Australia Twice Traversed, by Ernest Giles

Chapter 2.6. From 23rd December, 1873 to 16th January, 1874.

Primitive laundry. Natives troublesome in our absence. The ives. Gibson's estimate of a straight heel. Christmas day, 1873. Attacked by natives. A wild caroo. Wild grapes from a sandal-wood tree. More earthquakes. The moon on the waters. Another journey northwards. Retreat to the depot. More rain at the depot. Jimmy's escape. A “canis familiaris”. An innocent lamb. Sage-bush scrubs. Groves of oak-trees. Beautiful green flat. Crab-hole water. Bold and abrupt range. A glittering cascade. Invisibly bright water. The murmur in the shell. A shower bath. The Alice Falls. Ascend to the summit. A strange view. Gratified at our discoveries. Return to Fort Mueller. Digging with a tomahawk. Storing water. Wallaby for supper. Another attack. Gibson's gardens. Opossums destructive. Birds. Thoughts. Physical peculiarities of the region. Haunted. Depart.

The way we wash our clothes is primitive — it can only be done at a depot. When we have sufficient water, we simply put them into it, and leave them until we want to change again, and then do the same with those we take off; sometimes they sweeten for several days, oftener much less. It is an inexpensive method, which, however, I suppose I must not claim as an invention. On the 23rd, when we arrived, Gibson informed us that the natives had been exceedingly troublesome, and had thrown several spears and stones down from the rocks above, so that he and Jimmy had had to defend themselves with firearms. Our bough-house was a great protection to them, and it appeared also that these wretches had hunted all the horses away from their feeding ground, and they had not been seen for three days, and not having come up to water all the time we were away. At four p.m. we had our afternoon earthquake, and Gibson said the shock had occurred twice during our absence. The hostility of the natives was very annoying in more senses than one, as it would delay me in carrying out my desire to visit the new and distant ranges north. Christmas had been slightly anticipated by Gibson, who said he had made and cooked a Christmas pudding, and that it was now ready for the table. We therefore had it for dinner, and did ample justice to Gibson's cookery. They had also shot several rock-wallabies, which abound here. They are capital eating, especially when fried; then they have a great resemblance to mutton.

Gibson and Jimmy did not agree very well; Jimmy always had some tale of woe to pour into my ear whenever I returned from an outside trip. He was a very clean young fellow, but Gibson would never wash himself; and once when Jimmy made some remark about it, Gibson said to me, “I can't think what you and Tietkens and Jimmy are always washing yourselves for.” “Why,” I said, “for health and cleanliness, to be sure.” “Oh,” said he, “if I was to bathe like you do, it would give me the ‘ives».” I often showed the others how to mend their boots. One day, sitting in the shade of our bough-house, we were engaged in cobbling. Gibson used to tread so unevenly on his boots that the heels were turned nearly upwards, and he walked more on the uppers than on the soles, therefore his required all the more repairing. Picking up one of my boots that I had just mended, Gibson looked very hard at it, and at last said, “How do you manage to wear your boots so straight?” “Oh,” I said, “perhaps my legs are straight.” He rejoined, “Well, ain't mine straight too?” I said, “I don't know; I don't see them often enough to tell,” alluding to his not bathing. “Well,” he said at last, with a deep sigh, “By G—”— gum, I suppose he meant —“I'd give a pound to be able to wear my boots as straight as you. No, I'm damned if I wouldn't give five-and-twenty bob!” We laughed. We had some rolls of smoked beef, which caused the ants to come about the camp, and we had to erect a little table with legs in the water, to lay these on. One roll had a slightly musty smell, and Gibson said to me, “This roll's rotten; shall I chuck it away?” “Chuck it away,” I said; “why, man, you must be cranky to talk such rubbish as throwing away food in such a region as this!” “Why,” said he, “nobody won't eat it.” “No,” said I, “but somebody will eat it; I for one, and enjoy it too.” Whereupon he looked up at me, and said, “Oh, are you one of them as likes yer meat 'igh?” I was annoyed at his stupendous stupidity, and said, “One of them! Who are you talking about? Who are they I'd like to know? When we boil this meat, if we put a piece of charcoal in the pot, it will come out as sweet as a nut.” He merely replied, with a dubious expression of face, “Oh!” but he ate his share of it as readily as anybody else. The next day, Christmas eve, I sent Mr. Tietkens and Gibson on two of the horses we had lately brought back, to find the mob, which they brought home late, and said the tracks of the natives showed that they had driven the horses away for several miles, and they had found them near a small creek, along the south face of the range, where there was water. While they were away some ducks visited the camp, but the tea-tree was too thick to allow us to shoot any of them. The day was cool, although there is a great oppression in the atmosphere, and it is impossible to tell by one's feelings what might be the range of the thermometer, as I have often felt it hotter on some days with the thermometer at 96 or 98° than when it ranged up to 108 or 110°. The afternoons are excessively relaxing, for although the mercury falls a little after three o'clock, still the morning's heat appears to remain until the sun has actually set. It is more than probable that the horses having been hunted by the natives, and having found more water, will not come back here of their own accord to water any more; so I shall keep one tied up at the camp, to fetch the others up with every morning.

And now comes Thursday, 25th December, Christmas Day, 1873. Ah, how the time flies! Years following years, steal something every day; at last they steal us from ourselves away. What Horace says is, Eheu fugaces, anni labuntur postume, postume:— Years glide away, and are lost to me, lost to me.

While Jimmy Andrews was away after the others, upon the horse that was tied up all night, we were startled out of our propriety by the howls and yells of a pack of fiends in human form and aboriginal appearance, who had clambered up the rocks just above our camp. I could only see some ten or a dozen in the front, but scores more were dodging in and out among the rocks. The more prominent throng were led by an ancient individual, who, having fitted a spear, was just in the act of throwing it down amongst us, when Gibson seized a rifle, and presented him with a conical Christmas box, which smote the rocks with such force, and in such near proximity to his hinder parts, that in a great measure it checked his fiery ardour, and induced most of his more timorous following to climb with most perturbed activity over the rocks. The ancient more slowly followed, and then from behind the fastness of his rocky shield, he spoke spears and boomerangs to us, though he used none. He, however, poured out the vials of his wrath upon us, as he probably thought to some purpose. I was not linguist enough to be able to translate all he said; but I am sure my free interpretation of the gist of his remarks is correct, for he undoubtedly stigmatised us as a vile and useless set of lazy, crawling, white-faced wretches, who came sitting on hideous brutes of hippogryphs, being too lazy to walk like black men, and took upon ourselves the right to occupy any country or waters we might chance to find; that we killed and ate any wallabies and other game we happened to see, thereby depriving him and his friends of their natural, lawful food, and that our conduct had so incensed himself and his noble friends, who were now in the shelter of the rocks near him, that he begged us to take warning that it was the unanimous determination of himself and his noble friends to destroy such vermin as he considered us, and our horses to be, and drive us from the face of the earth.

It appeared to me, however, that his harangue required punctuation, so I showed him the rifle again, whereupon he incontinently indulged in a full stop. The natives then retired from those rocks, and commenced their attack by throwing spears through the tea-tree from the opposite side of the creek. Here we had the back of our gunyah for a shield, and could poke the muzzles of our guns and rifles through the interstices of the boughs. We were compelled to discharge our pieces at them to ensure our peace and safety.

Our last discharge drove away the enemy, and soon after, Jimmy came with all the horses. Gibson shot a wallaby, and we had fried chops for our Christmas dinner. We drew from the medical department a bottle of rum to celebrate Christmas and victory. We had an excellent dinner (for explorers), although we had eaten our Christmas pudding two days before. We perhaps had no occasion to envy any one their Christmas dinner, although perhaps we did. Thermometer 106° in the shade. On this occasion Mr. Tietkens, who was almost a professional, sang us some songs in a fine, deep, clear voice, and Gibson sang two or three love songs, not altogether badly; then it was Jimmy's turn. He said he didn't know no love songs, but he would give us Tommy or Paddy Brennan. This gentleman appears to have started in business as a highwayman in the romantic mountains of Limerick. One verse that Jimmy gave, and which pleased us most, because we couldn't quite understand it, was

“It was in sweet Limerick (er) citty

That he left his mother dear;

And in the Limerick (er) mountains,

He commenced his wild caroo-oo.”

Upon our inquiring what a caroo was, Jimmy said he didn't know. No doubt it was something very desperate, and we considered we were perhaps upon a bit of a wild caroo ourselves.

The flies had now become a most terrible plague, especially to the horses, but most of all to the unfortunate that happens to be tied up. One horse, when he found he could not break away, threw himself down so often and so violently, and hurt himself so much, that I was compelled to let him go, unless I had allowed him to kill himself, which he would certainly have done.

A small grape-like fruit on a light green bush of the sandal-wood kind, having one soft stone, was got here. This fruit is black when ripe, and very good eating raw. We tried them cooked with sugar as jam, and though the others liked them very much, I could not touch them. The afternoons were most oppressive, and we had our usual earthquakes; one on the 28th causing a more than usual falling of rocks and smashing of tea-trees.

For a few days I was taking a rest. I was grieved to find that the water gradually ceased running earlier than formerly — that is to say, between eleven and twelve — the usual time had been between two and three p.m.; but by the morning every little basin was refilled. The phases of the moon have evidently something to do with the water supply. As the moon waxes, the power of the current wanes, and vice versa. On the 1st January, 1874, the moon was approaching its full, a quarter's change of the moon being the only time rain is likely to fall in this country; rain is threatening now every day. After a hot and sultry night, on the 2nd, at about two o'clock, a fine thunder-shower from the east came over the range, and though it did not last very long, it quite replenished the water supply in the creek, and set it running again after it had left off work for the day. This shower has quite reanimated my hopes, and Mr. Tietkens and I at once got three horses, and started off to reach the distant range, hoping now to find some water which would enable us to reach it. For ten miles from the camp the shower had extended; but beyond that distance no signs of it were visible anywhere. On the 4th we found a clay-pan, having a clay-hole at one end with some mud in it, and which the natives had but just left, but no water; then another, where, as thunderstorms were flying about in all directions, we dug out a clay tank. While at work our clothes were damped with a sprinkling, but not enough rain fell to leave any on the ground. It seemed evident I must pack out water from Fort Mueller, if ever I reached the new feature, as Nature evidently did not intend to assist, though it seemed monstrous to have to do so, while the sky was so densely overcast and black, and threatening thunderstorms coming up from all directions, and carrying away, right over our heads, thousands of cubic acres of water which must fall somewhere. I determined to wait a few days and see the upshot of all these threatenings. To the east it was undoubtedly raining, though to the west the sky was beautifully clear. We returned to the native clay-pan, hoping rain might have fallen, but it was drier than when we left it. The next morning the clear sky showed that all the rains had departed. We deepened the native clay-hole, and then left for the depot, and found some water in a little hole about ten miles from it. We rested the horses while we dug a tank, and drained all the water into it; not having a pickaxe, we could not get down deep enough.

From here I intended to pack some water out north. While we were digging, another thunderstorm came up, sprinkling us with a few drops to show its contempt; it then split in halves, going respectively north and south, apparently each dropping rain on the country they passed over.

On reaching the camp, we were told that two nice showers had fallen, the stream now showing no signs of languishing all the day long. With his usual intelligence, Jimmy Andrews had pulled a double-barrelled gun out from under a heap of packbags and other things by the barrel; of course, the hammer got caught and snapped down on the cartridge, firing the contents, but most fortunately missing his body by half an inch. Had it been otherwise, we should have found him buried, and Gibson a lunatic and alone. No natives had appeared while we were away; as I remembered what the old gentleman told me about keeping away, so I hoped he would do the same, on account of my parting remarks to him, which it seems he must have understood.

In the middle of the night my little dog Cocky rushed furiously out of the tent, and began to bark at, and chase some animal round the camp; he eventually drove it right into the tent. In the obscured moonlight I supposed it was a native dog, but it was white, and looked exactly like a large fat lamb. It was, at all events, an innocent lamb to come near us, for as it sauntered away, I sent a revolver bullet after it, and it departed at much greater speed, squealing and howling until out of earshot.

On the 7th Mr. Tietkens and I again departed for the north. That night we got wet through; there was plenty of water, but none that would remain. Being sure that the native clay-hole would now be full, we passed it on our left, and at our outmost tank at nineteen miles were delighted to find that both it and the clay-pan near it were full. We called this the Emu Tank. We now went to the bare red hill with pines, previously mentioned, and found a trickling flow of water in a small gully. I hope it will trickle till I return. We are now fifty miles from Fort Mueller, and the distant ranges seemed even farther away than that.

Moving north, we went over a mass of open-rolling sandhills with triodia, and that other abominable plant I call the sage-bush. In appearance it is something like low tea-tree, but it differs entirely from that family, inasmuch as it utterly abhors water. Although it is not spiny like the triodia, it is almost as annoying, both to horse and man, as it grows too high for either to step over without stretching, and it is too strong to be easily moved aside; hence, horse-tracks in this region go zigzag.

At thirty-five miles the open sandhills ceased, and scrubs came on. It was a cool and cloudy day. We passed through a few groves of the pretty desert oak-trees, which I have not seen for some time; a few native poplars and currajongs were also seen to-day. The horses wandered a long way back in the night.

After travelling fifteen miles, we were now rapidly approaching the range, and we debouched upon a eucalyptus flat, which was covered with a beautiful carpet of verdure, and not having met with gumtrees for some time, those we saw here, looked exceedingly fine, and the bark dazzling white. Here we found a clay crab-hole. These holes are so-called in parts of Australia, usually near the coasts, where freshwater crabs and crayfish bury themselves in the bottoms of places where rain water often lodges; the holes these creatures make are tubes of two, three, or four feet deep, whose sides and bottom are cemented, and which hold water like a glass bottle; in these tubes they remain till rain again lodges above, when for a time they are released. The crab-hole we found contained a little water, which our horses drank with great avidity. The range was now only six or seven miles off, and it stood up bold and abrupt, having steep and deep gorges here and there, in its southern front. It was timberless and whitish-looking, and I had no doubt of finding water at it. I was extremely annoyed to discover that my field glasses, an excellent pair, had been ripped off my saddle in the scrubs, and I should now be disappointed in obtaining any distant view from the summit.

“They were lost to the view like the sweet morning's dew;

They had been, and were not, was all that I knew.”

From the crab-hole, in seven miles we reached a gorge in the mountain side, travelling through scrub, over quartz, pebbly hills, and occasional gum flats, all trending west, probably forming a creek in that direction.

In the gorge facing us we could discover a glittering little thread of water pouring down in a cascade from the top of the mountain into the gorge below, and upon reaching it we found, to our great delight, that we were upon the stony bank of a beautiful and pellucid little stream, whose almost invisibly bright water was so clear that not till our horses splashed it up with their feet could we quite realise this treasure trove. It was but a poor place for the horses to graze, on account of the glen being so stony and confined, but there was no occasion for them to ramble far to get plenty of grass, or a shady place either. We had some dinner and a most agreeable rest —

“'Neath the gum-trees' shade reclining,

Where the dark green foliage twining,

Screened us from the fervid shining

Of the noontide sun.”

This spot was distant about ninety miles from Fort Mueller, in a straight line. The day was cool and breezy. After our dinner we walked up to the foot of the cascade, along the margin of the transparent stream, which meandered amongst great boulders of rock; at the foot we found the rocks rose almost perpendicularly from a charming little basin, into which the stream from above and the spray from below mingled with a most melodious sound, so pleasant to the ear at any time, but how much more to our drought-accustomed senses; continually sounding like the murmur in the sea-shell, which, as the poets say, remembering its ancient and august abode, still murmurs as it murmured then. The water fell from a height of 150 feet; the descent was not quite unbroken. A delightful shower of spray fell for many yards outside the basin, inviting to a bath, which we exquisitely enjoyed; the basin was not more than six feet deep. I am quite delighted with this new feature. There were gorges to the right of us, gorges to the left of us, and there was a gorge all round us. I shall not stay now to explore them, but will enter upon the task con amore when I bring the whole party here. I called these the Alice Falls, after one of my sisters. It was impossible to ascend the mountain via the cascade, so we had to flank it to reach the top. The view from thence, though inspiriting, was still most strange. Ranges upon ranges, some far and some near, bounded the horizon at all points. There was a high, bold-looking, mount or range to the north-west forty or fifty miles off. Up to a certain time we always called this the North-West Mountain, as it bore in that direction when first seen, until we discovered its proper name, when I christened it Mount Destruction. Other ranges intervened much nearer. The particular portion of the range we were now on, was 1000 feet above the surrounding level. I found the boiling-point of water on this summit was 206°, being the same as upon the summit of the Sentinel — that is to say, 3085 feet above the sea. The country intervening between this and the other ranges in view, appeared open and good travelling ground. The ranges beyond this have a brownish tinge, and are all entirely different from those at Fort Mueller. The rock formation here is a white and pinkish conglomerate granite. All the ranges visible are entirely timberless, and are all more or less rounded and corrugated, some having conical summits, and some looking like enormous eggs standing up on end; this for the first view. We descended, caught our horses, and departed for Fort Mueller, much gratified at the discoveries already made at this new geographical feature. On the road back I recovered my glasses. The day was most deliciously cool, there was a sweet perfume in the air, the morning was like one of those, so enjoyable in the spring, in the far-off agricultural districts of the fertile portions of the southern and eastern Colonies. When we reached the red bare hill, fifty miles from home, we found the water had ceased to flow.

At our Emu Tank all the outside surface water was gone, the tank only holding some. Our three horses greatly reduced its volume, and, fearing it would all evaporate before we could return, we cut a quantity of bushes and sticks to protect it from the sun. Remounting, we now made for the native clay-hole that we had avoided in going out. The outside water was now all but gone, but the hole still contained some, though not sufficient for all the horses; we set to work and chopped out another hole with a tomahawk, and drained all the thick water off the clay-pan into it. Then we cut boughs, bushes, and sticks to cover them, and proceeded homewards. On reaching the ten-mile or kangaroo tank, we found to our disgust that the water was nearly all gone, and our original tank not large enough, so we chopped out another and drained all the surplus water into it. Then the boughs and bushes and sticks for a roof must be got, and by the time this was finished we were pretty well sick of tank making. Our hands were blistered, our arms were stiff, and our whole bodies bathed in streams of perspiration, though it was a comparatively cool day. We reached home very late on the 13th, having left the range on the 10th. I was glad to hear that the natives had not troubled the camp in my absence. Another circumstance gratified us also, and that was, Gibson had shot a large wallaby; we had not tasted meat since we left on the 7th.

Attack at Fort Mueller.

To-day, 14th, we were getting all our packs and things ready for a start into the new and northern regions, when at eleven a.m. Mr. Tietkens gave the alarm that all the rocks overhead were lined with natives, who began to utter the most direful yells so soon as they found themselves discovered. Their numbers were much larger than before, and they were in communication with others in the tea-tree on the opposite side of the creek, whose loud and inharmonious cries made even the heavens to echo with their sounds. They began operations by poising their spears and waving us away. We waited for some little time, watching their movements, with our rifles in our hands. A flight of spears came crashing through the flimsy sides of our house, the roof and west gable being the only parts thickly covered, and they could see us jumping about inside to avoid their spears. Then a flight of spears came from the concealed enemy in the tea-tree. Mr. Tietkens and I rushed out, and fired right into the middle of the crowd. From the rocks behind which they hid, they sent another flight of spears; how we escaped them I can't imagine. In the meantime Gibson and Jimmy were firing through the boughs, and I decided that it was for us to take the aggressive. We rushed up the rocks after the enemy, when they seemed to drop like caterpillars, as instantaneously, they were all down underneath us right at the camp. I was afraid they would set fire to it; we however finally drove them from our stronghold, inducing them to decamp more or less the worse, and leave behind them a considerable quantity of military stores, in the shape of spears, wommerahs, waddies, wallabies' skins, owls, fly-flappers, red ochre, and numerous other minor valuables. These we brought in triumph to the camp. It always distressed me to have to fire at these savages, and it was only when our lives were in most imminent danger that we did so, for, as Iago says, though in the trade of war I have slain men, yet do I hold it very stuff o' the conscience to do no contrived murder. I lack iniquity, sometimes, to do me service. We then went on with our work, though expecting our foes to return, but we were not again molested, as they now probably thought we were vipers that would not stand too much crowding.

Three horses were missing, therefore we could not leave that day, and when they were found on the next, it was too late to start. I tied one of these wretches up all night, so as to get the mob early to-morrow. I was very uneasy about the water in our tanks, as every hour's delay was of the greatest consequence. I had no very great regret at leaving this depot, except that I had not been able to push out more than 150 miles to the west from it. I now thought by going to the new northern range, that my progress thence might be easier. We may perhaps have paid the passing tribute of a sigh at leaving our little gardens, for the seeds planted in most of them had grown remarkably well. The plants that throve best here were Indian gram, maize, peas, spinach, pumpkins, beans, and cucumbers; melons also grew pretty well, with turnips and mustard. Only two wattles out of many dozens sown here came up, and no eucalypts have appeared, although the seeds of many different kinds were set. Gibson had been most indefatigable in keeping the little gardens in order, and I believe was really grieved to leave them, but the inexorable mandates of circumstance and duty forced us from our pleasant places, to wander into ampler realms and spaces, where no foot has left its traces. Departing, still we left behind us some lasting memorials of our visit to this peculiar place, which, though a city of refuge to us, was yet a dangerous and a dreadful home. The water supply was now better than when we arrived.

“Our fount disappearing,

From the rain-drop did borrow,

To me comes great cheering,

I leave it to-morrow.”

There were a number of opossums here which often damaged the garden produce in the night. There were various dull-plumaged small birds, with hawks, crows, and occasionally ducks, and one abominable croaking creature at night used to annoy me exceedingly, and though I often walked up the glen I could never discover what sort of bird it was. It might have been a raven; yes, a raven never flitting may be sitting, may be sitting, on those shattered rocks of wretchedness — on that Troglodytes' shore, where in spirit I may wander, o'er those arid regions yonder; but where I wish to squander, time and energies no more. Though a most romantic region, its toils and dangers legion, my memory oft besieging, what time cannot restore; again I hear the shocks of the shattering of the rocks, see the wallabies in flocks, all trembling at the roar, of the volcanic reverberations, or seismatic detonations, which peculiar sensations I wish to know no more. The horses were mustered at last, and at length we were about to depart, not certainly in the direction I should have wished to go, but still to something new.

Fort Mueller, of course, was named after my kind friend the Baron*, who was a personal contributor to the fund for this expedition. It was really the most astonishing place it has ever been my fortune to visit. Occasionally one would hear the metallic sounding clang, of some falling rock, smashing into the glen below, toppled from its eminence by some subterranean tremour or earthquake shock, and the vibrations of the seismatic waves would precipitate the rocks into different groups and shapes than they formerly possessed. I had many strange, almost superstitious feelings with regard to this singular spot, for there was always a strange depression upon my spirits whilst here, arising partly perhaps from the constant dread of attacks from the hostile natives, and partly from the physical peculiarities of the region itself.

“On all there hung a shadow and a fear,

A sense of mystery, the spirit daunted,

And said, as plain as whisper in the ear,

This region's haunted.”

On the 16th we departed, leaving to the native owners of the soil, this singular glen, where the water flowed only in the night, where the earthquake and the dry thunderstorm occurred every day, and turned our backs for the last time upon

“Their home by horror haunted,

Their desert land enchanted,”

and plunged again into the northern wilderness.

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