The undertaking in which he was now engaged was in rather a critical condition. The entire length of the route, from Adelaide to Port Darwin, would be about two thousand miles, and over the central section of eight hundred miles, passing through, as some would have thought, the most difficult part of the line, the wire had been already carried. And after some further delay this had been connected with Adelaide. But about six hundred miles at the northern extremity still remained unfinished. The first expedition for the purpose had absolutely failed, and one or two attempts made since had not been any more successful. The chief superintendent of the work was either about to start for Port Darwin by sea, or was already on his way. And Mr. Fetherston's expedition was to meet him in the north. They expected to hear of one another somewhere about the Daly Waters. So there would be no work but simply travelling until that point was reached; none, at least, for Mr. Fetherston's party.
Mr. Fetherston introduced us to his chief assistant, Mr. Berry, telling us that we could do no better than take his advice about our preparation for the journey. Mr. Berry was also a veteran bushman and an experienced surveyor. He had been to Cooper's Creek twice, and he knew the Darling from Bourke to Wentworth as well as King William Street and the North Terrace. So Jack and I put ourselves into his hands. We purchased two strong saddle horses, each with colonial saddles of the sort used by stockmen, and everything to match. We hired a man, specially recommended as a good bushman by Mr. Berry. This man was to ride one horse and to lead another, so that we should have one spare horse in case of accident. Mr. Fetherston introduced us also to the department which had oversight of the work. And they allowed us to pay a bulk sum to cover our expenses on the journey. The sum seemed to me very moderate, but, as Berry explained, "it was only to cover tucker and tents;" and the former was to be of a very simple and primitive sort, consisting simply of tea and sugar, salt meat and flour, and lime-juice, and we were to manage our cooking the best way we could. The store waggons would carry tobacco and soap; but these were to be sold, and Mr. Berry advised us to take a private supply of the former. We also procured a revolver each, and as many cartridges as we could conveniently carry. We each provided ourselves with a pair of blankets, an opossum rug, a couple of changes of coarse outside clothing, and half-a-dozen flannel shirts. Our dressing gear was limited to a comb and a tooth-brush each, with a few coarse towels. The towels and shirts we hoped to be able to wash from time to time on the way, and Mr. Berry told us that at depôts along the line there would sometimes be a supply of flannel shirts, and moleskin trousers, and cabbage-tree hats. The cabbage-tree hat was the head gear that we adopted by his advice.
Before leaving Adelaide we put our money in the bank, arranging that it should bear interest at some low rate for six months, and then we made our wills, which we left in the safe belonging to the bank. By Mr. Fetherston's advice we took very little money with us. A few sovereigns and some silver, he said, would be more than enough. Whatever we might buy at the Government depôts would be paid for by cheque, and if we should have occasion and opportunity to purchase fresh horses our cheques, endorsed by Mr. Fetherston, would be readily accepted.
Mr. Berry, with the horses and waggons, left Adelaide within a week of our arrival here. Mr. Fetherston, Jack, and I, remained a week or ten days longer. It was arranged that we should join them at Port Augusta, whence the real start would be made. Most of the time thus gained Jack and I spent in trying to make ourselves as well acquainted as possible with the route we were to travel by, and its position with reference to the other parts of Australia. In the Government office there were several charts and plans which we were permitted to study and to copy. The route was in the main identical with Stuart's track, but of much of the northern extremity it seemed to us doubtful if it had ever been surveyed at all. Of the other parts, however, a good deal was known, and the creeks and ranges were laid down with much apparent precision. Parts of the route might prove to be almost impracticable after a dry season, but as far as our information went, the worst country would be met with, not in the far interior but somewhere between Port Augusta and a point a little north of Lake Eyre.
Mr. Fetherston, Jack, and I, left Port Adelaide for Port Augusta the first week in November in a slow little steamer that took near a week on the passage; and we had to stay nearly another week at Port Augusta before the overland party arrived. I remember nothing of Port Augusta except a very miserable public-house, at which we lodged, and the sand hills, long, low, and white.
On the 20th of November we were well on the road, and we hoped to reach Daly Waters in about three months, and Mr. Fetherston expected that the line would be open to Port Darwin in about three months more. I may as well say here that it was in fact opened in the month of August, just nine months after we left Port Augusta.
We travelled over a very miserable country for some weeks. Not a really green thing was to be seen, and water was very scarce and bad. And the heat was excessive, far worse than we found it on any other part of the route; far worse, indeed, than any heat that I have ever endured either in Australia or elsewhere.
But after we had passed Lake Eyre a little way the country and the climate began to improve. And we had pleasant enough travelling until we got far beyond Alice's Springs. We had reached or passed the seventeenth degree of latitude before the water began to get very scarce or the ground very difficult again. There was not much variety in the scenery. We passed through long tracts of wooded country, and again over nearly treeless plains, and again over a succession of low hills, some bald and some covered with forest. Though none of them attained any considerable height, they sometimes assumed very remarkable forms. We met several creeks whose course was in the main dry, with here and there, however, ponds or water holes from ten or twenty to several hundred feet long. At the larger ponds we often got a variety of water fowl, but in general along the route there was a great scarcity of game.
Mr. Berry had in his own special service a certain Australian black with whom Jack and I formed an intimate acquaintance—of which and of whom I must tell you something; for if it had not been for him Jack and I would never have left the beaten track, and so this book would never have been written.
His name was Gioro; that was the way we came to spell it, although J o r o would perhaps have been the better and simpler spelling, He was the most remarkable Australian black that I have ever met, and I have met a great many under a great variety of conditions and circumstances, and I find myself unable to differ seriously from the common estimate which places them near the very end of the scale. As a general rule (and I have only known the one exception), they have no really great qualities, none of those which are sometimes attributed to other barbarous races, as, for instance, to the American red man and even to the negro. But Gioro had qualities that would have done honour to the highest race on earth. He always spoke the truth, and he seemed to take it for granted that those to whom he spoke would also speak the truth. He had lived with white men in the North, and they must have been fine fellows, for he spoke of them always with respect, whereas he spoke with disgust and contempt of certain mean whites of Adelaide who had attempted to cheat him in some way. He never put himself forward, but if he were put forward by others who were in power he accepted the position as his right quite simply. He was as honest as the sun, and he was loyal through and through. He had even the manner of a gentleman. Mr. Fetherston's tent was notably the largest in our camp, and the union jack floated over it on Sundays. And every Sunday all the officers and volunteers, that is to say, Mr. Fetherston, Mr. Berry and his assistant, Jack and myself, dined there in a sort of state; and it was Mr. Fetherston's wont to have in one of the men to make the number even. And Gioro took his turn with us two or three times and was far the best conducted of those who were so invited. His ease of manner was perfect: he was as gentle and suave as an English nobleman; there was not a spark of self-assertion about him, and yet there was, or there seemed to be, a quiet consciousness of equality with his entertainers. He was also very courteous without being in the least bit cringing. He was glad always to teach us anything that we didn't know and that he knew, and he was grateful for being taught something in turn. Jack, for instance, took a great interest in the boomerang, and Gioro took much pains to teach him how to use it and how to make it. Jack had been distinguished at Oxford for his athletics. And these were a great bond between him and Gioro. He taught him several athletic feats, and Gioro's great suppleness of body enabled him to acquire them readily.
It was curious to notice the impression which his character made upon the men. His name suggested a very ready abbreviation, and indeed, he was often known in the camp as "Jo." But I never heard any one but Jack address him so. And Jack, as I have said, was more intimate with him than any of us. One day, quite near the beginning of the expedition, Fetherston called him "Sir Gioro." I don't quite know what he meant, probably nothing more than a humourous recognition of the black man's unassuming dignity. Anyhow, the title stuck, and one heard his name afterwards, quite as often with the addition as without it.
He had not been at all corrupted by his intercourse with white men. That intercourse had indeed been very limited. He had spent the greater part of two years with some settlers near the Gulf, and he learned there a sort of pigeon English which enabled him to converse with us. He had come to Adelaide with some of the party who had been engaged in one of the unsuccessful attempts to complete the northern extremity of the overland wire. His engagement with Mr. Berry was terminable at pleasure on either side. From the account which he gave of himself I should think that he was about twenty-five years old: he had visited his own people since the commencement of his sojourn with white men, and he intended to visit them again. I had learned all this from him before we were halfway to the Daly Waters.
One evening, after we had passed the tropic, we camped earlier than usual because we had come upon a creek where there were tracks of wallaby and other game, and Gioro was very busy setting snares for them and showing us how to make and set such snares. The occupation seemed to remind him of his sojourn with the white men near the Gulf. So when we sat down to smoke, Gioro, Jack and I, Gioro said, "Way there," pointing to the north-east after looking at the stars, "two three white men, sheep, two three, two three, two three, great many; one man not white man, not black man, pigtail man, and Gioro." "And what," said Jack, "were they doing there, and what were you doing there?" "Pigtailman cook, wash clothes, white man ride after sheep, dogs too, Gioro ride, speak English, snare wallaby."
"How long did he stay there?" One year six months.
"How long since he left?" One year.I will not give you much of Gioro's dialect; it was many days before I could readily understand him, and it was not a sort of dialect which is worth studying for its own sake. I learned from him that he belonged to a strong and populous tribe which occupied part of the country to the west of the Daly Waters. They had a king or chief whom Gioro held in the highest regard. His name was Bomero: the accent on the first syllable and the final "o" short like the "o" in rock. This Bomero was a great warrior and a mighty strong man, and possessed of great personal influence. It was my fate, as you shall hear, to make his acquaintance, and I found him by no means the equal of Gioro in any of the greatest qualities of the man or the gentleman. Like some public leaders among more civilised people he owed his position partly to his fluent persuasiveness, partly to his violent self-assertiveness, and more than all to what I must call his roguery. Black men and white men are wonderfully like in some things.
Bomero seemed to have attained his power on the strength of these endowments alone. At least I could not learn anything decisive about his ancestry. Indeed, I could not gather that his people had any but the most elementary sense of the family relation, although tribal feeling, as distinct from family feeling, was very strong among them. Gioro had some recollection of "Old man Bomero," and his recollections would sometimes appear to indicate that Old man Bomero was a remarkable black fellow, but I could not discover that he ever attained to any position of special eminence among them. He certainly had not been their king as Bomero was.
I was at this time beginning to have some thought of a couple of days' expedition into the unexplored country to the west of the Daly Waters, and I had hinted as much to Jack. And I thought that the present was a good opportunity to find how far Gioro might be depended on as a guide. So I filled his pipe with my own tobacco (he was quite able to distinguish and prefer the flavour), and then I gave Jack a look to bespeak his attention, and began to put my questions.
"When would Sir Gioro see his own people again?"Several slow puffs, a keen, eager, honest look, yet, withal, a cautious look, and then,
"May be one two months."
Then I said, "No water out west—die of thirst?"
"Now," said Gioro, nodding his head affirmatively, "but in one two months, no, no."
I saw that he meant either that after three months there would be wet weather, or that within three months we should have a better-watered country westward. So I said, pointing west, "What's out there?"
"No water, no grass, no duck, no black fellow."
"But," said I, looking northward, "we go on one two months, and then?" making a half-turn to face the west.
"Then," said he, "plenty grass, plenty fish, plenty duck, plenty black fellow."
"Everywhere?" said I, sweeping my arm all round the horizon.
"No, no, here, there, there. Gioro know the way, Bomero know the way, find Bomero, find water."
"What," said I, not understanding him, "Bomero make rain?"
But he replied with great contempt, "Bomero make rain! No, no. Bomero not witchfellow. No fear. Bomero make witchfellow make rain."
I think it was on this occasion that we ascertained that Gioro fully intended to go away westward in search of his tribe, who, as he expected, would be found in about three months at a point with which he was familiar at some uncertain distance from the Daly Waters.
They kept a great feast every year. It seemed to have some connection with the Pleiades and Aldebaran, for it was always celebrated when these stars were in conjunction with the sun. Several kindred tribes kept it, each in his own place westward, and every three years all the tribes who kept the feast celebrated it all together in a place farther west still. The triennial celebration was approaching, and Gioro intended to be there. He knew the way by which Bomero and his people would be travelling; he would cross their course, meet them, and go with them to the trysting-place.
Jack suggested that he and I and Gioro should all go together and visit his tribe.
Gioro hesitated for a little while, but after some apparently careful thought he said yes, he thought we could go.
After that we often talked it over with him, learning from him what we could about the disposition of his tribesmen towards white men, and about the distance of the triennial meeting-place of the tribes. It was quite impossible to say how far or how near this meeting-place might be; and on this depended in my judgment the practicability of the scheme. But at least, I thought, if the black fellows were friendly we might, under Gioro's guidance and protection, see a good deal of strange life and return home in a few days by the way we came. As far as I could gather, Gioro was the only one of his tribe that had ever seen a white man, although they had often heard of them, and curiosity rather than fear seemed to have been for some time the dominant feeling about them. But quite lately, for some reason or other, their fear began to exceed their curiosity.
The cause of this change was evidently something that had happened in the far west; some encounter with white men as Jack and I thought at first. But we had reason afterwards, as you will hear, to think that we were mistaken.
One evening I said to Gioro, "When did you see your people last?" He looked at the stars, and I knew he was going to be exact. Then he said, "One year."
"Did you tell Bomero then about the white men?"
"Yes, tell Bomero. Bomero never see white man."
"What did Bomero say?"
"Bomero say, white man all same dibble dibble.""But Bomero never saw dibble dibble?"
"Yes, Bomero saw dibble dibble one, two, three, two two, two three, great many."
"Far away west."
"Where black fellows meet every three years?"
"Bomero saw white men, not dibble dibble."
"No fear, Bomero saw dibble dibble and run away. Bomero run away from no man, black man, pigtail man, white man; but Bomero run from dibble dibble."
"Did any black fellow but Bomero see dibble dibble?"
"Yes, two three black fellow, more, all run away."
"And what like was dibble dibble?"
"White man all same dibble dibble."
That was all I could ever get out of him on the subject.
I spoke to Mr. Fetherston about our purpose of going westward with Gioro. He shook his head very gravely. "Well, Easterley," said he, "if you will be guided by me you will do nothing of the sort. You see we know next to nothing of those north-west blacks, and if you go it is even betting that you never come back. If you get, say, a hundred miles west of here you will be entirely dependent on the blacks. You will have to live among them, and to live as they live, if they let you live at all."
"But we have our compasses and the telegraph line."
"That would be all very well if it were a country through which you could make a 'bee line.' But you will want water and food, and you cannot get either without the help of the blacks."
"But," said I, "Gioro will come back with us."
"Gioro is a very good fellow, but if I were you I would not put myself altogether in his hands like that. He won't understand your anxiety to get away; he will think you are very well as you are. His interest in his own people will make him careless about you."
"But I know Gioro well, and I should trust him anywhere." So said I, and Jack eagerly agreed with me.
"But," said Mr. Fetherston, "Gioro may die or may be killed; they fight a great deal, and those who have been among white men are often subject to special enmity."
"I expect we shall have to chance that," said Jack. "Any of us may die or be killed."
"Well, gentlemen, wilful men you know—— I don't pretend to any right to constrain you, only let it be fully understood that if you go, you go against my wish and in defiance of my advice."
We agreed that everyone should know that, and so the matter dropped.
The road was now growing very difficult, the water scarcer, and the timber very much denser. But we pushed on little by little from day to day. We were ascending slowly the watershed between the north and south, and we had left behind us the last point to which the wire had yet been carried, when one morning Mr. Fetherston, after a specially careful observation, announced that within three days we might expect to meet the superintendent's party from the north, if all had gone well with them. The same afternoon Gioro took me aside, and told me that he meant to start the day after the next in search of Bomero and his people. We had come, he said, to certain landmarks that he recognised. The tribe would be already on the march, and he was confident that he could pick them up by following the water until it crossed their track. Next day was not Sunday, but we made a Sunday of it. We camped early, the Union Jack was hoisted, and Mr. Fetherston, the officers and volunteers, with one guest selected from the men in charge of the teams, sat down to dinner together. The man selected was a bushman of great and well-known experience, and, like Mr. Fetherston, he had been with Stuart on one or more of his exploring expeditions. I guessed from his presence that Mr. Fetherston intended that I should before the evening was over state my intention of going westward. Accordingly, when dinner was over and as we were about to light our pipes, I said before them all,
"Well, Mr. Fetherston, my friend Wilbraham and I are going to leave you for a few days at least. We propose to go westward with Sir Gioro, in order to see something of the aborigines. We may be back within a week, but we may push on with the blacks into the interior, and perhaps we may make for the north-west or west coast."
Mr. Fetherston turned to the man of whom I spoke just now and said:
"Well, Tim, what do you say to that?"
The man turned to me and said: "I didn't quite catch all you said, governor. Would you mind saying it again?"
I repeated what I had said. "Well," he replied, "it has been a main wet season out north, that I can see, and if you don't go more than forty or fifty miles from the track you may get back within a week safe enough." He paused for a moment, and looked me steadily in the face, and went on—
"But, governor, if you go for the second part of the programme you'll never see a white man again."
"Why so?" said I.
"Well," said he, "you are depending on Gioro. Now Gioro is a good fellow, far the best black fellow I ever knew by a very long way. And my best hope for you is that Gioro will take you back once he has had a look at his people. He will, if he knows what will happen as well as I know it."
"And what will happen?" said I.
"Well, they'll kill Gioro before he has been very long among them. Sooner or later they always kill the blacks that have been among white men."
"And then," struck in Jack, "I suppose they will kill us."
"They may and they may not. You have ten times a better chance that Gioro. But if they don't you will be as good as their slaves for life. You won't be able to get back unless they take you back, and they will never take you back."
"Suppose we start to return on our own account?"
"Well," said the man, "if you are not more than forty or fifty miles to the west of the wire when you make the start eastward, and if you are able to make straight for the wire you may get back. But if you are much further away, or if you have to go a long way round you'll die of thirst or hunger in the bush." I noticed that he put thirst first.
"And, mind," he went on, "the chances are that you will be three times fifty miles to the west before you think of turning back."
"Because it's easy enough to travel with the blacks, easy enough for men of your sort, men that are hardy and are up to larks. The blacks know how to get food and water and fire, and you can live while in their company. It's only when you leave them that you will be done for."
Here Jack chimed in again. "Never mind," said he, "Mr. Easterly and I are going to try it, win or lose. Besides, after what you have told us, I wouldn't let poor 'Jo' go alone. We'll save him and he'll help us."
The answer came slowly. "Jo is your trump card, certainly . . . . and your only one."
Then Fetherston spoke. "Gentlemen, if I were your master I should absolutely forbid you to go, but I have not the right to interfere with your liberty. But I am glad that you have had the benefit of Mr. Blundell's experience." (Mr. Blundell was Tim.) "His opinion and mine coincide exactly."
"Well," said I, "Mr. Fetherston, we will be careful and we will bear in mind your advice, and I think it is on the whole most probable that you will see us back within the week."
"Possible," said Jack.They all looked very sober then, and nothing more was said on the subject, and indeed little on any subject until the company broke up.