2. Chapter II

In Unknown Country

On April 22nd we left the spring, steering due north—carrying in all thirty-five gallons of water, though this supply was very perceptibly reduced by evening, owing to the canvas being new; loss by evaporation was lessened by covering the bags with a fly (a sheet of coarse calico). The class of country we encountered the first and second day can stand for the rest of the march. Spinifex plains, undulating sand-plains, rolling sandhills, steep sand-ridges, mallee scrubs, desert-gum forests, and dense thickets of mulga. The last were most unpleasant to travel through; for as we wound our way, one walking ahead to break down the branches, the other leading the camels, and Tommy following behind, every now and again the water-camel banged his precious load against a tree; and we walked with the constant risk of a dead branch ripping the canvas and letting out the water.

On the second evening, in passing through a mallee scrub, we came on a small tract of “kopi country” (powdered gypsum). Here were numerous old native tracks, and we could see where the mallee roots had been dragged up, broken into short pieces, presumably sucked or allowed to drain into some vessel, and stacked in little heaps. Though we knew that the blacks do get water from the mallee roots, and though we were in a spot where it was clear they had done so perhaps a month before, yet our attempts at water-finding were futile. This kopi is peculiar soil to walk over; on the surface there is a hard crust—once through this, one sinks nearly to the knee; the camels of course, from their weight, go much lower.

On the night of the 23rd, we gave Tommy two gallons of water—not much of a drink, but enough to make him tackle the mulga, and spinifex-tops, the only available feed; none but West Australian brumbies could live on such fare, and they will eat anything, like donkeys or goats. On the 24th there was no change, a few quondongs affording a meal for the camels.

The next day we crossed more old native tracks and followed them for some time without any sign of water being near. More tracks the following day, fresher this time; but though doubtless there was water at the end of them, for several reasons we did not follow them far: first, they were leading south-west and we wished to go north; second, the quantity of mallee root heaps, suggested the possibility that the natives could obtain from them sufficient moisture to live upon. I think now that this is most unlikely, and that roots are only resorted to when travelling or in time of great need. However, at that time we were inclined to think it probable, and though we might have sucked roots in place of a drink of tea or water, such a source of supply was absolutely valueless to the camels and pony.

On the 27th we sighted a hill dead ahead, which I named Mount Luck, and on the southern side a nice little plain of saltbush and grass—a pleasant and welcome change. Mount Luck is sheer on its south and east sides and slopes gradually to the north-west; it is of desert sandstone, and from its summit, nearly due east, can be seen an imposing flat-topped hill, which I named Mount Douglas, after my old friend and companion, to the north of this hill two quaint little pinnacles stand up above the scrub to a considerable height.

Poor Tommy was now getting very weak and had to be dragged by the last camel. I had not ridden him since the second day from the Spring; he was famished and worn to a skeleton. His allowance of two gallons a night had continued, which made a considerable hole in our supply, further diminished by the necessity of giving him damper to eat. Poor little pony! It was a cruel sight to see him wandering from pack to pack in camp, poking his nose into every possible opening, and even butting us with his head as if to call attention to his dreadful state, which was only too apparent. “While there's life there's hope,” and every day took us nearer to water—that is if we were to get any at all! So long as we could do so, we must take Tommy with us, who might yet be saved. This, however, was not to be, for on the 28th we again encountered sand-ridges, running at right angles to our course, and these proved too hard for the poor brave brumby. About midday he at last gave in, and with glazed eyes and stiff limbs he fell to the ground. Taking off the saddle he carried, I knelt by his head for a few minutes and could see there was no hope. Poor, faithful friend! I felt like a murderer in doing it, but I knew it was the kindest thing—and finished his sufferings with a bullet. There on the ridge, his bones will lie for many a long day. Brave Tommy, whose rough and unkempt exterior covered a heart that any warhorse might have envied, had covered 135 miles, without feed worth mentioning, and with only eleven gallons of water during that distance, a stage of nearly seven days' duration of very hard travelling indeed, with the weather pretty sultry, though the nights were cool. His death, however, was in favour of our water supply, which was not too abundant. So much had been lost by the bags knocking about on the saddle, by their own pressure against the side of the saddle, and by evaporation, that we had to content ourselves with a quart-potful between us morning and evening—by no means a handsome allowance.

On the 29th, after travelling eight hours through scrubs, we were just about to camp when the shrill “coo-oo” of a black-fellow met our ears; and on looking round we were startled to see some half-dozen natives gazing at us. Jenny chose at that moment to give forth the howl that only cow-camels can produce; this was too great a shock for the blacks, who stampeded pell-mell, leaving their spears and throwing-sticks behind them. We gave chase, and, after a spirited run, Luck managed to stop a man. A stark-naked savage this, and devoid of all adornment excepting a waist-belt of plaited grass and a “sporran” of similar material. He was in great dread of the camels and not too sure of us. I gave him something to eat, and, by eating some of it myself, put him more at ease. After various futile attempts at conversation, in which Luck displayed great knowledge of the black's tongue, as spoken a few hundred miles away near Eucla, but which unfortunately was quite lost on this native, we at last succeeded in making our wants understood. “Ingup,” “Ingup,” he kept repeating, pointing with his chin to the North and again to the West. Evidently “Ingup” stood for water; for he presently took us to a small granite rock and pointed out a soak or rock-hole, we could not say which. Whilst we stooped to examine the water-hole, our guide escaped into the scrub and was soon lost to view. Near the rock we found his camp. A few branches leaning against a bush formed his house. In front a fire was burning, and near it a plucked bird lay ready for cooking. Darkness overtook us before we could get to work on the rock-hole, so we turned into the blankets with a more satisfied feeling than we had done for some days past. During the night the blacks came round us. The camels, very tired, had lain down close by, and, quietly creeping to Jenny, I slapped her nose, which awoke her with the desired result, viz., a loud roar. The sound of rapidly retreating feet was heard, and their owners troubled us no more.

So sure were we of the supply in the granite that we gave the camels the few gallons that were left in our bags, and were much disgusted to find the next day that, far from being a soakage, the water was merely contained in a rock-hole, which had been filled in with sand and sticks.

April 30th and May 1st were occupied in digging out the sand and collecting what water we could, a matter of five or six gallons. So bad was this water that the camels would not touch it; however, it made excellent bread, and passable tea. Man, recognising Necessity, is less fastidious than animals who look to their masters to supply them with the best, and cannot realise that in such cases “Whatever is, is best.”

From a broken granite rock North-West of the rock-hole, we sighted numerous peaks to the North, and knew that Mount Shenton could not now be far away. To the East of the rock-hole is a very prominent bluff some fifteen miles distant; this I named Mount Fleming, after Colonel Fleming, then Commandant of the West Australian forces.

May 2nd we reached the hills and rejoiced to find ourselves once more in decent country. Numerous small, dry watercourses ran down from the hills, fringed with grass and bushes. In the open mulga, kangaroos' tracks were numerous, and in the hills we saw several small red kangaroos, dingoes, and emus. At first we found great difficulty in identifying any of the hills; but after much consultation and reference to the map we at last picked out Mount Shenton, and on reaching the hill knew that we were right, for we found Wells' cairn of stones and the marks of his camp and camels. The next difficulty was in finding the soakage, as from a bad reproduction of Wells' map it was impossible to determine whether the soak was at the foot of Mount Shenton or near another hill three miles away. It only remained to search both localities. Our trouble was rewarded by the finding of an excellent little soakage, near the foot of a granite rock, visible due East, from the top of Mount Shenton, some two miles distant. Here we had an abundant supply, and not before it was wanted. The camels had had no water with the exception of a mouthful apiece from the night of April 21st until the night of May 3rd, a period of twelve days, during which we had travelled nearly two hundred miles over very trying ground. The cool nights were greatly in their favour, and yet it was a good performance, more especially that at the end of it they were in pretty fair fettle.

What a joy that water was to us! what a luxury a wash was! and clean clothes! Really it's worth while being half famished and wholly filthy for a few days, that one may so thoroughly enjoy such delights afterwards! I know few feelings of satisfaction that approach those which one experiences on such occasions. Our cup of joy was not yet full, for as we sat mending our torn clothes, two over-inquisitive emus approached. Luckily a Winchester was close to hand, and as they were starting to run I managed to bowl one over. Wounded in the thigh he could yet go a great pace, but before long we caught up with him and despatched him with a blow on the head. What a feed we had! I suppose there is hardly a part of that bird, barring bones, feathers, and beak that did not find its way into our mouths during the next day or two! Tinned meat is good, sometimes excellent; but when you find that a cunning storekeeper has palmed off all his minced mutton on you, you are apt to fancy tinned fare monotonous! Such was our case; and no matter what the label, the contents were always the same—though we tried to differentiate in imagination, as we used to call it venison, beef, veal, or salmon, for variety's sake! “Well, old chap, what shall we have for tea—Calf's head? Grouse? Pheasant?” “Hum! what about a little er—minced mutton— we've not had any for some time, I think.” In this way we added relish to our meal.

Amongst the hills we saw numerous kangaroos, but could never get a shot. This must be a fine camp for natives. Near the soak was a camp of quite a dozen blacks, but recently deserted. In fact we must have scared them away, for their fires were still smouldering. We spent three days in exploring the hills, but failed to see any auriferous indications, excepting in the immediate neighbourhood of Mount Shenton. We had therefore had our long tramp for nothing, and had to be content with knowing that we had tried our best and had at least proved the useless character of a large stretch of country. For this, however, one gets no thanks.

On the 6th we moved to a rock-hole near Mount Grant, in the same range as Mount Shenton, and spent another day tramping the hills with no result. Here again we were in luck, for a mob of thirteen emus came to drink whilst I was in the rock-hole. Having seen them early that morning and knowing that they had had no drink, I felt sure they would return, and so had patiently waited, crouched in the rock hole, waist deep in water. This, perhaps, did not improve its flavour, but emu meat was worth procuring at the small cost of tainting the water with the taste of clothes. Presently I heard the drumming of the approaching birds, and, cautiously looking up, found them attentively examining the bucket and pannikin, I had left on the rock. They made such a quaint, pretty picture that unless we had really wanted meat, I should not have disturbed them. Had I been so inclined I could have shot several as they were bunched together within a few feet of me; one, however, was sufficient, and as he fell the rest streamed away up the slope with tremendous speed. This bird we cut into strips of meat which we dried in the sun.

To celebrate this addition to our larder, we held a concert that night, and took it in turns to be the audience. Luck had rather a good voice, and treated me to French songs; his favourite started, “J'ai souvent parcouru le monde, les forêts et les grandes savannes”—This was always loudly applauded. My songs were not a great success—in fact an audience of one is all I can manage, that is if I am stronger, or fleeter of foot than he is. Luck was polite enough to say he enjoyed my rendering of “The Scottish Cavalier”. Then we used to read aloud to each other by the light of the camp-fire. I did most of the reading, for my mate's English was not as clear as it might have been.

Athletic sports, too, we used to indulge in, feats of strength, and so forth, in most of which Luck was too good for me, but I always beat him at cock-fighting, which was rather a sore point. In fact, considering that we were alone and had been so for many weeks, and were a long way into the interior, “outside the tracks” by a good many score of miles, we managed to be fairly cheerful on the whole. I do not like writing about my companion's crotchets, because it seems unfair, since one's own shortcomings never find the light unless the other man writes a book too. By freely conceding that sometimes I must have been a horrible nuisance to him, I feel absolved in this matter. When Luck used to get sulky fits, he really was most trying; for two or three days he wouldn't speak, and for want of company I used to talk to the camels; at the end of that time, when I saw signs of recovery, I used to address him thus, “Well, Bismarck, what's it all about?” Then he would tell me how I had agreed to bake a damper, and had gone off and done something else, leaving him to do it, or some such trivial complaint. After telling me about it, he would regain his usual cheerfulness. “Bismarck” was a sure draw, and made him so angry that he had to laugh as the only way out of it without fighting someone. Luck, you see, was from Alsace, and did not care about the Germans.