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Spinifex And Sand by David W. Carnegie

 

CHAPTER VI

Lake MacDonald To The Deep Rock-Holes

On the 16th we had breakfast by moonlight, and were well on our way before daylight. From a ridge higher than the others we got the only glimpse of the lake that was permitted us by the sandhills. About two o'clock, the gin, who had been making towards the Davenport Hills (Tietkens), suddenly turned off and brought us to a little well in the trough of two ridges—the usual wretched concern, yielding no more than three bucketsful. We worked far into the night. Having to observe for latitude I stayed up last, and baled the well before going to rest, leaving about two gallons in the bottom to allow it to settle before morning. At daylight we heard loud howls and snarls coming apparently from the centre of the earth. Further investigation disclosed a lean and fierce-looking dingo down our well, which, in its frantic struggles to get out, had covered up our little pool of water and made a horrible mess of things. I never saw so savage-looking a brute, and, not feeling called upon to assist it, I ended its troubles with a bullet—a kindly act, which doubtless, on their return, gave a welcome supply of cheap meat to the tribe who had only lately retired from the well, and also added to our small store of dingo-tails, which (at 5 shillings each), so far as we could see, would be our only means of deriving any profit from our labours. I think we only got five, and they were lost!

Our position there was lat. 23° 26´, long. 128° 42´. The gin on showing us the well had been at once liberated, a step which I now rather regretted—but one cannot be unkind to ladies, even though they are black, naked savages, little better than beasts! Remembering that she had pointed towards the hills ahead, I steered on that course, and before long we came on the tracks of a man, woman, and child, walking in the same direction. Here I saw a pure white spinifex rat, leaping the tussocks in front of me, but of course had no means of stopping it.

All that day we followed the tracks, over sandhills, samphire-flats, through clumps of desert oak, past dry wells, from sunrise until sunset. Warri and I were ahead for in tracking it is better to be well in advance—riding and walking in turn until Highlander knocked up and had to be led. Breaden and Godfrey had awful work behind to get the camels along. At almost every sandhill one or other of them, usually Bluey, would drop and refuse to budge an inch until forced by blows. How the poor brutes strain, and strain again, up the steep, sandy slopes; painful sight, heart-breaking work—but work done!

We crossed the Davenport Hills shortly before sunset and waited on the other side for the main party, in case in the bad light and on the hard rocks our tracks should be missed. As they came up, we heard a distant call—a gin's—and presently the smoke from a fire was visible. The Monk had done the least work that day, and was the staunchest horse, indeed the only one capable of more than walking, so I despatched Godfrey to surprise the camp, whilst we followed. He rode right on to the tribe, and was accorded a warmish welcome, one buck casting his spear with great promptitude. Luckily his aim was poor and the spear passed by Godfrey's head.

When we arrived on the scene I found Godfrey standing sentinel beneath a tree, in the branches of which stood at bay a savage of fine proportions. He had a magnificent beard, dark brown piercing eyes, splendid teeth, a distinctly Jewish profile, and no decorations or scars on his chest or body. I shall not forget the colour of his eyes nor their fierce glitter, for I climbed the tree after him, he trying to prevent my ascent by blows from a short, heavy stick which I wrested from him, and then with broken branches of dead mulga, with which he struck my head and hands unmercifully, alternately beating me and prodding me in the face, narrowly missing my eyes. If he suffered any inconvenience by being kept captive afterwards, he well repaid himself beforehand by the unpleasant time he gave me. And if it was high-handed treatment to capture unoffending aboriginals, we did not do so without a certain amount of risk to ourselves; personally I would far sooner lie down all night chained by the ankle to a tree, than have my head and knuckles laid bare by blows from dead branches!

After a time I succeeded in securing one end of the chain round the wild man's ankle, and the other round a lower branch. Then I came down and left him, whilst we unloaded and had something to eat. We had had a long day of over ten hours continuous travel, and as the sun had long set we decided to take no steps for water-getting until morning. Being sure of soon getting a fresh supply, we gave what water we had to the horses, on whom the desert was rapidly leaving its mark. As we sat on the packs round the tree, eating our salt beef, our black friend, with evident wonder at our want of watchfulness, took the opportunity of coming quickly to the ground, only to find that he was tethered to the tree. His anger had now subsided, and, though refusing to make friends, he seemed grateful when I bound up a place on his arm, where he had been hurt in his descent from the tree. The spears of his tribe were of better manufacture than those of the ordinary desert man, having bone barbs lashed on with sinews. The next morning we moved camp, as, from our position in a hollow, we should have been at a great disadvantage had the tribe returned to rescue their mate. We found their well, a deep rock-hole, half filled in with sand, on the southern slope of a stony sandhill, situated in a small patch of grass and buck-bush. From the hill above the rock-hole, a prominent bare range of red rock can be seen to the South bearing 172° to the highest point (these are probably the Warman Rocks of Tietkens). We were now within seven miles of the imaginary line forming the boundary between West and South Australia, the nearest point to that Colony our journeyings took us.

Illustration 44: Establishing friendly relations

At first we hoped the hole would prove to be a soakage, but in this we were disappointed, and had to resort to our old methods of box-sinking and clearing out the sand. Our work at first was comparatively easy, but as soon as water-level was reached a great wedge of sand fell in, and nothing remained but to clear out the whole of the cavity, scraping up the water as we went lower. From 7.30 a.m. on the 18th, until 2 a.m. on the 19th, then again from 6.30 a.m. until 4.30 p.m. on the same day, we slaved away with no more than one and a half hours' interval.

After digging out the sand and hauling it in buckets to the surface we had a rock-hole nearly conical in shape, twenty-five feet deep, twenty feet by fifteen at the mouth, narrowing in on all sides to three feet in diameter at the bottom. The first day and night we laboured until we literally could no longer move, from sheer exhaustion. Breaden was so cramped and cold, from a long spell in the wet sand below, that we had to haul him out, put him in his blankets, and pile them upon him, though the night was warm. The result of all this toil—not quite ninety gallons of far from pure water! What a country! one ceaseless battle for water, which at whatever cost one is only too thankful to get! Of the ninety gallons, sixty were distributed amongst the horses and camels, the remainder we kept for our own use and that of the horses when we continued our journey. Eight miles of sandhills on the 20th took us, under the native's guidance, to another rock-hole—full to the brim—its water protected from the sun by an overhanging ledge of rock.

Here we soon had the thirsty animals satisfied, and had time to consider the rather comical aspect of affairs from the black-fellow's point of view. How he must have laughed to himself as he watched us toiling away, coaxing out water drop by drop the days before, when all the time a plentiful supply was close at hand! Excellent grass surrounds the rock-hole, enclosed by mulga thickets, so we rested here a day, shooting a few pigeons and enjoying the first proper wash since April 25th, when we last camped at a good water. Whilst travelling, of course no water for washing could be afforded, as every pint was of some service to the horses.

This rock-hole is in lat. 23° 44´, long. 128° 52´. On May 22nd we continued our journey, marching South over irregular sandhills, forcing our way through scrubs, until, on the evening of the 23rd, we were in the latitude of the centre of Lake Amadeus, as it was formerly marked by Giles. I was anxious to see if Tietkens had perhaps passed between two lakes, leaving an unnoticed lake on his left. We now altered our course to the West, sighting a large bare hill some forty miles distant, which I take to be Mount Skene (Giles). This hill is close to the high ranges, the Petermann and others, and it would have simplified our journey to have turned to them, where good waters are known to exist, but I desired to see what secrets unknown country might hold, even though it might be only sandhills.

This proved to be the case, and during the next six days we crossed the most barren wilderness it had been our lot to see, not a bite of food for camels or horses, who, poor brutes, turned in despair to the spinifex and munched its prickly spines—not a living thing, no sign of life, except on two occasions. The first when, at the beginning of the stage, we captured a young gin, whom I soon released for several reasons, not the least important of which, was that Warri was inclined to fall a victim to her charms, for she was by no means ill-looking. The second living thing we saw was a snake, which we killed; how it came to inhabit so dry a region I cannot say. Now that our course was Westerly, we had expected to run between the ridges, but no such luck attended us. True, we marched between the sand-ridges, but every now and again a ridge of rock running exactly across our course had to be negotiated. Yet further, and sandhills thrown up in any irregular order impeded us, then loose sand; everywhere spinifex, without even its accustomed top-growth, drought, and desolation! Native tracks were very scarce, even old ones; some of these we followed, only to find dry rock-holes and wells at the end of them.

Illustration 45: The tail-end of a miserable caravan

We were all walking again now, ploughing our way through the sand, men and camels alike exhausted, and the poor ponies bringing up the rear, the tail-end of a miserable caravan. And they, following behind, were a useless burden; we could not ride them, and yet for their sakes our supply of water became less and less; we denied ourselves beef (which meant at least a bucketful of water to boil out the salt) to keep them alive; poor faithful things, none but curs could desert them while life to move was left in their bodies. On the night of the 29th, for our own safety, I could allow them no water, for so great had been the drain that our tanks had but a few gallons left. The next was a day of disappointments. All day we followed the same two tracks, from rock-hole to rock-hole—all were dry as the sandstone in which Nature had placed them. We could see where the blacks had scraped out the sand at the bottom—if they could not find water, what chance had we? But every step took us closer—that is the great consolation in such cases. First, have perfect faith that water will eventually be found, then each forward move becomes easy, for you know that you are so much nearer relief. Every dry hole gives a greater chance that the next will be full.

Near one hole we came on a ceremonial or dancing ground—that is, a cleared space in the mulga scrub, circular in shape, with a cleanly swept floor, trodden down by many feet. In the centre stood a sort of altar of branches and twigs. It was evident that the blacks had danced round and round this, though for what purpose I cannot say.

As the sun set our faith was rewarded; before us in an outcrop surrounded by mulga lay two fine rock-holes with an ample supply. What a blessed relief! In a few minutes the horses were gorged, and hard at work on the rough grass near the holes. Hardy horses, indeed! Eight days from drink to drink (not counting what we gave them), and hardly a scrap of feed.

We took a two days' rest for the sake of the grass, and varied our daily fare of salt beef with small, tufted pigeons, which came in large numbers to drink. We shot nearly one hundred of them, and ate boiled pigeon three times a day with the voracity of black-fellows. Nor was Devil-devil forgotten in the feast; he had become an expert rider, and had a far better time than poor Val.

The curious fact of some rock-holes being full, whilst others a few miles off are empty, again exemplifies the very local character of such rain as visits these parts. The “Deep rock-holes,” as we called them (in lat. 24° 20´, long. 127° 20´), are peculiar, for one is perfectly cylindrical, two feet six inches in diameter going down vertically to a depth of twenty feet; the other goes down straight for six feet, and then shelves away under the rock to a depth of at least twelve feet. It will be seen from our last few days' experience, and from that of the few days soon to follow, that in this region rock-holes are numerous. They are invariably situated on low surface outcrops of 'desert sandstone, surrounded by mulga and grass; beyond that, sand. I take it that they have been formed in the same way as the granite rock-holes in the south of the Colony—that is, by decay; that the whole country has been covered by a deposit of sand, borne by the winds, filling in former valleys and hollows, leaving only occasional patches of rock still visible. Their frequent occurrence would then be accounted for by the fact that the deposit of sand is shallower here than elsewhere. That it is so is pretty evident, for here the sand-ridges are much lower than further North, and still further South they disappear. Low cliffs are seen, and when the latitude of Forrest's route is reached, sandstone hills are numerous and rock-holes abundant. In the course of ages perhaps the sand will again be shifted until such reservoirs as the “Deep rock-holes” are filled in and hidden, or partially covered and converted by the natives into wells. Supposing a layer of sand to a depth of five or six feet could be thrown over the valley in which the Deep rock-holes are situated, the holes would at once be transformed into “Native Wells,” the term “well” being a misnomer, and apt to suggest a copious supply to any unacquainted with the interior. I suppose that to the uninitiated no map is so misleading as that of West Australia, where lakes are salt-bogs without surface water, springs seldom run, and native “wells” are merely tiny holes in the rock, yielding from 0 to 200 gallons!

From our position at the rock-holes, by skirting, possibly without sighting, the end of the Rawlinson Range and steering nearly due South-West, we should hit off Woodhouse Lagoon of our upgoing journey. For simplicity in steering I chose a due South-West course, which should take us a few miles to the East of the lagoon, two hundred miles distant in a bee-line. I was anxious to see what water it held, and check my work by re-crossing our track of the previous year; and besides this, the lagoon lay on our most direct course for the nearest settlements, still 450 miles away on the chart.

Whilst resting at the rock-holes I took the opportunity of giving Bluey a lesson in manners, much to the entertainment of my companions.

Bluey was a brute of a camel, and used to give an immensity of trouble in the mornings, galloping off at full speed when he should have quietly waited to have his nose-line adjusted. Added to this, he would kick and strike with his fore-legs, so much so that none of us cared about catching him. One morning whilst Breaden was after the horses, I was helping Warri collect the camels, and tried my hand with Bluey. At the moment that I was putting the loop of his line on to the nose-peg, he reared up and struck me on the chest, his hobble-chain adding power to the blow, which sent me spinning on to my back. For this and other assaults I meant to punish him, so shortening his hobbles until his fore-legs were fastened with no more than an inch or two between, I armed myself with a stout stick. As I had expected, as soon as I started to put on his nose-line, off he went as hard as he could, jumping like a kangaroo, and I after him beating him the while. Round and round we went, the pace getting slower and slower, until, amidst shrieks of laughter and shouts of “The Leader wins!” “Bluey wins!” “Stick to it!” and so forth, from want of breath we came to a stop, and gazed at each other, unable to go further. It was a tough run, and, like a schoolmaster caning a small boy, I felt inclined to say, “Remember, my dear Bluey, it pains me as much as it does you.”

The lesson had a most salutary effect, and never again did he gallop away when being caught in the morning, though he was not a well-behaved beast, and always the first to give in in the sandhills, even though carrying the lightest load. His good looks, however, were so much in his favour that subsequently a wily Afghan paid me a big price for him (comparatively), and winked to some fellow-countrymen as if he had got the best of “Eengleeshman.” If he was satisfied, I am sure that I was.

CHAPTER VII

The Last Of The Ridges Of Drift Sand

On June 1st we left the rock-holes on a South-West course, crossing irregular sandhills with the usual vegetation.

On June 2nd we crossed the last sand-ridge of the great northern desert, and before us spread the rolling gravel-covered undulations of sand, treeless except for an occasional beefwood or small clump of mulga, rolling away before us like a swelling ocean. What a blessed relief it was after the awful toil of crossing Heaven knows how many sand-ridges day after day!

Taking into account the country north of lat. 24° 45´ only—for though we had a long spell of sand-ridges between the edge of the desert and Woodhouse Lagoon, and again between that point and Lake Wells, yet these were comparatively low and less steep than those further north, and therefore their extent is not included in this reckoning—we traversed 420 miles on the upgoing journey, and 451 miles on the return journey—that is, 871 miles of actual travelling over a desert of sand blown by the wind into parallel ridges of the height and frequency already described. It will be readily understood, therefore, that we were not sorry to see the last of them! Working our way step by step, we had so husbanded the marvellous powers of endurance of our camels that, in spite of the most terrible privations and difficulties, these noble animals had silently carried their loads day by day, up and down, over the burning sand, maddened by flies, their legs worn bare by spinifex—carried them not without great sufferings and narrow escapes from death, but yet without one of their number succumbing to the horrors of the region. Accident and poison had carried off four. And now, alas! another was to meet the same fate. Poor Satan, my faithful companion in good times and bad, whose soft velvet nose had so often rubbed my cheek in friendship, was laid low by the deadly wallflower. In spite of all we could do for him, in spite of coaxing him yard by yard, Warri and I—as we had done to Misery before—for a day's march of over fifteen miles, we were forced to leave him to die. We could not afford to wait a day, always onward must it be until another water is found, so, with a bullet through his head, I left him to find his way to the Happy Hunting-grounds where there are no native wells nor spinifex, only flowing rivers and groves of quondongs! All this about a camel—“a devil and an ostrich and an orphan child in one,” as we have been told—but remember that often in the solitary bush one's animals are one's only companions, that on them one's life depends. How, then, could one fail to love them as friends and comrades?

Shortly after the scene of Satan's death the mulga clumps became greater in extent, until for half the day, and more, we wound our way through dense thickets. The further South we went the thicker they became, until all day long we marched through scrub, seeing no more than forty yards ahead, with packs, saddles, and clothes torn to pieces by dead and broken branches. We saw no smokes, no spinifex rats, no natives, no tracks but old ones, and these led us only to dry rock-holes. Time after time we followed recent tracks from hole to hole, and met with no success; sometimes we were just in time to be too late, and to see that the last drops had been scraped up by the natives!

On June 6th we followed a fresh track, and found a hole containing thirty gallons. June 7th and 8th, dense scrub. June 9th, open country, lake country, gum tree flats, and magnificent green feed, the first we had seen since leaving Sturt Creek. On our right high sandhills, whose butt-ends in the distance had the appearance of a range of hills; on our left thickets of mulga, and beyond, a sandstone range. Kangaroo tracks were numerous, but none very fresh; these and the number of birds gave us hopes of water. We must find some soon, or not one horse could survive. Poor ponies! they were as thin as rakes, famished and hollow-eyed, their ribs standing out like a skeleton's, a hat would almost hang on their hip-joints—a sorry spectacle! All day we searched in vain, the animals benefiting at least by the green herbage. Ours was a dismal camp now at nights. What little water we could spare to the horses was but as a drop in the ocean. All night long they shuffled about the camp, poking their noses into every pack, overturning dishes and buckets, and, finding nothing, stood with sinking heads as if in despair. Our water-casks had to be guarded, for in their extremity the horses could smell the water, and even went so far as to pull out the wooden bung, with their teeth! Warden, the small pony, was a special offender in this respect. It is quite startling to wake suddenly in the night and find a gaunt, ghost-like horse standing over one, slowly shaking his head from side to side, mournfully clanging his bell as if tolling for his own death. Then at other times one heard the three bells sounding further and further off. This meant a hasty putting on of boots and wakening a mate to stir up the fire and make it blaze; then, following the sound through the darkness, one came up with the deserters, shuffling along in single file, with heads to the ground, turning neither to right or left, just travelling straight away in any direction as fast as their hobbles allowed. Heaven knows how far they might go in a night unless stopped in time and dragged back to camp. Indeed blankets do not mean sleep, with dry horses in the camp!

On the 10th The Monk, our best horse, fell, and was dead in a minute—run down like a clock. The other two followed slowly behind. Presently. a salt-lake (this I named Lake Breaden), enclosed by sandhills, barred our way—a cheerful sight indeed! Hung up in its treacherous bogs, with nearly empty tanks, dying horses and tired camels, what chance had we? Speculation of this kind must not be indulged in; time enough to cry out when the troubles come. Providence was with us as guide, and across the lake we dodged from sand-spit to sand-spit until we had beaten it, and not one animal was bogged.

The night of the 10th our supply was down to three gallons. None could be spared for the horses now, none could be spared for beef-boiling, only a little for bread, and a drop each to drink. Every rock-hole we had seen—but one—was dry. Alexander Spring would be dry. We should have to make for the Empress Spring, fifty miles beyond. Every thing pointed to the probability of this sequence of events, therefore the greatest care must be exercised. The horses would die within a few miles, but the camels were still staunch in spite of the weakening effect of the sand-ridges, so there was no need for anxiety. Yet we could not help feeling anxious; one's nerves get shaky from constant wear and tear, from want of food and rest. We had been in infinitely worse positions than this; in fact, with health and strength and fresh camels no thought of danger would have been entertained, but it is a very different matter after months of constant strain on body and mind. Faith—that is the great thing, to possess—faith that all is for the best, and that all will “pan out” right in the end.

The days were closing in now, the nights were cold, so we were away before sunrise, and, leaving the rolling sand, came again into mulga thickets, with here and there a grassy flat, timbered with bloodwoods—the tail end of a creek no doubt rising in the sandstone cliffs we had seen ahead of us. Shortly after one o'clock a sight, that brought more joy to us than to any Robinson Crusoe, met our eyes—a track, a fresh footprint of a gin. Whether to follow it forward or back? That was the question. On this might hang more than the lives of the horses. In nine cases out of ten it is safer to follow them forward—this was the tenth! “Which way?” said Godfrey, who was steering. “Back,” said I, for what reason I cannot say. So back we followed the lady to see where she had camped, twisting and turning, now losing her tracks, and, casting, finding them again, until we were ready to stamp with impatience and shout D—n the woman! why couldn't she walk straight? Two hours brought us our reward, when an opening in the scrub disclosed a deep-banked creek, fringed with white-stemmed gums, and, beyond, a fire and natives camped. They all ran, nor did we care, for water must be there. Glorious sight! a small and green-scummed puddle, nestling beneath the bank, enclosed by a bar of rock and the bed of shingle. Before many minutes we had the shovels at work, and, clearing away the shingle and sand, found a plentiful supply. All had ended well, and just in time to save the horses. Considering the want of feed, and the hardships they had already suffered, they had done a remarkable stage. A stage of eleven days (from the evening of May 31st to the evening of June 11th)—a distance of 160 miles on the map, and a good many more allowing for deviations, during which they had but little water. We had brought them through safely, but at the cost of how much trouble to ourselves may be judged from previous pages and the following figures. We left the Deep rock-holes with exactly 102 gallons of water; decrease by breaking through the scrub must have been considerable, as we had nearly thirty gallons of this amount in canvas bags.  

Added to this must be the 30 gallons we got from the small rock-hole—that is, 132 gallons in all. Of this supply the horses had 6 gallons each the first night, 3 gallons each subsequently until the day The Monk died and their ration was stopped. From 132, we take 90 (the horses' share). This leaves 42 gallons for four men and a dog (which drinks as much as a man) for eleven days; this supply was used for washing (an item hardly appreciable), bread-making, drinking, and beef-boiling, the last the most ruinous item; for dry-salted beef is very salt indeed, and unless boiled thoroughly (it should be boiled in two waters) makes one fearfully thirsty. What would otherwise have been an easy task was made difficult and uncomfortable by the presence of the horses, but we were well rewarded by the satisfaction of seeing them alive at the finish.

CHAPTER VIII

Woodhouse Lagoon Revisited

June 12th, 13th, 14th, we rested at the welcome creek and had time to examine our surroundings. I made the position of our camp to be in lat. 26° 0´, long. 125° 22´, and marked a gum tree near it with C7. Therefore I concluded that this was the Blythe Creek, of Forrest; everything pointed to my conclusion being correct, excepting the failure to find Forrest's marked tree, and to locate his Sutherland Range. However, the bark might have grown over the marking on the tree—and several trees showed places where bark had been cut out by the natives for coolimans, and subsequently closed again—or the tree might have been burned, or blown down. As to the second, I am convinced that Forrest mistook the butt-ends of the sand-ridges cut off by Lake Breaden for a range of hills, for he only saw them from a distance. The creek heads in a broken sandstone range of tabletops and cliffs; from its head I sighted a peculiar peak, about nine miles distant, which I took to be Forrest's “Remarkable Peak,” marked on his map. From the sketch that I made, Sir John recognised the peak at once. From the cliffs the sandhills round Lake Breaden look exactly like a range of hills “covered,” as Forrest said, “with spinifex.” Another proof of the non-existence of, at all events, the northern portion of the Sutherland Range, is afforded by Breaden's experience. As I have already stated, he accompanied Mr. Carr-Boyd on a prospecting trip along this part of Forrest's Route. From his diary I see that they passed about three miles North of Forrest's peak, which Breaden identified, though by Mr. Carr-Boyd's reckoning they should have been twenty miles from it. Travelling due West across the creek on which we were camped, they found a large clay-pan, and were then hourly expecting to cross the Sutherland Range. However, no range was seen, only high sandhills. That Breaden's reckoning was correct was soon proved, for he and I walked from our camp and six miles West found the big clay-pan and their camel tracks. The lagoon was dry, though they had found it full of water. It is clear, therefore, that the range exists only as sandhills, north of lat. 26° 0´. Numerous other creeks rise in the broken range, and no doubt their waters, after rain, find their way into Lake Breaden.

Our camp was on the longest of them, though others that I followed down were broader. Above our camp, that is to the South-East, a ledge of rock crossed the creek forming a deep little pool which would hold plenty of water. I much regretted being unable to find Forrest's tree—but a tree unless close to some landmark is not easily come upon—as at its foot he buried a bottle holding letters and his position for that camp.

We saw no more of the natives who had been camped on the creek, but left some articles that should be of great use to them. Everything of weight that was not absolutely necessary was left here, and this included a number of horseshoes.

On, the 15th we were ready to start, and marched on a West-South-West course until we should sight Mount Worsnop, and turn West to the Woodhouse Lagoon. A mile and a half from our camp we crossed another creek, and on its banks a tree marked G.H.S., and NARROO cut in the bark. Evidently the prospectors had been pushing out in our absence, or else it was another overland party from South Australia, for Forrest's route has become quite a fashionable track, some half-dozen parties having crossed the Colony in this latitude. On the next day we sighted Mount Worsnop from eight miles (from the East it is more prominent than from the South). This was a day of miracles! It rained—actually rained! The first rain we had seen in the interior—not a hard rain, but an all-day drizzle. How cold it made us, and how wet!—not that we minded that. But the winter was approaching, we were daily getting further south, and with our blood thin and poor, our clothes of the lightest and most ragged, accustomed to scorching heat, we felt the cold rain very much indeed. Our teeth chattered, and our hands were so numbed that at night we could hardly undo the straps and ropes of our loads. A cold night, accompanied by a heavy dew, followed the rain; and for the first time on either journey we pitched a tent. During this, Devil-devil, wet and shivering, sneaked into my blankets for warmth, for, as a rule, he slept outside, in a little nest I made for him in one of the camel saddles. Such sudden changes in temperature made any “Barcoo” sores most painful; but fortunately we had suffered comparatively little from this unpleasant disease. A beautiful sun dried and warmed us in the morning, and crossing a narrow salt-lake (probably a continuation of Lake Breaden), we reached our old friend Woodhouse Lagoon on June 17th, nearly a year having elapsed since our first visit, August 19th, in 1896.

We were disappointed, but not surprised, to find the lagoon nearly dry, holding no more than six inches of water in the deepest place. But curiously enough Alexander Spring, found dry before, was now brimful, evidently filled by the recent rain, which had not been heavy enough to fill the lagoon. Here we camped for two days, which we could ill afford, as already we had to cut down our rations, and before long our meals would dwindle to one instead of two a day. Godfrey's sickness necessitated a delay—he suffered from such fearful pains in his head, poor fellow! Often after a day's march he would collapse, and lie prone with his head nearly bursting from pain. A drink of strong tea would relieve him, but when water was scarce he had just to suffer.

I had a splendid chance of replenishing our larder, and, fool that I was, I missed it. I was riding The Warden to the spring, when a kangaroo popped up on his hind legs, and sat looking at me. The Warden would not keep still; the surprised kangaroo actually waited for me to dismount and aim my rifle, but just as I fired The Warden jerked my arm and I missed, and away bounded many a good meal—and with it the pony! So I continued my way on foot, and was rewarded by finding some interesting things. A big camp of natives had been here in our absence; near the spring in the scrub was a cleared corroboree ground, twenty feet by fifty yards, cleaned of all stones and enclosed by a fallen brush-fence (this older than the other work, showing this is a favourite meeting-place). At one end was a sort of altar of bushes, and hidden beneath them a long, carved board. This I took, and afterwards gave to Sir John Forrest. In every tree surrounding the clearing a stone was lodged in the forked branches.

The pile of stones on Mount Allott had not been touched, nor had my board been removed. On it I found an addition to my directions to the lagoon—an addition made by two prospectors, Swincer and Haden, who had been in this locality two months after our first visit. I did not meet either Mr. Swincer or Mr. Haden, but I heard that my board had been of great service to them, for without it they would not have known of the lagoon, where they camped some time. G.H.S. carved on a tree near the Blythe Creek was also due to them; I believe that was about their furthest point reached, from which they returned to Lake Darlot. On their return they depended on a water which failed them, and they had in consequence a narrow squeak for their lives. On nearing camp I met Breaden and Warri, who had started to track me up, for Warden's return with an empty saddle had caused a little anxiety.

I observed for latitude that night, and was pleased to find that my two positions for the lagoon agreed almost exactly, both in latitude and longitude—a very satisfactory result considering the distance we had travelled.

On the 20th we started again, steering a course a little South of West, my intention being to round the North end of Lake Wells, and cut the Bonython Creek, with the object of seeing if another oasis, on our suggested stock route from South Australia, could be found. It need hardly be said that any idea of a stock route from Hall's Creek is absolutely impracticable. Between Woodhouse Lagoon and Lake Wells the country consists of low sand-ridges, on which grows an abundance of acacia bushes and others suitable for camels, alternating with open spinifex plains, mulga scrubs in which good grass grows, and nearer the lagoon one or two small grass plains. All through cliffs and bluffs are met with, from which small creeks ending in a grassy avenue run; and, as Lake Wells is approached, table-topped hills and low ranges occur, and occasional flats of salt-bush country. We had no longer any difficulty with regard to water, the rain having left frequent puddles where any rocky or clayey ground was crossed. In the sand no water could be seen; indeed we had a sharp shower one morning, water was running down the slopes of sand, but half an hour afterwards no sign of it could be seen on the surface. On the 23rd we sighted, and steered for, a very prominent headland in a gap in a long range of cliffs. Sandhills abut right on to them, and dense scrub surrounds their foot. The headland, which I named Point Robert, after my brother, is of sandstone, and stands squarely and steep-cliffed above a stony slope of what resembles nothing so much as a huge heap of broken crockery.

We camped at the head of a little gorge that night, having found a rocky pool; the rain cleared off, out came the stars, and a sharp frost followed, the first of the year. The character of the country was extraordinarily patchy; after crossing ridges of sand, and then an open, stony plain, on the 25th we camped on a little flat of salt-bush and grass. Our position was lat. 26° 20´, long. 123° 23´, and seven miles to the North-West a flat-topped hill, at the end of a range, stood out noticeably above the horizon of scrub; this I named Mount Lancelot, after another brother. The next day it rained again, making the ground soft and slippery. In the evening, to our surprise and disgust, further passage that day was cut off by a salt swamp. Not wishing to get fixed in a lake during rain, we camped early, pitched our tent and hoped for the rain to stop—an unholy wish in this country, but salt-lakes are bad enough without rain! The next two days were spent in trying to find a crossing, for we found ourselves confronted by a series of swamps, samphire flats, and lake channels running away to the North as far as could be seen by field-glasses—a chain of lakes, hemmed in by sandhills, an unmarked arm of Lake Wells. If we could not cross here we might have to go seventy miles out of our way, round the South of Lake Wells, and then back to the Bonython.

CHAPTER IX

Across Lake Wells To Lake Darlôt

Four attempted crossings ended in the hopeless bogging of horses and camels, entailing the carrying of loads and saddles. At last we could not get them to face the task at all; and small wonder, for floundering about in soft, sticky mud is at least unpleasant! I am pretty confident that we could have managed to get the camels through somehow, but the horses were far too weak to struggle. Poor old Highlander sank to his belly, struggled for a minute just long enough to get further engulfed, and then threw up the sponge and lay panting until we came to his rescue. We had a job to get him to the shore, and only succeeded by digging out two legs on one side, putting a rope round them, then the same on the other, and by violent efforts dragged him on to his side. Then, one at his head and the rest on his legs, we turned him over and over until we came on firmer ground, when we put the ropes on his legs again and by main force hauled him on his flank to the margin of the lake, where he lay half dead. The others fared but little better; it was evident that a crossing could not be effected except at the cost of the horses.

From a sandhill near our camp numerous hills could be seen, the more prominent of which I named. To the West-North-West a table-top hill (Mount Courtenay, after my brother-in-law) standing in front of a prominent tableland; to the northward Mount Lancelot; to the East-South-East a line of cliffs standing above stony rises, at the southern end a bluff point (Point Katharine, after my sister); and eight miles to the South-South-West, two flat-topped hills, close together—these I named Mount Dora and Mount Elisabeth after two of my sisters. Little did I think that I was never to see again the dear face of one of them! As a last hope, I and Breaden went across the lake to these hills to look for a break in the swamps. From Mount Elisabeth an extensive view can be obtained, but no signs of the lake coming to an end. From Mount Elisabeth, which, by the way, is of quartzite, I took the following bearings: Mount Courtenay 331°, Mount Lancelot 23°, Point Katharine, 78°. To the West numerous broken tablelands can be seen, and the same to the South. Clearly there was no chance of crossing this lake or rounding it on the North, for the white streak of salt could be seen for miles and miles in that direction. There was nothing to be done but to skirt the edge of the lake, and if connected with Lake Wells to skirt that too, until a crossing could be found. So we loaded up and steered East and then South-East to round the swamps. Due West of Point Katharine, four miles distant, we found a large freshwater lagoon surrounded by stony banks and ridges. It contained only a few inches of water, but is capable of holding it to a depth of six feet. Beyond it is a stony cotton-bush flat, and on it numerous white clay-holes of water, almost hidden by the herbage.

Water-hens were so numerous that we could not pass by so good an opportunity, and camped early in consequence, spending the rest of the day in shooting these birds. The rest was a good thing for Breaden, too, who had been hurt by Kruger as he struggled in the salt-bog. The next morning we struck South, and by night found the lake again in our way. From a high bank of rocks and stones we could see the arm that had first blocked us, running round the foot of the hills and joining a larger lake which spread before us to the South. Across it some high, broken tablelands could be seen. There was no doubt from our position that this was Lake Wells, but I had expected to find a tableland (the Van Treuer of Wells) fringing the Northern shore. However, the Van Treuer does not run nearly so far East as Wells supposed when he sighted it from the South. No crossing could be effected yet, so the next day we continued along the margin of the lake, along a narrow strip of salt-bush country hemmed in between the lake and sandhills. On July 2nd we found the narrow place where Wells had crossed in 1892; the tracks of his camels were still visible in the soft ground. The crossing being narrow, and the bog shallow—no more than a few inches above a hard bed of rock—we had no trouble whatever.

We now followed the same course as Wells had done, passing Lyell-Brown Bluff—from which Mount Elisabeth bears 339°—and Parson's Bluff, eventually striking the Bonython Creek. This, as described by Wells, is a flat, shallow, and, in places, but ill-defined watercourse. In it are one or two good deep pools, of which one is probably permanent. Fringing the banks is a narrow strip of salt-bush and grass; beyond that mulga and coarse grass. This narrow belt of good country continues down to the lake, and as we saw it just after the rain looked fresh and green. There is no extent, but sufficient to form a good resting-place for travelling stock. Some cattle-tracks of recent date were visible, a small wild herd of stragglers probably from the Gascoyne. Turkeys were seen in fair numbers, but they were the shyest birds I have ever come across—so much so that we never got a shot. The late rain had left so many pools and puddles that we had no chance of waiting for them at their watering-place. One of the wild cattle beasts, amongst which must be a bull, for we saw tracks of quite young calves, would have been very acceptable, for our meat had come to an end. In consequence we wasted no time in further examining the Bonython, but made tracks for Lake Darlot. The days were getting so short now that, in order to accomplish a good stage, we had to rise long before daylight and collect the camels and horses, following their tracks by means of a fire-stick. In this way we were enabled to get a start at sunrise, having breakfasted—in imagination!

Several parties of prospectors have been to Lake Wells, and at first we followed a regular pad; however, it did not seem to be going very direct, so we left it. Between Lake Wells and Lake Darlot—a distance of about 130 miles—the country consists of open mulga thickets with a coarse undergrowth of grass, alternating with spinifex desert and sand. Occasional low cliffs and ridges occur, and nearer Lake Darlot numerous ranges, from which the Erlistoun Creek takes its rise. Amongst these hills we saw the first auriferous country since leaving the vicinity of Hall's Creek, and in the Erlistoun the first permanent water (probably) since leaving the Sturt Creek, a distance of about 800 miles. A narrow belt of grass and salt-bush fringes the Erlistoun, and in the winter looks healthy and succulent; however, a few months soon alters that, and in the summer all is parched and yellow. How pleasant it was to see such country, after the dreary desert! Tracks and roads were now numerous as we approached civilisation. The same lake lay between us and the settlement that had caused Conley, Egan, and myself so much trouble in former days. Choosing the same narrow channel where I had formerly crossed, we managed very fairly well. Most of the camels bogged, but some did not, nor did the horses, and our loads now consisted of little else but the saddles, and were therefore no great weight to carry. The weather was lovely now, bright warm days and frosty nights; unfortunately this tends to sharpen the appetite, which we had small means of satisfying. For the last ten days we had had nothing but damper, and not much of that, on which we spread tinned milk which had previously been discarded as unfit for use, being dark brown instead of white, and almost solid. Nevertheless it was better than nothing; a ten hours' march, begun on an empty stomach, and finished on a slice of bread, cannot be indulged in for many days before it leaves its mark. We were not sorry, therefore, to reach Lake Darlot township on July 15th, and, choosing a nice spot, made camp. This day we saw the first white face since April 9th, and our journey was practically over.

The excellent feed growing all over the flats near Lake Darlot gave us a good opportunity of recruiting our animals' strength. For nearly a month we moved slowly about between Lake Darlot and Lawlers prospecting in a desultory sort of way. Our departure from the former place was deeply regretted—by the butcher, whose trade had increased by leaps and bounds during our stay. “I never see'd coves as could stack mutton like you chaps,” he said, in satisfied wonder; “why, a whole blooming sheep don't seem to last you a day; can't ye stop until I get some bullocks up the track?” Certainly that was the best fresh mutton I have ever tasted, and no doubt we did do our duty by it.

By degrees the camels fattened and fattened, until the combination of flesh and the hard muscles their work had formed, made it difficult to believe how great the trials were they had been through. The horses were also getting less like skeletons, though they take far longer than camels to regain their strength; as a rule, if they have been through great hardships they never do regain it and are, practically, useless afterwards. Stoddy, whose back had been bad, was also recovering—this the only sore back amongst them after so many miles of country well calculated to knock both packs and backs to pieces.

CHAPTER X

The End Of The Expedition

By easy stages and frequent halts we eventually reached Coolgardie, after an absence of thirteen months. Of these, ten and a half months were occupied in travelling, during which we traversed a little over three thousand miles. Of this, 550 miles was traversed by roads and tracks, whilst the remainder was through country beyond the limits of any settlements.

TABLE SHOWING SOURCES OF WATER SUPPLY

FOUND ON UPGOING AND RETURN JOURNEYS BETWEEN THE LIMITS OF SETTLEMENT


Holding Water Nearly Dry Quite Dry

Springs 2 1 Helena, Empress, and Alexander (Forrest)
Creeks 9 * Including Christmas, Janet, Mary, Margaret, and Sturt in Kimberley; Blyth,+ Bonython,+ Erlistoun
Clay-pans 2 4
Rocky pools in gorges 8 **
Rock-holes 3 3 21 Of these 4 were completely drained, and 2 left with water
Native Wells 8 3 22 Of these 6 were completely drained, and 5 left with water

* Numerous small dry watercourses were seen.
** Numerous dry pools in rocky gorges were seen.
+ The only two in the desert area.

TABLE SHOWING CHARACTER AND EXTENT OF COUNTRY TRAVERSED

Upgoing Journey Return Journey Total in Miles

From edge of desert to Woodhouse Lagoon220 Mixed Country including low sandhills, spinifex plain. Desert Gum flats with occasional scrubs and patches of grass.
From Woodhouse Lagoon to edge of desert260
From end of Sturt Creek to Gordon Hills50

530
From Woodhouse Lagoon to Family Well370 Undulating Desert of spinifex, stones, and gravel, with occasional scrubs.
From Deep Rock-holes to Woodhouse Lagoon210

580
From Family Well to Mount Bannerman420 Sand-Ridges. Desert of sand blown into parallel ridges running on an average course of East and West, varying in height from 20-100 feet.
From Gordon Hills to Deep Rock-holes450

870
From Cutmore's Well to edge of desert100 Country other than desert, including open scrubs with grass, open grass plains, belts of grass fringing river banks, small oases, and hilly country.
From Mount Bannerman to Hall's Creek150
From Hall's Creek to end of Sturt Creek160
From edge of desert to Lake Darlot50
Oases (Helena Spring, Woodhouse Lagoon, Lake Wells, etc.)10

470

2,450 Of which 2,210 were through country unmapped except where routes of previous explorers were crossed.
550 By roads and tracks.

3,000 Total mileage in round numbers, taking into account all deviations.

From the above table it will be seen that the greater part of the interior of the Colony seen by us is absolutely useless to man or beast. It is possible that between the Lake Darlot goldfield and the 25th parallel of latitude isolated areas of auriferous country may be found, though nothing that we saw proves this to be likely; and I base my opinion only on the facts that quartz and ironstone are known to occur in the vicinity of Lake Augusta and the Warburton Range. It is also possible (and this I have already discussed) that a travelling route for stock may be formed from South Australia along the 26th parallel as far as Mounts Allott and Worsnop, and thence via Lake Wells and the Bonython Creek. to the Erlistoun Creek and Lake Darlot.

Failing either the finding of gold, or the formation of a stock route from oasis to oasis, I can see no use whatever to which this part of the interior can be put.

North of the 25th parallel the country is absolutely useless until the confines of the Kimberley district (about lat. 19°) are reached. That a stock route through the desert is quite impracticable we have clearly demonstrated. Even supposing that there was any water supply, there is no feed; nothing but spinifex grows in more than wee patches at very long intervals. As any one who has followed me through this book can see, our water supply was most precarious, depending as we did upon rock-holes and native wells (which at any time may be found dry), and these yielded an only just sufficient quantity to keep no more than nine camels from dying for want of a drink—every well that we found, with the exception of one or two, was drained and left empty. Indeed on our two journeys there are only two watering-places on which I should care to depend, viz., the Empress Spring and Helena Spring. Throughout our journey we never once found water by chance—though chance took us to more than one dry hole—but found it only by systematic and patient work, involving many scores of miles of tracking, the capture of the wild aboriginals, and endless hours of manual labour. Without having resorted to these expedients I have no hesitation in saying that neither we nor the camels would be living today, for though without having done so, other parties have crossed as great an extent of arid country, it must be remembered that our journey was accomplished through infinitely worse country, and with a party exactly half as large as the smallest of the previous expeditions across the interior. Where, with a large number of camels, it would be possible to carry a great quantity of water and do long stages, using the water for camels as well as men, with a small number such tactics as going straight ahead, and trusting to luck, could only end in disaster.

It has been my fate, in all my exploration work, to find none but useless country, though when merely prospecting on the goldfields I have been more fortunate. So far, therefore, as being of benefit to mankind, my work has had no better result than to demonstrate to others, that part of the interior that may best be avoided. No mountain ranges, no rivers, no lakes, no pastoral lands, nor mineral districts has it brought to light; where the country was previously unknown it has proved only its nakedness; nevertheless I do not regret one penny of the cost or one minute of the troubles and labours entailed by it. Nor, I am confident, do my companions repine because they wasted so many months of their lives in such a howling wilderness. May good fortune attend them wherever they go; for they were brave and true men, and to them I once more express my feelings of thanks and gratitude for their untiring energy and help through all our journeyings. I verily believe that so large an extent of country, good or bad, has never been travelled through by a more cheerful party, or by one, the members of which were more in accord; and to the unanimity, and ready co-operation that prevailed throughout the camp, the successful issue of the expedition must in a large degree be ascribed.

Before leaving Coolgardie I had to perform the melancholy task of selling off my camels and all belongings. I have seldom felt anything so deeply as the breaking up of our little band, and the sale of my faithful animals. However, it was a matter of necessity, for much as I wished to pension off my favourites I was not in a position to do so, and eventually made my exit from the Colony in much the same state as that in which I arrived.

Before leaving for home I spent some time in Perth, where the Surveyor-General, Mr. Johnston, did all in his power to assist me in the preparation of plans and maps. These, together with all information I had gathered, I placed at the disposal of the Government, for which they were pleased to express many thanks. At a gathering in the Perth Town Hall, at which I was present on the day of my departure, Sir John Forrest, the Premier, proposed the toast of the guest and said many kind things, to which I replied:—

…I regret that I am only able to give such a bad report of the far interior of this Colony; but even so, and even though it has not been our fortune to discover any country useful either to the pastoralist or miner, yet I hope we have done good service in proving the nature of a large tract of country previously unknown. Our late journey will, I think, give an answer to the oft-repeated question, ‘Does the gold-belt extend in a direct line from Coolgardie to Kimberley?’ and the answer is in the negative. At least we have demonstrated the uselessness of any persons wasting their time and money in farther investigation of that desolate region. Such an expedition might be undertaken for pleasure, but this I should not recommend, for few countries present such difficulties of travel or such monotony of scenery or occupation. Although I am leaving this country, probably for good, I would not wish it to be thought that I have no faith in it, for the late developments and marvellous returns from the goldfields should convert the most sceptical. Nor have the other sources of wealth to the Colony failed to impress their importance on me… Every one is glad to return to his home, and I am no exception; but however happy I am at the prospect of again seeing my native land, yet I cannot say goodbye to the numerous friends I have been fortunate in making in this Colony without sincere feelings of regret. Every day the Old Country, which we are all proud to call Home, and the New are learning to understand each other better, and the bond of friendship between them is ever strengthening. If I have been able to promote these feelings in however small a degree, and have been able to show that the Home-born is still able, and willing, to take his share in the pioneer work of this continent of Australia, as his fathers were before him, then I have not worked in vain.
 

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