Project Canterbury

Thirty Years in Tropical Australia

By the Right Reverend Gilbert White, D.D.
Bishop of Willochra

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1918.

Chapter II. The Table-Lands (1887-1891)

BEHIND Cairns, which has a large and sheltered harbour, spoilt only by its bar of easily removed stiff clay, the land rises in a great jungle-covered wall, 2000 feet high, which culminates some thirty-five miles to the south in the peaks of Bellenden Ker and Bartle Frere, each over 5000 feet, which is a good height for Australia, whose loftiest mountain, Kosciusko, is only 7000 feet. Through this mountain wall the River Barren cuts its way, making a sheer leap of 600 feet before it enters the narrow canon by which it attains the level plain at the foot of the Range. When the river is in flood the Fall forms a spectacle not easily forgotten, and is one of the sights of Australia. Many years ago I went to Kuranda, a small settlement above the Fall, to recuperate after an illness, and the river being very low it occurred to me to see if I could climb down the face of the Fall. This I successfully accomplished, wearing a pair of rubber shoes, going out on to the jutting rock half-way down and then continuing my way to the bottom. In one place I had to make my way along a crack in the face of the cliff, and it suddenly dawned on me that it was the only way to negotiate it, and that I might easily miss it on my return and get into trouble. I felt in my pockets, and finding a piece of white paper I jammed it into a crack. Sure enough on my return I did miss the right place, and finding I could go no farther I looked about until I saw the paper about ten feet above me, and was enabled to return safely. When I got back to Kuranda I thought it was about time that I returned to work. A path has now been made to the bottom opposite the Fall, but I never heard of any one else descending the face.

The excellence of Cairns as a port was probably the reason that induced the Government, some thirty years ago, to decide on taking the railway to the interior up the gorge of the Barren River. The undertaking was one of great difficulty, the line passing along the face of a huge bluff through numerous tunnels, in front of, and only a few feet above, the Fall. During the construction the soil was thrown from the line over 1000 feet or more of cliff, and occasionally a workman went the same way. Of course the line is a success from a spectacular point of view and attracts many tourists, but it is inconvenient and expensive to work and liable to be destroyed in wet seasons by great landslides and by the blocking of the tunnels. Before the line was made the road, crossing about two miles above the Fall, was reported very dangerous, many persons having been drowned in fording the river. On one occasion, when riding up from Cairns with my sister, we observed two men just entering the water from the opposite side. When they saw us in the distance they stopped and returned to the bank, where one man got off his horse and pretended to be washing his hands. When they saw that we had crossed in safety they resumed their journey. The incident is fortunately entirely unique in my long experience of Australia.

About thirty-five miles inland from the Range over which the Barron empties itself is a further rise of 1000 feet leading up to the main divide. On this higher table-land is situated the little mining township of Herberton, where I spent four happy years, 1887-1891. The brawling Wild River runs through the township, and is crossed by a bridge three thousand feet above; sea-level. Herberton was at that time famous for its tin-mines, which were more profitable than gold. While I was there, two working miners discovered a very rich "show" which they sold for £60,000. One of them built a fine house, got married, and chartered a special steamer to take him to Sydney for his honeymoon; the other selected a simpler means of getting rid of his unaccustomed wealth. He took to racing, and in less than two years both men were again working for wages in the mine that they had discovered.

A somewhat similar case was told me by a mine manager near Herberton. He was working in the early days on the rich alluvial field of the Palmer, and having accumulated £1050, he thought that he would pay a long-deferred visit to his mother in Sydney. He set aside £50 for the purpose of bidding farewell to his friends in Cooktown, and took the £1000 in five-pound notes, which he put into his hand-bag. On his way to Sydney he stayed for a fortnight in Brisbane and spent the time in driving round and seeing old and new friends. When he wanted money he would go to his (unlocked) bag and take out a number of notes. At the end of the fortnight he found only two left, which just covered his bill, and so he availed himself of his return ticket, went on board the steamer, and returned to Cooktown, a sadder and, it is to be hoped, a wiser man.

I made my first visit to Herberton by coach from Port Douglas, a small port with no harbour worth mentioning, about thirty miles north of Cairns. The passengers are landed in a small boat, no very pleasant experience in rough weather. The coach was full, and among my fellow-passengers inside were a fat German Jew, an exquisitely dressed young "Jackeroo" going for the first time to a station for "colonial experience," and a tall young "new chum" Irishman, who appeared with such a huge swag that the driver ordered him to take it back and leave half the contents behind. The Irishman presently returned with the diminished bundle, and we prepared to start. We could not help noticing that the Irishman seemed to have grown in size since we first saw him, and when he sat down between his companions on either side it was like a cork being driven into a bottle. We questioned him as to his sudden increase of size, and he related with great glee that he had taken two suits of thick clothes out of his swag and had put them on over his other clothes. We had not long to wait for an exemplification of Horace's motto, Raro antecedentem scelestum Deseruit pede poena claudo. At the foot of the Range the coach pulled up and the driver fired off his ancient witticism: "Now then, any of you gentlemen like to get out and pick flowers?" The temperature was 105° in the shade, the Range three miles long and the angle of ascent for the first half-mile as steep as any vehicle could negotiate in safety. By the time we walked up to the top and were allowed to get in again, our Irish friend was cursing the driver, his three suits, the weather, and the road with laudable impartiality. Near the summit was an accommodation house famous for its buttered scones, and these restored our hero's equanimity. On getting into the coach he dropped a buttered scone down on to the sleeve of the Jackeroo's new black coat, and in response to his remonstrances remarked: "What's the matter with it? Sure, it's the foinest bread and butter I ever saw in my loife." I regret to say that in one of the many suits he had secreted a big bottle, and he finished up by getting very drunk and going to sleep with his head on the knees of the disgusted Jackeroo, whose face of indignant protest convulsed the rest of the passengers. The German Jew made himself as unpleasant as his tribe usually manage with the best intentions to do, and it is to be feared that he was chiefly greeted with laughter when, on our being turned out again to walk over a rocky crossing, he slipped on a stone and fell headlong into the stream.

We spent the night at an accommodation house, famous for the simplicity of its breakfasts, which consisted of bread and butter and an ordinary iron bucket filled to the brim with boiled eggs. I remember on a subsequent occasion staying there for the night with my sister, whom I had just met on her arrival from England. My sister innocently asked the woman of the house when tea would be ready. "Oh, directly," was the reply; "there it is coming in," pointing to a bullock being driven up to be killed. She was not to be persuaded to have any, even when the host pointed with his knife and inquired persuasively, "Try 'eart?"

There was a direct track from Cairns to Herberton, but it was not practicable for wheels. It scaled the Range at a place where it was like the wall of a house, and then passed through some twenty-five miles of dense scrub.

It is a part of the curious Australian meiosis to call the tropical jungle "scrub," on the same principle on which they call the wedge-tailed eagle, the largest eagle in the world, excelling even the famous golden eagle, an "eagle-hawk." The scrub is composed of magnificent trees, whose straight stems run up one hundred feet or more without a branch: cedar, kauri, mahogany, and a vast variety of valuable timber. One man sent to the Colonial Exhibition in London one hundred specimens of furniture timbers all cut within one mile of his house. These trees are laced together with innumerable creepers, among which the famous "lawyer-vine" predominates. If it once gets hold of you it will never let go. The track through the scrub is always in deep shade, and consequently hardly ever dries, the feet of the pack-horses soon plough it into deep furrows, and every horse is obliged to step into the same holes as it slips and staggers through the slippery mud. The sides of the track have to be carefully avoided as they are lined with the stinging tree Urtica gigantica, a giant nettle, twelve to eighteen feet in height, whose sting causes acute pain, which is renewed for some months after whenever the part stung is brought in contact with water. The stinging tree will kill a horse in a few minutes if, as is generally the case, the horse lashes out and gets stung all over the body. Even the dust of the tree is an acute irritant, and a whip touching the tree and then the hand will cause a most painful sting. A smaller variety of the tree grows near Cairns and in other places, but I never saw such large and evil trees as in the Herberton scrub. Like the nettle, it is rare in the untouched ground, but it springs up along tracks that have been used and neglected. Curiously enough, though so fatal to torses (I have known eleven killed by it in half an hour), bullocks will eat and apparently enjoy it. Like the nettle it will not sting if grasped very tightly, but the pain of the sting is so great that one is not often inclined to experiment. The scrub abounds in curious birds, of which those that most strike the traveller are the beautiful lyre- and rifle-birds, the scrub pheasant, the bell-bird with the strange bell-like cry, the whip-bird, whose call the tyro inevitably mistakes for the stock-whip of a distant bullock-driver, and a bird whose cry is exactly like the ringing of a wood-cutter's axe.

Some of the scrub insects grow to a great size. I once found a brown mantis, which measured eleven and a half inches in length and a foot across the wings. The ordinary small mantis of a couple of inches in length is a ferocious creature. I have seen one seize a grasshopper much larger than itself and proceed to eat it steadily up, commencing with the head. Such a monster as I have described must have been a regular tiger among the insects of the forest. The mantides take very curious shapes; some of them imitate dry twigs, others grass and straws. I have seen one on an orange-tree which was an exact replica of an orange-tree leaf. They have obtained their name of "praying mantis" from their habit of holding their two front feet, or hands, in the air in front of their very ugly faces, but they are gross hypocrites, and "preying mantis "would suit them very much better.

The sunny openings and outskirts of the scrub swarm with butterflies, and at night with moths of enormous size. Some of the butterflies are of extraordinary brilliancy and beauty, especially the large and small metallic blue butterflies, and both they and the moths are often protectively marked. One very large moth, which rests in the foliage of the trees, has on its wings two enormous eyes exactly resembling those of a cat, and birds give it a wide berth; another has an elongated wing, the markings of which resemble the head and eye of a snake. It is not interfered with.

In the streams, which are perennial, issuing as they do from the cool depths of the jungle, the strange "duck-billed platypus" is still found with his beautiful fur, which has almost led to his extinction, and the curious "tree-climbing kangaroo" was first found within a few miles of Herberton.

There is now a railway to Herberton, but in the days of which I speak communication with the outer world was slow and difficult, especially during the wet season. A theatrical company, which had ventured up to Herberton, was stuck up for six weeks on the banks of Rifle Creek, and Herberton was without supplies for the same period. At last one day the welcome sound of pack-horse bells was heard and the whole population, who had been living on half-pounds of sugar and scrapings of tea-caddies, turned out to welcome some forty loaded pack-horses. When, however, it was discovered that every pack-horse was loaded with grog, the welcomes were turned into anathemas. This is the only occasion that I remember when the arrival of grog was not welcomed in North Queensland.

Although Herberton was only 17 degrees south of the Equator, its height made the climate very cool, and it was quite a common thing to have the water freeze in one's bedroom. I have seen quite thick ice after midday, and I have sometimes been so stiff with cold in the middle of the day that I could hardly get off my horse. It was a part of my duty to visit and hold services in the little townships within a radius of some fifty miles, and many a long and weary journey I had over the mountains. One of these townships had a working population (there was no other) of twenty men, and these supported somehow the incredible number of six hotels. One man combined a store with his hotel; but even so it is hard to see how they got a living. Another township, long since gone into oblivion, and where there were no police, used to organize races on Saturday night at which men ran down the main street in primeval garb. I had here a little iron house in which I sometimes stayed for a few days while trying to inculcate more conventional methods of dress and demeanour. It was six feet by eight feet, and contained a bed, stove, harmonium, and other luxuries. It had one advantage, for being on the plain beyond the mountains it was very hot, and I was in no danger of oversleeping myself in the mornings. The bed, or rather bunk, ran the six feet way of the house, and being over six feet in height myself, my feet had to rest against the sheet-iron wall which faced east; shortly after sunrise the iron became red hot, or so it used to seem to me, and I hastily got up and out of my "house."

One of the places I visited, Thornborough, was about fifty miles away over the mountains on a wild and desolate track. One day I had to ride over immediately on my return from a long journey, and on the way back my faithful horse, who thought that I was asking more than a fair thing, settled the matter by quietly lying down. It was dark and I had just heard the blacks, who at that time were supposed to be dangerous, cooee-ing round me. I took off my swag and saddle and hung them in a tree, and proceeded on my way on foot after hobbling the horse. Some mile or two farther on I knew there was a Chinamen's garden, the only house on that dreary track, but to get to it I had to cross a river and brave a number of savage dogs, and the fact that the Chinamen, whose garden had been often robbed by the blacks, were in the habit of shooting at the slightest sound. The house was only about two hundred yards beyond the river, so I took off my boots and crossed very gingerly for fear of arousing the dogs, and then approached to a safe distance and lifted up my voice loudly. The Chinamen proved most hospitable and gave me supper, which was welcome, as I had had nothing since breakfast, and I promised them a pound if they would bring in my horse and saddle safely. Both appeared next day with a neat little bill for "12 lbs. sweet potato eaten by the horse." It appears that after I had gone my horse recovered, or thought he had done enough to maintain his right to fair treatment; at any rate he followed on my tracks, broke into the Chinamen's garden and ate the twelve pounds of sweet potatoes aforesaid. I don't know how the Chinamen estimated the amount, but in business matters they are always extremely honest.

My work often brought me home late on Sunday nights over the main Dividing Range, and it was a weird ride. The road passed in one spot through a narrow gorge to which I gave in my own mind the name of Tzal Maveth--the Valley of Death; even on a fairly fine night it was as black as pitch. On the open mountain I remember only one night on which it was quite dark. On that night I could not see the sky nor my hand held against it. I met a man and stopped to speak to him, but we could neither see the faintest trace of the other, though we were not a yard apart. It added to the difficulty that there were many side tracks which the horse always wanted to take, but which were dangerous on account of the many old mining shafts. I and my horse did once suddenly drop four or five feet, but fortunately it was only into a creek. The night-birds would sound their inexpressibly mournful notes, and a dingo would often follow for miles, rustling through the bushes alongside or padding tirelessly behind.

The true Australian bush has generally a note of sadness, whether by day or by night. By day one is struck by the monotony, the weird and distorted shape of the trees, the absence of animal and bird life, and the universal greyness of the tones, which, however, have a beauty and an interest of their own. The dreariness is increased by the many bush fires which sweep over the country, accompanied by great flights of crows and hawks on the watch for the snakes, lizards, and small animals driven out or caught by the flames.

At night the smouldering logs look like the encampment of a giant army, while sometimes the flames get inside a hollow tree which flares over the surrounding country like a blast-furnace.

The scrub lands are very valuable, the soil being deep and rich, and large areas have now been cleared and settled. The whole region is volcanic, and there are several lakes in the scrub so deep that no bottom has been found. Evidently they are old craters. The timber is now taken away by train, but some thirty years ago about £20,000 worth of cedar was cut by a large firm and taken to the Barren in order to be floated to the sea. For some years there was no big flood, but it came at last. The great logs, four and five feet in diameter, made the plunge over the Fall in safety, but once down there was no stopping them and they sailed twenty or thirty miles out to sea, where only a small proportion of them were eventually recovered.

The rich soil, cool climate, and abundance of water made the table-land behind Cairns one of the best agricultural centres in Queensland, and the district is advancing by leaps and bounds. The children are rosy-cheeked and healthy, and the climate all that can be desired. It seems a pity that the glorious scrub should be rapidly becoming a thing of the past, but as long as man lives by bread he must clear the soil. The Queensland Government should surely, however, keep considerable areas of untouched scrub as National Parks, and as a refuge and asylum for the peculiar fauna and flora of the district; for once destroyed it can never be replaced. There is at present an ever-increasing number of visitors who come north to escape the southern winter, but they will not come merely to see flourishing farms where once the giant trees formed aisles of deepest shade, and the gorgeous butterflies flitted in the sun.

There are still large areas of scrub quite untouched, and the reserves should be marked out to be preserved before the devouring desire to raise money by Crown Lands sales comes into play.

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