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IV

My journey across the Nullarbor Plain and the few days I spent at Ooldea aroused my interest in that part of Australia. Subsequently opportunities arose to allow of my gaining further experience of the country. To those who know the Nullarbor Plain, notwithstanding its weird, almost forbidding appearance, it has somewhat of a fascination.

In the comfortable trains with a five-foot two-inch gauge that to-day pass between Kalgoorlie and Port Augusta, the passenger's view from the carriage windows of the Nullarbor Plain is novel but not attractive. It shows a flat expanse—one of the world's greatest flat expanses—extending all round as far as the eye can reach. It has a thin covering of bushes a couple of feet high. The official booklet gives an accurate description:

“For over three hundred miles the line runs without a curve. You look back and the shining rails run on towards infinity until they seem to meet in the dim distance. You look forward and


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see the same twin threads drawn out until they melt into one another. Elsewhere there is nothing but the plain and sky. The plain rolls away to a circular horizon. By day the sun shines in a heaven of cloudless blue or flecked at most by a few white clouds. Beneath it is the circle of earth unbroken by hill or valley, by tree or house, or by any of the things we look for in an ordinary landscape. By night the moon and stars come forth with a brightness not seen in moist climates. Under the moonlight the bluish-white and grey-green of the blue bush and salt bush are unearthly and ghostlike.”

During daytime occasionally overhead may be seen circling in wide sweeps that largest bird of the eagle family, known generally as the eagle hawk. It is the wedge-tailed eagle, and specimens of immense size are common on the Nullarbor Plain. Some have measured twelve feet from tip to tip of the wings. The bird, graceful and beautiful as it floats aloft, suddenly swoops down. One wonders what it has seen. The plain is devoid of life, or, rather, so it seems to the passenger, who, rushing by in the train, does not know of the wild life, lizards, bandicoots, mice, rabbits, foxes and dingoes that scurry out of sight at the roar of the steam monster.

Neither does the passenger know that the ground beneath the flat surface is honeycombed with caves—a vast dark underground world. They are approached by “blow-holes” through which wind comes with varying forces, sometimes with a hissing sound, sometimes like a whistle and sometimes with a roar. These


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“blow-holes” range from a few inches to yards in diameter. Usually the descent is not easy. One investigator had to use 100 feet of rope before the cave bottom was reached. A huge cavern with a ceiling 180 feet high was 600 yards from the entrance. Lengthy galleries abound, also deep pools of water, mostly salt. There are several extensive underground lakes. Comparatively little exploration work has been done in the caves, and there is ample scope for the energies of enterprising spirits eager to venture into the depths of the unknown. The Rev. Mr. G. C. Woolf, describing his experiences when in one of the caves, writes:

“I must confess that a strange fear gripped me as I stood gazing into the unexplored depths below. The dim light of our lamp, our shadows thrown so grotesquely against the rough walls and ceiling of the cave, the clink, clink of the hard, flinty limestone as we warily made our way downwards, and the otherwise sepulchral silence, all combined to give a most eerie effect. Down, down we climbed over great heaps of fallen limestone, until we beheld before us a ledge, over which appeared to be a drop into nothingness. Not a word passed between us. Each kept his own thoughts—and fears—to himself. Suddenly we were almost startled out of our wits as one of the party uttered a cry and threw up his arms. He had stepped on to a piece of loose stone, which gave way under him, and down he went, but, fortunately, only a short distance. This incident was quickly erased from our minds as we gazed


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over the ledge before us, for there, spread out for our view, was a large chamber, the floor of which was studded with beautiful stalagmites, while innumerable stalactites were suspended from the ceiling. In the dim light of our hurricane lamp the whole scene suggested an old English churchyard with the tombstones bathed in moonlight. There and then we gave the name “The Churchyard” to this wonderful cave, which is unique amongst all that I have ever seen on the Nullarbor. It was with an awe almost reverent that we moved amongst Nature's monuments.”

A couple of men on a raft explored an underground waterway for hundreds of yards, when, fearing they might lose their way, they returned.

The caves are not devoid of life. Spiders and beetles are found in many of them. Most remarkable are the immense cave owls that make their homes and nest in the darkness. They leave the caves only at night. They are big birds with white feathers; the face is ringed with brown feathers and there is brown on the wings.

Mr. Woolf mentions caves near the edge of the plain that are open to the daylight, have flat roofs and, in his opinion, were used in times past by the blacks for sacred purposes. He thinks they were storing places for sacred objects and instruments used in their ceremonies. Possibly the initiation of youths into manhood may have been carried out in the caves, as these ceremonies always took place in secret and far removed from women. There is a cavern known by the native equivalent of “The Cave of the Bloody


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Hands.” The sides of the entrance are marked by hands traced in red ochre.

“Just what is the significance of hands remains a mystery,” writes Mr. Woolf, “for it is a matter of regret to record that the tribe responsible for them has passed completely out of existence.” Some have thought that they are the work of idle moments, but he does not think so.

Symbolic hands appear on the walls of certain caves from the north to the south of Western Australia. Various theories have been advanced regarding them, but their real meaning remains obscure.

To the natives the Nullarbor Plain, devoid as it was of fresh water, was viewed as uncanny and mysterious, desolate and forsaken. To them death from thirst lurked on it. Their superstitious fears of it were aroused by the legend that it was the home of a huge snake that was ever ready to destroy any native who ventured far beyond its edge.

Photograph Facing Page 266: A Corroboree of Aborigines.



Wild turkeys are in abundance on the plain at certain seasons, feeding on grasshoppers, caterpillars and other insects. Their walk is stately; their flight slow and heavy. Emus roam near the edges of the plain, also that wonderful bird the mallee hen, the eggs of which are laid in huge mounds and covered with vegetation. The heat of the sun and the heat of the decaying vegetation hatches the eggs and the young birds emerge. Great varieties of other birds visit the plain. Mr. Bolam, a railway official who for years was stationed at Ooldea, in a little booklet on “The Trans-Australian Wonderland” relates how on one


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occasion a flock of several hundred travelling cockatoos settled on the telegraph wire and engaged in gymnastics, turning somersaults with the wire gripped in their beaks. Suddenly, amid a fearful screeching, the line snapped. The birds transferred their attention to another wire, but, as another “fault” would have resulted, they had to be dispersed. The sharp beaks of the birds had partly cut the wire, and the weight of so many on it had caused it to break. Quail, curlew and plover can be found in great numbers on the plain in good seasons, also parrots and numerous small birds. Rabbits and dingoes abound. I often came across meadows of that most beautiful of desert flowers, the brilliant scarlet flower with a jet-black spot in its centre known as the Sturt pea.

I picked up on the plain curious jet-black stones, varying from an inch to a quarter of an inch in diameter. They are somewhat circular in shape and hard enough to scratch glass. Scientists differ as to their origin. Many who believe they are meteorites call them sky stones. Some authorities consider they are a kind of natural glass. To the blacks they are “magic stones.”

At Ooldea I failed to see specimens of that pretty animal the kangaroo mouse. It is a marsupial and no bigger than an ordinary mouse. It is a miniature kangaroo, can hop three feet at each bound, travel faster than a dog and lives in burrows.

I also missed seeing the marsupial mole or blind sand burrower of which Mr. Bolam writes. It carries its young in a pouch, is about six inches long, has a beautiful, soft, fine fur of a creamy colour, and, what


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is most remarkable, it has neither eyes nor ears, and so is blind and deaf. It is also dumb and will never emit a sound of any kind, but has an acute sense of smell and is exceptionally active in its movements. It can burrow vertically and so quickly that it will disappear into the ground in a few seconds. It lives on insects.

The permanent fresh-water supply at Ooldea I found specially worthy of examination. The extremely heavy fall of rain that sometimes occurs in the interior of the continent quickly disappears, and is mostly carried to the sea in underground rivers; it comes to the surface in places in the form of springs. At Ooldea the supply was called “The Soak,” and in an area where fresh water was rare and precious it was greatly prized. As Mr. Bolam writes:

“For century upon century it has been the gathering ground of blacks from north, east, south and west. They went there to perform their sacred ceremonies, their corroborees and their tribal customs. They congregated to barter their spears, boomerangs, wommerahs, shields and clay for goods or weapons of other tribes. The sick and the injured made a pilgrimage to Ooldea to bathe in its wonderful waters. The armourers of the tribes for hundreds, probably thousands of years, brought their flints, grinding stones and other materials to the Soak to employ the intervals between the ceremonies. Each wind that blows uncovers their relics, but covers others. In the days before the arrival of Europeans two soaks only were known, one being fresh water and the


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other bitter. It was the water from the latter that had the reputation as the great cure-all for skin diseases, internal complaints and wounds. The bitter well is only two chains away in a north-easterly direction from the fresh water. The two waters are separated by a slight rise, and the bitter water is surrounded by a green weed that grows thickly to a height of about five feet. The fresh water is situated in the middle of a hollow. It is overlooked by a barren sandhill. It is in the centre of salt and bitter water country and in a spot where one would least expect to find fresh water. The Great Architect in His infinite wisdom so ordained that a permanent water supply should be located in the midst of desolation and barrenness.”

It was at Ooldea that Mrs. Daisy Bates, O.B.E., a charming, cultured Irish lady, camped for sixteen years amongst the blacks, not as a religious missionary, but rather as a sympathiser with a race she regarded as dying and towards whom she felt Europeans owed an obligation. She tended the sick, did all in her power to help those of the race she came in contact with, prepared written vocabularies of their various languages and made a collection of their legends. The aborigines almost worshipped her. She also earned and has received the respect and admiration of all who knew her life of self-sacrifice.

Relating her experiences, she said, “For eight months at one camp I had sole charge of three blind natives, one of whom was demented, and one diseased.


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The demented man ran away at night, and I tracked him for six days before finding him. He was on the verge of starvation and unable to walk back to camp. I had no conveyance and no messenger to send to the settlement, so I had to carry him on my back. At times I had to rest, and meantime amuse the demented man. In the course of my journey I thought of the effect on my city friends were they to see me in the bush with the naked native on my back. I stand in the relation of grandmother to these tribes, and I talked to this man as if he were my grandson, making him tell me of his adventures. I carried him about a mile and a half at the outside, but it took me five or six hours to get back to the camp, and one result of the strain was that I suffered from hæmorrhage of the lungs.”

A grave-digger's work was later done by Mrs. Bates, following the death of the native in her charge. For the man she carried in from the bush she had to dig a grave seven feet long.

“Being a woman,” she continued, “makes me doubly welcome to the native women, and the reason will be understood when it is known that the native man only looks upon the white man as a source of income, no matter what his position. The women are absolutely subject to their husbands. As for religion, I act it in feeding and nursing them when they are sick, never offending their sensibilities nor having my own offended. I dress as the women of towns dress, and the natives see me as you see me now except that I work with my coat off. On the hottest day in summer I wear my collar and tie in the bush; it brings respect from the native. They bring their sick and their blind to me. I am known among them all as ‘kabbarli’


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(grandmother). They believe that I am the reincarnation of some wise native of long ago, and it is only in that way that all the tribes can account for my familiarity with their secret and sacred ceremonies.”

Natives' views on morality in many localities are extraordinary from the European viewpoint. Tragedies result from white men's ignorance of them. Mrs. Bates has explained that a European man may take a native woman and live with her without incurring the natives' hostility, but if he then took a woman bearing relationship other than that of sister to her he would risk death. “A native,” she added, “when he took a woman might beg, borrow or steal the woman's sisters, but if he tried to take a woman of any other relationship he would be killed. In certain tribes the children of a brother and the children of a sister could intermarry, and of the tribal brothers and sisters in all tribes, but the children of brother and brother or of sister and sister could not intermarry in any tribe.” Native marriage laws are most complicated, and dire punishment awaits any who offend against them.

Once after the completion of the Trans-Australian Railway I sent word to Mrs. Bates to meet me at Ooldea, where the train I was travelling in made a stay of about ten minutes. I invited her to come into my compartment, where we talked. When she got out of the train, a minute or so before it left, I too got out. A hideous old black man with only one eye, his face and body covered with scars, came to us and, addressing me, said:

“Me your uncle.”




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I was surprised to hear that, and evidently looked it. The native then, in an insistent voice, said, “You my nephew.”

Meanwhile Mrs. Bates made a strategic movement to the blind side of the native. The poor lady looked at me in an appealing way.

“Yes, quite right,” I said.

Mrs. Bates's face looked as if she were relieved.

The elderly ruffian at once took advantage of the relationship, and, in a mandatory voice, demanded:

“Gib me a bob.”

I handed him a shilling, and he disappeared.

I must have looked as if I wanted an explanation, for Mrs. Bates remarked, “Poor Bob. He thinks you are his nephew. You see, this is what happened. I was admitted a member of his tribe. According to tribal law he became my uncle. When I heard you would be at Ooldea, I knew you would ask me to come into your compartment. It is contrary to the natives' code of ideas for any woman to be under the same roof as a man unless he be a relative, so I told a white lie. As Christians we are all brothers and sisters under the fatherhood of God, and so I said you were my brother. Hence, Bob thought that as I am his tribal niece, so you must be his nephew. Thanks for not repudiating the relationship. I was frightened you would, and thus lose caste amongst them. That would never do.”

Photograph Facing Page 272: Dance of Natives, Alice Springs.



According to Mrs. Bates, all the Australian tribes that practise circumcision are cannibals of a most revolting kind. In her opinion there is a distinct connection between cannibalism and circumcision. The


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drinking of human blood after the operation, and at other periods during boys' initiation, is most significant. Boys are told that blood is meat and that human blood is human meat. Mrs. Bates relates the following about an aboriginal gin at Ooldea:

“In spite of the closest attention, abundance of ‘white’ food and water, and every encouragement to induce her to rear her baby, she ran away into the bush, doubled on her tracks and gave birth to a little baby girl, which she choked and cooked and ate, sharing the meat with her little two-year-old child. Guided to the fire by the brother, father, and mother's brother (uncle) of the baby, I myself dug up the few charred bones of the baby from beneath the ashes. The skull had been broken into several pieces, and of the soft bones only a few cinders remained. It was not hunger but custom which incited the deed, coupled with the over-whelming desire for soft flesh and fat of the little baby. Just before, and for some time after, giving birth to a child a woman has to be kept aloof from her husband, for, according to native law, she is unclean at the time; and when she has given birth to her baby it rests entirely with herself whether she eats the baby or allows it to live, her husband having no voice whatever in the matter. The sharers of the meat may be a brother or sister of the baby's mother, but no other man appears to partake of the food of the new-born baby, as, the mother being then ‘unclean,’ the same stigma attaches to the baby. Among the tribes whose remnants roam round the edge of the Nullarbor


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Plain nowadays there is scarcely one who has not at one time partaken of the flesh of a baby sister or brother, several amongst them having eaten of four or more of their own tribal mothers' newborn babies. In every circumcised tribe between these two places—Kimberley and Eucla areas—and along the edge of the great plain, infant cannibalism is the ordinary custom; yet when the babies are allowed to live the mothers are most devoted to them, and nurse and tend them unceasingly; husband and father also taking a delight in the little ones.”
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