Australia Twice Traversed, by Ernest Giles

Chapter 1.2. From 30th August to 6th September, 1872.

Milk thistle. In the glen. A serpentine and rocky road. Name a new creek. Grotesque hills. Caves and caverns. Cypress pines. More natives. Astonish them. Agreeable scenery. Sentinel stars. Pelicans. Wild and picturesque scenery. More natives. Palm-trees. A junction in the glen. High ranges to the north. Palms and flowers. The Glen of Palms. Slight rain. Rain at night. Plant various seeds. End of the glen. Its length. Krichauff Range. The northern range. Level country between. A gorge. A flooded channel. Cross a western tributary. Wild ducks. Ramble among the mountains. Their altitude. A splendid panorama. Progress stopped by a torrent and impassable gorge.

Our start this morning was late, some of our horses having wandered in the night, the feed at the camp not being very good; indeed the only green herb met by us, for some considerable distance, has been the sow or milk thistle (Sonchus oleraceus), which grows to a considerable height. Of this the horses are extremely fond: it is also very fattening. Entering the mouth of the glen, in two miles we found ourselves fairly enclosed by the hills, which shut in the river on both sides. We had to follow the windings of the serpentine channel; the mountains occasionally forming steep precipices overhanging the stream, first upon one side, then upon the other. We often had to lead the horses separately over huge ledges of rock, and frequently had to cut saplings and lever them out of the way, continually crossing and recrossing the river. On camping in the glen we had only made good eleven miles, though to accomplish this we had travelled more than double the distance. At the camp a branch creek came out of the mountains to the westwards, which I named Phillip's Creek. The whole of this line of ranges is composed of red sandstone in large or small fragments, piled up into the most grotesque shapes. Here and there caves and caverns exist in the sides of the hills.

View in the Glen of Palms.

A few trees of the cypress pine (Callitris) were seen upon the summits of the higher mounts. The hills and country generally seen in this glen are more fertile than those outside, having real grass instead of triodia upon their sides. I saw two or three natives just before camping; they kept upon the opposite side of the water, according to a slight weakness of theirs. Just at the time I saw them, I had my eye on some ducks upon the water in the river bed, I therefore determined to kill two birds with one stone; that is to say, to shoot the ducks and astonish the natives at the same time. I got behind a tree, the natives I could see were watching me most intently the while, and fired. Two ducks only were shot, the remainder of the birds and the natives, apparently, flying away together. Our travels to-day were very agreeable; the day was fine, the breezes cool, and the scenery continually changing, the river taking the most sinuous windings imaginable; the bed of it, as might be expected in such a glen, is rough and stony, and the old fear of the horses bogging has departed from us. By bearings back upon hills at the mouth of the glen I found our course was nearly north 23° west. The night was clear and cold; the stars, those sentinels of the sky, appeared intensely bright. To the explorer they must ever be objects of admiration and love, as to them he is indebted for his guidance through the untrodden wilderness he is traversing. “And sweet it is to watch them in the evening skies weeping dew from their gentle eyes.” Several hundred pelicans, those antediluvian birds, made their appearance upon the water early this morning, but seeing us they flew away before a shot could be fired. These birds came from the north-west; indeed, all the aquatic birds that I have seen upon the wing, come and go in that direction. I am in hopes of getting through this glen to-day, for however wild and picturesque the scenery, it is very difficult and bad travelling for the unshod horses; consequently it is difficult to get them along. There was no other road to follow than the windings of the river bed through this mountain-bound glen, in the same manner as yesterday. Soon after starting, I observed several natives ahead of us; immediately upon their discovering us they raised a great outcry, which to our ears did not exactly resemble the agreeable vibration of the melodious sound, it being quite the opposite. Then of course signal fires were made which raised great volumes of smoke, the natives thinking perhaps to intimidate and prevent us from farther advance. Neither of these effects was produced, so their next idea was to depart themselves, and they ran ahead of us up the glen. I also saw another lot of some twenty or thirty scudding away over the rocks and stony hills — these were probably the women and children. Passing their last night's encampment, we saw that they had left all their valuables behind them — these we left untouched. One old gentleman sought the security of a shield of rock, where this villain upon earth and fiend in upper air most vehemently apostrophised us, and probably ordered us away out of his territory. To the command in itself we paid little heed, but as it fell in with our own ideas, we endeavoured to carry it out as fast as possible. This, I trust, was satisfactory, as I always like to do what pleases others, especially when it coincides with my own views.

“It's a very fine thing, and delightful to see

Inclination and duty both join and agree.”

Some of the natives near him threatened us with their spears, and waved knobbed sticks at us, but we departed without any harm being done on either side.

The Palm-Tree Found in the Glen of Palms.

Soon after leaving the natives, we had the gratification of discovering a magnificent specimen of the Fan palm, a species of Livistona, allied to one in the south of Arnhem's Land, and now distinguished as the Maria Palm (Baron von Mueller), growing in the channel of the watercourse with flood drifts against its stem. Its dark-hued, dome-shaped frondage contrasted strangely with the paler green foliage of the eucalyptus trees that surrounded it. It was a perfectly new botanical feature to me, nor did I expect to meet it in this latitude. “But there's a wonderful power in latitude, it alters a man's moral relations and attitude.” I had noticed some strange vegetation in the dry flood drifts lower down, and was on the qui vive for something new, but I did not know that. This fine tree was sixty feet long, or high, in the barrel. Passing the palms, we continued amongst the defiles of this mountain glen, which appears to have no termination, for no signs of a break or anything but a continuation of the range could be observed from any of the hills I ascended.

It was late in the afternoon when we left the palm-groves, and though we travelled over twenty miles in distance could only make twelve good from last camp. Although this glen was rough and rocky, yet the purling of the water over its stony bed was always a delightful sound to me; and when the winds of evening fanned us to repose, it seemed as though some kindly spirit whispered that it would guard us while we slept and when the sun declined the swift stream echoed on.

The following day being Sunday, the 1st September, I made it a day of rest, for the horses at least, whose feet were getting sore from continued travel over rocks and boulders of stone. I made an excursion into the hills, to endeavour to discover when and where this apparently interminable glen ceased, for with all its grandeur, picturesqueness, and variety, it was such a difficult road for the horses, that I was getting heartily tired of it; besides this, I feared this range might be its actual source, and that I should find myself eventually blocked and stopped by impassable water-choked gorges, and that I should finally have to retreat to where I first entered it. I walked and climbed over several hills, cliffs, and precipices, of red sandstone, to the west of the camp, and at length reached the summit of a pine-clad mountain considerably higher than any other near it. Its elevation was over 1000 feet above the level of the surrounding country. From it I obtained a view to all points of the compass except the west, and could descry mountains, from the north-east round by north to the north-north west, at which point a very high and pointed mount showed its top above the others in its neighbourhood, over fifty miles away. To the north and east of north a massive chain, with many dome-shaped summits, was visible. Below, towards the camp, I could see the channel of the river where it forced its way under the perpendicular sides of the hills, and at a spot not far above the camp it seemed split in two, or rather was joined by another watercourse from the northwards. From the junction the course of the main stream was more directly from the west. Along the course of the tributary at about ten miles I could see an apparently open piece of country, and with the glasses there appeared a sheet of water upon it. I was glad to find a break in the chain, though it was not on the line I should travel. Returning to my companions, I imparted to them the result of my observations.

On Monday, the 2nd, there was a heaviness in the atmosphere that felt like approaching rain. The thermometer during the night had not fallen below 60°; over 4° higher than at our first night's camp from the pillar. To-day, again following the mazy windings of the glen, we passed the northern tributary noticed yesterday, and continued on over rocks, under precipices, crossing and re-crossing the channel, and turning to all points of the compass, so that nearly three miles had to be travelled to make good one. Clumps of the beautiful palms were occasionally passed, growing mostly in the river bed, and where they appear, they considerably enliven the scenery. During my sojourn in this glen, and indeed from first starting, I collected a great number of most beautiful flowers, which grow in profusion in this otherwise desolate glen. I was literally surrounded by fair flowers of every changing hue. Why Nature should scatter such floral gems upon such a stony sterile region it is difficult to understand, but such a variety of lovely flowers of every kind and colour I had never met with previously. Nature at times, indeed, delights in contrasts, for here exists a land “where bright flowers are all scentless, and songless bright birds.” The flowers alone would have induced me to name this Glen Flora; but having found in it also so many of the stately palm trees, I have called it the Glen of Palms. Peculiar indeed, and romantic too, is this new-found watery glen, enclosed by rocky walls, “Where dial-like, to portion time, the palm-tree's shadow falls.”

While we were travelling to-day, a few slight showers fell, giving us warning in their way that heavier falls might come. We were most anxious to reach the northern mouth of the glen if possible before night, so heartily tired were we of so continuously serpentine a track; we therefore kept pushing on. We saw several natives to-day, but they invariably fled to the fastnesses of their mountain homes, they raised great volumes of smoke, and their strident vociferations caused a dull and buzzing sound even when out of ear-shot. The pattering of the rain-drops became heavier, yet we kept on, hoping at every turn to see an opening which would free us from our prison-house; but night and heavier rain together came, and we were compelled to remain another night in the palmy glen. I found a small sloping, sandy, firm piece of ground, probably the only one in the glen, a little off from the creek, having some blood-wood or red gum-trees growing upon it, and above the reach of any flood-mark — for it is necessary to be careful in selecting a site on a watercourse, as, otherwise, in a single instant everything might be swept to destruction. We were fortunate indeed to find such a refuge, as it was large enough for the horses to graze on, and there was some good feed upon it. By the time we had our tarpaulins fixed, and everything under cover, the rain fell in earnest. The tributary passed this morning was named Ellery's Creek. The actual distance we travelled to-day was eighteen miles; to accomplish this we travelled from morn till night. Although the rain continued at intervals all night, no great quantity fell. In the morning the heavens were clear towards the south, but to the north dense nimbus clouds covered the hills and darkened the sky. Not removing the camp, I took another ramble into the hills to the east of the camp, and from the first rise I saw what I was most anxious to see, that is to say, the end, or rather the beginning of the glen, which occurred at about two miles beyond our camp. Beyond that the Finke came winding from the north-west, but clouds obscured a distant view. It appeared that rain must still be falling north of us, and we had to seek the shelter of our canvas home. At midday the whole sky became overclouded, rain came slowly down, and when the night again descended heavier still was then the fall. At an hour after daylight on the morrow the greatest volume fell, and continued for several hours. At midday it held up sufficiently to enable me to plant some seeds of various trees, plants, vegetables, etc., given me specially by Baron von Mueller. Among these were blue gum (tree), cucumbers, melons, culinary vegetables, white maize, prairie grass, sorghum, rye, and wattle-tree seeds, which I soaked before planting. Although the rain lasted thirty-six hours in all, only about an inch fell. It was with great pleasure that at last, on the 5th, we left the glen behind us, and in a couple of miles debouched upon a plain, which ran up to the foot of this line of ranges. The horses seemed to be especially pleased to be on soft ground again. The length of this glen is considerable, as it occupies 31 minutes of latitude. The main bearing of it is nearly north 25° west; it is the longest feature of the kind I ever traversed, being over forty miles straight, and over a hundred miles of actual travelling, and it appeared the only pass through the range, which I named the Krichauff. To the north a higher and more imposing chain existed, apparently about twenty miles away. This northern chain must be the western portion of the McDonnell Range. The river now is broader than in the glen; its bed, however, is stony, and not boggy, the country level, sandy, and thinly timbered, mostly all the vegetation being burnt by grass fires set alight by the natives.

Travelling now upon the right bank of this stream, we cut off most of the bends, which, however, were by no means so extensive or so serpentine as in the glen or on the south side of it. Keeping near the river bank, we met but little porcupine grass for the most part of the day's stage, but there was abundance of it further off. The river took us to the foot of the big mountains, and we camped about a mile below a gorge through which it issues. As we neared the new hills, we became aware that the late rains were raising the waters of the river. At six miles before camping we crossed a tributary joining the Finke at right angles from the west, where there are some ranges in that direction; a slight stream was running down the bed. My next anxiety is to discover where this river comes from, or whether its sources are to be found in this chain. The day was delightfully fine and cool, the breezes seemed to vibrate the echo of an air which Music, sleeping at her instrument, had ceased to play. The ground is soft after the late rains. I said we camped a mile below a gorge; at night I found my position to be in latitude 23° 40´, and longitude 132° 31´, the variation 3° east. We shot a few ducks, which were very fat and good. This morning I took a walk into the hills to discover the best route to take next. The high ranges north seem to be formed of three separate lines, all running east and west; the most northerly being the highest, rising over 2000 feet above the level of the surrounding country, and, according to my barometrical and boiling-point measurements, I found that at the Charlotte Waters I was 900 feet above the sea. From that point up to the foot of these mountains the country had steadily risen, as we traced the Finke, over 1000 feet, so that the highest points of that range are over 4000 feet above sea level; the most southerly of the three lines is composed of sandstone, the middle and highest tiers I think change to granite. I climbed for several hours over masses of hills, but always found one just a little farther on to shut out the view. At length I reached the summit of a high round mountain in the middle tier, and a most varied and splendid panorama was spread before me, or I was spread before it.

To the north was the main chain, composed for the most part of individual high mounts, there being a valley between them and the hill I was on, and meandering along through this valley from the west I could trace the course of the Finke by its timber for some miles. To the east a mass of high and jumbled hills appeared, and one bluff-faced mount was more conspicuous than the rest. Nearer to me, and almost under my feet, was the gorge through which the river passes, and it appears to be the only pass through this chain. I approached the precipice overlooking the gorge, and found the channel so flooded by the late rains, that it was impossible to get the horses up through it. The hills which enclosed it were equally impracticable, and it was utterly useless to try to get horses over them. The view to the west was gratifying, for the ranges appeared to run on in undiminished height in that direction, or a little north of it. From the face of several of the hills climbed to-day, I saw streams of pure water running, probably caused by the late rains. One hill I passed over I found to be composed of puddingstone, that is to say, a conglomeration of many kinds of stone mostly rounded and mixed up in a mass, and formed by the smothered bubblings of some ancient and ocean-quenched volcano. The surface of the place now more particularly mentioned had been worn smooth by the action of the passage of water, so that it presented the appearance of an enormous tessellated pavement, before which the celebrated Roman one at Bognor, in Sussex, which I remember, when I was a boy, on a visit to Goodwood, though more artistically but not more fantastically arranged, would be compelled to hide its diminished head. In the course of my rambles I noticed a great quantity of beautiful flowers upon the hills, of similar kinds to those collected in the Glen of Palms, and these interested me so greatly, that the day passed before I was aware, and I was made to remember the line, “How noiseless falls the foot of Time that only treads on flowers.” I saw two kangaroos and one rock wallaby, but they were too wild to allow me to approach near enough to get a shot at them. When I said I walked to-day, I really started on an old favourite horse called Cocky, that had carried me for years, and many a day have I had to thank him for getting me out of difficulties through his splendid powers of endurance. I soon found the hills too rough for a horse, so fixing up his bridle, I said, “Now you stop there till I come back.” I believe he knew everything I said, for I used frequently to talk to him. When I came back at night, not thinking he would stay, as the other horses were all feeding within half a mile of him, there he was just as I had left him. I was quite inclined to rest after my scrambles in the hills. During the night nothing occurred to disturb our slumbers, which indeed were aided by the sounds of the rippling stream, which sang to us a soothing song.

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 19:14