Spinifex and Sand/Part V/Chapter V
Part V: The Outward Journey
Chapter V: Water at Last
Presently a single track caught my eye, fresh apparently, and unmistakably that of a "buck." We all crowded round to examine it, and as we stooped caught sight of the owner not a hundred yards ahead, engrossed in unearthing an iguana and entirely ignorant of our presence. A hasty consultation; "Catch him," said someone, Breaden I think, and off we started — I first, and Godfrey near behind. He saw us now and fled, so, shouting to Breaden to stay with the camels, and to Charlie, who was mounted, to cut him off in front, I put my best leg foremost. A hummock of spinifex brought me down, and, exhausted from short rations, I lay, unable to run further. Not so Godfrey, who held on manfully for another fifty yards and grabbed the black-fellow as he turned to avoid Charlie on the camel. The poor chap was shaking with fear, but, after relieving his feelings by making a violent though abortive attack on Godfrey, he soon calmed down and examined us with interest.
Whatever the buck thought of us, close observation could find nothing very remarkable about him. A man of about 5 feet 8 inches, thin but muscular, with very large feet and small hands, very black, very dirty, his only garment consisted of a band of string round his forehead, holding his hair back in a ragged, mop-like mass. On his chest, raised sears; through his nose, a hole ready to hold a bone or stick — such was this child of the wilderness. By signs we made him understand our wants, and the strange procession started, the "buck" (the general term for a male aboriginal) leading the way at a pace too fast for us or our camels. Guarded on one side by Breaden, I on the other, we plied our new friend with salt beef, both to cement our friendship, and promote thirst, in order that for his own sake he should not play us false. For five hours we held on our way, curiously enough almost on our proper course, having often to stop awhile to allow the caravan to overtake us. Buoyed up by the certainty of water so long as we had the buck with us we pushed on, until just after sunset the country changed from sand to stony rises and we felt sure a rock-hole was not far off. A little further, and, by the uncertain light, we could see a fair-sized hole with water in it. I ran ahead, and was the first to realise that the native had deceived us; the hole was dry! and must have been so for months.
No sooner did the buck see that I had found him out than he made a sudden bolt and attempt at escape — very neatly done, but not quick enough to pass Breaden. This was indeed a disappointment! I had thought it probable that our guide would lead us anywhere into the sand and try to escape, but I never guessed that he would tantalise us as he had done. In any case, so long as he was with us, we must some time get water — and we had no intention of letting him escape. With a rope we secured him and watched in turn all through the night.
Never were jailers more vigilant, for that black-fellow meant our lives. He tried all means of escape, and never slept the whole night through. He would lie still with closed eyes for a time, and then make a sudden struggle to wrench the rope away from his captor; then stealthily with his foot he tried to push the rope into the fire; then he started rubbing it on the rock on which we lay; and last of all his teeth were brought into use. When my turn came to watch, I pretended to sleep, to see what he would do, and so discovered all his tricks. I confess that I saw with delight the evident feelings of thirst that before long overcame him — the salt beef had done its duty; he had had no water of course, for we had none to give him, and I felt sure that he would be only too eager in the morning. Nor was I mistaken; long before daylight he showed signs of distress, and anxiety to go on, standing up and stretching out his long, thin arm — "Gabbi" (water), he said, pointing in three different directions, putting his head back and pointing with his chin, making a noise something between a grunt and a puff. To the East, to the North-East, and to the South-West from where we had come, he made it clear that water existed. Evidently we had not been far from his camp when we caught him, and we could hardly blame him for leading us away from his own supply, which he rightly judged we and our camels would exhaust.
Standing by the dry rock-hole we could see for many miles, the country to the North-East being considerably lower than where we were; not a cheerful view — sand-ridges always! Not a hill or range to be seen, and yet people have doubted if this really is a desert!
It may happen that in days to come some other party may be stranded in this region and therefore I will leave out no description that could assist them in finding the water that King Billy (for so had we named the buck) eventually took us to. The dry rock-hole (Mulundella) is situated on a surface outcrop of desert sandstone, about fifty yards across surrounded by thick mulga scrub, enclosed between two sand-ridges running North-East and South-West.
On the North and East side of the outcrop the ground suddenly drops, forming what appears from the distance as a line of sheer cliffs. Down this steep slope, which is covered with scrub, we discovered a passage, and, at the foot, found ourselves in an open spinifex plain with a sand-ridge on either hand. We were steering N.E. by N., and in consequence had now and again to cross a ridge, since they ran due North-East. After three miles low outcrops of limestone appeared at intervals, the scrub in the trough of the ridges became more open with an undergrowth of coarse grass, buck-bush or "Roly-Poly" (Salsola kali) and low acacia. Hugging the ridge on our left, we followed along this belt for another one and a half miles; when, close to the foot of a sandhill, our guide, secured to my belt by a rope round his waist, stopped and excitedly pointed out what seemed on first sight to be three rock-holes, in a small, bare patch of limestone not more than thirty feet across. Twenty yards to the right or left and we would never have seen it; and to this spot King Billy had brought us full speed, only stopping once to examine some rocks at the foot of one ridge, as if to make sure that we were in the right valley. On further investigation the three holes turned out to be entrances, of which two were large enough for a man to pass through, leading perpendicularly to a cave beneath. With the help of a rope Charlie and I descended twenty-five feet to the floor of the chamber, which we found to be covered with sand to a depth of two feet. In the sand we dug holes but did not succeed in getting even moisture. Plunged as we were so suddenly into darkness, our eyes could distinguish no passage leading from the chamber, and it seemed as if we had been tricked again. Further exploration by the light of candles revealed two passages, one leading west and upwards, the other east and downwards. Charlie chose the latter; before long I came to the end of mine, having failed to find anything but bats, bones of birds and dingoes, and old native camp-fires. Following Charlie, I found him crawling on hands and knees down a steep slope — progress was slow, as the floor was rough and the ceiling jagged; presently the passage dropped again, and at the end, below us, we could see our candles reflected, and knew that at last we had water! Who, except those who have had similar experiences, can picture one's feelings of relief! "Thank God! thank God!" is all one can reiterate in one's mind over and over again. The visible supply of water was small, and we had grave doubts as to any soakage existing! Not wasting valuable time in discussion, we crawled back with all speed to the cave, shouted up the joyful news, and called for buckets and billies to bale with. The King was now allowed to descend, but not unguarded, as we must first ascertain the value of our supply. We could understand now why he had insisted on carrying with him from our last camp a burning branch (a "fire-stick"); for he proceeded to make a fire on the floor of the cave from some dead leaves and branches, and others along the passage, to light him; after some hesitation he took a candle instead, and bolted down the passage like a rat. He must have been very dry, judging from the time he stayed below and from his distended appearance on re-ascending. He drank a great deal more than any of us and yet had been a comparatively short time without water, whilst we had been walking and working on starvation rations for a good number of days.
Breaden and I set to work to unload the camels while the others started preparations for water-getting. By 3 p.m. we were ready. King Billy at the bottom, baling water with a meat tin into a bucket, which he handed to Warri, who passed it to Charlie; thence VIA Godfrey it reached Breaden, who on the floor of the cave hitched it on to a rope, and I from above hauled it through the entrance to the surface. Useful as he was below, I soon had to call Warri up to keep off the poor famished camels, who, in their eagerness, nearly jostled me into the hole. First I filled our tanks, doubtful what supply the cave would yield; but when word was passed that "She was good enough, and making as fast as we baled," I no longer hesitated to give the poor thirsty beasts as much as ever they could drink. What a labour of love that was, and what satisfaction to see them "visibly swelling" before my eyes! Till after sunset we laboured unceasingly, and I fancy none of us felt too strong. The thundery weather still continued; the heat was suffocating — so much so that I took off my hat and shirt, to the evident delight of the flies, whose onslaughts would have driven me mad had I not been too busily engaged to notice them.
Before night all the camels were watered; they drank on an average seventeen gallons apiece, and lay gorged upon the ground too tired or too full of liquid to eat. We had a very different camp that night, and King Billy shared our good spirits. Now that he had his liberty he showed no signs of wishing to leave us, evidently enjoying our food and full of pride in his newly acquired garment, a jersey, which added greatly to his striking appearance. He took great interest in all our belongings, but seemed to value highest the little round piece of metal that is fixed on the inside of a meat-tin! This, hung on a string, made a handsome ornament for him.
That night, in reviewing our affairs, I came to the conclusion that this dry stage at the beginning of our journey had been a good thing for all. We had had a bad time, but had come out of it all right. Although these things always appear worse, when written or read, yet it is no light task to trudge day after day over such horrible country with an empty stomach and dry throat, and with no idea of when the next water will be found, or if any will be found; and through it all to be cheerful and good-tempered, and work away as usual, as if all were right. It had inspired us with complete confidence in the staying powers of the camels, who, in spite of a thirteen and a half days' drought, had shown no signs of giving in. It had afforded each of us an insight into the characters of his companions that otherwise he never would have had. It had given me absolute confidence in Breaden, Godfrey, and Charlie, and I trust had imbued them with a similar faith in me.
August 11th to 15th we rested at the cave, occupying ourselves in the numerous odd jobs that are always to be found, happy in the knowledge that we had an unfailing supply of water beneath us. I have little doubt but that this water is permanent, and do not hesitate to call it a spring. I know well that previous travellers have called places "springs" which in after years have been found dry; but I feel sure that this supply so far, nearly sixty feet, below the surface, must be derived from a permanent source, and even in the hottest season is too well protected to be in any way decreased by evaporation.
As a humble tribute to the world-wide rejoicings over the long reign of our Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria, I have honoured this hidden well of water by the name of "The Empress Spring." A more appropriate name it could not have, for is it not in the Great Victoria Desert? and was it not in that region that another party was saved by the happy finding of Queen Victoria Spring?
The "Empress Spring" would be a hard spot to find. What landmarks there are I will now describe. My position for the Spring is lat. 26 degrees 47 minutes 21 seconds S., long. 124 degrees 25 minutes E. Its probable native name (I say probable because one can never be sure of words taken from a wild aboriginal, who, though pointing out a water, may, instead of repeating its name, be perhaps describing its size or shape) is "Murcoolia Ayah Teenyah." The entrance is in a low outcrop of magnesian limestone, surrounded by buckbush, a few low quondongs and a low, broom-like shrub; beyond this, mulga scrub. Immediately to the North of the outcrop runs a high sand-ridge, covered sparsely with acacia and spinifex. On the top of the ridge are three conspicuously tall dead mulga trees. From the ridge looking West, North, North-East, and East nothing is visible but parallel sand-ridges running N.E. To the South-West can be seen the high ground on which is the rock-hole (Mulundella).
To the South-East, across a mulga-covered flat, is a high ridge one mile distant, with the crests of others visible beyond it; above them, about twelve miles distant, a prominent bluff (Breaden Bluff), the North end of a red tableland. From the mulga trees the bluff bears 144 degrees. One and a half miles N.E. by N. from the cave is a valley of open spinifex, breaking through the ridges in a West and Southerly direction, on which are clumps of cork-bark trees; these would incline one to think that water cannot be far below the surface in this spot.
Close to the entrance to the cave is erected a mulga pole, on which we carved our initials and the date. There are also some native signs or ornaments in the form of three small pyramids of stones and grass, about eight feet apart, in a line pointing S.W.
Several old native camps were dotted about in the scrub; old fires and very primitive shelters formed of a few branches. Amongst the ashes many bones could be seen, particularly the lower maxillary of some species of rat-kangaroo. To descend to the cave beneath, the natives had made a rough ladder by leaning mulga poles against the edge of the entrance from the floor. All down the passage to the water little heaps of ashes could be seen where their fires had been placed to light them in their work. Warri found some strange carved planks hidden away in the bushes, which unfortunately we were unable to carry. King Billy saw them with evident awe; he had become very useful, carrying wood and so forth with the greatest pleasure. The morning we left this camp, however, he sneaked away before any of us were up. I fancy that his impressions of a white man's character will be favourable; for never in his life before had he been able to gorge himself without having had the trouble of hunting his food. From him I made out the following words, which I consider reliable:
|Smoke, fire||Warru or wallu|
|Nose.||Wula or Ula.|
* This word "pappa" we found to be used by all natives encountered by us in the interior. Warri uses it, and Breaden tells me that in Central Australia it is universal.
August 15th we again watered the camels, who were none the worse for their dry stage. Breaden was suffering some pain from his strain, and on descending to the cave was unable to climb up again; we had some difficulty in hauling him through the small entrance.