Spinifex and Sand/Part VI/Chapter I

Part VI: The Journey HomeEdit

Chapter I: Return Journey BeginsEdit

We left Hall's Creek, on our return journey, on March 22, 1897. Taking the road to Flora Valley we passed Brockman — where, by the way, lives a famous person, known by the unique title of "Mother Deadfinish." This good lady is the most curious of her sex that I have ever seen; now a little dried-up, wizened old woman of Heaven knows what age, she was in her younger days a lady of wonderful energy. She came overland from Queensland, accompanying her husband who, in the early days of the rush, sought to turn an honest penny by the sale of "sly grog." However, he died on the road, so his mourning widow carried through the job without him, and successfully withstood the trials of the journey, including heat, fever, and blacks. The latter were very numerous, and gave great trouble to the early diggers, spearing their horses and very often the men themselves. Many skirmishes ensued, and, so it is said, "Mother Deadfinish" handled her Winchester with the best of them! Eventually she arrived at the diggings, and has been there ever since, making a living by the sale of goat's milk, fowls, eggs, and a few vegetables. She is quite a character and worth talking to, but not always worth listening to; for her language is notorious; indeed, it is a recognised form of amusement for the diggers to bring into their conversation certain topics, such as the Warden, or the Police, who are so especially distasteful to her that ordinary language cannot express her feelings. In the same way that a boy delights to stir up a monkey and hear him chatter, the fossicker bent on recreation rouses the old lady to feats of swearing far beyond the scope of most people. No man has yet been found who could withstand her onslaught. I saw her angry once! She positively alarmed me; the three witches in Macbeth thrown into one would be of no account in comparison. Had she lived a century or two ago she would infallibly have been burnt.

Group of explorers

A few miles past the Brockman the auriferous country is cut off by what is locally known as the "Sandstone" — a sheer, wall-like range named the Albert Edward.

Just below the gorge where the Elvire River (a tributary of the Ord River) breaks through the range is situated Flora Valley Cattle Station, the property of the brothers Gordon. A charming little place, after the rains; the homestead stands on a high bank above the river, here fringed with high, shady trees. Beyond the homestead and the yards, a fine plain of grass stretches out, surrounded by rough and rocky hills. As charming as their little place were the owners, the most kind-hearted and hospitable folk it is possible to imagine. Here we stayed a few days to get some meat salted for our journey; nothing would satisfy the two brothers but that they must find the finest bullock on their run, kill it, and give it to us. Flora Valley is a great place for the blacks, who live there in scores, camped by the river, and fed by the kind-hearted squatters. Leaving the station and travelling South-East, our route lay through a few low hills, and then we came out upon the Denison Downs, most magnificent plains of grass.

The first few days of a journey are most unsettled, saddles do not fit, packs will not ride, the animals will not agree, and dozens of like annoyances. Our three new camels, Bluey, Hughie, and Wattie, were almost unmanageable; for not only had they been running loose for some time, but had never been well behaved or well looked after. Bluey was a dreadfully wild brute, and all but brought Warri, who was riding him, to grief; after bucking and plunging and trying all manner of tricks, he stampeded at his fullest speed, with his head towards some overhanging branches, under which he might have passed with impunity, but they must have crushed Warri en route.

Luckily I was just in time to get Highlander between the tree and the camel, and so saved a nasty accident. Besides these small troubles, Breaden and Godfrey were suffering agonies from "sandy blight," a sort of ophthalmia, which is made almost unbearable by the clouds of flies, the heat, the glare, and the dust. Breaden luckily was able to rest in a dark room at Flora Valley and recovered, or at least sufficiently so to be able to travel; Godfrey was very bad indeed, quite blind and helpless. At night we pitched his mosquito-net for him — for these insects are simply ravenous, and would eat one alive or send one mad in this part of the country — and made him as comfortable as possible; in the morning, until I had bathed his eyes with warm water he was blinded by the matter running from them: then during the day he sat blindfolded on The Monk, one of the horses — a most unpleasant condition for travelling.

File:Spinifex and Sand Illustration 42.jpg
Just in time [Missing image]

Fortunately it was not for long, for soon we cut the Sturt Creek, and, following it, reached the Denison Downs Homestead — the last settlement to the southward, and I should say the most out-of-the-way habitation in Australia of to-day. The nearest neighbours are nearly one hundred miles by road, at Flora Valley; in every other direction there is a blank, hundreds of miles in extent. A solitary enough spot in all conscience! Yet for the last ten years two men have lived here, taking their chances of sickness, drought, floods, and natives; raising cattle in peace and contentment. Terribly rough, uncouth chaps, of course? Not a bit of it! — two men, gentlemen by birth and education, one the brother of a bishop, the other a man who started life as an artist in Paris. A rough life does not necessarily make a rough man, and here we have the proof, for Messrs. Stretch and Weekes are as fine a pair of gentlemen as need be. How they came to migrate to such a spot is soon told; they brought cattle over during the rush, hoping to make a large fortune; however, the rush "petered out," half their cattle died, and with the remainder they formed their station, and have remained there ever since, year by year increasing their herd, now numbering some four thousand head, and looking forward to the time when they hope to be well repaid for their labours. A large, single-roomed iron shed, on the bank of a fine big pool, is their home, and there with their flocks and herds they live, like the patriarchs of old, happy and contented. In fact, the only people I have ever come across, who seemed really satisfied with life are some of these far-away squatters.

Numerous natives were collected round the station, and about them Mr. Stretch told me many interesting things. Their marriage laws were expounded to me over and over again, but without pencil and paper nothing can be learned, so confusing are they.

It was not until my return that I worked out the following relationships, but I feel confident of their accuracy: —


The aboriginals of Northern and Central Australia are governed in their social life by marriage laws and class systems of the most intricate kind. It is generally supposed that these laws have for their object prevention of consanguinity and incest. The laws are strictly adhered to, any offender against them being punished by death. I owe the information on this subject to Mr. Stretch, who took great pains to make clear to me the fundamental principles, from which I have worked out the various combinations. I have tried to arrange these laws and the relationships resulting from them in an intelligible form, and have been greatly aided by a paper by Mr. Gillen, published in the "Horn Scientific Expedition," on the McDonnell Range tribes. I was unable to get the tribal names, but this, for the purposes of explanation only, is unnecessary.

The aboriginals in question belong to the Eastern district of Kimberley generally, and more particularly to the Sturt Creek. These natives are descended from eight original couples, who have given their names to the eight classes into which the tribe is now divided.

For simplicity's sake I will assume that in place of eight there were four original classes. This will illustrate the principle equally well, and be far less involved.

Let A, B, C, and D represent the names of the four classes — to one of which every native belongs.

1. The first law is that — Natives belonging to class A may only intermarry with class B, and natives belonging to C may only intermarry with class D.

2. The progeny of a man and woman of intermarrying classes is of a different class from either father or mother.

Thus a man of class B marries a woman of class A, but their offspring (male or female) is of class D.

Let Am represent a male of class A.

Let Af represent a female of class A, and similarly Bm, Bf, &c.

Let Ap represent progeny who belong to class A, and similarly Bp, Cp, Dp.

Law 2 may now be set down as under —

   Af + Bm       Am + Bf       Cf + Dm       Cm + Df
   -------       -------       -------       -------
      Dp            Cp            Bp            Ap

3. The first law holds good with the progeny of these combinations, i.e., Dp can only marry one of class C — though neither the father nor mother of Dp could marry into class C; similarly for Cp, &c.

4. Dp recognises as father or mother all members of classes A and B; similarly Cp, &c.

This explains the seeming absurdity of the answer one receives from natives to questions concerning their relationships to others. An old man, for instance, may point out a young girl and say, "That one my mother," for the girl belongs to the same class as his actual father or mother.

5. All the progeny of classes A and B are brothers and sisters; similarly C and D.

Thus taking Dp2 to represent the progeny of an Ap and a Bp

   Af + Bm          Ap + Bp
   ---------        --------
      Dp               Dp2

All of class Dp recognise class Dp2 (though of another generation) as brothers and sisters. For this reason there is no absurdity in a small boy pointing out a very aged woman as his sister.

6. A man may have as many wives as he can get, so long as these laws are adhered to.

Let us now see what degrees of kindred are prohibited by these laws.

Let us take the case of a man of class A. He can only marry a woman of class B, whose parents must therefore have belonged to classes C and D her mother being a C and her father a D.

Therefore his wife's mother and father belong to classes with which he may not intermarry.

Therefore a man may not marry —

  1. His mother-in-law.
  2. The sister of his wife's mother.
  3. The sister of his wife's father.
  4. Nor the sister of any one of the three.
  5. Nor can he marry his sister.

But he may marry —

His wife's sisters (sisters by blood or tribal class).

And as far as I can see, no law prevents a man from marrying his grandmother should he so desire.