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 VII. Across Australia--continued (1901)

WE left Powell's Creek on Monday (July 8) with many regrets. My new horse was a little fresh, and a black boy was put on him to exercise him a little. Another boy, as I came up, remarked, with a pleased grin of anticipation, "That fellow horse belong o' you. My word!" However, he was doomed to disappointment, for we proceeded very amicably over some rough, red ridges, covered with spinifex, to Renner's Spring, which is a little oasis in a plain surrounded by ranges. Here I found two well-made native huts shaped like a Kafir kraal, well thatched and waterproof. I had never seen such elaborate aboriginal dwellings. Close by I found a number of stone knives and other implements which they had either forgotten or thrown away.

Three days of rather dreary country brought us to Attack Creek. Crossing Morfit Creek--a very wide watercourse--we found some beautiful specimens of jasper and other stones. The creek seemed to be full of them. Attack Creek was the farthest point reached by Stuart in his first journey. He was attacked here by natives, and returned to Adelaide. On the telegraph line we passed the grave of a man who had died from thirst within a few miles of water. He had gone off the line to within a hundred yards of water and returned without finding it. At Attack Creek I was met by Mr. S. of Tennant Creek station, and parted with very great regret from Mr. L. and his party, who returned from here to Port Darwin. Nothing could have exceeded the kindness and courtesy I received from the whole party. We left next morning after seeing off Mr. L. on his homeward journey, and travelled for twenty miles over desolate sandstone and spinifex country to Philip's Creek, where there is a fine water-hole. A considerable hole, where we camped for dinner^ had dried up completely since Mr. S. passed the previous day, so little can one count on water here. The flies were again very troublesome, and the spear-grass seeds worse than anywhere on the journey. There were some pretty flowers here: a small heliotrope ground-creeper looking much like the garden verbena, a small blue flower like a harebell, and a white flower much like an English daisy.

Mr. S. told me a curious story. He had been camped by himself in a lonely gorge, and was sitting by a fire that he had made in the sand, when he heard the report of a shot, and a bullet scattered up the sand at his feet. In considerable amazement he examined his own weapon, which was not discharged, and waited, but heard nothing more, and could not unravel the mystery for some days, when he remembered that he had passed the spot some days before and lost a loose cartridge, which must have been buried in the sand until exploded by the fire.

We had a warm night; and next day travelled over more sand and spinifex to Tennant Creek, which is a stone station built on a little creek. The trees in all this country are very low and stunted, and one got fine distant views of the red sandstone ranges, which run from east to west, and are beautifully coloured; the air was extraordinarily clear and dry, and one could see immense distances. I was warmly welcomed at the station, where there were five men, and stayed over Sunday and Monday.

The natives here were a fine handsome race, with, in some instances, markedly Jewish features. One was struck with their vigorous life and playfulness, contrasting greatly with the abject appearance of the blacks near Queensland towns or stations. The men wear only a narrow loin-cloth, and dance and jump about with much gracefulness, playing and jesting with one another. They seemed to be treated with great kindness here.

On Sunday afternoon, after my arrival, I walked to McDouall Ranges, some three or four miles to the south, and climbed up a conical hill of red sandstone, some two hundred and fifty feet high, from the top of which I had a magnificent view over the alluvial plain and the red sandstone and ironstone ranges which bound it.

I left Tennant Creek on Wednesday (July 17) about 11 A.M. A few miles from the station we passed through the McDouall Ranges--broken masses of red sandstone and slate, with "blows" of black ironstone. Mount Samuel, a few miles farther on, is one solid mass of iron. The road was heavy with sand, and though we put in four horses it was dark when we reached Kelly's Well, thirty-two miles from Tennant Creek. A bitterly cold southeast wind was blowing, and it seemed to go clean through the blankets, making sleep a difficult matter; in fact we were only too glad to get up at the very first streak of dawn. We had a very heavy day--thirty-four miles of deep sand. The country is most desolate, spinifex and sand, except for a few hundred yards on each side of the very rare creeks. We stopped for dinner at the Gilbert, where there was a little grass. To the east the bare Murchison Range stretches for about twenty-five miles like a Yorkshire moor, but with spinifex for grass, and often not even that. Towards evening the wind dropped, and we had a more pleasant camp at the Bonny Bell. I had again to say my Evensong by the light of the camp fire. The stars were wonderfully brilliant, as always in this clear air. The Bonny is a large sandy creek, and I noticed some fine jaspers and other pebbles as we crossed it. I also found part of a fine spear-head of opaline quartz.

Next morning the first part of our way led through the Davenport Ranges, and it was delightful to get on stony ground after the heavy sand. After crossing the Dixon, where Start's red bean-tree grows plentifully, we entered an amphitheatre of sandstone and quartzite hills, in the centre of which a space over a mile square was filled with gigantic granite boulders, many of them almost perfectly round and from ten to five-and-twenty feet in diameter. It was a weird scene of desolation, and one was scarcely surprised to hear that they were called the "Devil's Marbles." Shortly after we reached the top of the pass, and caught sight of the distant Osborne Range. The interval was filled with fifty miles of pure unmitigated desert and sandy plain, covered with low shrubs. We camped at Wycliffe Well, on a small creek. At night we heard a curious hoot, like an owl. The natives say that it is caused by a large spider, called the barking spider, but it seems impossible for a spider to make such a noise. Early start next day and thirty-five miles of heavy sand--a terrible day for the horses. Half-way we met Professor Spencer and Mr. Gillan, who were engaged in investigating the habits and customs of the natives. The desert was full of wild yams, to obtain which the natives dig holes from two to three feet in depth. Just before sunset we reached the Osborne Range and the Taylor Well. As we neared the creek we noticed many natives' fires. They seemed to be numerous here.

Next day, Sunday (July 21), we again started early, as I was anxious to reach Barrow Creek in good time for service. From the top of the Watts Range we had a fine view back over the desert, and finding the country improve, reached Barrow Creek telegraph station about 4 P.M. At night we had one of the best and heartiest services on the journey. The station lies in a narrow pass between two high flat-topped hills of quartzite, containing an immense quantity of mica and beautiful crystals of rose-coloured quartz. Behind the station is a rugged gorge down which the blacks crept in the early days to attack the station, killing the stationmaster and a linesman, who are buried close to the house. The dying man managed to telegraph the news of the attack, and the survivors escaped, though badly wounded. From the hills adjoining the station the view is one of great magnificence, over plains which stretch for fifty miles on both sides, Central Mount Stuart bounding the view to the south, and Mounts Stezlecke and Morphett to the north. The whole neighbourhood is one of great interest and beauty; the hills look like gigantic earthworks, crowned by a forty-foot wall of red sandstone or conglomerate; and the colours are exceedingly beautiful. On Monday I walked into a lonely valley in the ranges and found myself in a vast amphitheatre of crags; the silence was broken only by two birds chasing away a hawk with angry cries; the spinifex up the mountain sides looked emerald green in the setting sun; and the ground was bright with flowers. It is difficult to convey any adequate idea of the grandeur of the spot, or of the countless things to interest the botanist or geologist.

On Thursday (July 25) I left Barrow Creek with Mr. B., the superintendent of the central section of the telegraph line. We had a fine team of four splendid horses, which covered the twenty-two miles to Sterling station in quick time. Next day we travelled over vast plains to the Ti Tree Well, about thirty miles. For dinner we camped near the foot of Central Mount Stuart, 2500 feet above the sea. Mount Browne, some miles to the west, is also a fine rugged mountain. The wind was intensely cold and piercing, and, though it generally fell at night, there was a heavy dew, and in the morning everything was covered with hoar-frost. We got a late start from the Ti Tree Well, as the horses had wandered. This day we drove about thirty-two miles, and camped at Prowse's Gap--a pass between two ridges of gneissic granite and diorite. I climbed up the western ridge and had a most wonderful view. To the north was an uninterrupted plain, bounded by Central Mount Stuart, forty-five miles away; to the west low rugged ranges, behind which were glimpses of the blue mountains of the Reynolds Range. To the south-east were the fine peaks of Mounts Boothby, Glaisher, and Wells; and to the east a vast wooded plain stretching to the horizon, with the isolated mountain of Arno's Peak nearly fifty miles away. The strata on the ridge here dip almost perpendicularly, forming steep slopes of flat rock. In one of these is a hole about five feet deep and about the same width, filled with beautiful water; the water follows the dip of the stratum, and the hole has apparently been formed by water washing round pebbles in a crack. These little holes are frequent throughout the country, but often little known.

The clearness of the air in these parts was most astonishing. Rocks a quarter of a mile away looked almost as if one could lay the hand on them. There was not a particle of haze, and the distant mountains stood up with startling clearness.

Next day we camped at the Native Gap, in Hann's Range, where I noticed fir-trees for the first time. We were thus enabled to have a quiet afternoon, which I enjoyed after the rush of the last two days. My Evensong was accompanied by the wild music of the wind in the pine-trees; now swelling into a roar, now dying away into an almost inaudible undertone of sighing. I think that many of the Psalms, with their nature voices, must have been written in the open air in a land not unlike this in its natural features; at any rate they never come so home to one as out in the bush.

Next day we travelled through dense mulga scrub thirty-five miles to Burt Creek, which runs through a little plain 2300 feet above the sea.

A very bleak camp, and an icy wind next morning as we proceeded on through twenty-five miles of mulga scrub to the head of the Macdonnell Range; this scrub, called Everard's scrub, extends, with the exception of a mile or two of plain on the Burt, for sixty miles from Hann's Range to the Macdonnell Range, and is a dreary, comfortless region. From the head of the range to Alice Springs is ten miles of as rough a road as I have ever travelled, through low jumbled rocks and ranges, dreary, but not beautiful. The station itself is entirely surrounded by rocks, and must be very hot in summer. At the time of our arrival it was most bitterly cold; and I was devoutly thankful to sleep again in a bed after six days of as cold travelling as I ever experienced. Here, too, I found letters, newspapers, and other tokens of civilization, although still 322 miles from the railway. The ranges and gaps through which the rivers traverse the ranges in this neighbourhood are very fine. I was much interested in the natives, who had here in Mr. B. a courageous and sympathetic sub-protector. The men had very fine features of distinctly Jewish type, with full beards. Some of them can read and write fairly well. One very serious matter was the number of half-caste children who, according to the sub-inspector's report for 1900, largely outnumbered the black children. The nights and days were both bitterly cold here. On the previous night the dry-bulb thermometer went down to between 26° and 27°, and the wet bulb to 25°.

Next day I walked up a hill near the station and had a magnificent view. The Macdonnell Range, running east and west, has steep walls of rock on the north and south sides, and between them a kind of trough about ten miles wide filled with a jumble of low rocky hills. Imagine a great heavy broken sea of yellow water, with waves breaking up irregularly with an interval of two hundred feet from the lowest to the highest points, and the foam and broken water all rocks and boulders, and you will have some idea of the scene. All the rocks and stones are yellow and yellowish red, the grass yellow, and the ground yellow or yellowish red. Every tint and shade of these colours cover the whole scene, except where it is dotted over with sage-green bushes and low stunted trees. The whole blends into a feast of harmonious tints and a scene of utter barren desolation. It reminded me most strongly of the pictures and photographs I had seen of the deserts and mountains of Palestine. Shape, colour, and vegetation seemed to be almost identical, and one was not surprised to see a camel team threading its way through one of the narrow defiles or gaps by which the rivers find their way out to the south. I have never seen anything quite like these gaps. Heavitree Gap, through which the southern road passes, is a break in the range about one hundred yards wide entirely filled by the sandy bed of the River Todd, along which the road passes. The cliffs on either side are a slaty reddish yellow sandstone, with the strata very distinct, and tilted at an angle of 45°. They rise abruptly to a height of two hundred feet. Just to the south of the gap is a lately discovered hot spring on the top of a low mound. No water is visible, but a gentle steam rises, covering the stones with moss and condensing on the under-side of the stones in drops of dew. The rock is limestone mixed with igneous ironstone, and surrounded by granite.

On Saturday I drove, with Mr. F. of Undoolia station, to Emily Gap, ten miles from Alice Springs. Passing through Heavitree Gap we went along the south side of the ranges eastward through beautiful park-like country; the southern slopes of the range are covered with luxuriant growth, and are a great contrast to the barren northern side. Emily Gap is about the same depth as Heavitree, but much narrower and the cliffs even more perpendicular. It is about two hundred yards long, and is filled with a pool of very deep water. On one side of the cliffs are some aboriginal paintings in red ochre, but we were unable to see them from the side of the gap on which we were. The average annual rainfall of Alice Springs is under five inches, and it is wonderful how much vegetation there is and how it survives the droughts. The blacks here make a damper out of flour produced by grinding together a tiny black grass seed with the seed of a grass not unlike the Flinders grass, and looking exactly like canary seed. The collection of the seed must be an infinitely slow process. The rocks are full of euro, a species of kangaroo.

On Sunday (August 4) we had Morning Prayer at the Alice Springs telegraph office. The service was well attended; and it was a great joy, after all the weeks in the bush, to hear the canticles sung, and sung well.

Next day, Monday (August 5), I left Alice Springs and my kind hosts with great regret. Every one was more than kind, and the country is, I think, the most interesting and, in some ways, the most beautiful I have seen in Australia. I left about 2 P.M.. the only passenger by the mail coach to Oodnadatta. About four miles from the station we passed through Heavitree Gap, which I have already mentioned. On the first survey flood marks were found which showed that the whole country to the north of the range must have been converted into a huge lake fifteen feet deep, and the blacks tell that before the white men came they had once to take refuge from the flood on the hills. As the annual rainfall is under seven inches, such a catastrophe must be very rare. It is easy to explain, as there is no escape for the water from the trough between the ranges except through Heavitree and one or two much smaller gaps. At Heavitree the gap is formed by the meeting of two beds of strata dipping east and west respectively, but I was told that one of the gaps has apparently been torn by an earthquake or by shrinkage, as the projecting rocks on one side fit corresponding holes on the other. The rock on the south side of the range is limestone, which has once overlain the sandstone and has now been tilted with it almost on end. Shortly after leaving the gap we came on to a beautiful plain, perfectly level and some fifteen miles wide, covered with splendid grass, which I was informed would last two years. The plain extends east and west for a distance of about four hundred miles. Having crossed the plain we got on some rising ground, and had one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen, of Mount Undoolia and the eastern part of the Macdonnell Ranges, lighted by the setting sun. The most brilliant efforts of Turner's brush were as nothing beside it. The ranges here always reminded me in shape of the photographs of the lunar mountains. The effect was heightened by the intensely black shadows, such as I have never seen elsewhere, and which are, I suppose, due to the absence of refraction, owing to the intense dryness and clearness of the air. In front of us was the Waterhouse Range, the lower slopes of which we were ascending. Some of the hills were an exquisite crimson softened by the covering of green porcupine grass, while the ranges to the east were all shades of white and blue. Towards the top of the range we came out on an open valley filled with curious castles, walls, and blocks of a kind of granite, from fifteen to twenty feet high, and rising directly out of the grass as though they had been built there. We did not reach our camping-place near the Ooraminna Rock Hole, on the top of the range, till after dark, and I was glad to find that we had the shelter of some mulga scrub.

Next day about thirty-seven miles through terribly heavy sand, with a few miles of better travelling at the end. We passed a train of twenty-five camels with loading for Alice Springs. They are curious, snaky-looking beasts as they sidle along in single file. When we camped for dinner the driver told the black boy, who was awkward in harnessing the horses, that he was as bad as a Chinaman. He replied indignantly, "No fear! Me no all same Chinaman; Chinaman no talk him English!"

We passed a well sunk two hundred feet on the highest part of the range, and left. It is said that no one ever expected to find water there. We camped at an old dam, a bare dusty plain all round it. The night was cold, and there was no shelter, but fortunately no wind. In the morning I noticed clouds of the little green parrot so common throughout Central Australia. It is a most unaesthetic bird, all one vivid arsenical green. When a flock settles on a tree it looks as if it had been painted by a child out of a shilling paint-box. Nevertheless it is most beautiful as it wheels in the sun or fringes the water with a brilliant margin of colour. Just to the south of the Waterhouse Range is a belt of kurrajong trees. They are found nowhere else, either north or south. The wood is curiously light and porous. During the night the black boy rushed up to the fire crying out that the Kadaitcha was out after him with a spear and a fire-stick. The Kadaitcha is an evil spirit or ghost. When a native is about some nefarious purpose he puts on Kadaitcha shoes, made of emu's feathers and leaving no track.

We left the Braedon Dam after nine, the horses taking some time to get in, and had a journey of thirty-six miles to the Alice Well. The first fourteen miles were fairly good going over a high table-land, with views of low hills; the latter all over sandhills. Over these latter one progresses about three miles an hour. Driving is a sinecure, as the driver simply straps the reins to the seat and reads the paper, or indulges in such sleep as a driver may without being too far gone to objurgate the horses from time to time. Ours were always being promised a tremendous thrashing a few yards farther on, but it never came, for they were excellent horses. The driver at last convulsed me by exclaiming pathetically as we toiled slowly through a slough of sand, "Get on, you nasty things. What would King Edward say if he could see his coach going at such a rate!" These sandhills are endless. One toils up one only to see an exactly similar one just ahead. Only very staunch horses could possibly pull the coach up, especially at the end of some forty miles travelling. The top of one hill was covered with some white glittering dust which looked exactly like snow.

Next day we toiled for twenty miles through the famous Depot Sandhills. The mail is allowed two days for the twenty-six miles between Alice Well and Horseshoe Bend, and no wonder. I should think four miles a day, two in the morning and two in the afternoon, about a fair thing. We had immensely powerful horses, and they did about two miles an hour with great exertion. Some of the hills are high and steep even for firm ground, and all covered with sand from three to six feet deep. We camped in the bed of the Finke River. A cold night and no shelter. In the morning, ice two inches thick on the dishes. Before starting I made a sketch of a curious mountain, forming the angle of the river. Yellow, red, and white sandstone in most regular bands; a very striking object. We only went on a few miles to the Horseshoe Bend, where there is a store, and where we were to meet the other coach. The hills along the Finke are most extraordinary. They present cliffs of red, yellow, white, and occasionally pink sandstone in horizontal layers, sometimes diversified by a kind of dark shale. The red is usually at the bottom, then the yellow, and the white on top, often covered by a top layer of red, but there are many layers of each colour of different shades. In places the sandstone seems to have been subjected to great heat, and has been changed into a substance resembling light earthenware, or porous slag, and is mixed with rounded quartz pebbles. Altogether the country is most interesting geologically, while the vivid hues of the cliffs and the varying reds and crimsons of the sandhills give a feast of colour to the eye. The Finke is a broad sandy stream, with good water-holes, and running beneath the sand. The storekeeper kindly gave me his room, for which I was grateful, as sleeping out was not an unmixed joy in such frosty Aveather.

We left the Horseshoe Bend early next morning, keeping down the Finke to Crown Point, a curious isolated hill at the end of a range crowned with square blocks of red sandstone. We had a long drive of sixty-two miles to a station on the Finke, where I was heartily welcomed, though in somewhat primitive bush fashion. As I was leaving, each of the four men on the station brought me a pound and asked me to devote it to Church work. Next day we had a long drive over stony, bare downs to Charlotte Waters telegraph station. The1 station is built like a fort, and must be hot and uncomfortable in these peaceful times. The country round is very bare and flat.

Next day we reached Oodnadatta long after dark. The town consists of an hotel, two stores, and two or three houses. Next day I repaired to the railway station, and seeing a stationmaster in a gold-band cap and porters in uniform bristling abotit, I felt that T had indeed returned to civilization, and hurrying up to the stationmaster I asked when the next train left for Adelaide. "A week to-day," was the answer. "And when did the last train go?" I asked. "A week ago." This Arcadian spot had a train, and has still, once a fortnight only. By a most fortunate chance, however, the Commissioner for Railways arrived in a special train shortly after, and most kindly asked me to accompany him down, so that I travelled in great comfort and with most pleasant company, which made the way seem short. Two hundred miles south of Oodnadatta we came upon the most dry and desolate country I ever saw. For two hundred miles, as far as Quorn, there had been hardly any rain for years, and everything seemed to be completely dried out of the ground. It was a most pitiable sight. Rain fell, however, a few days afterwards. I reached Adelaide on Saturday (August 17), eleven weeks after leaving Port Darwin, and received the most generous welcome from the Bishop and Church-people of that city, from which I returned to Thursday Island, via Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane.

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