Mr. Bussell's Journal of an Expedition to the River Vasse, from the Blackwood

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Mr. Bussell's Journal of an Expedition to the River Vasse, from the Blackwood  (1832) 

MR. BUSSELL'S JOURNAL of an Expedition to the River Vasse, from the Blackwood.

We left the Blackwood at the rapids, and for some time traversed a country alternately rocky and sandy, with occasional patches of good soil, always however thickly wooded with mahogany. The first change that presented itself was a thicket of young trees of the eycaliptus kind; what these species might be, I could not tell, though I should conclude, the same as constitutes the timber of the neighbouring forests; they grew about four feet high, and had the appearance of a nursery; the soil was a white earth. We had already put up one kangaroo, and two rats, and to these our dogs had given chase, but without success. We had been for some time in want of water, when we came upon a small torrent, flowing east; this, on account of the arid aspect of the country, we had passed, and the appearance of the sky, which threatened rain, were inducements, sufficient to determine me on an early bivouac; we therefore halted for the night, at a quarter to six.

While the men were preparing shelter, I walked in an easterly direction, to ascertain the cause of a break that showed itself in the wood, and came on a stream, flowing at right angles to the one on which we were settled, and apparently the receptacle of its waters; south, inclining to east, was the course of this rivulet; it was therefore a tributary of the Blackwood

The night proved as we had anticipated,—wet, but, by folding provisions and blankets together into as small a compass as possible, nothing suffered much, and with the help of a good fire, we preserved tolerably well our animal warmth.

After no very early breakfast the next mornings we proceeded through a wet bush, and were shortly in no better condition than if we had been wading; our route brought us on the stream I had observed the night before, but previous to crossing it, I ascended a high hill on my left, which was covered with the same sort of nursery of young trees I have before mentioned; no prospect, however, except that of a hilly country, of varied and undulating outline, rewarded my pains. The land I next passed through, was much encumbered with trees, principally mahogany and the oak; rock was abundant; and in what few plains I encountered, a white clay, mixed with some little sand; streams of clear good water were plentiful; nine, this day, we passed, one of which was very considerable; we crossed it at the rapids, after walking by its side about a mile north; most of the others were large enough to lead to the opinion of their not being mere torrents; we were generally more fortunate in finding fallen trees to assist us in crossing. Near the largest, we met a native, (an old man) who directed us to the best spot for passing another, not more than 400 yards from the former, and most likely joining, at no great distance, for they both held the same course.

Here was the best land I had yet seen—a rich red loam; it had been recently burnt, and was then free from a woody bush, and covered with an herb much resembling clover; I should, in fact, have taken it for one of the trefoil tribe, had I not afterwards, at the Vasse, seen the flower which is papilionaceous; the pod contains about five seeds. each ocnipyipg a separate cell formed by partitions of a spongy substance; in taste the leaf resembles grass, though it is rather more glutinous. Thus much notice (undue perhaps) I took of this small herb, from its resemblance to clover, and an idea inspired by that resemblance that it might afford good pasturage. The native we had just left, recognised none of the words we had acquired from the natives of Augusta; he seemed, indeed, so much alarmed (for he evinced fear by hiding the child he had with him), that I should conclude him quite a stranger to the sight of an Buropean. Edwards was much tired at 12 o'clock, and on that account we halted for about an hour, though we were only waiting the presence of water to commence our dinner; half a mile beyond this we came to a stream, on the banks of which we dined; four miles more ended our day's march, and a comfortable bivouac we had, free from wind and rain. The land we had now passed was nearly all heavily timbered; a whitish soil was common. We procured no game, though there was plenty of Kangaroo; our dogs wanted scent and swiftness. The fruit I have mentioned in a former Journal occurred often in the hills, generally near water; the whole party ate it freely, and found the acid refreshing.

The first part of the next day's march was over a country clean burnt, the land generally good but rocky, often and heavily timbered; white soil was frequent in the plains. We passed two small water courses tending to the southward and eastward; after this the country seemed to grow flat and swampy. We passed some large spaces on which the swamp oak prevailed without underwood; the soil was a rich red loam, rather stiff. Kangaroos, from their marks, must have been abundant, though we only saw one. I consider the country we were now traversing to constitute part of an area of high table-land, and the swamps upon it the sources of the streams we had hitherto encountered; for after we had advanced some distance further, the flow of the waters was in another direction, to the north and west, supplying, I at first thought, the Vasse; though I have since had reason to believe, the Seaward and western branch of the Blackwood, or some other river, if such a thing exists between Cape Naturaliste and the White Patch.

On the third stream, holding a westerly course, we dined; the land was open but sandy; the geology of the country continued the same; in the channels slabs of old red sand-stone were generally conspicuous. After dinner the face of nature exhibited little change as we walked on; in one of the plains my dog was accidentally shot. At the spot I had fixed for a bivouac, a considerable stream, I left Edwards and one of the men, while I proceeded with the other to look about me. I walked rather at random in a northerly direction, found again a succession of hills, rocky and precipitous, then returned and joined the other party, after an absence of about an hour and a half. From the time I at first found the water courses tending to the north and west, I had altered my route from N.E. to N., concluding that I was at least eastward of the Vasse.

Since, according to my reckoning, I was now nearly as far north as the Vasse itself—and as I had seen that the country for some distance before us was very hilly, whereas in the vicinity of the point I was making very large plains—since too I had all along kept to the eastward more than I thought was right, wishing to cross over the same tracts that the last travellers had crossed; and because of the westerly direction of the water oourses I determined to make a little westing, and with that intention, I began my march the next morning, N. by W. at first; for the numerous ravines I had seen the night before seemed to promise a large stream, or some assemblage of waters; nothing, however, appeared but small torrents, running generally N. and E. After advancing about a mile and a half from our bivouac, we descried some distant land through the trees, bearing N.N.E.; from this point I steered N.W.

As we advanced on our new course, we continued descending for some time, while the land appeared less and less rocky. We now entered an extensive plain, the soil of which was damp, and in some placea was standing water. A ridge of hills was seen in our rear, extending east and west £rom the highest part of it, our course was now conducting us. The surface of this plain, composed of clay and sand, bore numerous impressions of the feet of the natives and kangaroos. At 12 o'clock we halted for dinner, on a remarkable water-course;, the chaimel of which was generally dry, and seemed to wind very much, for we had already crossed it several times; though wide, was shallow, and its bottom consisted of bare flat rock; following it for some distance, we found water in pools;, and in the pools, strange to say, small fish: here our dogs caught a kangaroo.

At about a mile from this bivouac we came the next day upon a small stream flowing N. by E.; this I followed about half a mile, in order to avoid a swamp that seemed to extend some distance on the opposite side; the trees here were distant from each other and large. A white cockatoo, the first I had seen this year, attracted the attention of one of our party, but no success attended his efforts.

The country, as we advanced on the other side of the rivulet, improved rapidly; the ground on which we trod was a vivid green, unsullied with burnt sticks or blackened grass trees; not that it was covered with a decided turf, but the vegetation seemed more succulent than woody, and the plants growing to about the same height, presented to the eye a smooth surface.

With daisies pied, and violets blue, And ladies' smocks all silver white.

Though the flowers were not perhaps precisely the same that characterised an English meadow, they were not the less beautiful in appearance, varied in form, or brilliant in colour; grass was plentiful, and the clover I have noted above, with its bright scarlet and yellow flower, the daisy, buttercup, and a purple marygold. The whole effect reminded me of that confusion of rich tints that are produced in the Indian loam, and as I looked upon it, I could not feel but inclined to believe that such a scene as this must have presented to the imagination of the Hindoo, the high colouring of his fabric, and the prototype of the gaudy chintz.

Half a mile brought us on a small river, and so slow that I could hardlv ascertain the existence of a current. I concluded it to be, as it afterwards proved to be, the Vasse. The sound of rushing water proclaimed a rapid near; walking, therefore, a short distance up the stream, we found what we sought, a passage over. Here was the spot that the creative fancy of a Greek would have peopled with dryad and naiad, and all the beautiful phantoms and wild imagery of his sylvan mythology: wide waving lawns were sloping down to the water's edge, trees thick and entangled were sloping over the banks. One in the centre of the rapids had taken root in the very rocks over which the waters tumbled; its bended trunks and tortuous roots seemed to indicate that it had struggled more than once to gain the perpendicular form, from which it had been thrust by the rude torrents, which at certain periods evidently pour down this obstruction to the free flow of the river.

About a hundred or two hundred yards on the other side, we obtained a sight of the sea bearing N.W. The country here was so clear that a farmer could hardly grudge the fine spreading trees of the red and white gum and peppermint the small portion of ground that they occupied only to ornament. The soil was always good, sometimes very light; a red sandy loam; at other times stiff, particularly where the white gum prevailed.

After walking about three miles in a N. by W. direction along the banks, we began to observe evident tokens of the proximity of the sea, such as hottentot figs, rock spinach; of the latter we prepared a mess when we arrived on the edge of a large flat, into which the river falls. It was then 12 o'clock; before, however, we began our repast we were hailed by three natives, who were wading over from the opposite side, fearful probably that we were likely to interfere with some snares for fish which they had constructed near the spot where we were; they carried spears, but approached withal with such friendly guise and courtly seeming, that I did not hesitate to advance to meet them alone and unarmed. They were on the whole smaller of stature than the men I had been accustomed to see, and wore no skins. The countenances of two of them were certainly ugly and brutal enough, but the third had a sprightly air and good-humoured expression, accompanied with that revolting laugh which is so general with these savages; his hair matted with peculiar taste into strings, resembling spun-yarn, and bound up close, displayed a head of true Caucasian proportion, with a facial angle less acute than is often observable in the European.

They expressed considerable surprise at the facility with which we procured a spark from the firelock; and, upon bur making signs to that effect, soon blew it into a blaze. I afterwards shot them two small birds, and gave them some of our kangaroo meat, which they ate, refusing biscuit and vegetables. I obtained some words of their language; it seemed much the same as that used at Augusta. As is the custom there, they designated one another, as well as ourselves, (in compliment I have always thought), with the appellation youngaree and mamiungo; this struck me as a considerable evidence of connection existing between them and the savages of Cape Leeuwin. The words:

Mendenah ... Eyebrow.
Yelit ... Eye.
Nolt ... Tooth.
Donga ... Ear.
Daan ... Foot.
Koat ... Hair.

I enter thus into these particulars, because I infer that a judicious treatment of the natives at Augusta has procured in them, towards the settler, a peaceful disposition. It will be satisfactory to learn, that the population about to flow towards the Vasse has grounds for expecting that friendy reception which a previous knowledge of the habits of Europeans, or a favourable report circulated amongst the tribes, and a consequent predisposition to amity, may seem to promise.

After dinner we walked two miles on the banks of the Lake, N.E.; fields of grass, in some places to the water-side, were waving like corn. In high tides, this lake, as we advanced, became brackish; seems to cover a large surface, which was then exposed, and exhibited a continuous flat of limestone, having its interstices filled with a coarse reddish sand; organic impressions of shells were numerous; its texture was a large oolitie; nor could I find one specimen of those close-grained nodules which are to be seen on the White Patch. From hence, bearing N.N.W., we saw high land at a great distance. This I knew to be Cape Naturaliste, as we had seen the day bearing in such a manner as to be necessarily between us and these distant hills. The bare rock and sheet of water seemed interminable; and, as some of our party were much tired, I returned to the spot where we had dined, and after a short rest there, resumed our march in quest of a place affording wood for our nightly accommodation. Native paths, which traversed these lawns in every direction, gave us easy walking for about a mile S.S.W. We then made the river and halted. Cockatoos were in greater multitudes than I have ever witnessed before, white and black; they were, however, shy, and defied the cunning of our sportsmen; though, I believe, the heavy baggage of their pursuers, and a consequent unwillingness to move further than was necessary, did more than their own caution towards the safey of the winged tenants of the groves. Dearth of fuel and innumerable gnats procured us by no means a favourable bivouac.

Early the next morning I was awakened by a large flight of cockatoos, and was looking at my gun to insure its going off, when a cloud of ducks suddenly alighted on the water, close at hand. I killed two, and, becoming my own retriever, undressed to get them; the river in the middle is not deep, and the bottom muddy, and abounds in a weed that unpleasantly twines round the limbs of the swimmer; there is greater depth towards the sides.

On leaving our own, and advancing two miles up the Vasse, came on Mr. Preston's bivouac, which Kenny, one of the men, who had also been of that party, recognised. A quarter of a mile further up were the rapids, which we had first crossed.

From this point, I intended to make my march homewards as direct as possible, in order to draw a tolerable estimate of the actual distance, and to observe what facilities or difficulties that line might hold out to the intended road. To find then this course, I took the sketch I had lately traced of my former circuitous route, and measuring by the scale the distance between the two extreme points, found that what I had made between fifty and sixty miles, was not in reality thirty miles off from the point whence I started, and the course that would bring me about on the middle, between the elbow and the rapids of the Blackwood, was S.S.W.; that these conclusions of mine were not infallible, will be seen in the sequel, together with the probable cause of my error. Before, however, I leave he Vasse, I must take some Airther notice of its productions.

The red gum, white gum, and peppermint, I have before observed, constituted the larger sort of timber; there was also a small tree, which Edwards informed me, was the black wattle. The nomenclature of the trees in this country, with the characteristics deduced from the colour of the bark or gum confusedly, is so exactly calculated to lead to mistake, when a person uninitiated in the mysteries of colonial language attempts to describe, that it becomes necessary for me to lay down my own observations on the growth, nature, and properties of, and, in that manner, to define as nearly as possible, the trees I have rashly endeavoured to designate. Of mahogany, peppermint, and banksia, I think I am tolerably certain. Red gum, as far I can learn, is the tougnest and hardest of the whole race of eycalipti, resisting the wedge, and of little use to the joiner, from its abounding in veins of gum, which, like that of the mahogany, is red; the wood is yellow, and is useful for the heads of beetles, &c. That which I have hitherto termed the white gum, (a tree growing to a greater height and bulk than I have yet seen), which throws off its bark in large flakes, wearing immediately after its change of dress a light buff color, which too is found generally in land abounding in springs, having its wood tinged with a light pink; too hard, however, for the uses of carpentering, when the eycaliptus robusta can be obtained. I now term the white gum, that which is seen in moist stiff flats; of small stature; sending out branches from below; changing its bark frequently, so as soon to lose the marks of fire, but imperceptibly, and not in large sheets; its wood is white, its bark a light grey. The oak re- sembles the fir in its foliage; it seems always to suffer much from fire. I wish to be accurate in these points, as it is a custom here to judge greatly of the quality of the soil from the timber it produces.

The grass tree is not uncommon, but of a different species from either the many-crested, or hastile; its trunk does not appear above ground, but the stalk that bears the flower and seed is much slenderer than ordinary; very light and straight. In the hand of an African it would no doubt have become an arrow; to the Australian savage it is of little use, except to stake round his fish-snares; it did not appear to yield the yellow gum, or rather resin. Wild celery grew very abundant on the side of the estuary. The natives make, however, a great point of our not eating it; signifying it would affect us with vomiting; some of these people had once before done the same thing, on my affecting to taste the nuts of the palm tree, which I knew to be emetic; as they, therefore, seemed to view unconcerned our dish of rock spinach, I was inclined to pay some regard to their exhortation.

Here, too, I recognised another plant which is found also growing on the rich stiff flats on the banks of the Blackwood; the flower much resembles groundsel, it has a strong taste of celery, and is often used in my house for flavouring pea-soup; pigs eat it readily. The clover I have mentioned before, is spread very generally over the ground. The purple marigold resembles the real marigold only in the radiated position of its petals, &c.; except for size, might as well be termed a sun-flower or daisy.

In this place, too, we met a sort of grass, which to the traveller is a most troublesome foe; it bears a seed about the size of a millet, one end of which is pointed and barbed; to the other is attached a fine taper tail, about three inches long, having the appearance of two silken threads of different colours, twisted together; in the action of walking, these seeds are brushed off, and, fixing by these barbed points to the stockings, they continue working through it, keeping up a most perplexing irritation on the foot and ancle.

Thus much of notice I paid to the vegetation, as different from what had been previously familiar to my dally observation.

All the rock I saw in my whole march, except that on the estuary at the Vasse, consisted of old red sandstone. It sometimes had large crystals embedded in it; sometimes, particularly in the channels of rivers, it was in slabs, and apparently schistose; at other times it wore almost the form of a conglomerate.

From the rapid where we first made the river at half-past nine, I commenced my course homewards, S.S.W.; the land was generally good, though sometimes sandy; but the spot we had just quitted was a soil of mediocrity. Kangaroos end emus seemed abundant, for we observed their traces in all the places we passed, capable of receiving an impression. We had just arrived on the brink of a small stream, when I was told one of the dogs had been some time missing. We were obliged to wait his return; he detained us three hours, though we dined in the interim, and returned with the same proofs as before of a victory, as he seemed inclined to shew, the men followed him about half a mile, but returned from the fear of losing themselves.

We now walked over large extended plains, having been impeded by the wanderings five or six times, on which we halted. We saw plenty of game, but one of our dogs was tired with his last chase, the other lame; at length, on our coming out of a large thicket, on the verge of a very wide open space, two kangaroos dashed away before us. *Sulphur," stimulated by the sight, and forgetting his fatigue, was at the heels of one of them in a moment. "Phillis" took the other, which made for some wooded land on the left, in the mazes of which it soon left its pursuer. "Sulphur," in the meanwhile, had driven his prey first far to the right, and now in a long sweep was turning it to the bush out of which "Phillis" was just emerging. All was decided; the poor thing, finding itself surrounded, was compelled to turn to bay. Kenny, always alive in the hunt, was soon on the spot, and finished the existence of his victim as it was hugging one of the dogs, who stood erect in his front, too much out of breath to hide, while the other hung on its haunch.

I never saw a chase so completely from beginning to end before; our booty proved a large buck, of about 130lbs. I need not mention that we had not kangaroo dogs; the mode of their hunt, and their want of scent, is sufficiently explanatory on that head,—the one was a fine Cape greyhound the other a small lurcher bitch; though the former had been used to the work, it was the first time the other had ever seen a kangaroo, and her want of experience proved her a deep rip in the belly.

We were now again overwhelmed with abundance, and as all the party seemed inclined to profit by our good fortune, we a second time halted for the purposes of cooking; for water, we all walked in different directions,—at the distance of about half a mile, I came on the dry channel of some small stream, and following it, found a few muddy pools. On my return, however, I learnt that Edwards had discovered some close at hand, in a hole that had lately been occupied by the root of a grass tree—this amply supplied us; in fact, we afterwards found water in several places at the small depth of half a foot.

This night we were disturbed by a furious barking among our dogs, the cause, however, did not appear. The morning rose and seemed to threaten a regular wet day; at ll o'clock, however, much to our satisfaction, it seemed likely to hold up, and we proceeded: the first three quarters of a mile was over the same level country we had experienced the day before; we had a range of hills in our front, and were able to recognise the part of them over which our former course lay, some miles to the left. When we arrived at the foot of these hills, we came on a small stream, which I considered the same we had left on the right the day before. We passed two other streams not long after, flowing W.S.W.; at five minutes to one we halted and dined.

We began walking again through a sandy loam, and land hilly, rocky, and thickly wooded, and passed several small streams, all inclining to the west. We came upon one very large, and in it a basin, into which rapids fell, about fifteen yards across, very deep; we forded it at the rapids, but not dry footed; this stream, which rolls along more water than the Vasse, can never fail; the basin, at all events, would prove a greater acquisition to a line of road, which, at the end of the summer, haa been found so destitute of water. Until ten minutes past 5, we continued this march, and very miserable walking it was—frequent rain in heavy showers, and clothes kept constantly wet by the bush, inclined us to halt for the night, that we might prepare a hut better than usual, against the inclemency of the weather. " The sun set, and up rose the yellow moon;" at her approach the sky wore a new and pleasant aspect, the clouds vanished, the winds were hushed, and bv the time we had dressed for supper the ducks I had shot at the Vasse, we had every prospect of a dry night and bed. This evening, my feet, which had been blistered since the second day of our march, from a defect in my shoes, were very painful, having been irritated by perpetual friction on the affected part, for above a week,

Little variety gratified our curiosity the next day; the country was still the same, rocky, woody, abrupt and precipitous here, as in the places where rock and wood prevail together. I observed that the vegetative principle in the roots of large trees, seems, by a gradual but resistless process, to have had the power of thrusting or wedging up large masses, the fissures of which were suficiently capacious for their first exigencies, and early growth; hence, each trunk has the appearance of being planted on a heap of huge stones, as if some gigantic gardener had been employed in hoeing up the nurselings of the forest.

I fell in with a large lagoon this morning, about thirty yards across, and perhaps four times that length; it seemed very deep, and from all circumstances, I should say it was never dry. A continual succession of hill and ravine after this crossed our path; the water in the bottom all tending to the west. About 12, we passed some high land, with a stunted growth of the oak, from which, towards the N.W., we could see the tops of trees on some high land, but nothing familiar presented itself. Towards the decline of the day, the country was, if any thing, steeper than we had yet found it, and from the top of a hill, I saw through the trees a distant undulating horizon. I at first thought I could see the White Patch, as I looked through a small opera glass, but no one seconded my opinion, and, from recent occurrences, I concluded it to have been the high land behind Augusta; it bore S.S.W. about thirty miles.

We were now some time without water, the next we made, was a small rivulet flowing east.

Early in the day, I had not expected to have reached the Blackwood that night, as I had calculated it somewhat more distant than the usual extent of our marches; since, however, we had already gone further than usual, and were, according to my reckoning, within a mile of that river, I was unwilling to halt here; the course of this stream seemed to indicate its proximity; I accordingly walked about a mile farther, and finally bivouaoed on another streamlet, flowing the same way; here we put up two large kangaroos; the land, for tht last few miles, had been less hilly and rocky; we all suffered much from cold this night. The next morning, after a walk of three quarters of an hour, I came on the seaward branch of the Blackwood, about 200 yards from the point of its junction with the main stream; and this, which on a former occasion had proved such an obstacle, was now easily passed, near its mouth, by means of a large fallen tree.

My error in making the Blackwood about two miles west of the point I originally steered for, arose probably from this cause. The first part of our journey to the Vasse, in which I made my easting, was rated at the samee average with the rest, whereas. both on account of our heavy loads, bad travelling, and the being not yet used to our packs, it was most probably performed more slowly than that part of our road which led through open plains, with easy walking, after two or three days had diminished our stores; and of this nature was the country, when I began to turn west; my extreme point then, or the Vasse must have been situated rather more to the west than I concluded, from the result of my march there, and hence it was, that instead of making the Blackwood halfway between the elbow of the river and the rapids, I made the elbow, itself being out in my reckoning about two miles; had it not been for this, I should have reached the river rather before than after I expected.

  (Signed) J. Bussell.

This work is is in the public domain because it was created in Australia and the term of copyright has expired.

See Australian Copyright Council (ACC), (Duration of Copyright) (February 2012).