While the Billy Boils, by Henry Lawson

Hungerford

One of the hungriest cleared roads in New South Wales runs to within a couple of miles of Hungerford, and stops there; then you strike through the scrub to the town. There is no distant prospect of Hungerford — you don’t see the town till you are quite close to it, and then two or three white-washed galvanized-iron roofs start out of the mulga.

They say that a past Ministry commenced to clear the road from Bourke, under the impression that Hungerford was an important place, and went on, with the blindness peculiar to governments, till they got to within two miles of the town. Then they ran short of rum and rations, and sent a man on to get them, and make inquiries. The member never came back, and two more were sent to find him — or Hungerford. Three days later the two returned in an exhausted condition, and submitted a motion of want-of-confidence, which was lost. Then the whole House went on and was lost also. Strange to relate, that Government was never missed.

However, we found Hungerford and camped there for a day. The town is right on the Queensland border, and an interprovincial rabbit-proof fence — with rabbits on both sides of it — runs across the main street.

This fence is a standing joke with Australian rabbits — about the only joke they have out there, except the memory of Pasteur and poison and inoculation. It is amusing to go a little way out of town, about sunset, and watch them crack Noah’s Ark rabbit jokes about that fence, and burrow under and play leap-frog over it till they get tired. One old buck rabbit sat up and nearly laughed his ears off at a joke of his own about that fence. He laughed so much that he couldn’t get away when I reached for him. I could hardly eat him for laughing. I never saw a rabbit laugh before; but I’ve seen a ‘possum do it.

Hungerford consists of two houses and a humpy in New South Wales, and five houses in Queensland. Characteristically enough, both the pubs are in Queensland. We got a glass of sour yeast at one and paid sixpence for it — we had asked for English ale.

The post office is in New South Wales, and the police-barracks in Bananaland. The police cannot do anything if there’s a row going on across the street in New South Wales, except to send to Brisbane and have an extradition warrant applied for; and they don’t do much if there’s a row in Queensland. Most of the rows are across the border, where the pubs are.

At least, I believe that’s how it is, though the man who told me might have been a liar. Another man said he was a liar, but then he might have been a liar himself — a third person said he was one. I heard that there was a fight over it, but the man who told me about the fight might not have been telling the truth.

One part of the town swears at Brisbane when things go wrong, and the other part curses Sydney.

The country looks as though a great ash-heap had been spread out there, and mulga scrub and firewood planted — and neglected. The country looks just as bad for a hundred miles round Hungerford, and beyond that it gets worse — a blasted, barren wilderness that doesn’t even howl. If it howled it would be a relief.

I believe that Bourke and Wills found Hungerford, and it’s a pity they did; but, if I ever stand by the graves of the men who first travelled through this country, when there were neither roads nor stations, nor tanks, nor bores, nor pubs, I’ll — I’ll take my hat off. There were brave men in the land in those days.

It is said that the explorers gave the district its name chiefly because of the hunger they found there, which has remained there ever since. I don’t know where the “ford” comes in — there’s nothing to ford, except in flood-time. Hungerthirst would have been better. The town is supposed to be situated on the banks of a river called the Paroo, but we saw no water there, except what passed for it in a tank. The goats and sheep and dogs and the rest of the population drink there. It is dangerous to take too much of that water in a raw state.

Except in flood-time you couldn’t find the bed of the river without the aid of a spirit-level and a long straight-edge. There is a Custom-house against the fence on the northern side. A pound of tea often costs six shillings on that side, and you can get a common lead pencil for fourpence at the rival store across the street in the mother province. Also, a small loaf of sour bread sells for a shilling at the humpy aforementioned. Only about sixty per cent of the sugar will melt.

We saw one of the storekeepers give a dead-beat swagman five shillings’ worth of rations to take him on into Queensland. The storekeepers often do this, and put it down on the loss side of their books. I hope the recording angel listens, and puts it down on the right side of his book.

We camped on the Queensland side of the fence, and after tea had a yarn with an old man who was minding a mixed flock of goats and sheep; and we asked him whether he thought Queensland was better than New South Wales, or the other way about.

He scratched the back of his head, and thought a while, and hesitated like a stranger who is going to do you a favour at some personal inconvenience.

At last, with the bored air of a man who has gone through the same performance too often before, he stepped deliberately up to the fence and spat over it into New South Wales. After which he got leisurely through and spat back on Queensland.

“That’s what I think of the blanky colonies!” he said.

He gave us time to become sufficiently impressed; then he said:

“And if I was at the Victorian and South Australian border I’d do the same thing.”

He let that soak into our minds, and added: “And the same with West Australia — and — and Tasmania.” Then he went away.

The last would have been a long spit — and he forgot Maoriland.

We heard afterwards that his name was Clancy and he had that day been offered a job droving at “twenty-five shillings a week and find your own horse.” Also find your own horse feed and tobacco and soap and other luxuries, at station prices. Moreover, if you lost your own horse you would have to find another, and if that died or went astray you would have to find a third — or forfeit your pay and return on foot. The boss drover agreed to provide flour and mutton — when such things were procurable.

Consequently, Clancy’s unfavourable opinion of the colonies.

My mate and I sat down on our swags against the fence to talk things over. One of us was very deaf. Presently a black tracker went past and looked at us, and returned to the pub. Then a trooper in Queensland uniform came along and asked us what the trouble was about, and where we came from and were going, and where we camped. We said we were discussing private business, and he explained that he thought it was a row, and came over to see. Then he left us, and later on we saw him sitting with the rest of the population on a bench under the hotel veranda. Next morning we rolled up our swags and left Hungerford to the north-west.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lawson/henry/while_the_billy_boils/book1.6.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38