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 III. The Western Plains (1898-1900)

ABOUT two hundred miles west of Townsville lies a vast plain, for the most part bare and treeless, but covered with a fine volcanic dust from the long-extinct volcano of Mount Emu, and producing in good seasons great quantities of the beautiful Flinders grass. Unfortunately the seasons are not always good and then the grass turns to powder and blows away, the rare creeks dry up and all is desolation save where a line of rushes marks the course of an artesian bore. The ground is so level that on starting in the morning it is often possible to see the house where one is to stay the night, twenty-five miles away, but apparently within an easy walk. Mirages are of daily occurrence. One sees a pool of water on the road only a hundred yards away, but it ever retreats as one advances. Sometimes one sees great lakes on the horizon with trees and cattle standing in the water, but there is nothing there but the dried-up plain. A few stations dot the wide expanse of the surrounding country, but they are twenty or thirty miles apart, and it sometimes happens that travellers never reach their destination. One such case occurred some years ago. A stockman from Wando Vale Station, in the mountainous country north of the great plain, came upon an old tent, within a few feet of which was the skeleton of a man. In the tent was a map of New South Wales and on the back a letter written in pencil. The letter is so interesting that I gladly avail myself of permission to make an extract from it. There is a quiet heroism about this poor old swagman, with his patient struggle for five weeks with three days' food, his simple complaint that it takes a long time to die of starvation, and his dim yet real faith in God.

He relates how he travelled from Sydney to Cairns by steamer, and then on foot to Herberton, from which place he journeyed over the mountains, in very wet weather, to Oak Park. Soon after leaving the latter place he lost the track and became hopelessly bushed; he followed a creek for two days, and I give the rest of the letter in his own words.

"The creek was awful rough, and for better walking I left it, then sickness came on, caused probably by exposure, for, no matter how tough a man may be, he cannot be wet through, night and day for more than a month, without feeling the ill effects of it. I pushed on south for a day, then went down a watercourse that ran E. W. N. and S. at first, finally settling down to nearly east. I got seven little sprats at the head of this creek, and followed it in hopes of getting more, but it is very shallow, and I have not succeeded. When I left Oak Park (Feb. 19th) I had with me about three days' tucker. I believe that I have had no food at all now for more than a week, and have lost all energy for saving myself. I have camped to wait for death, hoping that it will not be long coming. It is not pain, only weakness, but it seems hard to die of starvation. I may be found yet before I die, but I do not think that it is likely. Does God answer prayer? If so, how about 'Give us each day our daily bread'?

"Two days have passed and I am still alive; how long it will last I know not. Perhaps assistance may yet come, but I do not think it will. This country is so rough that no one should venture off a main road, for it is just impossible to go straight in any direction. May God, in His mercy, grant that assistance may soon come, or that there may be a speedy termination to a life of misery. ... A few more days have passed. I have shifted my camp a mile or two daily. I am so weak that I can only make a few steps at a time, then cast a hopeless glance around me and stagger on a few steps more. Strange that I do not come across any snakes, goannas, or anything eatable; nothing but wild arrowroot, and not much of that, as I cannot climb for it. I have tried to keep my promise not to attempt suicide again, but am very much afraid that the knife may be too great for me to resist. Anyhow my fate is in God's hands. . . . What a long time it takes to die of starvation. I have yet strength to crawl to the creek for water.

"The moon is now past its first quarter, so I suppose it is about March 14th or 15th. I am lying down all day and night thinking of food, no pain, except that my bed might be softer. How much longer life will last I do not know, but it would be a great satisfaction to do so.

"The moon is now in its last quarter. I am too weak to fetch myself more water from the creek, but will try to crawl down there, and small as the quantity of water is try to drown myself. God have mercy on me."

Here the record ends. The body was found near the tent, not near the water, and there were no signs of violence.

The water on the main tracks is caught and held in large dams or "tanks," and these become the rendezvous of all the birds in the neighbourhood. I find a note in my diary, written at a night camp at such a tank. The previous night we had held service in the station store.

"A rough gathering on kerosene-cases and candle-boxes, but a hearty and reverent service. A young man of weak countenance, a lanky companion so born to the saddle that you half expected to see his horse come and sit down beside him, a dry, red-bearded Scotchman, attentive and critical, half a dozen rough-bearded, unkempt sheep-station hands hailing respectively from Queensland, New South Wales, New Zealand, England, Ireland, and Norway, a burly overseer, all sinews and muscle, a couple of 'bachelors,' and the party from the station house had formed a representative congregation. Not very responsive, not very easy to talk to, but men who thought a good deal more than they appeared to, and with warm hearts under a rough exterior. That night we had to say our office alone, by the banks of the tank where we were camped, the only water for long miles over the dreary rolling downs, that swelled mile after mile, like the endless roll of a giant yellow ocean, with here and there a distant tree like a sail half hidden behind the crest. A thorny acacia, with a small yellow blossom, gave shade from the setting sun, which shone warmly where the great embankment of the dam gave a shelter from the bitter wind, which swept howling over the bare downs with a long-drawn whistling sigh. A solitary 'plain turkey 'stalked about in the grass across the water, looking at us with his long neck raised, and his foolish gooselike head, till he rose and napped his heavy way to a place of greater safety. Then with shrill cries a flock of galah parrots came screaming down, with their livery of grey and crimson flashing in the sunlight; half preened themselves on the bank, while the other half fluttered over the water to drink, poising over one spot instead of drinking as they fly, then, with a pretence of alarm the whole flock would go in a flashing whirl of coloured wings, circle round within a few feet of us, and back again to the bank. Bronze-wing pigeons flew hurriedly down and drank from the edge of the water; great black crows came down for a big drink and an exchange of views on the respective merits of two long-departed bullocks on the other side of the ridge; a magpie whirled briskly by, and a great hawk passed slowly overhead to his perch on a withered tree. How wonderfully real the Psalms seem when read out in the Australian bush, 'the bullock that hath horns and hoofs,' 'the cattle upon a thousand hills,' 'the noise of the water floods,' 'the deep mire where no ground is,' 'the strength dried and the tongue cleaving to the gums,' 'the springs in the rivers that run among the hills, whereof all the beasts do drink,' 'the rivers that run in dry places,' 'the gasping of a thirsty land,' 'the men astray in the wilderness out of the way, hungry and thirsty, and their soul fainting within them,' 'the rain that maketh the wilderness a standing water and watersprings of a dry ground.' As we read, the sun is setting like a ball of fire behind the hard line of the western down, unbroken by one mark or tree, and the stars begin to shine out above the crimson and green of sunset, and the galahs whirl up in a great cloud, to go whence they came, and our horses clank their hobbles far off in the stillness, and the keen wind blows colder; and we journey to the buggy for coats and rugs and prepare to get what sleep we may, secure in the knowledge that there is not a soul to disturb us, and that if there be, which is doubtful, a snake in the countryside, there is not a bush six inches high that he can hide under. We meant to make an early start, for we had fifty miles to do on the morrow, and nine o'clock found us wooing the sleep which comes to tired travellers, even when their bed is an old sheet of corrugated roofing-iron."

These tanks are of course the great camping-places of the "bullockies," or drivers of the great bullock teams that bring in the wool from the stations to the railhead, carrying many tons piled up on a huge wagon. Often they carry their wives and children with them, and sometimes a few fowls and goats accompany them also.

One day when riding along the road many miles from anywhere I passed two horse teams driven by a heavy-looking boy, a woman, and a girl of thirteen or fourteen with a flimsy frock down to her knees, bare legs and a man's saddle. I bade the woman good day, and was answered by a stony stare. A little farther on, I passed at some distance a party of half a dozen bullock-drivers at dinner. The good fellows shouted out to me, and sent one of their number galloping after me to ask me to share their meal. I found that the great topic of conversation was the amazing command of foul and profane language exhibited by the girl I had just passed, on the occasion of a refractory horse. Your bullocky is not, usually, at a loss for language in which to express his feelings, but one and all confessed that they were nowhere in it with the girl. Human nature is a strange thing. It was not so much that they were shocked on abstract grounds, but the "unnaturalness," as the chief spokesman put it, of applying such epithets to a horse. Had it been a bullock there might have been excuses, for man is weak, and bullocks are known to exasperate a saint, but a horse--he shook his head. One wonders what is the teamster's point of view.

The life of a bullock-driver's wife is one of much hardship, but many of them rise wonderfully to the occasion. I spent three years on the western plains and got to know these people well. One day at Charters Towers I was in my study struggling with my Sunday's sermon, when my housekeeper came to tell me that there was a man at the back door who wanted to see me. At the door stood a short, unkempt fellow. He did not speak, but looked up and down and finally round, as if for inspiration, and being an experienced man I knew, from the dumb anxiety, that matrimony was in the air. At length I asked, "Well, what do you want?" "Why, it's just this--my mate here, he's come on a little marrying job." "Where is your mate?" "Oh, he's there," jerking his thumb over his shoulder, "he's behind the tank." "Then he'd better come out," and from behind the sheltering tank slowly emerged a huge six-foot-two bullock-driver, with a very red face, twirling his hat nervously in his fingers. "So you want to get married?" "Yes, your reverence; to tell the truth, it's just like this. I've been a long trip with my team, and yesterday I got paid in full, £80. Well, I met a friend or two, and I wouldn't say but what we may have had a glass or so of whisky, and last night I thought I'd have a camp in the yard of the hotel, and when I woke up this morning I found that every penny of the £80 was gone, so I thought that the best thing I could do was to go right away and get married, and then next time I get any money perhaps I'll be able to keep it." "And what about the young lady; is she willing to start housekeeping under these circumstances?" "Oh yes, I've got a bag of flour and some tea and sugar on the dray, and a good tarpaulin to go over it; she'll be all right. Her father lives out at R., but she's in town, and we can get fixed up right away." "Why did she leave home?" "Well, you see, her father turned her out of camp. He said she eats too much tucker. She is eighteen, and has a good hearty feeling for her victuals." "Will her father give his consent?" "Oh yes, he says she can get married if she likes, but he ain't going to lose no half-day's work by coming in to the wedding."

The bullocky's jaw dropped and his ruddy face paled when he found that the father's written consent was a sine qua non, and his distress was so great that I consented to drive out next day and interview the father. The bullocky was to bring a cab in the afternoon. Long after the hour fixed the man appeared, and with many apologies explained that there had been a mistake with the cabman, but that next day he would appear with the cab without fail. Next day I waited an hour and then went out, and presently came upon the bullocky leaning on a post and gazing up into the sky with the look of a tragic poet. I inquired the cause of his non-appearance, and elicited the truth that he had not a penny, and that he had been round to every cabman, and had been unable to get one to trust him. Everything seemed against him, and all the world was a waste howling wilderness to his love-sick soul. Finally I was weak-minded enough to reward the constancy of the melancholy swain by hiring a horse at my own expense, and riding out to obtain the father's consent.

At length the happy pair were made one, and before their departure for the honeymoon dray, I suggested to the bridegroom that it would be well if he took the pledge, as an additional safeguard for the future. The bridegroom looked at the bride, and the best man looked at the solitary bridesmaid, and a vision of the borrowed and yet unopened festival bottle of whisky floated before them. "No," said the bridegroom, "I'll take it to-morrow; not to-day, not to-day, anyhow."

Next morning, much to my amazement, bride and bridegroom, bridesmaid and best man, all four trooped up to the Vicarage and took the pledge. Then the sleepy bullocks were yoked up, and the creaking dray with much cracking of the great whip and much language intended only for bullocks' ears, went groaning on its way, and bride and bridegroom were swallowed up in that great sunburnt West, where the wagon formed, from day to day, the only sign of life on the dreary monotonous plain.

Years afterwards when I went to Hughenden, and had a parish four hundred by two hundred miles to look after, I met them again, still inhabiting the dray, with three or four small children to share the bag of flour, but still cheerful and happy.

I used to try different methods of getting round my huge district: one year I drove, another I rode, and the third year I bicycled. All methods had their drawbacks. When I drove it rained and I got bogged up to the axle in a black soil plain, to say nothing of nearly killing two horses in the effort to get out. An extract from my diary of one of my trips may be of interest:

"April 18. Parson and clerk left in a well-laden buggy about 10.30 A.M. Had a long rest in the middle of the day, and arrived at the first station about 4 P.M. Service in the store, with attentive congregation. Our host lends us a big jar to carry water, as the road is very dry.

"April 19. Left 9A.M. Very heavy pulling over soft country with almost invisible road, then along the railway, where a ballast-train livened up the horses. Small and almost deserted township about 3 P.M. After waiting some little time, on again four miles to camping-place at tank. When about half a mile from our destination, one of the wheels suddenly struck work without apparent cause, and refused to revolve. Perspiring amateur wheelwrights work for an hour. At last got wheel off the box, but the box not to be moved. Parson gallantly mounts buggy horse bareback, and rides back to township for assistance, leaving the clerk to look after the movable ecclesiastical property. Parson gets back, very sore and stiff from his eight miles' ride, just after dark, and shortly afterwards the publican, who is the only blacksmith in the township, arrives, and shakes his head over what he pronounces to be an axle bent in the box. Much violent struggling for an hour, by the light of a bicycle lamp, before the box is induced to come off and matters generally straightened up. Friendly publican refuses payment and rides off, and we get under way again, arriving at the tank about 9 P.M. pretty well tired out. Camp under the buggy, and on the road again by 8 A.M. with the prospect of a forty-six-mile stage, and water doubtful. One of the horses rather sick. After twenty miles, reach the only spot where there is supposed to be water, an empty dam. The caretaker has bailed some filthy fluid soakage out of a hole, but has given it up, and is leaving that afternoon in disgust. One horse drinks some of the mess; the other will not. Camp for an hour, then on again. Horse much sicker, but impossible to stop, as no water to drink except what we have in the jar. At 5 P.M. get to the ten-mile station fence, but horse too sick to go a yard farther. Camp and rest the horses; get a few hours' sleep, but horses too restless with thirst to eat or stop about, and so about 1 A.M. harness up and go on very slowly, in the dark, six miles to a bore stream which crosses the road. Horses drink as if they would drink it dry. Turn out about 4 A.M. and get a couple of hours' sleep, then on again to station in time for breakfast. Are having our full share of the joys of travelling.

"April 21. Hearty service in the evening at the station. Glad to rest most of the day.

"April 22. Horse still very sick. Our host most kindly lends us a pair of strong buggy horses with which we bowl on our way with minds relieved; reach a small township on the railway after a twenty-four-mile drive, and spend the afternoon in visiting, putting up at the neighbouring station for the night."

When I rode, my horse ate poison bush and died, leaving me to spend a bitterly cold night in a boundary-rider's hut, the owner of which closed every crack and smoked the strongest shag in bed all night. Next day I managed to get to a little bush pub. on an absolutely bare plain without a tree or house for thirty miles round in every direction. It was a small iron shanty with partition walls about seven feet high, so that every word was audible all over the place. Every one of the men camped near was drunk, and they drank and swore all day and all night for the three days I had to stay there waiting for the coach. The publican was most thoughtful and considerate. Outside his bar door he had a heap of sand, and when his customers could drink no more they went out and fell down on the heap of sand and slept until they were ready for another drink. This experience taught me a considerable amount of sympathy for the publican, whom I confess I had not hitherto regarded with much favour. A man who can stand, all day and most of the night, the utterly meaningless oaths and blasphemy of the habitual drunkard, and his thousandfold meaningless reiteration of the same senseless story or argument, must be possessed of a patience greater than that of Job, and, if he has any brains, he must suffer an amount of mental purgatory which ought to let him off some of his dues hereafter.

On the third occasion I tried a bicycle, and I subjoin a few extracts from my diary:

"July 20. Left in the afternoon on a long western journey by bicycle. Great ingenuity required to reduce my luggage, including books and a large water-tin, to 40 Ib. in weight and a convenient shape. Short stages for the first three days, visiting and holding service at stations on the river. Eclipse of the moon on 23rd; very interesting sight. Mr. A., who had been camping out, turned up next day. Asked him if he had seen the eclipse. 'Was there an eclipse? 'he replied. 'That accounts for it. I woke up last night and found that the moon had set, and as I knew it must be near daylight, I got up and lit the fire and boiled the billy; but I waited and waited for the morning star to get up, and while I was waiting I fell asleep, and when I woke up I found that the moon had risen again, and it puzzled me a great deal.'

"July 25. Services at the township in the courthouse. Small congregation in morning, but good at night. Left before daylight for B station. Very cold, and road none too good. Got on all right for about fifteen miles, then road very bad, and in addition a violent southerly gale sprang up right ahead. No alternative but to get off and walk twenty-five miles to the station, as there was no house on the road. Lucky I am a good walker. Got in about 5 P.M., rather stiff, but a cold, very cold, bath put me all right. Took a rest next day, and made a very early start by moonlight the following morning. Sharp frost and very cold. Rode twelve miles before sunrise, then camped and made some chocolate for breakfast. Long lonely ride of fifty miles over the bare open down; not a drop of water anywhere on the road, save what I carried. Camped an hour for lunch, and reached C station about 3 P.M. Service at night, and early start again the next morning. Thirty miles of heavy road, and against the wind, to D station, where I arrived in time for lunch. Service at night, and early start along good road to E. Stayed at the station and visited the little township. In the main street a man came up to me and inquired, taking off his coat as he spoke, whether I was the new policeman. 'You see,' he added, 'I always like to see whether I can fight the new policeman.' I hastened to assure him that I was not a policeman, and that he need not risk a cold by taking off his coat. He apologized very politely for his mistake, and we parted good friends, but as he went away he said that he was sorry that I was not a policeman. Then I went on to the post office, and inquired in the innocency of my heart for some post cards. The young man looked at me severely, and informed me that they did not keep them. 'This office has only recently been opened, and supplies of things like post cards [I felt crushed] have not yet reached us.' I ventured to inquire how long the office had been open, and was told 'only two years.' Verily we are indeed in the bush.

"We had very hearty services morning and evening on the Sunday, in a room most kindly prepared and put at our disposal, and I was off at 6 A.M. on a ride of forty-five miles to F station. The wind was again very strong, but, fortunately, this time astern, and I went along gaily, reaching my destination by lunch-time, and stopping to hold service for the shearers in the woolshed at night.

The morning was intensely cold. At the scour the pipes and shoots were all frozen hard, and work had to be postponed for an hour until they could be thawed. I saw a great lump of ice several inches thick in the middle of the day. And this is tropical Queensland! On again to the little township of G, where I visited, baptized, and held divine service. Here I left my bicycle after a journey of 285 miles, and went on by coach eighty miles to the far western town of H, arriving in time to hold services on the Sunday. About twelve miles from L station, I passed a nameless grave, with a rough fence round it. I remembered that, passing on a former occasion, I had questioned the driver of the coach about it. His reply was terse: 'Chap from K ran away with a man's wife. He overtook him at the gate, and that's his grave.' A nameless, half-forgotten tragedy. On reflection, the tale is somewhat ambiguous. Which of the men filled the grave? I fancy the abductor, for there was an air of conscious virtue about the driver which seemed to say, 'This is how we do justice.' Noticed many fossils in a creek. To judge by the amount of fossil wood, the Western Plains must at one time have been more heavily timbered than at present."

On one occasion, coming down from Mount Emu over the rough basalt road, I broke the back of my bicycle by suddenly dropping down two feet over a boulder. I had nothing to splice it with but a pocket-knife and my bootlaces, and had to ride so for about twenty miles to a station where I got some wood and wire.

In spite of the great heat in summer, when the covers of all your books curl up and you step out of the house into a furnace blast, and the bitterly cold winter winds, the Western Downs form a splendid place to live in, and the people are warm-hearted and self-reliant. My three years of the Plains was a delightful experience.

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