1. Chapter I

The Rush to Kurnalpi—We Reach Queen Victoria Spring

Shortly after Lord Douglas's return, I took the train to York, where “Little Carnegie,” who had formed one of the team to draw the gold-laden express waggon from Bayley's to the head of the railway line, was running in one of Mr. Monger's paddocks. The Mongers are the kings of York, an agricultural town, and own much property thereabouts. York and its surroundings in the winter-time might, except for the corrugated-iron roofs, easily be in England. Many of the houses are built of stone, and enclosed in vineyards and fruit gardens. The Mongers' house was quite after the English style, so also was their hospitality. From York I rode along the old track to Southern Cross, and a lonely ride I had, for the train had superseded the old methods of travel, much to the disgust of some of the “cockies,” or small farmers, who expressed the opinion that the country was going to the dogs, “them blooming railways were spoiling everything”; the reason for their complaint being, that formerly, all the carrying had been in the teamsters' hands, as well as a considerable amount of passenger traffic.

I had one or two “sells” on the road, for former stopping-places were now deserted, and wells had been neglected, making it impossible, from their depth, for me to get any water. I was fortunate in falling in with a teamster and his waggon—a typical one of his class; on first sight they are the most uncouth and foul-tongued men that it is possible to imagine. But on further acquaintance one finds that the language is as superficial as the dirt with which they cannot fail to be covered, since they are always walking in a cloud of dust. My friend on this occasion was apostrophising his horses with oaths that made my flesh creep, to help them up a steep hill. The top reached, he petted and soothed his team in most quaint language. At the bottom of the slope he was a demon of cruelty, at its summit a kind-hearted human being! I lunched with him, sitting under his waggon for shade, and found him most entertaining—nor was the old pony neglected, for he was given a fine feed of chaff and oats.

In due time I reached Coolgardie, where Lord Douglas and our new partner, Mr. Driffield (since drowned in a boating accident on the Swan River), joined me. They had engaged the services of one Luck and his camels, and had ridden up from the Cross. The rush to Kurnalpi had just broken out, so Driffield, Luck, and I joined the crowd of fortune-hunters; and a queer-looking crowd they were too, for every third or fourth swagman carried on his shoulder a small portable condenser, the boiler hanging behind him and the cooler in front; every party, whether with horses, carts, or camels, carried condensers of one shape or another; for the month was January, no surface water existed on the track, and only salt water could be obtained, by digging in the salt lakes which the road passed. The nearest water to the scene of the rush was a salt lake seven miles distant, and this at night presented a strange appearance. Condensers of every size and capacity fringed the two shores of a narrow channel; under each was a fire, and round each all night long could be seen figures, stoking the burning wood or drawing water, and in the distance the sound of the axe could be heard, for at whatever time a party arrived they had forthwith to set about “cooking water.” The clattering and hammering, the incessant talking, and the figures flitting about in the glare, reminded one of a crowded open-air market with flaring lamps and frequent coffee stalls. Kurnalpi was known at first as “Billy-Billy,” or as “The Tinker's Rush”—the first name was supposed by some to be of native origin, by others to indicate the amount of tin used in the condensing plants—“Billy,” translated for those to whom the bush is unfamiliar, meaning a tin pot for boiling tea in, and other such uses.

Certainly there was plenty of tin at Kurnalpi, and plenty of alluvial gold as well for the lucky ones—amongst which we were not numbered. Poor Driffield was much disgusted; he had looked upon gold-finding as the simplest thing in the world—and so it is if you happen to look in the right place! and when you do so it's a hundred to one that you think your own cleverness and knowledge guided you to it! Chance? Oh dear, no! From that time forth your reputation is made as “a shrewd fellow who knows a thing or two”; and if your find was made in a mine, you are an “expert” at once, and can command a price for your report on other mines commensurate with the richness of your own!

As the gold would not come to us, and my partner disliked the labour of seeking it, we returned to Coolgardie, and set about looking after the mines we already had. Financial schemes or business never had any charms for me; when therefore I heard that the Company had cabled out that a prospecting party should be despatched at once, I eagerly availed myself of the chance of work so much to my taste. As speed was an object, and neither camels nor men procurable owing to the rush, we did not waste any time in trying to form a large expedition, such as the soul of the London director loveth, but contented ourselves with the camels already to hand.

On March 24, 1894, we started; Luck, myself, and three camels—Omerod, Shimsha, and Jenny by name—with rations for three months, and instructions to prospect the Hampton Plains as far as the supply of surface water permitted; failing a long stay in that region I could go where I thought best.

To the east and north-east of Coolgardie lie what are known as the Hampton Plains—so named by Captain Hunt, who in 1864 led an expedition past York, eastward, into the interior. Beyond the Hampton Plains he was forced back by the Desert, and returned to York with but a sorry tale of the country he had seen. “An endless sea of scrub,” was his apt description of the greater part of the country. Compared to the rest, the Hampton Plains were splendid pastoral lands. Curiously enough, Hunt passed and repassed close to what is now Coolgardie, and, though reporting quartz and ironstone, failed to hit upon any gold. Nor was he the only one; Coolgardie had several narrow squeaks of being found out.

Giles and Forrest both traversed districts since found to be gold-bearing, and though, like Hunt, reporting, and even bringing back specimens of quartz and ironstone, had the bad luck to miss finding even a “colour.”

Alexander Forrest, Goddard, and Lindsay all passed within appreciable distance of Coolgardie without unearthing its treasures, though in Lindsay's journal the geologist to the expedition pronounced the country auriferous. When we come to consider how many prospectors pass over gold, it is not so wonderful that explorers, whose business is to see as much country as they can, in as short a time as possible, should have failed to drop on the hidden wealth.

Bayley and Ford, its first discoverers, were by no means the first prospectors to camp at Coolgardie. In 1888 Anstey and party actually found colours of gold, and pegged out a claim, whose corner posts were standing at the time of the first rush; but nobody heeded them, for the quartz was not rich enough.

In after years George Withers sunk a hole and “dry blew” the wash not very far from Bayley's, yet he discovered no gold. Macpherson, too, poked out beyond Coolgardie, and nearly lost his life in returning, and, indeed, was saved by his black-boy, who held him on the only remaining horse.

Other instances could be given, all of which show that Nature will not be bustled, and will only divulge her secrets when the ordained time has arrived. It has been argued that since Giles, for example, passed the Coolgardie district without finding gold, therefore there is every probability of the rest of the country through which he passed being auriferous. It fails to occur to those holding this view, that a man may recognise possible gold-bearing country without finding gold, or to read the journals of these early travellers, in which they would see that the Desert is plainly demarcated, and the change in the nature of the country, the occurrence of quartz, and so forth, always recorded. These folk who so narrowly missed the gold were not the only unfortunate ones; those responsible for the choosing for their company of the blocks of land on the Hampton Mains were remarkably near securing all the plums.

Bayley's is one and a half miles from their boundary, Kalgoorlie twelve miles, Kurnalpi seven miles, and a number of other places lie just on the wrong side of the survey line to please the shareholders, though had all these rich districts been found on their land, I fancy there would have been a pretty outcry from the general public.

At the time of which I am writing this land was considered likely to be as rich as Ophir. Luck and I were expected to trip up over nuggets, and come back simply impregnated with gold. Unfortunately we not only found no gold, but formed a very poor idea of that part of the property which we were able to traverse, though, given a good supply of water, it should prove valuable stock country. Before we had been very long started on our journey we met numerous parties returning from that region, though legally they had no right to prospect there; each told us the same story—every water was dry; and since every one we had been to was all but dry, we concluded that they were speaking the truth; so when we arrived at Yindi, a large granite rock with a cavity capable of holding some twenty thousand gallons of water, and found Yindi dry, we decided to leave the Hampton Plains and push out into new country.

Queen Victoria Spring, reported permanent by Giles, lay some seventy miles to the eastward, and attracted our attention; for Lindsay had reported quartz country near the Ponton, not far from the Spring, and the country directly between the Spring and Kurnalpi was unknown.

On April 15th we left Yindi, having seen the last water twenty-six miles back near Gundockerta, and passed Mount Quinn, entering a dense thicket of mulga, which lasted for the next twenty miles. It was most awkward country to steer through, and I often overheard Luck muttering to himself that I was going all wrong, for he was a first-rate bushman and I a novice. I had bought a little brumby from a man we met on the Plains, an excellent pony, and most handy in winding his way through the scrub. Luck rode Jenny and led the other two camels. Hereabouts we noticed a large number of old brush fences—curiously I have never once seen a new one—which the natives had set up for catching wallabies. The fences run out in long wings, which meet in a point where a hole is dug. Neither wallabies nor natives were to be seen, though occasionally we noticed where “bardies” had been dug out, and a little further on a native grave, a hole about three feet square by three feet deep, lined at the bottom with gum leaves and strips of bark, evidently ready to receive the deceased. Luck, who knew a good deal about native customs, told me that the grave, though apparently only large enough for a child, was really destined for a grown man. When a man dies his first finger is cut off, because he must not fight in the next world, nor need he throw a spear to slay animals, as game is supplied. The body is then bent double until the knees touch the chin—this to represent a baby before birth; and in this cramped position the late warrior is crammed into his grave, until, according to a semi-civilised boy that I knew, he is called to the happy hunting grounds, where he changes colour! “Black fella tumble down, jump up white fella.” A clear proof that this benighted people have some conception of a better state hereafter.

Once through the scrub, we came again into gum-timbered country, and when fifty miles east of Kurnalpi crossed a narrow belt of auriferous country, but, failing to find water, were unable to stop. In a few miles we were in desert country—undulations of sand and spinifex, with frequent clumps of dense mallee, a species of eucalyptus, with several straggling stems growing from one root, and little foliage except at the ends of the branches, an untidy and melancholy-looking tree. There was no change in the country till after noon on the 18th, when we noticed some grass-trees, or black-boys, smaller than those seen near the coast, and presently struck the outskirts of a little oasis, and immediately after an old camel pad (Lindsay's in 1892, formed by a caravan of over fifty animals), which we followed for a few minutes, until the welcome sight of Queen Victoria Spring met our eyes. A most remarkable spot, and one that cannot be better described than by quoting the words of its discoverer, Ernest Giles, in 1875, who, with a party of five companions, fifteen pack, and seven riding camels, happened on this spring just when they most needed water.

Giles says of it:—

It is the most singularly placed water I have ever seen, lying in a small hollow in the centre of a little grassy flat and surrounded by clumps of funereal pines… the water is no doubt permanent, for it is supplied by the drainage of the sandhills which surround it and it rests on a substratum of impervious clay. It lies exposed to view in a small, open basin, the water being about only one hundred and fifty yards in circumference and from two to three feet deep. Further up the slopes at much higher levels native wells had been sunk in all directions—in each and all of these there was water. Beyond the immediate precincts of this open space the scrubs abound… Before I leave this spot I had perhaps better remark that it might prove a very difficult, perhaps dangerous, place to any other traveller to attempt to find, because although there are many white sandhills in the neighbourhood, the open space on which the water lies is so small in area and so closely surrounded by scrubs, that it cannot be seen from any conspicuous one, nor can any conspicuous sandhill, distinguishable at any distance, be seen from it. On the top of the banks above the wells was a beaten corroboree path, where the denizens of the desert have often held their feasts and dances. Some grass-trees grew in the vicinity of this spring to a height of over twenty feet…

A charming spot indeed! but we found it to be hardly so cheerful as this description would lead one to expect. For at first sight the Spring was dry. The pool of water was now a dry clay-pan; the numerous native wells were there, but all were dry. The prospect was sufficiently gloomy, for our water was all but done, and poor Tommy, the pony, in spite of an allowance of a billy-full per night, was in a very bad way, for we had travelled nearly one hundred miles from the last water, and if this was dry we knew no other that we could reach. However, we were not going to cry before we were hurt and set to work to dig out the soak, and in a short time were rewarded by the sight of water trickling in on all sides, and, by roughly timbering the sides, soon had a most serviceable well—a state of affairs greatly appreciated by Tommy and the camels. This spring or soakage, whichever it may be, is in black sand, though the sand outside the little basin is yellowish white. From what I have heard and read of them it must be something of the nature of what are called “black soil springs.” Giles was right in his description of its remarkable surroundings—unless we had marched right into the oasis, we should perhaps have missed it altogether, for it was unlikely that Lindsay's camel tracks would be visible except where sheltered from the wind by the trees; and our only instruments for navigation were a prismatic and pocket compass, and a watch for rating our travel. I was greatly pleased at such successful steering for a first attempt of any distance, and Luck was as pleased as I was, for to him I owed many useful hints. Yet I was not blind to the fact that it was a wonderful piece of luck to strike exactly a small spot of no more than fifty acres in extent, hidden in the valleys of the sandhills, from whose summits nothing could be seen but similar mounds of white sand. Amongst the white gum trees we found one marked with Lindsay's initials with date. Under this I nailed on a piece of tin, on which I had stamped our names and date. Probably the blacks have long since taken this down and used it as an ornament. Another tree, a pine, was marked W. Blake; who he was I do not know, unless one of Lindsay's party. Not far off was a grave, more like that of a white man than of a native; about its history, too, I am ignorant.

Numerous old native camps surrounded the water, and many weapons, spears, waddies, and coolimans were lying about. The camps had not been occupied for some long time. In the scrub we came on a cleared space, some eighty yards long and ten to twelve feet wide. At each end were heaps of ashes, and down the middle ran a well-beaten path, and a similar one on either side not unlike an old dray track. Evidently a corroboree ground of some kind. From Luck I learnt that north of Eucla, where he had been with a survey party, the natives used such grounds in their initiation ceremonies. A youth on arriving at a certain age may become a warrior, and is then allowed to carry a shield and spear. Before he can attain this honour he must submit to some very horrible rites—which are best left undescribed. Seizing each an arm of the victim, two stalwart “bucks” (as the men are called) run him up and down the cleared space until they are out of breath; then two more take places, and up and down they go until at last the boy is exhausted. This is the aboriginal method of applying anæsthetics. During the operations that follow, the men dance and yell round the fires but the women may not be witnesses of the ceremony. Tribes from all neighbouring districts meet at such times and hold high revel. Evidently Queen Victoria Spring is a favourite meeting-place. I regret that I never had the chance of being present at such a gathering—few white men have. For except in thickly populated districts the ceremonies are rare; the natives are very ready to resent any prying into their mysteries, and Luck only managed it at some risk to himself. Whilst camped at the Spring we made one or two short excursions to the southward, but met with little encouragement. On turning our attention to the opposite direction we found that nearly two hundred miles due north a tract of auriferous country was marked on the map of the Elder Expedition. Between us and that point, the country was unmapped and untrodden except by black-fellows, and it seemed reasonable to suppose that since the belts of country run more or less north and south. we had a fair chance of finding gold-bearing country extending southward. We should be getting a long way from Coolgardie, but if a rich company could not afford to open up the country, who could? To the east we knew that desert existed, to the south the country was known, and to return the way we had come would be only a waste of time. So we decided on the northern course, and chose Mount Shenton, near which a soakage was marked, as our objective point. We were not well equipped for a long march in new country, since we had few camels and scanty facilities for carrying water. By setting to work with the needle we soon had two canvas water-bags made; Luck, who had served in the French navy, like all sailors, was a very handy man in a camp, and could of course sew well, and gave me useful lessons in the handling of a sail-needle.