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  ― 34 ―

IV

When I went to New Zealand I was commissioned to write articles on the country for a number of Australian papers. I was but a few months there when the Port Augusta Despatch, a prosperous bi-weekly South Australian paper, sent me a cablegram asking me if I would take over the editorship. I replied accepting, and returned to Australia by the first available steamer.

From Sydney to Adelaide I travelled in a small coastal steamer called the Barrabool. We experienced extremely stormy weather. At times serious anxiety was felt for the ship's safety. She rolled in a most extraordinary fashion. There were but two other passengers. One was a lady, who was seasick all the voyage. The other was an old ship captain, who said he never thought it possible for a vessel to roll over so far and not turn turtle. At times the deck seemed almost at a right angle to sea level, and then there would be a second or so of dreadful suspense, but she always righted herself. The waves washed her from end to end. The captain, who was able and fearless, decided to pass between islands where the wind and seas were not so heavy. It required skilful seamanship, but we got through safely. He was a young man and seemed to glory in trying to maintain his equilibrium on deck. With his hands in his pockets he refused to hold on to anything, no matter how heavy or sudden was the roll. The old captain passenger warned him that he was foolish as he could easily go overboard, but the Barrabool captain only laughed. A few voyages after that, however, he was missed one wild night and never heard of again.




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From Adelaide I went by train to Port Augusta.

The proprietor of the Despatch, Mr. David Drysdale, was kind-hearted and made things pleasant. He was married to a lady some years younger than himself. She was the daughter of a farmer who lived in the district, but the father-in-law did not agree with the son-in-law. Perhaps it was because they were both bad-tempered.

I was the unconscious instrument of widening the breach. Soon after I arrived in Port Augusta I republished from an American paper an amusing skit on local government institutions in agricultural districts. I did not know that the father-in-law happened to be chairman of a local board, and by an unhappy accident the skit described a chairman whose appearance and defects in capacity as well as his mannerisms bore a remarkable resemblance to him. The father-in-law blamed his son-in-law for making him appear ridiculous, and immediately came to see him with fury in his eyes and blasphemy on his lips.

I explained how it happened, and rightly said that the proprietor never saw the article till it appeared.

Explanations were of no avail. Nothing would convince the infuriated father-in-law that it was not a cunningly devised attempt on the part of his daughter's husband to make him the laughing-stock of the district.

Whilst in Port Augusta I met some extremely interesting people. Mr. Charles Cameron Kingston was Premier. He came to Port Augusta, and as I had somewhat changed the policy of the Despatch so that it supported his Government, he publicly thanked me in the course of a speech at a crowded meeting for what he was good enough to call the “great services” I had


  ― 36 ―
rendered his Ministry. That was the beginning of an acquaintance that lasted until Mr. Kingston's death several years later. His brother, Mr. “Pat” Kingston, was practising his profession as a lawyer in Port Augusta. “Pat” was extremely able; he did not agree with the views of the Premier and was in the habit of talking of “that d——n fool Charley.” “Pat” was reckless. In Adelaide he accidentally shot a cabman—fortunately not fatally—as part of a joke. Ultimately poor “Pat” shot himself. That was not a joke, but a tragedy. Both “Charley” and “Pat” Kingston had much of a wild strain that they got from an Irish ancestor.

One Saturday night whilst in the office about midnight I had an uncanny experience. I was immersed in the reading of a book dealing with creepy ghostly happenings.

There was not a person in the building. The only light in the place was the one I was reading by. All was perfectly still and silent.

Suddenly in the composing room I heard a strange movement; every one of the thousands of pieces of type moved. It was in the days before linotypes. The noise was weird and unusual.

Then it struck me that it might be an earthquake.

And so it was!

The movement was slight and no damage was done.

My experiences in Port Augusta were amusing. The harbour is at the head of Spencer's Gulf, the waters of which were a source of great joy to me. Most of my


  ― 37 ―
week-ends were spent boating and fishing down the Gulf, where we had all sorts of delightful adventures.

Each evening we were in the habit of bathing from a part of the harbour where steps led to deep water. Sharks were frequently seen and caught in Port Augusta, but it was said they had never attacked a human being in the vicinity. However, we did not feel too certain that we were safe, and it was customary for a number of us to bathe together and to splash and shout a good deal and not go far from the steps. Occasionally we were more venturesome. One dark night four or five of us, despite warnings, swam to a buoy some fifty or a hundred yards from the steps. It was silly bravado, such as young men now and then indulge in.

It was difficult to see. Night swimming is not pleasant, especially in waters that are shark-infested. None of us could have felt too comfortable.

Suddenly came the cry, “Sharks! Sharks!”

We could dimly see the dark backs of two monsters.

Every second I expected my flesh to be torn and bones crushed by sharp powerful teeth whilst I was being drawn into the black depths below.

Close to me was a man who scoffed at sharks and had dared us to swim to the buoy. One of the brutes rose near his right hand and then disappeared. In a little time it came up on the other side of him. Dark as it was, I could see in his face a dreadful expression of fear and agony. It was horrible. Probably in my face there was an equally horrible expression.

We were striking out for the steps as fast as we could.

Finally we reached them and climbed out to safety nearly dead with fright.




  ― 38 ―

A calm investigation showed us that what terrified us were not sharks, but a couple of playful and harmless porpoises!

The show place of the district was the ostrich farm—one of the two ostrich farms then in Australia. I had seen another ostrich farm at Kerang, near Reedy Lake in Victoria, and it had a couple of hundred birds. The one at Port Augusta was larger, containing 600 birds and extending over 9,000 acres.

The ostriches seemed to thrive wonderfully at both these farms. Numbers of eggs were hatched by means of incubators, the eggs being collected from nests in the paddocks where the birds ran. The eggs took from thirty-eight to forty-two days to hatch.

If the chick did not make its appearance when due it was assisted out of its prison by the manager or some of his assistants cracking the shell at the space left for air by a sharp tap. In a state of nature this is done by parent birds. When a female ostrich that is hatching considers after examination that the process is necessary, she rolls the egg on which she desires to operate out of the nest and places it so that the air space is exactly uppermost. Then she kneels and presses a horny breast-plate with which she is provided upon the egg. Thus she breaks the shell and the chick comes out uninjured. This most intelligent act on the part of the ostrich is known but to few, whereas who has not heard or read that the bird when chased foolishly puts its head into the sand under the idea that it cannot be seen? In our childhood we were all told that. There are many who believe still that there is some truth in it, but it is


  ― 39 ―
not the case. When an ostrich is pursued and becomes thoroughly tired it will lie down and stretch out its head and neck on the sand. This it was that Mr. Rathbone, the manager of the Port Augusta farm, believed gave rise to the former, almost general, idea regarding the bird.

The amazing and proverbial digestion of an ostrich is not exaggerated. The first meal the young birds take after coming out of the shell is largely composed of crushed bones and pebbles, and to the end of their days they retain a voracious appetite for old nails and such like. Ostriches are prolific layers. By taking away the eggs from a nest as fast as they are laid and leaving three or four dummies in their place, a bird, instead of giving only fifteen or sixteen, may produce up to forty or sixty. One bird in a year has been known to lay as many as one hundred and eighty. During the breeding season ostriches become very savage. It is dangerous to enter their paddocks unless armed with a long forked stick, so that when a bird charges it runs its neck into the fork and is thus kept at a distance. They kick with terrific force and have been known to kill human beings.

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