive at the water suddenly and unexpectedly from behind rocks and trees, and stand about considering; then one, more venturesome than the rest, runs quickly down to drink, and is followed by a string of others; then they run up again ever so fast, and strut about cooing and spreading their crests — one seldom sees them fly; when they do they rise straight up, and then dart away close to the ground and drop suddenly within a few yards. Of all birds the crow has most sound common sense; there is no dawdling in his methods; down he swoops with beautifully polished feathers glistening in the sun, to the water's edge, stands for a second to look calmly from side to side; then a long drink and away he goes, thoroughly satisfied to mind his own business and nobody else's.
The two boys were splendid marksmen with short sticks, which they threw into the flights of love-birds and sparrows as they passed. Whenever they killed one they squatted down and heated it on the ashes, and ate it straight away; and so small bird after small bird went down their throats all day long, and they never thought to keep them until they had sufficient for a good square meal. No doubt in their family circle they have to take what they can get, and only make sure of keeping what they have, by eating it at once.
Wandering about the hills I saw an emu, the first I had seen since leaving the Coolgardie districts, though we had found their tracks at Woodhouse Lagoon. He was too shy for me, and I failed to get a shot after a lengthy stalk. Godfrey returned late that night with several wallabies, and many bruises and abrasions, for he had had a nasty fall in the dark down one of the many ravines.
The next morning was a sad one, for it disclosed the death from poison-plant of poor old Shiddi, one of the best and noblest of camels — a fine black, handsome old bull. I declare it was like losing an old friend, as indeed he was. Where one camel is poisoned all the rest may be, and since, from Breaden's dysentery, we could not travel, we must find another camp not far off. So we marched South-West down the creek and found another pool. Here we saw the first signs of white men for many a long day, in the shape of old horse-tracks and a marked tree, on which was carved (F.H. 18.8.96). This I found afterwards stood for Frank Hann, who penetrated thus far into the desert from Hall's Creek and returned. On another tree I carved a large C.
Breaden was slowly getting better when poor Charlie went sick, and we had two in hospital. A most unenviable condition, where no sort of comforts can be got. By digging into the bank of the creek we made a sort of couch, and rigged flies over it for a shade. Bad as the days were, the nights were worse; for myriads of ants followed swarms of flies, and black, stifling clouds followed a blazing sun — all of which is bearable to, and passes after a time unnoticed by a man in good health. But poor fellows, worn to skeletons by unending work and the poorest of food, unable to move from sickness, are worried almost past endurance by the insects and heat. Every night we experienced terrific thunderstorms, but alas! unaccompanied by rain. At sunset the clouds banked up black and threatening, the heat was suffocating, making sleep impossible, lightning would rend the sky, and then after all this hope-inspiring prelude, several large drops of rain would fall and no more, the sky would clear and the performance be over, only to be repeated the following evening.
Our change of camp made no difference in the feed, for on the 9th another camel was found dead in the morning — poor Redleap, who had never once shown a sign of giving in, killed in a matter of a few minutes. We examined his body, swollen to a tremendous degree, the usual indication of poison-plant — evidently very virulent and painful, for we could see how, in his death agony, he had torn up the ground with his teeth, and turned and bitten himself most cruelly. It was clear we must move again. As we prepared to load up, Stoddy was suddenly seized with the poison sickness, and careered at full speed round the camp in circles, falling down and rolling in agony at intervals. After a lot of trouble we stopped him, threw him, and roped him down; administered a gallon of very strong Epsom salts and water, then a dose of soapsuds, and bled him by slitting both ears. This unquestionably saved his life, for the first two remedies take too long to act. This scene had a curious effect on the other camels, and for days after Stoddy was avoided, nor would any bear being tied on behind him without snapping their nose-lines or breaking their nose-pegs to get away.
Further down the creek, some six and a half miles from the hills, is a fine flat of grass and herbage surrounded by large white gums — this is practically the end of the creek, and to this spot we shifted camp, packing water from the pool. On the 10th Prempeh died — another victim to the poison — and I began to dread the morning. Fortunately our new camp was free from poison, and no more deaths occurred. It was sad to think of our camels dying thus after so many hundred miles of desert bravely traversed — yesterday a picture of strength and life, to-day food for those scavengers of the bush, the dingoes. What satisfied howls they gave forth all night long; for, like crows or vultures, they seem to collect from far and wide round the body of any dead thing. From our camp Mount Erskine was visible, but not of sufficiently inviting appearance to make a visit worth while.
On the 15th all were off the sick list and ready to march. I felt sorrowful indeed at the loss of the camels, but thankful that no more had died, and more thankful still that we had been able to camp whilst poor Breaden and Charlie regained their health. Such a sickness in the heart of the desert could have had but one ending.
Our way lay over spinifex plains until just north of the hills a sand-ridge was crossed, remarkable from its regular shape and wonderfully straight course, as if it had been built to most careful measurements and alignment.
The 16th of November was a red-letter day, for on it we crossed the last sand-ridge— in lat. 19 degrees 20 minutes — leaving the desert behind us. A feeling of satisfaction filled us that we had conquered its difficulties not by chance, but by unremitting toil and patience. I am sure that each in his heart thanked his God that He had been pleased to bring us through safely. Once across the range we had seen from Mount Bannerman — a range of quartzite hills which I named Cummins Range, after the Warden at Hall's Creek — and we had reached the watershed of the tributaries of the Margaret and Fitzroy Rivers. From Cummins Range onward until we struck the Margaret, we had very rough hills and rocks to cross — this hard travelling after the yielding sand was most painful to the camels, and their feet were soon sore and cut by the sharp edges of rock. The country may be roughly described as slate bedded on edge, in such a way as to leave sharp corners and points of rock sticking up in all directions. Through the slate run veins of quartz, often rising above the surface in huge blows, hills, and even small ranges. Innumerable gullies crossed our path, and occasionally fair-sized creeks. Such a one is Christmas Creek, which, where we saw it, is made up of three creeks from fifty to eighty yards across, running almost parallel and not more than half a mile apart. These soon meet and form a fine creek which joins the Fitzroy many miles to the Westward. These creeks are fringed with gums, Bauhinia, and Leichardt trees, all affording splendid shade — and following the banks on either side is a belt of high grass and shrubs, from which occasional kangaroos and wallabies bounded, alarmed by the sound of our advancing caravan.
On the north side of Christmas Creek we crossed the first auriferous country we had seen since leaving the Neckersgat Range, close to Lake Darlot. Standing on a high peak of white, sandy-looking quartz, a hill which I named Mount Hawick after my first mate in West Australia, Lord Douglas of Hawick, innumerable jagged ranges rose before me in all directions. To the south could be seen the Cummins Range, bounding the desert; to the north the black, solid outline of the Mueller Range. And now we were in surveyed country, and without much difficulty I could identify such points as Mount Dockrell, the Lubbock Range, McClintock Range, and others, and was pleased to find that after all our wanderings we had come out where I had intended, and in a general way had followed the line I had pencilled on the chart before starting.
Mount Hawick's approximate position is lat. 18 degrees 53 minutes long. 127 degrees 3 minutes; five miles from it, in a N.W. direction, we found a splendid pool in a deep gorge, whose precipitous sides made it hard to find a passage down which the camels could reach the water. For fear of a sudden downpour and consequent flood in the creek, we camped on the flat rock above the pool. Fish, small and bony, but of excellent flavour, abounded in the water, and we were soon at work with needles, bent when redhot into hooks, baited with pieces of cockatoo flesh, and pulled out scores of the fish; Godfrey, whose skill in such matters is very great, accounting for over a hundred in a very short time. These were very welcome, for we had run out of meat for some days past, nor had we been able to shoot any birds or beasts.
Pigeons and other birds came in small quantities to drink, and kangaroo tracks were numerous; in spite, however, of braving the mosquitoes near the water by sitting up all night, we did not even get a shot. Charlie set some snares with equal ill-success, but the following day Godfrey got a fine kangaroo, and a carpet-snake over nine feet in length. What we did not eat of the former at the first sitting, was dried in strips in the sun and kept for future use.
Here we also made acquaintance with the native bee, and would certainly have been counted mad by any stranger who could have seen us sitting in the smoke of a fire in the broiling sun! This was the only way to escape them; not that they sting, on the contrary they are quite harmless, and content themselves by slowly crawling all over one, up one's sleeve, down one's neck, and everywhere in hundreds, sucking up what moisture they may — what an excellent flavour their honey must have!
On a gum-tree near the pool some initials were carved, and near them a neatly executed kangaroo. The second name I recognised as that of Billy Janet, the first to find alluvial gold at Lake Darlot. He was one of the Kimberley prospectors in the old days of the '87 rush. Keeping north from the Janet Creek we crossed stony tablelands timbered with gums, and numerous ravines and small creeks, until, on following down a nicely grassed gorge with a creek running through it, we struck the dry bed of the Mary River on November 25th. Henceforth our path lay through pleasant places; shady trees, long grass, and frequent pools of water in the shingly beds of the creeks made a welcome change after the awful desolation of the desert. Indications of white men were now constantly met with — marked trees, old camps, and horse-tracks. Striking north from the Mary, over plains of spinifex and grass, passing many queer, fort-like hills, we reached the Margaret River, a noble creek, even when dry as we saw it. Nice grass plains extend along its banks, and the timber and bush is alive with the sounds of birds, whose bright plumage was indeed good to look upon. Cockatoos and parrots of the most gorgeous colouring darted here and there amongst the trees, and every now and then a swamp-pheasant would fly shrieking from the branches above.