Australia Twice Traversed, by Ernest Giles

Chapter 2.8. From 20th February to 12th March, 1874.

Journey south-west. Glens and springs. Rough watering-place. A marble bath. Glassy rocks. Swarms of ants. Solitary tree. An oven. Terrible night. And day. Wretched appearance of the horses. Mountains of sand. Hopeless view. Speculations. In great pain. Horses in agony. Difficulty in watering them. Another night of misery. Dante's Inferno. The waters of oblivion. Return to the pass. Dinner of carrion. A smoke-house. Tour to the east. Singular pinnacle. Eastern ranges. A gum creek. Basins of water. Natives all around. Teocallis. Horrid rites. A chip off the old block. A wayside inn. Gordon's Springs.

Taking Jimmy and three horses, we travelled, after clearing the pass, on the south slopes of the range westward, crossing several small creek-channels, which might or might not have waters in them. At twelve miles we came to a green-looking channel and found water, running so far down as a rocky hole, near where we crossed. We outspanned here for an hour, as I found riding very severe toil after my late kicking. I named this secluded but pretty little spot, Glen Helen. It was very rough travelling ground — worse than on the northern side of the range. Three miles farther, we crossed another running water, and called it Edith Hull's Springs. At ten miles farther, after crossing several channels, we turned up one, and got some water in a very rough and stony gorge off the main channel, which was dry. There was very poor feed, but we were compelled to remain, as there was no other creek in sight for some miles, and the horses, although shod, could only travel slowly over the terribly rough ground. When we turned them out, they preferred to stand still, rather than roam about among the rocks and boulders for food. The day was cool; the southern horizon, the only one we could see, was bounded entirely by red sandhills and casuarina timber. The horses ate nothing all night, and stood almost where they were hobbled.

In this region, and in the heat of summer, the moment horses, no matter how fat and fresh they may be, are taken away from their companions to face the fearful country that they know is before them, they begin to fret and fall away visibly. They will scarcely eat, and get all the weaker in consequence, and then they require twice as much water as they otherwise would if their insides were partly filled with grass. When I released our three from the hobbles this morning, they immediately pretended to feed; but this old ruse has been experienced before, and time was now up, to move on again. They were very thirsty, and nearly emptied the rock basin, where we had a kind of bath before starting. Along the foot-hills over which we were obliged to travel, the country was much rougher than yesterday; so much so, that I kept away as much as possible. At twenty miles we turned up a creek-channel, which proved to be a dreadful gorge, being choked up with huge boulders of red and white granite. Among these I found a fine rock tarn; indeed, I might call it a marble bath, for the rock was almost pure white, and perfectly bare all round. The water was considerably over our heads, and felt as cold as ice. It was a dreadful place to get horses up to, and two of them fell two or three times on the glassy, shelving, and slippery rocks. The old grey, Buggs, hurt himself a good deal.

Time seems to fly in these places, except when you want it to do so, and by the time the horses got down from the water the day was nearly gone. The feed for them was very little better than at our last night's camp, nor was the glen any less stony or rough. The day was 12° hotter than yesterday; the thermometer indicated 104°. The ants in this glen were frightful; they would not allow me a moment's rest anywhere. There was but one solitary eucalyptus or gum-tree, and in its scanty shade they swarmed in countless myriads. The sun poured his fiery beams full down upon us, and it was not until he departed over the cliffs to the west that we had a moment's respite; the place was a perfect oven.

I passed the time mostly in the marble bath, and then took a walk up to the top of the range and could see the hills I desired to visit; they now bore nearly south-west. So long as the sun's rays were pouring down upon their unsheltered hides, the horses would not attempt to eat, but when he departed they fed a little on the coarse vegetation. This glen, like all the others in this range, swarmed with pigeons, and we got enough for breakfast at one shot. During the hot months, I believe whites could live entirely on pigeons in this range. At the camp at Sladen Water they came to the water in clouds, their very numbers sometimes preventing us getting a good shot, and we had been living entirely on them, for now we had no other meat. Unfortunately, our ammunition is almost exhausted, but so long as it lasts we shall have birds. When it is gone we must eat horseflesh, and should have been driven to do so before now, only for these birds. I have an old horse now fattening for the knife, and I am sorry, i.e. happy, to say, whenever I inspect him he looks better. The one I mean is the old sideways-going Terrible Billy. Poor old creature! To work so many years as he has done for man, and then to be eaten at last, seems a hard fate; but who or what can escape that inexorable shadow, death?

It may be the destiny of some of ourselves to be eaten; for I fully believe the natives of these regions look upon all living organisms as grist for their insatiable mills. As night came on, I was compelled to lie down at last, but was so bitten and annoyed by the ants, that I had to keep moving about from place to place the whole night long, while the [in]sensible Jimmy lay sleeping and snoring, though swarmed over and almost carried away by the ants, as peacefully as though he had gone to rest under the canopy of costly state, and lulled with sounds of sweetest melody. I could not help moralising, as I often stood near him, wondering at his peace and placidity, upon the differences of our mental and physical conditions: here was one human being, young and strong, certainly, sleeping away the, to me, dreary hours of night, regaining that necessary vigour for the toils of the coming day, totally oblivious of swarms of creeping insects, that not only crawled all over him, but constantly bit into his flesh; while another, who prided himself perhaps too much upon the mental powers bestowed by God upon him, was compelled by the same insects to wander through the whole night, from rock to rock and place to place, unable to remain for more than a moment or two anywhere; and to whom sleep, under such circumstances, was an utter impossibility. Not, indeed, that the loss of sleep troubles me, for if any one could claim to be called the sleepless one, it would be I— that is to say, when engaged in these arduous explorations, and curtained by night and the stars; but, although I can do without sleep, I require a certain amount of horizontal repose, and this I could not obtain in this fearful glen. It was, therefore, with extreme pleasure that I beheld the dawn, and:—

“To the eastward where, cluster by cluster,

Dim stars and dull planets that muster,

Waxing wan in a world of white lustre,

That spread far and high.”

No human being could have been more pleased than I at the appearance of another day, although I was yet doomed to several hours more misery in this dreadful gorge. The pigeons shot last night were covered within and without by ants, although they had been put in a bag. The horses looked wretched, even after watering, and I saw that it was actually necessary to give them a day's rest before I ventured with them into the frightful sandhills which I could see intervened between us and the distant ridges. Truly the hours I spent in this hideous gorge were hours of torture; the sun roasted us, for there was no shade whatever to creep into; the rocks and stones were so heated that we could neither touch, nor sit upon them, and the ants were more tormenting than ever. I almost cried aloud for the mountains to fall upon me, and the rocks to cover me. I passed several hours in the marble bath, the only place the ants could not encroach upon, though they swarmed round the edge of the water. But in the water itself were numerous little fiendish water-beetles, and these creatures bit one almost as badly as the ants. In the bath I remained until I was almost benumbed by the cold. Then the sunshine and the heat in the gorge would seem delightful for a few minutes, till I became baked with heat again. The thermometer stood at 106° in the shade of the only tree. At three p.m. the horses came up to water. I was so horrified with the place I could no longer remain, though Jimmy sat, and probably slept, in the scanty one tree's shade, and seemed to pass the time as comfortably as though he were in a fine house. In going up to the water two of the horses again fell and hurt themselves, but the old blear-eyed mare never slipped or fell. At four p.m. we mounted, and rode down the glen until we got clear of the rough hills, when we turned upon our proper course for the ridges, which, however, we could not see. In two or three miles we entered the sandhill regions once more, when it soon rose into hills. The triodia was as thick and strong as it could grow. The country was not, so to say, scrubby, there being only low bushes and scrubs on the sandhills, and casuarina trees of beautiful outline and appearance in the hollows. When the horses got clear of the stones they began to eat everything they could snatch and bite at.

At fifteen miles from the gorge we encamped on a patch of dry grass. The horses fed pretty well for a time, until the old mare began to think it time to be off, and she soon would have led the others back to the range. She dreaded this country, and knew well by experience and instinct what agony was in store for her. Jimmy got them back and short-hobbled them. There were plenty of ants here, but nothing to be compared to the number in the gorge, and having to remove my blankets only three or four times, I had a most delightful night's rest, although, of course, I did not sleep. The horses were sulky and would not eat; therefore they looked as hollow as drums, and totally unfit to traverse the ground that was before them. However, this had to be done, or at least attempted, and we got away early. We were in the midst of the sandhills, and here they rose almost into mountains of sand. It was most fatiguing to the horses, the thermometer 104° in the shade when we rested at twenty-two miles. Nor was this the hottest time of the day. We had been plunging through the sand mountains, and had not sighted the ridges, for thirty-seven miles, till at length we found the nearest were pretty close to us. They seemed very low, and quite unlikely to produce water. Reaching the first, we ascended it, and I could see at a glance that any prospect of finding water was utterly hopeless, as these low ridges, which ran north and south, were merely a few oblique-lying layers of upheaved granite, not much higher than the sandhills which surrounded them, and there was no place where water could lodge even during rains. Not a rise could be seen in any direction, except, of course, from where we had come. We went on west five or six miles farther to the end of these, just about sundown: and long, indeed, will that peculiar sunset rest in my recollection. The sun as usual was a huge and glaring ball of fire that with his last beams shot hot and angry glances of hate at us, in rage at our defiance of his might. It was so strange and so singular that only at this particular sunset, out of the millions which have elapsed since this terrestrial ball first floated in ether, that I, or indeed any White man, should stand upon this wretched hill, so remote from the busy haunts of my fellow men. My speculations upon the summit, if, indeed, so insignificant a mound can be said to have a summit, were as wild and as incongruous as the regions which stretched out before me. In the first place I could only conclude that no water could exist in this region, at least as far as the sand beds extend. I was now, though of course some distance to the south also, about thirty miles to the west of the most western portion of the Rawlinson Range.

From that range no object had been visible above the sandhills in any westerly direction, except these ridges I am now upon, and from these, if any other ranges or hills anywhere within a hundred miles of the Rawlinson existed, I must have sighted them. The inference to be drawn in such a case was, that in all probability this kind of country would remain unaltered for an enormous distance, possibly to the very banks of the Murchison River itself. The question very naturally arose, Could the country be penetrated by man, with only horses at his command, particularly at such a heated time of year? Oh, would that I had camels! What are horses in such a region and such a heated temperature as this? The animals are not physically capable of enduring the terrors of this country. I was now scarcely a hundred miles from the camp, and the horses had plenty of water up to nearly halfway, but now they looked utterly unable to return. What a strange maze of imagination the mind can wander in when recalling the names of those separated features, the only ones at present known to supply water in this latitude — that is to say, the Murchison River, and this new-found Rawlinson Range, named after two Presidents of the Royal Geographical Society of London. The late and the present, the living and the dead, physically and metaphysically also, are not these features, as the men, separated alike by the great gulf of the unknown, by a vast stretch of that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns?

The sun went down, and I returned to my youthful companion with the horses below. We were fifty-one miles from the water we had left. The horses were pictures of misery, old Buggs's legs had swelled greatly from the contusions he had received in falling on the slippery rocks. The old black mare which I rode, though a sorry hack, looked worse than I had ever seen her before, and even the youthful and light-heeled and -hearted Diaway hung his head, and one could almost span him round the flanks. The miserable appearance of the animals was caused as much by want of food as want of water, for they have scarcely eaten a mouthful since we left the pass; indeed, all they had seen to eat was not inviting.

We slowly left these desolate ridges behind, and at fifteen miles we camped, Jimmy and I being both hungry and thirsty. Our small supply of water only tantalised, without satisfying us whenever we took a mouthful. We now found we had nothing to eat, at least nothing cooked, and we had to sacrifice a drop of our stock of water to make a Johnny-cake. It was late by the time we had eaten our supper, and I told Jimmy he had better go to sleep if he felt inclined; I then caught and tied up the horses, which had already rambled some distance away. When I got back I found Jimmy had literally taken me at my word; for there he was fast asleep among the coals and ashes of the fire, in which we had cooked our cake. I rolled him over once or twice to prevent him catching fire, but he did not awake. The night was very warm; I tried to lay down on my rug, but I was in such pain all over from my recent accident, that I could not remain still. I only waited to allow Jimmy a little sleep, or else he would have fallen off his horse, and caused more delay. I walked to, and tried to console, the horses. Sleepless and restless, I could no longer remain.

Fast asleep is Armor lying — do not touch him, do not wake him; but Armor had to be awakened. But first I saddled and put up everything on the horses. Jimmy's lips were cracked and parched, and his tongue dry and half out of his mouth; I thought the kindest way to wake him was to pour a little water into his mouth. Up he jumped in a moment, and away we went at three o'clock in the morning, steering by the stars until daylight; slowly moving over sandhill after sandhill. Soon after sunrise we fell in with our outgoing track, and continued on, though we had great trouble to keep the horses going at all, until we reached our old encampment of the night before last, being now only fifteen miles from the water. For the last few miles the horses had gone so dreadfully slow, I thought they would give in altogether. So soon as they were unsaddled they all lay down, shivering and groaning fearfully.

To see a horse in a state of great thirst is terrible, the natural cavity opens to an extraordinary size, and the creature strains and makes the most lamentable noises. Mares are generally worse in these cases than horses. Old Buggs and the mare were nearly dead. Diaway suffered less than the others. We had yet a small quantity of water in our bag, and it was absolutely necessary to sacrifice it to the horses if we wished them ever to return. We had but three pints, which we gave to Buggs and the mare, Diaway getting none. What the others got was only just enough to moisten their tongues. Leaving this place at eleven a.m., we reached the gorge at sundown, travelling at the rate of only two miles an hour. The day was hot, 104° at eleven a.m. When we took the saddles off the horses, they fell, as they could only stand when in motion — old Buggs fell again in going up the gorge; they all fell, they were so weak, and it took nearly an hour to get them up to the bath. They were too weak to prevent themselves from slipping in, swimming and drinking at the same time; at last old Buggs touched the bottom with his heels, and stood upon his hind-legs with his forefeet against the rock wall, and his head bent down between, and drank thus. I never saw a horse drink in that fashion before.

It was very late when we got them back to the camp-tree, where we let them go without hobbles. The ants were as rampant as ever, and I passed another night in walking up and down the glen. Towards midnight the horses came again for water, but would not return, preferring to remain till morning rather than risk a passage down in the dark.

I went right up to the top of the mountain, and got an hour's peace before the sun rose. In the morning all the horses' legs were puffed and swelled, and they were frightened to move from the water. I had great trouble in getting them down at all. It was impossible to ride them away, and here we had to remain for another day, in this Inferno. Not Dante's, gelid lowest circle of Hell, or city of Dis, could cause more anguish, to a forced resident within its bounds, than did this frightful place to me. Even though Moses did omit to inflict ants on Pharaoh, it is a wonder Dante never thought to have a region of them full of wicked wretches, eternally tortured with their bites, and stings, and smells. Dante certainly was good at imagining horrors. But imagination can't conceive the horror of a region swarming with ants and then Dante never lived in an ant country, and had no conception what torture such creatures can inflict. The smaller they are the more terrible. My only consolation here was my marble bath, which the horses had polluted; within its cool and shady depths I could alone find respite from my tormentors. Oh, how earnestly did I wish that its waters were the waters of oblivion, or that I could quaff some kind nepenthe, which would make me oblivious of my woes, for the persistent attacks of the ants unceasingly continued

“From night till morn, from morn till dewy eve.”

Here of course we had no dewy eve. Only one slight source of pleasure at length occurred to me, and that was, that Jimmy began to shift about a bit at last. On the 26th, with what delight I departed from this odious gorge after another night of restlessness, agony, and misery, may perhaps be imagined, though of course I was indebted to the glen for water, and unless we actually give up our lives, we cannot give up that. There was a good deal of water in this bath, as may be supposed when horses could swim about in it. I called it Edith's Marble Bath, after my niece, having named Glen Edith also after her on my former expedition. The stone here is not actually marble, though very like it. I saw no limestone in this range; the only approach to it is in the limestone formation in the bed of the ancient Lake Christopher, mentioned as lying to the west of the Rawlinson Range. The stone here was a kind of milky quartz. We kept away as much as possible off the rough slopes of the range, and got to Glen Helen at night, but old Buggs knocked up, and we had to lead, beat, and drive him on foot, so that it was very late before we got to the glen. We got all three horses back to the pass early the next day. No natives had appeared, but the horses had never been seen since I left. Oh, didn't I sleep that night! no ants. Oh, happiness! I hadn't slept for a week.

The next day, the 28th of February, Gibson and Jimmy went to look for the mob of horses. There was a watering-place about two miles and a half south from here, where emus used to water, and where the horses did likewise; there they found all the horses. There was a very marked improvement in their appearance, they had thriven splendidly. There is fine green feed here, and it is a capital place for an explorer's depot, it being such an agreeable and pretty spot. Gibson and Jimmy went to hunt for emus, but we had none for supper. We got a supply of pigeons for breakfast. Each day we more deeply lament that the end of our ammunition is at hand. For dinner we got some hawks, crows, and parrots. I don't know which of these in particular disagreed with me, but I suppose the natural antipathy of these creatures to one another, when finding themselves somewhat crowded in my interior, was casus belli enough to set them quarrelling even after death and burial; all I knew was the belli was going on in such a peculiar manner that I had to abandon my dinner almost as soon as I had eaten it. It is now absolutely necessary to kill a horse for food, as our ammunition is all but gone. Mr. Tietkens and I went to find a spot to erect a smoke-house, which required a soft bank for a flue; we got a place half a mile away. Thermometer 104°. Mr. Tietkens and I commenced operations at the smoke-house, and the first thing we did was to break the axe handle. Gibson, who thought he was a carpenter, blacksmith, and jack-of-all-trades by nature, without art, volunteered to make a new one, to which no one objected. The new handle lasted until the first sapling required was almost cut in two, when the new handle came in two also; so we had to return to the camp, while Gibson made another handle on a new principle. With this we worked while Gibson and Jimmy shod a couple of horses. A pair of poking brutes of horses are always away by themselves, and Mr. Tietkens and I went to look for, but could not find them. We took the shovel and filled up the emu water-hole with sand, so that the horses had to show themselves with the others at the pass at night. For two or three days we shod horses, shot pigeons, and worked at the smoke-house. I did not like the notion of killing any of the horses, and determined to make a trip eastwards, to see what the country in that direction was like. We chopped up some rifle bullets for shot, to enable Gibson and Jimmy to remain while we were away, as a retreat to Fort Mueller from here was a bitter idea to me. Before I can attempt to penetrate to the west, I must wait a change in the weather. The sky was again becoming cloudy, and I had hopes of rain at the approaching equinox.

The three horses we required for the trip we put down through the north side of the pass. On March 10th, getting our horses pretty easily, we started early. As soon as we got clear of the pass on the north side, almost immediately in front of us was another pass, lying nearly east, which we reached in five miles. I called this the Weld Pass. From hence we had a good view of the country farther east. A curved line of abrupt-faced hills traversed the northern horizon; they had a peculiar and wall-like appearance, and seemed to end at a singular-looking pinnacle thirty-four or five miles away, and lying nearly east. This abrupt-faced range swept round in a half circle, northwards, and thence to the pinnacle. We travelled along the slopes of the Rawlinson Range, thinking we might find some more good gorges before it ended, we being now nearly opposite the Alice Falls. One or two rough and stony gullies, in which there was no water, existed; the country was very rough. I found the Rawlinson Range ended in fifteen or sixteen miles, at the Mount Russell* mentioned before. Other ranges rose up to the east; the intervening country seemed pretty well filled with scrub. We pushed on for the pinnacle in the northern line, but could not reach it by night as we were delayed en route by searching in several places for water. The day was hot, close, cloudy, and sultry. In front of us now the country became very scrubby as we approached the pinnacle, and for about three miles it was almost impenetrable. We had to stop several times and chop away limbs and boughs to get through, when we emerged on the bank of a small gum creek, and, turning up its channel, soon saw some green rushes in the bed. A little further up we saw more, brighter and greener, and amongst them a fine little pond of water. Farther up, the rocks rose in walls, and underneath them we found a splendid basin of overflowing water, which filled several smaller ones below. We could hear the sound of splashing and rushing waters, but could not see from whence those sounds proceeded. This was such an excellent place that we decided to remain for the rest of the day. The natives were all round us, burning the country, and we could hear their cries. This morning we had ridden through two fresh fires, which they lit, probably, to prevent our progress; they followed us up to this water. I suppose they were annoyed at our finding such a remarkably well-hidden place. It is a very singular little glen. There are several small mounds of stones placed at even distances apart, and, though the ground was originally all stones, places like paths have been cleared between them. There was also a large, bare, flat rock in the centre of these strange heaps, which were not more than two and a half feet high. I concluded — it may be said uncharitably, but then I know some of the ways and customs of these people — that these are small kinds of teocallis, and that on the bare rock already mentioned the natives have performed, and will again perform, their horrid rites of human butchery, and that the drippings of the pellucid fountains from the rocky basins above have been echoed and re-echoed by the dripping fountains of human gore from the veins and arteries of their bound and helpless victims. Though the day was hot, the shade and the water were cool, and we could indulge in a most luxurious bath. The largest basin was not deep, but the water was running in and out of it, over the rocks, with considerable force. We searched about to discover by its sound from whence it came, and found on the left-hand side a crevice of white quartz-like stone, where the water came down from the upper rocks, and ran away partly into the basins and partly into rushes, under our feet. On the sloping face of the white rock, and where the water ran down, was a small indent or smooth chip exactly the size of a person's mouth, so that we instinctively put our lips to it, and drank of the pure and gushing element. I firmly believe this chip out of the rock has been formed by successive generations of the native population, for ages placing their mouths to and drinking at this spot; but whether in connection with any sacrificial ceremonies or no, deponent knoweth, and sayeth not. The poet Spenser, more than three hundred years ago, must have visited this spot — at least, in imagination, for see how he describes it:—

“And fast beside there trickled softly down,

A gentle stream, whose murmuring waves did play

Amongst the broken stones, and made a sowne,

To lull him fast asleep, who by it lay:

The weary traveller wandering that way

Therein might often quench his thirsty heat,

And then by it, his weary limbs display;

(Whiles creeping slumber made him to forget

His former pain), and wash away his toilsome sweet.”

Gill's Pinnacle.

There is very poor grazing ground round this water. It is only valuable as a wayside inn, or out. I called the singular feature which points out this water to the wanderer in these western wilds, Gill's Pinnacle, after my brother-in-law, and the water, Gordon's Springs, after his son. In the middle of the night, rumblings of thunder were heard, and lightnings illuminated the glen. When we were starting on the following morning, some aborigines made their appearance, and vented their delight at our appearance here by the emission of several howls, yells, gesticulations, and indecent actions, and, to hem us in with a circle of fire, to frighten us out, or roast us to death, they set fire to the triodia all round. We rode through the flames, and away.

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