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 VI. Across Australia (1901)

IN 1901 I determined to travel from Port Darwin overland to Adelaide, in order to visit the few isolated settlers and telegraph officials in the Central Australian part of my diocese, which extended for nearly 1100 miles due south from Port Darwin. Few had at that time traversed the Continent, and that I was able to do so alone and in comparative comfort was owing entirely to the kindness and courtesy of Sir Charles Todd and the South Australian post and telegraph officials.

On May 28 I left Thursday Island a little before sundown in the Taiyuan. There were very few passengers, but a number of horses. There was a choppy sea next morning, and the ship rolled a great deal, so that there were no other passengers at meals. It was curious to watch the horses accommodating themselves to the roll of the vessel; it must have given them a good deal of exercise. The build of these vessels, with their fort-like upper deck, accessible only by winding stairs, suggested, without the racks of rifles in the saloon, that in the China Seas the deck passengers forward were not always so harmless as our present lot. For the next two days, after passing Cape Wessel, the weather was perfect and the ship steady. Melville Island, with its tens of thousands of buffaloes, showed low on the northern horizon, while the low mangrove capes and islands of the Northern Territory were skirted to the south; there were no lights and many shoals: a place to be avoided in dirty weather. As we neared Port Darwin the sun set in a ruddy haze, and a bush fire glowed in his place; the pearling fleet crept homewards, and the great moon, almost full, made a flood of silver mist on our quarter, so that one could not see where mist ended and sky began. We anchored soon after eight, but the laws of Port Darwin are framed on those of the Medes and Persians, and if it be but five minutes after sunset the ship must wait until next morning to pass the doctor.

I soon met many old friends, and Mr. L. informed me that he had arranged to start on Tuesday morning. In the afternoon I arranged the weight and form of my luggage. Including everything it was about sixty-five pounds, nearly half being coats and blankets. I only hoped they might be enough for the cold nights on the table-land. Port Darwin is a beautiful town. It is situated on low red cliffs about eighty feet high overlooking the magnificent harbour, and has a tropical look from the luxuriant vegetation and well-kept gardens. The principal buildings are of stone, and the whole place has a far more permanent air than is usual in the north.

On June 4 I left Palmerston by train at 8 A.M. The weather was extraordinarily hot for the time of year. The line is narrow guage, 3 feet 6 inches, with steel sleepers. The chief features of interest are the huge ant-hills, ranging from 12 to 18 feet in height, and built of a reddish earth. In North Queensland I have measured one 24 feet high, and have seen one well over 30 feet. In addition to these are many smaller anthills built of a grey slaty-looking soil mixed with chopped grass. These hills are in shape somewhat like a very broad chisel, and are peculiar in that they are always exactly north and south. In fact, they are as good as a compass. Another remarkable feature of the country from Palmerston for about 120 miles south is the magnificent growth of an indigenous bamboo, which lines most of the creeks. At Brock's Creek I left the train, Mr. L. taking on my heavy luggage, and spent the night at the house of the manager of the N.T.G.M. Company. The white population is very small, but we had a hearty little service in the office of another mining company, which had been kindly lent me.

I was to start next morning at 8 A.M., but we did not get off until 9 A.M., and at nine miles passed Yam Creek, where some fifty Chinese are employed. Soon after this we missed our road, and had to return along a steep creek for some four or five miles to get on to the track, or what passed for a track. My conductor, Mr. F., was a splendid driver. The road, at best but a horse-pad, disappeared altogether in parts. Mr. F. studied the country with a glance from the top of a range, and with an encouraging "We'll let her rip," we were off. I believe Mr. F. has won some reputation as a steeplechase rider, and he certainly deserves it, for we cleared obstacles in fine style. It is stimulating to the interest when one wheel mounts a rock while the other is climbing down the edge of a yawning washaway, but though we did balance for a few moments at the bottom of a creek while the hind wheels were deciding whether or not to take a header over the front, we came to no grief even when a bolt went on a steep descent. Mr. F., who had promised to get me in at noon, was on his mettle, and he had all put right in two minutes, and we were tearing down-hill to test it. It was nearly 2 P.M., however, when we reached Burrundi, and a prize turkey which had been awaiting me had given me up as a bad job, and was consoling a Parliamentary candidate. After a most hospitable welcome I had to start off again at 3 P.M., driven by Mr. S., for Pine Creek, twenty-six miles distant. We had a change of horses waiting on the road, and travelled in great style. From the top of the Union Mountain we had a magnificent view, reminding me of the country between the Hawkesbury River and Sydney. Everywhere were old claims and workings, now entirely in the hands of the Chinese. We met the one white man in the district, and he was leaving at the end of the month. We reached Pine Creek just after dark, and I was hospitably entertained by Mr. K., the post and telegraph master, nor was I sorry to get in after fifty-two miles of unspeakably bad roads. After something to eat I had nearly all the inhabitants to service, and then retired to a well-earned repose.

Pine Creek is the terminus of the railway, and boasts a school, which I visited next morning, and where I was requested to address the children. Mr. K. then drove me round to visit the mines and the Chinese town. There are about 250 Chinese miners here, and 400 at Wandi. There is a good cyaniding plant, which seems to be doing well. After driving round the neighbourhood we returned for lunch; and after visiting the various Church people made a final start with Mr. L. at 3 P.M. He had his camp about five miles out of town, and we stayed there for the night. After visiting the camp I went to see Mr. G., who has a station close at hand, and found that he had had no opportunity of attending service for twenty years. In the evening I baptized his three children, the eldest being thirteen. About a hundred yards from the house I noticed a tank of water, and learnt that the second boy (act. eleven) had set up a claim of his own in the yard, at which he worked diligently as soon as he got back from school; he had made his own cradle and implements, and actually succeeded in getting a very appreciable quantity of gold. This young man ought to turn out a very practical miner. This was my first night in camp. It was very warm, and my mosquito-net was soaked through and through with the dew.

On June 7 we were up before daylight, but it was a long business to load nine pack-horses for the first time, and it was 9 A.M. before we got off. We were, besides Mr. L. and myself, two white men and three black boys, and with a buggy and twenty-six horses we made a large cavalcade. Our progress was slow, as Mr. L. had to inspect each telegraph pole as we rode along. The country consisted of somewhat uninteresting granite ridges, but there were two beautiful flowering trees--one with a large yellow flower, called locally the cotton-tree, and the other with a beautiful red flower, something like Pyrus Japonica in the distance--and a large edible bean. After passing two creeks with the significant names of Sea Pie and Broken Wheel, we halted to change horses at Cullen's Creek (ten miles). A fine diamond, sold for £80, was found in this creek just above the crossing, but no others could be discovered. I had a look to see if I could find an endowment for the diocese, but only found one or two small but delicate flowers. About 2 P.M. we reached Ferguson's Creek (seventeen miles) and camped. In the evening I made some inquiries about the number of natives in the Northern Territory. It was very difficult to obtain any correct estimate, but the whole of the northern coast district appeared to be thickly populated by wild natives, who found plenty of food in the fish and wild fowl which abounded in the lagoons. In the interior, also, the numbers were very considerable, though the greater scarcity of food kept them down. The natives gathered the wild yams when in season, and kept them in immense mounds, sometimes ten feet high, covered with sand, as potatoes are preserved in England. I was informed that the natives see in the Magellan clouds surrounding the Southern Cross the form of an emu, and have a tradition that the three bright stars of the Cross are an emu's footprint, and the two pointers two blackfellows tracking it. I made my camp under a tree, where the dew was not so heavy, and next morning we drove on fifteen miles to the Edith River, over granite and slate ridges. Much of the country is auriferous. In Pine Creek I saw a curious sight. The Chinese were sweeping up the dust off the road and washing it for gold.

I had never before seen such an example of literally picking up gold in the streets. In the afternoon I rode up the creek about five miles to some fine falls. The creek was still and deep, with beautiful green islands and many shady trees. We saw a number of shells of a small turtle on which the natives had been having an aldermanic feast. We also came across two natives with a tame dingo. They had just extracted a bandicoot from a tree. The dingo seemed to be quite under control. The native made him drop the bandicoot, which he was carrying, by the simple expedient of pinching his hind leg. The sandstone cliffs of the table-land form here a fine semicircle of red and yellow rocks, about two hundred feet high, through a cleft in which the river falls into a magnificent basin nearly a mile in circumference and very deep. It is full of fish-eating crocodiles, which grow up to nine and ten feet in length.

Next morning we were up early and got off in good time; the first eighteen miles over rough basaltic country. On the top of the range is the grave of a telegraph operator who died there, and who expressed a wish to be buried "where all the winds blow." We met a fine and intelligent-looking native from Alice Springs, named Frank. He gave my companion an account of how he had once set out to shoot at the moon. Having got hold of a rifle, he climbed with great difficulty the highest mountain he could find, and there lay in wait for her to come near. Finally he made sure of his mark and shot, but the bullet made no impression, although he was sure he had shot straight!

The heat was intense, like that of a day in midsummer, and after a couple of hours' halt we went on ten miles to the Katherine River, a magnificent stream nearly as large as the Burdekin, with banks a hundred feet high. Here are a telegraph station, police quarters, and a public-house. At night the inhabitants gathered on the veranda of the postmaster's house, and we had a hearty service, although the singing left something to be desired. There was a great gathering of natives for a corroboree, and all night long the distant wailing cries and booming of wooden trumpets could be heard.

Next day (June 10) a mail was leaving for Pine Creek, and I spent all the day until the mail went answering my correspondence, which had overtaken me here. In the evening I took the boat and sculled a little way along the river. The natives were resting on the river bank after their corroboree. The men, who wear only a loin-cloth, were finer made than the Queensland natives, and seemed to have a good time, as food and water were plentiful, the country being practically unstocked. Some ten miles above the station the Katherine emerges from very rough country through a great gorge of sandstone cliffs. Lava, sandstone, quartz, and limestone are said to be jumbled up together in inextricable confusion, making the country most difficult to enter. The formation is said to resemble the famous Banket of South Africa, and good gold has been found where prospectors have been able to penetrate.

Next morning I was up at daylight, and Mr. H. kindly took me before breakfast to see the curious rocks of crystalline limestone about two miles from the station. The rocks rise abruptly to the height of some fifteen or twenty feet from the sandy soil, and are weathered into the most extraordinary shapes; narrow lanes are formed between the rocks, giving the place its local name of Little Melbourne.

I spent the morning in visiting the small population of the Katherine, and found them glad to find that their Church had not altogether forgotten them. After lunch I bade farewell to my kind hosts at the station, and went out to camp at the Six-Mile Creek. Here I noticed a fine bower-bird playing round with bright pebbles, glass, and broken telegraph insulators. With regard to these latter it may be mentioned that among the enemies of the line in the northern section are the frogs, who creep up the poles and destroy the insulation with their wet bodies. The hornets' nests are also a source of trouble. Lizards and flying foxes are also occasionally electrocuted by the copper wire. A curious kind of fig-tree grows here. The leaves look exactly like sandpaper, and are used by the blacks as such. A short while ago a traveller was found here by one of my companions, dead in his mosquito-net, apparently from snake-bite.

The night was cooler and the next morning quite fresh. Seventeen miles brought us to Bacon Swamp, where we camped near a tree marked "KING 18.2.71." In spite of its name it is rather a pretty little water-hole. The name arose from the men employed to build the telegraph line striking here on account of insufficient food, when the contractor, to pacify them, gave them a stock of bacon which he had in his tent. A few drops of rain fell in the night. Left camp about 8.30 A.M. Heavy sand; passed King's Creek (four miles) and Roper River (four miles). This is the head of the great river that empties itself into the Gulf of Carpentaria. I saw several curious trees, the names of which I could not obtain. Twelve miles farther on we reached Providence Knoll, where we camped. There are very curious deep circular water-holes on the rising ground. A pretty spot, surrounded by fine trees. The name arose through the higher ground being a refuge for the survey party when threatened by a flood. A creeper with beautiful red and black seeds grows in the scrub here. There are two great drawbacks to travelling in this country--the grass seeds and the flies. The latter were most troublesome even at that time of year, covering everything from sunrise to sunset.

Next day (June 14) we drove over very low country, liable to heavy floods, the head-waters of the Roper. The floods are said to cover many miles of country in a wet season; the soil is poor and sandy. We camped at some water-holes on Stirling Creek. I noticed a tree with a curious seed provided with two large vanes which make it whirl round like a windmill as it falls from the tree, doubtless aiding to carry it to a distance. The vanes are the shape of a ship's propeller.

We were up early next morning; breakfast finished before daylight. Our journey was over black-soil flats with many creeks. We passed Abraham's Billabong, a beautiful water-hole covered with lilies and surrounded by fine trees; then on four miles farther to the Bitter Springs, where we camped. This is a mineral warm spring on a patch of limestone, highly charged with sulphur, and bubbling up with considerable volume from a clump of pandanus trees, and beautifully clear. The river is a wide, deep stream of still, permanent water, fringed with huge paper-bark and other trees, and full of fish. The most noticeable are the striped tiger-fish and the ten-gun brig, a small white fish with five large black spots like ports down each side. The soil here seems to be very rich, especially along the banks of the creeks.

Next morning (June 16) we went on fourteen miles to Elsey River cattle station, well known afterwards as the home of Mrs. Gunn, authoress of "We of the Never Never." At night we had a most hearty service on the veranda. It was most cheering to see the great attention and the efforts made by the men to join in the responses and the singing.

I saw here a novel sight: a Chinese drover, who, with his assistants, was bringing down 150 cattle for a Chinese butcher. The Chinese are always ready to pay cash either for cattle or payable mines, and they were pushing their way steadily. We did not start until the afternoon, and then made our way to what is called on the map All Saints' Well. The well is there no longer, having been made in the bed of the creek, in which there was now water. A tree called gutta-percha grows here. It bleeds a milky, sticky sap when cut, very like india-rubber, and burns with a faintly similar smell. All round this country one was struck by the beautiful great patches of red "everlastings "on the ridges and high ground, covering acres in places with a red carpet.

We were up early and got a good start before 8 A.M. About four miles on the road we left the low Elsey country, and with it all traces of tropical vegetation, entering on dry limestone country covered with a thin layer of ironstone. After about twenty-two miles' travelling we reached No. 2 Well. During the late drought there was no water between here and Newcastle Waters, and all the stock had to be moved here. The well is a fine and well-built one, with a substantial fence and covering, and is about eighty feet deep. The limestone formation is curious, and is mixed with flint. Next day we went on to No. 3 Well, which had been lately completed, and is 107 feet deep. The old well was broken into by the creek in the wet season, and tons of earth were carried down, leaving an excavation thirty feet wide by sixty in length and twenty-five feet deep. Although all this had disappeared down the well, the latter seemed as deep as ever, but dry. During the time that the water was running into the well the sound could be heard three miles away, but the water all disappeared, like the earth, into some interior chasm. The formation of the stone in the new well was very beautiful, consisting of cavities in a kind of sandstone, filled with most beautiful limestone crystals. The water in the water-hole near the well was just like milk. It is said that water of this colour evaporates very slowly. Certainly it was very cold, while ordinary water was quite warm. The night was quite cold.

Next day we drove on through the same kind of country between a low sandy ridge and the dry coolibah swamp, which is dignified by the name of Birdum Creek. There are no creeks and no hills in this part of the world. We camped at the Ironstone Hole. One of the boys brought me a piece of skull carefully held between two sticks. Two black boys died here of thirst, and the natives shun the spot. The south-east wind was very piercing all the morning.

Next day (June 21) we did not make such an early start as usual, as we had a short stage. After about ten miles of what is called Bay of Biscay country we turned off the road to find water. The going was terribly bad, the ground being full of holes and very uneven. Had the buggy not been very strong it would have been broken to pieces; as it was we smashed a swingle-bar and broke a strong iron rail.

Finally, however, after two or three miles of jolting we reached Blue Grass Swamp and camped there, as the stage into the station was too long. A very beautiful tree with a scarlet flower, something like a poinciana, was in full bloom along the road. It goes by the name of the coral-tree. The leaf is curiously shaped, something like a laterally extended ivy. The flies destroyed all comfort in travelling. It was one continual battle from sunrise to sunset. I was told, however, that they were not usually so bad.

Next day (Saturday) we passed over some flat uninteresting country for about twenty-one miles to Daly Waters telegraph station, which we reached in time for lunch. The station was deserted during the late drought, as there was no water within fifty miles, and all the stock were removed to No. 2 Well. Distance from Port Darwin, 413 miles.

On Sunday morning we had service at the station, and the singing was led by a harmonium and a violin; in fact I think the violin did most of the singing, but we made up at night by singing until we were hoarse.

The natives here plaster their bodies in winter with a mixture of earth and ashes, which makes them look as if they were dressed in grey tight-fitting clothes. We had just enough rain to mark the dust, and the weather turned warmer. I obtained here some interesting native stone implements, including a spear-head beautifully cut out of glass.

We left Daly Waters with many thanks to our most kind hosts on Tuesday (June 25), and went about seventeen miles through patches of mulga and hedge-wood scrub to Auld's Pond, where we camped, going on the following day to Milner's Lagoon, a fine sheet of water in a plain covered with blue-bush, which seemed to be greatly approved of by our horses. The flies were worse here than at any other point, and that is saying a great deal. The lagoon was covered with white spoonbills, ibis, and a few ducks, which latter soon took themselves off. Twenty miles of thick mulga and hedgewood scrub, traversed by a narrow winding road, brought us next day (June 27) to Frew's Ironstone Lagoon, a beautiful water-hole surrounded on three sides by low ironstone cliffs, and situated between the scrub and the open plain. Four whistling ducks were disporting themselves on its bosom, and three were shortly stewing for supper. The red cliffs, large spreading coolibah trees, and winding water make this a beautiful spot. Mr. L. had a narrow escape here many years ago. The natives enticed two of his party away under pretence of showing them a new water-hole, and Mr. L. was reading under a tree when he happened to look round and saw a dozen wild blacks, with spears ready, creeping up close upon him. Fortunately his revolver was lying beside him, and at the sight of it they fled. The suspicious conduct of their guides alarmed the other men, and they fortunately returned without further search for the imaginary water-hole. Several large eagle-hawks were seen on the road, and bird life of all kinds was very plentiful. I had not seen any wallaby or kangaroos in the Northern Territory.

We made a late start from Frew's on the afternoon of the following day (June 28), and after five or six miles came out on to Sturt's Plain, which is some sixteen miles across. The road was very bad, and it was not until nearly sunset that we reached Five-Mile Point, a cape of scrub reaching out into the plain to within about a mile and a half of the road. Having brought water with us, we made a dry and, as it proved, a very cold camp in the dark. When I woke in the morning I found the remains of the skeleton of a white man attired in a blue shirt lying literally alongside of me. There was nothing to show the cause of death. Probably he had been following the telegraph line and turned in here to perish from thirst. It was too cold to make any but an early start in the morning, and we were soon on our way over the remainder of the plain, and through some open wooded country to North Newcastle Water, a magnificent sheet of water a quarter of a mile wide and two miles in length. It is the overflow of this lagoon which forms Lake Woods, thirty miles farther south. Large numbers of pelicans were fishing and sailing about, and the grass on the banks was a most vivid green. We found a much warmer camp here than on the plain, and next morning (Sunday) we went twelve miles farther on to the Newcastle Waters cattle station, where we spent the rest of the day. Unfortunately all hands were away mustering. The station is situated on a stony ridge on the west side of the Newcastle Water, and has a somewhat bare and desolate look. The rock in this part is sandstone, ironstone, and jasper, of which there were many beautiful pebbles. The flies seemed to get worse as we got south. From about midday to sunset they rendered life a burden. Here, as elsewhere, the losses from the drought had been very heavy.

After a quiet day here we went on next day to Pole Camp, where the line party was camped. The country was flat and uninteresting, with a very low stony range running parallel to the creek. We had tea with the line party, making in all eleven persons: "the largest camp in the Northern Territory," some one remarked. After tea we had service. It was a striking scene in the large tent, illuminated by some rather doubtful lamps. It was certainly the first time that divine service had been held anywhere in these parts, and some of the party had been years upon the line without even a visit to Palmerston. The night was bitterly cold, and a cutting south-east wind blew all next day, chilling the very bones. We proceeded down the dreary flats of the Newcastle to a small creek called the Lawson, where we camped. I walked to a small range two miles off, and had a fine view of Lake Woods, a vast sheet of shallow water some eighty or ninety miles in circumference, now full, but in dry seasons converted into a parched plain. Later on I walked down to the shore itself, and by climbing a tree near the shore obtained a view over the reedy foreshore, which swarmed with ducks and other waterfowl. Opposite I could just see the farther shore, but a little south no shore was visible, and the lake must be some twenty miles across. The great expanse of water seemed as if it could never fail, but Mr. L. assured me that he had seen the whole bed of the lake covered with a vast bush fire. It is a real lake, with well-defined shores; but Sturt crossed it twice without knowing that it was a lake at all. When the overland line was being surveyed, the party was in great straits for water, when one of the men drew attention to a lake on the horizon. He was laughed at, and told that it was a mirage. No water was found next day, and then the man said that mirage or no mirage he was going to see for himself; he did so, and thus discovered the lake.

Next day we proceeded to the Ferguson over the Newcastle flats, and camped close to a low range. I walked through about three miles of rough country to Lamb's Spring, a fine pool of permanent water. Rain threatened, but fortunately did not fall.

Next day I rode over some very rough, though low, ranges to Powell's Creek telegraph station. From the top of the range there is a very fine view, extending to Lake Woods on the north, and to the ranges beyond Powell's Creek on the south. The station stands on the edge of a small plain, has a permanent water-supply, and is substantially built of stone. I received the warmest welcome, and it was luxury indeed to sleep in a bed with sheets, listen to the rain on the roof, and be thankful that it had not come a day earlier. The country is curious; broken here with masses of conglomerate, sandstone, and ironstone, and there are multitudes of agates and jasper and other beautifully glazed pebbles. There are said to be also more valuable stones among the ranges. I walked a mile or two into the bush to see two aboriginal tree graves, well and firmly made of strong timber.

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