Australia Twice Traversed, by Ernest Giles

Chapter 3.1. From 13th March to 1st April, 1875.

Leave Fowlers Bay. Camels and horses. A great plain. A black romance. An oasis. Youldeh. Old Jimmy. Cockata blacks. In concealment. Flies, ants, and heat. A line of waters to the east. Leave depot. The camels. Slow progress. Lose a horse loaded with water. Tinkle of a bell. Chimpering. Heavy sand-dunes. Astray in the wilds. Pylebung. A native dam. Inhuman mutilations. Mowling and Whitegin. The scrubs. Wynbring. A conspicuous mountain. A native family. March flies.

While at Fowler's Bay I had heard of a native watering-place called Youldeh, that was known to one or two white people, and I found that it lay about 130 miles inland, in a north-north-westerly direction; my object now being to push across to Beltana to the eastwards and endeavour to find a good travelling route by which I could bring my projected large camel expedition back to the water at Youldeh, as a starting depot for the west.

Leaving the bay on Saturday, the 13th of March, 1875, I had a strong party with me as far as Youldeh. My second in command, Mr. Roberts, Mr. Thomas Richards, police trooper — who, having previously visited Youldeh, was going to show me its whereabouts — and Mr. George Murray; I had with me also another white man, Peter Nicholls, who was my cook, one old black fellow and two young ones. The old man and one young fellow went on, one day in advance and led the two camels, the calf running loose. We all rode horses, and had several pack-horses to carry our provisions and camp necessaries. The weather was exceedingly hot, although the previous summer months had been reasonably cool, the heat having been tempered by southerly sea breezes. Nature now seemed to intend to concentrate all the usual heat of an Australian summer into the two remaining months that were left to her. The thermometer usually stood for several hours of each day at 104, 105, and 106° in the shade.

After leaving Colona, an out sheep station belonging to Fowler's Bay, lying some thirty-five miles north-west from it, and where Mr. Murray resided, we traversed a country alternating between belts of scrub and grassy flats or small plains, until at twenty miles from Colona we reached the edge of a plain that stretched away to the north, and was evidently of a very great extent. The soil was loose and yielding, and of a very poor quality. Although this plain was covered with vegetation, there was no grass whatever upon it; but a growth of a kind of broom, two to three feet high, waving in the heated breezes as far as the eye could reach, which gave it a billowy and extraordinary appearance. The botanical name of this plant is Eremophila scoparia.

At fifty miles from Colona and eighty-five from the bay, we reached a salt lagoon, which, though several miles long, and perhaps a mile wide, Mr. Murray's black boy informed us was the footmark or track of a monstrous animal or snake, that used to haunt the neighbourhood of this big plain, and that it had been driven by the Cockata blacks out of the mountains to the north, the Musgrave Ranges of my last expedition, and which are over 400 miles from the bay. He added that the creature had crawled down to the coast, and now lived in the sea. So here was reliable authority for the existence of a sea serpent. We had often heard tales from the blacks, when sitting round our camp fires at night, about this wonderful animal, and whenever any native spoke about it, it was always in a mysterious undertone. What the name of this monster was, I cannot now remember; but there were syllables enough in it to make a word as long as the lagoon itself. The tales that were told of it, the number of natives it had devoured, how such and such a black fellow's father had encountered and speared it, and how it had occasionally created floods all over the country when it was angry, would have made an excellent novel, which might be produced under the title of a “Black Romance.” When we laughed at, or joked this young black fellow who now accompanied us, on the absurdity of his notions, he became very serious, for to him and his co-religionists it was no laughing matter. Another thing was rather strange, and that was, how these coast natives should know there were any mountains to the north of them. I knew it, because I had been there and found them; but that they should know it was curious, for they have no intercourse with the tribes of natives in the country to the north of them; indeed it required a good deal of persuasion to induce the young blacks who accompanied us to go out to Youldeh; and if it had not been that an old man called Jimmy had been induced by Mr. Richards to go with the camels in advance, I am quite sure the young ones would not have gone at all.

After crossing the salt lagoon or animals' track, and going five miles farther, about north-north-east, we arrived at some granite rocks amongst some low hills, which rose up out of the plain, where some rock water-holes existed, and here we found the two blacks that had preceded us, encamped with the camels. This pretty little place was called Pidinga; the eye was charmed with flowering shrubs about the rocks, and green grass. As the day was very hot, we erected tarpaulins with sticks, this being the only shade to sit under. There were a few hundred acres of good country round the rocks; the supply of water was limited to perhaps a couple of thousand gallons. From Pidinga our route to Youldeh lay about north-north-west, distant thirty-three miles. For about twenty-five miles we traversed an entirely open plain, similar to that just described, and mostly covered with the waving broom bushes; but now upon our right hand, to the north, and stretching also to the west, was a dark line of higher ground formed of sandhills and fringed with low scrub, and timber of various kinds, such as cypress pines (callitris), black oak (casuarinas) stunted mallee (eucalyptus), and a kind of acacia called myal. This new feature, of higher ground, formed the edge of the plain, and is the southern bank of a vast bed of sandhill country that lies between us and the Musgrave Ranges nearly 300 miles to the north.

Having reached the northern edge of the plain we had been traversing, we now entered the bed of sandhills and scrub which lay before us, and, following the tracks of the two black fellows with the camels, as there was no road to Youldeh, we came in five miles to a spot where, without the slightest indication to point out such a thing, except that we descended into lower ground, there existed a shallow native well in the sandy ground of a small hollow between the red sandhills, and this spot the blacks said was Youldeh. The whole region was glowing with intense heat, and the sand was so hot, that neither the camels nor the horses could endure to remain standing in the sun, but so soon as they were unpacked and unsaddled, sought the shade of the large and numerous leguminous bushes which grew all round the place. As there were five whites and four blacks, we had plenty of hands to set about the different tasks which had to be performed. In the first place we had to dig out the old well; this some volunteered to do, while others erected an awning with tarpaulins, got firewood, and otherwise turned the wild and bushy spot into a locality suitable for a white man's encampment. Water was easily procurable at a depth of between three and four feet, and all the animals drank as much as they desired, being watered with canvas buckets; the camels appeared as though they never would be satisfied.

It was only their parching thirst that induced the horses to remain anywhere near the camels, and immediately they got sufficient water, they de-camped, though short-hobbled, at a gallop over the high red sandhills from whence we had come; my riding-horse, Chester, the worst of the mob, went nearly mad at the approach of the camels. There was not a sign of a blade of grass, or anything else that horses could eat, except a few yellow immortelles of a large coarse description, and these they did not care very much for. The camels, on the contrary, could take large and evidently agreeable mouthfuls of the leaves of the great bushes of the Leguminosae, which abounded. The conduct of the two kinds of animals was so distinctly different as to arouse the curiosity of all of us; the camels fed in peaceful content in the shade of the bushes from which they ate, and never went out of sight, seeming to take great interest in all we did, and evidently thoroughly enjoying themselves, while the horses were plunging about in hobbles over the sandhills, snorting and fretting with fright and exertion, and neither having or apparently desiring to get anything to eat. Their sole desire was to get away as far as possible from the camels. The supply of water here seemed to be unlimited, but the sandy sides of the well kept falling in; therefore we got some stakes of mallee, and saplings of the native poplar (Codonocarpus cotinifolius, of the order of Phytolaccaceae), and thoroughly slabbed it, at least sufficiently for our time. This place, as I said before, was exceedingly hot, lying at the bottom of a hollow amongst the sandhills, and all we could see from the tops of any of those near us was a mass of higher, darker, and more forbidding undulations of a similar kind. These undulations existed to the east, north, and west, while to the south we could but dimly see the mirage upon the plain we had recently traversed. The water here was fresh and sweet, and if the temperature had not been quite so hot, we might have enjoyed our encampment here; but there was no air, and we seemed to be at the bottom of a funnel. The old black fellow, Jimmy, whom Mr. Richards had obtained as a guide to show me some waters in the country to the eastwards, informed us, through the interpretation of Mr. Murray, that he knew of only one water in any direction towards the west, and this he said was a small rock water-hole called Paring.

The following day Mr. Murray and I rode there with old Jimmy, and found it to be a wretched little hole, lying nearly west-north-west about fourteen miles away; it contained only a few gallons of water, which was almost putrid from the number of dead and decaying birds, rats, lizards, rotten leaves, and sticks that were in it; had it been full it would have been of no earthly use to me. Old Jimmy was not accustomed to riding, and got out of his latitude once or twice before we reached the place. He was, however, proud of finding himself in the novel position, albeit rather late in life, of riding upon horseback, and if I remember rightly did not tumble off more than three or four times during the whole day. Jimmy was a very agreeable old gentleman; I could not keep up a conversation with him, as I knew so few words of his language, and he knew only about twenty of mine. It was evident he was a man of superior abilities to most of his race, and he looked like a thoroughbred, and had always been known to Mr. Richards as a proud and honourable old fellow. He was, moreover, the father of a large family, namely five, which is probably an unprecedented number amongst the aboriginal tribes of this part of Australia, all of whom he had left behind, as well as his wife, to oblige me; and many a time he regretted this before he saw them again, and after; not from any unkindness on my part, for my readers will see we were the best of friends the whole time we were together. On this little excursion it was very amusing to watch old Jimmy on horseback, and to notice the look of blank amazement on his face when he found himself at fault amongst the sandhills; the way he excused himself for not going straight to this little spot was also very ingenuous. In the first place he said, “Not mine young fellow now; not mine like em pony”— the name for all horses at Fowler's Bay —“not mine see 'em Paring long time, only when I am boy.” Whereby he intended to imply that some allowance must be made for his not going perfectly straight to the place. However, we got there all right, although I found it to be useless. When asked concerning the country to the north, he declared it was Cockata; the country to the west was also Cockata, the dreaded name of Cockata appearing to carry a nameless undefined horror with it. The term of Cockata blacks is applied by the Fowler's Bay natives to all other tribes of aboriginals in the country inland from the coast, and it seems, although when Fowler's Bay country was first settled by the whites these natives attacked and killed several of the invaders, they always lived in terror of their enemies to the north, and any atrocity that was committed by themselves, either cannibalism, theft, or murder, was always put down to the account of the Cockatas. Occasionally a mob of these wilder aboriginals would make a descent upon the quieter coast-blacks, and after a fight would carry off women and other spoils, such as opossum rugs, spears, shields, coolamins — vessels of wood or bark, like small canoes, for carrying water — and they usually killed several of the men of the conquered race. After remaining at this Paring for about an hour, we remounted our horses and returned to the camp at Youldeh. The party remained there for a few days, hoping for a change in the weather, as the heat was now very great and the country in the neighbourhood of the most forbidding and formidable nature to penetrate. It consisted of very high and scrubby red sandhills, and it was altogether so unpleasing a locality that I abandoned the idea of pushing to the north, to discover whether any other waters could be found in that direction, for the present, and postponed the attempt until I should return to this depot en route for Perth, with the whole of my new expedition — deciding to make my way now to the eastwards in order to reach Beltana by a route previously untravelled.

Upon the morning after my return from Paring, all the horses were away — indeed, as I have said before, there was nothing for them to eat at this place, and they always rambled as far as they could possibly go from the camp to get away from the camels, although those more sensible animals were, so to say, in clover. We had three young black fellows and old Jimmy, and it was the young ones' duty to look after and get the horses, while old Jimmy had the easier employment of taking care of the camels. This morning, two of the young blacks were sent out very early for the horses, whilst the other and old Jimmy remained to do anything that might be required at the camp. The morning was hot and oppressive, we sat as comfortably as we could in the shade of our awning; by twelve o'clock no signs of black boys or horses had made their appearance. At one o'clock we had dinner, and gave old Jimmy and his mate theirs. I noticed that the younger black left the camp with a bit of a bundle under his shirt and a canvas water-bag; I and some of the others watched whither he went, and to our surprise we found that he was taking food and water to the other two boys, who should have been away after the horses, but were quietly encamped under a big bush within a quarter of a mile of us and had never been after the horses at all. Of course we were very indignant, and were going to punish them with a good thrashing, when one of them informed us that it was no use our hammering them, for they could not go for the horses because they were too much afraid of the Cockata blacks, and unless we sent old Jimmy or a white man they would not go out of sight of the camp. This showed the state of superstition and fear in which these people live. Indeed, I believe if the whole Fowler's Bay tribes were all encamped together in one mob round their own fires, in their own country, and any one ran into the camp and shouted “Cockata,” it would cause a stampede among them immediately. It was very annoying to think that the horses had got so many hours' start away from the camp, and the only thing I could do was to send a white man, and Jimmy, with these boys to find the absent animals. Mr. Roberts volunteered, and had to camp away from water, not returning until late the following day, with only about a third of the mob. The next day all were found but three — one was a police horse of Mr. Richards's, which was never seen after, and two colts of mine which found their way back to, and were eventually recovered at, Fowler's Bay by Mr. Roberts. While encamped here we found Youldeh to be a fearful place, the ants, flies, and heat being each intolerable. We were at the bottom of a sandy funnel, into which the fiery beams of the sun were poured in burning rays, and the radiation of heat from the sandy country around made it all the hotter. Not a breath of air could be had as we lay or sat panting in the shade we had erected with our tarpaulins. There was no view for more than a hundred yards anywhere, unless one climbed to the top of a sandhill, and then other sandhills all round only were to be seen. The position of this place I found to be in latitude 30° 24´ 10´´ and approximate longitude 131° 46´. On the 23rd of March Mr. Murray, Jimmy, and I, went to the top of a sandhill overlooking the camp and had a long confabulation with Jimmy — at least Mr. Murray had, and he interpreted the old fellow's remarks to me. It appeared that he knew the country, and some watering-places in it, for some distance to the eastward, and on making a kind of map on the sand, he put down several marks, which he called by the following names, namely, Chimpering, Pylebung, Mowling, Whitegin, and Wynbring; of these he said Pylebung and Wynbring were the best waters. By his account they all lay due east from hence, and they appeared to be the most wonderful places in the world. He said he had not visited any of these places since he was a little boy with his mother, and it appeared his mother was a widow and that these places belonged to her country, but that she had subsequently become the wife of a Fowler's Bay native, who had taken her and her little Jimmy away out of that part of the country, therefore he had not been there since. He said that Pylebung was a water that stood up high, and that Cockata black fellows had made it with wooden shovels. This account certainly excited my curiosity, as I had never seen anything which could approximate to Jimmy's description; he also said it was mucka pickaninny, only big one, which meant that it was by no means a small water. Chimpering and Whitegin, he said, were rock-holes, but Wynbring, the farthest water he knew, according to his account was something astounding. He said it was a mountain, a waterhole, a lake, a spring, and a well, all in one, and that it was distant about six sleeps from Youldeh; this, according to our rendering, as Jimmy declared also that it was mucka close up, only long way, we considered to be about 120 miles. Beyond Wynbring Jimmy knew nothing whatever of the country, and I think he had a latent idea in his mind that there really was nothing beyond it. The result of our interview was, that I determined to send all the party back to Fowler's Bay, except one white man and old Jimmy, also all the horses except three, and to start with this small party and the camels to the eastward on the following day. I selected Peter Nicholls to accompany me. I found the boiling-point of water at the camp was 211° making its altitude above the sea 509 feet. The sandhills were about 100 feet high on the average.

The two camels and the calf, were sent to me by Sir Thomas Elder, from Adelaide, while I was at Fowler's Bay, by an Afghan named Saleh Mahomet, who returned to, and met me at, Beltana, by the ordinary way of travellers. There was only a riding-saddle for the cow, the bull having come bare-backed; I therefore had to invent a pack- or baggage-saddle for him, and I venture to assert that 999,999 people out of every million would rather be excused the task. In this work I was ably seconded by Mr. Richards, who did most of the sewing and pad-making, but Mr. Armstrong, one of the owners and manager of the Fowler's Bay Station, though he supplied me in profusion with every other requisite, would not let me have the size of iron I wished, and I had to take what I could get, he thinking it the right size; and unfortunately that which I got for the saddle-trees was not stout enough, and, although in other respects the saddle was a brilliant success, though made upon a totally different principle from that of an Afghan's saddle, when the animal was loaded, the weakness of the iron made it continually widen, and in consequence the iron pressed down on the much-enduring creature's body and hurt him severely.

We frequently had to stop, take his load and saddle off and bend the iron closer together again, so as to preserve some semblance of an arch or rather two arches over his back, one before and one behind his hump. Every time Nicholls and I went through this operation we were afraid the iron would give, and snap in half with our pressure, and so it would have done but that the fiery rays of the sun kept it almost at a glowing heat. This and the nose ropes and buttons getting so often broken, together with making new buttons from pieces of stick, caused us many harassing delays.

On the 24th of March, 1875, we bade good-bye to the friends that had accompanied us to this place, and who all started to return to the bay the same day. With Peter Nicholls, old Jimmy as guide, the two camels and calf, and three horses, I turned my back upon the Youldeh camp, somewhat late in the day. Nicholls rode the old cow, Jimmy and I riding a horse each, the third horse carrying a load of water. Two of these horses were the pick of the whole mob I had; they were still terribly frightened at the camels, and it was almost impossible to sit my horse Chester when the camels came near him behind; the horse carrying the water followed the two riding-horses, but towards dusk he got frightened and bolted away into the scrubs, load of water and all. We had only come seven miles that afternoon, and it was our first practical acquaintance with camels; Jimmy and I had continually to wait till Nicholls and the camels, made their appearance, and whenever Nicholls came up he was in a fearful rage with them. The old cow that he was riding would scarcely budge for him at all. If he beat her she would lie down, yell, squall, spit, and roll over on her saddle, and behave in such a manner that, neither of us knowing anything about camels, we thought she was going to die. The sandhills were oppressively steep, and the old wretch perspired to such a degree, and altogether became such an unmanageable nuisance, that I began to think camels could not be half the wonderful animals I had fondly imagined.

The bull, Mustara, behaved much better. He was a most affectionate creature, and would kiss people all day long; but the Lord help any one who would try to kiss the old cow, for she would cover them all over with — well, we will call it spittle, but it is worse than that. The calf would kiss also when caught, but did not care to be caught too often. Mustara had a good heavy load — he followed the cow without being fastened; the calf, with great cunning, not relishing the idea of leaving Youldeh, would persistently stay behind and try and induce his mother not to go on; in this he partially succeeded, for by dusk, just as I found I had lost the pack-horse with the water, and was waiting till Nicholls, who was following our horse tracks, came up to us, we had travelled at no better speed than a mile an hour since we left the camp. The two remaining horses were so restless that I was compelled to stand and hold them while waiting, old Jimmy being away in the darkness to endeavour to find the missing one. By the time Nicholls arrived with the camels, guided now by the glare of a large fire of a Mus conditor's nest which old Jimmy ignited, the horse had been gone about two hours; thus our first night's bivouac was not a pleasant one. There was nothing that the horses would eat, and if they had been let go, even in hobbles, in all probability we should never have seen them again. Old Jimmy returned after a fruitless search for the absent horse. The camels would not feed, but lay down in a sulky fit, the two horses continually snorting and endeavouring to break away; and thus the night was passing away, when we heard the tinkle of a bell — the horse we had lost having a bell on his neck — and Jimmy and Nicholls went away through the darkness and scrubs in the direction it proceeded from. I kept up a large fire to guide them, not that old Jimmy required such artificial aid, but to save time; in about an hour they returned with the missing horse. When this animal took it into his head to bolt off he was out of earshot in no time, but it seems he must have thought better of his proceedings, and returned of his own accord to where he had left his mates. We were glad enough to secure him again, and the water he carried.

The next morning we were under weigh very early, and, following the old guide Jimmy, we went in a south-east direction towards the first watering place that he knew, and which he said was called Chimpering. Many times before we reached this place the old fellow seemed very uncertain of his whereabouts, but by dodging about amongst the sandhills — the country being all rolling hummocks of red sand covered with dense scrubs and the universal spinifex — he managed to drop down upon it, after we had travelled about thirty miles from Youldeh. Chimpering consisted of a small acacia, or as we say a mulga, hollow, the mulga being the Acacia aneura; here a few bare red granite rocks were exposed to view. In a crevice between two of these Jimmy showed us a small orifice, which we found, upon baling out, to contain only three buckets of a filthy black fluid that old Jimmy declared was water. We annoyed him fearfully by pretending we did not know what it was. Poor old chap, he couldn't explain how angry he was, but he managed to stammer out, “White fellow — fool; pony drink 'em.” The day was excessively hot, the thermometer stood at 106° in the shade. The horses or ponies, as universally called at Fowler's Bay, drank the dirty water with avidity. It was early in the day when we arrived, and so soon as the water was taken, we pushed on towards the next place, Pylebung. At Youldeh our guide had so excited my curiosity about this place, that I was most anxious to reach it. Jimmy said it was not very far off.

On the night of the 26th March, just as it was getting dark and having left Chimpering twenty-five miles behind us, we entered a piece of bushy mulga country, the bushes being so thick that we had great difficulty in forcing our way through it in the dark. Our guide seemed very much in the dark also; his movements were exceedingly uncertain, and I could see by the stars that we were winding about to all points of the compass. At last old Jimmy stopped and said we had reached the place where Pylebung ought to be, but it was not; and here, he said, pointing to the ground, was to be our wurley, or camp, for the night. When I questioned him, and asked where the water was, he only replied, which way? This question I was altogether unable to answer, and I was not in a very amiable frame of mind, for we had been traversing frightful country of dense scrubs all day in parching thirst and broiling heat. So I told Nicholls to unpack the camels while I unsaddled the horses. All the animals seemed over-powered with lassitude and exhaustion; the camels immediately lay down, and the horses stood disconsolately close to them, now no longer terrified at their proximity.

Nicholls and I extended our rugs upon the ground and lay down, and then we discovered that old Jimmy had left the camp, and thought he had given us the slip in the dark. We had been lying down some time when the old fellow returned, and in the most voluble and excited language told us he had found the water; it was, he said, “big one, watta, mucka, pickaninny;” and in his delight at his success he began to describe it, or try to do so, in the firelight, on the ground; he kept saying, “big one, watta — big one, watta — watta go that way, watta go this way, and watta go that way, and watta go this way,” turning himself round and round, so that I thought it must be a lake or swamp he was trying to describe. However, we got the camels and horses resaddled and packed, and took them where old Jimmy led us. The moon had now risen above the high sandhills that surrounded us, and we soon emerged upon a piece of open ground where there was a large white clay-pan, or bare patch of white clay soil, glistening in the moon's rays, and upon this there appeared an astonishing object — something like the wall of an old house or a ruined chimney. On arriving, we saw that it was a circular wall or dam of clay, nearly five feet high, with a segment open to the south to admit and retain the rain-water that occasionally flows over the flat into this artificial receptacle.

In spite of old Jimmy's asseverations, there was only sufficient water to last one or two days, and what there was, was very thick and whitish-coloured. The six animals being excessively thirsty, the volume of the fluid gradually diminished in the moonlight before our eyes; the camels and horses' legs and noses were all pushing against one another while they drank.

This wall, or dam, constructed by the aboriginals, is the first piece of work of art or usefulness that I had ever seen in all my travels in Australia; and if I had only heard of it, I should seriously have reflected upon the credibility of my informant, because no attempts of skill, or ingenuity, on the part of Australian natives, applied to building, or the storage of water, have previously been met with, and I was very much astonished at beholding one now. This piece of work was two feet thick on the top of the wall, twenty yards in the length of its sweep, and at the bottom, where the water lodged, the embankment was nearly five feet thick. The clay of which this dam was composed had been dug out of the hole in which the water lay, with small native wooden shovels, and piled up to its present dimensions.

Immediately around this singular monument of native industry, there are a few hundred acres of very pretty country, beautifully grassed and ornamented with a few mulga (acacia) trees, standing picturesquely apart. The spot lies in a basin or hollow, and is surrounded in all directions by scrubs and rolling sandhills. How we got to it I can scarcely tell, as our guide kept constantly changing his course, so that the compass was of little or no use, and it was only by the sextant I could discover our whereabouts; by it I found we had come fifty-eight miles from Youldeh on a bearing of south 68° east, we being now in latitude 30° 43´ and longitude 132° 44´. There was so little water here that I was unable to remain more than one day, during which the thermometer indicated 104° in the shade.

To the eastward of this dam there was a sandhill with a few black oaks (casuarinas) growing upon it, about a quarter of a mile away. A number of stones of a calcareous nature were scattered about on it; on going up this hill the day we rested the animals here, I was surprised to find a broad path had been cleared amongst the stones for some dozens of yards, an oak-tree at each end being the terminal points. At the foot of each tree at the end of the path the largest stones were heaped; the path was indented with the tramplings of many natives' feet, and I felt sure that it was one of those places where the men of this region perform inhuman mutilations upon the youths and maidens of their tribe. I questioned old Jimmy about these matters, but he was like all others of his race, who, while admitting the facts, protest that they, individually, have never officiated at such doings.

Upon leaving Pylebung Jimmy informed me that Mowling was the next watering-place, and said it lay nearly east from here; but I found we went nearly north-east to reach it; this we did in seventeen miles, the country through which we passed being, as usual, all sandhills and scrub. Mowling consisted of a small acacia hollow, where there were a few boulders of granite; in these were two small holes, both as dry as the surface of the rocks in their vicinity. On our route from Pylebung, we had seen the tracks of a single bullock; he also had found his way to Mowling, and probably left it howling; but it must have been some time since his visit.

From hence old Jimmy led us a good deal south of east, and we arrived at another exposure of granite rocks in the dense scrubs. This place Jimmy called Whitegin. It was ten or eleven miles from Mowling. There was a small crevice between the rounded boulders of rock, which held barely sufficient water for the three horses, the camels getting none, though they persisted in bothering us all the afternoon, and appeared very thirsty. They kept coming up to the camp perpetually, pulling our canvas bucket and tin utensils about with their lips, and I found the cunning of a camel in endeavouring to get water at the camp far exceeded that of any horse.

There were a few dozen acres of pretty ground here with good grass and herbage on it. We had a great deal of trouble to-day in getting the camels along; the foal or calf belonging to the old riding-cow got itself entangled in its mother's nose-rope, and as we did not then understand the management of camels, and how their nose-ropes should be adjusted, we could not prevent the little brute from tearing the button clean through the cartilage of the poor old cow's nose; this not only caused the animal frightful pain, but made her more obstinate and stubborn and harder to get along than before. The agony the poor creature suffered from flies must have been excruciating, as after this accident they entered her nostrils in such numbers that she often hung back, and would cough and snort until she had ejected a great quantity of blood and flies from her nose.

For the last few miles we had not been annoyed by quite so much spinifex as usual, but the vast amount of dead wood and underbrush was very detrimental to the progress of the camels, who are not usually in the habit of lifting their feet very high, though having the power, they learn it in time, but not before their toes got constantly entangled with the dead sticks, which made them very sore.

The scrub here and all the way we had come consisted mostly of mallee (Eucalyptus dumosa) mulga, prickly bushes (hakea), some grevillea-trees, and a few oaks (casuarinas). This place, Whitegin, was eighty-five miles straight from Youldeh; we had, however, travelled about 100 miles to reach it, as Jimmy kept turning and twisting about in the scrubs in all directions. On leaving Whitegin we travelled several degrees to north of east, the thermometer in the shade while we rested there going up to 103°. Jimmy said the next place we should get water at was Wynbring, and from what we could make out of his jargon, he seemed to imply that Wynbring was a large watercourse descending from a mountain and having a stony bed; he also said we were now close up, and that it was only a pickaninny way. However, the shades of night descended upon us once more in the scrubs of this desert, and we were again compelled to encamp in a place lonely, and without water, amidst the desolations of this scrub-enthroned tract. Choking with thirst and sleepless with anxiety, we pass the hours of night; no dews descend upon this heated place, and though towards dawn a slightly cooler temperature is felt, the reappearance of the sun is now so near, that there has been no time for either earth or man to be benefited by it. Long before the sun himself appears, those avant-couriers of his fiery might, heated glow, and feverish breeze, came rustling through the foliage of the mallee-trees, which give out the semblance of a mournful sigh, as though they too suffered from the heat and thirst of this desolate region, in which they are doomed by fate to dwell, and as though they desired to let the wanderers passing amongst them know, that they also felt, and were sorry for, our woes.

The morning of March 31st was exceedingly hot, the thermometer at dawn standing at 86°. We were up and after the camels and horses long before daylight, tracking them by the light of burning torches of great bunches and boughs of the mallee trees — these burn almost as well green as dry, from the quantity of aromatic eucalyptic oil contained in them — and enormous plots of spinifex which we lighted as we passed.

Having secured all the animals, we started early, and were moving onwards before sunrise. From Whitegin I found we had come on a nearly north-east course, and at twenty-eight miles from thence the scrubs fell off a trifle in height and density. This morning our guide travelled much straighter than was usual with him, and it was evident he had now no doubt that he was going in the right direction. About ten o'clock, after we had travelled thirteen or fourteen miles, Jimmy uttered an exclamation, pointed out something to us, and declared that it was Wynbring. Then I could at once perceive how excessively inaccurate, the old gentleman's account of Wynbring had been, for instead of its being a mountain, it was simply a round bare mass of stone, standing in the centre of an open piece of country, surrounded as usual by the scrubs. When we arrived at the rock, we found the large creek channel, promised us had microscopicated itself down to a mere rock-hole, whose dimensions were not very great. The rock itself was a bare expanse of granite, an acre or two in extent, and was perhaps fifty feet high, while the only receptacle for water about it was a crevice forty feet long, by four feet wide, with a depth of six feet in its deepest part. The hole was not full, but it held an ample supply for all our present requirements.

There were a few low sandhills near, ornamented with occasional mulga-trees, and they made the place very pretty and picturesque. There were several old and new native gunyahs, or houses, if such a term can be applied to these insignificant structures. Australian aborigines are a race who do not live in houses at all, but still the common instincts of humanity induce all men to try and secure some spot of earth which, for a time at least, they may call home; and though the nomadic inhabitants or owners of these Australian wilds, do not remain for long in any one particular place, in consequence of the game becoming too wild or destroyed, or water being used up or evaporated, yet, wherever they are located, every man or head of a family has his home and his house, to which he returns in after seasons. The natives in this, as in most other parts of Australia, seldom hunt without making perpetual grass or spinifex fires, and the traveller in these wilds may be always sure that the natives are in the neighbourhood when he can see the smokes, but it by no means follows that because there are smokes there must be water. An inversion of the terms would be far more correct, and you might safely declare that because there is water there are sure to be smokes, and because there are smokes there are sure to be fires and because there are fires there are sure to be natives, the present case being no exception to the rule, as several columns of smoke appeared in various directions. Old Jimmy's native name was Nanthona; in consequence he was generally called Anthony, but he liked neither; he preferred Jimmy, and asked me always to call him so. When at Youldeh the old fellow had mentioned this spot, Wynbring, as the farthest water he knew to the eastwards, and now that we had arrived at it, he declared that beyond it there was nothing; it was the ultima thule of all his geographical ideas; he had never seen, heard, or thought of anything beyond it. It was certainly a most agreeable little oasis, and an excellent spot for an explorer to come to in such a frightful region. Here were the three requisites that constitute an explorer's happiness — that is to say, wood, water, and grass, there being splendid green feed and herbage on the few thousand acres of open ground around the rock. The old black guide had certainly brought us to this romantic and secluded little spot, with, I suppose I may say, unerring precision, albeit he wound about so much on the road, and made the distance far greater than it should have been. I was, however, struck with admiration at his having done so at all, and how he or any other human being, not having the advantages of science at his command to teach him, by the use of the heavenly bodies, how to find the position of any locality, could possibly return to the places we had visited in such a wilderness, especially as it was done by the recollection of spots which, to a white man, have no special features and no guiding points, was really marvellous. We had travelled at least 120 miles eastward from Youldeh, and when there, this old fellow had told us that he had not visited any of the places he was going to take me to since his boyhood; this at the very least must have been forty years ago, for he was certainly fifty, if not seventy, years old. The knowledge possessed by these children of the desert is preserved owing to the fact that their imaginations are untrammelled, the denizens of the wilderness, having their mental faculties put to but few uses, and all are concentrated on the object of obtaining food for themselves and their offspring. Whatever ideas they possess, and they are by no means dull or backward in learning new ones, are ever keen and young, and Nature has endowed them with an undying mental youth, until their career on earth is ended. As says a poet, speaking of savages or men in a state of nature:—

“There the passions may revel unfettered,

And the heart never speak but in truth;

And the intellect, wholly unlettered,

Be bright with the freedom of youth.”

Assuredly man in a savage state, is by no means the unhappiest of mortals. Old Jimmy's faculties of memory were put to the test several times during the eight days we were travelling from Youldeh to this rock. Sometimes when leading us through the scrubs, and having travelled for some miles nearly east, he would notice a tree or a sandhill, or something that he remembered, and would turn suddenly from that point in an entirely different direction, towards some high and severe sandhill; here he would climb a tree. After a few minutes' gazing about, he would descend, mount his horse, and go off on some new line, and in the course of a mile or so he would stop at a tree, and tell us that when a little boy he got a 'possum out of a hole which existed in it. At another place he said his mother was bitten by a wild dog, which she was digging out of a hole in the ground; and thus we came to Wynbring at last.

A conspicuous mountain — indeed the only object upon which the eye could rest above the dense scrubs that surrounded us — bore south 52° east from this rock, and I supposed it was Mount Finke. Our advent disturbed a number of natives; their fresh footprints were everywhere about the place, and our guide not being at ease in his mind as to what sort of reception he might get from the owners of this demesne, told me if I would let him have a gun, he would go and hunt them up, and try to induce some of them to come to the camp. The old chap had but limited experience of firearms, so I gave him an unloaded gun, as he might have shot himself, or any other of the natives, without intending to do any harm. Away he went, and returned with five captives, an antiquated one-eyed old gentleman, with his three wives, and one baby belonging to the second wife, who had been a woman of considerable beauty. She was now rather past her prime. What the oldest wife could ever have been like, it was impossible to guess, as now she seemed more like an old she-monkey than anything else. The youngest was in the first flush of youth and grace. The new old man was very tall, and had been very big and powerful, but he was now shrunken and grey with age. He ordered his wives to sit down in the shade of a bush near our camp; this they did. I walked towards the old man, when he immediately threw his aged arms round me, and clasped me rapturously to his ebony breast. Then his most ancient wife followed his example, clasping me in the same manner. The second wife was rather incommoded in her embrace by the baby in her arms, and it squalled horridly the nearer its mother put it to me. The third and youngest wife, who was really very pretty, appeared enchantingly bashful, but what was her bashfulness compared to mine, when compelled for mere form's sake to enfold in my arms a beautiful and naked young woman? It was really a distressing ordeal. She showed her appreciation of our company by the glances of her black and flashing eyes, and the exposure of two rows of beautifully even and pearly teeth.

However charming woman may look in a nude or native state, with all her youthful graces about her, still the poetic line, that beauty unadorned, adorned the most, is not entirely true. Woman never appears so thoroughly charming as when her graces are enveloped in a becoming dress. These natives all seemed anxious that I should give them names, and I took upon myself the responsibility of christening them. The young beauty I called Polly, the mother Mary, the baby Kitty, the oldest woman Judy, and to the old man I gave the name of Wynbring Tommy, as an easy one for him to remember and pronounce. There exists amongst the natives of this part of the continent, an ancient and Oriental custom which either compels or induces the wife or wives of a man who is in any way disfigured in form or feature to show their love, esteem, or obedience, by becoming similarly disfigured, on the same principle that Sindbad the Sailor was buried with his wife. In this case the two elder wives of this old man had each relinquished an eye, and no doubt the time was soon approaching when the youngest would also show her conjugal fidelity and love by similar mutilation, unless the old heathen should happen to die shortly and she become espoused to some other, rejoicing in the possession of a full complement of eyes — a consummation devoutly to be wished.

The position of this rock and watering-place I found to be in latitude 30° 32´ and longitude 133° 30´. The heat still continued very great, the thermometer at its highest reading never indicating less than 104° in the shade while we were here. The flies at this place, and indeed for weeks before we reached it, were terribly numerous, and we were troubled also with myriads of the large March flies, those horrid pests about twice the size of the blowfly, and which bite men, horses, and camels, and all other animals indiscriminately. These wretches would not allow either us or the animals a moment's respite, from dawn to dusk; they almost ate the poor creatures alive, and kept them in a state of perpetual motion in their hobbles during daylight all the while we were here. In the daytime it was only by continued use of our hands, in waving a handkerchief or bough, that we kept them partially off ourselves, for with all our efforts to drive them away, we were continually bitten and stung almost to madness. I have often been troubled by these flies in other parts of Australia, but I never experienced so much pain and annoyance as at this place. The hideous droning noise which a multitude of these insects make is quite enough to destroy one's peace, but when their incessant bites are added, existence becomes a burden.

Since we left Youldeh, and there also, the days had been frightfully hot, and the nights close, cloudy, and sultry. The only currents of air that ever stirred the foliage of the trees in the daytime were like the breath from a furnace, while at night there was hardly any at all. The 1st of April, the last day we remained here, was the hottest day we had felt. Life was almost insupportable, and I determined to leave the place upon the morrow. There had evidently been some rain at this rock lately, as the grass and herbage were green and luxuriant, and the flies so numerous. It was most fortunate for us, as my subsequent narrative will show, that we had some one to guide us to this spot, which I found by observation lay almost east of Youldeh, and was distant from that depot 110 miles in a straight line. Old Jimmy knew nothing whatever of the region which lay beyond, and though I endeavoured to get him to ask the old man and his wives where any other waters existed, all the information I could gather from these persons was, that there was a big mountain and no water at it. The old man at last found enough English to say, “Big fellow Poonta (stones, hills, or mountains) and mucka carpee,” which means no water. I gave these poor people a little damper and some tea each, and Polly some sugar, when they departed. Old Jimmy seemed very unwilling to go any farther eastwards, giving me to understand that it was a far better plan to return to Fowler's Bay, and that he would show me some new watering-places if I would only follow him. To this, of course, I turned a deaf ear.

The nearest water on the route I desired to travel, was at Sir Thomas Elder's cattle station, at the Finniss Springs, under the Hermit Hill, distant from this rock about 250 miles in a straight line; but as the mountain to the south-east looked so conspicuous and inviting, I determined to visit it, in spite of what the old black fellow had said about there being no water, though it lay considerably out of the straight road to where I wanted to go. It looked high and rugged, and I thought to find water in some rock-hole or crevice about it.

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