Spinifex and Sand/Part II/Chapter III
Part II: First Prospecting Expedition
Chapter III: From Mount Shenton to Mount Margaret
But to continue our journey. We left Mount Grant on May 8th, travelling South-West, and once away from the hills came again into sand and spinifex. From absence of feed we tied the camels down two nights running. The second night we had a visit from a native gentleman, and by his tracks in the morning we saw that he had been quite close to our heads at one time.
On the 10th a great change occurred in the country, and on passing through a thicket, we found a great wall of rock (decomposed granite) barring further progress. Following along the wall we came upon a gap, and, entering, reached a nice little plain of saltbush, surrounded by rocks and cliffs. This remarkable gap in the apparently extensive wall of rock we christened the "Desert's Gate," for we hourly expected to see better country. The next day we cut some recent horse tracks, the first signs of prospectors we had seen since April 15th, and following them back, hoping for water, came to an empty rock-hole amongst some rough hills of black slate, and in places, blows of quartz. No colours of gold could be found, nor signs of water, to induce us to stay longer prospecting. On the 12th we crossed a narrow salt lake and bade adieu to the sand and spinifex. To commemorate this longed-for day, we afterwards composed numerous poems(?) illustrating our daily life in the desert. The one considered by us the best, I beg to submit to the indulgent reader.
- SPINIFEX AND SAND.
- I will sing you a lay of W.A.
- Of a wanderer, travelled and tanned
- By the sun's fierce ray, through the livelong day
- In the Spinifex and Sand.
- At the day's first dawn, in earliest morn,
- As a soldier obeys a command,
- From his blanket he's torn, still weary and worn,
- By the Spinifex and Sand.
- Unrested still, he must put on the billy,
- And eat of the meat that is canned,
- He must take his full fill, he must face willy-nilly
- The Spinifex and the Sand.
- Then he gets on the tracks and sights the arched backs
- Of his camels of true South Aus. brand,
- And with saddle and sack he must hasten to pack
- For the Spinifex and Sand.
- From the start until night, till he's sick of the sight,
- There seem to dance hand in hand
- A lady so bright, and a green-armoured knight,
- The Spinifex and the Sand.
- He turns to his mate with "It gets a bit late,"
- His mate, he just answers offhand —
- "It's the same soon or late, we'll camp 't any rate
- In the Spinifex and Sand."
- As the night drags along, a weird-looking throng
- Fills his dreams of a far-off land,
- And a voice loud and strong chants the same ceaseless song,
- Of the Spinifex and the Sand.
Since this is one of the few attempts at rhyming that I have been guilty of, I hope I may be excused for wishing to see it in print, for at the time I was exceedingly proud of the composition. Ah! well, it served to pass the time and afforded some amusement. Soon we had other matters to think about, for on the 12th we found ourselves on the outskirts of auriferous country and were lucky in reaching plenty of water. Being lightly loaded we had made good marches, covering 103 miles from the last water on May 8th, an average of twenty and a half miles per day.
From the 13th to the 21st we camped surrounded by hills, any one of which might contain gold if only we could find it. Unremitting labours resulted in nothing but a few colours here and there. We were now thirty miles to the North-West of Mount Margaret (discovered and named by Forrest in 1869, who on that journey reached a point some sixty miles further East than that hill), and though we were the first, so far as I know, to prospect this particular part of the district, it was reserved for subsequent fossickers to find anything worth having.
Wandering about, pick in hand, one day I put up several turkeys from the grass surrounding some granite rocks, and shortly after found their watering-place, a nice little pool. The next day whilst Luck prospected I returned to the pool with a gun, and, building a hide of bushes, waited all day. Towards evening two fine emus came stalking along, and I shot one. By the time I had him skinned and the legs cut off it was dark. A most deceptive bird is an emu, for in reality he has but little meat on his body. The legs, that is the thighs, are the only parts worth taking, so shouldering these I started for camp a couple of miles off. It was pretty late when I got back, and found Luck ringing a camel-bell violently and frequently. He had been a bit anxious at my long absence, and had taken a bell off one of the camels to guide me in case I was "bushed." A party of two is too small for a journey that takes them far from settlements for if anything happens to one, the other has little chance by himself. The man left in camp does not know what to do — if he goes far from home, there is the danger of the camp being robbed by natives, therefore he hesitates to go in search of his mate, who possibly is in sore need of help from an accident, or bushed, or speared — so many things might happen. If one broke a limb, as he easily might, what could his mate do? Nothing. If in waterless country he would have to leave him, or kill him, or die with him.
Though Luck and I were spared any catastrophes, we often thought of such things, and therefore felt anxious when either was away for long.
On the 22nd we were surprised at cutting a freshly made dray-track, along which it was clear that many had passed — and the next day arrived at the Red Flag, an alluvial rush that had "set in" during our sojourn in the sand. This came as a great surprise, as we had no idea that gold had been found so far afield. This camp, some twelve miles North-East of Mount Margaret, consisted then of only forty or fifty men, though others were daily arriving. These were the first white men we had seen for seven weeks, and they were greatly astonished to see us, when they learnt what direction we had come from.
Here were gathered together men from Coolgardie and Murchison, attracted by the tales of wealth brought by the first prospectors of the new rush. Some of them had been longer away from civilisation than we had, and many arguments were held as to the correct date. Of course I knew, because I kept a diary; but the Queen's Birthday was celebrated by us on the wrong day after all, for I had given April thirty-one days! We heard that hundreds had started for the rush, but this camp represented all who had persevered, the rest being scared at the distance.
This reads funnily now when Mount Margaret is as civilised as Coolgardie was then, and is connected by telegraph, and possibly will be soon boasting of a railway. The blacks had been very troublesome, "sticking up" swagmen, robbing camps, spearing horses, and the like. It is popularly supposed that every case of violence on the part of the natives, may be traced to the brutal white man's interference in their family arrangements. No doubt it does happen that by coming between man and wife a white man stirs up the tribe, and violence results, but in the majority of cases that I know of, the poor black-fellow has recklessly speared, wounding and killing, prospectors' horses, because he wanted food or amusement. A man does not travel his packhorses into the bush for the philanthropic purpose of feeding the aboriginals, and naturally resents his losses and prevents their recurrence in a practical way.
As a matter of fact, the black population was so small, that even had every individual of it been shot, the total would not have reached by a long way the indiscriminate slaughter that was supposed to go on in the bush. The people who used to hold their hands up in horror — righteous horror had the tales been true — at the awful cruelties perpetrated by the prospectors, based their opinions on the foolish "gassing" of a certain style of man who thinks to make himself a hero by recounting dark deeds of blood, wholly imaginary. I remember reading a letter to a friend from his mother, in which she begged him to take no part in the "nigger hunting excursions" that she had heard went on in Western Australia. Poor lady! she need not have disturbed herself, for such things never existed, nor had her boy ever seen a black-fellow, except round the slaughter-yards of Coolgardie!
No luck attended our search in the Mount Margaret district, and we shared the opinion of everybody there that it was a "duffer," and after events had proved what that opinion was worth. Travelling and prospecting as we went, we at last succeeded in finding a reef which we thought was worth having.
May 30th. We made camp amongst some auriferous hills in what is now known as the Niagara District, and within a few miles of a spot where, subsequently, a rich find of gold was made. Since the natives were known to be troublesome in this locality, we adopted the plan of one stopping in camp whilst the other prospected. Formerly we had considered it safe for the one at home to be within reasonable distance of camp, but now, when semi-civilised natives were prowling about, it was unwise to leave the camp at all. Luck found gold first, but in so small a vein of quartz that we did not consider it worth working. The next day, however, we "got colours" in a fine big reef, and, moving our belongings to its vicinity, started prospecting the outcrop. Everywhere we tried we found gold sprinkled through the stone like pepper, and by "dollying" obtained good results. Satisfied with the prospect, the next thing to be done was to cross-cut the reef to ascertain its thickness and character below the surface.
Fortunately water was close to hand, that is to say three miles away, in a creek since named "Dingo Creek." From there we packed water back to camp, as often as we required it. Our luck in securing game had now deserted us, and we had again to fall back on our nearly diminished stock of mince.
After a week's hard work we found that with our limited supply of tools, without drills and dynamite, it was impossible to do any farther sinking; besides which the low tide in our provisions necessitated a return to civilisation before many days.
I pegged out, therefore, an area of four hundred yards by four hundred yards, as a "protection area"; that is to say, that the fact of four corner-pegs and a notice having been put up in some prominent place protects the ground from being taken by any one else for a period of thirty days. After that time has elapsed the area must be applied for at the nearest Warden's office, where, unless disputed, it is registered under the name of the applicant, who must at once commence work upon it. When such work proves the existence of "payable gold" the area must be again applied for as a lease, to hold which the sum of 1 pound per acre, per annum, must be paid to the Government. There are other conditions with which it is necessary to conform, and which need not be enumerated here.
Since we had ample time to go and return from Coolgardie within the prescribed period, we decided that in place of travelling direct homewards, we would make a detour and visit the locality of Mount Ida, where we had heard gold had been found. By rapid travelling our "tucker" could be made to last out the time. Winter was now coming on, and the nights were bitterly cold. Our blankets in the morning were soaked with dew and frost, and when the days were cloudy and sometimes drizzly we had no chance of drying them until we built a fire at night. One is so used to reading of the terrible heat in Australia that it may come as a surprise to many to hear that in the short winter in the interior — which, by the way, is 1,500 feet above sea level — the thermometer sometimes sinks for a brief period of time to 17 degrees F.
This low temperature is reached about an hour before daylight, as you know to your cost, if you are ill-provided with blankets. At that time in the morning your head is drawn into the possum rug, and you lie stiff and shivering until you hear the indescribable something — that heralds the coming of the sun. It may be a camel moving, as he shakes the frost from his woolly coat, it may be a bird, or a grasshopper, but always there is some little noise that would tell even a blind man that the night is over. Often you know by the stars how long it will be before daylight, and stir up the fire, put on the billy, and get the saddles and packs in order. Sometimes you fix on the wrong star, and are thanked accordingly by your mate when, with his feet in his cold, clammy boots, he discovers that his watch reads 2 a.m. Sometimes you have the satisfaction of growling at him, and occasionally, if you feel in very nasty humour, you may lie "dog-oh" and watch his early rising, knowing full well the right time; laughter, however, gives you away, and you are justly rewarded by having the blankets torn off you. Such simple pranks as these make bearable a life that would otherwise suffocate you with its monotony.
And yet there is a charm about the bush — the perfect peace in the "free air of God" — that so takes hold of some men that they can never be happy anywhere else. Civilisation is a fine thing in its way, but the petty worries and annoyances, the bustle and excitement, the crowds of people, the "you can't do this," and "you must do that," the necessity for dressing in most uncomfortable garments to be like other people, and a thousand other such matters, so distress a bushman, who, like a caged beast in a menagerie, wanders from corner to corner and cannot find where to rest, that he longs for the day that he will again be on the track, with all his worldly goods with him and the wide world before him. Such a man in the bush and in the town is as different as a fish in and out of water.
Some of the finest fellows "outside the tracks" are the least respectable in civilised places, where before long they can find no better occupation than drinking, which, owing to months of teetotalism in the bush, they are less able to stand than the ordinary individual who takes his beer or spirits daily. And thus it is that bushmen very often get the name of being loafers and drunkards, though on the aggregate they consume far less liquor than our most respected citizens in the towns. The sudden change in surroundings, good food, and the number of fellow-creatures, the noise of traffic, and want of exercise — all these combined are apt to affect a man's head, even when unaided by the constant flow of liquor with which a popular bushman is deluged — a deluge hard to resist in a country where to refuse a drink amounts to an insult. A plan recommended by some is to "please 'em all by one jolly good spree, and then knock off and drink with nobody." A man only gives offence who discriminates in his entertainers.
I fear I have wandered far from the subject of our journey, for Luck and I had some time yet before us until the joys and troubles of civilised life should be ours. The daily routine of travel was varied occasionally by incidents of no great moment; for instance, when riding through the scrub, Omerod, a rather clumsy old camel, tripped and fell, pinning me beneath him, without injury to either of us; for a water bag acted as a buffer between my leg and the saddle, and by the time all the water was squeezed out of it, Luck had the saddle off, and I was extricated. Certainly some camels are hard to put out or fluster; such a one was Omerod, who lay without a kick until relieved of his saddle, when he rose and at once proceeded to feed on the scrub.
Later, we had another instance of his stolidity; that was when crossing a salt lake. Jenny was light and escaped bogging; not so Omerod, who sank as far as his legs would allow, and there waited calmly until we had unpacked the loads, carried them across the lake, and returned to help Shimsha, who struggled violently in the sticky clay. When he was safely taken across to an island on which we sought refuge, Omerod was attended to. There he lay, half buried in salt mud, chewing his cud unconcernedly; either he had perfect confidence in us, or was indifferent as to his fate — he looked rather as if he were saying "Kismet." We had some trouble in digging him out, during which operation Luck fared as I had done before; he was pinned beneath the camel, waist deep in clay, and in that position had to emulate the stolid patience of Omerod until I could dig him out. At last they were both free, and after considerable labour we landed on the island, camels, baggage, and all, just as night fell. We WERE cold too, clothes and arms and faces covered with moist salt clay, and nothing with which to make a fire but sprigs of dead samphire. A cold night means an early start — so we were up betimes and found that the camels, not tied, since we thought them safe on an island, had in search of feed hobbled across the lake, and were standing disconsolate on this sea of mud, afraid to move now that in daylight they could see their surroundings. A repetition of the preceding day's performance, landed us beyond the treacherous lake-bed, and the following day we were fortunate in finding a fine rock-hole of water, which enabled us to reappear as white men.
Mirages are nearly always to be seen on these lakes of the interior, and from their occurrence it is impossible to determine the extent of the flat expanse of mud. On this occasion I witnessed the finest I have ever seen. The hot sun playing upon the damp breeze rising from the lake, transformed this desolate sea of salt and clay, into a charming picture. The horizon and the sky were joined by a mirage of beautiful clear water, from which islands and hills seemed to rise; even their shadows and those of the trees with which they were clothed were reflected in the unruffled surface of the lake. The long stretch of sand between, gave the picture the appearance of a peaceful, natural harbour, which the tide was about to fill.
We were unable to pay more than a flying visit to Mount Ida, but sufficiently long to assure us of the auriferous character of its neighbourhood. It is quite an imposing hill, rough, dark, and rugged, and formed as if layers of black slate had been thrown violently against each other. It rises some five hundred feet above the surrounding country.
We needed all our time to reach Siberia, before our provisions gave out. There we arrived in due course, passing close, on our way, to the hills near which Menzies afterwards made his great "find."
At Siberia a Government survey party, under Messrs. Newman and Brazier, was camped, preparatory to running a line to connect Coolgardie and the Murchison. Bidding them adieu, we took the road to Coolgardie, and arrived there on June 22nd after an absence of exactly ninety days, having travelled 843 miles. The result of the journey to ourselves was nil, for the company considered that the reef we had found was too far off, and took no further steps to develop it. It was afterwards under offer for 13,000 pounds in cash and shares, though whether the deal came off or not, or what the mine was worth, I am not aware.
The company's representative in Coolgardie welcomed us with great hospitality, and invited us to tea at his camp. Here he produced whisky, and what he told us he considered the very best of tinned meats. "So help me never, it's minced mutton!" shouted poor Luck, as the tin was opened — a little joke that has never been forgotten.
It is a rather novel sensation to find that you are dead; and this was our experience, for the papers had killed us some time since — our bones had been seen bleaching in the sun, and all that sort of thing. Unfortunately our death was not certain enough to warrant any obituary notices, which might have been interesting reading.
On our return to Perth, the manager of the company for which we had worked, who had arrived in our absence, far from thanking us for having tried our best, asked why we went into a d----d desert to look for gold! This we considered a little mean, seeing that a great part of the country we had traversed had been hitherto unexplored. However, one doesn't look for thanks from a mining company. So our journey was finished — a journey that I shall never look back upon with regret, but with pleasure, for Luck was a fine fellow and the best of mates; and at least we had the satisfaction of knowing that if we had been unsuccessful, it was not for the want of trying.