The Passing of the Aborigines, by Daisy Bates

Chapter 6

Three Thousand Miles in a Side-Saddle

The wonderful ceremonies of initiation were ended, and with the corroboree-season over, the natives went back to their work on the stations and in the township. I could understand now the reason of their swift passing from a world in which they were an anachronism and of their withering from contact with the white man’s civilization, which can find no place for the primitive. The year’s work with the cattle began, and the desire came to stock up my own run of 183,600 acres on Ethel Creek in the Windell area of north Central West Australia.

The frightening names of the locality-Ophthalmia Ranges, Dead Man’s Hill, Grave Creek, and so on, had hitherto deterred other pastoralists from contemplating settlement there, but they appealed to me, and on my previous journey by buggy, 1899–1900, I had found that far-out area an encouraging proposition. I named the property Glen Carrick, in affectionate remembrance of a dear friend in England, and set about the purchase of the cattle to stock it.

To watch my mob of 770 well-fed Herefords placidly browsing round the fringe of Lake Eda, some forty miles east of Broome, brought back vividly to my mind the inspired lines of Adam Lindsay Gordon, Banjo Paterson and other Australian poets, whose stirring verses lift droving to the realms of high adventure. How little I knew! To-day I detest even the picture of a Hereford cow. I loathe their whitewashed faces, for I have ridden behind them with eight of my own drovers, for six months, 1,000 miles as the route went but some 3,000 as I rode it, zigzagging behind the mob at six or eight or ten miles a day, and every one of the 770 surpassing the Irish pig in contrariness.

This great mob was, perhaps, the largest number that had travelled down from the West Kimberleys in a single herd. Stores and equipment I obtained from Broome, also a cook who was a Maori half-caste, for Broome was mostly “breed” in those days, with just a few decent whites to leaven the mass. Sundry droving hands were also engaged, whose knowledge of the gentle art about equalled mine. We all armed ourselves with a long stock-whip and, while the head drover and his lieutenant were mustering and branding, tried to flourish them in true stockman style. After much climbing into the trees to disentangle the lash, the stock-whips were quietly rolled up and hidden in the dray, a humble buggy-whip or less ambitious instrument of sapling and twine taking their place.

My equipment was a good English pig-skin side-saddle with ordinary stirrup; three pairs of laced wallaby-skin shoes; three habits, a felt hat, three pairs of riding gloves, and plenty of fly veiling. A compact hold-all and portmanteau carried all necessaries, and was easily accessible on the dray, which also carried the stores for the trip and the drovers’ swags.

I undertook the purchase of the “plant” myself. Besides the four fine draught-horses, there were some thirty-six riding horses for the use of the drovers, myself, and my son, aged 12. There were a few good stock horses in the mob, but not one of the drovers owned a cattle dog, a most necessary adjunct to droving.

On a golden day in the Australian April we lifted the big mob from Lake Eda and started off behind them. The head drover assigned each one his position and duties. Some guarded the flanks, the leader and his second headed the mob; the Maori cook, Davy, took complete charge of the dray, provisions and spare horses, and the others became the “tailing” hands.

A travelling mob of cows usually shapes itself in the form of a triangle, the strongest beasts forming the apex, while the stragglers make an ever-widening line at the rear in their efforts to find food, as the leaders and flankers consume almost every blade as they go along. All the cattle had been accustomed to surface water, and while the going was over the claypan and well-grassed country south of Broome, the big mob travelled easily. My place and that of my boy, which we retained throughout the journey, were the base of the triangle, zigzagging to and fro behind the “tailers.”

There is no eight-hour day in a droving camp. All hands are roused at peep of dawn. Davy had breakfast ready and steaming, horses were brought in and saddled, and the mob was waked and started. At each night camp, many of the mothers hid their calves, hoping to make back to them later. To watch a cow hide its calf behind a four-inch tussock is a lesson in wild mothercraft. Sunrise generally saw us on the move, the leaders grazing and the stragglers finding their places at the tail. Back and forth along this ever-widening tail of cows and calves we rode, with eyes alert for break-backs. Meanwhile the head man went on to find a night camp. Davy followed the horse-track and only twice failed to turn up in time-but even so, he incurred my extreme displeasure on one occasion. The only greenstuff I had had to eat for weeks, a fresh young lettuce presented as a gift of grace at one of the stations, he took away and boiled!

All went well until the Eighty–Mile beach was reached; here the surface waters ceased, and the wells began. Six canvas buckets, each with a twenty-gallon capacity, with pulleys and gear, were brought for emergencies. Most of the wells along the Eighty–Mile were in a bad state, owing to the disuse of the stock-route, and there was hefty work for all at the end of each day’s droving. The long-disused windlasses, timbering, and platform more than once gave way, burying bucket and gear and effectually dosing the wells, so there was nothing for it but to move the thirsty mob onward. The wells were far apart, and cows in calf are slow walkers.

At Whistler’s Creek, near Lagrange Bay, the sea became visible and with a “Hurrah swing” of waving tail, the beasts rushed into the bay. Fortunately the water was shallow at that point, and they were soon on the road again. Nambeet Well, half-way along the Eighty–Mile, was the first good well struck, a shallow soak with beautiful and abundant water. Beside the well was a corrugated iron tombstone, telling of the murder of a white man named Hourigan by his native boy, for a few ends of tobacco. The boy was caught and hanged.

Old breakwinds on the slopes surrounding the valley of Nambeet Well showed that the place was once a favourite camping-ground, but after the murder no natives would camp there. Some poisonous or stupefying herbage laid a score or so of our cattle apparently dead there, but we heard later that they all recovered and returned to their own ground.

The coastline along the beach is only ten to twelve feet above sea-level, and in all the long stretch of plain only two little pinnacles-Barn and Church Hills-raise their heads above the level. These little hills were beacons for the schooners and buggers along the Eighty–Mile beach. A species of bloated rat, with a thick tail, makes shallow burrows on the plain, and these pitfalls added to the difficulty of manoeuvring the thirsty mob. Along the whole length of the beach, we had to carry our firewood in the dray. There was but one tree, an unburnable “thorny sand-paper,” left standing, covered with axe chops, and impregnable still.

The first stampede occurred at Barn Hill, and standing on the little knob, I looked down on a sea of horns and tails and dust as the whole mob suddenly started back for home and water. At last the galloping drovers “headed” them again, the sea of dust subsided, and the runaways were under control.

All along the coast, and right out in the bays are fresh springs bubbling up through the mud, and at low tide one can see and taste the beautiful fresh water. Smoke signals of the natives could be seen on the horizon every day, messages carried on for many miles. The signals were all identical a long spiral drifting away to the south. The inlanders were even in those years coming to the coast from ever-increasing distances to replace the coast groups that had died out, until they, in their turn, succumbed to the new conditions. Practically all the coastal natives are now dead, those frequenting the townships and beaches being far inland “relatives” of the dead tribes.

The long day’s tailing made riding very wearisome, and I frequently changed to the off-side. I noticed that many of the drovers rode side-saddle now and then, but generally the quick and arduous work of the wells relieved the weariness of the saddle.

Gradually the Herefords became used to the wells and our only trouble was the rush to the troughs. We had hoped to reach Glen Carrick before any calves were dropped, so no lorry had been brought along for day-old calves. Many had to be killed, owing to forced marches, and their mothers gave endless trouble, and made night hideous with their bellowing. Night-long watches, with great fires at various points, became the rule. More men were needed, and I had to go back to Lagrange Bay to telegraph for extra hands and horses. The way lay over a wide plain, sparsely dotted with high ant-hills. I was cantering easily, eyes and thoughts on the scenery, when my mount began to “pig-jump” and threw me. His trouble was a slipping saddle-cloth. I caught the reins, and held them, through all the play that followed, though now and then the flying hoofs came nearer to my head than was pleasant. At last he quietened down. A twisted ankle and no mounting block baffled me for a moment, but the horse had had enough play, and came along to an ant-hill, from the top of which I mounted and proceeded on the journey.

As we trailed along over the Eighty–Mile, prodding a sturdy little calf or clubbing a day-old weakling, those of us who were at the base of the great moving triangle were surprised one morning to see the mob suddenly split in two, leaving a narrow lane along the centre, and along the lane quietly walked a Jew pedlar with his huge pack strapped to his back. Drovers and horses stood like statues as Moses passed through the Red Sea, never once hastening. The head drovers were waiting for him-fortunately out of earshot. All that he remarked at the close of their tirade was. “Who iss the lady mit the veil?”

At Wallal we came to the end of the dreadful Eighty–Mile, good herbage, good water, and a blessed spell. At the time of our passing, there were six white men and over a hundred natives at this isolated station. Supplies were brought to it quarterly by schooner, and though they were always depleted by travellers long before the schooner was due, the white men bravely carried on in good times and lean. The new country was better for the cattle, but the size of the mob necessitated our reaching water always in good time. The station-owners showed us every courtesy in free paddocks and water rights, and we, on our part, paid due attention to time-limit rules.

One night we camped at a beautiful waterhole called Jalliung. Native legend made Jalliung a bottomless pool, and the home of a magic snake who devoured any strange black fellow who drank of it.

At Balla–Balla, we replenished our supplies at the little tin store of a bare-footed and bearded gentleman who told me that he was a brother of Tiffany, the millionaire-jeweller of New York. Such was the adventurous and polyglot population of the north-west at that time that he may have been.

We were accorded a great welcome at the stations. Pardu had suffered a willie-willie a few weeks before our visit, but the roofless house was covered by the hospitality of its owners. At the de Grey the finest four-inhand of greys that I had seen in West Australia drove out to greet and take me back for a day’s “spell.”

In the saddle for eighteen hours a day, from dawn till the sharing of the night watches, we plodded on. The drovers and cattle stopped for a siesta at midday, in the worst of the blazing heat. Never able to sleep in the daytime, I seized the opportunity for explorations and collections of botanical and geological novelties, which I later forwarded to the museums.

Marble Bar, which received its name from the mottled bar of quartz which crosses the Coongan River, is 130 miles from Port Hedland, and Nullagine, 80 miles south of Marble Bar-all mineral-bearing and good pastoral country. We kept well west of both these townships. It was a dry year, but the feed was splendid. The mob spread itself out on the flats, wading knee-deep in lush herbage, grazing leisurely along the wide swathe of their going. Ashburton pea made a green carpet in the river-beds, so that the river-beds sometimes became the stock-route. At last we came to the Shaw Hills, denuded masses of granite, silent and sombre. No sound greeted us as we climbed hill after hill; the songs of birds are never heard. Mine was the first dray that ever passed through the Shaw Gorge, where flood-marks showed some sixty feet above the river-bed. Our last night there was a nightmare. The rain came down with the darkness. We were all in a cul-desac, cattle, men and horses, our only outlet the riverbed, along which the flood waters would run. Everyone had had some experience of the quick rise of these rivers. No one slept, and we all watched anxiously from our shelters under the rocks. Happily the rain was light and local but there had been catastrophic floods many times in this area, and we were deemed fortunate.

In a lonely part of the Shaw, I came upon a native with his two women, three children and some dogs, all very emaciated. I made them follow to the camp, and two young calves about a fortnight old were killed and given to them. Each calf weighed about sixty pounds, but when I rode to the camp at dawn there was not a bone left to tell the tale only six human stomachs incredibly distended, and six happy faces grinning greeting and farewell.

We crossed the Divide, and so came to the Fortescue River and Roy Hill, with excellent fodder to fatten our herd, now increased to nearly 1,000 head. Day after day we travelled a land of plenty, thick mulga scrub, succulent salt bush and Mitchell grass. The pioneer of Roy Hill was Peter MacKay. A few miles from the homestead is a knobby rise where, in the early days, he was once assailed by a horde of savages. He had his gun and ammunition, and he was a dead shot, as they well knew. There he remained for two days without sleep, eking out his portion of damper and mutton, and keeping the crowd of cannibals at bay. They hurled their spears and clubs at him, but he had learned to dodge these weapons. On the third day help came from the station.

Our worst stampede occurred on Roy Hill Property, on one of the station wells in a fenced paddock. The cattle had had a long and trying day, the tired calves reluctant to move, and their mothers half maddened with thirst and distracted with mother love. Horses and men were down and out with watching and guiding the troublesome beasts, and it was dark when they had all been safely passed through the fence.

Relying on the security of the mob and the safety of the fence, all hands immediately unsaddled for a drink of tea, when the cattle broke camp and rushed the fence, heading straight for Roy Hill and the pools there. The whole mob, except those too weak to travel, were away in a twinkling. About 400 tailers, cows and calves, were left to three of us to water-myself, my little son, and one droving hand, with Davy and the dray to look after our inner man. The other drovers headed back to many days of trouble before the stampeders were collected and brought on. Our mob was too tired to move, even when it heard the squeak of the windlass. My son and I shared work with the twenty-gallon buckets from early dawn till late at night, and managed to satisfy our charges by steady lifting and emptying. The paddock was full of feed, and with plenty of water there need be no anxiety.

We all divided the night-watch. Nights were still and cloudless. Hercules and Lyra, Aquila and Cygnus were my fellow-watchers in the silence, on their way to the mystical west. No sound was heard save the quiet breathing of the sleeping herd-the little calves snuggled up beside their mothers in full content. I was thankful that their hard times were over.

A chastened mob was brought back to the paddock, and after a few days’ spell we moved on the lasty eighty miles to Glen Carrick. Pools were full and frequent in the many creeks and tributaries which rise in the Ophthalmia Ranges and form the head waters of the Ashburton and Fortescue. There was no dearth of good feed, and the last part of the journey was without event. In such good grass was my own little run that in three months’ time the cattle had put on wonderful condition and it was possible for them to take the six weeks’ trip to Peak Hill, there to be disposed of as “forward stores.”

There was no homestead but a bough shade at Glen Carrick, but I remained there happily for a short period, waiting the opportunity to return to Port Hedland. At last I secured a passage with one “Black Johnson” a man who had been taking out a buggy-load of dynamite to a far-distant mine. We arrived, without any trouble, at Port Hedland, within nine or ten days. I was in time to embark on the steamer Sultan on the downward journey to Perth.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31