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 X. Down the Mitchell (1905)

IN 1905 I made an interesting expedition down the Mitchell River, which rises in the high ranges close to the sea near Cairns, and runs for about four hundred miles across the base of the Cape York Peninsula, until it enters the sea on the eastern side of the Gulf of Carpentaria. The Queensland Government had at my request set apart a reserve of some six hundred square miles for the purpose of a Mission reserve for aborigines, and, after the Rev. E. R. Gribble had in the previous year made a six weeks' visit to prepare the way, a party was formed to open the Mission, consisting of three white men in addition to Mr. Gribble and myself, and four Christian aborigines, among whom was James Noble, a man of exceptionally high character and intelligence, who had had the advantage of some education, but was by birth a member of probably the least intelligent tribe in Australia, the natives of Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

I met the party on the morning of the third day after they left Yarrabah, on the upper waters of the Mitchell, among the lofty ranges inland from Port Douglas. I will again quote from my diary as giving a more vivid account of our journey than after-reminiscences:

"May 10. A thick fog early, which dispersed soon after seven with beautiful cloud effects on the mountains. About 10 A.M. the expedition appeared, Rev. E. R. Gribble, Messrs. Millar, Field, and Williams, and the aboriginals James Noble, Grady, Bendigo, and Ernest, with thirty-one horses. I said good-bye to my hospitable hosts and left immediately. About noon we reached the spot where the road crosses the Mitchell, and while the rest of the party camped I rode across the river to Brooklyn station, about two miles distant. We left camp again at 3 P.M., and travelled down the river through well-grassed country till 6 P.M., when we camped on a lagoon. After tea we had our Evensong, and the hymns sounded well, sung by so many voices. One of our party is a sailor and the horse is a mystery to him, though he sticks to it gallantly; as he remarks, 'The steering gear is all right, but I can't get the run of the engines. They seem to be always dead slow or full speed ahead.' Heavy dew at night and cold.

"Thursday, May 11. Up at 6 A.M.; making up packs till 7 A.M.; breakfast and packing horses and ready to start by 8 A.M. (Saddling and packing thirty horses is hard work.) When all ready to mount we had a short service, holding our horses, and then off. Travelled all day through rather poor country. Weather very hot. I rode ahead to make the pace, but some of the pack-horses were very tired and we made only moderate progress. Camped for dinner about ten miles farther down the Mitchell, on a water-hole near a dry creek. Soon after dinner we left the Mitchell, leaving behind a Yarrabah pony which was done up, and travelled through dry ranges south of the river all the afternoon. About sunset we reached the top of the watershed between the Mitchell and the Hodgkinson, and had a fine view of the great cliffs of Mount Mulligan, to the south. There being no water, we had to travel on after dark till 7.30 P.M.; found water in a little creek a few miles from the Hodgkinson. The pack-horses and their drivers had considerable difficulty in following in the dark; fortunately there was a young moon. It was 9 P.M. before we finished tea, and after short Evensong all turned in pretty tired. Distance travelled, about twenty-four miles.

"Friday, May 12. Up early, but had to wait a long time after breakfast, as four of our horses had not come, in; got off at 9 A.M. Crossed the Hodgkinson about a mile and a half from camp at a deserted station; then made much southing to avoid rough country till we struck the old road from Thornborough; along it for many dreary miles over small ranges to the junction of the Little Watson with the Mitchell at 1 P.M. Every one assimilated a large pint mug of the clear fresh Mitchell water, and then on without a halt until 4.30 P.M., when we camped on a rocky water-hole near the Big Watson, and enjoyed dinner and tea in one, all being hungry. Distance travelled, about twenty-three miles. All is working well and smoothly under Mr. Gribble's skilful organization. As soon as a halt is called every man catches the nearest of the nineteen pack-horses and unpacks; all the saddles and packs are arranged in a square and covered with a tarpaulin, except those needed for the night; every one has two horses to ride and carry his pack alternately, morning and evening, the rest being only packs. At the midday halt the same business has to be gone through, and we can now pack up in less than half an hour; but it is only Mr. Gribble's energy and decision that render the job such a quick one. The black boys have other work, so that each white man has to pack four horses in addition to catching and saddling his riding-horse. About 6 P.M. some travelling cattle passed, and the owner, who had just killed, offered to send us over some fresh beef, but it never turned up.

"Saturday, May 13. Got off at 8.15; travelled till 12.30; passed a fine water-hole in a large stream about 10.15 A.M.; camped in a gorge in the hills where there was water. Country hilly and dry, but less rough than yesterday. In the afternoon we had a thunder-storm which wet every one thoroughly, and soon afterwards we camped on the Dry River and put up tents, as the weather continued threatening, about three miles from the O.K. copper mine. Distance travelled, about twenty-four miles.

"Sunday, May 14. At 7.15 A.M. celebrated the Holy Communion in the open air. With the just-risen sun shining in his morning beauty behind the little temporary altar one appreciated the force of the words, 'Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.' After breakfast Grady and I rode into the O.K. mine. We passed a long string of camels, at which Grady and our horses opened their eyes wide. I was hospitably welcomed by the mine manager, Mr. Gibbs, and his wife, and made arrangements to hold evening service in the office. The town is mostly canvas, but a large number of men are employed. It is about twelve miles from the southern border of the diocese, on the road from Mungana to Maytown. In the afternoon Mr. Gribble came in from the camp, and after tea we had service in the assay room of the office, which was fitted up with temporary seats. There was a good attendance at this the first religious service ever held at the O.K. mine, and the singing of the hymns was very hearty. Mr. Gribble went back to camp and I stayed the night.

"Monday, May 15. Mr. Gibbs kindly undertook to have three of our horses shod, and Mr. Gribble and two of the boys came in with them about 10 A.M. The boys were very much interested in the camels. 'They have an island on their back,' said one, referring to the hump. There are about four hundred on the road to Mungana, but they cannot carry away the matte fast enough to keep the smelter running full time, and it works only two shifts a day. The lode seems to be very large and very rich. Several of the shoes had to be made, and we did not get away till 12.30, when we returned to camp, had dinner, and packed up, getting off about 3 P.M. We passed through the outskirts of the township at three miles, and then followed down the Dry River for about seven miles, camping on a good water-hole at 6 P.M. Distance travelled, about ten miles.

"Tuesday, May 16. Left camp at 8.20 A.M. Crossed the Mitchell after about five miles, and then on another five to Bellevue station, where there was only the cook at home. Camped about 1 P.M. to rest the horses, tired with last week's hard travelling over the ranges; spent the afternoon fishing and exploring. Travelled eleven miles. The river here is a beautiful broad running stream.

"Wednesday, May 17. Left camp at 8 A.M., grass long and dry and track difficult to find. Reached Mount Mulgrave, twelve miles distant, at 11.15 A.M., and camped just beyond the station, which commands a fine view of the river. Mr. -----, the owner, kindly sent a boy off to the Walsh station, twenty-two miles distant, to take in some telegrams for me, and to fetch any awaiting me. At 3 P.M. the party moved to a camp six miles farther down the river, while I waited overnight for the return of the boy with the telegrams. Mr.------most kind and hospitable."

For the next twelve days we travelled on down the course of the Mitchell River with no track, and having often difficulty in getting anywhere near the river on account of the high banks and dense scrub. I resume my diary:

"Monday, May 29. A thick fog in the early morning. Left camp at 8.45 A.M., and travelled nine miles through long grass in which the packs were quite invisible. Many recent tracks and traces of blacks, but only saw their fires, though the grass was so thick that they might have been within a few yards of us without being seen. Camped at 11.45 A.M. on a swamp shortly after crossing a big creek. After dinner went on six or seven miles, and camped in the bed of Magnificent Creek. Crossed the tracks of a number of blacks a few hours old. Mosquitoes very bad almost for the first time.

"Tuesday, May 30. Left camp 9.20 A.M., and reached the borders of the reserve about 10.30. Country burnt here for some miles. At 12.30 reached a fine lagoon with wild pig on the banks. Killed a wallaby and a number of ducks and camped for dinner, 'at home 'for the first time after our long journey. Weather much cooler and pleasanter; breeze from the west off the sea, here about twenty miles distant. After dinner passed through some beautiful plain and forest country with long green grass of excellent quality. About 4 P.M. we passed the spot where we had met the blacks on my last visit, near Old Bosworth, and soon after passed Cobaio, a deep lagoon surrounded by dense scrub. About 5.30 we sighted our destination, Yeremundo, and rounding the end of the lagoon we saw the log-house, erected by Mr. Gribble in November last, still standing, with its grass roof browned by the sun. It looked quite home-like, and showed that the natives had faithfully kept their promise to look after it. We found the grass all round neatly cleared, and a note from Inspector Galbraith, who was to meet us here, to say that he could not wait beyond the specified date, the 25th, and had left the following day. As we were five days late, we were very glad he had not waited any longer. I was glad also to find in a hollow tree, to which the note directed me, a letter from the Rev. W. M. Wilkinson and some newspapers which he had kindly sent out. Some of our party were very tired and glad of the prospect of a day's rest, while Mr. Gribble and I went into Rutland Plains.

"Wednesday, May 31. After breakfast Mr. Gribble and I, with John Grady, rode into Rutland Plains, which is about ten miles to the south, to post letters and get some stores which Mr. Gribble left here last year. We got back about 6.15 P.M. and saw a big camp of blacks who had arrived shortly before, Bendigo and James Noble having found their camp on the Magnificent and told them of our arrival. They were part of the Koko Widdee tribe, the same that I met two years ago. The 'King,' a fine old fellow, had come in early in the day to look after the house, which Mr. Gribble had left in his charge. As a reward for his diligence in taking care of it we gave him some tobacco, and I presented him with a siren whistle, which he blew with admirable gravity. There were about fifty men and youths and some old women and young children, but one could not but note the absence of younger women. With the whites one sees almost always young aboriginal women, hardly any old. Here is one cause of the disappearance of the race. It is said, and truly, that the young women often do not object to leaving their tribe. They naturally prefer a station or a town, with plenty to eat and little to do, to the bush life; but what about the men? Is it fair to them to leave them only the old and sick women whom the white man does not desire to keep? Is it strange that they resent being deprived of their women, even when violent means are not employed? After Evensong we went up to the blacks' camp and witnessed a corroboree. I had seen the civilized blacks' corroboree without much interest, but this was different. Some of the songs and dances were very weird. One song had a real and striking tune and a chorus. Several of those present had taken part in the attack on Inspector Garraway and Mr. Gribble's camp in 1902.

"Thursday, June 1. After breakfast talked through Grady to a number of natives, and tried to explain the pictures on a Church almanack. All seemed very pleased to see Mr. Gribble back. Started about 10.30, and at 1.30 reached Yanda Swamp, where we camped. About forty natives accompanied us, and many more arrived in the course of the day. After tea we went to the camp for Evensong. It was quite dark, but as there was no wind we carried a couple of candles, which dimly outlined about sixty blacks seated in a half-circle, with the women and children behind.

"We sat down in front with Grady as interpreter, while the old king gravely walked over and seated himself at our side. We sang "O God our help in ages past," the blacks preserving complete silence until the conclusion of our short service, the meaning of which was first explained. Then Mr. Gribble, through Grady, gave a most practical address, easy to understand and interpret, something in this style:

"'First the Bishop says thank you that you looked after the house and kept it in good order.'

"'The Missionaries have kept their word. They said they would be back in six moons, and they are here.'

"'We very glad to hear you have not speared any cattle since our last visit.' [Grins of conscious virtue on the part of the audience.]

"'We are here to teach you about God the Father, Who made you and the grass and the trees and the women too.'

"'We do not want to make you like white men, but good blackfellow; still walk about, still catch possum and wallaby, still make good corroboree, but not kill cattle, not steal, not fight other blackfellow, not swear, not hit wife on head with waddy [symptoms of disapproval at this prohibition among the audience], and wife too, she not talk-talk to husband.' [Sudden revival of approval in the front rows, and an emphatic click of assent.]

"The boundaries of the reserve were explained, and they were warned not to trespass, and to bring their sick to the Mission station, and were promised protection while they behaved well. All seemed very simple, but I was lost in admiration of the skill of the address. John Grady was in his element, translating with eloquent gesticulations.

"Friday, June 2. Left at 8.30 A.M. and travelled west for three hours, camping on the south side of Trubanaman Lagoon, our destination, the best site for the Mission so far as we have been able to ascertain. Trubanaman, a great resort for all the blacks, is a lagoon of which the western end is about eight miles from the coast; it extends for several miles inland and is about fifty yards wide, and covered with the edible water-lily which forms the main food of the blacks. The ground at the south is high, and at the point we have chosen it is slightly higher than usual, with a small flat suitable for a garden just in front; while close by is another flat sloping gently down to the lagoon, and excellently suited for cultivation. It is not on any creek, and appears to be secure from flood. How near goods can be brought we do not yet know. It is about eight miles from the southern border of the reserve, and with a station here and an out-station at Yeremundo we should be well in touch with the whole reserve.

"Saturday, June 3. After breakfast a number of blacks came and helped in clearing grass; then Messrs. Miller and Williams started to put up permanent tents and shift the camp on to the rising ground in the centre of what will be the Mission enclosure. Meanwhile Mr. Gribble and I set out to explore the country, and made a long round to the south as far as Topsy's Creek. We finally found a deep salt-water arm running up to within two miles of the station. It is difficult to judge how far this point may be from the sea, but we hope to be able to bring the cutter up to it. On our return we helped to finish the camp, erecting in the centre a large fly to serve as a church. Here we held Evensong, and were all very glad to be able to worship again in a building, however humble. A bright lad named Boanduagullin and one or two other young men have announced their desire to stay and work at the Mission. After Evensong we had a meeting of the staff, and rules were drafted.

"Sunday, June 4. The first celebration of Holy Communion at the station. Earnest prayer for God's blessing and guidance. All very beautiful in the early morning with the sun shining on the big water-lilies in the lagoon behind the kneeling worshippers. Morning Prayer at 10 A.M., and then sketched out a plan for the buildings round a hundred-feet square, with the church in the centre, so that as each building is finished it may be put in the right place. Very much pleased with all we see of the Mission site.

"At night we had service at the camp; a hundred and fifty men were packed on three sides of a little square, and behind were the glimmering fires and tall spears stuck in the ground beside them, with the shadowy forms of the women and children. Mr. Gribble and James Noble gave addresses through Grady, and we sang several hymns. So far we have not met one native who speaks or understands any English^ and only one or two have any semblance of clothing. After service Grady brought forward the largest man I ever saw. He was fully seven feet in height and magnificently proportioned. He looked, in the dim light, like one of a race of giants among pigmies. The top of my head barely reached his shoulder. He was, I found on measurement, over seven feet.

"Monday, June 5. In the morning we were busy erecting a temporary store. Immediately after dinner, Mr. Gribble and I, with Grady, rode down the northern branch of Trubanaman River. The salt water, which begins not far from the lagoon, quickly expands into a broad but winding stream. With a whale-boat goods could be brought very near to the station. I hope that the stores will arrive punctually, as we are very near the end of our provisions.

"Tuesday, June 6. Immediately after breakfast went the hospital rounds with Mr. Gribble and Mr. Williams. Many terrible cases of disease among the men and women, especially the latter. Attended to about twenty cases; patients seemed very grateful. The words 'Sick and ye visited me' impressed deeply upon one by the sight of all these helpless people. Mr. Williams will be in charge of the hospital on Mr. Gribble's departure. The station is now assuming quite a settled appearance, being formed along a square facing the lagoon, with the church tent in the middle.

"We have bought a considerable number of spears, dilly-bags, shell ornaments, knives, etc., for hooks, lines, tobacco, pipes, etc., with the double object of giving the natives employment in making new ones, as, game being plentiful, they have a considerable amount of time on their hands, and preventing their resorting to illegitimate means to obtain these necessaries and luxuries. A certain number of young men have been put on regular work, grass-cutting, etc. At 10.30 A.M. Mr. Gribble and I started out to explore the country to the south-east. After passing two chains of lagoons, distant about one and a half and two and a half miles respectively, we came on Topsy Creek at about five miles from the Mission station. This beautiful chain of broad deep lagoons runs for many miles east and west and forms a kind of natural boundary to the south. It is beautiful cattle country and the water is all permanent."

Project Canterbury