Australia Twice Traversed, by Ernest Giles

Chapter 1.3. From 6th to 17th September, 1872.

Progress stopped. Fall back on a tributary. River flooded. A new range. Rudall's Creek. Reach the range. Grass-trees. Wild beauty of scene. Scarcity of water. A pea-like vetch. Name the range. A barren spot. Water seen from it. Follow a creek channel. Other creeks join it. A confined glen. Scrubby and stony hills. Strike a gum creek. Slimy water. A pretty tree. Flies troublesome. Emus. An orange tree. Tropic of Capricorn. Melodious sounds. Carmichael's Creek. Mountains to the north. Ponds of water. A green plain. Clay-pan water. Fine herbage. Kangaroos and emus numerous. A new tree. Agreeable encampment. Peculiar mountains. High peak. Start to ascend it. Game plentiful. Racecourse plain. Surrounded by scrubs. A bare slope. A yawning chasm. Appearance of the peak. Gleaming pools. Cypress pines. The tropic clime of youth. Proceed westwards. Thick scrubs. Native method of procuring water. A pine-clad hill. A watercourse to the south. A poor supply of water. Skywards the only view. Horses all gone. Increasing temperature. Attempt ascending high bluff. Timberless mountains. Beautiful flowers. Sultry night. Wretched encampment. Depart from it.

I had come to the decision, as it was impossible to follow the Finke through the gorge in consequence of the flood, and as the hills were equally impracticable, to fall back upon the tributary I had noticed the day before yesterday as joining the river from the west, thinking I might in twenty or thirty miles find a gap in the northern range that would enable me to reach the Finke again. The night was very cold, the thermometer at daylight stood at 28°. The river had risen still higher in the night, and it was impossible to pass through the gorge. We now turned west-south-west, in order to strike the tributary. Passing first over rough stony ridges, covered with porcupine grass, we entered a sandy, thickly-bushed country, and struck the creek in ten miles. A new range lying west I expected to be the source of it, but it now seemed to turn too much to the south. There was very poor grass, it being old and dry, but as the new range to the west was too distant, we encamped, as there was water. This watercourse was called Rudall's Creek. A cold and very dewy night made all our packs, blankets, etc., wet and clammy; the mercury fell below freezing point, but instantly upon the sun's appearance it went up enormously. The horses rambled, and it was late when we reached the western range, as our road was beset by some miles of dense scrubs. The range was isolated, and of some elevation. As we passed along the creek, the slight flood became slighter still; it had now nearly ceased running. The day was one of the warmest we had yet experienced. The creek now seemed not to come from the range, but, thinking water might be got there so soon after rains, we travelled up to its foot. The country was sandy, and bedecked with triodia, but near the range I saw for the first time on this expedition a quantity of the Australian grass-tree (Xanthorrhoea) dotting the landscape. They were of all heights, from two to twenty feet. The country round the base of this range is not devoid of a certain kind of wild beauty. A few blood-wood or red gum-trees, with their brilliant green foliage, enlivened the scene.

A small creek, lined with gum-trees, issued from an opening or glen, up which I rode in search of water, but was perfectly unsuccessful, as not a drop of the life-sustaining fluid was to be found. Upon returning to impart this discouraging intelligence to my companions, I stumbled upon a small quantity in a depression, on a broad, almost square boulder of rock that lay in the bed of the creek. There was not more than two quarts. As the horses had watered in the afternoon, and as there was a quantity of a herb, much like a green vetch or small pea, we encamped. I ascended a small eminence to the north, and with the glasses could distinguish the creek last left, now running east and west. I saw water gleaming in its channel, and at the junction of the little creek we were now on; there was also water nearly east. As the horses were feeding down the creek that way, I felt sure they would go there and drink in the night. It is, however, very strange whenever one wants horses to do a certain thing or feed a certain way, they are almost sure to do just the opposite, and so it was in the present case. On returning to camp by a circuitous route, I found in a small rocky crevice an additional supply of water, sufficient for our own requirements — there was nearly a bucketful — and felicity reigned in the camp. A few cypress pines are rooted in the rocky shelving sides of the range, which is not of such elevation as it appeared from a distance. The highest points are not more than from 700 to 800 feet. I collected some specimens of plants, which, however, are not peculiar to this range. I named it Gosse's range, after Mr. Harry Gosse. The late rains had not visited this isolated mass. It is barren and covered with spinifex from turret to basement, wherever sufficient soil can be found among the stones to admit of its growth.

The night of the 9th of September, like the preceding, was cold and dewy. The horses wandered quite in the wrong direction, and it was eleven o'clock before we got away from the camp and went north to the sheet of water seen yesterday, where we watered the horses and followed up the creek, as its course here appeared to be from the west. The country was level, open, and sandy, but covered with the widely pervading triodia (irritans). Some more Xanthorrhoea were seen, and several small creeks joined this from the ranges to the north. Small sheets of water were seen in the creek as we passed along, but whether they existed before the late rains is very problematical. The weather is evidently getting warmer. We had been following this creek for two days; it now turned up into a confined glen in a more northerly direction. At last its northern course was so pronounced we had to leave it, as it evidently took its rise amongst the low hills in that direction, which shut out any view of the higher ranges behind them. Our road was now about west-north-west, over wretched, stony, barren, mallee (Eucalyptus) covered low hills or stony rises; the mallee scrub being so thick, it was difficult to drive the horses through it. Farther on we crested the highest ground the horses had yet passed over. From here with the glasses I fancied I saw the timber of a creek in a valley to the north-west, in which direction we now went, and struck the channel of a small dry watercourse, whose banks were lined with gum-trees. When there is any water in its channel, its flow is to the west. The creek joined another, in which, after following it for a mile or two, I found a small pool of water, which had evidently lain there for many months, as it was half slime, and drying up fast. It was evident the late rains had not fallen here.

In consequence of the windings of the creeks, we travelled upon all points of the compass, but our main course was a little west of north-west. The day was warm enough, and when we camped we felt the benefit of what shade the creek timber could afford. Some of the small vetch, or pea-like plant, of which the horses are so fond, existed here. To-day we saw a single quandong tree (Fusanus; one of the sandal woods, but not of commerce) in full bearing, but the fruit not yet ripe. I also saw a pretty drooping acacia, whose leaves hung in small bunches together, giving it an elegant and pendulous appearance. This tree grows to a height of fifty feet; and some were over a foot through in the barrel.

The flies to-day were exceedingly troublesome: a sure sign of increasing temperature. We saw some emus, but being continually hunted by the natives, they were too shy to allow us to get within shot of them. Some emu steaks would come in very handy now. Near our pool of slime a so-called native orange tree (Capparis), of a very poor and stunted habit, grew; and we allowed it to keep on growing.

The stars informed me, in the night, that I was almost under the tropic line, my latitude being 23° 29´. The horses fed well on the purple vetch, their bells melodiously tinkling in the air the whole night long. The sound of the animals' bells, in the night, is really musical to the explorer's ear. I called the creek after Mr. Carmichael; and hoping it would contain good water lower down, decided to follow it, as it trended to the west. We found, however, in a few miles, it went considerably to the south of west, when it eventually turned up again to the north-west.

We still had the main line of mountains on our right, or north of us: and now, to the south, another line of low hills trended up towards them; and there is evidently a kind of gap between the two lines of ranges, about twenty-five miles off. The country along the banks of Carmichael's Creek was open and sandy, with plenty of old dry grass, and not much triodia; but to the south, the latter and mallee scrub approached somewhat near. We saw several small ponds of water as we passed along, but none of any size. In seven or eight miles it split into several channels, and eventually exhausted itself upon an open grassy swamp or plain. The little plain looked bright and green. I found some rain water, in clay pans, upon it. A clay pan is a small area of ground, whose top soil has been washed or blown away, leaving the hard clay exposed; and upon this surface, one, two, three, or (scarcely) more inches of rain water may remain for some days after rain: the longer it remains the thicker it gets, until at last it dries in cakes which shine like tiles; these at length crumble away, and the clay pan is swept by winds clean and ready for the next shower. In the course of time it becomes enlarged and deepened. They are very seldom deep enough for ducks.

The grass and herbage here were excellent. There were numerous kangaroos and emus on the plain, but they preferred to leave us in undisturbed possession of it. There were many evidences of native camping places about here; and no doubt the natives look upon this little circle as one of their happy hunting grounds. To-day I noticed a tree in the mallee very like a Currajong tree. This being the most agreeable and fertile little spot I had seen, we did not shift the camp, as the horses were in clover. Our little plain is bounded on the north by peculiar mountains; it is also fringed with scrub nearly all round. The appearance of the northern mountains is singular, grotesque, and very difficult to describe. There appear to be still three distinct lines. One ends in a bluff, to the east-north-east of the camp; another line ends in a bluff to the north-north-east; while the third continues along the northern horizon. One point, higher than the rest in that line, bears north 26° west from camp. The middle tier of hills is the most strange-looking; it recedes in the distance eastwards, in almost regular steps or notches, each of them being itself a bluff, and all overlooking a valley. The bluffs have a circular curve, are of a red colour, and in perspective appear like a gigantic flat stairway, only that they have an oblique tendency to the southward, caused, I presume, by the wash of ocean currents that, at perhaps no greatly distant geological period, must have swept over them from the north. My eyes, however, were mostly bent upon the high peak in the northern line; and Mr. Carmichael and I decided to walk over to, and ascend it. It was apparently no more than seven or eight miles away.

As my reader is aware, I left the Finke issuing through an impracticable gorge in these same ranges, now some seventy-five miles behind us, and in that distance not a break had occurred in the line whereby I could either get over or through it, to meet the Finke again; indeed, at this distance it was doubtful whether it were worth while to endeavour to do so, as one can never tell what change may take place, in even the largest of Australian streams, in such a distance. When last seen, it was trending along a valley under the foot of the highest of three tiers of hills, and coming from the west; but whether its sources are in those hills, or that it still runs on somewhere to the north of us, is the question which I now hope to solve. I am the more anxious to rediscover the Finke, if it still exists, because water has been by no means plentiful on the route along which I have lately been travelling; and I believe a better country exists upon the other side of the mountains.

At starting, Carmichael and I at first walked across the plain, we being encamped upon its southern end. It was beautifully grassed, and had good soil, and it would make an excellent racecourse, or ground for a kangaroo hunt. We saw numbers of kangaroos, and emus too, but could get no shots at them. In three miles the plain ended in thick, indeed very dense, scrub, which continued to the foot of the hills; in it the grass was long, dry, and tangled with dead and dry burnt sticks and timber, making it exceedingly difficult to walk through. Reaching the foot of the hills, I found the natives had recently burnt all the vegetation from their sides, leaving the stones, of which it was composed, perfectly bare. It was a long distance to the top of the first ridge, but the incline was easy, and I was in great hopes, if it continued so, to be able to get the horses over the mountains at this spot. Upon arriving at the top of the slope, I was, however, undeceived upon that score, for we found the high mount, for which we were steering, completely separated from us by a yawning chasm, which lay, under an almost sheer precipice, at our feet. The high mountain beyond, near the crown, was girt around by a solid wall of rock, fifty or sixty feet in height, from the edge of which the summit rose. It was quite unapproachable, except, perhaps, in one place, round to the northward.

The solid rock of which it had formerly been composed had, by some mighty force of nature, been split into innumerable fissures and fragments, both perpendicularly and horizontally, and was almost mathematically divided into pieces or squares, or unequal cubes, simply placed upon one another, like masons' work without mortar. The lower strata of these divisions were large, the upper tapered to pieces not much larger than a brick, at least they seemed so from a distance. The whole appearance of this singular mount was grand and awful, and I could not but reflect upon the time when these colossal ridges were all at once rocking in the convulsive tremblings of some mighty volcanic shock, which shivered them into the fragments I then beheld. I said the hill we had ascended ended abruptly in a precipice; by going farther round we found a spot, which, though practicable, was difficult enough to descend. At the bottom of some of the ravines below I could see several small pools of water gleaming in little stony gullies.

The afternoon had been warm, if not actually hot, and our walking and climbing had made us thirsty; the sight of water made us all the more so. It was now nearly sundown, and it would be useless to attempt the ascent of the mountain, as by the time we could reach its summit, the sun would be far below the horizon, and we should obtain no view at all.

It was, however, evident that no gap or pass existed by which I could get my horses up, even if the country beyond were ever so promising. A few of the cypress or Australian pines (Callitris) dotted the summits of the hills, they also grew on the sides of some of the ravines below us. We had, at least I had, considerable difficulty in descending the almost perpendicular face to the water below. Carmichael got there before I did, and had time to sit, laving his feet and legs in a fine little rock hole full of pure water, filled, I suppose, by the late rains. The water, indeed, had not yet ceased to run, for it was trickling from hole to hole. Upon Mr. Carmichael inquiring what delayed me so long, I replied: “Ah, it is all very easy for you; you have two circumstances in your favour. You are young, and therefore able to climb, and besides, you are in the tropic.” To which he very naturally replies, “If I am in the tropic you must be also.” I benignly answer, “No, you are in the tropic clime of youth.” While on the high ground no view of any kind, except along the mountains for a mile or two east and west, could be obtained. I was greatly disappointed at having such a toilsome walk for so little purpose. We returned by a more circuitous route, eventually reaching the camp very late at night, thoroughly tired out with our walk. I named this mountain Mount Musgrave. It is nearly 1700 feet above the level of the surrounding country, and over 3000 feet above the sea. The next day Mr. Carmichael went out to shoot game; there were kangaroos, and in the way of birds there were emus, crows, hawks, quail, and bronze-winged pigeons; but all we got from his expedition was nil. The horses now being somewhat refreshed by our stay here, we proceeded across the little plain towards another high bluff hill, which loomed over the surrounding country to the west-north-west. Flies were troublesome, and very busy at our eyes; soon after daylight, and immediately after sunrise, it became quite hot.

Traversing first the racecourse plain, we then entered some mulga scrub; the mulga is an acacia, the wood extremely hard. It grows to a height of twenty to thirty feet, but is by no means a shady or even a pretty tree; it ranges over an enormous extent of Australia. The scrub we now entered had been recently burnt near the edge of the plain; but the further we got into it, the worse it became. At seven miles we came to stones, triodia, and mallee, a low eucalyptus of the gumtree family, growing generally in thick clumps from one root: its being rooted close together makes it difficult travelling to force one's way through. It grows about twenty feet high. The higher grade of eucalypts or gum-trees delight in water and a good soil, and nearly always line the banks of watercourses. The eucalypts of the mallee species thrive in deserts and droughts, but contain water in their roots which only the native inhabitants of the country can discover. A white man would die of thirst while digging and fooling around trying to get the water he might know was preserved by the tree, but not for him; while an aboriginal, upon the other hand, coming to a mallee-tree, after perhaps travelling miles through them without noticing one, will suddenly make an exclamation, look at a tree, go perhaps ten or twelve feet away, and begin to dig. In a foot or so he comes upon a root, which he shakes upwards, gradually getting more and more of it out of the ground, till he comes to the foot of the tree; he then breaks it off, and has a root perhaps fifteen feet long — this, by the way, is an extreme length. He breaks the root into sections about a foot long, ties them into bundles, and stands them up on end in a receptacle, when they drain out a quantity of beautifully sweet, pure water. A very long root such as I have mentioned might give nearly a bucketful of water; but woe to the white man who fancies he can get water out of mallee. There are a few other trees of different kinds that water is also got from, as I have known it obtained from the mulga, acacia trees, and from some casuarina trees; it depends upon the region they are in, as to what trees give the most if any water, but it is an aboriginal art at any time or place to find it.

The mallee we found so dense that not a third of the horses could be seen together, and with great difficulty we managed to reach the foot of a small pine-clad hill lying under the foot of the high bluff before mentioned — there a small creek lined with eucalypts ran under its foot. Though our journey to-day was only twelve miles, that distance through such horrible scrubs took us many hours. From the top of the piny hill I could see a watercourse to the south two or three miles away; it is probably Carmichael's Creek, reformed, after splitting on the plain behind; Carmichael found a little water-hole up this channel, with barely sufficient water for our use. The day had been disagreeably warm. I rode over to the creek to the south, and found two small puddles in its bed; but there was evidently plenty of water to be got by digging, as by scratching with my hands I soon obtained some. The camp which Carmichael and Robinson had selected, while I rode over to the other creek, was a most wretched place, in the midst of dense mallee and amidst thick plots of triodia, which we had to cut away before we could sit down.

The only direction in which we could see a yard ahead of us was up towards the sky; and as we were not going that way, it gave us no idea of our next line of route. The big bluff we had been steering for all day was, I may say, included in our skyward view, for it towered above us almost overhead. Being away when the camp was selected, I was sorry to hear that the horses had all been let go without hobbles; as they had been in such fine quarters for three nights at the last camp on the plain, it was more than probable they would work back through the scrub to it in the night. The following morning not a horse was to be found! Robinson and I went in search of them, and found they had split into several mobs. I only got three, and at night Robinson returned with only six, the remainder had been missed in the dense scrubs. The thermometer stood at 95° in the shade, and there was a warm wind blowing. Robinson had a fine day's work, as he had to walk back to the camp on the plain for the horses he got. In the afternoon I attempted the high bluff immediately overlooking the camp. I had a bit of cliff-climbing, and reached the summit of one hill of some elevation, 1300 feet, and then found that a vast chasm, or ravine, separated me from the main mountain chain. It would be dark before I could — if I could — reach the summit, and then I should get no view, so I returned to the camp. The height was considerable, as mountains in this part of the world go, as it towered above the hill I was upon, and was 500 or 600 feet higher. These mountains appear to be composed of a kind of conglomerate granite; very little timber existed upon them, but they were splendidly supplied with high, strong, coarse spinifex. I slipped down a gully, fell into a hideous bunch of this horrid stuff, and got pricked from head to foot; the spiny points breaking off in my clothes and flesh caused me great annoyance and pain for many days after. Many beautiful flowers grew on the hillsides, in gullies and ravines; of these I collected several. We secured what horses we had, for the night, which was warm and sultry. In the morning Robinson and I rode after the still missing ones; at the plain camp we found all except one, and by the time we returned it was night.

Not hobbling the horses in general, we had some difficulty in finding a pair of hobbles for each, and not being able to do so, I left one in the mob without. This base reptile surreptitiously crawled away in the night by himself. As our camp was the most wretched dog-hole it was possible for a man to get into, in the midst of dense mallee, triodia, and large stones, I determined to escape from it, before looking for the now two missing animals. The water was completely exhausted. We moved away south-westerly for about three miles, to the creek I had scratched in some days ago; now we had to dig a big hole with a shovel, and with a good deal of labour we obtained a sufficient supply for a few days.

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