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Spinifex And Sand by David W. Carnegie

 

PART II

FIRST PROSPECTING EXPEDITION

CHAPTER I

The Rush To Kurnalpi—We Reach Queen Victoria Spring

Shortly after Lord Douglas's return, I took the train to York, where “Little Carnegie,” who had formed one of the team to draw the gold-laden express waggon from Bayley's to the head of the railway line, was running in one of Mr. Monger's paddocks. The Mongers are the kings of York, an agricultural town, and own much property thereabouts. York and its surroundings in the winter-time might, except for the corrugated-iron roofs, easily be in England. Many of the houses are built of stone, and enclosed in vineyards and fruit gardens. The Mongers' house was quite after the English style, so also was their hospitality. From York I rode along the old track to Southern Cross, and a lonely ride I had, for the train had superseded the old methods of travel, much to the disgust of some of the “cockies,” or small farmers, who expressed the opinion that the country was going to the dogs, “them blooming railways were spoiling everything”; the reason for their complaint being, that formerly, all the carrying had been in the teamsters' hands, as well as a considerable amount of passenger traffic.

I had one or two “sells” on the road, for former stopping-places were now deserted, and wells had been neglected, making it impossible, from their depth, for me to get any water. I was fortunate in falling in with a teamster and his waggon—a typical one of his class; on first sight they are the most uncouth and foul-tongued men that it is possible to imagine. But on further acquaintance one finds that the language is as superficial as the dirt with which they cannot fail to be covered, since they are always walking in a cloud of dust. My friend on this occasion was apostrophising his horses with oaths that made my flesh creep, to help them up a steep hill. The top reached, he petted and soothed his team in most quaint language. At the bottom of the slope he was a demon of cruelty, at its summit a kind-hearted human being! I lunched with him, sitting under his waggon for shade, and found him most entertaining—nor was the old pony neglected, for he was given a fine feed of chaff and oats.

In due time I reached Coolgardie, where Lord Douglas and our new partner, Mr. Driffield (since drowned in a boating accident on the Swan River), joined me. They had engaged the services of one Luck and his camels, and had ridden up from the Cross. The rush to Kurnalpi had just broken out, so Driffield, Luck, and I joined the crowd of fortune-hunters; and a queer-looking crowd they were too, for every third or fourth swagman carried on his shoulder a small portable condenser, the boiler hanging behind him and the cooler in front; every party, whether with horses, carts, or camels, carried condensers of one shape or another; for the month was January, no surface water existed on the track, and only salt water could be obtained, by digging in the salt lakes which the road passed. The nearest water to the scene of the rush was a salt lake seven miles distant, and this at night presented a strange appearance. Condensers of every size and capacity fringed the two shores of a narrow channel; under each was a fire, and round each all night long could be seen figures, stoking the burning wood or drawing water, and in the distance the sound of the axe could be heard, for at whatever time a party arrived they had forthwith to set about “cooking water.” The clattering and hammering the incessant talking, and the figures flitting about in the glare, reminded one of a crowded open-air market with flaring lamps and frequent coffee stalls. Kurnalpi was known at first as “Billy-Billy,” or as “The Tinker's Rush”—the first name was supposed by some to be of native origin, by others to indicate the amount of tin used in the condensing plants—“Billy,” translated for those to whom the bush is unfamiliar, meaning a tin pot for boiling tea in, and other such uses.

Certainly there was plenty of tin at Kurnalpi, and plenty of alluvial gold as well for the lucky ones—amongst which we were not numbered. Poor Driffield was much disgusted; he had looked upon gold-finding as the simplest thing in the world—and so it is if you happen to look in the right place! and when you do so it's a hundred to one that you think your own cleverness and knowledge guided you to it! Chance? Oh dear, no! From that time forth your reputation is made as “a shrewd fellow who knows a thing or two”; and if your find was made in a mine, you are an “expert” at once, and can command a price for your report on other mines commensurate with the richness of your own!

As the gold would not come to us, and my partner disliked the labour of seeking it, we returned to Coolgardie, and set about looking after the mines we already had. Financial schemes or business never had any charms for me; when therefore I heard that the Company had cabled out that a prospecting party should be despatched at once, I eagerly availed myself of the chance of work so much to my taste. As speed was an object, and neither camels nor men procurable owing to the rush, we did not waste any time in trying to form a large expedition, such as the soul of the London director loveth, but contented ourselves with the camels already to hand.

On March 24, 1894, we started; Luck, myself, and three camels—Omerod, Shimsha, and Jenny by name—with rations for three months, and instructions to prospect the Hampton Plains as far as the supply of surface water permitted; failing a long stay in that region I could go where I thought best.

To the east and north-east of Coolgardie lie what are known as the Hampton Plains—so named by Captain Hunt, who in 1864 led an expedition past York, eastward, into the interior. Beyond the Hampton Plains he was forced back by the Desert, and returned to York with but a sorry tale of the country he had seen. “An endless sea of scrub,” was his apt description of the greater part of the country. Compared to the rest, the Hampton Plains were splendid pastoral lands. Curiously enough, Hunt passed and repassed close to what is now Coolgardie, and, though reporting quartz and ironstone, failed to hit upon any gold. Nor was he the only one; Coolgardie had several narrow squeaks of being found out.

Giles and Forrest both traversed districts since found to be gold-bearing, and though, like Hunt, reporting, and even bringing back specimens of quartz and ironstone, had the bad luck to miss finding even a “colour.”

Alexander Forrest, Goddard, and Lindsay all passed within appreciable distance of Coolgardie without unearthing its treasures, though in Lindsay's journal the geologist to the expedition pronounced the country auriferous. When we come to consider how many prospectors pass over gold, it is not so wonderful that explorers, whose business is to see as much country as they can, in as short a time as possible, should have failed to drop on the hidden wealth.

Bayley and Ford, its first discoverers, were by no means the first prospectors to camp at Coolgardie. In 1888 Anstey and party actually found colours of gold, and pegged out a claim, whose corner posts were standing at the time of the first rush; but nobody heeded them, for the quartz was not rich enough.

In after years George Withers sunk a hole and “dry blew” the wash not very far from Bayley's, yet he discovered no gold. Macpherson, too, poked out beyond Coolgardie, and nearly lost his life in returning, and, indeed, was saved by his black-boy, who held him on the only remaining horse.

Other instances could be given, all of which show that Nature will not be bustled, and will only divulge her secrets when the ordained time has arrived. It has been argued that since Giles, for example, passed the Coolgardie district without finding gold, therefore there is every probability of the rest of the country through which he passed being auriferous. It fails to occur to those holding this view, that a man may recognise possible gold-bearing country without finding gold, or to read the journals of these early travellers, in which they would see that the Desert is plainly demarcated, and the change in the nature of the country, the occurrence of quartz, and so forth, always recorded. These folk who so narrowly missed the gold were not the only unfortunate ones; those responsible for the choosing for their company of the blocks of land on the Hampton Mains were remarkably near securing all the plums.

Bayley's is one and a half miles from their boundary, Kalgoorlie twelve miles, Kurnalpi seven miles, and a number of other places lie just on the wrong side of the survey line to please the shareholders, though had all these rich districts been found on their land, I fancy there would have been a pretty outcry from the general public.

At the time of which I am writing this land was considered likely to be as rich as Ophir. Luck and I were expected to trip up over nuggets, and come back simply impregnated with gold. Unfortunately we not only found no gold, but formed a very poor idea of that part of the property which we were able to traverse, though, given a good supply of water, it should prove valuable stock country. Before we had been very long started on our journey we met numerous parties returning from that region, though legally they had no right to prospect there; each told us the same story—every water was dry; and since every one we had been to was all but dry, we concluded that they were speaking the truth; so when we arrived at Yindi, a large granite rock with a cavity capable of holding some twenty thousand gallons of water, and found Yindi dry, we decided to leave the Hampton Plains and push out into new country.

Queen Victoria Spring, reported permanent by Giles, lay some seventy miles to the eastward, and attracted our attention; for Lindsay had reported quartz country near the Ponton, not far from the Spring, and the country directly between the Spring and Kurnalpi was unknown.

On April 15th we left Yindi, having seen the last water twenty-six miles back near Gundockerta, and passed Mount Quinn, entering a dense thicket of mulga, which lasted for the next twenty miles. It was most awkward country to steer through, and I often overheard Luck muttering to himself that I was going all wrong, for he was a first-rate bushman and I a novice. I had bought a little brumby from a man we met on the Plains, an excellent pony, and most handy in winding his way through the scrub. Luck rode Jenny and led the other two camels. Hereabouts we noticed a large number of old brush fences—curiously I have never once seen a new one—which the natives had set up for catching wallabies. The fences run out in long wings, which meet in a point where a hole is dug. Neither wallabies nor natives were to be seen, though occasionally we noticed where “bardies” had been dug out, and a little further on a native grave, a hole about three feet square by three feet deep, lined at the bottom with gum leaves and strips of bark, evidently ready to receive the deceased. Luck, who knew a good deal about native customs, told me that the grave, though apparently only large enough for a child, was really destined for a grown man. When a man dies his first finger is cut off, because he must not fight in the next world, nor need he throw a spear to slay animals, as game is supplied. The body is then bent double until the knees touch the chin—this to represent a baby before birth; and in this cramped position the late warrior is crammed into his grave, until, according to a semi-civilised boy that I knew, he is called to the happy hunting grounds, where he changes colour! “Black fella tumble down, jump up white fella.” A clear proof that this benighted people have some conception of a better state hereafter.

Once through the scrub, we came again into gum-timbered country, and when fifty miles east of Kurnalpi crossed a narrow belt of auriferous country, but, failing to find water, were unable to stop. In a few miles we were in desert country—undulations of sand and spinifex, with frequent clumps of dense mallee, a species of eucalyptus, with several straggling stems growing from one root, and little foliage except at the ends of the branches, an untidy and melancholy-looking tree. There was no change in the country till after noon on the 18th, when we noticed some grass-trees, or black-boys, smaller than those seen near the coast, and presently struck the outskirts of a little oasis, and immediately after an old camel pad (Lindsay's in 1892, formed by a caravan of over fifty animals), which we followed for a few minutes, until the welcome sight of Queen Victoria Spring met our eyes. A most remarkable spot, and one that cannot be better described than by quoting the words of its discoverer, Ernest Giles, in 1875, who, with a party of five companions, fifteen pack, and seven riding camels, happened on this spring just when they most needed water.

Giles says of it:—

It is the most singularly placed water I have ever seen, lying in a small hollow in the centre of a little grassy flat and surrounded by clumps of funereal pines… the water is no doubt permanent, for it is supplied by the drainage of the sandhills which surround it and it rests on a substratum of impervious clay. It lies exposed to view in a small, open basin, the water being about only one hundred and fifty yards in circumference and from two to three feet deep. Further up the slopes at much higher levels native wells had been sunk in all directions—in each and all of these there was water. Beyond the immediate precincts of this open space the scrubs abound… Before I leave this spot I had perhaps better remark that it might prove a very difficult, perhaps dangerous, place to any other traveller to attempt to find, because although there are many white sandhills in the neighbourhood, the open space on which the water lies is so small in area and so closely surrounded by scrubs, that it cannot be seen from any conspicuous one, nor can any conspicuous sandhill, distinguishable at any distance, be seen from it. On the top of the banks above the wells was a beaten corroboree path, where the denizens of the desert have often held their feasts and dances. Some grass-trees grew in the vicinity of this spring to a height of over twenty feet…

A charming spot indeed! but we found it to be hardly so cheerful as this description would lead one to expect. For at first sight the Spring was dry. The pool of water was now a dry clay-pan; the numerous native wells were there, but all were dry. The prospect was sufficiently gloomy, for our water was all but done, and poor Tommy, the pony, in spite of an allowance of a billy-full per night, was in a very bad way, for we had travelled nearly one hundred miles from the last water, and if this was dry we knew no other that we could reach. However, we were not going to cry before we were hurt and set to work to dig out the soak, and in a short time were rewarded by the sight of water trickling in on all sides, and, by roughly timbering the sides, soon had a most serviceable well—a state of affairs greatly appreciated by Tommy and the camels. This spring or soakage, whichever it may be, is in black sand, though the sand outside the little basin is yellowish white. From what I have heard and read of them it must be something of the nature of what are called “black soil springs.” Giles was right in his description of its remarkable surroundings—unless we had marched right into the oasis, we should perhaps have missed it altogether, for it was unlikely that Lindsay's camel tracks would be visible except where sheltered from the wind by the trees; and our only instruments for navigation were a prismatic and pocket compass, and a watch for rating our travel. I was greatly pleased at such successful steering for a first attempt of any distance, and Luck was as pleased as I was, for to him I owed many useful hints. Yet I was not blind to the fact that it was a wonderful piece of luck to strike exactly a small spot of no more than fifty acres in extent, hidden in the valleys of the sandhills, from whose summits nothing could be seen but similar mounds of white sand. Amongst the white gum trees we found one marked with Lindsay's initials with date. Under this I nailed on a piece of tin, on which I had stamped our names and date. Probably the blacks have long since taken this down and used it as an ornament. Another tree, a pine, was marked W. Blake; who he was I do not know, unless one of Lindsay's party. Not far off was a grave, more like that of a white man than of a native; about its history, too, I am ignorant.

Numerous old native camps surrounded the water, and many weapons, spears, waddies, and coolimans were lying about. The camps had not been occupied for some long time. In the scrub we came on a cleared space, some eighty yards long and ten to twelve feet wide. At each end were heaps of ashes, and down the middle ran a well-beaten path, and a similar one on either side not unlike an old dray track. Evidently a corroboree ground of some kind. From Luck I learnt that north of Eucla, where he had been with a survey party, the natives used such grounds in their initiation ceremonies. A youth on arriving at a certain age may become a warrior, and is then allowed to carry a shield and spear. Before he can attain this honour he must submit to some very horrible rites—which are best left undescribed. Seizing each an arm of the victim, two stalwart “bucks” (as the men are called) run him up and down the cleared space until they are out of breath; then two more take places, and up and down they go until at last the boy is exhausted. This is the aboriginal method of applying anaesthetics. During the operations that follow, the men dance and yell round the fires but the women may not be witnesses of the ceremony. Tribes from all neighbouring districts meet at such times and hold high revel. Evidently Queen Victoria Spring is a favourite meeting-place. I regret that I never had the chance of being present at such a gathering—few white men have. For except in thickly populated districts the ceremonies are rare; the natives are very ready to resent any prying into their mysteries, and Luck only managed it at some risk to himself. Whilst camped at the Spring we made one or two short excursions to the southward, but met with little encouragement. On turning our attention to the opposite direction we found that nearly two hundred miles due north a tract of auriferous country was marked on the map of the Elder Expedition. Between us and that point, the country was unmapped and untrodden except by black-fellows, and it seemed reasonable to suppose that since the belts of country run more or less north and south. we had a fair chance of finding gold-bearing country extending southward. We should be getting a long way from Coolgardie, but if a rich company could not afford to open up the country, who could? To the east we knew that desert existed, to the south the country was known, and to return the way we had come would be only a waste of time. So we decided on the northern course, and chose Mount Shenton, near which a soakage was marked, as our objective point. We were not well equipped for a long march in new country, since we had few camels and scanty facilities for carrying water. By setting to work with the needle we soon had two canvas water-bags made; Luck, who had served in the French navy, like all sailors, was a very handy man in a camp, and could of course sew well, and gave me useful lessons in the handling of a sail-needle.

CHAPTER II

In Unknown Country

On April 22nd we left the spring, steering due north—carrying in all thirty-five gallons of water, though this supply was very perceptibly reduced by evening, owing to the canvas being new; loss by evaporation was lessened by covering the bags with a fly (a sheet of coarse calico). The class of country we encountered the first and second day can stand for the rest of the march. Spinifex plains, undulating sand-plains, rolling sandhills, steep sand-ridges, mallee scrubs, desert-gum forests, and dense thickets of mulga. The last were most unpleasant to travel through; for as we wound our way, one walking ahead to break down the branches, the other leading the camels, and Tommy following behind, every now and again the water-camel banged his precious load against a tree; and we walked with the constant risk of a dead branch ripping the canvas and letting out the water.

On the second evening, in passing through a mallee scrub, we came on a small tract of “kopi country” (powdered gypsum). Here were numerous old native tracks, and we could see where the mallee roots had been dragged up, broken into short pieces, presumably sucked or allowed to drain into some vessel, and stacked in little heaps. Though we knew that the blacks do get water from the mallee roots, and though we were in a spot where it was clear they had done so perhaps a month before, yet our attempts at water-finding were futile. This kopi is peculiar soil to walk over; on the surface there is a hard crust—once through this, one sinks nearly to the knee; the camels of course, from their weight, go much lower.

On the night of the 23rd, we gave Tommy two gallons of water—not much of a drink, but enough to make him tackle the mulga, and spinifex-tops, the only available feed; none but West Australian brumbies could live on such fare, and they will eat anything, like donkeys or goats. On the 24th there was no change, a few quondongs affording a meal for the camels.

The next day we crossed more old native tracks and followed them for some time without any sign of water being near. More tracks the following day, fresher this time; but though doubtless there was water at the end of them, for several reasons we did not follow them far: first, they were leading south-west and we wished to go north; second, the quantity of mallee root heaps, suggested the possibility that the natives could obtain from them sufficient moisture to live upon. I think now that this is most unlikely, and that roots are only resorted to when travelling or in time of great need. However, at that time we were inclined to think it probable, and though we might have sucked roots in place of a drink of tea or water, such a source of supply was absolutely valueless to the camels and pony.

On the 27th we sighted a hill dead ahead, which I named Mount Luck, and on the southern side a nice little plain of saltbush and grass—a pleasant and welcome change. Mount Luck is sheer on its south and east sides and slopes gradually to the north-west; it is of desert sandstone, and from its summit, nearly due east, can be seen an imposing flat-topped hill, which I named Mount Douglas, after my old friend and companion, to the north of this hill two quaint little pinnacles stand up above the scrub to a considerable height.

Poor Tommy was now getting very weak and had to be dragged by the last camel. I had not ridden him since the second day from the Spring; he was famished and worn to a skeleton. His allowance of two gallons a night had continued, which made a considerable hole in our supply, further diminished by the necessity of giving him damper to eat. Poor little pony! It was a cruel sight to see him wandering from pack to pack in camp, poking his nose into every possible opening, and even butting us with his head as if to call attention to his dreadful state, which was only too apparent. “While there's life there's hope,” and every day took us nearer to water—that is if we were to get any at all! So long as we could do so, we must take Tommy with us, who might yet be saved. This, however, was not to be, for on the 28th we again encountered sand-ridges, running at right angles to our course, and these proved too hard for the poor brave brumby. About midday he at last gave in, and with glazed eyes and stiff limbs he fell to the ground. Taking off the saddle he carried, I knelt by his head for a few minutes and could see there was no hope. Poor, faithful friend! I felt like a murderer in doing it, but I knew it was the kindest thing—and finished his sufferings with a bullet. There on the ridge, his bones will lie for many a long day. Brave Tommy, whose rough and unkempt exterior covered a heart that any warhorse might have envied, had covered 135 miles, without feed worth mentioning, and with only eleven gallons of water during that distance, a stage of nearly seven days' duration of very hard travelling indeed, with the weather pretty sultry, though the nights were cool. His death, however, was in favour of our water supply, which was not too abundant. So much had been lost by the bags knocking about on the saddle, by their own pressure against the side of the saddle, and by evaporation, that we had to content ourselves with a quart-potful between us morning and evening—by no means a handsome allowance.

On the 29th, after travelling eight hours through scrubs, we were just about to camp when the shrill “coo-oo” of a black-fellow met our ears; and on looking round we were startled to see some half-dozen natives gazing at us. Jenny chose at that moment to give forth the howl that only cow-camels can produce; this was too great a shock for the blacks, who stampeded pell-mell, leaving their spears and throwing-sticks behind them. We gave chase, and, after a spirited run, Luck managed to stop a man. A stark-naked savage this, and devoid of all adornment excepting a waist-belt of plaited grass and a “sporran” of similar material. He was in great dread of the camels and not too sure of us. I gave him something to eat, and, by eating some of it myself, put him more at ease. After various futile attempts at conversation, in which Luck displayed great knowledge of the black's tongue, as spoken a few hundred miles away near Eucla, but which unfortunately was quite lost on this native, we at last succeeded in making our wants understood. “Ingup,” “Ingup,” he kept repeating, pointing with his chin to the North and again to the West. Evidently “Ingup” stood for water; for he presently took us to a small granite rock and pointed out a soak or rock-hole, we could not say which. Whilst we stooped to examine the water-hole, our guide escaped into the scrub and was soon lost to view. Near the rock we found his camp. A few branches leaning against a bush formed his house. In front a fire was burning, and near it a plucked bird lay ready for cooking. Darkness overtook us before we could get to work on the rock-hole, so we turned into the blankets with a more satisfied feeling than we had done for some days past. During the night the blacks came round us. The camels, very tired, had lain down close by, and, quietly creeping to Jenny, I slapped her nose, which awoke her with the desired result, viz., a loud roar. The sound of rapidly retreating feet was heard, and their owners troubled us no more.

So sure were we of the supply in the granite that we gave the camels the few gallons that were left in our bags, and were much disgusted to find the next day that, far from being a soakage, the water was merely contained in a rock-hole, which had been filled in with sand and sticks.

April 30th and May 1st were occupied in digging out the sand and collecting what water we could, a matter of five or six gallons. So bad was this water that the camels would not touch it; however, it made excellent bread, and passable tea. Man, recognising Necessity, is less fastidious than animals who look to their masters to supply them with the best, and cannot realise that in such cases “Whatever is, is best.”

From a broken granite rock North-West of the rock-hole, we sighted numerous peaks to the North, and knew that Mount Shenton could not now be far away. To the East of the rock-hole is a very prominent bluff some fifteen miles distant; this I named Mount Fleming, after Colonel Fleming, then Commandant of the West Australian forces.

May 2nd we reached the hills and rejoiced to find ourselves once more in decent country. Numerous small, dry watercourses ran down from the hills, fringed with grass and bushes. In the open mulga, kangaroos' tracks were numerous, and in the hills we saw several small red kangaroos, dingoes, and emus. At first we found great difficulty in identifying any of the hills; but after much consultation and reference to the map we at last picked out Mount Shenton, and on reaching the hill knew that we were right, for we found Wells' cairn of stones and the marks of his camp and camels. The next difficulty was in finding the soakage, as from a bad reproduction of Wells' map it was impossible to determine whether the soak was at the foot of Mount Shenton or near another hill three miles away. It only remained to search both localities. Our trouble was rewarded by the finding of an excellent little soakage, near the foot of a granite rock, visible due East, from the top of Mount Shenton, some two miles distant. Here we had an abundant supply, and not before it was wanted. The camels had had no water with the exception of a mouthful apiece from the night of April 21st until the night of May 3rd, a period of twelve days, during which we had travelled nearly two hundred miles over very trying ground. The cool nights were greatly in their favour, and yet it was a good performance, more especially that at the end of it they were in pretty fair fettle.

What a joy that water was to us! what a luxury a wash was! and clean clothes! Really it's worth while being half famished and wholly filthy for a few days, that one may so thoroughly enjoy such delights afterwards! I know few feelings of satisfaction that approach those which one experiences on such occasions. Our cup of joy was not yet full, for as we sat mending our torn clothes, two over-inquisitive emus approached. Luckily a Winchester was close to hand, and as they were starting to run I managed to bowl one over. Wounded in the thigh he could yet go a great pace, but before long we caught up with him and despatched him with a blow on the head. What a feed we had! I suppose there is hardly a part of that bird, barring bones, feathers, and beak that did not find its way into our mouths during the next day or two! Tinned meat is good, sometimes excellent; but when you find that a cunning storekeeper has palmed off all his minced mutton on you, you are apt to fancy tinned fare monotonous! Such was our case; and no matter what the label, the contents were always the same—though we tried to differentiate in imagination, as we used to call it venison, beef, veal, or salmon, for variety's sake! “Well, old chap, what shall we have for tea—Calf's head? Grouse? Pheasant?” “Hum! what about a little er—minced mutton— we've not had any for some time, I think.” In this way we added relish to our meal.

Amongst the hills we saw numerous kangaroos, but could never get a shot. This must be a fine camp for natives. Near the soak was a camp of quite a dozen blacks, but recently deserted. In fact we must have scared them away, for their fires were still smouldering. We spent three days in exploring the hills, but failed to see any auriferous indications, excepting in the immediate neighbourhood of Mount Shenton. We had therefore had our long tramp for nothing, and had to be content with knowing that we had tried our best and had at least proved the useless character of a large stretch of country. For this, however, one gets no thanks.

On the 6th we moved to a rock-hole near Mount Grant, in the same range as Mount Shenton, and spent another day tramping the hills with no result. Here again we were in luck, for a mob of thirteen emus came to drink whilst I was in the rock-hole. Having seen them early that morning and knowing that they had had no drink, I felt sure they would return, and so had patiently waited, crouched in the rock hole, waist deep in water. This, perhaps, did not improve its flavour, but emu meat was worth procuring at the small cost of tainting the water with the taste of clothes. Presently I heard the drumming of the approaching birds, and, cautiously looking up, found them attentively examining the bucket and pannikin, I had left on the rock. They made such a quaint, pretty picture that unless we had really wanted meat, I should not have disturbed them. Had I been so inclined I could have shot several as they were bunched together within a few feet of me; one, however, was sufficient, and as he fell the rest streamed away up the slope with tremendous speed. This bird we cut into strips of meat which we dried in the sun.

To celebrate this addition to our larder, we held a concert that night, and took it in turns to be the audience. Luck had rather a good voice, and treated me to French songs; his favourite started, “J'ai souvent parcouru le monde, les forets et les grandes savannes”—This was always loudly applauded. My songs were not a great success—in fact an audience of one is all I can manage, that is if I am stronger, or fleeter of foot than he is. Luck was polite enough to say he enjoyed my rendering of The Scottish Cavalier. Then we used to read aloud to each other by the light of the camp-fire. I did most of the reading, for my mate's English was not as clear as it might have been.

Athletic sports, too, we used to indulge in, feats of strength, and so forth, in most of which Luck was too good for me, but I always beat him at cock-fighting, which was rather a sore point. In fact, considering that we were alone and had been so for many weeks, and were a long way into the interior, “outside the tracks” by a good many score of miles, we managed to be fairly cheerful on the whole. I do not like writing about my companion's crotchets, because it seems unfair, since one's own shortcomings never find the light unless the other man writes a book too. By freely conceding that sometimes I must have been a horrible nuisance to him, I feel absolved in this matter. When Luck used to get sulky fits, he really was most trying; for two or three days he wouldn't speak, and for want of company I used to talk to the camels; at the end of that time, when I saw signs of recovery, I used to address him thus, “Well, Bismarck, what's it all about?” Then he would tell me how I had agreed to bake a damper, and had gone off and done something else, leaving him to do it, or some such trivial complaint. After telling me about it, he would regain his usual cheerfulness. “Bismarck” was a sure draw, and made him so angry that he had to laugh as the only way out of it without fighting someone. Luck, you see, was from Alsace, and did not care about the Germans.

CHAPTER III

From Mount Shenton To Mount Margaret

But to continue our journey. We left Mount Grant on May 8th, travelling South-West, and once away from the hills came again into sand and spinifex. From absence of feed we tied the camels down two nights running. The second night we had a visit from a native gentleman, and by his tracks in the morning we saw that he had been quite close to our heads at one time.

On the 10th a great change occurred in the country, and on passing through a thicket, we found a great wall of rock (decomposed granite) barring further progress. Following along the wall we came upon a gap, and, entering, reached a nice little plain of saltbush, surrounded by rocks and cliffs. This remarkable gap in the apparently extensive wall of rock we christened the “Desert's Gate,” for we hourly expected to see better country. The next day we cut some recent horse tracks, the first signs of prospectors we had seen since April 15th, and following them back, hoping for water, came to an empty rock-hole amongst some rough hills of black slate, and in places, blows of quartz. No colours of gold could be found, nor signs of water, to induce us to stay longer prospecting. On the 12th we crossed a narrow salt lake and bade adieu to the sand and spinifex. To commemorate this longed-for day, we afterwards composed numerous poems(?) illustrating our daily life in the desert. The one considered by us the best, I beg to submit to the indulgent reader.

SPINIFEX AND SAND.

I will sing you a lay of W.A.
Of a wanderer, travelled and tanned
By the sun's fierce ray, through the livelong day
In the Spinifex and Sand.

At the day's first dawn, in earliest morn,
As a soldier obeys a command,
From his blanket he's torn, still weary and worn,
By the Spinifex and Sand.

Unrested still, he must put on the billy,
And eat of the meat that is canned,
He must take his full fill, he must face willy-nilly
The Spinifex and the Sand.

Then he gets on the tracks and sights the arched backs
Of his camels of true South Aus. brand,
And with saddle and sack he must hasten to pack
For the Spinifex and Sand.

From the start until night, till he's sick of the sight,
There seem to dance hand in hand
A lady so bright, and a green-armoured knight,
The Spinifex and the Sand.

He turns to his mate with “It gets a bit late,”
His mate, he just answers offhand—
“It's the same soon or late, we'll camp 't any rate
In the Spinifex and Sand.”

As the night drags along, a weird-looking throng
Fills his dreams of a far-off land,
And a voice loud and strong chants the same ceaseless song,
Of the SPINIFEX AND THE SAND.

Since this is one of the few attempts at rhyming that I have been guilty of, I hope I may be excused for wishing to see it in print, for at the time I was exceedingly proud of the composition. Ah! well, it served to pass the time and afforded some amusement. Soon we had other matters to think about, for on the 12th we found ourselves on the outskirts of auriferous country and were lucky in reaching plenty of water. Being lightly loaded we had made good marches, covering 103 miles from the last water on May 8th, an average of twenty and a half miles per day.

From the 13th to the 21st we camped surrounded by hills, any one of which might contain gold if only we could find it. Unremitting labours resulted in nothing but a few colours here and there. We were now thirty miles to the North-West of Mount Margaret (discovered and named by Forrest in 1869, who on that journey reached a point some sixty miles further East than that hill), and though we were the first, so far as I know, to prospect this particular part of the district, it was reserved for subsequent fossickers to find anything worth having.

Wandering about, pick in hand, one day I put up several turkeys from the grass surrounding some granite rocks, and shortly after found their watering-place, a nice little pool. The next day whilst Luck prospected I returned to the pool with a gun, and, building a hide of bushes, waited all day. Towards evening two fine emus came stalking along, and I shot one. By the time I had him skinned and the legs cut off it was dark. A most deceptive bird is an emu, for in reality he has but little meat on his body. The legs, that is the thighs, are the only parts worth taking, so shouldering these I started for camp a couple of miles off. It was pretty late when I got back, and found Luck ringing a camel-bell violently and frequently. He had been a bit anxious at my long absence, and had taken a bell off one of the camels to guide me in case I was “bushed.” A party of two is too small for a journey that takes them far from settlements for if anything happens to one, the other has little chance by himself. The man left in camp does not know what to do—if he goes far from home, there is the danger of the camp being robbed by natives, therefore he hesitates to go in search of his mate, who possibly is in sore need of help from an accident, or bushed, or speared—so many things might happen. If one broke a limb, as he easily might, what could his mate do? Nothing. If in waterless country he would have to leave him, or kill him, or die with him.

Though Luck and I were spared any catastrophes, we often thought of such things, and therefore felt anxious when either was away for long.

On the 22nd we were surprised at cutting a freshly made dray-track, along which it was clear that many had passed—and the next day arrived at the Red Flag, an alluvial rush that had “set in” during our sojourn in the sand. This came as a great surprise, as we had no idea that gold had been found so far afield. This camp, some twelve miles North-East of Mount Margaret, consisted then of only forty or fifty men, though others were daily arriving. These were the first white men we had seen for seven weeks, and they were greatly astonished to see us, when they learnt what direction we had come from.

Here were gathered together men from Coolgardie and Murchison, attracted by the tales of wealth brought by the first prospectors of the new rush. Some of them had been longer away from civilisation than we had, and many arguments were held as to the correct date. Of course I knew, because I kept a diary; but the Queen's Birthday was celebrated by us on the wrong day after all, for I had given April thirty-one days! We heard that hundreds had started for the rush, but this camp represented all who had persevered, the rest being scared at the distance.

This reads funnily now when Mount Margaret is as civilised as Coolgardie was then, and is connected by telegraph, and possibly will be soon boasting of a railway. The blacks had been very troublesome, “sticking up” swagmen, robbing camps, spearing horses, and the like. It is popularly supposed that every case of violence on the part of the natives, may be traced to the brutal white man's interference in their family arrangements. No doubt it does happen that by coming between man and wife a white man stirs up the tribe, and violence results, but in the majority of cases that I know of, the poor black-fellow has recklessly speared, wounding and killing, prospectors' horses, because he wanted food or amusement. A man does not travel his packhorses into the bush for the philanthropic purpose of feeding the aboriginals, and naturally resents his losses and prevents their recurrence in a practical way.

As a matter of fact, the black population was so small, that even had every individual of it been shot, the total would not have reached by a long way the indiscriminate slaughter that was supposed to go on in the bush. The people who used to hold their hands up in horror—righteous horror had the tales been true—at the awful cruelties perpetrated by the prospectors, based their opinions on the foolish “gassing” of a certain style of man who thinks to make himself a hero by recounting dark deeds of blood, wholly imaginary. I remember reading a letter to a friend from his mother, in which she begged him to take no part in the “nigger hunting excursions” that she had heard went on in Western Australia. Poor lady! she need not have disturbed herself, for such things never existed, nor had her boy ever seen a black-fellow, except round the slaughter-yards of Coolgardie!

No luck attended our search in the Mount Margaret district, and we shared the opinion of everybody there that it was a “duffer,” and after events had proved what that opinion was worth. Travelling and prospecting as we went, we at last succeeded in finding a reef which we thought was worth having.

May 30th. We made camp amongst some auriferous hills in what is now known as the Niagara District, and within a few miles of a spot where, subsequently, a rich find of gold was made. Since the natives were known to be troublesome in this locality, we adopted the plan of one stopping in camp whilst the other prospected. Formerly we had considered it safe for the one at home to be within reasonable distance of camp, but now, when semi-civilised natives were prowling about, it was unwise to leave the camp at all. Luck found gold first, but in so small a vein of quartz that we did not consider it worth working. The next day, however, we “got colours” in a fine big reef, and, moving our belongings to its vicinity, started prospecting the outcrop. Everywhere we tried we found gold sprinkled through the stone like pepper, and by “dollying” obtained good results. Satisfied with the prospect, the next thing to be done was to cross-cut the reef to ascertain its thickness and character below the surface.

Fortunately water was close to hand, that is to say three miles away, in a creek since named “Dingo Creek.” From there we packed water back to camp, as often as we required it. Our luck in securing game had now deserted us, and we had again to fall back on our nearly diminished stock of mince.

After a week's hard work we found that with our limited supply of tools, without drills and dynamite, it was impossible to do any farther sinking; besides which the low tide in our provisions necessitated a return to civilisation before many days. I pegged out, therefore, an area of four hundred yards by four hundred yards, as a “protection area”; that is to say, that the fact of four corner-pegs and a notice having been put up in some prominent place protects the ground from being taken by any one else for a period of thirty days. After that time has elapsed the area must be applied for at the nearest Warden's office, where, unless disputed, it is registered under the name of the applicant, who must at once commence work upon it. When such work proves the existence of “payable gold” the area must be again applied for as a lease, to hold which the sum of £1 per acre, per annum, must be paid to the Government. There are other conditions with which it is necessary to conform, and which need not be enumerated here.

Since we had ample time to go and return from Coolgardie within the prescribed period, we decided that in place of travelling direct homewards, we would make a detour and visit the locality of Mount Ida, where we had heard gold had been found. By rapid travelling our “tucker” could be made to last out the time. Winter was now coming on, and the nights were bitterly cold. Our blankets in the morning were soaked with dew and frost, and when the days were cloudy and sometimes drizzly we had no chance of drying them until we built a fire at night. One is so used to reading of the terrible heat in Australia that it may come as a surprise to many to hear that in the short winter in the interior—which, by the way, is 1,500 feet above sea level—the thermometer sometimes sinks for a brief period of time to 17°F.

This low temperature is reached about an hour before daylight, as you know to your cost, if you are ill-provided with blankets. At that time in the morning your head is drawn into the possum rug, and you lie stiff and shivering until you hear the indescribable something—that heralds the coming of the sun. It may be a camel moving, as he shakes the frost from his woolly coat, it may be a bird, or a grasshopper, but always there is some little noise that would tell even a blind man that the night is over. Often you know by the stars how long it will be before daylight, and stir up the fire, put on the billy, and get the saddles and packs in order. Sometimes you fix on the wrong star, and are thanked accordingly by your mate when, with his feet in his cold, clammy boots, he discovers that his watch reads 2 a.m. Sometimes you have the satisfaction of growling at him, and occasionally, if you feel in very nasty humour, you may lie “dog-oh” and watch his early rising, knowing full well the right time; laughter, however, gives you away, and you are justly rewarded by having the blankets torn off you. Such simple pranks as these make bearable a life that would otherwise suffocate you with its monotony.

And yet there is a charm about the bush—the perfect peace in the “free air of God”—that so takes hold of some men that they can never be happy anywhere else. Civilisation is a fine thing in its way, but the petty worries and annoyances, the bustle and excitement, the crowds of people, the “you can't do this,” and “you must do that,” the necessity for dressing in most uncomfortable garments to be like other people, and a thousand other such matters, so distress a bushman, who, like a caged beast in a menagerie, wanders from corner to corner and cannot find where to rest, that he longs for the day that he will again be on the track, with all his worldly goods with him and the wide world before him. Such a man in the bush and in the town is as different as a fish in and out of water.

Some of the finest fellows “outside the tracks” are the least respectable in civilised places, where before long they can find no better occupation than drinking, which, owing to months of teetotalism in the bush, they are less able to stand than the ordinary individual who takes his beer or spirits daily. And thus it is that bushmen very often get the name of being loafers and drunkards, though on the aggregate they consume far less liquor than our most respected citizens in the towns. The sudden change in surroundings, good food, and the number of fellow-creatures, the noise of traffic, and want of exercise—all these combined are apt to affect a man's head, even when unaided by the constant flow of liquor with which a popular bushman is deluged—a deluge hard to resist in a country where to refuse a drink amounts to an insult. A plan recommended by some is to “please 'em all by one jolly good spree, and then knock off and drink with nobody.” A man only gives offence who discriminates in his entertainers.

I fear I have wandered far from the subject of our journey, for Luck and I had some time yet before us until the joys and troubles of civilised life should be ours. The daily routine of travel was varied occasionally by incidents of no great moment; for instance, when riding through the scrub, Omerod, a rather clumsy old camel, tripped and fell, pinning me beneath him, without injury to either of us; for a water bag acted as a buffer between my leg and the saddle, and by the time all the water was squeezed out of it, Luck had the saddle off, and I was extricated. Certainly some camels are hard to put out or fluster; such a one was Omerod, who lay without a kick until relieved of his saddle, when he rose and at once proceeded to feed on the scrub.

Later, we had another instance of his stolidity; that was when crossing a salt lake. Jenny was light and escaped bogging; not so Omerod, who sank as far as his legs would allow, and there waited calmly until we had unpacked the loads, carried them across the lake, and returned to help Shimsha, who struggled violently in the sticky clay. When he was safely taken across to an island on which we sought refuge, Omerod was attended to. There he lay, half buried in salt mud, chewing his cud unconcernedly; either he had perfect confidence in us, or was indifferent as to his fate—he looked rather as if he were saying “Kismet.” We had some trouble in digging him out, during which operation Luck fared as I had done before; he was pinned beneath the camel, waist deep in clay, and in that position had to emulate the stolid patience of Omerod until I could dig him out. At last they were both free, and after considerable labour we landed on the island, camels, baggage, and all, just as night fell. We were cold too, clothes and arms and faces covered with moist salt clay, and nothing with which to make a fire but sprigs of dead samphire. A cold night means an early start—so we were up betimes and found that the camels, not tied, since we thought them safe on an island, had in search of feed hobbled across the lake, and were standing disconsolate on this sea of mud, afraid to move now that in daylight they could see their surroundings. A repetition of the preceding day's performance, landed us beyond the treacherous lake-bed, and the following day we were fortunate in finding a fine rock-hole of water, which enabled us to reappear as white men.

Mirages are nearly always to be seen on these lakes of the interior, and from their occurrence it is impossible to determine the extent of the flat expanse of mud. On this occasion I witnessed the finest I have ever seen. The hot sun playing upon the damp breeze rising from the lake, transformed this desolate sea of salt and clay, into a charming picture. The horizon and the sky were joined by a mirage of beautiful clear water, from which islands and hills seemed to rise; even their shadows and those of the trees with which they were clothed were reflected in the unruffled surface of the lake. The long stretch of sand between, gave the picture the appearance of a peaceful, natural harbour, which the tide was about to fill.

We were unable to pay more than a flying visit to Mount Ida, but sufficiently long to assure us of the auriferous character of its neighbourhood. It is quite an imposing hill, rough, dark, and rugged, and formed as if layers of black slate had been thrown violently against each other. It rises some five hundred feet above the surrounding country.

We needed all our time to reach Siberia, before our provisions gave out. There we arrived in due course, passing close, on our way, to the hills near which Menzies afterwards made his great “find.”

At Siberia a Government survey party, under Messrs. Newman and Brazier, was camped, preparatory to running a line to connect Coolgardie and the Murchison. Bidding them adieu, we took the road to Coolgardie, and arrived there on June 22nd after an absence of exactly ninety days, having travelled 843 miles. The result of the journey to ourselves was nil, for the company considered that the reef we had found was too far off, and took no further steps to develop it. It was afterwards under offer for £13,000 in cash and shares, though whether the deal came off or not, or what the mine was worth, I am not aware.

The company's representative in Coolgardie welcomed us with great hospitality, and invited us to tea at his camp. Here he produced whisky, and what he told us he considered the very best of tinned meats. “So help me never, it's MINCED MUTTON!” shouted poor Luck, as the tin was opened—a little joke that has never been forgotten.

It is a rather novel sensation to find that you are dead; and this was our experience, for the papers had killed us some time since—our bones had been seen bleaching in the sun, and all that sort of thing. Unfortunately our death was not certain enough to warrant any obituary notices, which might have been interesting reading.

On our return to Perth, the manager of the company for which we had worked, who had arrived in our absence, far from thanking us for having tried our best, asked why we went into a d——d desert to look for gold! This we considered a little mean, seeing that a great part of the country we had traversed had been hitherto unexplored. However, one doesn't look for thanks from a mining company. So our journey was finished—a journey that I shall never look back upon with regret, but with pleasure, for Luck was a fine fellow and the best of mates; and at least we had the satisfaction of knowing that if we had been unsuccessful, it was not for the want of trying.

Next PART III - SECOND PROSPECTING EXPEDITION