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Spinifex And Sand by David W. Carnegie



We Enter The Desert

Our position was in lat. 28° 35´, long. 120° 57´, and from this point I started to map the country as we went. We left here on July 23rd steering a general N.E. by E. course, my intention being to strike Mount Allott and Mount Worsnop, on Forrest's route of 1874—two very noticeable hills, 280 miles distant. I chose these for the double reason that by hitting them off correctly, as I hoped to do, I should not only give confidence to my companions, but have the opportunity of comparing my amateur work with that of a trained surveyor. Our course would clear the southern end of Lake Wells with which I had no desire to become entangled; and by so avoiding it I should cross a piece of country hitherto untraversed.

Our way lay across a rough range of bare diorite hills, whose stony slopes and steep gullies were not appreciated by the camels. Beyond the hills flat mulga-clad country extended for several days' march, only broken by the occurrence of low cliffs or terraces of sandstone. These are of peculiar formation, running sometimes for five or six miles without a break; abrupt, on one side, and perhaps fifty feet high, with broken boulders strewn about the foot of the cliff from which jut out occasional buttresses. It takes some time to find a break in the cliffs, or a gully, up which one can pass. Once on the top, trouble is over, for the summit is flat though often covered with dense scrub; from it a gradual slope takes one presently down to the same level as the foot of the cliffs. Occasional pines find a footing on the face of the rocks—how they manage to grow or get moisture is hard to tell—showing up fresh and green against the dull grey background of rock. Round the foot of the cliffs a small plain of saltbush is usually found, through which numerous small creeks and watercourses wind their way into the scrub beyond. In any one of these, as we saw them, water could be obtained by sinking in the gravelly bed. From the summit of the cliffs, which is often perforated by caves and holes opening on to the sheer face, square bluffs and walls can be seen, standing up above the sea of scrub, each exactly like its neighbour, and itself when again seen from another point. Doubtless the numberless creeks join and form one larger creek probably running South, as the general trend of the country is in that direction.

We were getting well into the swing of things now, for at first there is always some trouble in the distribution of the loads and in loading up and unloading. On camping at night the camels were always put down in a circle, as near as might be. All top-loading was taken off and placed near the centre; the side loads placed one on either side of the camel, and the saddle by his tail. Thus everything, instead of being scattered about in a long line, was handy, and easily reloaded the next morning. At this time, when the packs were heavy, it took us thirty minutes from the time Breaden and Warri brought the camels in to the time we were ready to start; Breaden, Charlie, Warri, and I loading, whilst Godfrey, who acted as cook, got his pots and pans together and packed the “tucker-bags.” There is little of interest in this scrub; an occasional plant perhaps attracts one's attention. Here and there a vine-like creeper (an Asclepiad) trails upon the ground. With the fruits of this, commonly called cotton-pods, the black-fellows vary their diet of grubs and the very rare emu or kangaroo. The skin, the edible part, is soft, thick, and juicy, and has quite a nice sweet taste. The blacks eat them raw or roasted in wood-ashes. The seeds are of a golden yellow, and are joined on to a silky fibrous core. When bruised the pod exudes a white, milky juice.

Numerous large spiders inhabit the scrubs and build their webs from tree to tree; wonderfully strong they are too, and so frequent as to become a nuisance to whoever is walking first. It is quite unpleasant when one's eyes are fixed on the compass, to find, on looking up, that one's hat has swept off a great web, whose owner runs over one, furious at unprovoked assault. Though I got the full benefit of these insects, I was never bitten; they may or may not be poisonous, but look deadly enough, being from one to four inches from toe to toe. The scrubs for the most part are thick and without a break for many miles. Sometimes open country is met with—not always a welcome change.

July 26th the thickets became more and more open until we came across a narrow salt-lake; by leading each camel separately we reached the other side without mishap, and congratulated ourselves on our good fortune, until the next morning when we found that our camp had been on an island; and the lake stretched North and South as far as the eye could reach, until lake and sky became one in a shimmering mirage. I think it probable that this lake joins the Eastern portion of Lake Darlot, which lies to the N.N.W., and connects with the narrow lake seen by Luck and myself in 1894, to the S.S.E. Whatever its extent there was no doubt about its nature; from 8.30 until 1.30 we were occupied in hauling, digging out, and dragging our camels, and in humping on our backs some 5,000 lbs. weight of packs, across a channel not half a mile wide. Camels vary very much in their ability to cross bogs. Those which take small steps succeed best; the majority take steps of ordinary length and, in consequence, their hind feet slide into the hole left by the fore, and in an instant they are pinned by the hind leg up to the haunch. Kruger was splendid, and simply went through by main force, though he eventually sank close to the shore. I had carried over some of the loading, amongst it my camera, and was just in time to take a snapshot as he was sinking. Shiddi, the cunning old rogue, could not be persuaded across; he would try the ground with one foot and then draw back like a timid bather. We left him roaring to his mates and yet afraid to join them, until we were ready to start again. As soon as he saw the caravan disappear over the sandhill which abutted on the lake, he took a desperate plunge and came through with ease.

The shores of the lake, as usual, were covered with samphire, having something the appearance of heather. At this season the plant is soft and juicy, and, though salt, makes capital feed for camels. In the summer it withers up to dry sticks and has no moisture. Once out of sight of the lake we were disgusted at coming into a belt of flat spinifex country, and were afraid that already we had reached the confines of the desert, more especially since in 1894 I had placed its edge in that longitude. However, we were agreeably disappointed, for after a few miles the spinifex ceased, and on penetrating a dense thicket we debouched on a fine grassy flat. In the centre ran a line of large white gums (Creek gums, Eucalyptus rostrata), the sure sign of a creek. We were not mistaken, for down the avenue a watercourse wound its way. The gravelly bed was quite dry. Climbing a tree, from which to follow with my glasses the course of the creek, I could see some hills to the northward; in them the creek evidently rose. Whilst I was climbing, Breaden amused himself by breaking off pieces of the small roots of the gums which the creek had washed here. By breaking these quite an appreciable amount of moisture could be got, enough to save a man's life. But I fancy that these roots only hold water after rain, and that when they are water-bearing, pools also are to be found in the creeks. Numerous emu and turkey tracks led up the watercourse, but, though seeing several emu, we were unable to get a shot. Following the creek upwards, for near the head one is likely to find rocky pools, we soon came on a nice waterhole and made camp. I traced the creek to its source in the evening and found the hills to be granite, and discovered one deep pool in the solid rock under a steep step in the creek bed. Along the banks herbage and green stuff were growing in profusion. Our beasts were content to feed amicably together, and with the exception of a sly bite no longer showed signs of ill-feeling. We were thankful indeed to see them “off season.” Here we gave them a good drink and filled our casks and neckbags, carrying in all sixty-two gallons. We had been so well off for water up to this point, that we had hopes that the rain had penetrated inland.

Leaving the creek on July 29th we again entered the scrub, finding it lower and more open, the ground covered with occasional patches of grass and a little squashy plant straggling along the ground—“Pigweed” is the local name; it belongs, I believe, to the “Portulacaceae.” It is eaten by the blacks, and would make excellent feed for stock were it higher from the ground.

This day we saw the last auriferous country we were to meet with until Kimberley was reached. These hills, of diorite, with occasional blows of ironstone, I take to be a continuation the Neckersgat Range (Wells, 1892). Many traces of prospectors were visible here—the last to be seen for many a day—shallow dry-blowing holes and little heaps of sieved dirt, and the tracks of camels and horses. This was a piece of country worth trying, had we not had other objects in view.

Two rather curious ironstone dykes, standing square and wall-like above the ground, occur in these hills, some seven miles apart, running nearly North and South and parallel; between them a deep but narrow creek, a saltbush flat, and a ridge of diorite. Standing out prominently to the south of the first dyke are two sugar-loaf hills, and, beyond them, distant ranges are visible. Leaving the range the country to the East underwent a distinct change for the worse; and midday of July 31st found us on the borders of an unmistakable desert, the North-West corner of the Great Victoria Desert. We had so far travelled 110 miles from Cutmore's Well, only some 250 in a direct line from Coolgardie and were already in the desert! Wilderness perhaps would be a better name for this part; for the sand now flat, now blown into dunes, is not bare, but overgrown by the hateful spinifex and timbered pretty thickly with desert gums (Eucalyptus eudesmoides) and low acacia bushes.

I am told that the term “spinifex,” though generally employed by those who have the pleasure of the acquaintance of the plant, is wrongly used. I do not know its right name, and have seen it described as “Spinifex,” “Porcupine Grass,” “Triodia,” “Triodia pungens,” and “Festuca irritans.” Why such a wretched, useless plant should have so many names I cannot say. So often am I bound to refer to it that I might vary the monotony by using each in turn. However, I will stick to the term I have always heard used. “Spinifex” grows in round, isolated hummocks, one to three feet high; these hummocks are a dense mass of needle-like prickles, and from them grow tall blades of very coarse grass to a height of sometimes six feet. Occasionally the hummocks are not round or isolated, but grow in crescent form or almost complete rings, sometimes there is no top growth—however it grows it is most accursed vegetation to walk through, both for men and camels. Whatever form it takes it seems to be so arranged that it cannot be stepped over or circumvented—one must in consequence walk through it and be pricked, unpleasantly. Camels and horses suffer rather severely sometimes, the constant pricking causing sores on their legs. So long, however, as a camel does not drag his hind legs he will be no worse treated than by having all the hair worn off his shins. The side of the foot is an easily affected spot, and a raw there, gives them great pain and is hard to cure.

There are two varieties of spinifex known to bushmen—“spinifex” and “buck” (or “old man”) spinifex. The latter is stronger in the prickle and practically impossible to get through, though it may be avoided by twists and turns. There are a few uses for this horrible plant; for example, it forms a shelter and its roots make food for the kangaroo, or spinifex, rat, from its spikes the natives (in the northern districts) make a very serviceable gum, it burns freely, serves in a measure to bind the sand and protect it from being moved by the wind, and makes a good mattress when dug up and turned over. I should advise no one to try and sleep on the plant as it grows, for “He who sitteth on a thistle riseth up quickly.” But the thistle has one advantage, viz., that it does not leave its points in its victim's flesh. In Northern Australia spinifex is in seed for three weeks, and when in this state, forms most excellent feed for horses, and fattens almost as quickly as oats; for the rest of the year it is useless.

I can imagine any one, on being suddenly placed on rising ground with a vast plain of waving spinifex spreading before him—a plain relieved occasionally by the stately desert oak, solemn, white, and mysterious—saying, “Ah! what a charming view—how beautiful that rolling plain of grass! its level surface broken by that bold sandhill, fiery-red in the blaze of sun!” But when day after day, week after week, and month after month must be passed always surrounded by the hateful plant, one's sense of the picturesque becomes sadly blunted.

This was our first introduction to the desert and, though a little monotonous, it seemed quite pleasant, and indeed was so, when compared to the heartrending country met with later in our journey.

The sand has been formed (blown, I suppose) into irregular ridges, running more or less parallel, but in no one fixed direction. From the edge of the desert to Mount Worsnop, a distance of nearly two hundred miles in a straight line, the country presented the same appearance. First a belt, eight to ten miles wide, of sand-ridges from thirty to fifty feet high, with a general direction of E. by S. and W. by N.; then a broad sand-flat of equal breadth, either timbered with desert gums, or open and covered with spinifex breast-high, looking in the distance like a field of ripe corn; next another series of ridges with a S.E. and N.W. direction; then, with startling suddenness, a small oasis, enclosed or nearly surrounded by sheer broken cliffs of desert sandstone, from which little creeks run out into the sand, winding their way for a mile or two between the ridges. Dry watercourses these, except immediately after rain; in their beds are found native wells five to ten feet in depth, sometimes holding water; on their banks, round the foot of the cliffs, and on the flat where the creeks merge into the sand, grows long grass—kangaroo-grass—and, in the winter magnificent herbage. Next we find a dense thicket, and, this passed, we come again to open plains. And thus sand-ridges now E. and W., now S.E. and N.W., now S.W. and N.E. (as in the vicinity of Empress Spring), and now sandhills heaped up without regularity, alternate with mulga thickets, open plains of spinifex, and flat, timbered country. The most noticeable vegetation is of course spinifex; as well as that, however, are several shrubs which form good camel feed, such as Acacia salicina, with its pretty, scented flower like a little golden powder-puff; the quondong (Fusanus acuminatis), or “native peach tree,” a graceful little black-stemmed tree, against whose fresh, green leaves the fruit, about the size of a cherry and of a brilliant red, shows out with appetising clearness. Alas! it is a fraud and delusion, for the stone forms more than three-quarters of the fruit, leaving only a rather tasteless thick skin, which is invariably perforated by small worms.

Dotted over the open plains the native poplar (Codonocarpus) stands sentry, its head, top-heavy from the mass of seeds, drooping gracefully to the setting sun; the prevalent wind at the present day would seem to be from the E.N.E. Here, too, an occasional grass tree or “black-boy” may be seen, and at intervals little clumps of what is locally termed “mustard bush,” so named from the strong flavour of the leaf; camels eat this with voracity, of which fact one becomes very sensible when they chew their cuds.

This description hardly suits a “desert”; yet, in spite of the trees and shrubs, it is one to all intent. All is sand, and throughout the region no water is to be found, unless immediately after rain in the little creeks, or in some hidden rock-hole. Even a heavy storm of rain would leave no signs in such country; half an hour after the fall no water would be seen, except on the rocky ground, which only occurs at very long intervals. The greedy sand soaks up every drop of water, and from the sand the trees derive their moisture. The winter rain causes such a growth of herbage around the cliffs and on the sandhills—to die, alas! in a few weeks' time—that one is inclined to wonder if by means of bores this wilderness will be made of use to man. What artesian bores have done for parts of Queensland and Algeria they may in the distant future do for this, at present useless, interior, where all is still, and the desert silence unbroken by any animal life, excepting always the ubiquitous spinifex rat. A pretty little fellow this, as he hops along on his long hind legs, bounding over the prickly stools like an animated football with a tail. As he jumps, he hangs one forepaw by his side, while the other is stretched out with the little hand dangling as if the wrist were broken. Everything must be spoken of comparatively in this country; thus the ubiquitous rat may be seen, at the most, a dozen times in a day's march; an oasis may measure no more than thirty yards across; a creek is dry, and may be only half a mile long and a few feet broad; a high range may stand three to four hundred feet above the surrounding country, seldom more; and “good feed” may mean that the camels find something to eat instead of being tied down without a bite.

For instance, to continue our journey, on August 1st we have “…the same miserable country until the evening, when a sudden change brings us into a little oasis enclosed by cliffs, a small creek running through it. Here we made camp, the camels enjoying a great patch of feed—could find no water—saw several small quails—a number of grasshoppers and little bees—flies of course in abundance. Lat. 27° 40´, long. 122° 54´. Cloudy night.”

The next day we sighted a big range to the East across a deep valley, and a broken table-top range to the North. Following down the little creek we came on a shallow native well, quite dry; crossing the grassy flat in which it was dug, winding through a thicket, we again reached open sand. Here we saw for the first time since leaving Coolgardie the tracks of wild aboriginals, and the first tracks of blacks, either wild or tame, since leaving Cutmore's Well. Evidently this part of the world is not overpopulated. Since everything pointed to the rain having been general, since the tracks were leading in a direction nearly opposite to our own, and since at the time we had water enough, we did not waste time in following them up.

That night we were forced to camp on a barren spot, and tied the camels down foodless; one night without feed does them no harm—less harm than if they wandered miles in their hobbles looking for it. The weather was now distinctly hot, unpleasant and stuffy, as if about to thunder; but the nights were still cold. At midday we saw two fine quondong trees; how the camels devoured them, leaves, fruit, stones and all! Emus swallow the stones without inconvenience; apparently a camel has an equally convenient interior, but he brings them up again in his cud and drops them out of his mouth as his jaws move from side to side.

Amongst some broken rocks this day, Breaden found a dingo camped in a cave with a litter of pups. Had we been returning instead of only just starting on our travels, I should certainly have secured one—not, I expect, without some trouble, for the mother showed signs of fierce hostility when Breaden looked into her lair. There were no traces of water anywhere near, and I have no doubt that the mother, having found a suitable spot for her expected family, would think nothing of travelling many miles for her daily drink. Near the rocks I noticed a little blue-flowered plant with the leaf and scent of the geranium.

The appearance of the country now soon began to get less fresh, and drier, and all the next two days we were crossing sandhills, the only variety being afforded by Valerie. She had lately made it evident that she would soon follow the example of the lady dingo. Though I had frequently tried to make her ride on one of the packs, she preferred to trot along at the heels of Czar, receiving from him occasional kicks if by chance she touched him, which did not tend to improve the pups so soon to see the light. Tying her on was no better; she only struggled and nearly hanged herself. She had therefore to walk as she desired. Having made camp, and unrolled our blankets ready to turn into them when the time came, Breaden and I experimented on numerous mallee-roots which we dug up, but in every case failed to find any appreciable moisture, On returning to camp we found our party had been increased by one—a large pup which Val had deposited in her master's blankets. It was dead, which was fortunate, as we could hardly have kept it, and would not have liked to destroy the little animal, born in such unusual surroundings.

No change occurred in the country the next day, but the march was saved from its usual monotony by Warri finding two mallee-hens' nests. Unluckily they had no eggs, though the birds' tracks were fresh and numerous. These nests are hollowed out in the sand, to a depth of perhaps two and a half feet, conical shaped, with a mouth some three feet in diameter; the sand from the centre is scraped up into a ring round the mouth. Several birds help in this operation, and when finished lay their eggs on a layer of leaves at the bottom; they then fill in the hole to the surface with small twigs and more leaves. Presumably the eggs are hatched by spontaneous heat, the green twigs and leaves producing a slightly moist warmth, similar to that of the bird's feathers. I have seen numbers of these nests, never with eggs in, but often with the shells from recently hatched birds lying about. How the little ones force their way through the sticks I do not understand, but Warri and many others who have found the eggs assure me that they do so.

Towards evening we neared a prominent bluff that we had sighted the day before, and got a further insight into the habits of the wild dog. A dingo—a female, and possibly our friend with the pups—had followed us persistently all day. Godfrey, who was walking behind the camels, opened the acquaintance by practising his revolver-shooting upon her. His poor aim seemed to give her confidence, and before long she started to play with Val. By nightfall we had petted and fed her out of our hands, and given her a small drop of water from our fast diminishing supply—this at the earnest request of Godfrey, who offered to give her some of his share; and indeed it seemed rather cruel to refuse a poor famished beast that had come to us in her distress. We all agreed how nice it was to have won the affections of a real wild dog. By daybreak our feelings of love had somewhat abated, as our friend prowled about all night, poking her nose into pots and pans, chewing saddles, pack-bags, straps, and even our blankets as we lay in them, and cared no more for blows than for the violent oaths that were wasted upon her. This strange creature accompanied us for two more days, trotting along ahead of the camels, with an occasional look behind to see if she was on the right course, and then falling at full length in the shade of some bush with her head on her paws, waiting for us to pass. Eventually my irritability got the better of my indulgence, and a shrewd whack over the nose put an end to our acquaintanceship.

Near the bluff were many low, stony hills, with the usual small watercourses; in them we hunted high and low for water until darkness overtook us. To the North other similar hills could be seen, by my reckoning a part of the Ernest Giles Range (Wells, 1892). No doubt from the distance these hills would look more imposing. Our camp was in lat. 27° 9´, long. 123° 59´. August 6th.

On August 7th we continued to search the hills, but had to leave them without finding water. We had now been since July 29th without seeing any, and in consequence of the ease with which we had, up to that date, found water had not husbanded our supply as carefully as we might have done, and now had to put ourselves on a very short allowance indeed. The further we advanced the worse the country became, and the greater the increase in temperature. Shortly after leaving the hills we came again on to sandhills. About midday my hopes were high, as I cut the fresh tracks of two black-fellows.

Warri, after a short examination, said, “Yesterday track water that way,” pointing in the direction in which they were travelling; not that he could possibly tell which way the water lay, and for all we knew they might have just left it. However, we decided that better success would probably attend us if we followed them forward. Soon several equally fresh tracks joined the first ones, and not one of us doubted but that our present discomforts would shortly be over.

“There must be water at the end of them,” was the general opinion, and so on we went gaily; Warri leading, and Charlie, who was an almost equally good tracker, backing him up. After much twisting and turning, crossing and recrossing of our own tracks, the footprints at last took a definite direction, and a pad, beaten by perhaps a dozen feet, led away North-West for two miles and never deviated. Any doubts as to Warri's correct interpretation were now dispelled, and on we hurried, looking forward to at least water for ourselves, and perhaps a drink for the camels. At full speed through mulga scrub, over sand and stones, on which the tracks were hardly visible, we came suddenly to an open patch of rock on the side of a low ridge, and there in the centre of the flat rock lay before us a fair-sized rock-hole—dry as a bone!—and all our visions of luxury for our beasts and ourselves were ended.

Not only were we baulked of our water, but nothing but dead scrub surrounded the rock, affording no feed for the camels, who had therefore to be tied down. Leaving the rest to dig out the hole on the chance of getting a drop, though it was evident that the natives had cleaned it out nearly to the bottom, Warri and I started off to follow the tracks yet further. Taking a handful of dried peaches to chew, which give a little moisture, for we were very dry, we walked until darkness overtook us. The tracks (a man, two women, and a child) led us back towards the West; we could see their camps, one close to the namma-hole, another four miles away, with crushed seed lying about, and a few roots pulled up. Warri said they were “tired fella” from the way they walked. All this made us doubtful if they knew where the next water was. In any case we could make no further search that night, and made our best way back through the scrub, to the camp.

Godfrey had unsuccessfully explored the neighbouring hills, while Breaden and Charlie cleaned out the rockhole with like result. A very hot, cloudy night did not make things any more pleasant; we were all a bit done, and poor Charlie was seized with a violent and painful vomiting—a not unusual accompaniment to want of food and water. It seemed useless to follow the tracks any more, since they led us in exactly the wrong direction; and as we loaded the camels in the morning two turkeys (bustards) flew over us to the North-East. We would have given something to have their knowledge! We started, therefore, in this direction, and soon came on other tracks, which after some time we concluded were only those of natives who had been hunting from the rock-hole before the water was finished.

I called a halt, and, sitting on the sand, expounded my views as to the situation. “We had determined on getting through this country—that was the main point. Turning back, even if wise, was not to be considered. The tracks had fooled us once, and though doubtless by following them we would eventually get some water, where would we be at the end of it? No further forward. Therefore, since we had still a drop or two to go on with, let us continue on our course. None of us have any idea where water is, and by travelling North, East, South, or West, we stood an equally good chance of getting it. We would therefore go on in our proper direction, and trust to God, Providence, Fate, or Chance, as each might think. I should feel more satisfied if I knew their opinions agreed with mine, for, whatever the outcome, the responsibility rested on me.”

Breaden answered quietly, “It's a matter of indifference to me; go where you think best.” Godfrey's reply was characteristic, “Don't care a d—n; if we are going to peg out we will, whichever way we turn.” Charlie was inclined at first to question the wisdom of going on, but soon cheerfully agreed to do as the rest. So on I went, much relieved in mind that I was leading no one against his will. Possibly I could not—so far as I know, no occasion arose.

The day was sweltering, the night worse; in any other country one could with safety have backed heavily the fall of a thunderstorm. We had to be content, where we were, with about three drops of rain; and even this, in spite of tents, flys, and mackintosh-sheets spread for the purpose, we were unable to collect! Towards dawn the thermometer went down to 40°F. This sudden change was greatly to our advantage, though the sun soon after rising showed his power. The ridges were now running almost parallel to our course, about North-East, and gave us in consequence little trouble. Up to this point I had walked all day, partly because one can steer better on foot and I wished to do all the steering, until we picked up the point on Forrest's route, and so give my companions confidence; and partly because I looked upon it as the leader's duty to set an example. To-day I took my turn with the rest, each riding for an hour—a great relief. Sand is weary walking and spinifex unpleasant until one's legs get callous to its spines.

We had not gone far before our hopes were again raised, and again dashed, by coming on rocky ground and presently on another rockhole—quite dry! We began to think that there could be no water anywhere; this hole was well protected and should hold water for months. Thinking did little good, nor served to decrease the horrid sticky feeling of lips and mouth. “Better luck next time,” we said, with rather forced cheerfulness, and once more turned our faces to the North-East.


Water At Last

Presently a single track caught my eye, fresh apparently, and unmistakably that of a “buck.” We all crowded round to examine it, and as we stooped caught sight of the owner not a hundred yards ahead, engrossed in unearthing an iguana and entirely ignorant of our presence. A hasty consultation; “Catch him,” said someone, Breaden I think, and off we started—I first, and Godfrey near behind. He saw us now and fled, so, shouting to Breaden to stay with the camels, and to Charlie, who was mounted, to cut him off in front, I put my best leg foremost. A hummock of spinifex brought me down, and, exhausted from short rations, I lay, unable to run further. Not so Godfrey, who held on manfully for another fifty yards and grabbed the black-fellow as he turned to avoid Charlie on the camel. The poor chap was shaking with fear, but, after relieving his feelings by making a violent though abortive attack on Godfrey, he soon calmed down and examined us with interest.

Whatever the buck thought of us, close observation could find nothing very remarkable about him. A man of about 5 feet 8 inches, thin but muscular, with very large feet and small hands, very black, very dirty, his only garment consisted of a band of string round his forehead, holding his hair back in a ragged, mop-like mass. On his chest, raised sears; through his nose, a hole ready to hold a bone or stick—such was this child of the wilderness. By signs we made him understand our wants, and the strange procession started, the “buck” (the general term for a male aboriginal) leading the way at a pace too fast for us or our camels. Guarded on one side by Breaden, I on the other, we plied our new friend with salt beef, both to cement our friendship, and promote thirst, in order that for his own sake he should not play us false. For five hours we held on our way, curiously enough almost on our proper course, having often to stop awhile to allow the caravan to overtake us. Buoyed up by the certainty of water so long as we had the buck with us we pushed on, until just after sunset the country changed from sand to stony rises and we felt sure a rock-hole was not far off. A little further, and, by the uncertain light, we could see a fair-sized hole with water in it. I ran ahead, and was the first to realise that the native had deceived us; the hole was dry! and must have been so for months.

No sooner did the buck see that I had found him out than he made a sudden bolt and attempt at escape—very neatly done, but not quick enough to pass Breaden. This was indeed a disappointment! I had thought it probable that our guide would lead us anywhere into the sand and try to escape, but I never guessed that he would tantalise us as he had done. In any case, so long as he was with us, we must some time get water—and we had no intention of letting him escape. With a rope we secured him and watched in turn all through the night.

Never were jailers more vigilant, for that black-fellow meant our lives. He tried all means of escape, and never slept the whole night through. He would lie still with closed eyes for a time, and then make a sudden struggle to wrench the rope away from his captor; then stealthily with his foot he tried to push the rope into the fire; then he started rubbing it on the rock on which we lay; and last of all his teeth were brought into use. When my turn came to watch, I pretended to sleep, to see what he would do, and so discovered all his tricks. I confess that I saw with delight the evident feelings of thirst that before long overcame him—the salt beef had done its duty; he had had no water of course, for we had none to give him, and I felt sure that he would be only too eager in the morning. Nor was I mistaken; long before daylight he showed signs of distress, and anxiety to go on, standing up and stretching out his long, thin arm—“Gabbi” (water), he said, pointing in three different directions, putting his head back and pointing with his chin, making a noise something between a grunt and a puff. To the East, to the North-East, and to the South-West from where we had come, he made it clear that water existed. Evidently we had not been far from his camp when we caught him, and we could hardly blame him for leading us away from his own supply, which he rightly judged we and our camels would exhaust.

Standing by the dry rock-hole we could see for many miles, the country to the North-East being considerably lower than where we were; not a cheerful view—sand-ridges always! Not a hill or range to be seen, and yet people have doubted if this really is a desert!

It may happen that in days to come some other party may be stranded in this region and therefore I will leave out no description that could assist them in finding the water that King Billy (for so had we named the buck) eventually took us to. The dry rock-hole (Mulundella) is situated on a surface outcrop of desert sandstone, about fifty yards across surrounded by thick mulga scrub, enclosed between two sand-ridges running North-East and South-West.

On the North and East side of the outcrop the ground suddenly drops, forming what appears from the distance as a line of sheer cliffs. Down this steep slope, which is covered with scrub, we discovered a passage, and, at the foot, found ourselves in an open spinifex plain with a sand-ridge on either hand. We were steering N.E. by N., and in consequence had now and again to cross a ridge, since they ran due North-East. After three miles low outcrops of limestone appeared at intervals, the scrub in the trough of the ridges became more open with an undergrowth of coarse grass, buck-bush or “Roly-Poly” (Salsola Kali) and low acacia. Hugging the ridge on our left, we followed along this belt for another one and a half miles; when, close to the foot of a sandhill, our guide, secured to my belt by a rope round his waist, stopped and excitedly pointed out what seemed on first sight to be three rock-holes, in a small, bare patch of limestone not more than thirty feet across. Twenty yards to the right or left and we would never have seen it; and to this spot King Billy had brought us full speed, only stopping once to examine some rocks at the foot of one ridge, as if to make sure that we were in the right valley. On further investigation the three holes turned out to be entrances, of which two were large enough for a man to pass through, leading perpendicularly to a cave beneath. With the help of a rope Charlie and I descended twenty-five feet to the floor of the chamber, which we found to be covered with sand to a depth of two feet. In the sand we dug holes but did not succeed in getting even moisture. Plunged as we were so suddenly into darkness, our eyes could distinguish no passage leading from the chamber, and it seemed as if we had been tricked again. Further exploration by the light of candles revealed two passages, one leading west and upwards, the other east and downwards. Charlie chose the latter; before long I came to the end of mine, having failed to find anything but bats, bones of birds and dingoes, and old native camp-fires. Following Charlie, I found him crawling on hands and knees down a steep slope—progress was slow, as the floor was rough and the ceiling jagged; presently the passage dropped again, and at the end, below us, we could see our candles reflected, and knew that at last we had water! Who, except those who have had similar experiences, can picture one's feelings of relief! “Thank God! thank God!” is all one can reiterate in one's mind over and over again. The visible supply of water was small, and we had grave doubts as to any soakage existing! Not wasting valuable time in discussion, we crawled back with all speed to the cave, shouted up the joyful news, and called for buckets and billies to bale with. The King was now allowed to descend, but not unguarded, as we must first ascertain the value of our supply. We could understand now why he had insisted on carrying with him from our last camp a burning branch (a “fire-stick”); for he proceeded to make a fire on the floor of the cave from some dead leaves and branches, and others along the passage, to light him; after some hesitation he took a candle instead, and bolted down the passage like a rat. He must have been very dry, judging from the time he stayed below and from his distended appearance on re-ascending. He drank a great deal more than any of us and yet had been a comparatively short time without water, whilst we had been walking and working on starvation rations for a good number of days.

Breaden and I set to work to unload the camels while the others started preparations for water-getting. By 3 p.m. we were ready. King Billy at the bottom, baling water with a meat tin into a bucket, which he handed to Warri, who passed it to Charlie; thence via Godfrey it reached Breaden, who on the floor of the cave hitched it on to a rope, and I from above hauled it through the entrance to the surface. Useful as he was below, I soon had to call Warri up to keep off the poor famished camels, who, in their eagerness, nearly jostled me into the hole. First I filled our tanks, doubtful what supply the cave would yield; but when word was passed that “She was good enough, and making as fast as we baled,” I no longer hesitated to give the poor thirsty beasts as much as ever they could drink. What a labour of love that was, and what satisfaction to see them “visibly swelling” before my eyes! Till after sunset we laboured unceasingly, and I fancy none of us felt too strong. The thundery weather still continued; the heat was suffocating—so much so that I took off my hat and shirt, to the evident delight of the flies, whose onslaughts would have driven me mad had I not been too busily engaged to notice them.

Before night all the camels were watered; they drank on an average seventeen gallons apiece, and lay gorged upon the ground too tired or too full of liquid to eat. We had a very different camp that night, and King Billy shared our good spirits. Now that he had his liberty he showed no signs of wishing to leave us, evidently enjoying our food and full of pride in his newly acquired garment, a jersey, which added greatly to his striking appearance. He took great interest in all our belongings, but seemed to value highest the little round piece of metal that is fixed on the inside of a meat-tin! This, hung on a string, made a handsome ornament for him.

That night, in reviewing our affairs, I came to the conclusion that this dry stage at the beginning of our journey had been a good thing for all. We had had a bad time, but had come out of it all right. Although these things always appear worse, when written or read, yet it is no light task to trudge day after day over such horrible country with an empty stomach and dry throat, and with no idea of when the next water will be found, or if any will be found; and through it all to be cheerful and good-tempered, and work away as usual, as if all were right. It had inspired us with complete confidence in the staying powers of the camels, who, in spite of a thirteen and a half days' drought, had shown no signs of giving in. It had afforded each of us an insight into the characters of his companions that otherwise he never would have had. It had given me absolute confidence in Breaden, Godfrey, and Charlie, and I trust had imbued them with a similar faith in me.

August 11th to 15th we rested at the cave, occupying ourselves in the numerous odd jobs that are always to be found, happy in the knowledge that we had an unfailing supply of water beneath us. I have little doubt but that this water is permanent, and do not hesitate to call it a spring. I know well that previous travellers have called places “springs” which in after years have been found dry; but I feel sure that this supply so far, nearly sixty feet, below the surface, must be derived from a permanent source, and even in the hottest season is too well protected to be in any way decreased by evaporation.  

Illustration 16: At work in the cave, Empress Spring

As a humble tribute to the world-wide rejoicings over the long reign of our Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria, I have honoured this hidden well of water by the name of “The Empress Spring.” A more appropriate name it could not have, for is it not in the Great Victoria Desert? and was it not in that region that another party was saved by the happy finding of Queen Victoria Spring?

The “Empress Spring” would be a hard spot to find. What landmarks there are I will now describe. My position for the Spring is lat. 26° 47´ 21´´S., long. 124° 25´E. Its probable native name (I say probable because one can never be sure of words taken from a wild aboriginal, who, though pointing out a water, may, instead of repeating its name, be perhaps describing its size or shape) is “Murcoolia Ayah Teenyah.” The entrance is in a low outcrop of magnesian limestone, surrounded by buckbush, a few low quondongs and a low, broom-like shrub; beyond this, mulga scrub. Immediately to the North of the outcrop runs a high sand-ridge, covered sparsely with acacia and spinifex. On the top of the ridge are three conspicuously tall dead mulga trees. From the ridge looking West, North, North-East, and East nothing is visible but parallel sand-ridges running N.E. To the South-West can be seen the high ground on which is the rock-hole (Mulundella).

To the South-East, across a mulga-covered flat, is a high ridge one mile distant, with the crests of others visible beyond it; above them, about twelve miles distant, a prominent bluff (Breaden Bluff), the North end of a red tableland. From the mulga trees the bluff bears 144°. One and a half miles N.E. by N. from the cave is a valley of open spinifex, breaking through the ridges in a West and Southerly direction, on which are clumps of cork-bark trees; these would incline one to think that water cannot be far below the surface in this spot.

Close to the entrance to the cave is erected a mulga pole, on which we carved our initials and the date. There are also some native signs or ornaments in the form of three small pyramids of stones and grass, about eight feet apart, in a line pointing S.W.

Several old native camps were dotted about in the scrub; old fires and very primitive shelters formed of a few branches. Amongst the ashes many bones could be seen, particularly the lower maxillary of some species of rat-kangaroo. To descend to the cave beneath, the natives had made a rough ladder by leaning mulga poles against the edge of the entrance from the floor. All down the passage to the water little heaps of ashes could be seen where their fires had been placed to light them in their work. Warri found some strange carved planks hidden away in the bushes, which unfortunately we were unable to carry. King Billy saw them with evident awe; he had become very useful, carrying wood and so forth with the greatest pleasure. The morning we left this camp, however, he sneaked away before any of us were up. I fancy that his impressions of a white man's character will be favourable; for never in his life before had he been able to gorge himself without having had the trouble of hunting his food. From him I made out the following words, which I consider reliable:—

English Aboriginal
Smoke, fire Warru or wallu
Wood Taalpa
Arm Menia
Hand Murra
Hair Kuttya
Nose Wula or Ula
Water Gabbi
Dog Pappa*
* This word “pappa” we found to be used by all natives encountered by us in the interior. Warri uses it, and Breaden tells me that in Central Australia it is universal.

August 15th we again watered the camels, who were none the worse for their dry stage. Breaden was suffering some pain from his strain, and on descending to the cave was unable to climb up again; we had some difficulty in hauling him through the small entrance.


Woodhouse Lagoon

But for the flies, which never ceased to annoy us, we had enjoyed a real good rest, and were ready to march on the morning of the 16th, no change occurring in the character of the country until the evening of the 18th, when we sighted a low tableland five miles to the North, and to the West of it a table-topped detached hill. Between us and the hills one or two native smokes were rising, which showed us that water must be somewhere in the neighbourhood. From a high sandhill the next morning, we got a better view, and could see behind the table-top another and similar hill. I had no longer any doubt as to their being Mounts Worsnop and Allott (Forrest, 1874), the points for which I had been steering, though at first they appeared so insignificant that I hesitated to believe that these were the right ones. From the West, from which direction Forrest saw them first, they appear much higher, and are visible some twenty miles off. From the North they are not visible a greater distance than three miles, while from the East one can see them a distance of eight miles.

I altered our course, therefore, towards the hills, and we shortly crossed the narrow arm of a salt-lake; on the far side several tracks of emus and natives caught my eye, and I sent Charlie on Satan to scout. Before long he reported a fine sheet of water just ahead. This, as may be imagined, came as a surprise to us; for a more unlikely thing to find, considering the dry state of the rock-holes we had come upon, could not have been suggested. However, there it was; and very glad we were to see it, and lost no time in making camp and hobbling the camels. What a glorious sight in this parched land!—so resting to the eye after days of sand! How the camels wallowed in the fresh water! how they drank! and what a grand feed they had on the herbage (Trichinium alopecuroideum) on the banks of the lagoon! Charlie and I spent the afternoon in further exploring our surroundings, and on return to camp found our mates busily engaged in plucking some teal and waterhen which they had shot. The latter were numerous, and Godfrey at one shot bagged nine. They are almost identical in size and appearance with our British waterhen, though they seem to have less power of flight, thus enabling us to drive them from one gun to the other, and so secure a fine lot for the pot. I doubt if in civilisation they would be considered good eating, but after tinned horrors they were a perfect delicacy. The teal were as numerous; but though there were several emu tracks we saw none of those queer birds. Our bag for three days was seventeen teal, twelve waterhen, one pigeon. The natives whose smoke we had seen, disappeared shortly after our arrival. Godfrey, whilst shooting, came across their camp; the occupants, a man, woman, and child, fled as soon as they caught sight of him, leaving a shield behind them, and did not appear again. This small oasis deserves particular attention, for it is bound to play an important part in any scheme of a stock route from the cattle-stations of Central Australia to the Murchison or Coolgardie Goldfields.

There are three lagoons (or deep clay-pans) connected by a shallow, sandy channel. They are entirely surrounded by sandhills, excepting at one spot, where a narrow creek breaks through the sand-ridge. Of the three the largest and most South-Westerly one is nearly circular, and has a diameter of 600 yards with a depth varying from 1 ft. 6 in. to 4 ft. 6 in. It is capable of holding considerably more water than we saw in it. The bottom is of rock, a sort of cement in which ironstone is visible in the middle, and of clay near the edges. From the N.W. a narrow channel enters, traceable for a distance of two miles to a cane-grass swamp; into this, small watercourses, and the tail end of a larger creek lead.

Following up this flat, it will be found to develop into a defined channel running through a grassy flat timbered with bloodwoods (a kind of eucalyptus). This creek rises in the sandstone tablelands to the N. of Mount Allott, and in it at its head, is situated Alexander Spring (Forrest. 1874).

Round the foot of these hills, extending to the lagoon, is a fine little plain of grass, saltbush, and numerous low shrubs, all excellent feed for stock. Mounts Allott and Worsnop are certainly remarkable hills, perhaps 200 feet above the surrounding country, quite flat on the top, which is covered with scrub. From the latter the lagoon is visible, one mile distant on bearing 150°. Our camp at the lagoon was in lat. 26° 10´, long. 124° 48´. This reckoning placed Alexander Spring in a position agreeing very closely with that given it by Forrest, which was very gratifying to me. This water was marked by Forrest as “permanent.” He says in his journal:—

July 13th…Fine water at this place. I have no doubt water is always here. I named it Alexander Spring after my brother, who discovered it. Abundance of water also in rock-holes.

This was in 1874. Since that date this spot has been revisited, first and not long after Forrest, by W. W. Mills, who was commissioned to bring over a mob of camels from South Australia. He followed Forrest's track from water to water, at first with no difficulty; depending on Alexander Spring, he made a longish dry stage, reached the spring only to find it dry, and had a bad time in consequence. The second party to follow Forrest's route was that of Carr-Boyd in 1896, whom Breaden accompanied, and who was prospecting for an Adelaide syndicate. They passed by this spot, but having plenty of water, as it was raining at the time, did not visit the spring. From Mount Worsnop, Woodhouse, one of the party, sighted the lagoon; but neither he nor any of the party had troubled to see whether it was salt or fresh, or of what extent it was. I have named it after Woodhouse, who first saw it. Breaden had told me of the fact of his having seen it, but I had supposed that, as rain was falling, Woodhouse was only looking on a shallow pool that could by no possibility hold water for long.

Shortly after Carr-Boyd, there followed Hubbe's party. He was sent out by the South Australian Government to follow Forrest's route, to ascertain its suitability or otherwise for a stock route. Hubbe found the spring dry, or practically so, and was much disappointed. He did not happen to find the lagoon, and had a long stage before he found water. His party arrived at Menzies shortly before we started. I was unable to get any information from him beyond the opinion that the country was worthless and a stock route impracticable. I put more faith, however, in Breaden, whose life has been spent amongst stock and travelling cattle. When with Carr-Boyd he came to the conclusion that as far as the Warburton Range cattle could be taken without much trouble; and indeed in 1873, so I have read, Gosse drove some bullocks as far as that point, which was the furthest west he penetrated when attempting to cross the Colony.

From the Warburton Range to Lake Wells the awkward part came in, but now this lagoon and the Empress Spring go far to bridge it over. I have no doubt that a fortnight's work at both these places would be sufficient to make splendid wells, supposing that the lagoon was found dry and the spring too hard to get at. At the expenditure of no great amount I feel confident that a serviceable stock route could be formed, easily negotiated in the winter months and kept open by wells during the rest of the year. The country through which the route would pass is excellent as far as the border. From there it would be necessary to hit off the small oases which are met with near Mount Squires, Warburton Ranges, Blyth Creek, and Alexander Spring. From this point the route could be taken to Empress Spring, thence to Lake Wells (or direct to Lake Wells) and the Bonython Creek, and from there to Lake Darlot there would be no difficulty. The only really bad bit of the route would be between Woodhouse Lagoon and Lake Wells, and this is no great distance. Whether the scheme would be worth the expenditure necessary to equip a really serviceable well-sinking party I am unable to judge; but it seems to me that it would be a tremendous advantage to Central Australian cattle owners to be able to drive their bullocks direct to the West Australian goldfields, even though they could only do so in the winter, at which season alone it is probable that the feed would be sufficiently good. The fact that Forrest with his horses traversed this route is evidence enough that at some seasons certain surface waters exist at no great distances apart—in some cases large supplies. For cattle to follow the route that we had come so far would be manifestly absurd, and these remarks, especially where the country between Woodhouse Lagoon and Lake Wells, and between that lake and Lake Darlot is discussed, are made with the further knowledge of these regions that our return journey gave us.

It seems a remarkable fact that while a spring should be found dry, not five miles from it a fresh-water lagoon with millions of gallons in it should exist. In the first place Alexander Spring is no spring; Sir John Forrest told me himself that at the time of naming it he was very doubtful. Hubbe dug it out to bedrock and proved it to be merely a local soakage in the gravelly bed of a narrow gully. Now a heavy downpour sufficient to run the creek and fill the lagoon must certainly first fill the spring and neighbouring pools. But the water in the spring would soon evaporate, whilst the depth and area of the lagoon would save its contents from diminishing from this cause, for a much longer period. So that after all it is easily understandable that we should find the lagoon full and the so-called spring dry.

Near the foot of Mount Allott we found Hubbe's camp, and in it several straps and hobble-chains; two tin-lined packing cases had been left behind, and from them we took the lids, not quite knowing to what use we could put them, but yet feeling they might be serviceable; and indeed they were.

On the summit of the hill Forrest had raised a cairn of stones; this had been pulled down by the natives and subsequently replaced by Hubbe. The blacks had again started to take it to pieces; I rebuilt what they had removed and placed on the cairn a board on which I wrote directions to the lagoon, in case any other traveller should pass.

By the side of the little creek to the North-West of the hill a bloodwood tree has been marked on one side with the number of Mills's camp, and on the other with a record of the objects of Hubbe's expedition, S.R. standing presumably for “Stock Route.”

The flat on which these trees are growing is, in my opinion, a very likely spot for finding water by sinking.

Next The Great Undulating Desert Of Gravel