6. Part VI

6. The Journey Home

1. Chapter I

Return Journey Begins

We left Hall's Creek, on our return journey, on March 22, 1897. Taking the road to Flora Valley we passed Brockman—where, by the way, lives a famous person, known by the unique title of “Mother Deadfinish.” This good lady is the most curious of her sex that I have ever seen; now a little dried-up, wizened old woman of Heaven knows what age, she was in her younger days a lady of wonderful energy. She came overland from Queensland, accompanying her husband who, in the early days of the rush, sought to turn an honest penny by the sale of “sly grog.” However, he died on the road, so his mourning widow carried through the job without him, and successfully withstood the trials of the journey, including heat, fever, and blacks. The latter were very numerous, and gave great trouble to the early diggers, spearing their horses and very often the men themselves. Many skirmishes ensued, and, so it is said, “Mother Deadfinish” handled her Winchester with the best of them! Eventually she arrived at the diggings, and has been there ever since, making a living by the sale of goat's milk, fowls, eggs, and a few vegetables. She is quite a character and worth talking to, but not always worth listening to; for her language is notorious; indeed, it is a recognised form of amusement for the diggers to bring into their conversation certain topics, such as the Warden, or the Police, who are so especially distasteful to her that ordinary language cannot express her feelings. In the same way that a boy delights to stir up a monkey and hear him chatter, the fossicker bent on recreation rouses the old lady to feats of swearing far beyond the scope of most people. No man has yet been found who could withstand her onslaught. I saw her angry once! She positively alarmed me; the three witches in Macbeth thrown into one would be of no account in comparison. Had she lived a century or two ago she would infallibly have been burnt.

A few miles past the Brockman the auriferous country is cut off by what is locally known as the “Sandstone”—a sheer, wall-like range named the Albert Edward.

Just below the gorge where the Elvire River (a tributary of the Ord River) breaks through the range is situated Flora Valley Cattle Station, the property of the brothers Gordon. A charming little place, after the rains; the homestead stands on a high bank above the river, here fringed with high, shady trees. Beyond the homestead and the yards, a fine plain of grass stretches out, surrounded by rough and rocky hills. As charming as their little place were the owners, the most kind-hearted and hospitable folk it is possible to imagine. Here we stayed a few days to get some meat salted for our journey; nothing would satisfy the two brothers but that they must find the finest bullock on their run, kill it, and give it to us. Flora Valley is a great place for the blacks, who live there in scores, camped by the river, and fed by the kind-hearted squatters. Leaving the station and travelling South-East, our route lay through a few low hills, and then we came out upon the Denison Downs, most magnificent plains of grass.

The first few days of a journey are most unsettled, saddles do not fit, packs will not ride, the animals will not agree, and dozens of like annoyances. Our three new camels, Bluey, Hughie, and Wattie, were almost unmanageable; for not only had they been running loose for some time, but had never been well behaved or well looked after. Bluey was a dreadfully wild brute, and all but brought Warri, who was riding him, to grief; after bucking and plunging and trying all manner of tricks, he stampeded at his fullest speed, with his head towards some overhanging branches, under which he might have passed with impunity, but they must have crushed Warri en route.

Luckily I was just in time to get Highlander between the tree and the camel, and so saved a nasty accident. Besides these small troubles, Breaden and Godfrey were suffering agonies from “sandy blight,” a sort of ophthalmia, which is made almost unbearable by the clouds of flies, the heat, the glare, and the dust. Breaden luckily was able to rest in a dark room at Flora Valley and recovered, or at least sufficiently so to be able to travel; Godfrey was very bad indeed, quite blind and helpless. At night we pitched his mosquito-net for him—for these insects are simply ravenous, and would eat one alive or send one mad in this part of the country—and made him as comfortable as possible; in the morning, until I had bathed his eyes with warm water he was blinded by the matter running from them: then during the day he sat blindfolded on The Monk, one of the horses—a most unpleasant condition for travelling.

Fortunately it was not for long, for soon we cut the Sturt Creek, and, following it, reached the Denison Downs Homestead—the last settlement to the southward, and I should say the most out-of-the-way habitation in Australia of to-day. The nearest neighbours are nearly one hundred miles by road, at Flora Valley; in every other direction there is a blank, hundreds of miles in extent. A solitary enough spot in all conscience! Yet for the last ten years two men have lived here, taking their chances of sickness, drought, floods, and natives; raising cattle in peace and contentment. Terribly rough, uncouth chaps, of course? Not a bit of it!—two men, gentlemen by birth and education, one the brother of a bishop, the other a man who started life as an artist in Paris. A rough life does not necessarily make a rough man, and here we have the proof, for Messrs. Stretch and Weekes are as fine a pair of gentlemen as need be. How they came to migrate to such a spot is soon told; they brought cattle over during the rush, hoping to make a large fortune; however, the rush “petered out,” half their cattle died, and with the remainder they formed their station, and have remained there ever since, year by year increasing their herd, now numbering some four thousand head, and looking forward to the time when they hope to be well repaid for their labours. A large, single-roomed iron shed, on the bank of a fine big pool, is their home, and there with their flocks and herds they live, like the patriarchs of old, happy and contented. In fact, the only people I have ever come across, who seemed really satisfied with life are some of these far-away squatters.

Numerous natives were collected round the station, and about them Mr. Stretch told me many interesting things. Their marriage laws were expounded to me over and over again, but without pencil and paper nothing can be learned, so confusing are they.

It was not until my return that I worked out the following relationships, but I feel confident of their accuracy:—


The aboriginals of Northern and Central Australia are governed in their social life by marriage laws and class systems of the most intricate kind. It is generally supposed that these laws have for their object prevention of consanguinity and incest. The laws are strictly adhered to, any offender against them being punished by death. I owe the information on this subject to Mr. Stretch, who took great pains to make clear to me the fundamental principles, from which I have worked out the various combinations.

I have tried to arrange these laws and the relationships resulting from them in an intelligible form, and have been greatly aided by a paper by Mr. Gillen, published in the Horn Scientific Expedition, on the McDonnell Range tribes. I was unable to get the tribal names, but this, for the purposes of explanation only, is unnecessary.

The aboriginals in question belong to the Eastern district of Kimberley generally, and more particularly to the Sturt Creek. These natives are descended from eight original couples, who have given their names to the eight classes into which the tribe is now divided.

For simplicity's sake I will assume that in place of eight there were four original classes. This will illustrate the principle equally well, and be far less involved.

Let A, B, C, and D represent the names of the four classes—to one of which every native belongs.

1. The first law is that—Natives belonging to class A may only intermarry with class B, and natives belonging to C may only intermarry with class D.

2. The progeny of a man and woman of intermarrying classes is of a different class from either father or mother.

Thus a man of class B marries a woman of class A, but their offspring (male or female) is of class D.

Let Am represent a male of class A.

Let Af represent a female of class A, and similarly Bm, Bf, &c.

Let Ap represent progeny who belong to class A, and similarly Bp, Cp, Dp.

Law 2 may now be set down as under—


3. The first law holds good with the progeny of these combinations, i.e., Dp can only marry one of class C—though neither the father nor mother of Dp could marry into class C; similarly for Cp, &c.

4. Dp recognises as father or mother all members of classes A and B; similarly Cp, &c.

This explains the seeming absurdity of the answer one receives from natives to questions concerning their relationships to others. An old man, for instance, may point out a young girl and say, “That one my mother,” for the girl belongs to the same class as his actual father or mother.

5. All the progeny of classes A and B are brothers and sisters; similarly C and D.

Thus taking Dp2 to represent the progeny of an Ap and a Bp


All of class Dp recognise class Dp2 (though of another generation) as brothers and sisters. For this reason there is no absurdity in a small boy pointing out a very aged woman as his sister.

6. A man may have as many wives as he can get, so long as these laws are adhered to.

Let us now see what degrees of kindred are prohibited by these laws.

Let us take the case of a man of class A. He can only marry a woman of class B, whose parents must therefore have belonged to classes C and D—her mother being a C and her father a D.

Therefore his wife's mother and father belong to classes with which he may not intermarry.

Therefore a man may not marry—

His mother-in-law.

The sister of his wife's mother.

The sister of his wife's father.

Nor the sister of any one of the three.

Nor can he marry his sister.

But he may marry—

His wife's sisters (sisters by blood or tribal class).

And as far as I can see, no law prevents a man from marrying his grandmother should he so desire.

2. Chapter II

Sturt Creek and “Gregory's Salt Sea”

The Sturt Creek presents many points of interest. It rises in the Northern Territory, runs for nearly three hundred miles in a South-Westerly direction, and comes to an end in a large salt-lake, across the border, in the desert. It runs throughout its entire length once in every three or four years, though each yearly rainy season floods it in certain parts. In the dry season one might in many places ride right across its course without being aware of it. In the wet season such parts of it are swamps and marshes, over which its waters spread to a width of five and six miles. Permanent pools are numerous, and occur wherever a ridge of sandstone rock runs across the course of the creek. On either side of the creek fine grass-plains spread East and West. The further South the creek goes, the less good is the country on the East side; presently there is no grass country except on the West side. Not far below the station the creek is joined by the Wolf, which, like all Kimberley creeks, is fringed with gums, bauhinia, and leichhardt-trees. From the confluence downwards a war between the grass-lands and the desert is waged for the supremacy of the river-banks. For miles the sandy channel, cut out like a large drain through the country, less than one chain wide in places, is hemmed in on either side by desert gums and spinifex, and once out of sight of the creek the surrounding land receives no benefit from the water.

But lower down again, about the latitude of Mount Müller, the grass plains gain the day; and a very pretty bit of country they form too, especially when the creek is running, as it was when we were there. In many places its waters had overflowed the banks, expanding into clay-pans and lagoons of beautiful clear water where teal and whistling duck disported themselves.

The Wolf rises on the opposite slope of the watershed to Christmas Creek and the Mary River, and floods twice or thrice a year. Below its junction with the Sturt the combined creek takes on itself the character of the Wolf, and at the point of confluence the Sturt may be said to end. Seeing how seldom the Sturt runs its entire length and how small its channel is at this point, smaller than that of the Wolf, I think that it is to the latter that the lakes (Gregory's “Salt Sea”) chiefly owe their existence. However that may be, the combined waters fill but an insignificant channel and one can hardly credit that this creek has a length of nearly three hundred miles.

On nearing the lakes the creek assumes so dismal an appearance, and so funereal is the aspect of the dead scrub and dark tops of the “boree” (a kind of mulga), that one wonders that Gregory did not choose the name of “Dead” instead of merely “Salt Sea.” A curious point about this lower part of the creek is, that stretches of fresh and salt water alternate. The stream, as we saw it, was only just running in the lower reaches; in places it ran under the sandy bed, and in this part the salt pools occurred. First we passed a stretch of clear, brackish water, then a nearly dry reach of sand, then a trickle of fresh water lasting for a hundred yards or so; this would again disappear, and be seen lower down as another salt pool.

The creek enters the first lake in a broad estuary; this lake is some four miles long by two miles wide, lying North and South. At the southern end a narrow channel, 150 yards wide, winds its way into the large lake beyond, a fine sheet of water, eight miles in diameter. A narrow belt of open country, overgrown with succulent herbage, fringes the margin of the lake; beyond it is dense scrub, with occasional patches of grass; beyond that, sand, sandhills, and spinifex. In the distance can be seen flat-topped hills and bluffs, and rising ground which encloses the hollow of the lake. The lake has no outlet; of this Gregory satisfied himself by making a complete circuit of it. At the time of his discovery the lakes were dry, or nearly so, and doubtless had the appearance of being shallow depressions, such as the salt lakes in the southern part of the Colony; so that having followed the Sturt for so many miles—a creek which showed every appearance of occasionally flooding to a width of five or six miles—he must have been somewhat uncertain as to what happened to so great a volume of water. However, the lake is nearly thirty feet deep in the middle, and, from its area, is capable of holding a vast amount of water. The creek, below its confluence with the Wolf, is continually losing its waters, throwing off arms and billabongs, especially to the west, which form swamps, clay-pans, and lagoons. So much water is wasted in this manner that near the entrance into the lake the creek is of a most insignificant size. The fall, too, is so gradual that the water runs sluggishly and has time to soak away into the enclosing sand.

Mr. Stretch tells me that it takes eight days for the water from rain falling at the head of the Sturt to pass his homestead, which gives it a rate of one mile per hour. Heavy rains had fallen at its source about a month before our arrival, and the water was still flowing. We therefore saw the lakes as full as they are ever likely to be, except in abnormal seasons. North of the lake are numerous large clay-pans which had not been flooded, and the lakes could evidently hold more water, and had done so in time past, so that it is pretty clear that the lakes are large enough for ordinary flood waters, and, with the outlying clay-pans, can accommodate the waters of an extraordinary flood.

I feel confident, therefore, that no outlet exists, and that beyond doubt the Sturt ends at the Salt Sea, and does not “make” again further South, as some have suggested. Standing on any of the hills which surround the lake, some distance (ten miles or so) from it, one can look down upon the water, certainly five hundred feet below the level of the hills, which rise no more than eighty feet above the surrounding plain. It seems most improbable, therefore, that a creek should break its way through country of so much greater altitude without being seen by Colonel Warburton or myself, or that any connection should exist between the Salt Sea and Warburton's Salt Lakes to the South-East.

Had, however, the intervening country been of the same level as the lake, and flat instead of formed into high sand ridges and hills, there might have been a possibility of crossing a connecting creek of the same character as the Sturt without noticing it. This question has been much discussed by gentlemen interested in the geography of interior Australia, and therefore I have dealt with it at some length.

3. Chapter III

Our Camp on the “Salt Sea”

April 2nd to 7th we were the guests of Mr. Stretch, and whilst resting here Godfrey's eyes soon became well enough to allow him to travel. On the 7th, therefore, we set forth on our journey and bade adieu to the last outpost of civilisation in the North. Our party was further increased by a Sturt Creek boy, Tiger by name—a very smart and intelligent fellow of whom Mr. Stretch was very glad to see the last, for smart boys are nearly always the most mischievous amongst the cattle. Warri and Tiger were great friends, and the new boy's presence put Warri on his mettle, and no amount of work was too hard for him whilst he had Tiger to show off to. After I had cut his hair and shampooed his head with kerosene and soap, dressed him in trousers, shirt, and cap, he looked a most presentable youth.

Mr. Stretch accompanied us down the creek for the first few days, during which we passed some of his cattle and horses. The flies and mosquitoes worry the poor beasts terribly, and all day long the horses stand in the water in pairs, or in a line, with head to tail, each one flicking the flies from his neighbour's face with his tail. This habit of standing up to the girth in water has given rise to a horse sickness known as “swamp-cancer.” The skin under the belly becomes so soft that at last a raw place is formed, and this, aggravated by the flies, spreads until it becomes a serious disease. Another horse-sickness common in the North is called the “Puffs.” A horse suffering from this pants and blows after the least exertion, and in the hot weather his skin becomes puffy, and any violent exercise would be fatal. The Monk, one of our horses, suffered from this slightly; as soon, however, as we had left the Kimberley district and entered the desert he recovered entirely. Numerous small families of natives were camped along the creek, all accompanied by dogs, which gave us some annoyance at night; for salt meat, at first, should be hung out during the night to get the benefit of the fresh air, and this roused their hungry instincts. A few miles below the Wolf, Mr. Stretch left us, and we parted from our kind host with regret—he to return to his cattle, and we to the task of laying bare the richness (we hoped) or the nakedness (we expected) of the untrodden land before us.

At first we did very small stages, for the joy of travelling alongside running water was too great to be quickly passed over. The camels and horses became good chums very soon, and played about together without any signs of fear or surprise on the part of the horses, although they had never seen camels before—a different state of affairs from that in Coolgardie, where horses as a rule snort and plunge with terror on first acquaintance with an “emu-brother,” as the black-fellow calls the camel. As we neared the lakes we had some difficulty in finding water fit to drink, and camped about nine miles above the lakes, whilst Godfrey and I scouted ahead to see if fresh water could be found lower down. We surprised two camps of natives, most of whom ran into the scrub as we approached—several gins and a boy remaining. One of the women had a most remarkable baby, quite a small thing, but with a tremendous growth of black hair, shiny and straight, altogether different from the ordinary coarse hair of the aboriginal. They came with us, walking beside us as we rode, jabbering and gesticulating in their usual excited manner, and inviting us to their camp, pointing to the rising smoke. Water, however, was our requirement, so we continued on our way down the creek, the boy coming with us. We shot a few ducks which our young friend retrieved, and having found a reach of fresh water just above the first and smaller lake, returned campwards, surprising a hunting-party on our way; they retired quickly, the boy following them, taking with him the ducks which we had been at such pains to stalk!

The next day we moved camp to the fresh-water reach, and had not been travelling long before a small tribe of blacks came round us, quickly followed by our friends of the day before, and presently by more, until we were marching along with a wild escort of nearly a hundred, mostly men; they were fearfully excited, though quite friendly, and with yells and shouts danced alongside, waving their spears and other weapons. I never heard such a babel, or saw such frantic excitement about nothing, or at least nothing that we could understand. Their wildness was tempered with some fear of the camels, though with the horses they were quite familiar, even going so far as to hit poor old Highlander, that I was riding, on the rump with their spears, a proceeding that he did not approve of. “Womany,” “Womany,” “White-fella,” “Womany,” “White-fella,” they kept on shouting; if they meant to call our attention to the beauties of their gins they might well have spared themselves the trouble, for a more hideous lot of females I never set eyes on. Presently another wild yell heralded the approach of a large band of “womany” who waded breast deep across the creek, followed by their dogs swimming behind. These were no improvement on the first lot; all the old and ugly ladies of the neighbouring tribes must have been gathered together. Their dogs however, were worthy of notice, for they were Manx-dogs, if such a word may be coined! Closer inspection showed that they were not as nature made them. For the tails of the dingoes the Government pays five shillings apiece; as their destructive habits amongst sheep make them better liked dead than alive. A black fellow's dog is much the same as a dingo—in fact must have descended from the wild dog—and has the same value in his owner's eyes with or without a tail. A stick of tobacco is fair payment for a dog's tail. Thus all parties are satisfied except the dog; and the Government is content to pay, not dreaming that “dog-stiffeners” (i.e., men who make a living by poisoning dingoes) carry on so base a trade as bartering tobacco for live dogs' tails!

Our cavalcade still further increased by women and dogs, we proceeded on our way, until choosing a high sandy bank overlooking the estuary of the small lake on the South, the creek to the North-West, and a backwater to the North, we halted and prepared to make camp. This was attended by some difficulty, for our native friends, now in considerable numbers, evidently wished to look upon it as their camp too. They soon became so tiresome that I had to tell them through Tiger, as interpreter, that unless they retired forthwith and kept to the other side of the creek, we should take strong measures to remove them. Before long they had all done as they were bid, and made their camp about a mile away across the water—and the bulk of them we did not see again. Small parties were continually visiting us, and we were the best of friends.

Our camp was in lat. 20° 11′, long. 127° 31′, and here we stayed five days to give our stock a final rest, and regale on luscious food and abundant water, before tackling the dreary country that we knew to be before us. For our own sakes we were by no means keen on leaving this delightful spot; the very thought of those sand-ridges seemed to make one's heart sink to one's boots! Our camp consisted of a bough-shade, and mosquito-nets, of course. Barring the constant torment of flies and the extreme heat, we had a most enjoyable time. The lakes and creek abounded in wild-fowl of all kinds, and fish by the hundred could be caught below our camp. Seen from our camp the estuary had so much the appearance of a low-lying arm of the sea, with the tide out, that we could easily understand why Gregory called it a “sea” rather than a lake. Numerous sandspits stand out in the middle, on which, in early morning, so dense was the crowd of shags, pelicans, snipe, small gulls, whistling duck, teal, and other birds, that to say that there was acre upon acre of wild-fowl would not be wide of the mark; but in spite of their abundance they were not easily shot; for not only did their numbers insure the watchfulness of some of the flocks, but after the first shot the whole lot rose in a cloud and settled away out in the middle of the lake, beyond reach.

Our larder was well filled here, and the natives took great interest in our shooting and fishing. I used to take Tiger as retriever when I went duck shooting, and an excellent boy he was too, simply loving the water, and able to swim like any duck; to see him after a wounded bird was most exciting; as soon as he reached it, it would dive until he would be almost exhausted. At last he hit upon a similar plan, and, diving, came up beneath the duck, seized it by the leg and brought it to shore, grinning with delight. A shot-gun would indeed be a treasure to these natives, who manage to kill pelicans and ducks only after hours of waiting, hidden in a hide of bushes until a bird comes near enough to be killed by a throwing-stick.

In some parts of Australia the natives swim out to ducks, concealing themselves under a bunch of rushes and moving very slowly; the ducks are not scared by the rushes, and fall a comparatively easy prey. From what Tiger told me the Sturt natives seem to rely solely upon waiting and stalking. They catch fish in a rather ingenious way, only practicable when the fish are in shallow water; from this they sweep them with a sort of dredge of branches, which they drag through the pools on to the banks; the water runs back through the sticks, leaving the fish high and dry on the sand. The pelican is considered a great delicacy amongst the natives, and every day deputations waited upon us, asking us to shoot the “Coyas” for them, which of course we were very glad to do. They did not repay our kindness very nicely, for they tried to inveigle Warri into their camp for the purpose of killing him, as a stranger meets with no great hospitality! I had sent Warri and Tiger out with a gun to stalk some ducks when a number of blacks tried to get possession of the gun, first by telling Tiger that they wanted to shoot an old man who had annoyed them, then by tempting him with descriptions of the beauties of their wives; but Warri was proof against all these blandishments—nor could they get the gun by force. I think Master Warri was quite glad to come quickly home, for he stood in some awe of the Kimberley natives; “Sulky fella,” he called them.

One day a fresh mob of blacks came in; amongst them we recognised our old friends from Jew's Well. They as soon recognised us, and appeared tremendously pleased. The old Jew patted me, and grinned, and squirmed in a most ludicrous way; I discovered that he was thanking me for having cured his son's eyes—so the lotion had done its work well. As he and his friends sat round I made a sketch of the old man and gave it to him; it was evidently a good likeness, for his friends went into shrieks of laughter and delight. He was equally pleased, and more so still when I let him know that he could keep it.

Shortly afterwards several men came up with great mystery and secrecy, and many looks behind them to see that they were not watched, and a greybeard amongst them presented me with a flat stick carved all over into rough patterns; this was carefully wrapped between two sheets of bark, and was evidently highly treasured, and given as a mark of respect or gratitude for curing the boy's eyes. They also gave me throwing sticks, balls of hair string, a shield and tomahawk; and received numerous costly presents from us—one or two old shirts, strips of coloured handkerchief to make sporrans of, a knife or two, and so forth, and were perfectly satisfied. A curious thing about the old Jew was that he had no name. I questioned him most closely through Tiger—but no! he had never had a name. He was promptly christened “Jacob,” which he repeated over and over again, and seemed pleased with his new acquisition. Godfrey soon had some of the tribe trained in the art of fishing, and this amused them immensely; the man to whom we gave the line and hooks, which we got in Hall's Creek, will be much envied by his mates. There were quantities of mussels in the creek, which the blacks devour greedily; we thought them most disgusting in taste. Larger fish were reported in the big lake, but we did not trouble them. The water of the big lake was far too salt for use, though the natives were camped near it and drink it. It makes them sick, but they use it all the same, so we were told. What happens to all the natives when the lake dries I cannot say; no doubt they scatter far and wide, and meet when the floods come down, for ceremonies, corroborees, and such-like amusements.

I collected a few words which I look upon as reliable. Nothing would be easier than to make a whole dictionary, for the natives are always ready to talk, but I have only taken words which I got from one and tested with others with good results.

English Aboriginal  
Gregory's “Salt Sea” Burro  
Fresh water  Nappa or Yui  
Salt water  Murrabanote  
Creek  Gilli  
Fire Warru or Wallunote  
Fish  Yagu  
Mussel Bimbirri  
Pelican Coya  
Whistling duck Chibilunote  
Moon Yungun  
Star Gigi  
Southern Cross Wun-num  

4. Chapter IV

Desert Once More

April 20th we left our camp on the lake, steering due East to cut a creek which enters on the North-East corner; the creek was dry, and the nature of its shingly bed inclined me to think that it has its rise in auriferous country. Close by the creek we found a shallow clay-pan, and as the next day would probably see us in the desert I had every available water-carrying vessel filled. Tiger worked well, but a friend of his, who had come with us so far, watched the proceedings with suspicion. On being questioned as to waters to the South-East, he was most positive as to their non-existence, and evidently frightened Tiger so much by his dreadful account of the country that he decided on returning home—for the next morning both he and his friend had disappeared. I was very sorry, for he was a smart lad, and now we were a bit short-handed. Pursuit was of course useless, for he had too great a start, and would soon be lost amongst his tribesmen. He had worked so well that I never suspected him of wishing to go. I fear he will spear Mr. Stretch's cattle after all!

Fully loaded with water, we left the lakes, steering towards Mount Wilson (Gregory); the heat was great, and the flies worse than we had before experienced.

Riding ahead steering was most unpleasant; one hand for the compass, one for the bridle, left nothing with which to frighten the flies from the corners of my eyes, which became quite raw in consequence. Certainly riding is a great improvement on walking, and I prayed that the horses would long be spared to us. Once through the dense scrub surrounding the lake, and our old friends sand and spinifex lay before us. Crossing an open plain, we reached Mount Wilson, from which the lake was plainly visible, at a greatly lower level. This hill is the highest in a little broken range of barren sandstone hills, peaks, knobs, and cliffs of all manner of shapes and sizes. To the eastward stony tablelands can be seen, running from which I noticed what I took to be a creek.

At this point it is interesting to see what Gregory's impressions were of the country ahead. This was the furthest point he reached in 1856, having landed an expedition on the Northern coast and travelled up the Victoria River on to the head-waters of the Sturt Creek, and down that creek to its end. He says:— “From the summit of the hill (Mount Wilson) nothing was visible but one unbounded waste of sandy ridges and low, rocky hills, which lay to the South-East of the hill. All was one impenetrable desert; …the vegetation on this part of the country was reduced to a few stunted gums, hakea bushes, and Triodia (spinifex), the whole extremely barren in appearance… The remaining portion of the horizon was one even, straight line: not a hill or break of any kind, and except the narrow line of the creek, was barren and worthless in the extreme, the red soil of the level portions of the surface being partially clothed with Triodia and a few small trees, or rather bushes, rendering the long, straight ridges of fiery-red, drifting sand more conspicuous.”

So Gregory retraced his tracks up the Sturt Creek, and when one remembers that he had horses, one can only say, “And a good judge too.”

Leaving Mount Wilson we steered East and cut the creek that I had seen, and were glad to find feed near it for both horses and camels. I walked it up to its head, and found a little rocky pool of water, returning after dark. Breaden and Warri had been out too, but found nothing. Having watered the animals, next morning, the 22nd, I steered a course to take us through a piece of country previously traversed by Warburton, with Lake White (a dry salt-lake) as our goal, for round it I hoped to find creeks and clay-pans. I depended on none of Warburton's waters, though he had some marked on his chart, since I knew that doubts existed as to the accuracy of his positions, and I preferred to rely upon our own methods of finding water rather than to waste time in hunting for wells that we might not find. For the next few days we were crossing spinifex plains and passing distant hills and tablelands of sandstone. The days were very hot, but since rising from the hollow of the lake the nights had become very much cooler. We had come so suddenly into desert country that the animals gave us great trouble, being unable, poor things, to find any food. Late starts were the order of the day, camels having wandered miles in one direction followed by Breaden and Warri, and the horses in another followed by me.

On the 23rd we found ourselves again amongst the sand ridges, high, red, and steep; we were now in lat. 20° 30′, and from that date and point this awful country continued almost without a break, ridge succeeding ridge with perfect regularity and running, as before, dead across our route, until we reached lat. 24° 45′ on June 2nd—a period of forty-one days, during which we travelled 451 miles. Thus it will be seen that in the far eastern portion of the Colony the ridges of drift-sand extend over a greater length of country than in the centre; and consequently our return journey was accomplished with greater difficulties before us, and with an almost total lack of feed for our stock—less even than on the first trip—but to balance these drawbacks we had cool nights, lighter equipment, and the advantage of previous experience—and the incentive of knowing that our rations would not last out unless we made all speed.

On the 24th we crossed a range of barren hills, which I named the Gordon Hills, after our friends of Flora Valley. In the neighbourhood Godfrey picked up a perfectly white egg, somewhat resembling that of an emu, which lay upon a hummock of spinifex; presumably it had been bleached by the sun. From the hills to the S.S.W., across high ridges of sand, can be seen a range apparently of some altitude, distant some twenty-five miles; this I named the Stretch Range, after our kind host of Denison Downs Station. From the Gordon Hills we continued on our course for a smoke we had sighted the day before, and before long picked up two fresh tracks, which we followed. From some stony rises a large, prominent hill came into view, as if formed of three great steps of bare rock. This I named Mount Elphinstone, after my cousin, and towards it we shaped our course, still on the tracks.

That night we were again forced to camp on a barren spot, and again our animals wandered far afield. Unless absolutely necessary, I have a great objection to tying them up at nights, for then they are sure beyond question of getting nothing to eat; whereas wandering they may find a patch of herbage or bushes. That night we saw the fire of a native camp and heard distant screams. In the morning a mob of blacks passed our camp all unaware of our presence; Breaden and Warri were hunting the camels and I the horses. As soon as I brought them in we followed and stopped some of the natives, and they returned with us to camp and presently decoyed others who were passing.

There was nothing remarkable about these savages except that they were tall and well-made and fairly friendly. One had the skin disease from which we had noticed others suffering. An old man, and a young, rather handsome, buck came with us and went ahead as guides. Their camp had been, as is the rule, on the top of a sand-ridge—chosen, no doubt, as a position suitable for watching the approach of others. A four-mile stage brought us to a nice little oasis—a small area of grass, surrounded by ti-trees, enclosed by two sand-ridges. In the centre of the grass three good soaks, in black, sandy soil, yielded sufficient for all our needs at the expenditure of but little labour. The horses appreciated the change, and unless we had given them water in instalments would have assuredly burst themselves. They drank in all sixteen gallons apiece! Seeing that they had never been in anything but good country all their lives, and that now we had suddenly come out of it into the howling waste, they showed satisfactory endurance, having been eighty hours with only six gallons of water each during that time. What English thoroughbred could have done this?

The next day Breaden and I rode up to Mount Elphinstone, which we found to be formed of three great rocky shoulders of sandstone capped with quartzite, almost bare, and stony on the top, with sheer faces one hundred feet high on the West side and a gradual slope to the East, where high sand-ridges run right up to the foot. From the summit a high tablelandnote and range can be seen to the North, to the East a bluff-ended tableland,note but the horizon from South-East to South-West was a dead level.

One mile due West of the highest point we found a native well in a sandy gutter, and about 150 yards from it, to the East, a high wall of bare rock as regular as if it had been built. This wall, seen edge-on from the North-West, from which point Breaden sighted it when after the camels, appears like a chimney-stack.

As the soaks at which we were camped have the appearance of being more permanent than the usual native well, it may be useful to give directions for finding them from Mount Elphinstone. Leave hill on bearing 230°, cross one sand-ridge close to hills, then spinifex plain, then another sand-ridge running East and West, from the crest of which can be seen three gaps in the next one—steer for most Westerly gap, and seven miles from the hill the soaks will be found. Having no time for further investigation, we returned to camp, and to ensure an early start tied the camels down for the night, since they had been feeding all day. Bluey again proved to be a vicious brute, and kicked me in the chest, knocking me down; but the other new camels daily improved in their manners. We had great trouble in cleaning off from their backs the clay with which they were smeared, having rolled in some shallow clay-pans near the lakes. It was most necessary to scrape it off somehow, as otherwise sore backs would have resulted; and, indeed, Stoddy's sore back started in this way by the friction of the saddle and the caked mud.

The country ahead looked so bad that I decided to take the two bucks with us for as long as they knew the waters, so secured the one to the other by the neck, with plenty of spare chain between. They marched with us apparently perfectly happy, and even anxious to point out the directions of various native wells. My object was to make as much Southing as possible whilst we could; so having two natives and one hundred gallons of water (of which the horses were given three gallons each nightly), we steered due South from the soaks, and had a long day of tremendously steep sand-ridges, up the North side of which the camels climbed with difficulty. Riding the camels was out of the question, so we took the horses in turn, Breaden and I steering hour about. Though crossing fresh tracks and though the bucks were most anxious to follow them, we did not turn from our course, for we had only left water the day before, and as our rations were calculated to just, and only just, last out, no time could be wasted. For the same reason we were travelling longer hours.

Our camp of the 28th was in lat. 21° 4′ long. 128° 33′, and ahead of us to the South-West three miles distant was a range of barren sandstone hills, for which we steered; the old man, though contradicted by the young one, promising “gilli nappa,” or creek water. However, he fooled us, and after much climbing we reached a small, dry well in a narrow gorge, quite inaccessible for camels.

It was now the young man's turn, who, seeing that we were not best pleased with his mate's efforts, by every sort of sign assured us that water existed in another range to the East. So turning in that direction over monstrous high ridges, crossing them obliquely, in five miles we cut a small watercourse, and following it up to its head found ourselves on the top of a range of barren sandstone hills, over which were dotted white-stemmed stunted gums—a most desolate place. The travelling was very trying to the camels, who were continually missing their footing on loose boulders and stones, in the bed of the creek. Sheer steps in the rock on either hand precluded us from marching over the hills, excepting up the watercourse.

From the summit, other similar hills could be seen to the East—hills of quite a respectable height, all bare and rocky. Numerous small gorges and glens head from the East watershed; without any hesitation our guides started down one, and before long we came to a little pool in the rocky bed. Here we watered our animals and replenished our tanks and bags; and a nice job we had to make some of the camels approach the pool; on either side were steep cliffs, and to reach the water numerous cracks and gaps in the bed-rock had to be crossed, not wide or deep, but sufficiently so to scare Bluey and some of the others. The open desert life seems to make camels, and horses too, very nervous when anything the least unusual has to be faced. The echoes amongst the rocks, and the rather gloomy gorges, seemed to make them “jumpy”; a stone rattling down behind them would be sufficient to cause a panic. Leaving the pool, we followed the gorge until it ran out as a deep, sandy channel down the valley formed by the horseshoe of the ranges. The ranges I named the Erica Ranges, after one of my sisters. All along the banks of the creek splendid green acacia and grass was growing, and a most inviting-looking plant standing some six feet high, with greenish-grey stems and leaves, and a flower not unlike wallflower. Such a place at once suggested camping, and we were proceeding to unload when Godfrey remarked that this pretty plant was very like a most deadly Queensland poison plant; he was not sure; I had never seen it before, nor had Breaden. The risk, however, was too great; it might be poison; I could see the camels eyeing its fresh charms, and it grew in such profusion that all would be devouring it in a few minutes. So we packed up again and moved further on, much to the disgust of the blacks and the animals, for all were very tired. I collected some specimens of this plant; if Godfrey had never been in Queensland we should have been in a tight corner, for the Government botanist, Perth, says, “The plant in question is very poisonous. It is scientifically known as Gastrolobium Grandiflorum, occurs throughout the dry, tropical portion of Australia, and is commonly known as ‘Desert poison,’ ‘Australian poison,’ and ‘Wallflower poison bush.’”

Near Mount Bannerman, where our camels were poisoned on the upgoing journey, this plant was not growing. The suspected plants I collected, but unfortunately the specimens were mislaid or lost. In such country as this one has one's whole mind and energies concentrated on how best to cover the ground; and what with well-digging, writing up field-books, observing, and so forth, one's time is fully occupied; I was therefore unable to collect more than a few plants worthy of notice, since they formed feed for camels, or caused their death. My companions were of course equally occupied. Besides the map I was able to make of the country, I set great store by my photographs. Of these I took over two hundred; owing, however, to defective plates, or rather films, many were failures, and nearly all that could be printed and reproduced are to be seen in this book.

On the 30th we followed down the creek until it bore too much to the West, and so far as we could see shortly ran out into the sand. From a high sandhill the next morning we got an extensive view. To the East, the main body of a long salt-lake extending as far as the eye can see to the S.S.E. Bounding the lake on the East is a high sandstone tableland, with abrupt cliffs facing the lake. Some eight miles to the North-East appears to be the extreme point of the lake, but of course from a distance it is impossible to say for certain. Except where the cliffs occur, the lake is enclosed by high red sandhills, through which it winds its way like a strip of sparkling white tinsel. Having no desire to court difficulties, I turned from this smooth-faced but treacherous bog, and, looking West, spied a fine bold range, a rugged-looking affair with peaks, bluffs, and pinnacles, suggesting gorges and water. I have no doubt that this lake is Lake White, of Warburton's, though my position for it is seventeen miles East of that assigned to it by him. It is in the same latitude, and agrees with Warburton's description as to the cliffs and sandhills.

After sighting this lake we turned West to the ranges, therefore had two lakes existed in this latitude we must have crossed the second, which we did not do. Many things go to prove that Warburton's positions are incorrect; I think I can show how, by moving his route bodily on the chart about eighteen miles to the East, a more accurate map will result. My own experience alone would not be conclusive, except that my work fits in with that of Forrest, Gregory, and Tietkens, where my route crosses theirs; but taken in conjunction with others it proves of value. In crossing the Colony, Warburton failed to connect with Gregory's traverse at the end of the Sturt as he intended, and on approaching his destination (the Oakover River) expressed surprise that he had not reached it a day or two before. Therefore he was not confident of the accuracy of his reckoning.

Two parties, one led by Mr. Buchanan, a noted bushman, another by Mr. Smith, set out from the end of the Sturt to cross the desert, made several unsuccessful attempts to locate some waters of Warburton's, though no distance away, and returned satisfied that nothing could be gained by further travelling. Mr. Smith told me that he had located “Bishop's Dell,” but placed it due south of the Salt Sea instead of S.S.W,, as shown by Warburton.

Mr. Wells eventually found Joanna Spring twenty miles East of Warburton's position. This correction is of greater value than any, since Mr. Wells is considered one of the best surveyors in the South Australian Service.

A combination of the above experiences shows, I think conclusively, that Colonel Warburton's route, at least on the West Australian side of the boundary, should be shifted bodily eighteen or twenty miles to the Eastward.

Considering the hard trials that Colonel Warburton and his party went through, there is small wonder that he found great difficulty in keeping any sort of reckoning.

From the journal of this traveller I take the following description of the country round the lake: “We found good feed for the camels here, but the sandhills appear to be increasing in number and size. We have got amongst the half-dried salt lagoons, so our further progress North-West is cut off… we are quite amongst the salt-lakes, a large one lies to the West of us, sending out its arms to every point. We must round the eastern end of them, as camels and salt-bogs don't agree at all.…We tried to cross but had to turn back.…Country very bad, dense spinifex, high, steep sand-ridges with timber in flats. Any man attempting to cross this country with horses must perish.… A strong easterly wind prevailed, blowing up clouds of sand and ashes from the burnt ground. Truly this is a desert!”

This was written when I was two and a half years old. The writer little thought that an infant was growing up who would have no more sense than to revisit this ghastly region; nor as far as I remember was the infant thinking much about sand! Dear me! how easy it was to get a drink in those days—merely by yelling for it—but the strongest lungs in the world cannot dig out a native well.

5. Chapter V

Stansmore Range to Lake Macdonald

Shaping our course from the lake (Lake White) towards the highest point in the range, which I named Stansmore Range after poor Charlie, we had the novel and pleasant experience of travelling with, instead of across, the ridges—if only we could have turned the country round at right angles, or changed the North point of the compass, how nice it would have been! As it was, South we must go to get home, and take the ridges as they came; our Westerly course was only temporary. For twenty-seven miles we steered W. b. S., keeping along the trough of two ridges the whole time, seeing nothing on either hand but a high bank of sand covered with the usual vegetation. The trough was flat at the bottom, and about 150 yards wide. For ten miles we travelled between the same two parallel ridges, then in front the butt-end of another appeared, as the trough widened out. Deviating slightly to the South from our former course, we were again between two ridges, one of which was the same that we had followed along before. Then, again, in a few miles another ridge would start, and altering our course again, this time a little to the North, continued our march between two fresh ridges, and so on. Thus it will be seen that the ridges, though apparently parallel, are not accurately so, and that one may be continuous for more than ten miles or so, when it ends and another takes its place.

On our march our captives cleverly caught a spinifex rat and a snake (one of the very few that we saw); they greedily devoured both, and were much pleased when Godfrey refused to partake of a piece of half-raw snake which they politely offered him. We discovered that they had a great liking for our beef-water—that is, the water in which our salt beef had been cooked—and made no bones about swallowing a couple of gallons of this brine-like soup. It had one good effect, for it made them most anxious to take us to water the next morning! The hills we found to be of the usual character, barren sandstone, from which numerous rocky creeks have torn their way through the sand. Following up a little glen, terribly rough and steep for the camels, we came at length to a fine pool, hemmed in by almost sheer cliffs sixty feet high. Climbing to the top of these, I could see that the same rough country extended for a considerable distance to the westward, and that further travel up the glen was impossible; so we retraced our steps down the creek, on the banks of which we found grass and bushes in profusion, and poison plant. This drove us away into the sandhills beyond all harm, and, unfortunately, beyond all feed as well, nor had we time before night set in to cut and carry any bushes for the camels, as we might otherwise have done.

That night our camp was in lat. 21° 25′, long. 128° 20′. The following morning I ascended the highest point in the range, whilst Breaden and Warri took our animals for a final drink up the glen. The lake was just visible, lit up by the rising sun, but I doubt if during the day it could be seen. From the range numerous creeks, nine in all, run Eastwards, one of which, I think, reaches the lake, as with field-glass I could follow a serpentine line of gum trees. The rest run out a few miles from their head on to grass-flats timbered with large gums. The hills are of sandstone in layers, dipping to the West; these seem to have been forced up into three-cornered blocks, the faces of which have weathered away on the East side, forming steep slopes of stones and boulders. Between the hills low ridges of sandstone running North and South outcrop only a few feet above the surface, and are separated by strips of white sand timbered with stunted gum trees. The whole scene has a most strange and desolate appearance.

Returned to camp, I liberated the two guides, for I did not wish to inconvenience them by taking them beyond their own country. They were quite unwilling to go, and indeed waited until we were ready to start, and were most anxious for us to go to the East again. “Gilli nappa,” they assured us, was to be found, making their meaning clear by tracing in the sand a winding line to represent a creek; and when at the end I drew a lake, they were highly pleased, and grunted and snapped their fingers in approval. However, when I showed them that we were going due South their faces assumed so dismal an expression, and so vehement were their exhortations to go in the other direction, that we concluded we had no picnic before us. Had they had any intentions of coming further our change of course decided them, and they made tracks for the glen, bearing with them many rich gifts. An empty meat tin and a few nails does not sound a very great reward for their enforced services, and yet they would have been far less pleased with a handful of sovereigns; they could put these to no use whatever, whereas the tins will make small “coolimans,” and the nails, set in spinifex-gum on the end of a waddy, will find their way into a neighbour's head.

We had really terrible country that day, during which we made no more than nine miles. At first travelling was easy, as a flat belt of sand came between the range and the sandhills; later on, however, we were forced to climb up and down, now mountainous sandhills over one hundred feet in height, now jagged hills and breakaways of sandstone; dodging down little steep gullies, with the camels' packs almost touching each side, up steep rocks, or along their faces, until the horses and camels alike were quite exhausted. Fortunately we were rewarded by a fair camp for feed, close by a noticeable bluff. We crossed nine deep creeks, in any of which, at their heads, pools may exist.

Climbing the bluff next morning, I could see that the range curved round to the South-East for some miles, possibly a great many. To continue following round the foot would advance us but little; I therefore decided to cross the range somehow. It was evident that any great extent of this rocky country would soon place the camels hors de combat, as every step cut their feet, and every few minutes they ran the risk of a sprained or broken limb; mules would be more suitable for such country. The further we advanced the rougher became the ground, the narrower the little glens, and the steeper the rocks. However, one final and tremendous scramble landed us all safely above the hills, and to our joy we found that a flat plain of spinifex spread before us. On it were clumps of mulga. Now we hoped we had done with the ridges. But no! more yet, in spite of hopes and prayers, and for the next two days we were crossing them at the rate of eighty-eight per eight hours. It really was most trying, and had a very bad effect on one's temper. I fancy my companions had the same difficulty, but I found it nearly impossible to restrain myself from breaking out into blind rages about nothing in particular. But the cursed sand-ridges made one half silly and inclined to shake one's fist in impotent rage at the howling desolation. Often I used to go away from camp in the evening, and sit silent and alone, and battle with the devil of evil temper within me. Breaden has told me that he had the same trouble, and Godfrey had fearful pains in his head to bear. The combination of heat, flies, sand, solitude, the sight of famished horses, spinifex, and everlasting ridges, and the knowledge that the next day would be a repetition of the day before, was enough to try the sweetest temper; and I, for one, never professed to have such a thing. Added to this we had the feeling that our work and energies could have but a negative result—that is, the proof that the country was barren and useless; and yet its very uselessness made it harder to travel through. But with all this we never had a complaint or growl from any in the camp. About this time I again became deaf, which did not tend to make me any more patient.

Another stretch of plain country, a mile or two in width, again raised our hopes and again dashed them, as more ridges confronted us on the other side. A change of any kind is welcome, therefore the gloomy desert oaks were greeted with joy; for though their sombre appearance is eminently appropriate to a funeral procession, they give some shade and relieve the eye. In due course we reached the burnt country for which we had steered, and, after hours of tracking, singled out some footsteps going straight away as if to camp. Warri and I were leading, riding Highlander in turn; on cresting a high ridge we saw before us a little clump of mulga and grass, amongst it a camp of some dozen or more natives. As soon as we advanced they all ran, except two men, who stood their ground for a short space, then, throwing a stick and boomerang in a most warlike way, they followed their tribe. It was imperative that we should have a fresh guide, so I followed on Highlander, and succeeded in stopping the last man simply by wearing him out. He was a most diminutive man, almost a dwarf, absolutely without ornament, not even a girdle of string, with a most repulsive face, and wall-eyes like a Welsh sheepdog. He was by no means afraid, and before long became friendly and returned with me to their camp.

The tribe had left behind them a number of treasures—bundles of firemaking sticks, bean-and-gum ornaments, and the usual bark “portmanteaus”note containing hair-string, feathers, red ochre, and other knick-knacks. Amongst their weapons was a curiously shaped boomerang; on one of the woommeras was a rough carving of either a spider or crab. As soon as the camels arrived we unloaded and set to work on the well, “soak-sucking” in our old style. By morning we had watered the camels and horses. The former were of course pretty fit, but the poor ponies had done a fair stage, especially so since they had had no feed except the rank dry tops of the spinifex. May 3rd sunrise, to May 8th sunrise, they had travelled on what water we could afford them from our own supply, viz., three gallons apiece nightly, and six gallons the first night. The grass around the well, though dry, was of great benefit to them. For the camels we had to cut down the mulga trees, the branches of which grew too high from the ground to permit them to browse off the leaves. A number of dingoes serenaded us as we worked at night; what they live upon is not quite clear, unless it be spinifex rats. There were other small rats in the locality, two of which the dwarf had for supper—plucked, warmed upon the ashes, torn in pieces by his long nails and eaten; an unpleasant meal to witness, and the partaker of it badly needed a finger-bowl, for his hands and beard were smeared with blood. He did not take kindly to salt beef, for his teeth were not fit for hard work, as he pointed out to us; and salt beef is not by any means easy to masticate. As a rule the blacks have such splendid teeth that the dwarf's case is remarkable, seeing that he was not at all an old man.

The Dwarf Well had a better supply than any we had seen, and it is possible that there is some soakage into it from the surrounding country. It lies nearly five miles south of a low range of hills, the highest point of which bears 1° from it; to the North a sand-ridge, to the South a spinifex plain, six miles wide, then more ridges. I make its position to be lat. 22° 19′, long. 128° 16′. On the plain to the south are one or two small outcrops of ironstone and quartz, sticking up out of the sand, as if some hills other than sandstone had existed, and become buried by the all-spreading sand. I carved

on a tall mulga-tree close to the well.

May 9th we left the well on a Southerly course, and were soon amongst the ridges, which continued for the next two days. The night of the 11th, having skirted a line of rough cliffs, we camped about three miles North of a very prominent single hill, which I named Mount Webb, after W. F. Webb, Esq., of Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire. As the sun rose that morning the mirage of a lake of apparently great size was visible for 90° of the horizon—that is, from East round to South. Neither from the cliffs that we skirted, nor from Mount Webb, was any lake visible, but it is more than probable that a large salt lake exists in this locality, possibly connecting, in a broken line, Lake White and Lake Macdonald. A mirage sometimes appears in exactly the opposite direction from that in which the lake lies, but I noticed when standing on the Stansmore Range that as the sun rose Lake White was clearly visible, whilst when the sun had risen a few degrees above the horizon the lake disappeared. I am of opinion, therefore, that large lakes will some day be found to lie to the North-East of Mount Webb. Had we not been so pressed for time I should have made a flying trip in this direction. Mount Webb is flat-topped, isolated, rocky-sided, innocent of all vegetation, of sandstone capped with quartzite, standing out with imposing clearness some five hundred feet above a plain of spinifex and mulga scrubs. From its summit numerous hills and bluffs can be seen; to the South spinifex plains and ridges; to the South-East a tabletop between two bluffs; to the West a low line of stony hills, beyond them a limitless sea of sandhills; to the North-West a broken range of peaks, and, far distant, a large hill swaying in the haze of heat.

From the foot of the hill a hunting-fire was seen close by. “Gabbi, gabbi,” said the dwarf, greatly excited; and when we turned towards it “Yo-yo-yo” in approval. As we silently approached we saw two old hags flitting about, as nimbly as their aged limbs would allow, in the blazing spinifex—now picking up a dead lizard, and now poking about with their yam-sticks as if in search of some rat which had been roasted in his burrow. It is impossible to describe the look of terrific awe on the faces of these quaint savages. Let us imagine our own feelings on being, without warning, confronted by a caravan of strange prehistoric monsters; imagine an Easter holiday tripper surrounded by the fearful beasts at the Crystal Palace suddenly brought to life! What piercing shrieks they gave forth, as, leaving their hunting implements, they raced away, to drop, all at once, behind a low bush, where, like the ostrich, they hid their heads, and so hoped to escape detection.

It was almost impossible to gain the confidence of the gins: old ladies seem so very suspicious. The dwarf somewhat reassured them, and after much difficulty one was persuaded to show their camp—and such a camp!—perched up in the rocks on a little plot of sand, close by a miniature watercourse, and in this a small native well, so rock-bound as to preclude further opening out. And yet for this miserable affair we were glad to offer up thanks, for the sake of the ponies. What labour for a few gallons of water, not so much as we use in our baths every morning in civilised countries! But no man could stand idly by and watch the mute longing of his faithful horses. So freeing the dwarf and the old gin, a fit pair, we set to work. All that afternoon and all through the night we dug and hauled and scraped, and by morning had the horses watered and twenty gallons to boot. There had been eight or nine blacks at this camp, who, on their return from hunting in the evening, watched our proceedings with intense annoyance. They stopped about one hundred yards away, and, yelling and shrieking, brandished their spears in a most warlike manner.

That night they camped not far off, and, as on every other occasion on which we invaded their homes, I consider we owed our immunity from attack to the fact that work on the well entailed one or other of the party being up all through the night, thus acting as a watch. Had they known their power they might have made things most unpleasant by spearing our camels. Fortunately it is only those natives who have come within the civilising influence of the white man, that learn such little acts of courtesy. It is noticeable that amongst the treasures in this camp were a great quantity of “letter-sticks,” which is evidence that the carvings on letter-sticks cannot be written messages, unless this camp was a desert post-office! If, however, the sticks are tokens, as I suppose, then one of this tribe may be a craftsman who carves distinctive symbols on each stick to order, and who had lately received a number of commissions for such sticks. It seems likely that one man or tribe should have a special aptitude for manufacturing message-sticks, whilst others perhaps make a speciality of hair-string or spears. Or again it may be that the number of sticks, certainly two dozen, denote orders from far-off tribes, who wish to barter such articles as pearl-shells for perhaps spinifex-gum of a superfine quality. (I have noticed that the spinifex growing on the sandstone hills, particularly on the Stansmore Range, exudes a great deal more resin than that growing on the sand.) This bartering of goods is very remarkable, and here we found pearl oyster-shells which must have passed from tribe to tribe for at least five hundred miles; pieces of glass, carefully protected by covers of woven feathers and opossum-string; the red beans which are found in Kimberley, and, as Warri tells me, in the MacDonnell Ranges of Central Australia; a stone tomahawk-head, a dark green stone (serpentine); and besides, numerous sporrans of rats' tails, feathers, nose bones, red ochre, and a piece of the top part of a human skull polished and slung on a string. Certainly for its size this was the best appointed tribe we had seen.

The position of this well, a very poor one, is lat. 22° 57′, long. 128° 20′—one mile West of Mount Webb.

Some good grass grows in the mulga scrubs which are dotted over the plain surrounding the hill. Nine miles south of the Mount, sand-ridges, East and West as usual, are again met with; from the crest of one we saw the last of Mount Webb, twenty-two miles distant. We now hourly expected to get a view of Lake Macdonald, a large dry salt lake discovered by Tietkens in 1889. Tietkens was Giles's right-hand man in all, or nearly all, his journeys—a man whose great services to his country have never been acknowledged, because, I suppose, as second in command his name seldom appeared in the accounts of his leader's travels, and yet he shared his dangers and troubles, stood by him in many tight corners, helped him no doubt with counsel and advice; and though by his work—for Tietkens was an eminent surveyor—many hundreds of miles of previously unknown regions have been mapped, a grateful country has nothing to give in return! We all know, though, how generous Governments are in such matters. Did not Ernest Giles die, only the other day, in poverty and neglect? I know he had a Government billet at £2 10s a week, noble and generous reward for the best years of his life spent in toiling over the howling wilderness of the interior! Doubtless all debts will be considered paid by the erection of a statue, and nine people out of ten will not have any notion of who the man was or what he has done! Tietkens in 1889 led an expedition to determine the true extent of Lake Amadeus, the confines of which were marked as “probable.” His work resulted in greatly decreasing the area of the lake, which now lies entirely in South Australia. However, this side of the border he found the lake already mentioned, and, encircling it, returned to the point on the Adelaide-Port-Darwin telegraph line from which he had started.

The lake is surrounded, at a distance, by numerous sandstone ranges and hills, the drainage from them no doubt forming it. Tietkens experienced rains in this region; no such luck fell our way, and everything was parched and drought-stricken. I was able to identify the Winnecke Hills, and one or two others, but, having only a small map of this part of the country, could not locate many points.

Close to the Winnecke Hills we again surprised two gins hunting, and, amongst their spoils of the chase, were astonished to see a common domestic black cat, evidently just killed. It must have wandered far from home! One of the women took us to their camp and small well, which was in so awkward a situation that I decided not to do any work upon it. Its position was in a very steep, narrow gorge in the sandstone, along which the camels could pass with difficulty. There was no feed for our animals, except at the mouth of the gorge a mile distant, and then there was but little. It would take three to work the well, leaving only one to look after the camp, and “tail” the horses and camels. Since the supply was problematical, the well almost inaccessible, and waste of time the only likely result, we passed on—the one and only occasion on which we left a well untried. Numerous natives must have been in this camp, for I found no less than thirteen bark “portmanteaus.” As the gin had shown us the well without demur, I left all these untouched. It was a struggle between honesty and curiosity; but it seemed too mean to take things, however interesting, when they had been left so confidently unprotected. And yet birds' nests are robbed without any such scruples! I had no hesitation, though, in taking the gin with us, in spite of her unwillingness, for famished horses must be relieved. Once across the hills the sand-ridges became less high, were dotted with oaks, and even had some herbage growing on them.

6. Chapter VI

Lake Macdonald to the Deep Rock-Holes

On the 16th we had breakfast by moonlight, and were well on our way before daylight. From a ridge higher than the others we got the only glimpse of the lake that was permitted us by the sandhills. About two o'clock, the gin, who had been making towards the Davenport Hills (Tietkens), suddenly turned off and brought us to a little well in the trough of two ridges—the usual wretched concern, yielding no more than three bucketsful. We worked far into the night. Having to observe for latitude I stayed up last, and baled the well before going to rest, leaving about two gallons in the bottom to allow it to settle before morning. At daylight we heard loud howls and snarls coming apparently from the centre of the earth. Further investigation disclosed a lean and fierce-looking dingo down our well, which, in its frantic struggles to get out, had covered up our little pool of water and made a horrible mess of things. I never saw so savage-looking a brute, and, not feeling called upon to assist it, I ended its troubles with a bullet—a kindly act, which doubtless, on their return, gave a welcome supply of cheap meat to the tribe who had only lately retired from the well, and also added to our small store of dingo-tails, which (at 5 shillings each), so far as we could see, would be our only means of deriving any profit from our labours. I think we only got five, and they were lost!

Our position there was lat. 23° 26′, long. 128° 42′. The gin on showing us the well had been at once liberated, a step which I now rather regretted—but one cannot be unkind to ladies, even though they are black, naked savages, little better than beasts! Remembering that she had pointed towards the hills ahead, I steered on that course, and before long we came on the tracks of a man, woman, and child, walking in the same direction. Here I saw a pure white spinifex rat, leaping the tussocks in front of me, but of course had no means of stopping it.

All that day we followed the tracks, over sandhills, samphire-flats, through clumps of desert oak, past dry wells, from sunrise until sunset. Warri and I were ahead for in tracking it is better to be well in advance—riding and walking in turn until Highlander knocked up and had to be led. Breaden and Godfrey had awful work behind to get the camels along. At almost every sandhill one or other of them, usually Bluey, would drop and refuse to budge an inch until forced by blows. How the poor brutes strain, and strain again, up the steep, sandy slopes; painful sight, heart-breaking work—but work done!

We crossed the Davenport Hills shortly before sunset and waited on the other side for the main party, in case in the bad light and on the hard rocks our tracks should be missed. As they came up, we heard a distant call—a gin's—and presently the smoke from a fire was visible. The Monk had done the least work that day, and was the staunchest horse, indeed the only one capable of more than walking, so I despatched Godfrey to surprise the camp, whilst we followed. He rode right on to the tribe, and was accorded a warmish welcome, one buck casting his spear with great promptitude. Luckily his aim was poor and the spear passed by Godfrey's head.

When we arrived on the scene I found Godfrey standing sentinel beneath a tree, in the branches of which stood at bay a savage of fine proportions. He had a magnificent beard, dark brown piercing eyes, splendid teeth, a distinctly Jewish profile, and no decorations or scars on his chest or body. I shall not forget the colour of his eyes nor their fierce glitter, for I climbed the tree after him, he trying to prevent my ascent by blows from a short, heavy stick which I wrested from him, and then with broken branches of dead mulga, with which he struck my head and hands unmercifully, alternately beating me and prodding me in the face, narrowly missing my eyes. If he suffered any inconvenience by being kept captive afterwards, he well repaid himself beforehand by the unpleasant time he gave me. And if it was high-handed treatment to capture unoffending aboriginals, we did not do so without a certain amount of risk to ourselves; personally I would far sooner lie down all night chained by the ankle to a tree, than have my head and knuckles laid bare by blows from dead branches!

After a time I succeeded in securing one end of the chain round the wild man's ankle, and the other round a lower branch. Then I came down and left him, whilst we unloaded and had something to eat. We had had a long day of over ten hours continuous travel, and as the sun had long set we decided to take no steps for water-getting until morning. Being sure of soon getting a fresh supply, we gave what water we had to the horses, on whom the desert was rapidly leaving its mark. As we sat on the packs round the tree, eating our salt beef, our black friend, with evident wonder at our want of watchfulness, took the opportunity of coming quickly to the ground, only to find that he was tethered to the tree. His anger had now subsided, and, though refusing to make friends, he seemed grateful when I bound up a place on his arm, where he had been hurt in his descent from the tree. The spears of his tribe were of better manufacture than those of the ordinary desert man, having bone barbs lashed on with sinews. The next morning we moved camp, as, from our position in a hollow, we should have been at a great disadvantage had the tribe returned to rescue their mate. We found their well, a deep rock-hole, half filled in with sand, on the southern slope of a stony sandhill, situated in a small patch of grass and buck-bush. From the hill above the rock-hole, a prominent bare range of red rock can be seen to the South bearing 172° to the highest point (these are probably the Warman Rocks of Tietkens). We were now within seven miles of the imaginary line forming the boundary between West and South Australia, the nearest point to that Colony our journeyings took us.

At first we hoped the hole would prove to be a soakage, but in this we were disappointed, and had to resort to our old methods of box-sinking and clearing out the sand. Our work at first was comparatively easy, but as soon as water-level was reached a great wedge of sand fell in, and nothing remained but to clear out the whole of the cavity, scraping up the water as we went lower. From 7.30 a.m. on the 18th, until 2 a.m. on the 19th, then again from 6.30 a.m. until 4.30 p.m. on the same day, we slaved away with no more than one and a half hours' interval.

After digging out the sand and hauling it in buckets to the surface we had a rock-hole nearly conical in shape, twenty-five feet deep, twenty feet by fifteen at the mouth, narrowing in on all sides to three feet in diameter at the bottom. The first day and night we laboured until we literally could no longer move, from sheer exhaustion. Breaden was so cramped and cold, from a long spell in the wet sand below, that we had to haul him out, put him in his blankets, and pile them upon him, though the night was warm. The result of all this toil—not quite ninety gallons of far from pure water! What a country! one ceaseless battle for water, which at whatever cost one is only too thankful to get! Of the ninety gallons, sixty were distributed amongst the horses and camels, the remainder we kept for our own use and that of the horses when we continued our journey. Eight miles of sandhills on the 20th took us, under the native's guidance, to another rock-hole—full to the brim—its water protected from the sun by an overhanging ledge of rock.

Here we soon had the thirsty animals satisfied, and had time to consider the rather comical aspect of affairs from the black-fellow's point of view. How he must have laughed to himself as he watched us toiling away, coaxing out water drop by drop the days before, when all the time a plentiful supply was close at hand! Excellent grass surrounds the rock-hole, enclosed by mulga thickets, so we rested here a day, shooting a few pigeons and enjoying the first proper wash since April 25th, when we last camped at a good water. Whilst travelling, of course no water for washing could be afforded, as every pint was of some service to the horses.

This rock-hole is in lat. 23° 44′, long. 128° 52′. On May 22nd we continued our journey, marching South over irregular sandhills, forcing our way through scrubs, until, on the evening of the 23rd, we were in the latitude of the centre of Lake Amadeus, as it was formerly marked by Giles. I was anxious to see if Tietkens had perhaps passed between two lakes, leaving an unnoticed lake on his left. We now altered our course to the West, sighting a large bare hill some forty miles distant, which I take to be Mount Skene (Giles). This hill is close to the high ranges, the Petermann and others, and it would have simplified our journey to have turned to them, where good waters are known to exist, but I desired to see what secrets unknown country might hold, even though it might be only sandhills.

This proved to be the case, and during the next six days we crossed the most barren wilderness it had been our lot to see, not a bite of food for camels or horses, who, poor brutes, turned in despair to the spinifex and munched its prickly spines—not a living thing, no sign of life, except on two occasions. The first when, at the beginning of the stage, we captured a young gin, whom I soon released for several reasons, not the least important of which, was that Warri was inclined to fall a victim to her charms, for she was by no means ill-looking. The second living thing we saw was a snake, which we killed; how it came to inhabit so dry a region I cannot say. Now that our course was Westerly, we had expected to run between the ridges, but no such luck attended us. True, we marched between the sand-ridges, but every now and again a ridge of rock running exactly across our course had to be negotiated. Yet further, and sandhills thrown up in any irregular order impeded us, then loose sand; everywhere spinifex, without even its accustomed top-growth, drought, and desolation! Native tracks were very scarce, even old ones; some of these we followed, only to find dry rock-holes and wells at the end of them.

We were all walking again now, ploughing our way through the sand, men and camels alike exhausted, and the poor ponies bringing up the rear, the tail-end of a miserable caravan. And they, following behind, were a useless burden; we could not ride them, and yet for their sakes our supply of water became less and less; we denied ourselves beef (which meant at least a bucketful of water to boil out the salt) to keep them alive; poor faithful things, none but curs could desert them while life to move was left in their bodies. On the night of the 29th, for our own safety, I could allow them no water, for so great had been the drain that our tanks had but a few gallons left. The next was a day of disappointments. All day we followed the same two tracks, from rock-hole to rock-hole—all were dry as the sandstone in which Nature had placed them. We could see where the blacks had scraped out the sand at the bottom—if they could not find water, what chance had we? But every step took us closer—that is the great consolation in such cases. First, have perfect faith that water will eventually be found, then each forward move becomes easy, for you know that you are so much nearer relief. Every dry hole gives a greater chance that the next will be full.

Near one hole we came on a ceremonial or dancing ground—that is, a cleared space in the mulga scrub, circular in shape, with a cleanly swept floor, trodden down by many feet. In the centre stood a sort of altar of branches and twigs. It was evident that the blacks had danced round and round this, though for what purpose I cannot say.

As the sun set our faith was rewarded; before us in an outcrop surrounded by mulga lay two fine rock-holes with an ample supply. What a blessed relief! In a few minutes the horses were gorged, and hard at work on the rough grass near the holes. Hardy horses, indeed! Eight days from drink to drink (not counting what we gave them), and hardly a scrap of feed.

We took a two days' rest for the sake of the grass, and varied our daily fare of salt beef with small, tufted pigeons, which came in large numbers to drink. We shot nearly one hundred of them, and ate boiled pigeon three times a day with the voracity of black-fellows. Nor was Devil-devil forgotten in the feast; he had become an expert rider, and had a far better time than poor Val.

The curious fact of some rock-holes being full, whilst others a few miles off are empty, again exemplifies the very local character of such rain as visits these parts. The “Deep rock-holes,” as we called them (in lat. 24° 20′, long. 127° 20′), are peculiar, for one is perfectly cylindrical, two feet six inches in diameter going down vertically to a depth of twenty feet; the other goes down straight for six feet, and then shelves away under the rock to a depth of at least twelve feet. It will be seen from our last few days' experience, and from that of the few days soon to follow, that in this region rock-holes are numerous. They are invariably situated on low surface outcrops of desert sandstone, surrounded by mulga and grass; beyond that, sand. I take it that they have been formed in the same way as the granite rock-holes in the south of the Colony—that is, by decay; that the whole country has been covered by a deposit of sand, borne by the winds, filling in former valleys and hollows, leaving only occasional patches of rock still visible. Their frequent occurrence would then be accounted for by the fact that the deposit of sand is shallower here than elsewhere. That it is so is pretty evident, for here the sand-ridges are much lower than further North, and still further South they disappear. Low cliffs are seen, and when the latitude of Forrest's route is reached, sandstone hills are numerous and rock-holes abundant. In the course of ages perhaps the sand will again be shifted until such reservoirs as the “Deep rock-holes” are filled in and hidden, or partially covered and converted by the natives into wells. Supposing a layer of sand to a depth of five or six feet could be thrown over the valley in which the Deep rock-holes are situated, the holes would at once be transformed into “Native Wells,” the term “well” being a misnomer, and apt to suggest a copious supply to any unacquainted with the interior. I suppose that to the uninitiated no map is so misleading as that of West Australia, where lakes are salt-bogs without surface water, springs seldom run, and native “wells” are merely tiny holes in the rock, yielding from 0 to 200 gallons!

From our position at the rock-holes, by skirting, possibly without sighting, the end of the Rawlinson Range and steering nearly due South-West, we should hit off Woodhouse Lagoon of our upgoing journey. For simplicity in steering I chose a due South-West course, which should take us a few miles to the East of the lagoon, two hundred miles distant in a bee-line. I was anxious to see what water it held, and check my work by re-crossing our track of the previous year; and besides this, the lagoon lay on our most direct course for the nearest settlements, still 450 miles away on the chart.

Whilst resting at the rock-holes I took the opportunity of giving Bluey a lesson in manners, much to the entertainment of my companions.

Bluey was a brute of a camel, and used to give an immensity of trouble in the mornings, galloping off at full speed when he should have quietly waited to have his nose-line adjusted. Added to this, he would kick and strike with his fore-legs, so much so that none of us cared about catching him. One morning whilst Breaden was after the horses, I was helping Warri collect the camels, and tried my hand with Bluey. At the moment that I was putting the loop of his line on to the nose-peg, he reared up and struck me on the chest, his hobble-chain adding power to the blow, which sent me spinning on to my back. For this and other assaults I meant to punish him, so shortening his hobbles until his fore-legs were fastened with no more than an inch or two between, I armed myself with a stout stick. As I had expected, as soon as I started to put on his nose-line, off he went as hard as he could, jumping like a kangaroo, and I after him beating him the while. Round and round we went, the pace getting slower and slower, until, amidst shrieks of laughter and shouts of “The Leader wins!” “Bluey wins!” “Stick to it!” and so forth, from want of breath we came to a stop, and gazed at each other, unable to go further. It was a tough run, and, like a schoolmaster caning a small boy, I felt inclined to say, “Remember, my dear Bluey, it pains me as much as it does you.”

The lesson had a most salutary effect, and never again did he gallop away when being caught in the morning, though he was not a well-behaved beast, and always the first to give in in the sandhills, even though carrying the lightest load. His good looks, however, were so much in his favour that subsequently a wily Afghan paid me a big price for him (comparatively), and winked to some fellow-countrymen as if he had got the best of “Eengleeshman.” If he was satisfied, I am sure that I was.

7. Chapter VII

The Last of the Ridges of Drift Sand

On June 1st we left the rock-holes on a South-West course, crossing irregular sandhills with the usual vegetation.

On June 2nd we crossed the last sand-ridge of the great northern desert, and before us spread the rolling gravel-covered undulations of sand, treeless except for an occasional beefwood or small clump of mulga, rolling away before us like a swelling ocean. What a blessed relief it was after the awful toil of crossing Heaven knows how many sand-ridges day after day!

Taking into account the country north of lat. 24° 45′ only—for though we had a long spell of sand-ridges between the edge of the desert and Woodhouse Lagoon, and again between that point and Lake Wells, yet these were comparatively low and less steep than those further north, and therefore their extent is not included in this reckoning—we traversed 420 miles on the upgoing journey, and 451 miles on the return journey—that is, 871 miles of actual travelling over a desert of sand blown by the wind into parallel ridges of the height and frequency already described. It will be readily understood, therefore, that we were not sorry to see the last of them! Working our way step by step, we had so husbanded the marvellous powers of endurance of our camels that, in spite of the most terrible privations and difficulties, these noble animals had silently carried their loads day by day, up and down, over the burning sand, maddened by flies, their legs worn bare by spinifex—carried them not without great sufferings and narrow escapes from death, but yet without one of their number succumbing to the horrors of the region. Accident and poison had carried off four. And now, alas! another was to meet the same fate. Poor Satan, my faithful companion in good times and bad, whose soft velvet nose had so often rubbed my cheek in friendship, was laid low by the deadly wallflower. In spite of all we could do for him, in spite of coaxing him yard by yard, Warri and I—as we had done to Misery before—for a day's march of over fifteen miles, we were forced to leave him to die. We could not afford to wait a day, always onward must it be until another water is found, so, with a bullet through his head, I left him to find his way to the Happy Hunting-grounds where there are no native wells nor spinifex, only flowing rivers and groves of quondongs! All this about a camel—“a devil and an ostrich and an orphan child in one,” as we have been told—but remember that often in the solitary bush one's animals are one's only companions, that on them one's life depends. How, then, could one fail to love them as friends and comrades?

Shortly after the scene of Satan's death the mulga clumps became greater in extent, until for half the day, and more, we wound our way through dense thickets. The further South we went the thicker they became, until all day long we marched through scrub, seeing no more than forty yards ahead, with packs, saddles, and clothes torn to pieces by dead and broken branches. We saw no smokes, no spinifex rats, no natives, no tracks but old ones, and these led us only to dry rock-holes. Time after time we followed recent tracks from hole to hole, and met with no success; sometimes we were just in time to be too late, and to see that the last drops had been scraped up by the natives!

On June 6th we followed a fresh track, and found a hole containing thirty gallons. June 7th and 8th, dense scrub. June 9th, open country, lake country, gum tree flats, and magnificent green feed, the first we had seen since leaving Sturt Creek. On our right high sandhills, whose butt-ends in the distance had the appearance of a range of hills; on our left thickets of mulga, and beyond, a sandstone range. Kangaroo tracks were numerous, but none very fresh; these and the number of birds gave us hopes of water. We must find some soon, or not one horse could survive. Poor ponies! they were as thin as rakes, famished and hollow-eyed, their ribs standing out like a skeleton's, a hat would almost hang on their hip-joints—a sorry spectacle! All day we searched in vain, the animals benefiting at least by the green herbage. Ours was a dismal camp now at nights. What little water we could spare to the horses was but as a drop in the ocean. All night long they shuffled about the camp, poking their noses into every pack, overturning dishes and buckets, and, finding nothing, stood with sinking heads as if in despair. Our water-casks had to be guarded, for in their extremity the horses could smell the water, and even went so far as to pull out the wooden bung, with their teeth! Warden, the small pony, was a special offender in this respect. It is quite startling to wake suddenly in the night and find a gaunt, ghost-like horse standing over one, slowly shaking his head from side to side, mournfully clanging his bell as if tolling for his own death. Then at other times one heard the three bells sounding further and further off. This meant a hasty putting on of boots and wakening a mate to stir up the fire and make it blaze; then, following the sound through the darkness, one came up with the deserters, shuffling along in single file, with heads to the ground, turning neither to right or left, just travelling straight away in any direction as fast as their hobbles allowed. Heaven knows how far they might go in a night unless stopped in time and dragged back to camp. Indeed blankets do not mean sleep, with dry horses in the camp!

On the 10th The Monk, our best horse, fell, and was dead in a minute—run down like a clock. The other two followed slowly behind. Presently a salt-lake,note enclosed by sandhills, barred our way—a cheerful sight indeed! Hung up in its treacherous bogs, with nearly empty tanks, dying horses and tired camels, what chance had we? Speculation of this kind must not be indulged in; time enough to cry out when the troubles come. Providence was with us as guide, and across the lake we dodged from sand-spit to sand-spit until we had beaten it, and not one animal was bogged.

The night of the 10th our supply was down to three gallons. None could be spared for the horses now, none could be spared for beef-boiling, only a little for bread, and a drop each to drink. Every rock-hole we had seen—but one—was dry. Alexander Spring would be dry. We should have to make for the Empress Spring, fifty miles beyond. Every thing pointed to the probability of this sequence of events, therefore the greatest care must be exercised. The horses would die within a few miles, but the camels were still staunch in spite of the weakening effect of the sand-ridges, so there was no need for anxiety. Yet we could not help feeling anxious; one's nerves get shaky from constant wear and tear, from want of food and rest. We had been in infinitely worse positions than this; in fact, with health and strength and fresh camels no thought of danger would have been entertained, but it is a very different matter after months of constant strain on body and mind. Faith—that is the great thing, to possess—faith that all is for the best, and that all will “pan out” right in the end.

The days were closing in now, the nights were cold, so we were away before sunrise, and, leaving the rolling sand, came again into mulga thickets, with here and there a grassy flat, timbered with bloodwoods—the tail end of a creek no doubt rising in the sandstone cliffs we had seen ahead of us. Shortly after one o'clock a sight, that brought more joy to us than to any Robinson Crusoe, met our eyes—a track, a fresh footprint of a gin. Whether to follow it forward or back? That was the question. On this might hang more than the lives of the horses. In nine cases out of ten it is safer to follow them forward—this was the tenth! “Which way?” said Godfrey, who was steering. “Back,” said I, for what reason I cannot say. So back we followed the lady to see where she had camped, twisting and turning, now losing her tracks, and, casting, finding them again, until we were ready to stamp with impatience and shout D——n the woman! why couldn't she walk straight? Two hours brought us our reward, when an opening in the scrub disclosed a deep-banked creek, fringed with white-stemmed gums, and, beyond, a fire and natives camped. They all ran, nor did we care, for water must be there. Glorious sight! a small and green-scummed puddle, nestling beneath the bank, enclosed by a bar of rock and the bed of shingle. Before many minutes we had the shovels at work, and, clearing away the shingle and sand, found a plentiful supply. All had ended well, and just in time to save the horses. Considering the want of feed, and the hardships they had already suffered, they had done a remarkable stage. A stage of eleven days (from the evening of May 31st to the evening of June 11th)—a distance of 160 miles on the map, and a good many more allowing for deviations, during which they had but little water. We had brought them through safely, but at the cost of how much trouble to ourselves may be judged from previous pages and the following figures. We left the Deep rock-holes with exactly 102 gallons of water; decrease by breaking through the scrub must have been considerable, as we had nearly thirty gallons of this amount in canvas bags.

Added to this must be the 30 gallons we got from the small rock-hole—that is, 132 gallons in all. Of this supply the horses had 6 gallons each the first night, 3 gallons each subsequently until the day The Monk died and their ration was stopped. From 132, we take 90 (the horses' share). This leaves 42 gallons for four men and a dog (which drinks as much as a man) for eleven days; this supply was used for washing (an item hardly appreciable), bread-making, drinking, and beef-boiling, the last the most ruinous item; for dry-salted beef is very salt indeed, and unless boiled thoroughly (it should be boiled in two waters) makes one fearfully thirsty. What would otherwise have been an easy task was made difficult and uncomfortable by the presence of the horses, but we were well rewarded by the satisfaction of seeing them alive at the finish.

8. Chapter VIII

Woodhouse Lagoon Revisited

June 12th, 13th, 14th, we rested at the welcome creek and had time to examine our surroundings. I made the position of our camp to be in lat. 26° 0′, long. 125° 22′, and marked a gum tree near it with

. Therefore I concluded that this was the Blythe Creek, of Forrest; everything pointed to my conclusion being correct, excepting the failure to find Forrest's marked tree, and to locate his Sutherland Range. However, the bark might have grown over the marking on the tree—and several trees showed places where bark had been cut out by the natives for coolimans, and subsequently closed again—or the tree might have been burned, or blown down. As to the second, I am convinced that Forrest mistook the butt-ends of the sand-ridges cut off by Lake Breaden for a range of hills, for he only saw them from a distance. The creek heads in a broken sandstone range of tabletops and cliffs; from its head I sighted a peculiar peak, about nine miles distant, which I took to be Forrest's “Remarkable Peak,” marked on his map. From the sketch that I made, Sir John recognised the peak at once. From the cliffs the sandhills round Lake Breaden look exactly like a range of hills “covered,” as Forrest said, “with spinifex.” Another proof of the non-existence of, at all events, the northern portion of the Sutherland Range, is afforded by Breaden's experience. As I have already stated, he accompanied Mr. Carr-Boyd on a prospecting trip along this part of Forrest's Route. From his diary I see that they passed about three miles North of Forrest's peak, which Breaden identified, though by Mr. Carr-Boyd's reckoning they should have been twenty miles from it. Travelling due West across the creek on which we were camped, they found a large clay-pan, and were then hourly expecting to cross the Sutherland Range. However, no range was seen, only high sandhills. That Breaden's reckoning was correct was soon proved, for he and I walked from our camp and six miles West found the big clay-pan and their camel tracks. The lagoon was dry, though they had found it full of water. It is clear, therefore, that the range exists only as sandhills, north of lat. 26° 0′. Numerous other creeks rise in the broken range, and no doubt their waters, after rain, find their way into Lake Breaden.

Our camp was on the longest of them, though others that I followed down were broader. Above our camp, that is to the South-East, a ledge of rock crossed the creek forming a deep little pool which would hold plenty of water. I much regretted being unable to find Forrest's tree—but a tree unless close to some landmark is not easily come upon—as at its foot he buried a bottle holding letters and his position for that camp.

We saw no more of the natives who had been camped on the creek, but left some articles that should be of great use to them. Everything of weight that was not absolutely necessary was left here, and this included a number of horseshoes.

On the 15th we were ready to start, and marched on a West-South-West course until we should sight Mount Worsnop, and turn West to the Woodhouse Lagoon. A mile and a half from our camp we crossed another creek, and on its banks a tree marked G. H. S., and NARROO cut in the bark. Evidently the prospectors had been pushing out in our absence, or else it was another overland party from South Australia, for Forrest's route has become quite a fashionable track, some half-dozen parties having crossed the Colony in this latitude. On the next day we sighted Mount Worsnop from eight miles (from the East it is more prominent than from the South). This was a day of miracles! It rained—actually rained! The first rain we had seen in the interior—not a hard rain, but an all-day drizzle. How cold it made us, and how wet!—not that we minded that. But the winter was approaching, we were daily getting further south, and with our blood thin and poor, our clothes of the lightest and most ragged, accustomed to scorching heat, we felt the cold rain very much indeed. Our teeth chattered, and our hands were so numbed that at night we could hardly undo the straps and ropes of our loads. A cold night, accompanied by a heavy dew, followed the rain; and for the first time on either journey we pitched a tent. During this, Devil-devil, wet and shivering, sneaked into my blankets for warmth, for, as a rule, he slept outside, in a little nest I made for him in one of the camel saddles. Such sudden changes in temperature made any “Barcoo” sores most painful; but fortunately we had suffered comparatively little from this unpleasant disease. A beautiful sun dried and warmed us in the morning, and crossing a narrow salt-lake (probably a continuation of Lake Breaden), we reached our old friend Woodhouse Lagoon on June 17th, nearly a year having elapsed since our first visit, August 19th, in 1896.

We were disappointed, but not surprised, to find the lagoon nearly dry, holding no more than six inches of water in the deepest place. But curiously enough Alexander Spring, found dry before, was now brimful, evidently filled by the recent rain, which had not been heavy enough to fill the lagoon. Here we camped for two days, which we could ill afford, as already we had to cut down our rations, and before long our meals would dwindle to one instead of two a day. Godfrey's sickness necessitated a delay—he suffered from such fearful pains in his head, poor fellow! Often after a day's march he would collapse, and lie prone with his head nearly bursting from pain. A drink of strong tea would relieve him, but when water was scarce he had just to suffer.

I had a splendid chance of replenishing our larder, and, fool that I was, I missed it. I was riding The Warden to the spring, when a kangaroo popped up on his hind legs, and sat looking at me. The Warden would not keep still; the surprised kangaroo actually waited for me to dismount and aim my rifle, but just as I fired The Warden jerked my arm and I missed, and away bounded many a good meal—and with it the pony! So I continued my way on foot, and was rewarded by finding some interesting things. A big camp of natives had been here in our absence; near the spring in the scrub was a cleared corroboree ground, twenty feet by fifty yards, cleaned of all stones and enclosed by a fallen brush-fence (this older than the other work, showing this is a favourite meeting-place). At one end was a sort of altar of bushes, and hidden beneath them a long, carved board. This I took, and afterwards gave to Sir John Forrest. In every tree surrounding the clearing a stone was lodged in the forked branches.

The pile of stones on Mount Allott had not been touched, nor had my board been removed. On it I found an addition to my directions to the lagoon—an addition made by two prospectors, Swincer and Haden, who had been in this locality two months after our first visit. I did not meet either Mr. Swincer or Mr. Haden, but I heard that my board had been of great service to them, for without it they would not have known of the lagoon, where they camped some time. G. H. S. carved on a tree near the Blythe Creek was also due to them; I believe that was about their furthest point reached, from which they returned to Lake Darlôt. On their return they depended on a water which failed them, and they had in consequence a narrow squeak for their lives. On nearing camp I met Breaden and Warri, who had started to track me up, for Warden's return with an empty saddle had caused a little anxiety.

I observed for latitude that night, and was pleased to find that my two positions for the lagoon agreed almost exactly, both in latitude and longitude—a very satisfactory result considering the distance we had travelled.

On the 20th we started again, steering a course a little South of West, my intention being to round the North end of Lake Wells, and cut the Bonython Creek, with the object of seeing if another oasis, on our suggested stock route from South Australia, could be found. It need hardly be said that any idea of a stock route from Hall's Creek is absolutely impracticable. Between Woodhouse Lagoon and Lake Wells the country consists of low sand-ridges, on which grows an abundance of acacia bushes and others suitable for camels, alternating with open spinifex plains, mulga scrubs in which good grass grows, and nearer the lagoon one or two small grass plains. All through cliffs and bluffs are met with, from which small creeks ending in a grassy avenue run; and, as Lake Wells is approached, table-topped hills and low ranges occur, and occasional flats of salt-bush country. We had no longer any difficulty with regard to water, the rain having left frequent puddles where any rocky or clayey ground was crossed. In the sand no water could be seen; indeed we had a sharp shower one morning, water was running down the slopes of sand, but half an hour afterwards no sign of it could be seen on the surface. On the 23rd we sighted, and steered for, a very prominent headland in a gap in a long range of cliffs. Sandhills abut right on to them, and dense scrub surrounds their foot. The headland, which I named Point Robert, after my brother, is of sandstone, and stands squarely and steep-cliffed above a stony slope of what resembles nothing so much as a huge heap of broken crockery.

We camped at the head of a little gorge that night, having found a rocky pool; the rain cleared off, out came the stars, and a sharp frost followed, the first of the year. The character of the country was extraordinarily patchy; after crossing ridges of sand, and then an open, stony plain, on the 25th we camped on a little flat of salt-bush and grass. Our position was lat. 26° 20′, long. 123° 23′, and seven miles to the North-West a flat-topped hill, at the end of a range, stood out noticeably above the horizon of scrub; this I named Mount Lancelot, after another brother. The next day it rained again, making the ground soft and slippery. In the evening, to our surprise and disgust, further passage that day was cut off by a salt swamp. Not wishing to get fixed in a lake during rain, we camped early, pitched our tent and hoped for the rain to stop—an unholy wish in this country, but salt-lakes are bad enough without rain! The next two days were spent in trying to find a crossing, for we found ourselves confronted by a series of swamps, samphire flats, and lake channels running away to the North as far as could be seen by field-glasses—a chain of lakes, hemmed in by sandhills, an unmarked arm of Lake Wells. If we could not cross here we might have to go seventy miles out of our way, round the South of Lake Wells, and then back to the Bonython.

9. Chapter IX

Across Lake Wells to Lake Darlôt

Four attempted crossings ended in the hopeless bogging of horses and camels, entailing the carrying of loads and saddles. At last we could not get them to face the task at all; and small wonder, for floundering about in soft, sticky mud is at least unpleasant! I am pretty confident that we could have managed to get the camels through somehow, but the horses were far too weak to struggle. Poor old Highlander sank to his belly, struggled for a minute just long enough to get further engulfed, and then threw up the sponge and lay panting until we came to his rescue. We had a job to get him to the shore, and only succeeded by digging out two legs on one side, putting a rope round them, then the same on the other, and by violent efforts dragged him on to his side. Then, one at his head and the rest on his legs, we turned him over and over until we came on firmer ground, when we put the ropes on his legs again and by main force hauled him on his flank to the margin of the lake, where he lay half dead. The others fared but little better; it was evident that a crossing could not be effected except at the cost of the horses.

From a sandhill near our camp numerous hills could be seen, the more prominent of which I named. To the West-North-West a table-top hill (Mount Courtenay, after my brother-in-law) standing in front of a prominent tableland; to the northward Mount Lancelot; to the East-South-East a line of cliffs standing above stony rises, at the southern end a bluff point (Point Katharine, after my sister); and eight miles to the South-South-West, two flat-topped hills, close together—these I named Mount Dora and Mount Elisabeth after two of my sisters. Little did I think that I was never to see again the dear face of one of them! As a last hope, I and Breaden went across the lake to these hills to look for a break in the swamps. From Mount Elisabeth an extensive view can be obtained, but no signs of the lake coming to an end. From Mount Elisabeth, which, by the way, is of quartzite, I took the following bearings: Mount Courtenay 331°, Mount Lancelot 23°, Point Katharine, 78°. To the West numerous broken tablelands can be seen, and the same to the South. Clearly there was no chance of crossing this lake or rounding it on the North, for the white streak of salt could be seen for miles and miles in that direction. There was nothing to be done but to skirt the edge of the lake, and if connected with Lake Wells to skirt that too, until a crossing could be found. So we loaded up and steered East and then South-East to round the swamps. Due West of Point Katharine, four miles distant, we found a large freshwater lagoon surrounded by stony banks and ridges. It contained only a few inches of water, but is capable of holding it to a depth of six feet. Beyond it is a stony cotton-bush flat, and on it numerous white clay-holes of water, almost hidden by the herbage.

Water-hens were so numerous that we could not pass by so good an opportunity, and camped early in consequence, spending the rest of the day in shooting these birds. The rest was a good thing for Breaden, too, who had been hurt by Krüger as he struggled in the salt-bog. The next morning we struck South, and by night found the lake again in our way. From a high bank of rocks and stones we could see the arm that had first blocked us, running round the foot of the hills and joining a larger lake which spread before us to the South. Across it some high, broken tablelands could be seen. There was no doubt from our position that this was Lake Wells, but I had expected to find a tableland (the Van Treuer of Wells) fringing the Northern shore. However, the Van Treuer does not run nearly so far East as Wells supposed when he sighted it from the South. No crossing could be effected yet, so the next day we continued along the margin of the lake, along a narrow strip of salt-bush country hemmed in between the lake and sandhills. On July 2nd we found the narrow place where Wells had crossed in 1892; the tracks of his camels were still visible in the soft ground. The crossing being narrow, and the bog shallow—no more than a few inches above a hard bed of rock—we had no trouble whatever.

We now followed the same course as Wells had done, passing Lyell-Brown Bluff—from which Mount Elisabeth bears 339°—and Parson's Bluff, eventually striking the Bonython Creek. This, as described by Wells, is a flat, shallow, and, in places, but ill-defined watercourse. In it are one or two good deep pools, of which one is probably permanent. Fringing the banks is a narrow strip of salt-bush and grass; beyond that mulga and coarse grass. This narrow belt of good country continues down to the lake, and as we saw it just after the rain looked fresh and green. There is no extent, but sufficient to form a good resting-place for travelling stock. Some cattle-tracks of recent date were visible, a small wild herd of stragglers probably from the Gascoyne. Turkeys were seen in fair numbers, but they were the shyest birds I have ever come across—so much so that we never got a shot. The late rain had left so many pools and puddles that we had no chance of waiting for them at their watering-place. One of the wild cattle beasts, amongst which must be a bull, for we saw tracks of quite young calves, would have been very acceptable, for our meat had come to an end. In consequence we wasted no time in further examining the Bonython, but made tracks for Lake Darlôt. The days were getting so short now that, in order to accomplish a good stage, we had to rise long before daylight and collect the camels and horses, following their tracks by means of a fire-stick. In this way we were enabled to get a start at sunrise, having breakfasted—in imagination!

Several parties of prospectors have been to Lake Wells, and at first we followed a regular pad; however, it did not seem to be going very direct, so we left it. Between Lake Wells and Lake Darlôt—a distance of about 130 miles—the country consists of open mulga thickets with a coarse undergrowth of grass, alternating with spinifex desert and sand. Occasional low cliffs and ridges occur, and nearer Lake Darlôt numerous ranges, from which the Erlistoun Creek takes its rise. Amongst these hills we saw the first auriferous country since leaving the vicinity of Hall's Creek, and in the Erlistoun the first permanent water (probably) since leaving the Sturt Creek, a distance of about 800 miles. A narrow belt of grass and salt-bush fringes the Erlistoun, and in the winter looks healthy and succulent; however, a few months soon alters that, and in the summer all is parched and yellow. How pleasant it was to see such country, after the dreary desert! Tracks and roads were now numerous as we approached civilisation. The same lake lay between us and the settlement that had caused Conley, Egan, and myself so much trouble in former days. Choosing the same narrow channel where I had formerly crossed, we managed very fairly well. Most of the camels bogged, but some did not, nor did the horses, and our loads now consisted of little else but the saddles, and were therefore no great weight to carry. The weather was lovely now, bright warm days and frosty nights; unfortunately this tends to sharpen the appetite, which we had small means of satisfying. For the last ten days we had had nothing but damper, and not much of that, on which we spread tinned milk which had previously been discarded as unfit for use, being dark brown instead of white, and almost solid. Nevertheless it was better than nothing; a ten hours' march, begun on an empty stomach, and finished on a slice of bread, cannot be indulged in for many days before it leaves its mark. We were not sorry, therefore, to reach Lake Darlôt township on July 15th, and, choosing a nice spot, made camp. This day we saw the first white face since April 9th, and our journey was practically over.

The excellent feed growing all over the flats near Lake Darlôt gave us a good opportunity of recruiting our animals' strength. For nearly a month we moved slowly about between Lake Darlôt and Lawlers prospecting in a desultory sort of way. Our departure from the former place was deeply regretted—by the butcher, whose trade had increased by leaps and bounds during our stay. “I never see'd coves as could stack mutton like you chaps,” he said, in satisfied wonder; “why, a whole blooming sheep don't seem to last you a day; can't ye stop until I get some bullocks up the track?” Certainly that was the best fresh mutton I have ever tasted, and no doubt we did do our duty by it.

By degrees the camels fattened and fattened, until the combination of flesh and the hard muscles their work had formed, made it difficult to believe how great the trials were they had been through. The horses were also getting less like skeletons, though they take far longer than camels to regain their strength; as a rule, if they have been through great hardships they never do regain it and are, practically, useless afterwards. Stoddy, whose back had been bad, was also recovering—this the only sore back amongst them after so many miles of country well calculated to knock both packs and backs to pieces.

10. Chapter X

The End of the Expedition

By easy stages and frequent halts we eventually reached Coolgardie, after an absence of thirteen months. Of these, ten and a half months were occupied in travelling, during which we traversed a little over three thousand miles. Of this, 550 miles was traversed by roads and tracks, whilst the remainder was through country beyond the limits of any settlements.



Table showing sources of water supply.

Table showing character and extent of country traversed.

From the above table it will be seen that the greater part of the interior of the Colony seen by us is absolutely useless to man or beast. It is possible that between the Lake Darlôt goldfield and the 25th parallel of latitude isolated areas of auriferous country may be found, though nothing that we saw proves this to be likely; and I base my opinion only on the facts that quartz and ironstone are known to occur in the vicinity of Lake Augusta and the Warburton Range. It is also possible (and this I have already discussed) that a travelling route for stock may be formed from South Australia along the 26th parallel as far as Mounts Allott and Worsnop, and thence viâ Lake Wells and the Bonython Creek to the Erlistoun Creek and Lake Darlôt.

Failing either the finding of gold, or the formation of a stock route from oasis to oasis, I can see no use whatever to which this part of the interior can be put.

North of the 25th parallel the country is absolutely useless until the confines of the Kimberley district (about lat. 19°) are reached. That a stock route through the desert is quite impracticable we have clearly demonstrated. Even supposing that there was any water supply, there is no feed; nothing but spinifex grows in more than wee patches at very long intervals. As any one who has followed me through this book can see, our water supply was most precarious, depending as we did upon rock-holes and native wells (which at any time may be found dry), and these yielded an only just sufficient quantity to keep no more than nine camels from dying for want of a drink—every well that we found, with the exception of one or two, was drained and left empty. Indeed on our two journeys there are only two watering-places on which I should care to depend, viz., the Empress Spring and Helena Spring. Throughout our journey we never once found water by chance—though chance took us to more than one dry hole—but found it only by systematic and patient work, involving many scores of miles of tracking, the capture of the wild aboriginals, and endless hours of manual labour. Without having resorted to these expedients I have no hesitation in saying that neither we nor the camels would be living today, for though without having done so, other parties have crossed as great an extent of arid country, it must be remembered that our journey was accomplished through infinitely worse country, and with a party exactly half as large as the smallest of the previous expeditions across the interior. Where, with a large number of camels, it would be possible to carry a great quantity of water and do long stages, using the water for camels as well as men, with a small number such tactics as going straight ahead, and trusting to luck, could only end in disaster.

It has been my fate, in all my exploration work, to find none but useless country, though when merely prospecting on the goldfields I have been more fortunate. So far, therefore, as being of benefit to mankind, my work has had no better result than to demonstrate to others, that part of the interior that may best be avoided. No mountain ranges, no rivers, no lakes, no pastoral lands, nor mineral districts has it brought to light; where the country was previously unknown it has proved only its nakedness; nevertheless I do not regret one penny of the cost or one minute of the troubles and labours entailed by it. Nor, I am confident, do my companions repine because they wasted so many months of their lives in such a howling wilderness. May good fortune attend them wherever they go; for they were brave and true men, and to them I once more express my feelings of thanks and gratitude for their untiring energy and help through all our journeyings. I verily believe that so large an extent of country, good or bad, has never been travelled through by a more cheerful party, or by one, the members of which were more in accord; and to the unanimity, and ready co-operation that prevailed throughout the camp, the successful issue of the expedition must in a large degree be ascribed.

Before leaving Coolgardie I had to perform the melancholy task of selling off my camels and all belongings. I have seldom felt anything so deeply as the breaking up of our little band, and the sale of my faithful animals. However, it was a matter of necessity, for much as I wished to pension off my favourites I was not in a position to do so, and eventually made my exit from the Colony in much the same state as that in which I arrived.

Before leaving for home I spent some time in Perth, where the Surveyor-General, Mr. Johnston, did all in his power to assist me in the preparation of plans and maps. These, together with all information I had gathered, I placed at the disposal of the Government, for which they were pleased to express many thanks. At a gathering in the Perth Town Hall, at which I was present on the day of my departure, Sir John Forrest, the Premier, proposed the toast of the guest and said many kind things, to which I replied: “…I regret that I am only able to give such a bad report of the far interior of this Colony; but even so, and even though it has not been our fortune to discover any country useful either to the pastoralist or miner, yet I hope we have done good service in proving the nature of a large tract of country previously unknown. Our late journey will, I think, give an answer to the oft-repeated question, ‘Does the gold-belt extend in a direct line from Coolgardie to Kimberley?’ and the answer is in the negative. At least we have demonstrated the uselessness of any persons wasting their time and money in farther investigation of that desolate region. Such an expedition might be undertaken for pleasure, but this I should not recommend, for few countries present such difficulties of travel or such monotony of scenery or occupation. Although I am leaving this country, probably for good, I would not wish it to be thought that I have no faith in it, for the late developments and marvellous returns from the goldfields should convert the most sceptical. Nor have the other sources of wealth to the Colony failed to impress their importance on me… Every one is glad to return to his home, and I am no exception; but however happy I am at the prospect of again seeing my native land, yet I cannot say goodbye to the numerous friends I have been fortunate in making in this Colony without sincere feelings of regret. Every day the Old Country, which we are all proud to call Home, and the New are learning to understand each other better, and the bond of friendship between them is ever strengthening. If I have been able to promote these feelings in however small a degree, and have been able to show that the Home-born is still able, and willing, to take his share in the pioneer work of this continent of Australia, as his fathers were before him, then I have not worked in vain.”