Interview with a Native — Distressing Heat — A Horse Staked: It Dies — Myriads of Flying–Foxes — Magnificent Valley — Friendly Natives — Shot Exhausted — Instinct of Bullocks — South Alligator River — Friendly Natives with an English Handkerchief, and Acquainted with Fire–Arms — Their Language — Mirage.
Nov. 1. — We reached lat. 14 degrees 16 minutes 17 seconds, having travelled about nine miles north-west by north. A range composed of baked sandstone, approached so close to the banks of “Flying–Fox Creek,” that we were obliged to cross the range; to the east-ward of which tea-tree flats extended, with many deep but dry water-holes, fringed with fine drooping tea-trees. The country farther on, was well grassed and lightly timbered. Winding round isolated ranges on a N.N.W. course, we came again on the Pandanus creek, which we followed. This creek was joined by several other sandy creeks, also by dry channels fringed with Pandanus, and by chains of water-holes, in which Typhas (bullrush) indicated the underground moisture. Some long-stretched detached hills were seen to the northward, and a long range to the eastward, trending from south to north. The flat valley between them was scattered over with groves of Pandanus. A high stiff grass covered the approaches of the creeks, and long tracts, which had been burnt some time ago, were now covered with delightful verdure. This, with the dark green belt of trees which marked the meanderings of several creeks, gave to this beautiful country the aspect of a large park. I was following one of the sandy creeks, when Mr. Calvert called my attention to a distant belt of Pandanus, which he supposed to be a river; I sent Mr. Roper to examine it; and, when the discharge of his rifle apprized us that he had met with water, we followed him. It was a broad creek, with a stream about three feet deep, and from seven to ten yards wide, with a firm and sandy bed; its banks were shaded by large gum-trees, and Sarcocephalus; and thick reeds, and a stiff blady grass fringed its waters. The frequent smoke which rose from every part of the valley, showed that it was well inhabited. Brown met two natives, with their gins and children, but they ran away as soon as they saw him. At sunset, a great number of them had collected near our camp, and set fire to the grass, which illumined the sky, as it spread in every direction. They tried to frighten us, by imitating a howling chorus of native dogs; but withdrew, when they saw it was of no avail; at all events, they left us undisturbed during the night — except by one of their dogs, which had been attracted probably by the scent of our flying-fox supper. John and Charley had remained behind to shoot flying-foxes, and they returned at sunset, with twenty-nine; which furnished us with a good breakfast and dinner. The night was clear, and a strong warm breeze set in at a quarter to nine, from the N.N.E. It was as full and steady as those winds we had experienced at Peak Range, and at the Mackenzie. Although we had seen the heads of only one branch of the Roper, I feel convinced that this creek, which was no doubt joined by that at which we encamped the day before, belonged equally to that river.
Nov. 2. — We travelled about eight miles and a half north 30 degrees west along the creek, cutting however one of its bends by crossing some basaltic ridges with a flat summit; from which two almost parallel ranges were seen to the westward, one near, and the other blue in the distance. To the northward, two mountains appeared, from which the creek seemed to take its principal rise. The creek wound between baked sandstone hills, and was alternately enlarging into Nymphaea ponds, and running in a small stream over a pebbly or sandy bed. Pandanus, drooping tea-trees, Terminalias, Acacias, and Sarcocephalus gave it a rich green appearance. The apple-gum and Eugenia, with ribbed scarlet fruit, grew on the flats. Methorium Endl. was found, in leaf and size resembling the hazel-nut; it had showy red and white blossoms. The clustered fig-tree was abundant along the creek; but its ripe fruits were rare at this time of the year.
A small fish, a species of Gristes, about six inches long, was seen in the Nymphaea ponds, but we could not induce it to bite.
At 9 o’clock P.M. we felt again a strong warm breeze from north by east; but at 2 o’clock in the morning, a fine cool breeze, quite bracing and refreshing, blew from the westward.
A flight of wild geese came down the creek, at about 2 o’clock in the morning, which made me suppose that the creek was an outlet of some large lagoons, like those in the valley of the Burdekin.
Nov. 3. — We continued our course up the creek, for nine or ten miles, to lat. 14 degrees 2 minutes 46 seconds. Its stream still continued; but the valley became narrower, and the Pandanus and drooping tea-trees rarer. Ponds and water-holes extended along the foot of the ridges, in a direction parallel to the creek. The broad-leaved Terminalia was in blossom. Polyphragmon, which was first met with at the upper Lynd; Careya arborea, Hakea arborescens, and Coniogeton arborescens, were observed. White cockatoos were numerous, but shy. A pale green horse-fly annoyed us as well as our horses.
The ridges were not very high, and all were composed of baked sandstone; at the left side of the creek, near our camp, there was a chain of conical hills.
As we were travelling along, a native suddenly emerged from the banks of the creek, and, crossing our line of march, walked down to a Nymphaea pond, where he seemed inclined to hide himself until we had passed. I cooeed to him; at which he looked up, but seemed to be at a loss what to do or say. I then dismounted, and made signs to show my friendly disposition: then he began to call out, but, seeing that I motioned away my companions with the horses and bullocks, as I moved towards him, and that I held out presents to him, he became more assured of his safety, and allowed me to come near and put some brass buttons into his hand. I understood him to ask whether we were following the creek, and I answered “Brrrrrr aroma aroma!!” pointing at the same time with a long sweep to the northward. As, however, we were equally unintelligible to each other, and he did not appear to be very communicative, I mounted my cream-coloured horse, and left him staring at me in silence until I was out of sight. We encamped at noon, under two wide-spreading Sarcocephalus trees, whose grateful shade offered us a shelter from the scorching sun. But, as the sun got low, the shades of the oval crown of the trees drew rapidly off, and we had to lean against the shady side of the butt to obtain relief from the heat, which had so enervating an effect upon us that the slightest exertion was painful. After sunset, however, in the comparative coolness of the evening, our animal spirits revived; and it was only during that part of the day, and in the early morning before sunrise, that I felt inclined to attend to any business that required much bodily exertion. It was a great enjoyment indeed to lie devoid of any covering on our couch, and watch the fading tints of sunset. The usual, and therefore expected, night breeze did not set in; but, about half-past 10 o’clock P.M., there was a slight stir in the atmosphere, accompanied with a sense of moisture, as if a distant thunder-storm had occurred, and interrupted the usual progress of the breeze.
Nov. 4. — We travelled about seven miles, north-west by north, to lat. 13 degrees 56 minutes 46 seconds. After following the creek about a mile, it turned so far to the westward that I left it, and with much difficulty ascended the ranges to the northward: from their highest elevation, I saw that a high range, trending from south-east to north-west, bounded the valley of the creek I had left; another fine range was seen to the eastward. Following a gully, we descended into the valley of a creek flowing to the southward, and which probably joined the creek I had left below the place of our last encampment. In the lower part of the gully, we came upon some fine Nymphaea ponds and springs surrounded by ferns. The whole valley, though narrow, was beautifully grassed. Trichodesma, Grewia, Crinum, and the trefoil of the Suttor, grew on the flats; the apple-gum, rusty-gum, the mountain Acacia and Fusanus, the last in blossom, grew on the ridges.
The rock was a baked sandstone; in the pebbles of the creek I found the impressions of bivalves (one ribbed like Cardium).
Our bullocks had become so foot-sore, and were so oppressed by the excessive heat, that it was with the greatest difficulty we could prevent them from rushing into the water with their loads. One of them — that which carried the remainder of my botanical collection — watched his opportunity, and plunged into a deep pond, where he was quietly swimming about and enjoying himself, whilst I was almost crying with vexation at seeing all my plants thoroughly soaked.
Nov. 5. — We travelled in all about eleven miles N. 55 degrees W. to latitude 13 degrees 50 minutes. After following the creek, on which we had encamped, to its head, we passed over a scrubby stringy-bark forest; and, whenever we came to watercourses going to the eastward, we turned to the north-west and westward. We passed several sandstone hills and ridges rising out of this sandy table land, and attempted to cross one of them, but our path was intercepted by precipices and chasms, forming an insurmountable barrier to our cattle. We, therefore, followed a watercourse to the southward, winding between two ranges to the westward and southward, and continued again to the north-west, which brought us to a tributary of the creek we had just left, and in which we found large water-holes covered with Nymphaeas and Villarsias.
The strata of the range which we ascended, dipped to the south-west; in which direction I saw a high range, probably the continuation of the one I had observed at yesterday’s stage along Roper’s Creek.
The Melaleuca-gum, the Cypress-pine, Fusanus and Banksia abounded in the stringy-bark forest, and along the creeks; and the flats round the water-holes were covered with a dark green sedge, which, however, our cattle did not relish so much as, from its inviting verdure, I had anticipated would have been the case. The remains of fresh-water turtles were frequently noticed in the camps of the natives; and Mr. Calvert had seen one depicted with red ochre on the rocks. It is probable that this animal forms a considerable part of the food of the natives. John Murphy reported that he had seen a hut of the natives constructed of sheets of stringy-bark, and spacious enough to receive our whole party; the huts which I had observed were also very spacious, but covered with tea-tree bark. Smoke from the natives’ fires was seen from the range in every direction, and their burnings invariably led us to creeks.
Charley shot a rock wallabi of a different species from any we had previously seen: it was of a light grey colour; the tail was smooth, and its black tip was more bushy than in other species; there were two white spots on the shoulder; it was smaller than those of Ruined Castle Creek, and the red wallabies of the Mitchell and of the shores of the gulf. John shot a large Iguana of remarkably bright colours, which were perhaps owing to a late desquamation of the skin.
Nov. 6. — We travelled fourteen miles N. 30 degrees W. to latitude 13 degrees 38 minutes 28 seconds, and encamped in a little creek, at the head of which was a grassy drooping tea-tree swamp. We left all the eastern water-courses to the right, and followed several which went down to the southward, up to their heads. The country, with the exception of the ridges which bounded the narrow valleys of watercourses, was a sandy level stringy-bark forest, interspersed with Melaleuca-gum and leguminous Ironbark; saplings of which formed large tracts of a low open under-wood. We had passed a large but dry swamp, having no outlet, and surrounded with Pandanus, when Brown called my attention to an opening in the forest, and to a certain dim appearance of the atmosphere peculiar to extensive plains and valleys. Travelling in that direction we soon found ourselves at the margin of the sandy table-land, from which we overlooked a large valley bounded by high ranges to the westward. We then followed a very rocky creek, in its various windings, in search of water; Grallina australis called four times, and deceived us each time; and cockatoos, and pigeons, and finches, all proved false prophets. However, about five miles farther, we found a small pool, at which natives had very recently encamped, and, three miles farther, two fine water-holes fringed with Pandanus.
Our bullocks and horses were very foot-sore, and could scarcely move over the rocky ground.
The ridges at the head of this western creek were covered with an arborescent Capparis, the ripe fruit of which tasted very like strawberries; but those which were not ripe were very pungent. Another little tree, belonging to the Hamelieae D.C., with large white fragrant blossoms, and fruit about two inches long and one broad, with numerous seeds nestling in a pulpy substance, was very abundant. In its ripe state, the pulp turned black; I ate some of it, but although it proved to be harmless, it was not good. The little bread-fruit of the upper Lynd, no doubt belonged to the same class of plants.
I believe that all the creeks which we passed since leaving the Roper, still belonged to that river; and that the western creek and all the western waters we met, until reaching the South Alligator river, belonged to the system of the latter. The division of the eastern and western waters was, according to my reckoning, in longitude 133 degrees 35 minutes.
Nov. 7. — We followed the creek for about four or five miles, and halted at a well-grassed spot with good water-holes, in order to kill one of our bullocks, and allow the other two and the horses to recover. The poor brute was fairly knocked up and incapable of going any farther, even without a load. Some of my readers may wonder that our bullocks should suffer so much when travelling through a country both well grassed and well watered, and by such short stages; but they should consider the climate in which we travelled, and the excessive heat to which we were exposed. The rocky nature of the ground contributed no less to their foot-weariness and exhaustion. If I could have rested two or three days out of seven, the animals would have had time to recover, and would have done comparatively well. But, independent of the fatigues of travelling, the relaxing and enervating influence of the climate was as visible in our cattle as in ourselves.
The apple-gum, a bloodwood, and the poplar-gum(?) grew round our camp; the grasses were tender, but formed distinct tufts; Crinum was plentiful.
The night breeze set in at a quarter to 9 o’clock from north-east, or north by east, strong, full and warm; there was a slight moisture in the air before daybreak, which rendered our almost dry meat a little damp again.
We were occupied during the 8th Nov. in drying our meat, mending and washing our things, and arranging the few loads which were left.
Nov. 9. — We travelled down the creek in a south-west course, for about nine miles. Low sandstone ranges bounded its valley to the southward and south-east; stony ridges with stunted trees and Cypress-pine extended to the north-west. The banks of the creek, which I called “Snowdrop’s Creek,” after the bullock we had killed, were grassy and open; it was well provided with water. A pretty little Sida, a Convolvolus, and Grewia, were growing amongst the young grass. Mr. Calvert saw the Livistona palm.
We felt a breeze from the eastward during the afternoon, as usual, and the strong night breeze from north and north-east; but, in the morning, a wind from north-west and west, which belonged probably to another system of atmospherical movements.
A swarm of whistling ducks (Leptotarsis Eytoni, Gould.) passed during the night from down the creek to the eastward, which made me suppose that Snowdrop’s Creek was either joined by large creeks with water, or that itself joined a larger river. The black Ibis was frequent at the water-hole.
Nov. 10. — We travelled about six miles and a half N. N. W. The creek turned so far to the westward and southward, that I left it, and crossed some ridges, beyond which a very rocky creek going down to Snowdrop’s Creek, intercepted our course. Having crossed it with great difficulty, we travelled through a scrubby forest, and came to the heads of the same creek, several of which were formed by swamps. Here the drooping tea-tree, growing in a sandy peat, attained a stately height. The sandy slopes around the swamps were covered with Banksia, the Melaleuca gum, and Pandanus, and a rich profusion of grasses and low sedges surrounded the deep pools of spring water. These spots, which bore the marks of being much visited by the natives, were like oases in the dry, dull, sandy forest, and formed delightful shady groves, pleasing to every sense. Kangaroos and various birds, particularly the white cockatoo, were numerous; and the little bees came like flies on our hands, on my paper, and on our soup plates, and indicated abundance of honey; a small species of Cicada had risen from its slumbers, and was singing most cheerfully. One of our horses was seriously staked in the belly, by some unaccountable accident; I drew a seton through the large swelling, although, considering its exhausted state, I entertained but a slight hope of its recovery.
Nov. 11. — We accomplished about ten miles in a direct line, but on a long and fatiguing circuitous course. Starting in a northerly direction, we passed over some rocky ground, but soon entered into a sandy level, covered with scrubby, stringy-bark forest, intermixed with Melaleuca gum. At the distance of four miles I came to a rocky creek going to the westward, which I followed. From one of the hills which bounded its narrow valley, I had a most disheartening, sickening view over a tremendously rocky country. A high land, composed of horizontal strata of sandstone, seemed to be literally hashed, leaving the remaining blocks in fantastic figures of every shape; and a green vegetation, crowding deceitfully within their fissures and gullies, and covering half of the difficulties which awaited us on our attempt to travel over it. The creek, in and along the bed of which we wound slowly down, was frequently covered with large loose boulders, between which our horses and cattle often slipped. A precipice, and perpendicular rocks on both sides, compelled us to leave it; and following one of its tributary creeks to its head, to the northward, we came to another, which led us down to a river running to the west by south. With the greatest difficulty we went down its steep slopes, and established our camp at a large water-hole in its bed. The longitude of the river was, according to my reckoning, 133 degrees 6 minutes.
A new species of rock pigeon (Petrophassa, Gould.) with a dark brown body, primaries light brown without any white, and with the tail feathers rather worn, lived in pairs and small flocks like Geophaps, and flew out of the shade of overhanging rocks, or from the moist wells which the natives had dug in the bed of the creek, around which they clustered like flies round a drop of syrup. A fine shady Eucalyptus, with a short barrel, but large spreading branches, and with the grey bark of the box, grew between the rocks along the creek.
Nov. 12. — We had been compelled to leave the injured horse behind, and upon going this morning with Charley to fetch it to the camp, we found the poor brute dead. On our return to the camp, we followed another creek to the northward, which also joined the river, about eight miles to the eastward of our camp. The river was densely covered with scrub, and almost perpendicular cliffs bounded its valley on both sides. Myriads of flying-foxes were here suspended in thick clusters on the highest trees in the most shady and rather moist parts of the valley. They started as we passed, and the flapping of their large membranous wings produced a sound like that of a hail-storm.
Nov. 13. — The two horses ridden by Charley and myself yesterday, had suffered so severely, that I had to allow them a day of rest to recover. In the mean time, I went with Charley and Brown to the spot where we had seen the greatest number of flying-foxes, and, whilst I was examining the neighbouring trees, my companions shot sixty-seven, of which fifty-five were brought to our camp; which served for dinner, breakfast, and luncheon, each individual receiving eight. The flying-fox lived here on a small, blue, oval stone-fruit, of an acid taste, with a bitter kernel; it grew on a tree of moderate size. Very small specimens of the Seaforthia palm were here observed for the first time; and the large scarlet fruit of Eugenia was found.
During the night, we heard the first grumbling of thunder since many months.
Nov. 14. — We travelled about twelve miles north by west. After crossing the river, we followed a rocky creek to its head, and passed over ten miles of level sandy country of stringy-bark forest, with Melalcuca gum and Banksia, interrupted only by a small Pandanus creek. At the end of the stage, we came to rocky creeks, one of which headed in a drooping tea-tree swamp, with rich vegetation, but without water. The creek, which we followed down for two miles, there changed its character, and meandered through sandy, well-grassed flats, and contained some good water-holes, on which we encamped. John told me that he had found the ripe fruit of Exocarpus cupressiformis; which I doubted very much, as I had not seen the slightest trace of it since we left the Dawson, although Exocarpus latifolia was very frequent all over the sandy table-land. But we gathered and ate a great quantity of gibong (the ripe fruit of Persoonia falcata), and some small yellow figs of the glossy-leaved fig-tree. I observed a Eucalyptus of rather stunted growth, with broad, almost oval leaves, and long, narrow seed-vessels.
During the night, thunder clouds and lightning were seen in every direction; and the whole atmosphere appeared to be in a state of fermentation. Heavy showers poured down upon us; and our tarpaulings, which had been torn to pieces in travelling through the scrub, were scarcely sufficient to keep ourselves and our things dry. But in the morning of the 15th, all nature seemed refreshed; and my depressed spirits rose quickly, under the influence of that sweet breath of vegetation, which is so remarkably experienced in Australia, where the numerous Myrtle family, and even their dead leaves, contribute so largely to the general fragrance. This day we travelled about six miles to the W. N. W.
Our course, however, was for three miles to the northward, over a sandy level forest, intercepted by several rocky creeks. The third which we came to, I followed down to the westward, and came to a large creek, which soon joined a still larger one from the eastward. Both were well provided with water; and we encamped at a very large hole under a ledge of rock across the bed of the creek; and which probably formed a fine waterfall during the rainy season.
Thunder-storms formed to the southward and northward; but we had only a few drops of rain. It was remarkable to observe that those to the southward vered round to the south-west by west, whereas those to the northward veered round to the north-east and east.
Nov. 16. — We travelled nine miles north-west by north; crossed numerous rocky creeks, and some undulating country; and had a most distressing passage over exceedingly rocky ranges. At the end of the stage, we came to a large Pandanus creek, which we followed until we found some fine pools of water in its bed. My companions had, for several days past, gathered the unripe fruits of Coniogeton arborescens, Br.; which, when boiled, imparted an agreeable acidity to the water, and when thus prepared tasted tolerable well. When ripe, they became sweet and pulpy, like gooseberries, although their rind was not very thick. This resemblance induced us to call the tree “The little Gooseberry tree.” At the table land, and along the upper South Alligator River, it was a tree from twenty-five to thirty feet high, with a fresh green shady foliage; but, at the Cobourg Peninsula, it dwindled into a low shrub. The fruit was much esteemed there by the natives; for, although the tree was of smaller size, the fruit was equally large and fine.
Nov. 17. — We travelled four or five miles through Banksia, and Melaleuca-gum forest, crossed several rocky creeks; and followed down the largest of them; which in its whole extent was exceedingly rocky. The rock was generally in horizontal layers. There were many high falls in the bed, which compelled me to leave the creek, and proceed on the rising ground along its banks, when suddenly the extensive view of a magnificent valley opened before us. We stood with our whole train on the brink of a deep precipice, of perhaps 1800 feet descent, which seemed to extend far to the eastward. A large river, joined by many tributary creeks coming from east, south-east, south-west and west, meandered through the valley; which was bounded by high, though less precipitous ranges to the westward and south-west from our position; and other ranges rose to the northward. I went on foot to the mouth of the creek; but the precipice prevented my moving any farther; another small creek was examined, but with the same result. We were compelled to move back, and thence to reconnoitre for a favourable descent. Fortunately the late thunder-storms had filled a great number of small rocky basins in the bed of the creek; and, although there was only a scanty supply of a stiff grass, our cattle had filled themselves sufficiently the previous night to bear a day’s privation. In the afternoon, Charley accompanied me on foot in a northerly direction (for no horse could move between the large loose sandstone blocks), and we examined several gullies and watercourses, all of a wild and rocky character, and found it impossible to descend, in that direction, into the valley. Charley shot a Wallooroo just as it was leaping, frightened by our footsteps, out of its shady retreat to a pointed rock. Whilst on this expedition, we observed a great number of grasshoppers, of a bright brick colour dotted with blue: the posterior part of the corselet, and the wings were blue; it was two inches long, and its antennae three quarters of an inch.
Nov. 18. — We returned to the creek in which we had encamped on the 16th, and pitched our tents a little lower down, where some rich feed promised our cattle a good treat. Immediately after luncheon, I started again with Charley down the creek, myself on horseback, but my companion on foot. It soon became very rocky, with gullies joining it from both sides; but, after two miles, it opened again into fine well-grassed lightly timbered flats, and terminated in a precipice, as the others had done. A great number of tributary creeks joined it in its course, but all formed gullies and precipices. Many of these gullies were gently sloping hollows, filled with a rich black soil, and covered with an open brush vegetation at their upper part; but, lower down, large rocks protruded, until the narrow gully, with perpendicular walls, sunk rapidly into the deep chasm, down which the boldest chamois hunter would not have dared to descend. I now determined to examine the country to the southward; and, as it was late and my horse very foot-sore, I remained for the night at the next grassy flat, and sent Charley back to order my companions to remove the camp next morning as far down the creek as possible, in order to facilitate the examination, which, on foot, in this climate, was exceedingly exhausting.
Nov. 19. — I appeased my craving hunger, which had been well tried for twenty hours, on the small fruit of a species of Acmena which grew near the rocks that bounded the sandy flats, until my companions brought my share of stewed green hide. We went about three miles farther down the creek, and encamped in the dense shade of a wide spreading Rock box, a tree which I mentioned a few days since. From this place I started with Brown in one direction, and Charley in another, to find a passage through the labyrinth of rocks. After a most fatiguing scramble up and down rocky gullies, we again found ourselves at the brink of that beautiful valley, which lay before us like a promised land. We had now a more extensive view of its eastern outline, and saw extending far to our right a perpendicular wall, cut by many narrow fissures, the outlet of as many gullies; the same wall continued to the left, but interrupted by a steep slope; to which we directed our steps, and after many windings succeeded in finding it. It was indeed very steep. Its higher part was composed of sandstone and conglomerate; but a coarse-grained granite, with much quartz and felspar, but little mica and accidental hornblende, was below. The size of its elements had rendered it more liable to decomposition, and had probably been the cause of the formation of the slope. In the valley, the creek murmured over a pebbly bed, and enlarged from time to time, into fine sheets of water. We rested ourselves in the shade of its drooping tea-trees; and, observing another slope about two miles farther, went to examine it, but finding that its sandstone crest was too steep for our purpose, we returned to mark a line of road from the first slope to our camp. For this purpose I had taken a tomahawk with me, well knowing how little I could rely on Brown for finding his old tracks; but, with the tomahawk, he succeeded very well; for his quick eye discovered, from afar, the practicability of the road. We succeeded at last, and, after many windings, reached our camp, even quicker than we had anticipated. Charley returned next morning, and reported that he had found a descent, but very far off. This “very far off” of Charley was full of meaning which I well understood.
During the night we had a very heavy thunder-storm which filled our creek and made its numerous waterfalls roar.
Nov. 20. — We proceeded on our tree-marked line to the slope, and descending, arrived, after some difficulty, safe and sound in the valley. Our horses and cattle were, however, in a distressing condition. The passage along rocky creeks, between the loose blocks of which their feet were constantly slipping, had rendered them very foot-sore, and had covered their legs with sores. The feed had latterly consisted either of coarse grasses, or a small sedge, which they did not like. But, in the valley, all the tender grasses reappeared in the utmost profusion, on which horses and bullocks fed most greedily during the short rest I allowed them after reaching the foot of the slope. The creek formed a fine waterfall of very great height, like a silver belt between rich green vegetation, behind which the bare mountain walls alone were visible. I proceeded down the creek about three miles to the north-west, when it joined a larger creek from the south-west. Here one of our two remaining bullocks refused to go any further; and as our meat bags were empty, I decided upon stopping in this favourable spot to kill the bullock.
Careya arborea, the broad-leaved Terminalia, Coniogeton arborescens, an umbrageous white-gum tree, and Pandanus, together with the luxuriant young grass, gave to the country a most pleasing aspect. But the late thunder-storm had rendered the ground very damp, and that with the mawkish smell of our drying meat, soon made our camp very disagreeable. In the rocky gullies of the table land, we had observed a great number of shrubs, amongst which a species of Pleurandra, a dwarf Calythrix, a prostrate woolly Grevillea, and a red Melaleuca, were the most interesting. Near the slope by which we entered the valley, a species of Achras was found, but with a much smaller fruit than that of Port Jackson.
The melodious whistle of a bird was frequently heard in the most rocky and wretched spots of the table land. It raised its voice, a slow full whistle, by five or six successive half-notes; which was very pleasing, and frequently the only relief while passing through this most perplexing country. The bullock was killed in the afternoon of the 20th, and on the 21st the meat was cut up and put out to dry; the afternoon was very favourable for this purpose; but, at night rain set in, and with the sultry weather rendered the meat very bad. The mornings were generally sultry and cloudy; during the afternoon the clouds cleared off with the sea-breeze: and towards sunset thunder-storms rose, and the nights were rainy, which prevented me from making observations to ascertain my latitude. The longitude of the descent, was, according to reckoning, 132 degrees 50 minutes. A little before sunset of the 21st four natives came to our camp; they made us presents of red ochre, which they seemed to value highly, of a spear and a spear’s head made of baked sandstone (Gres Lustre). In return I gave them a few nails; and as I was under the necessity of parting with every thing heavy which was not of immediate use for our support, I also gave them my geological hammer. One of the natives was a tall, but slim man; the others were of smaller size, but all had a mild and pleasing expression of countenance.
Large fish betrayed their presence in the deep water by splashing during the night: and Charley asserted that he had seen the tracks of a crocodile. Swarms of whistling ducks occupied the large ponds in the creek: but our shot was all used, and the small iron-pebbles which were used as a substitute, were not heavy enough to kill even a duck. Some balls, however, were still left, but these we kept for occasions of urgent necessity.
Nov. 22. — As our meat was not sufficiently dry for packing we remained here the whole of this day; but, at night, the heaviest thunder-storm we perhaps had ever experienced, poured down and again wetted it; we succeeded, however, notwithstanding this interruption, in drying it without much taint; but its soft state enabled the maggots to nestle in it; and the rain to which it had been exposed, rendered it very insipid.
Poor Redmond, the last of our bullocks, came frequently to the spot where his late companion had been killed; but finding that he was gone, he returned to his abundant feed, and when I loaded him to continue our journey down the river he was full and sleek. It was interesting to observe how the bullocks on all previous occasions, almost invariably took cognizance of the place where one of their number had been killed. They would visit it either during the night or the next day, walk round the spot, lift their tails, snuff the air with an occasional shake of their horns, and sometimes, set off in a gallop.
Nov. 23. — We travelled about eight miles north-west over an equally fine country. A high range of Pegmatite descended from the table land far into the valley, from east to west; and an isolated peak was seen to the west of it at the left bank of the river.
The Eugenia with scarlet fruit, and another species with rose-coloured fruit, of most exquisite taste — particularly when the seed was abortive, and the pericarp more developed — were abundant on the flats of the river; and Aemena?, with smaller fruit and thin acidulous rind, grew straggling on the ridges.
A thunder-storm from the north-east, compelled us to hasten into camp; and we had scarcely housed our luggage, when heavy rain set in and continued to fall during the first part of the night.
Nov. 24. — We travelled about nine miles to the north-west, to lat. 13 degrees 5 minutes 49 seconds, which a clear night enabled me to observe by a meridian altitude of Castor. We were, according to my latitude, and to my course, at the South Alligator River, about sixty miles from its mouth, and about one hundred and forty miles from Port Essington.
The river gradually increased in size, and its bed became densely fringed with Pandanus; the hollows and flats were covered with groves of drooping tea-trees. Ridges of sandstone and conglomerate approached the river in several places, and at their base were seen some fine reedy and rushy lagoons, teeming with water-fowl. A flock of black Ibises rose from a moist hollow; white and black cockatoos, were seen and heard frequently. At day-break, I was struck with the sweet song of Rhipidura flaviventris, Gould.
The natives cooeed from the other side of the river, probably to ascertain whether we were friendly or hostile; but did not show themselves any farther. They were Unio eaters to a great extent, judging from the heaps of shells we saw along the river; the species of Unio on which they lived, was much smaller than that we had observed on the Roper. John and Charley saw a native in the bed of the river, busily employed in beating a species of bark, very probably to use its fibres to strain honey. He did not interrupt his work, and either did not see them, or wished to ignore their presence. The horse flies began to be very troublesome, but the mosquitoes fortunately did not annoy us, notwithstanding the neighbourhood of the river, and the late rains. Charley and Brown shot five geese, which gave us a good breakfast and luncheon.
A strong breeze from the northward set in late every afternoon, since we had descended into the valley of the South Alligator River.
Nov. 25. — We travelled about seven miles and a half N.W. by W., to lat. 13 degrees 0 minutes 56 seconds. I intended to follow the sandy bergue of the river, but a dense Pandanus brush soon compelled us to return, and to head several grassy and sedgy swamps like those we passed on the last stage. Chains of small water-holes, and Nymphaea ponds, ran parallel to the river; and very extensive swamps filled the intervals between rather densely wooded ironstone ridges, which seemed to be spurs of a more hilly country, protruding into the valley of the river. Some of these swamps were dry, and had a sound bottom, allowing our cattle to pass without difficulty. Others, however, were exceedingly boggy, and dangerous for both horse and man; for Charley was almost suffocated in the mud, in attempting to procure a goose he had shot. The swamps narrowed towards the river, and formed large and frequently rocky water-holes, in a well defined channel, which, however, became broad and deep where it communicated with the river, and which in many places rivalled it in size. A belt of drooping tea-trees surrounded the swamps, whilst their outlets were densely fringed with Pandanus. The Livistona palm and Cochlospermum gossypium grew on the ridges; the tea-tree, the stringy-bark, the leguminous Ironbark and Eugenia were useful timber. The whole country was most magnificently grassed.
A Porphyritic sienite cropped out at the head of the first swamp, about a mile from our last camp.
We had cut our rifle balls into slugs, with which Charley and Brown shot three geese (Anseranus melanoleuca, Gould).
A low range was seen at the south-east end of the large swamp on which we encamped.
Nov. 26. — We travelled about nine miles and a half N.N.W. to lat. 12 degrees 51 minutes 56 seconds. After having once more seen the river, where it was joined by the broad outlet of a swamp, I turned to the northward, and passed over closely-wooded and scrubby ridges of ironstone and conglomerate, with pebbles and pieces of quartz covering the ground. Livistona inermis, R. Br. formed small groves; and Pandanus covered the hollows and banks of two small creeks with rocky water-holes going to the westward. About six miles from our last camp, an immense plain opened before us, at the west side of which we recognized the green line of the river. We crossed the plain to find water, but the approaches of the river were formed by tea-tree hollows, and by thick vine brush, at the outside of which noble bouquets of Bamboo and stately Corypha palms attracted our attention. In skirting the brush, we came to a salt-water creek (the first seen by us on the north-west coast), when we immediately returned to the ridges, where we met with a well-beaten foot-path of the natives, which led us along brush, teeming with wallabies, and through undulating scrubby forest ground to another large plain. Here the noise of clouds of water-fowl, probably rising at the approach of some natives, betrayed to us the presence of water. We encamped at the outskirts of the forest, at a great distance from the large but shallow pools, which had been formed by the late thunder-showers. The water had received a disagreeable sour aluminous taste from the soil, and from the dung of innumerable geese, ducks, native companions, white cranes, and various other water-fowl. The boggy nature of the ground prevented our horses and the bullock from approaching it; and they consequently strayed very far in search of water. In the forest land, the Torres Straits pigeon (Carpophaga luctuosa, Gould,) was numerous. At sunset, Charley returned to the camp, accompanied by a whole tribe of natives. They were armed with small goose spears, and with flat wommalas; but, although they were extremely noisy, they did not show the slightest hostile intention. One of them had a shawl and neckerchief of English manufacture: and another carried an iron tomahawk, which he said he got from north-west by north. They knew Pichenelumbo (Van Diemen’s Gulf), and pointed to the north-west by north, when we asked for it. I made them various presents: and they gave us some of their ornaments and bunches of goose feathers in return, but showed the greatest reluctance in parting with their throwing sticks (wommalas.) They were inclined to theft, and I had to mount Brown on horseback to keep them out of our camp.
Nov. 27. — The natives returned very early to our camp, and took the greatest notice of what we were eating, but would not taste anything we offered them. When Brown returned with our bullock, the beast rushed at them, and pursued them for a great distance, almost goring one of their number.
We travelled about three miles and a half north-east, but had to go fairly over ten miles of ground. We followed the foot-path of the natives for about two miles, passing over some scrubby ridges into a series of plains, which seemed to be boundless to the N.W. and N.N.W. A broad deep channel of fresh water covered with Nymphaeas and fringed with Pandanus, intercepted our course; and I soon found that it formed the outlet of one of those remarkable swamps which I have described on the preceding stages. We turned to the E. and E.S.E. following its outline, in order either to find a crossing place, or to head it. The natives were very numerous, and employing themselves either in fishing or burning the grass on the plains, or digging for roots. I saw here a noble fig-tree, under the shade of which seemed to have been the camping place of the natives for the last century. It was growing at the place where we first came to the broad outlet of the swamp. About two miles to the eastward, this swamp extended beyond the reach of sight, and seemed to form the whole country, of the remarkable and picturesque character of which it will be difficult to convey a correct idea to the reader. Its level bed was composed of a stiff bluish clay, without vegetation, mostly dry, and cracked by the heat of the sun; but its depressions were still moist, and treacherously boggy; in many parts of this extensive level, rose isolated patches, or larger island-like groves of Pandanus intermixed with drooping tea-trees, and interwoven with Ipomaeas, or long belts of drooping tea-trees, in the shade of which reaches of shallow water, surrounded by a rich sward of grasses of the most delicate verdure, had remained. Thousands of ducks and geese occupied these pools, and the latter fed as they waded through the grass. We travelled for a long time through groves of drooping tea-trees, which grew along the outline of the swamps, but using great caution in consequence of its boggy nature. Several times I wished to communicate with the natives who followed us, but, every time I turned my horse’s head, they ran away; however, finding my difficulties increased, whilst attempting to cross the swamp, I dismounted and walked up to one of them, and taking his hand, gave him a sheet of paper, on which I wrote some words, giving him to understand, as well as I could, that he had nothing to fear as long as he carried the paper. By this means I induced him to walk with me, but considerably in advance of my train, and especially of the bullock; he kept manfully near me, and pointed out the sounder parts of the swamp, until we came to a large pool, on which were a great number of geese, when he gave me to understand that he wished Brown to go and shoot them; for these natives, as well as those who visited us last night, were well acquainted with the effects of fire arms.
We encamped at this pool, and the natives flocked round us from every direction. Boys of every age, lads, young men and old men too, came, every one armed with his bundle of goose spears, and his throwing stick. They observed, with curious eye, everything we did, and made long explanations to each other of the various objects presented to their gaze. Our eating, drinking, dress, skin, combing, boiling, our blankets, straps, horses, everything, in short, was new to them, and was earnestly discussed, particularly by one of the old men, who amused us with his drollery and good humour in trying to persuade each of us to give him something. They continually used the words “Perikot, Nokot, Mankiterre, Lumbo Lumbo, Nana Nana Nana,” all of which we did not understand till after our arrival at Port Essington, where we learned that they meant “Very good, no good, Malays very far.” Their intonation was extremely melodious, some other words, the meaning of which we could not make out, were “Kelengeli, Kongurr, Verritimba, Vanganbarr, Nangemong, Maralikilla;” the accent being always on the first syllable of the word, and all the vowels short.
Nov. 28. — Our good friends, the natives, were with us again very early in the morning; they approached us in long file, incessantly repeating the words above mentioned, Perikot, Nokot, &c. which they seemed to consider a kind of introduction. After having guided us over the remaining part of the swamp to the firm land, during which they gave us the most evident proofs of their skill in spearing geese — they took their leave of us and returned; when I again resumed my course to the northward. I understood from the natives that a large lake, or deep water, existed at the head of the swamp, far to the east and north-east. We travelled about nine miles north by east, to lat. 12 degrees 38 minutes 41 seconds.
A foot-path of the natives led us through an intricate tea-tree swamp, in which the rush of waters had uprooted the trees, and left them strewed in every direction, which rendered the passage exceedingly difficult. In the middle of the swamp we saw a fine camp of oven like huts, covered with tea-tree bark. After crossing some scrubby sandstone ridges, we came to a sandy creek, up which we proceeded until we found a small water-hole, which had been filled by the late thunder-storms, where we encamped.
The weather had been very favourable since we left the upper South Alligator River. It was evident from the appearance of the creek and the swamps, that the rains had been less abundant here. Cumuli formed here regularly during the afternoon, with the setting in of the north-west sea breeze, but dispersed at sunset, and during the first part of the night. Thunder clouds were seen in the distance, but none reached us. The clear nights were generally dewy.
The country was most beautifully grassed: and a new species of Crinum, and several leguminous plants, diversified with their pretty blossoms the pleasing green of the flats and the forest.
Since the 23rd of November, not a night had passed without long files and phalanxes of geese taking their flight up and down the river, and they often passed so low, that the heavy flapping of their wings was distinctly heard. Whistling ducks, in close flocks, flew generally much higher, and with great rapidity. No part of the country we had passed, was so well provided with game as this; and of which we could have easily obtained an abundance, had not our shot been all expended. The cackling of geese, the quacking of ducks, the sonorous note of the native companion, and the noises of black and white cockatoos, and a great variety of other birds, gave to the country, both night and day, an extraordinary appearance of animation. We started two large native dogs, from the small pool at which we encamped; a flock of kites indicated to me the presence of a larger pool which I chose for our use; and here we should have been tolerably comfortable, but for a large green-eyed horse-fly, which was extremely troublesome to us, and which scarcely allowed our poor animals to feed.
We had a heavy thunder-storm from the north-east, which, however, soon passed off.
Nov. 29. — We travelled about twelve miles to the northward to lat. 12 degrees 26 minutes 41 seconds, over ironstone and baked sandstone ridges, densely wooded and often scrubby. The first part of the stage was more hilly, and intersected by a greater number of creeks, going down to west and north-west, than the latter part, which was a sandy, level forest of stringy-bark and Melaleuca gum. The little gooseberry-tree (Coniogeton arborescens, D.C.) the leguminous Ironbark, a smooth, broad-leaved Terminalia, Calythrix, and the apple-gum, were plentiful. Livistona inermis, R. Br. grew from twenty to thirty feet high, with a very slender stem and small crown, and formed large groves in the stringy-bark forest. A grass, well known at the Hunter by its scent resembling that of crushed ants, was here scentless; a little plant, with large, white, tubular, sweet-scented flowers, grew sociably in the forest, and received the name of “native primrose;” a species of Commelyna, and a prostrate malvaceous plant with red flowers, and a species of Oxystelma, contributed by their beauty and variety to render the country interesting.
Nov. 30. — The lower part of the creek on which we were encamped was covered with a thicket of Pandanus; but its upper part was surrounded by groves of the Livistona palm. As our horses had been driven far from the camp by the grey horse-fly and by a large brown fly with green eyes, which annoyed us particularly before sunset, and shortly after sunrise, we had to wait a long time for them, and employed ourselves, in the meanwhile, with cutting and eating the tops of Livistona. Many were in blossom, others were in fruit; the latter is an oblong little stone fruit of very bitter taste. Only the lowest part of the young shoots is eatable, the remainder being too bitter. I think they affected the bowels even more than the shoots of the Corypha palm.
We made a short Sunday stage through a fine forest, in which Livistona became more and more frequent. We crossed several creeks going to the westward; the country became more hilly, and we followed a large creek with a good supply of rainwater, until it turned too much to the westward, when we encamped. The clear night enabled me to make my latitude, by an observation of Castor, to be 12 degrees 21 minutes 49 seconds. We had accomplished about five miles to the northward.
We saw two emus, and Charley was fortunate enough to shoot one of them; it was the fattest we had met with round the gulf. During the clear, dewy night, flocks of geese and ducks passed from the west to the north-east, and I anticipated that the next stage would bring us again to large swamps. The bed of the creek on which we encamped was composed of granitic rock.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57