Australia Twice Traversed, by Ernest Giles

Chapter 1.1. From 4th to 30th August, 1872.

The party. Port Augusta. The road. The Peake. Stony plateau. Telegraph station. Natives formerly hostile. A new member. Leave the Peake. Black boy deserts. Reach the Charlotte Waters Station. Natives' account of other natives. Leave last outpost. Reach the Finke. A Government party. A ride westward. End of the stony plateau. A sandhill region. Chambers' Pillar. The Moloch horridus. Thermometer 18°. The Finke. Johnstone's range. A night alarm. Beautiful trees. Wild ducks. A tributary. High dark hill. Country rises in altitude. Very high sandhills. Quicksands. New ranges. A brush ford. New pigeon. Pointed hill. A clay pan. Christopher's Pinnacle. Chandler's Range. Another new range. Sounds of running water. First natives seen. Name of the river. A Central Australian warrior. Natives burning the country. Name a new creek. Ascend a mountain. Vivid green. Discover a glen and more mountains. Hot winds, smoke and ashes.

The personnel of my first expedition into the interior consisted in the first instance of myself, Mr. Carmichael, and a young black boy. I intended to engage the services of another white man at the furthest outpost that I could secure one. From Port Augusta I despatched the bulk of my stores by a team to the Peake, and made a leisurely progress up the overland road via Beltana, the Finniss and Strangways Springs stations. Our stores reached the Peake station before us. This station was originally called Mount Margaret, but subsequently removed to the mound-springs near the south bank of the Peake Creek; it was a cattle station formed by Mr. Phillip Levi of Adelaide. The character of the country is an open stony plateau, upon which lines of hills or ranges rise; it is intersected by numerous watercourses, all trending to Lake Eyre, and was an excellent cattle run. The South Australian Government erected the telegraph station in the immediate vicinity of the cattle station. When the cattle station was first formed in 1862 the natives were very numerous and very hostile, but at the time of my visit, ten years later, they were comparatively civilised. At the Peake we were enabled to re-shoe all our horses, for the stony road up from Port Augusta had worn out all that were put on there. I also had an extra set fitted for each horse, rolled up in calico, and marked with its name. At the Peake I engaged a young man named Alec Robinson, who, according to his account, could do everything, and had been everywhere, who knew the country I was about to explore perfectly well, and who had frequently met and camped with blacks from the west coast, and declared we could easily go over there in a few weeks. He died at one of the telegraph stations a year or two after he left me. I must say he was very good at cooking, and shoeing horses. I am able to do these useful works myself, but I do not relish either. I had brought a light little spring cart with me all the way from Melbourne to the Peake, which I sold here, and my means of transit from thence was with pack-horses. After a rather prolonged sojourn at the Peake, where I received great hospitality from Mr. Blood, of the Telegraph Department, and from Messrs. Bagot, the owners, and Mr. Conway, the manager, we departed for the Charlotte.

My little black boy Dick, or, as he used generally to write, and call himself, Richard Giles Kew, 1872, had been at school at Kew, near Melbourne. He came to me from Queensland; he had visited Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney, and had been with me for nearly three years, but his fears of wild natives were terribly excited by what nearly everybody we met said to him about them. This was not surprising, as it was usually something to this effect, in bush parlance: “By G — young feller, just you look out when you get outside! the wild blacks will [adjective] soon cook you. They'll kill you first, you know — they will like to cut out your kidney fat! They'll sneak on yer when yer goes out after the horses, they'll have yer and eat yer.” This being the burden of the strain continually dinned into the boy's ears, made him so terrified and nervous the farther we got away from civilisation, that soon after leaving the Peake, as we were camping one night with some bullock teams returning south, the same stories having been told him over again, he at last made up his mind, and told me he wanted to go back with one of the teamsters; he had hinted about this before, and both Carmichael and Robinson seemed to be aware of his intention. Force was useless to detain him; argument was lost on him, and entreaty I did not attempt, so in the morning we parted. I shall mention him again by-and-bye. He was a small, very handsome, light-complexioned, very intelligent, but childish boy, and was frequently mistaken for a half-caste; he was a splendid rider and tracker, and knew almost everything. He was a great wit, as one remark of his will show. In travelling up the country after he had been at school, we once saw some old deserted native gunyahs, and he said to me as we rode by, pointing to them, “Gentleman's 'ouse, villa residence, I s'pose, he's gone to his watering place for the season p'r'aps.” At another time, being at a place called Crowlands, he asked me why it was called so. I replied pointing to a crow on a tree, “Why, there's the crow,” and stamping with my foot on the ground, “there's the land;” he immediately said, “Oh, now I know why my country is called Queensland, because it's land belonging to our Queen.” I said, “Certainly it is;” then he said, “Well, ain't it funny? I never knew that before.” In Melbourne, one day, we were leaning out of a window overlooking the people continually passing by. Dick said, “What for — white fellow always walk about — walk about in town — when he always rides in the bush?” I said, “Oh, to do their business.” “Business,” he asked, “what's that?” I said, “Why, to get money, to be sure.” “Money,” he said; “white fellow can't pick up money in the street.”

From the Peake we had only pack-horses and one little Scotch terrier dog. Dick left us at Hann's Creek, thirty miles from the Peake. On our road up, about halfway between the Peake and the Charlotte, we crossed and camped at a large creek which runs into the Finke, called the Alberga. Here we met a few natives, who were friendly enough, but who were known to be great thieves, having stolen things from several bullock drays, and committed other robberies; so we had to keep a sharp look out upon them and their actions. One of their number, a young man, could speak English pretty well, and could actually sing some songs. His most successful effort in that line was the song of “Jim Crow,” and he performed the “turn about and wheel about and do just so” part of it until he got giddy, or pretended to be; and to get rid of him and his brethren, we gave them some flour and a smoke of tobacco, and they departed.

We arrived at the Charlotte Waters station on the 4th of August, 1872; this was actually my last outpost of civilisation. My companion, Mr. Carmichael, and I were most kindly welcomed by Mr. Johnstone, the officer in charge of this depot, and by Mr. Chandler, a gentleman belonging to a telegraph station farther up the line. In consequence of their kindness, our stay was lengthened to a week. My horses were all the better for the short respite, for they were by no means in good fettle; but the country having been visited by rains, grass was abundant, and the animals improving. The party consisted only of myself, Carmichael, and Robinson; I could not now obtain another man to make up our original number of four. We still had the little dog. during our stay at the Charlotte I inquired of a number of the natives for information concerning the region beyond, to the west and north-west. They often used the words “Larapinta and plenty black fellow.” Of the country to the west they seemed to know more, but it was very difficult to get positive statements. The gist of their information was that there were large waters, high mountains, and plenty, plenty, wild black fellow; they said the wild blacks were very big and fat, and had hair growing, as some said, all down their backs; while others asserted that the hair grew all over their bodies, and that they eat pickaninnies, and sometimes came eastward and killed any of the members of the Charlotte tribe that they could find, and carried off all the women they could catch. On the 12th we departed, and my intended starting point being Chambers' Pillar, upon the Finke River, I proceeded up the telegraph road as far as the crossing place of the above-named watercourse, which was sixty miles by the road.


Chambers' Pillar.

In the evening of the day we encamped there, a Government party, under the charge of Mr. McMinn, surveyor, and accompanied by Mr. Harley Bacon, a son of Lady Charlotte Bacon, arrived from the north, and we had their company at the camp. Close to this crossing-place a large tributary joins the Finke near the foot of Mount Humphries. On the following day Mr. McMinn, Mr. Bacon, and I rode up its channel, and at about twelve miles we found a water-hole and returned. The country consisted chiefly of open sandhills well grassed. I mentioned previously that from Port Augusta, northwards and north-westwards, the whole region consists of an open stony plateau, upon which mountain ranges stand at various distances; through and from these, a number of watercourses run, and, on a section of this plateau, nearly 200 miles in extent, the curious mound-springs exist. This formation, mostly of limestone, ceases at, or immediately before reaching, the Finke, and then a formation of heavy red sandhills begins. Next day our friends departed for the Charlotte, after making me several presents. From Mr. McMinn I obtained the course and distance of the pillar from our camp, and travelling on the course given, we crossed the Finke three times, as it wound about so snake-like across the country. On the 22nd we encamped upon it, having the pillar in full view.


The Moloch horridus.

The appearance of this feature I should imagine to be unique. For a detailed account of it my reader must consult Stuart's report. Approaching the pillar from the south, the traveller must pass over a series of red sandhills, covered with some scrubs, and clothed near the ground with that abominable vegetable production, the so-called spinifex or porcupine grass — botanically, the Triodia, or Festuca irritans. The timber on the sandhills near the pillar is nearly all mulga, a very hard acacia, though a few tall and well-grown casuarinas — of a kind that is new to me, namely the C. Decaisneana — are occasionally met. (These trees have almost a palm-like appearance, and look like huge mops; but they grow in the driest regions.) On our route Mr. Carmichael brought to me a most peculiar little lizard, a true native of the soil; its colour was a yellowish-green; it was armed, or ornamented, at points and joints, with spines, in a row along its back, sides, and legs; these were curved, and almost sharp; on the back of its neck was a thick knotty lump, with a spine at each side, by which I lifted it; its tail was armed with spines to the point, and was of proportional length to its body. The lizard was about eight inches in length. Naturalists have christened this harmless little chameleon the Moloch horridus. I put the little creature in a pouch, and intended to preserve it, but it managed to crawl out of its receptacle, and dropped again to its native sand. I had one of these lizards, as a pet, for months in Melbourne. It was finally trodden on and died. It used to eat sugar.

By this time we were close to the pillar: its outline was most imposing. Upon reaching it, I found it to be a columnar structure, standing upon a pedestal, which is perhaps eighty feet high, and composed of loose white sandstone, having vast numbers of large blocks lying about in all directions. From the centre of the pedestal rises the pillar, composed also of the same kind of rock; at its top, and for twenty to thirty feet from its summit, the colour of the stone is red. The column itself must be seventy or eighty feet above the pedestal. It is split at the top into two points. There it stands, a vast monument of the geological periods that must have elapsed since the mountain ridge, of which it was formerly a part, was washed by the action of old Ocean's waves into mere sandhills at its feet. The stone is so friable that names can be cut in it to almost any depth with a pocket-knife: so loose, indeed, is it, that one almost feels alarmed lest it should fall while he is scratching at its base. In a small orifice or chamber of the pillar I discovered an opossum asleep, the first I had seen in this part of the country. We turned our backs upon this peculiar monument, and left it in its loneliness and its grandeur —“clothed in white sandstone, mystic, wonderful!”

From hence we travelled nearly west, and in seventeen miles came to some very high sandhills, at whose feet the river swept. We followed round them to a convenient spot, and one where our horses could water without bogging. The bed of the Finke is the most boggy creek-channel I have ever met. As we had travelled several miles in the morning to the pillar, and camped eighteen beyond it, it was late in the afternoon when we encamped. The country we passed over was mostly scrubby sandhills, covered with porcupine grass. Where we struck the channel there was a long hole of brine. There was plenty of good grass on the river flat; and we got some tolerably good water where we fixed our camp. When we had finished our evening meal, the shades of night descended upon us, in this our first bivouac in the unknown interior. By observations of the bright stars Vega and Altair, I found my latitude was 24° 52´ 15´´; the night was excessively cold, and by daylight next morning the thermometer had fallen to 18°. Our blankets and packs were covered with a thick coating of ice; and tea left in our pannikins overnight had become solid cakes.

The country here being soft and sandy, we unshod all the horses and carried the shoes. So far as I could discern with the glasses, the river channel came from the west, but I decided to go north-west, as I was sure it would turn more northerly in time; and I dreaded being caught in a long bend, and having to turn back many miles, or chance the loss of some or all the horses in a boggy crossing. To the south a line of hills appeared, where the natives were burning the spinifex in all directions. These hills had the appearance of red sandstone; and they had a series of ancient ocean watermarks along their northern face, traceable for miles. This I called Johnstone's Range. As another night approached, we could see, to the north, the brilliant flames of large grass fires, which had only recently been started by some prowling sons of the soil, upon their becoming aware of our presence in their domain. The nights now were usually very cold. One night some wild man or beast must have been prowling around our camp, for my little dog Monkey exhibited signs of great perturbation for several hours. We kept awake, listening for some sounds that might give us an idea of the intruders; and being sure that we heard the tones of human voices, we got our rifles in readiness. The little dog barked still more furiously, but the sounds departed: we heard them no more: and the rest of the night passed in silence — in silence and beautiful rest.

We had not yet even sighted the Finke, upon my north-west course; but I determined to continue, and was rewarded by coming suddenly upon it under the foot of high sandhills. Its course now was a good deal to the north. The horses being heavily packed, and the spinifex distressing them so much, we found a convenient spot where the animals could water without bogging, and camped. Hard by, were some clumps of the fine-looking casuarinas; they grow to a height of twenty to twenty-five feet of barrel without a branch, and then spread out to a fine umbrella top; they flourish out of pure red sand. The large sheet of water at the camp had wild ducks on it: some of these we shot. The day was very agreeable, with cool breezes from the north-west. A tributary joins the Finke here from the west, and a high dark hill forms its southern embankment: the western horizon is bounded by broken lines of hills, of no great elevation. As we ascend the river, the country gradually rises, and we are here about 250 feet above the level of the Charlotte Waters Station.

Finding the river now trended not only northerly, but even east of north, we had to go in that direction, passing over some very high sandhills, where we met the Finke at almost right angles. Although the country was quite open, it was impossible to see the river channel, even though fringed with rows of splendid gum-trees, for any distance, as it became hidden by the high sandhills. I was very reluctant to cross, on account of the frightfully boggy bed of the creek, but, rather than travel several miles roundabout, I decided to try it. We got over, certainly, but to see one's horses and loads sinking bodily in a mass of quaking quicksand is by no means an agreeable sight, and it was only by urging the animals on with stock-whips, to prevent them delaying, that we accomplished the crossing without loss. Our riding horses got the worst of it, as the bed was so fearfully ploughed up by the pack-horses ahead of them. The whole bed of this peculiar creek appears to be a quicksand, and when I say it was nearly a quarter of a mile wide, its formidable nature will be understood. Here a stream of slightly brackish water was trickling down the bed in a much narrower channel, however, than its whole width; and where the water appears upon the surface, there the bog is most to be apprehended. Sometimes it runs under one bank, sometimes under the opposite, and again, at other places the water occupies the mid-channel. A horse may walk upon apparently firm sand towards the stream, when, without a second's warning, horse and rider may be engulfed in quicksand; but in other places, where it is firmer, it will quake for yards all round, and thus give some slight warning.

Crossing safely, and now having the river on my right hand, we continued our journey, sighting a continuous range of hills to the north, which ran east and west, and with the glasses I could see the river trending towards them. I changed my course for a conspicuous hill in this new line, which brought me to the river again at right angles; and, having so successfully crossed in the morning, I decided to try it again. We descended to the bank, and after great trouble found a spot firm enough and large enough to allow all the horses to stand upon it at one time, but we could not find a place where they could climb the opposite bank, for under it was a long reach of water, and a quagmire extending for more than a mile on either side. Two of our riding-horses were badly bogged in trying to find a get-away: finally, we had to cut boughs and sticks, and bridge the place over with them. Thus we eventually got the horses over one by one without accident or loss. In four miles we touched on a bend of the river again, but had no occasion to recross, as it was not in our road. This day, having wasted so much time in the crossings, we travelled only fifteen miles. The horizon from this camp was bounded from south-west, and west, round by north, to north-west, by ranges; which I was not sorry to perceive. Those to the west, and south-west, were the highest and most pointed. It appears that the Finke must come under or through some of those to the north-west. To-day I observed a most beautiful pigeon, quite new to me; it was of a dark-brown colour, mottled under the throat and on the breast; it had also a high top-knot. It is considerably smaller than the Sturt pigeon of his Central Australian expedition.

It was now the 28th of August, and the temperature of the atmosphere was getting warmer. Journeying now again about north-west, we reached a peculiar pointed hill with the Finke at its foot. We passed over the usual red sandhill country covered with the porcupine grass, characteristic of the Finke country, and saw a shallow sheet of yellow rain water in a large clay pan, which is quite an unusual feature in this part of the world, clay being so conspicuous by its absence. The hill, when we reached it, assumed the appearance of a high pinnacle; broken fragments of rock upon its sides and summit showed it too rough and precipitous to climb with any degree of pleasure. I named it Christopher's Pinnacle, after a namesake of mine. The range behind it I named Chandler's Range. For some miles we had seen very little porcupine grass, but here we came into it again, to the manifest disgust of our horses. We had now a line of hills on our right, with the river on our left hand, and in six or seven miles came to the west end of Chandler's Range, and could see to the north and north-west another, and much higher the line running parallel to Chandler's Range, but extending to the west as far as I could see. The country hereabouts has been nearly all burnt by the natives, and the horses endeavour to pick roads where the dreaded triodia has been destroyed.

We passed a few clumps of casuarinas and a few stunted trees with broad, poplar-like leaves. Travelling for twelve miles on this bearing, we struck the Finke again, running nearly north and south. Here the river had a stony bed with a fine reach of water in it; so to-night at least our anxiety as regards the horses bogging is at an end. The stream purling over its stony floor produces a most agreeable sound, such as I have not heard for many a day. Here I might say, “Brightly the brook through the green leaflets, giddy with joyousness, dances along.”

Soon after we had unpacked and let go our horses, we were accosted by a native on the opposite side of the creek. Our little dog became furious; then two natives appeared. We made an attempt at a long conversation, but signally failed, for neither of us knew many of the words the other was saying. The only bit of information I obtained from them was their name for the river — as they kept continually pointing to it and repeating the word Larapinta. This word, among the Peake and Charlotte natives, means a snake, and from the continual serpentine windings of this peculiar and only Central Australian river, no doubt the name is derived. I shot a hawk for them, and they departed. The weather to-day was fine, with agreeable cool breezes; the sky has become rather overcast; the flies are very numerous and troublesome; and it seems probable we may have a slight fall of rain before long.

A few drops of rain fell during the night, which made me regret that I had not our tarpaulins erected, though no more fell. In the morning there was sultriness in the air though the sky was clear; the thermometer stood at 52°, and at sunrise a smoky haze pervaded the whole sky. Whilst we were packing up the horses this morning, the same two natives whom we saw last night, again made their appearance, bringing with them a third, who was painted, feathered, greased, and red-ochred, in, as they doubtless thought, the most alarming manner. I had just mounted my horse, and rode towards them, thinking to get some more information from the warrior as to the course of the creek, etc., but when they saw the horse approaching they scampered off, and the bedizened warrior projected himself into the friendly branches of the nearest tree with the most astonishing velocity. Perceiving that it was useless to try to approach them, without actually running them to earth, we left them; and crossing the river easily over its stony bed, we continued north-west towards a mountain in the ranges that traversed the horizon in that direction. The river appeared to come from the same spot. A breeze from the north-west caused the dust raised by the pack-horses, which we drove in a mob before us, travelling upon the loose soil where the spinifex had all been lately burnt, to blow directly in our faces. At five miles we struck on a bend of a river, and we saw great volumes of smoke from burning grass and triodia rising in all directions. The natives find it easier to catch game when the ground is bare, or covered only with a short vegetation, than when it is clothed with thick coarse grasses or pungent shrubs. A tributary from the north, or east of north, joined the Finke on this course, but it was destitute of water at the junction. Soon now the river swept round to the westward, along the foot of the hills we were approaching. Here a tributary from the west joined, having a slender stream of water running along its bed. It was exceedingly boggy, and we had to pass up along it for over two miles before we could find a place to cross to enable us to reach the main stream, now to the north of us. I called this McMinn's Creek.

On reaching the Finke we encamped. In the evening I ascended a mountain to the north-westward of us. It was very rough, stony, and precipitous, and composed of red sandstone; its summit was some 800 feet above our camp. It had little other vegetation upon it than huge plots of triodia, of the most beautiful and vivid green, and set with the most formidable spines. Whenever one moves, these spines enter the clothes in all directions, making it quite a torture to walk about among them. From here I could see that the Finke turned up towards these hills through a glen, in a north-westerly direction. Other mountains appeared to the north and north-west; indeed this seemed to be a range of mountains of great length and breadth. To the eastwards it may stretch to the telegraph line, and to the west as far as the eye could see. The sun had gone down before I had finished taking bearings. Our road to-morrow will be up through the glen from which the river issues. All day a most objectionable hot wind has been blowing, and clouds of smoke and ashes from the fires, and masses of dust from the loose soil ploughed up by the horses in front of us, and blowing in our faces, made it one of the most disagreeable days I ever passed. At night, however, a contrast obtained — the wind dropped, and a calm, clear, and beautiful night succeeded to the hot, smoky, and dusty day. Vega alone gave me my latitude here, close to the mouth of the glen, as 24° 25´ 12´´; and, though the day had been so hot and disagreeable, the night proved cold and chilly, the thermometer falling to 24° by daylight, but there was no frost, or even any dew to freeze.

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