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III

From Brisbane I came to Melbourne, where I was engaged on the Press, but I was not long there before I became restless. I was eager to see more and more of Australia, to learn all I could about it and get experience. I was offered and I accepted the literary control of a bi-weekly paper published at Kerang, about one hundred and eighty miles north-west by rail from Melbourne. The town is close to the Lodden river, whilst the Murray is but a dozen miles away.

Before I left Melbourne I consulted a map, which showed that near the town there was marked “Mount


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Kerang.” I pictured Kerang as built at the foot of a mountain. When I reached the town I found the country remarkably flat and uninteresting. I inquired for the mountain. It was explained to me that one part of the town was several feet higher than the surrounding country. That was Mount Kerang.

Kerang was then comparatively new. The streets were not paved, and when rain fell they became seas of deep liquid mud. A favourite exaggeration was of a man who was seen moving along in the centre of the street in mud above his ankles, and when a woman at a shop door looked surprised at his predicament, he called out to her, “I am all right, there's a cart and horse under me.”

Just then extensive works for the irrigation of the plains were in process of construction. The system adopted was large open water channels with smaller channels running into farms. There was no lack of water in the rivers and lakes in the vicinity, and the flatness of the country was suitable to flooding, but the administration was faulty. The various schemes were controlled by locally elected bodies called “trusts.” It was part of my duty to attend trust meetings. I was much struck by the incapacity and want of business knowledge of most of the members. Much of the money for construction work was wasted. It was borrowed from the Government, and members of trusts never thought of the question of repayment. The sole idea of certain members was to get money spent in the district. There were well-managed trusts, but they were the exception.




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One large trust that had control of a huge amount of Government money held its meetings at a bush hotel. The hotel keeper was chairman, and the trust's office was part of the hotel. When cheques were paid to contractors and employees the recipients felt it was wise to keep friends with the chairman by spending money freely over the bar. Trust meetings were held at night. They were often continued until a late hour, and usually degenerated into mere drunken orgies. It was no wonder the trusts became financially involved, and ultimately the Government had to take them over and administer the schemes directly.

One vivid memory that I have was of a grasshopper plague of exceptional virulence. It was the worst I ever experienced. It was before science and experience were so successful in lessening the disastrous consequences of such a visitation. Rumour of the approach of grasshoppers had been current, and one day, when driving some miles from the town, I met the wave of insects, millions and millions of them, travelling slowly but steadily. They were young and could hop only a few inches, but as they grew older and stronger they took to the wing and their progress was quicker. A curious whirring noise is heard during their flights. Scientists say it is due partly to their wings, but largely to a stridulation caused by rubbing a criss-cross sculpture of the hind-leg.

When the wave reached a wall or other obstruction, the insects were piled up in a struggling mass that became putrid and vile smelling. Railway cattle pits became full of them. The insects on railway lines were


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so thick that when they were crushed by passing trains the wheels and rails became greasy and trains were frequently stopped. The most desperate efforts failed to save even small gardens from the ravages of the pest. The face of the country was left perfectly bare.

The work of the natural enemies of grasshoppers was of little consequence. Emus, wild turkeys and ibises feed on them greedily. Flights of grasshoppers are followed by hawks, magpies, crows, wood-swallows and other birds. Happily, grasshoppers are rarely troublesome two years in succession.

A few days after the insects had denuded the country of vegetation rain fell. Then I first realised the amazing recuperative powers of the land. Over and over again after that I have seen it subsequent to a prolonged drought utterly without a vestige of vegetation; a heavy fall of rain comes, and in a week or so it presents a beautiful picture, its former barrenness hidden by a covering of green verdure.

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