“For the Beachcomber, when not a mere ruffian, is the poor relation of the artist.”
In justification of the assumption of the title of “Beachcomber,” it must be said that, having made good and sufficient provision against the advent of the wet season (which begins, as a rule, during the Christmas holidays), the major portion of each week was spent in first formal and official calls, and then friendly and familiar visits to the neighbouring islands and the mainland.
Duty and inclination constrained me to find out what were the states and moods of all the bays and coves of all the isles; the location and form of rocks and reefs; the character of shrubs and trees; the nature of the jungle-covered hilltops; the features of bluffs and precipices; to understand the style and manner and the conversation of unfamiliar birds; to discover where the turtle most do congregate; the favourite haunts of fishes. I was in a hurry to partake freely of the novel, and yearned for pleasure of the absolute freedom of isles uninhabited, shores untrodden; eager to know how Nature, not under the microscope, behaved; what were her maiden fancies, what the art with which she allures.
But there was an excuse, rather an imperious command, for all the apparent waste of time. Before the rains came thundering on the iron roof of our little hut, the washed-out and enfeebled town dweller who gave way to bitter reflections on the first evening of his new career, could hardly have been recognised, thanks to the robustious, wholesome effects of the free and vitalising life. Fourteen, frequently sixteen, hours of the twenty-four were spent in the open air, ashore and afloat.
What a glowing and absolutely authentic testimonial could be written as to the tonic influence of the misrepresented climate of the rainy belt of North Queensland on constitutions that have run down? According to popular opinion, malaria ought to have discovered an exceptionally easy prey. Ague, if the expected had happened, should have gripped and shaken me until my teeth rattled; and after alternations of raging fever and arctic cold, I ought to have gone to my long home with the fearful shapes of delirium yelling in my ears. But there are places other than Judee where they do not know everything. At the fraction of the fee of a fashionable doctor, and of the cost of following his fashionable and pleasing advice — a change to one of the Southern States — in three months one of the compelling causes for the desertion of town life had been disposed of by agreeable processes. None of the bitter, after-taste of physic remained. I knew my island, and was on terms of friendly admiration — born of knowledge of beauty spots — with all the others. I had become a citizen of the universe.
During this period of utter abandonment of all serious claims upon time and exertion came the conviction that the career of the Beachcomber, the closest possible “return to Nature” now popularly advocated, has charms none other possesses. Then it was that the lotus-blossom was first eaten.
Unfettered by the laws of society, with the means at hand of acquiring the few necessaries of life that Nature in this generous part of her domain fails to provide readymade, a Beachcomber of virtuous instinct, and a due perception of the decency of things, may enjoy a happy life. Should, however, he be of the type that demands a wreck or so every month to maintain his supplies of rum or gin, and other articles of his true religion, and is prepared if wrecks do not come with regularity, to assist tardy Nature by means of false lights on the shore, he will find no scope whatever among these orderly isles.
The Beachcomber of tradition parades his coral islet barefooted, bullying guileless natives out of their copra, coco-nut oil and pearl-shell; his chief diet, turtle and turtle eggs and fish; his drink, rum and coco-nut milk — the latter only when the former is impossible. When a wreck happens he becomes a potentate in pyjamas, and with his dusky wives, dressed in bright vestiture, fares sumptuously. And though the ships from the isles do not meet to “pour the wealth of ocean in tribute at his feet,” he can still “rush out of his lodgings and eat oysters in regular desperation.” A whack on his hardened head from the club of a jealous native is the time-honoured fate of the typical Beachcomber.
Flotsam and jetsam make another class of Beachcomber by stimulating the gaming instincts. Is there a human being, taking part in the rough and tumble of the world, who can honestly make confession and say that he has completely suffocated those inherent instincts of savagedom — joy and patience in the chase, the longing for excitement and surprise, the crude selfishness, the delight in getting something for nothing? Society journals have informed me that titled dames have been known to sit out long and wearisome evenings that they may obtain some paltry favour in a cotillon. And when the sea casts up its gifts on these radiant shores, I boldly and with glee give way to my beachcombing instincts and pick and choose. Never ever up to the present have I found anything of real value; but am I not buoyed up by pious hopes and sanguine expectations? Is not the game as diverting and as innocent as many others that are played to greater profit? It is a game, too, that cannot be forced, and therefore cannot become demoralising; and having no nice feelings nor fine shades, I rejoice and am glad in it.
And then what strange and varied things one sees! Once a “harness-cask,” hostile to every sense, came trundled by waves eager to expel it from the vicinity of these oxless but scented isles. It overcame us as we sailed by, 20 yards off, and the general necessity for temperate diet and restricted dishes came as a sweet and a comforting reflection. No marvel if the ship whence it was ejected was in bad odour among the sailors. Leaving, as it lurched along, a greasy, foul stain on the sea, it may have poisoned multitudes of uncomplaining fishes during its evil course.
Occasionally a case of fruit, washed from the decks of a labouring steamer, drifts ashore. One was the means of introducing a valuable addition to the products of the island. It gave demonstration of how man may unwittingly, and even in opposition to his wit, assist in scattering and multiplying blessings on a smiling land — blessings to last for all time, and perhaps to amend or ameliorate the environment of a budding nation.
Many years ago — in 1878, to speak precisely — a ship laden with fragrant cedar logs from the valley of the Daintree River — 140 miles to the north — touched on Kennedy Shoal, 20 miles to the south-east of Dunk Island. Crippled though she was she managed to make Cardwell, where she was temporarily patched up, and whence she set sail for Melbourne. It was the critical month of March, and the MERCHANT— clumsy and cumbersome, but a good and safe ship given ample sea-room — before sailing many miles on her course, was caught in the coils of a cyclone, the violence of which is well remembered by old residents on the coast to this day, and was lost with all hands. She is supposed to have struck on a reef to the southward of the Palm Islands, as the bulk of her cargo was cast ashore in Ramsay Bay, Hinchinbrook Island. Portions of the wreckage were found on the Brook Islands; her figurehead — the spread eagle of the United States — and a seaman’s chest were picked up on the beach here. Her windlass, with a child’s pinafore entangled with it — for the skipper had taken his wife and two children to bear him company — drifted on the South Franklands, 40 miles to the north, and a large portion of the shattered hulk on a reef eastward of Fitzroy Island, 25 miles still farther up the coast. Fate did her worst for the poor MERCHANT, and not yet content, relentlessly pursued two (if not more) of the vessels which sought to recover her cedar, strewn on the treacherous sands of Ramsay Bay. Some of the logs, however, drifted to our quiet coves, and portions remain sound to this day. One more promising and accessible we beachcombed. It provided planks for a punt, besides various articles of furniture, and gave me some most practical homilies on contentment. Having found and duly salvaged that log, it was necessary to cut it up; and then I began to be thankful that pit-sawing was not forced upon me as a profession in the days of inexperienced youth. Pit-sawing is deceptive. It has the appearance of being easy, though not genteel, when others are the toilers, and in the red dust, torn by the polished steel teeth from out the heart of the dull log, do you not “inhale the balmy smells of nard and cassia which the musky wings of the zephyrs scatter through the cedared groves of the Hesperides?” Is not that fragrance sufficient compensation for your toil, with the clean red planks profit over and above legitimate earnings? Yet that long saw tugs at our very heart-strings, and you know that to get a real, not merely sentimental, liking for the craft of the sawyer, you must take to it very young, before the possibilities of other occupations and pastimes have distorted your genius. This worthy lesson comes from the gentle art of Beachcombing.
Again, a German barque, driven out of its course, found unexpectedly a detached portion of the Great Barrier Reef 200 miles away to the south. When the south-easters came, they pounded away so vigorously with the heavy runs of the sea that in a brief space nothing was left of the big ship save some distorted fragments of iron jammed in among the nigger-heads of coral and the crevices of the rocks. A few weeks after, portions of the wreck were deposited on Dunk Island, and the beach of the mainland for miles was strewn with timber. That wreck was the greatest favour bestowed me in my profession of Beachcomber. Long and heavy pieces of angle-iron came bolted to raft-like sections of the deck; various kinds of timber proved useful in a variety of ways. What? was I to leave it all, unclaimed and unregarded — in excess of morality and modesty — on the beach, to be honey-combed by white ants or to rot? or to honestly own up to that sentiment which is the most human of all? Without affectation or apology, I confess that I was overjoyed — that my instincts, pregnant with original sin, received a most delightful fillip. I wallowed for the time being in the luxury of beachcombing.
Upon sober reflection, I cannot say that I am of one mind with the pastor of the Shetland Isles who never omitted this petition from his long prayer —“Lord, if it be Thy holy will to send shipwrecks, do not forget our island”; nor yet with the Breton fishermen, who to this day are of opinion that wreckage is the gift of God, and who therefore take everything that comes in a reverential spirit, as a Divine favour, whether casks of wine or bales of merchandise. But, after all, who am I that I should claim a finer shade of morality than those, with their sturdy widespread hands and perpetual blessing? My inherent powers of resistance to such temptations as the winds and tides of Providence put in their way have never been subject to proof. Does virtue go by default where there is no opportunity to be otherwise than virtuous? The very first pipe of port, or aum of Rhenish, or bale of silk, which comes rolling along may wrestle with my morality and so wrench and twist it as to incapacitate it for ordinary usage for months, or may even permanently disable it. And must not I, venturing to regard myself as a truthful historian, frankly admit a sense allied to disappointment when the white blazing beaches are destitute of the most trivial of temptations?
No, the grating of the battered barque, upon which many a wet and weary steersman had stood, now fulfils placid duty as a front gate. No more to be trampled and stamped upon with shifty, sloppy feet — no more to be scrubbed and scored with sand and holystone; painted white, it creaks gratefully every time it swings — the symbol of security, the first outward and visible sign of home, the guardian of the sacred rights of private property, the embodiment of the exclusive. Better so than lying inert under foot on the deck of the barque thrashing through the cold grey seas of the Baltic, or scudding before the unscrupulous billows of Biscay.
Moreover, what notable and precise information this derelict timber gave as to the strength and direction of ocean currents. The wreck took place on the 26th October 1900 in 18 deg. 43 min. S. lat., 147 deg. 57 min. E. long., 72 1/2 miles in a direct line from the port of Townsville, and about 200 miles from Dunk Island. She broke up, after a11 the cargo had been salvaged, early in January 1901, and on Tuesday, 5th February, at 10 a.m., the seas landed the first of the broken planks in Brammo Bay. Then for a few days the arrivals were continuous. For over 50 miles along the coast the wreckage was scattered, very little going farther north.
Nothing goes south on this part of the coast. Yes, there is one exception during my experience. A veritable cataclysm coincided with a stiff north-easterly breeze, and hundreds of bunches of bananas from plantations on the banks of the Johnstone River — 25 miles away — landing-stages and steps, and the beacons from the mouth of the river, drifted south. Most of the more buoyant debris, however, took the next tide back in the direction whence came.
When there are eight or ten islands and islets within an afternoon’s sail, and miles of mainland beach to police, variety lends her charms to the pursuit of the Beachcomber. Landing in one of the unfrequented coves, he knows not what the winds and the tides may have spread out for inspection and acceptance. Perhaps only an odd coco-nut from the Solomon Islands, its husk riddled by cobra and zoned with barnacles. The germ of life may yet be there. To plant the nut above high-water mark is an obvious duty. Perhaps there is a paddle, with rude tracery on the handle, from the New Hebrides, part of a Fijian canoe that has been bundled over the Barrier, a wooden spoon such as Kanakas use, or the dusky globe of an incandescent lamp that has glowed out its life in the state-room of some ocean liner, or a broom of Japanese make, a coal-basket, a “fender,” a tiger nautilus shell, an oar or a rudder, a tiller, a bottle cast away fat out from land to determine the strength and direction of ocean currents, the spinnaker boom of a yacht, the jib-boom of a staunch cutter. Once there was a goodly hammer cemented by the head fast upright on a flat rock, and again the stand of a grindstone, and a trestle, high and elaborately stayed. Cases, invariably and disappointingly empty, come and go, planks of strange timber, blocks from some tall ship. A huge black beacon waddled along, dragging a reluctant mass of iron at the end of its chain cable, followed by a roughly-built “flatty” and a huge log of silkwood. A jolly red buoy, weary of the formality of bowing to the swell, broke loose from a sandbank’s apron-strings, bounced off in the ecstasies of liberty, romped in the surf, rolled on the beach, worked a cosy bed in the soft warm sand, and has slumbered ever since to the soothing hum of the wind, indifferent to the perplexities of mariners and the fate of ships. The gilded masthead truck of a smart yacht, with one of her cabin racks, bespoke of recent disaster, unknown and unaccounted, and a brand new oar, finished and fitted with the nattiness of a man-o’-war’s man, told of some wave-swept deck.
That which at the time was the most eloquent message from the sea came close to our door, cast up on the snowy-white coral drift of a little cove, where it immediately attracted notice. Nothing but an untrimmed bamboo staff nearly 30 feet long, carrying an oblong strip of soiled white calico between two such strips of red turkey twill. Tattered and frayed, the flags seemed to tell of the desperate appeal for help of some forlorn castaway; of a human being, marooned on a lonely sandbank on the Barrier, without shelter, food or water, but not altogether bereft of hope. BECHE-DE-MER fishers have in times past been marooned on the Reef by mutinous blacks, and left to die by slow degrees, or to be drowned by the implacable yet merciful tide. A makeshift rudder well worn bespoke strenuous efforts to steer a troubled boat to shelter, but this crude signal staff, deftly arranged, told of present agony and stress. It might have been the emblem of a tragic event that the Beachcomber single-handed was not able to investigate. As a matter of fact, it was only a temporary datum of one of His Majesty’s surveying ships engaged in attempting to set the bounds of the Barrier.
Rarely do we sail about without enjoying the zest of the chance of getting something for nothing. Not yet has the seaman’s chest, brass-bound, with its secret compartments full of “fair rose-nobles and bright moidores,” been lighted upon; but who can say? Perhaps it has come ashore but now, after leagues of aimless wanderings, and awaits in some cosy cove the next Beachcombing expedition. That from the ill-fated MERCHANT came hither years before my time, and was, in any case, pathetically unromantic.
Peradventure there are many who deem this solitary existence dull? Why, it is brimful of interest and sensation. There are the tragedies of the bush to observe and elucidate; all cannot be foreseen and prevented, or even avenged. A bold falcon the other day swooped down upon a wood-swallow that was imitating the falcon’s flight just above my head, and bore it bleeding to a tree-top, while I stood shocked at the audacity of the cannibal. A bullet dropped the murderous bird with its dead victim fast in the talons. There are comedies, too, and you have the wit to see them, and in these Beachcombing expeditions expectation, fairly effervesces.
One lucky individual — a mere amateur — casually picked up a black-lip mother-of-pearl shell on an island some little distance away. It contained a blue pearl, the price of which gave him such a start in life, that he is now an owner of ships. May not other tides cast up on other shores other oysters whose lives have been rendered miserable by the presence of pearls?
Byron says —“Even an oyster may be crossed in love.” Science, more precise and frank than the frankest of poets, tells us that oysters are afflicted with tapeworms, and to kill the germ of these indecent pests, enclose them in untimely tombs, which from the human standpoint are among the most lovely and precious of gems. The assertions of the scientific are often the reverse of poetical. We are constrained to believe them, but like our poetical delusions better, and for the origin of the pearl prefer the quaint fable of the Persians to the unpleasant fact of the zoologist. A drop of water of ineffable purity falls from heaven to the sea, an oyster gapes and swallows it, the drop hardens and ripens, and becomes a pearl; and who is so devoid of the perception of purity, beauty and worth as to despise a pearl?
Here about, pearls were found. We delight in them, though they prove the previous existence of a filthy ailment. Any oyster may contain a pearl, a pearl of great price — a thing of beauty, a joy for ever. Every gold-lip, every black-lip oyster, is a chance in a lottery. Was there ever a Beachcomber so pure and elevated of soul as to refuse the chances that Nature proffers gratuitously? My meagre horde includes pearls of several tints, black, pink, and white. They represent the paltriest prizes. in the lottery that no Government, however paternal, may prohibit, being mere “baroque,” fit only to be pounded up as medicine for some Chinaman luxuriously sick. Yet there is a chance. Some day the great prize may be drawn. And then, “Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook?” The Beachcomber may be perverted into — well, the next best on the list. Yet they say in pitiful tones, those who rake among the muck of the streets, “What a dull life! What a hopeless existence! He is out of it all!” Yes, with a gladsome mind, and all its sounds, if not forgotten, at least muffled by music, soft as dawn, profound as the very sea.
Kennedy Shoal has been mentioned incidentally. Some miles further north are two bare sandbanks. Prior to the year 1890 they were occupied by a BECHE-DE-MER fisherman, whose headquarters were on the chief of the South Barnard Islands — some 12 or 14 miles to the north. In fateful March of that year a cyclone swooped down on this part of the coast with the pent up fury of a century’s restraint. The enormous bloodwood-trees torn out by the roots on Dunk Island testified to the force and ferocity of the storm. The sandbanks, are isolated, dreary spots, the highest portion but 2 or 3 feet above the level reached by spring tides. A cutter — THE DOLPHIN— with a crew of aboriginals, in charge of a couple of Kanakas, was anchored at the shoal, and as the cyclone worked up, the Kanakas decided that the one and only bid for life was to run before it to the mainland. It was a forlorn hope — so forlorn that four or five of the aboriginals declined to take part in it, deeming it safer to trust to the sandbank, which they imagined could never be entirely swept by the besoms of the sea. The cutter fled before the storm, only to capsize in the breakers off the mouth of the Johnstone River. Clinging to the wreck until it drifted a few miles south, the Kanakas and crew battled through the waves and eventually reached the shore. Of those who placed their faith on the sandbank not one was spared. The seas raced over it, pounded and flattened it. The men upon it were unconsidered trifles.
The tall and handsome Scandinavian whose fortune thus assailed was at his home with his wife and children and brother. His yacht — THE MAUD— in the height of the storm, began to drag her anchor. He and his brother went out in a dinghy to secure her. At dusk the wife, young, petite and pretty, with strained anxiety watched the efforts of the men to beat back to shelter. Darkness came, blotting out the scene and its climax. Never after was anything seen or heard of the brothers or the yacht. And for nearly a fortnight the disconsolate wife and her little ones were alone on the island.
Ten years later, on one of the two bare patches of sand, another BECHE-DE-MER smoke-house was built. While the owner a swarthy Arabian, was out on the reef miles away, a phenomenally high tide occurred. His wife — a comely girl of British descent — was alone on the shoal. She watched the rising water apprehensively, until all the sand was covered save the few feet on which the frail shelter stood. One more ripple and the floor was swamped. Then, wading and swimming, she managed to reach a punt, and so saved her life. Since then these patches of sand have not been regarded as a safe outpost even by those most venturesome of people — BECHE-DE-MER fishers.
This is not an apology, but a confession; not a plea of defence, but a justification — a fair and free chronicle, a frank acknowledgment of the tributes of impartial Neptune — Neptune who gives and who takes away — who stealthily filches with tireless fingers, and who, when in the mood, robs so remorselessly, and with such awful, such majestic violence, that it were impious to whimper. Who beachcombed my three rudders, the one toilfully adzed out in one piece from the beautiful heart of a bean-tree log, another cunningly fitted with a sliding fin, and that of red cedar with famous brass mountings? Who owns the pair of ballast tanks once mine? Who the buoy deemed securely moored? Who the paddles and the rowlocks and the signal halyards, lost because of Neptune’s whims and violence? Beachcombing is a nicely adjusted, if not quite an exact art. Not once but several times has the libertine Neptune scandalously seduced punts and dinghies from the respectable precincts of Brammo Bay, and having philandered with them for a while, cynically abandoned them with a bump on the mainland beach, and only once has he sent a punt in return — a poor, soiled, tar-besmirched, disorderly waif that was reported to the police and reluctantly claimed.
A mind inclined to casuistry, could it not defend Beachcombing? Does not the law recognise it under the definition of trover? Why bother about the law and the moralities when it is all so pleasing, so engrossing, and so fair?
The Beachcomber wants no extensive establishment. His possessions need never be mortgaged. The cost of living is measurable by a standard adjustable to individual taste, wants and perceptions. The expenditure of a little manual labour supplies the omissions of and compensates for the undirected impulses which prevail, and the pursuit — not the profession — leads one to ever-varying scenes, to the contemplation of many of the moods of unaffected, unadvertised Nature. Ashore, one dallies luxuriously with time, free from all the restrictions of streets, every precious moment his very own; afloat in these calm and shallow waters there is a never-ending panorama of entertainment. Coral gardens — gardens of the sea nymphs, wherein fancy feigns cool, shy, chaste faces and pliant forms half-revealed among gently swaying robes; a company of porpoise, a herd of dugong; turtle, queer and familiar fish, occasionally the spouting of a great whale, and always the company of swift and graceful birds. Sometimes the whole expansive ocean is as calm as it can only be in the tropics and bordered by the Barrier Reef — a shield of shimmering silver from which the islands stand out as turquoise bosses. Again, it is of cobalt blue, with changing bands of purple and gleaming pink, or of grey blue — the reflection of a sky pallid and tremulous with excess of light. Or myriad hosts of microscopic creatures — the Red Sea owes to the tribe its name — the multitudinous sea dully incarnadine; or the boat rides buoyantly on the shoulders of Neptune’s white horses, while funnel-shaped water spouts sway this way and that. Land is always near, and the flotsam and jetsam, do they not supply that smack of excitement — if not the boisterous hope — bereft of which life might seem “always afternoon?”
These chronicles are toned from first to last by perceptions which came to the Beachcomber — perceptions which lead, mayhap, to a subdued and sober estimate of the purpose and bearing of the pilgrimage of life. Doubts become exalted and glorified, hopes all rapture, when long serene days are spent alone in the contemplation of the splendours of sky and sea, and the enchantment of tropic shores.
Was there not an explicit contract that some of the experiences and events of a settler’s life should be duly described and recorded? How to fulfil that obligation and at the same time avoid what is ordinarily regarded as the dull and prosaic, the stale, the flat, the unprofitable, is the trouble. I would gladly shirk even this small responsibility, even as greater ones have been outmanoeuvred, but a written promise unfulfilled may be troublesome to a conscience, which, when reminiscent of ante-beachcombing days, is not altogether unimpressionable.
Well, the life of a settler — the man who drags his sustenance, all and every part of it, from the soil in tropical Queensland, as a mere settler very closely resembles that of others who cultivate. If an abstract of the universal experience were obtainable, it would very likely be found to go towards the establishment of a standard from which many would cheerfully desire many cheerful changes. After all, that represents a condition not altogether monopolised by settlers.
Yet, when once the life is begun, how few there are who attempt to withdraw from it? It grows on the senses and faculties. It appeals to the emotional as well as to the stolid humours. The cares of this world as expounded in town life, and the sinfulness of never-to-be-acquired riches are foreign to the free, bland air which has filtered through the myriad leaves of the mountain, and which smacks so strongly of freedom. Sometimes the settler takes up studies and relieves the sameness of his duties by pastimes. One never went to his maize field, along narrow gloomy aisles through the jungle, without a net for the capture of butterflies. His humble home was as resplendent as the show-cases of a natural history museum. But he was singularly favoured. A lovely waterfall was the jewel on his estate. That was the shape of beauty that moved away the pall from his dark spirit and gave colour to his life and actions. Another took to collecting birds’ eggs; another to the study of botany; another to photography. Each wreathed, according to his predilections, a flowery band to bind him to the earth, finding that even the life of a settler may be filled with “sweet dreams, and health and quiet.” But the great majority seem to have taken to the scrap heap of Federal politics with such ardour that they clutch but the fag ends of the poetry of life.
Many become great readers and are knowing and knowledgeable. Those who drift away from country life are for the most part men who hustle after the coy damsel fortune by searching for minerals, and just as many who have succeeded in that arduous passion settle quietly on the land. Each may and does desire amendments to and amelioration in his lot. There is still left to all the healthy impulse of achievement, the desire for something better, the noble and inspiriting virtue of discontent.
Rare is a deserted home. Even the first rough dwelling of a settler possessing the slenderest resources is invested with tender sentiments. There is his home — a poor one, perhaps, but his own, and to it he clings with desperation, sees in and about it attractions and beauty where others perceive nothing but untoned dreariness, unrelieved hopelessness. His little bit of country may be remote and isolated, but Nature is warm and encouraging, and profuse of her stimulants here. She responds off-hand without pausing to reflect, but with an outburst of goodwill and purpose to appeals for sustenance. She has no despondent moods. She never lapses in prolific purposes. She may be wayward in accepting the interferences of man, but all her vigorous impulses are expended in productiveness. She cannot sulk or idle. Kill, burn and destroy her primeval jungle, and she does not give way to sadness and despair, nor are any of her infinite forces abated. Spontaneously she begins the work of restoration, and as if by magic the scar is covered with as rich and riotous a profusion of vegetation as ever. Nature needs only to be restrained and schooled and her response is an abundance of various sorts of food for man.
The routine that cultivators of the soil have to obey is diverse, but the life of the dweller in the country in tropical Queensland can be asserted with perfect safety to be more comfortable than that of the average settler in any other part of Australia. There are no phases of agricultural enterprise devoid of toil, save perhaps the growing of vanilla, the very poetry of the oldest of pursuits, in which one has to aid and abet in the loves and in the marriage of flowers. But vanilla production is not one of the profitable branches of agriculture here yet. We have to deal only with things that are at present practicable.
Whether the settler grows maize, or fruit or coffee, or as a collateral exercise of industry gets log timber, or raises pigs or poultry, the life has no great variations. If he farms sugar-cane, being resident within the zone of influence of a mill, he belongs to a different order — an order with which it is not intended to deal. My purpose refers only to men who do not employ labour, who have to depend almost solely upon their own hard hands. The conditions upon which the land is acquired demand personal residence during a period of five years and the erection of permanent improvements, such as fencing, thereon, and there are not many who take up a selection who are in the position to pay wages. The selector must do the clearing, and the preparation of the soil for whatever crop in his experience or the experience of others is considered the most remunerative. During this period his love for the particular piece of land by-and-by to become his own begins. More realistically than anyone else he knows the quantity of his energy and enthusiasm, his very life, the land has absorbed. It becomes part of himself even in the early days of toil, and though when in the fulness of time and the completion of conditions he may lease the land to Chinese cultivators, and become a resident landlord, he cannot leave the place even for the attraction of town life, for possibly the rent he receives does not make him independent quite. At any rate he lives on the land. The alien race does the hard work, and takes the greater portion of profit; but he enjoys the luxury of possession, and must make sacrifices accordingly.
I am fearful of entering upon a description of the cultivation of maize, or bananas, or citrus fruits, or pineapples, or mangoes, or coffee, or even sweet potatoes, because experience teaches me that others know of all the details in a far more practical sense.
Would it not be presumptuous for a mere idler, an individual whose enterprise and industry have been sapped by the insidious nonchalance of the Beachcomber, to tell of practical details of cultural pursuits — the enthusiasm, the disappointments, the glowing anticipations, the realisation of inflexible facts, the plain emphatic truths which others have reason to know ever so much more keenly?
But it may be forgiven if I generalise and say that the minor departments of rural enterprise in North Queensland are in a peculiar stage — a stage of transition and uncertainty. Coloured labour has been depended upon to a large extent. Even the poorest settler has had the aid of aboriginals. But with the passing of that race, and prohibition against the employment of any sort of coloured labour, the question is to be asked, Can tropical products be grown profitably unless consumers are willing to pay a largely increased price — a price equivalent to the difference between the earnings of those who toil in other tropical countries and the living wage of a white man in Australia?
Fruit of many acceptable varieties can be grown to perfection with little labour in immense quantities. Coffee is one of the most prolific of crops. Timber is obtainable in magnificent assortment and unrealisable quantities. Poultry and pigs multiply extraordinarily. Apart from bananas the fruit trade is shifty and treacherous. The markets are far away and inconstant, the means of transport not yet perfect. Many assert that not half the pine-apples and oranges, and not one-hundredth part of the mangoes produced in North Queensland are consumed. That the quantity grown is trivial in comparison with what would be, were the demand regular and consistent, is self-evident. We want population to eat our produce, and then there will be no complaint.
In the case of coffee a plentiful supply of cheap labour is essential to success. Those who by judicious treatment of the aboriginals command their services have so far made profit. A coffee plantation suggests pleasant, picturesque and spicy things. The orderly lines of the plants, in glossy green adorned for a brief space with white, frail, fugitive flowers distilling a deliciously sweet and grateful odour, the branches crowded with gleaming berries, green, pink and red, present pleasing aspect. As a change to the scenery of the jungle, a coffee estate has a garden-like relief. But picking berry by berry is slow and monotonous work, vexatious, too, to those mortals whose skin is sensitive to the attacks of green ants. Then comes the various processes of the removal of the pulp, first by machinery, finally by the fermentation of the still adhering slimy residuum; then the drying and saving by exposure to the sun on trays or on tarpaulins until all moisture is expelled; and the hulling which disintegrates the parchment from the twin berries; then winnowing, and finally the polishing. Do drinkers of the fragrant and exhilarating beverage realise the amount of labour and care involved before the crop is taken off and preserved from deterioration and decay? A few berries that may have become mildewed during the slow, tedious and anxious process of drying in the sun, may violate the delicate flavour and aroma which the grower has been at pains to secure and fix. In coffee it is as with many other features of rural life in Australia. The men who undertake the production are for the most part those who have gained their knowledge by personal experience on the spot. Reading and the advice of experts who have graduated in countries where climatic conditions are diverse and where the labour is cheap, yet skilled by reason of generation after generation of occupation in it, do not complete necessary knowledge. Problems have to be faced that have no theoretical nor official solution, and blunders paid for, until by the process of the elimination of mistakes the right way is discovered. Losses mount up until either patience and means are exhausted, or success crowns the application of intelligent enterprise. Then, when the coffee planter, self-taught, in each and all of the departments of culture and preparation, glories in the assurance of his capabilities to offer to the world an article of indubitable character, he discovers that the vulgar world, for the most part, prefers its coffee duly adulterated; indeed has become so warped and perverted in perception that the pure and undefiled article is looked upon with suspicion and distaste. Its flavour and aroma are quite foreign to the ordinary coffee drinker. The contaminated beverage is regarded as pure, and the genuine article is soundly condemned as an imposition, and the seller of it is liable to be accused of fraud. It is in a similar position to the good grape brandy which Victorians produce, and which drinkers of some imported stuff (described as one part cognac and three parts silent spirit) fail to recognise as real brandy. If coffee is not muddy and thick and does not possess a mawkish twang of liquorice, it is suspected. The delicate aromatic flavour, the fragrant odour, the genial and stimulant effects are now almost unknown, except in limited circles. North Queensland is capable of growing far more than sufficient coffee for the Commonwealth, but coffee is not a popular Australian beverage, and as it entirely loses its specific balsam and identity under the manipulation of manufacturers, it cannot get the chance of becoming popular. Australian wines, Australian spirits and Australian coffee might well be the popular beverages of Australians. But preference is given to foreign importations, of the genuineness of some of which there are strong grounds for suspicion; or in the case of coffee its elements are so disguised by adulteration that a revolution in public taste must take place before it can possibly find general favour.
But there are other branches of tropical agriculture to which the settler may devote himself. Rubber offers belated fortune. Cotton, rice, tobacco and fibre — plants flourish exceedingly, and in the production of ginger and some sort of spices and medicinal gums, profit may be possible. The manufacture of manilla rope from the fibre of the easily cultivated MUSA TEXTILIS may be a remunerative industry. It is amply demonstrated that butter quite up to the standard of exportation is to be manufactured in tropical Queensland.
No one need starve or pine for lack of wholesome appetising and nutritious food while the banana grows as it does in North Queensland, and common as it is, the banana is one of the curiosities of the vegetable world. One writer says: “It is not a tree, a palm, a bush, a vegetable, nor a herb; it is simply a herbaceous plant with the stature of tree, and is perennial.” He adds that the fruit contains no seed, though he qualifies the latter statement by remarking that he has heard of fully developed seeds occasionally appearing in the cultivated fruit “when left to ripen on the tree,” and further that wild varieties of the banana which propagate themselves by seed are reported to be found in some parts of Eastern Asia. A high botanical authority includes in his description of the species indigenous to Queensland, “Fruit oblong, succulent, indehiscent; seed numerous; tree-like herbs. Herbs with perennial rhizome.”
There are three if not more species of bananas native to Queensland, and they form a conspicuous feature of the jungle. With remarkable rapidity one of the species shoots up a ruddy symmetrical, slightly tapering stem — smooth and polished where the old leaf-sheaths have been shed — to a height of 20 and 30 feet, producing leaves 15 feet long and 2 feet broad, small and crude flowers, and bunches of dwarf fruit containing little but shot-like seeds. The energy of these plants seems to be concentrated in the production of an elegant and proud form, the fruit being a mere afterthought. But the effect of the broad pale green leaves, even when frayed and ragged at the edges in and among the dark entanglement of the jungle is so fine that the absence of edible fruit may be almost forgiven.
In the most popular of the cultivated varieties, the far famed MUSA CAVENDISHII, there is little of graceful form, save the broad leaves mottled with brown. All the vitality of the plant is expended in astonishing results. A comparatively lowly plant, its productions in suitable soil are prodigious. In nine or ten months after the planting of the rhizome, it bears under favourable conditions a bunch weighing as much as 120 lb. to 160 lb. and comprising as many as forty-eight dozen individual bananas. So great is the weight that to prevent the downfall of the plant a stake sharpened at each end — one to stick in the ground and the other into the soft stem — is needed to buttress it. Before the fruit has fully developed, other shoots have appeared; but each plant bears but one bunch, and when that is removed the plant is decapitated and slowly decays, and the second and third and fourth shoots from the rhizome successively arrive at the bearing stage and are permitted to mature each its bunch and then fated to suffer immediate decapitation. And so the process goes on for five or seven years, by which time the vigour of the soil has been exhausted, and moreover the rhizomes, originally planted about a foot deep, have grown up to the surface, and are no longer capable of supporting a plant upright. Then a fresh planting of rhizomes elsewhere takes place. It must not be thought that the banana defertilises the soil. Phenomenal crops of sugar cane are produced on a “banana-sick” land.
A traveller relating his tropical experiences glorifies the banana, stating that he has eaten it “ripe and luscious from the tree!” In North Queensland bananas ripening on the plant frequently split, and seldom attain perfect flavour. The ripening process takes place after the fully developed bunch is removed and hung up in a cool, shady, well-aired locality. Then the fruit acquires its true lusciousness and aroma. Other climes, other results, perhaps; but a banana, “ripe and luscious from the tree,” is not generally expected in North Queensland. The fruit may mature until it falls to the ground, yellow and soft, yet lack that delicate finish, that benign essential, the craft of man bestows. It would seem that the plant has been cultivated for so long a period that it has become dependent upon man not only for its existence but for the excellence of its crowning effort. An abandoned banana grove soon disappears, for although seeds are undoubtedly produced, the occasions are so rare that the reproduction of the cultivated varieties depends solely upon the rhizome, and these very speedily deteriorate if neglected. Another feature of the banana, of which man takes full advantage, is that though the bunch be removed before the fruit is matured as to size, the ripening process proceeds, just as though there had been no untimely interference. The bananas may be small, but will, as a rule, be almost as sweetly flavoured as those allowed to develop on the plant. Yet the superfine aesthetic essence is not for the delight of those to whom the fruit is tendered after it has undergone a sea voyage. Let there be no misunderstanding with respect to the desirableness of the coastal tract of North Queensland as a territory capable of supporting a large, prosperous and healthful population. It is no part of the present purpose to extol the mineral or the pastoral districts. They lie apart. But in North Queensland agriculture is almost solely confined to the coast and is essentially tropical. The tropics represent that portion of the earth’s surface wherein man may live with the minimum of exertion, where actual wants are few, and wherein ample comforts may be enjoyed by those who seek them with a quiet mind and easy understanding. Although the question may be perhaps beyond proof, it might be safely asserted that a larger proportion of men of the yeomen class, represented by those who have succeeded in tropical agriculture in North Queensland, are independent to-day, than of the men in Victoria and New South Wales, who devoted their energies to sheep-farming, wheat-growing and dairying. Out of the comparatively few sugar-cane farmers in North Queensland, a considerable percentage have acquired independence, and many wealth. Few have failed. Fortunes have been made and are being made out of sugar lands; immense profits have been earned and are being earned in the production of bananas, and from other easily grown tropical fruits, good incomes are realised. When private enterprise invests many thousands of pounds in the building of jetties and tram-lines to facilitate the shipment of fruit, evidence in support of these statements is unnecessary.
The prosperity of the farmer and fruit-grower in North Queensland does not unhaply depend upon himself, but upon the existence of large populations within reasonable range. Land of unsurpassed fertility and meteorological conditions which represent perfection for the growth of all fruits, ranging from the tomato to the mango, and, with few exceptions, all the commoner as well as all the more delicate, but none the less desirable vegetables are the heritage of the people. If the coast of North Queensland does not in a few years support a large, well-to-do, lusty, and therefore contented population, it will not be because of the lack of any of the essentials, but because the population has failed elsewhere, and that consequently there is no demand for the easily grown fruits of the earth.
Each and all of the branches of cultured industry mentioned (with the exception of the growth of sugar-cane) were at disposal for trial here. Soil, climate and aspect are extremely favourable when not approaching absolute perfection, while the advantages of direct communication with the markets are unique. But my disposition, “that rash humour which my mother gave,” impelled me to disregard all the encouraging prospects of fortune, and to easily tolerate circumstances and conditions under which few would remain content. True it is that some few acres of jungle have been cleared and various sorts of fruit-trees planted, that corn and potatoes are grown, and that there are evidences of work; but no one is better qualified than I to realise the insignificance of the results of my labours in comparison with what they might have been, had the accomplishment of them been undertaken with harder hands and more determined purpose.
“The weather may be extremely fine; but not without such varieties as shall hinder it from being tiresome.”
What higher or better reward could be desired than the reflection that one had attempted to assist in the dispersion of the mists of ignorance which obscure some of the aspects of the land of his adoption? Australia is vast and of infinite variety. The efforts of an individual isolated by remoteness and the sea, must necessarily be circumscribed.
No Australian is able to affirm that his knowledge of the country is entirely satisfactory to himself. There are some points upon which the best informed stand to the correction of others whose general knowledge may be admittedly inadequate. We who are scattered about in odd and out-of-the-way corners, pick up in the school of experience scraps of local knowledge, and may without presumption present them to others to confirm and to conjure with.
The term “Australia” as generally used ignores most of the continent out of sight of Melbourne and Sydney, though both Victoria and New South Wales could be stowed away in little more than half the area of Queensland. Do we reflect that Australia includes some of the driest tracts in the world, as well as areas in which the rainfall approaches the phenomenal — that not very much more than half of the territory of the Commonwealth lies within the temperate zone — that there are as marked differences between Tasmania and North Queensland as between the South of England and Ceylon? That the one is the land of the potato, apple, apricot, cherry, strawberry and blackberry, and the other the land of sugar-cane, coffee, the pine-apple, mango, vanilla and cocoa; that though there exist no imposing geographical boundaries, such as chains of lofty mountains or great rivers to emphasise climatic distinctions, these distinctions nevertheless exist, and that they imply special policies on the parts of Government and Administrations.
Do we realise that the voice of the tropic half of Australia is drowned in the torrent of the temperate? It may be possible to misrepresent opinions and to obscure the fair view of things, to defeat aspirations; but are we to be denied the right of being heard and of explaining ourselves. Politicians to whose loud and profane voices electors listen, have declared that North Queensland shall become a desolate and silent wilderness, rather than that their views shall be gainsaid. Do such as these reflect that North Queensland is a fruitful country, capable of producing food and immense wealth, and giving employment to millions, and that other nations will not stand idly by and see the worth of so much land wasted because of the vanity of men who do not, and who apparently will not, endeavour to comprehend the magnificence of its extent and the width of its capabilities. The world is not so vast that any part of it — still less a part so situated and so highly favoured as this — can be left unpeopled. If not peopled by Australians or those of British blood, it will assuredly be by people for whom the average Australian entertains but scant respect.
Australians cannot with justice complain when the good old folks at home blunder in their geography and perceptions, the while that so much local misapprehension prevails.
Error was ingrained in the youthful days of middle-aged Australians. Their school-books told them in swinging rhyme that they lived in a world of undiscovered souls, that ’twas Heaven’s decree to have these lost souls brought forth; that man should assert his dignity and not allow “brutes” to look upon him. Discoveries are still being made. Heaven’s decree is replaced by the decree of wild talkers, the dignity of man is found to be the vanity of a paid politician, and but few of the “brutes” of Australia are left to look down upon anything. But there are some of saving grace who frankly acknowledge shame upon finding how little they really know of their native country.
Young Australians were once taught that Australian trees cast no shade — that the edges of the leaves were presented to the sun to avoid the heat of the cruel luminary; that Australian flowers had no scent, and Australian birds no song; that the stones of Australian cherries grew on the outside of the fruit, that the bees had no sting, and that the dogs did not bark. In those days a gentleman with a military title improved upon the then popular list of contradictions by asserting that in Australia the compass points to the south, the valleys are cold, the mountain-tops warm, the eagles are white, and so on. Many accordingly took their natural science as “Tomlinson” did his God — from a printed book — and that compiled in England. Until they began to investigate they were puzzled by contradictions. The first prompt bee-bite — there are many varieties of Australian bees, some pugnacious and pungent — diverted attention from the school-book romances. It was discovered that thousands of square miles of Australian soil never catch glimpses of the sun in consequence of the impenetrableness of the shade of Australian trees; that the scent of the wattles, the eucalypts, the boronias, the hoyas, the gardenias, the lotus, etc., etc., are among the sweetest and cleanest, most powerful and most varied in the world; that many of the birds of Australia have songs full of melody; that the so-called Australian cherry is no more a cherry than an acorn; that the Australian dog (though “the only true wild dog in the world”) is deemed to be a comparatively recent introduction — a new chum of Asiatic origin who entered the glorious constellation of the State something before the era of exclusive legislation — so naturally he does not bark, for barking is an evidence of civilisation; but he soon learns the universal language of the dog.
Many years ago most of this gross and superficial ignorance was brushed away here, though now and again evidence crops up that a good deal yet adheres in the old country. Australian school-books of the present day contain so much that is grossly false and misleading of the natural conditions of certain portions of the Commonwealth as to leave no room to doubt the present duty. We are continually making mutually beneficial discoveries, and may it be granted these efforts be blessed with happy purpose. All is not known yet even in Australia. The number of “observers” who believe that snakes swallow their young in time of danger, and allow them to emerge when it is past, and that the end of the death adder to avoid is the tail, which is fitted with a slightly curved spur, become fewer every year; but we are still sincere in many of the honourable points of ignorance. Some discredit such facts as climbing fish, oysters “growing” on living trees, birds hatching eggs without sitting on them, egg-laying mammals and mammals producing young from eggs within their bodies, plants that sow the seed of continents to be — yet these facts are of everyday occurrence here.
As to climate, will general credence be given to the statement that Dunk Island is more “temperate” than Melbourne? We experience neither the extreme heat nor the extreme cold of the metropolis of Victoria — nearly 2000 miles to the south; we have four or five times the volume of rain, yet a greater number of fine days — days without rain. The general principle that where the rainy days are fewest the amount of rain is greatest, is apt to be forgotten. During 1903 the rainfall of Dunk Island amounted to 153 inches. What is meant (to follow the phrase of Huxley) when one says in technical language that the rainfall of a place was 153 inches for a certain year? Such a statement means simply that if all the rain which fell on any level piece of ground in that place could be collected — none being lost by drying up, none running off the soil and none soaking into it — then at the end of the year it would form a layer covering that piece of ground to the uniform depth of 12 feet 9 inches! An inch of rain signifies 114 tons, or 27,000 gallons per acre!
Let me repeat that in 1903 the rainfall here totalled 153 inches. During the same period the mean rainfall of the State of Victoria was 27.36 inches. In one locality, reputed to be the wettest, 42.11 inches were registered, and occasioned no little surprise. In another Australian state, among the natural advantages of land offered for close settlement, was catalogued an annual rainfall of 18 inches; in another an official inducement of an average rainfall of 27 inches was offered, in yet another 24 inches, with a not too shrewd note that 15 inches of rain was ample.
Some of the denizens of a dry area in Victoria find it hard to credit the simple facts recorded by my rain-gauge. The rainfall for the month of January 1903, on Dunk Island was 26.60 inches, only 0.76 inches short of the mean for the whole year in Victoria, and more than twice the quantity that blessed the thirsty soil in some parts of Queensland. The total rainfall of the wettest locality in Victoria was 42.11 inches. Here the month of March alone gave 44.90 inches.
At Thargomindah (South-Western Queensland) 11.37 inches were registered for 1903, and 9.82 inches for 1904. The two driest months of Dunk Island fell short by a trifle more than 2 inches of the total fall for 1904 for that parched area. At Eulolo (Mid-Western Queensland) 13.68 inches represented the sum of the blessing for 1903, while during 24 hours in December that year the Dunk Island gauge registered just 11 inches, and that quantity was 3 inches more than could he spared for Eulolo for the whole of 1904.
During 1904 Cape Otway Forest (Victoria), registered 40.92 inches, Townsville (North Queensland) 26.32 inches, and Dunk Island — only 110 miles from Townsville — 94.14 inches. That was a dry year with us. What is known in this neighbourhood as “the drought year” gave just 60 inches. Plants unaccustomed to such hardship, and therefore devoid of inherent powers of resistance, then gave way with pitiful lack of resource, and as speedily recovered on the return of normal conditions. Yet the 60 inches of “the drought year” represented more than twice the average rainfall of London.
The average annual rainfall for the State of Victoria during the last thirty years has been 26.68 inches. Townsville (considered to be one of the driest places on the coast of North Queensland) averaged 45.54 inches during the period of thirty-four years.
Twenty-five miles further north the rainfall for 1904 exceeded that of Dunk Island by 6 inches more than the average rainfall of the upper basin of the Thames Valley, which is given as 28 inches. Australia is big — there is bigness in our differences.
Here in the tropics we have the finer weather — no excess of either heat or cold, no sudden, constitution-shattering changes. At Wood’s Point (Victoria) rain fell on 185 days in 1903, and on 166 days in 1904. At Dunk Island rain occurred on 107 days in 1903 and On 92 days in 1904. We had many more days of picnic weather, notwithstanding our overwhelming superiority in quantity of rain. Moreover, in the tropics the bulk of the rain falls after sundown. After a really fine day in the wet season the hours of darkness may account for several inches of rain. Here over 12 inches have been collected between sundown and nine o’clock the following morning.
Particular references are confined to seasons three or four years past because recent official data, necessary for enlightening comparisons are not available, but in confirmation of statements concerning the meteorological conditions of the coast of tropical Queensland, the record of rainfall at Dunk Island since 1903 may be quoted:
|First nine months of 1906||134.70 "|
Of the latter total, 56 inches occurred in February, two days (6th and 18th), accounting for 22.95 inches — more than half the average rainfall of the State of Queensland.
An illustration — homely but graphic — of climatic differences may be given. During the first five months of 1904 the rainfall of Dunk Island amounted to 75.15 inches, the lowest monthly record being May (5.30 inches) and the highest March (29.05 inches). At the end of May on the Burdekin Delta — 150 miles to the south — the sugarcane was beginning to be affected by the hot, dry weather, and irrigation was about to be resorted to. Here in January it became necessary to repair the roof of the boat-shed, and to keep the ridge covering of paper-bark in position, two long saplings were tied parallel with the ridge pole. At the end of May these saplings were taken down in order that the whole of the thatch might be renovated, when it was found that both had started to grow, several of the shoots being 8 and 10 inches long. While sugarcane was languishing for lack of moisture, 150 miles away down the coast, a roughly-cut sapling exposed on the roof of a building found the conditions for the beginning of a new existence so favourable and stimulative that it had budded as freely as Aaron’s rod. “Through the scent of water it had budded and brought forth boughs like a plant.”
Nearly as much misapprehension prevails in the Southern States of the Commonwealth as to the characteristics of North Queensland as seems to prevail among the good old folks “at home” as to Australia generally. If the few facts presented excite even mild surprise, they will not be altogether out of place in these pages.
Dunk Island has a mean temperature of about 69 deg.; January is the hottest month with a mean of 87 deg, and July the coolest, mean 57 deg. Taking the official readings of Cardwell (20 miles to the south), I find the greatest extremes on record occurred in one year, when the highest temperature was 103.3 deg. and the lowest 36.2 deg. At Geraldton (25 miles to the north) the extremes were 96 deg. and 43.4 deg.
Rainfall and temperature, the proportion of clear to cloudy skies, calms, the direction, strength and the duration of winds, do not wholly comprehend distinctive climatic features. There are other conditions of more or less character and note, some hard to define, yet ever present. Here the air is warm and soothing, seldom is it crisp and never really bracing. Hot dry winds are unknown, but in the height of the wet season — which coincides with the dry season of the Southern States — the moisture-laden air may be likened to the vapour of a steam bath. While the rain thunders on the roof at the rate of an inch per hour, inside the house it may be perspiringly hot. After a fortnight’s rain the damp saturates everything. Neglected boots and shoes grow a rich crop of mould, guns demand constant attention to prevent rust, and clothes packed tight in chests of drawers smell and feel damp. But the atmosphere is so wholesome that ordinary precautions for the prevention of sickness are generally neglected without any fear of ill consequence.
However sharply defined by reason of the personal discomfort it inflicts, this steamy feature of the wet season is no more a general characteristic than the hot winds are of Victoria. Warm as the rains are, they bring to the air coolness and refreshment. Clear, calm, bright days, days of even and not high temperature, and of pure delight, dovetail with the hot and steamy ones. The prolifigacy of vegetation is a perpetual marvel; the loveliness of the land, the ineffable purity of the sky, the glorious tints of the sea — green and gold at sunrise, silvery blue at noon, purple pink and lilac during the all too brief twilight, a perpetual feast.
For six months it may be said the prevailing wind is the south-east, followed by gentle breezes from the east and north-east. North-easters begin in September and are intermittent until the beginning of the wet season. The south-east monsoons are regular and consistent; the north-east, which precede the rainy monsoon, fitful and wayward, never continuing long in one stay, and lasting but four out of the twelve months. Rare is the wind from the west, rarer from the south-west. North-easters are a pronounced feature. They work up by diurnal and easy grades from gentleness to strength, thunder coming as a climax. After a succession of calm days and days of gentle breezes from the east-south-east and east, the north-easter begins softly, and daily gathers courage and assumption, to find in the course of a week or two its haughty spirit subdued by thunder and rain showers. Calms prevail for a few days. Easterly breezes come, to give way to the north-east again, and so the programme is repeated with variations which none may foresee, and which set at naught the lengthiest experience. At last, at Christmas or the New Year, the rains come with a boisterous beginning. A north-easter accompanied by thunder lasted a whole July afternoon. It was as strange as a crop of mangoes would have been at that time of year.
During the cool season — a generous half of the year — dews are common — not the trivial barely perceptible moisture called dew in some parts, but most ungentle dew, which saturates everything and drips from the under sides of verandahs as the sun warms the air; dew which bows the grass with its weight, soaks through your dungarees to the hips, and soddens your thick bluchers, until you feel and appear as though you had waded through a swamp; dew which releases the prisoned odour of flowers irresponsive to the heat of the sun, which keeps the night cool and sweet, which with the first gleam of the sun makes the air soft and spicy and buoyant, and inspires thankfulness for the joy of life.
Are we not all apt to fall into the error of estimating the character of a country by its extravagances rather than its average and general qualities?
North Queensland has the reputation of being the home of malaria and the special sport of any cyclone that may have mischief in view. Being tropical, we have malaria, but it is of no more serious consequence than any one of the ills to which human flesh is heir in temperate climes. It does not exact such a toll of suffering and death as influenza, nor as typhoid used to do in crowded cities; nor is it as common as rheumatism in damp and blustering New Zealand, where the thermometer ranges from 100 deg. in the shade to 24 deg. of frost. Malaria touches us lightly, and it is chosen as a bugbear with which to scare people away. A southern critic, honestly pitiful of our ill state, urges that the experiment of destroying those mosquitoes which disseminate the germ of malaria, by sealing up lagoons and swamps with kerosene, is worthy the attention of town and country residents in tropical Queensland, “where attacks of malaria are felt every summer.” Mere idle words of pernicious consequence. Many a wretch who has done less mischief than “these utterers of forged tales, coiners of scandal and clippers of reputation,” has had his liberty restricted. But a small and an annually lessening proportion of our population suffers from malaria, and yet all have the renown of an annual attack! In that case the writer ought to have had twenty-five attacks, and thousands of others, lusty and toneful fellows, forty and forty-five attacks. With as much claim upon reason might one say that because of the sudden jerks of their climate (40 deg. of difference within twelve hours) all Victorians have to make three changes of raiment every day in order to avoid ill consequences; or that every man, woman and child in merry England has had instead of expects or dreads or hopes to have appendicitis, since King Edward the Peacemaker suffered, and renown came upon that disorder. Malaria is fleeing before civilisation. It cannot — at any rate in North Queensland — long endure the presence of the white man.
Unfeigned pity is bestowed upon the denizens of North Queensland on account of the pains and penalties and discomforts alleged to be the sentence of all who dare select it as home. We who know can but smile and wait; and ever call call to mind pleasant and happy experiences, everlasting truths and “the falsehood of extremes.”
Even in the matter of cyclones — often quoted as one of its detriments — North Queensland has nothing to hide. At intervals Nature does indulge in a reckless and violent outburst, but not more frequently here than in other parts of the world. Year after year the seasons are passive and pleasant, and in every respect considerate of humanity and encouraging to humanity’s undertakings. Then, abandoning for a few hours her orderly and kindly ways, Nature runs amok, raving and shrieking. Her transient irresponsibleness and mischievousness are then cited as everyday, persistent vices. Not so. Nature is rational even in her most passionate moments. Vegetation, rank and gross as in an unweeded garden, requires vigorous lopping and pruning. These twenty-year-interval storms comb out superfluous leaves and branches, cut out dead wood, send to the ground decayed and weakly shoots, and scrub and cleanse trunks and branches of parasitic growths. All is done boldly, yet with such skill that in a few weeks losses are hidden under masses of clean, insectless, healthy, bright foliage. The soil has received a luxurious top-dressing. Trees and plants respond to the stimulus with magical vigour, for lazy, slumbering forces have been roused into efforts so splendid that the realism of tropical vegetation is to be appreciated only after Nature has swept and sweetened her garden.
A more vivid and more idealised medium than the poor one which with diffidence I employ were essential if entertainment alone were sought in these pages; but even faint and imperfect etching of one Australian scene, little known even to Australians, may in some degree tend to enlightenment.
Many have told of the thin forests of Queensland, the open plains, and the interminable downs whereon the mirage plays with the fancies of wayfarers; and of the dust, heat and sweat of cattle stations. Has not the “Never Never Country” inspired many a traveller and more than one poet? It is well to realise that we have such bountiful land, and to be proud of the men capable of investing its vastness, monotony and prosaic wealth with poetic imagery. Is it not also wise to remember now aagain that Queensland possesses two types of tropical climate, accentuated by boundaries having far great significance than those which divide tropical from temperate Australia, and worlds apart in their distinctions? Is not the land of the banana, the palm and the cedar, entitled to recognition, as well as the land of the gidyea, the boree, and the bottle-tree? Who has yet said or sung of the mystery of the half-lit jungles of our coast, in contrast to the vivid boldness of the sun-sought, shadeless western plains; of our green, moist mountains, seamed with gloomy ravines, the sources of perennial streams; of the vast fertile lowlands in which the republic of vegetation is as an unruly, ungoverned mob, clamouring for topmost places in unrestrained excess of energy; of still lagoons, where the sacred pink lotus and the blue and white water-lily are rivals in grace of form, in tint and in perfume?
If I am successful in convincing that North Queensland is neither a burning fiery furnace nor yet a sweltering steamy swamp; that the country is not completely saturated with malaria; that there are vast areas which no drought can tinge with grey or brown, where there are never-failing streams, where cool fresh water trickles among the shale and shattered coral on the beaches, where sweet-voiced birds sport and resplendent butterflies flicker, then these writings will have been to some purpose.
While the bird life of our island is plentiful and varied, mammalian is insignificant in number. The echidna, two species of rats, a flying fox (PTEROPUS FUNEREUS) and two bats, comprise the list. Although across a narrow channel marsupials are plentiful, there is no representative of that typical Australian order here, and the Dunk Island blacks have no legends of the existence of either kangaroos, wallabies, kangaroo rats or bandicoots in times past. But there are circumstantial details extant, that the island of Timana was an outpost of the wallaby until quite a recent date. A gin (the last female native of Dunk Island) who died in 1900 was wont to tell of the final battue at Timana, and the feast that followed, in which she took part as a child. This island, which has an area of about 20 acres, bears a resemblance to a jockey’s cap — the sand spit towards the setting sun forming the peak, a precipice covered with scrub and jungle, the back. Here, long ago, a great gathering from the neighbouring islands and the mainland took place. Early in the morning all formed up in line on the sand spit. Diverging, but maintaining order, men, gins, piccaninnies, shouting, yelling, and screaming, and clashing nulla-nullas (throwing-sticks), supported by barking and yelping dogs swept the timid wallabies up through the tangle of jungle, until like the Gaderene swine they ran, or rather hopped, down a steep place into the sea, or fell on fatal rocks laid bare by the ebb-tide. Those who partook of the last of the wallabies have gone the way of all flesh, and the incident is instructive only as an illustration of the manner in which animals may suddenly disappear from confined localities, leaving no relic of previous existence. Considering the bulk of Dunk Island (3 1/2 square miles), and recognising the rule that islands are necessarily poorer in species than continents, it is yet remarkable that no evidence of marsupials is to be found, and that the oldest blacks maintain that none of the type ever existed here.
Though the drawings in caves depict lizards, echidna, turtle and men, there is no representation of kangaroo or wallaby. It is highly probable that if such had been common, the black artists would have chosen them as subjects, since nearly all their studies are from Nature.
The largest and heaviest four-footed creature now existent on Dunk Island is the so-called porcupine (spiny ant-eater or echidna). An animal which possesses some of the features of the hedgehog of old England, and resembles in others that distinctly Australian paradox, the platypus, which has a mouth which it cannot open — a mere tube through which the tongue is thrust, which in the production of its young combines the hatching of an egg as of a bird, with the suckling of a mammal, and which also has some of the characteristics of a reptile, cannot fail to be an interesting object to every student of the marvels of Nature. When disturbed, the echidna resolves itself into a ball, tucking its long snout between its forelegs, and packing its barely perceptible tail close between the hind ones, presenting an array of menacing prickles whencesoever attacked. While in this ball-like posture, the animal, as chance affords, digs with its short strong legs and steel-like claws, tearing asunder roots, and casting aside stones, and the ease and rapidity with which it disappears in soft soil are astonishing. The horrific array of prickles presented as it digs an undignified retreat, and the tenacity with which it holds the ground, have given rise to the fiction that no dog is capable of killing an echidna. No ordinary dog is. He must be cunning, daring, brave, insensible to pain, and resourceful. Then the feat is quite ordinary. Indeed, once the trick is learned, the trouble is to keep the dog from attacking its innocent, useful and most retiring enemy. The echidna has the ill-luck to possess certain subtle qualities, which excite terrific enthusiasm for its destruction on the part of the dog. Either there is an hereditary feud between the dog and the echidna, which the former is bound in honour to push to the last extremity, or else the dog regards the prickly creature as a perpetual affront, or specially created to provide opportunities for displaying fanatic hatred and hostility. No dog of healthy instinct is able to pass an echidna without some sort of an attempt upon its life. The long tubular nose of the echidna is the vital spot. This is guarded with such shrewdness and determination as to be impregnable. But the dog which pursues the proper tactics, and is wily and patient, sooner or later-regardless of the alleged poisonous spur — seizes one of the hind legs, and the conflict quickly comes to an end.
By the blacks the echidna, which is known as “Coombee-yan,” is placed on the very top of the list of those dainties which the crafty old men reserve for themselves under awe-inspiring penalties.
Next in size to the echidna is the white-tipped rat (UROMYS HIRSUTIS?), water-loving, nocturnal in its habits, fierce and destructive. A collateral circumstance revealed absolute proof of its existence, which had previously depended upon vague statements of the blacks. Cutting firewood in the forest one morning, I came across a carpet snake, 12 feet long, laid out and asleep in a series of easy curves, with the sun revealing unexpected beauty in the tints and in the patterns of the skin. Midway of its length was a tell-tale bulge, and before the axe shortened it by a head, I was convinced that here was a serpent that had waylaid and surprised or beguiled a fowl. Post-mortem examination, however, proved once more the unreliability of uncorroborated circumstantial evidence. The snake had done good and friendly service instead of ill, for it had swallowed a white-tailed rat — the only specimen that I have seen on the island.
Next comes the little frugivorous rat of russet brown, with a glint of gold on its fur tips. A delicate, graceful creature, nice in its habits, with a plaintive call like the cheep of a chicken; preferring ripe bananas and pine-apple, but consenting to nibble at other fruits, as well as grain. The mother carries her young crouched on her haunches, clinging to her fur apparently with teeth as well as claws, and she manages to scuttle along fairly fast, in spite of her encumbrances. The first that I saw bearing away her family to a place of refuge was deemed to be troubled with some hideous deformity aft, but inspection at close quarters showed how she had converted herself into a novel perambulator. I am told that no other rodent has been observed to carry its young in this fashion. Perhaps the habit has been acquired as a result of insular peculiarities, the animal, unconscious of the way of its kind on the mainland, having invented a style of its own, “ages ahead of the fashion.”
Mr C. W. de Vis, M.A., of the Queensland Museum, who has considerately examined specimens of this rat, pronounces it to be extraordinary, in that it combines types of three genera — the teeth of the mus, the mammae of the mastacomys and the scales on the tail of the genus UROMYS. In the bestowal of a name he has favoured the latter genus. The animal has been introduced to the scientific world under the title UROMYS BANFIELDI, by Mr de Vis, who, referring to it as “eccentric,” says, “The female first sent to us as an example of the species had no young with her, nor were her mammae much in evidence; consequently, the advent of a specimen caught in the act of carrying young was awaited with interest. Fortune at length favoured our correspondent with an opportunity of placing the correctness of his observation beyond question. (A mother with a pair of infants attached to the teats was chloroformed and sent to Brisbane). On arrival, the young were found detached. The conical corrugated nipples are, compared with the size of the animal, very long; one, especially, 20 mm. in length, calls to mind a marsupial teat.”
By the examination of adult specimens the age at which the young disassociate themselves from the mother has been ascertained. Long after the time of life at which other species of rats are nibbling an independent way through the world, U. BANFIELDI clings resolutely to its parent, obtaining from her its sole sustenance. Not until the “infant” is nearly half the size of the mother does it begin to earn its living and trust to its own means of locomotion.
The presence of the echidna in three colours — black, grey, and straw — and two species of rats emphasises the absence of marsupials, unaccountable unless on the theory of extermination by the original inhabitants in the remote past.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50