Spinifex and Sand/Part V/Chapter XI
Part V: The Outward Journey 
Chapter XI: From Family Well to Helena Spring 
On leaving Family Well it was suggested by Charlie and Godfrey that we should take one of our native friends with us. No doubt this would have been the most sensible plan, and would have saved us much trouble. However, I did not care to take either of the females, the sick man was evidently of no use to us, and it was pretty evident that the sound buck was the chief hunter, and that without him, the little tribe would be hard pressed to find food. As we were not in absolute need of water for a few days to come, I decided to leave the family in quiet enjoyment of their accustomed surroundings. I had now given up all hope of finding any other than desert country ahead of us, and had no longer any other purpose than that of traversing the region that lay between us and "white settlements" with as little harm to ourselves and our camels as care and caution could command. Our course was now North-East, as it was necessary to make more easting to bring us near the longitude of Hall's Creek. We continued for three days on this course, the ridges running due East and West. The usual vegetation was to be seen, relieved by occasional patches of a low, white plant having the scent of lavender. This little plant grew chiefly on the southern slope of the ridges, and was seen by us in no other locality. A specimen brought home by me was identified at Kew Gardens as a new variety of Dicrastylis, and has been named Dicrastylis carnegiei.
Large tracts of burnt country had to be crossed from which clouds of dust and ashes were continually rising, blown up by "Willy-Willies" (spiral winds). These were most deceptive, it being very hard to distinguish between them and hunting-smokes. After one or two disappointments we were able to determine, from a distance, the nature of these clouds of black dust. On the 22nd we turned due East towards some smokes and what appeared to be a range of hills beyond them. The smokes, however, turned out to be dust-storms, and the range to be immense sandhills. Here we saw the first desert oak, standing solitary sentinel on the crest of a ridge. Around the burnt ground several old tracks were visible, some of which we followed, but with no better result than two dry rock-holes and a dry native well one mile from them. Near the latter was an old native camp, in which we found several small, pointed sticks, so planed as to leave a bunch of shavings on the end. I have seen similar sticks stuck up on native graves near Coolgardie, but have no idea of their proper significance. Probably they are merely ornaments.
A line of cliffs next met our view, and to them we turned. These were higher rocks or hills than we had seen for some time, and presented rather a remarkable appearance. Formed of a conglomerate of sandstone and round ironstone pebbles, they stood up like a wall on the top of a long slope of easy grade, covered with gravel and loose pebbles. At the foot lay boulders great and small, in detached heaps like so many pieces broken from a giant plum-pudding. In the face of the cliffs were numerous holes and caves, the floors of which gave ample evidence of the presence of bats and wallabies. Of these latter we saw several, but could not get a shot; careful exploration of these caves, on hands and knees, led to the finding of a fair-sized rock-hole, unfortunately quite dry. I have no doubt that these wallabies, like the spinifex rats, are so constituted that water is not to them a necessity, and that the spinifex roots afford sufficient moisture to keep them alive. We saw no traces of spinifex rats at any of the wells we found, nor did we see any water which they could reach or from which, having reached it, they could climb up again to the surface. From the top of the cliffs an extensive view to the South and North was obtained. But such a view! With powerful field-glasses nothing could be seen but ridge succeeding ridge, as if the whole country had been combed with a mammoth comb. From these points of the compass the cliffs must be visible for a considerable distance. Their rather remarkable appearance made me think them worth naming, so they were christened "Wilson's Cliffs," after my old friend and partner.
The entry in my diary for the 25th would stand for many other days. It runs: "Most wretched sand-ridge country, ridges East and West, and timbered with very occasional stunted gums — extensive patches of bare, burnt country with clouds of dust. Absolutely no feed for camels — or for any other animal for that matter."
Such miserable country beggars description. Nothing is more heartrending than to be forced to camp night after night with the knowledge that one's poor animals are wandering vainly in search of feed. To tie them down would have given them some rest, but at the same time it entailed their certain starvation; whilst, wandering about, they stood some chance of picking up a mouthful or two. How anxiously each ridge was scanned when camping-time drew near — no feed — on again another ridge or two, no feed — just one more ridge, and, alas! "no feed" is again the cry. So we camped perforce without it, and often the famished camels would wander two or three miles in the night in search of it, and this meant an extra walk to recover them in the morning.
On the morning of the 27th Warri brought in all the camels but one, with a message from Breaden that Misery was dying. Small wonder if all had been in the same state, for we were now eight days from the last water, and tough as camels are they cannot go waterless and foodless for very many days in such trying country as this. Poor old Misery! This was sad news indeed, but all that could be done to save him should be done.
This morning a smoke rose due West of us. We had seen so few signs of natives lately that we could not afford to neglect this, even though it was so far from our proper course.
By the time we had loaded the camels and distributed his load amongst the rest, Breaden brought Misery into camp, and when we started, followed with him behind us, coaxing him along as best he could. Eight miles brought us into the region of the burning spinifex and fresh tracks; despatching Charlie on Satan, and Godfrey and Warri on foot, to track up and catch a native if possible, I unloaded the camels and awaited Breaden's arrival. Presently he came alone, saying that poor Misery was done for and could move no further, so he had left him. I felt sure that that was the case, since Breaden would not have come without him if there had been any possibility of getting him further. Nevertheless, I could not bear to leave my faithful and favourite camel to die by slow degrees, and returned on Breaden's tracks. I took with me a brandy-bottle full of Epsom salts and water, for from Breaden's account of his way of going on I felt sure that poor Misery had eaten some poisonous plant. Four miles back I found him lying apparently dead in the shade of a tree, or where the shade would have been had there been any foliage; he knew me and looked up when I spoke to and patted him, and rested his head in my lap as I sat down beside him; but no amount of coaxing could get him on his legs. Having administered the salts, which he evidently enjoyed, I proceeded to bleed him by slitting his ear; my knife, however, was not sharp enough, (for everything becomes dulled in this sand) to do the job properly, and he bled but little. I could do nothing but wait, so taking a diminutive edition of Thackeray from my pocket, for I had foreseen this long wait, I read a chapter from "Vanity Fair." Presently I got him on his legs and he walked for about thirty yards, then down he went in a heap on the ground; another wait, and more "Vanity Fair." Then on again, and down again, and so on hour after hour. Soon nothing but brutal treatment would make him stir, so I hardened my heart and used a stick without mercy. What a brute I felt as he turned his great eyes reproachfully upon me! "Never mind, Misery, old chap, it must be done to save your life!" At last I reached a ridge within one hundred yards of the camp, and here Breaden met me, bringing with him four gallons of water and the welcome news that the others had captured two bucks who had shown a well three miles north.
This water saved Misery's life, and was just in time. We reached camp as the camels were reloaded and ready to start for the well under the guidance of the two bucks. Both of these were fair-sized men, and one stood six feet at least, though from the method of doing the hair in a bunch at the top of the head they appear taller than they really are. Godfrey and Warri had tracked them right into their camp and surprised a family of numerous gins, young and old, several picaninnies, and three bucks, one of whom was stone blind. They were preparing their evening meal, and amongst the spoils of the chase there were opossums, whose tracks on one of two large gum-trees not far off we afterwards saw. I had always associated opossums with good country; however, here they were. Of the natives, some fled as soon as Godfrey and Warri approached, whilst the men were uncommonly anxious to dispute this unceremonious visit to their camp. They were on the point of active hostilities when Charlie rode up on Satan, and they then thought better of it. Even so they were not persuaded to accompany the white men back to camp without considerable difficulty. The smaller man managed to escape; the other we afterwards christened Sir John, because he was so anxious to make us dig out old dry wells, so that presumably they should be ready for the next rain. There seemed to us to exist a certain similarity between his views and those of the Government, which is ever ready to make use of the pioneer's labours where it might be justly expected to expend its own.
This fellow was most entertaining, and took a great interest in all our belongings. I, coming last, seemed to excite keen delight, though he was naturally a little shy of his captors; he patted me on the chest, felt my shirt and arms, and was greatly taken by a tattoo on one of them. Grinning like any two Cheshire cats, he showed his approval by "clicking" his tongue with a side shake of the head, at the same time snapping his thumb and finger. Breaden, too, came in for Sir John's approval, and was similarly patted and pulled about.
Godfrey had taken a rather handy-looking tomahawk from the buck, made from the half of a horseshoe, one point of which was ground to a pretty sharp edge — a primitive weapon, but distinctly serviceable. Unlike our friend at Family Well, this man had not even a shell to wear, and beyond an unpleasantly scented mixture of fat and ashes, with which he was smeared, was hampered by no sort of clothing whatever. As usual, he was scarred on the chest and forehead, and wore his hair in a mop, held back by a band of string. His teeth were a picture, not only clean and white, which is usual, but uncommonly small and sharp, as one of us found! Leaving him to the main party to take on to the well, I and Warri remained behind to bring Misery on — and a nice job we had too. I thought of waiting and packing water back to him, but in that case he would have fallen an easy victim to the natives, who were bound to be prowling about, nor could one of us be spared to watch him. So he had to be beaten and hauled and dragged, by stages of twenty yards at a time, over the ridges. After darkness fell we had to follow the tracks with a firestick until we had the fire at camp to guide us. This we reached about 9.30 p.m., fairly tired out, but satisfied that the poor, patient sufferer's life was saved. The others had already started work on the well, but knocked off when I got back, and we had a good feed and a short rest. Sir John was much distressed at his party having taken away all their food when they retreated, and was hardly consoled by what we gave him. Tethered to a ti-tree, with a little fire to cheer him, he was apparently happy enough.
The rest of the night we worked at the well in shifts, and Charlie and I, the first shift, started off soon after daybreak with the buck to find more water, for it was evident that our present supply was insufficient. We felt pretty certain from the way the tribe had left that another well existed close by; the question was, would our captive show it? He started in great glee and at a great pace, carrying behind him, like a "back-board," a light stick. This will be found to open the lungs and make a long walk less fatiguing, except for the strain on the arms. Occasionally he would stop and bind strips of bark round his ankles and below the knee. "Gabbi" was just over the next ridge, he assured us by signs — it was always "the next ridge" — until when nearly ten miles from camp we saw a smoke rise ahead of us, but so far away that we could do no good by going on. However, we had gained something by locating a fresh camp, so started homewards, the buck becoming most obstreperous when he saw our change of plan, for he made it clear by signs that the gins (indicating their breasts by covering his own with his hands) and the blind man (pointing to his own closed eyes and making a crooked track in the sand) and the rest, had circled round and gone to the camp from which we could see the smoke rising. However, he could not escape and soon gave in, and followed reluctantly behind, dragging at the rope.
Walking was bad enough, but this extra exertion was rather too much. Besides, we were sadly in need of sleep; so, taking advantage of what little shade we could find by following round the shadow of a gum tree as the sun moved, Charlie slept whilst I watched our black friend, and then I did the same. On arrival at camp we found that our companions had been so successful in "soak-sucking," i.e., baling and scraping up the miserable trickle of water as it soaks into the "caisson," that by sunset we were able to give the camels eight gallons each, and two gallons extra to Misery, who was showing signs of a rapid recovery. Luckily there was a little patch of dry herbage not far from the well, and a few acacias over the ridge. All the next day we were occupied in "soak-sucking," and Warri went back for Misery's saddle, which had been thrown off. I took the opportunity of writing up my diary — anything but a pleasant job, for shade there was none, except in a reclining position under our solitary ti-tree bush. The native's close proximity and the swarm of flies, made the task quite hateful, for under the most favourable conditions there are few things I dislike more than writing. On September 28th I chronicled a most remarkable fact, viz., that the two camels Satan and Redleap had had no more than thirteen gallons of water in the preceding thirty-eight days — a wonderful exhibition of endurance and pluck in this burning weather and barren country. It came about in this way: —
August 22nd. At Woodhouse Lagoon they had a full drink in the morning.
August 29th. At Warri Well, where the parakeelia grew, two gallons in the evening.
September 8th. At Patience Well they were the last to be watered, eight gallons in the evening.
September 18th. At Family Well, parakeelia again, three gallons at night.
September 28th. Half a drink.
Therefore between the 22nd of August and the 28th of September they had no more than thirteen gallons.
Satan had more travelling, though carrying a less load, than any of the rest, being used for scouting and finding natives.
On the evening of the 29th I left my work down the well to take some observations; unluckily I was just too late for the stars I wanted, and had to wait up for some long time. We had divided the night into five shifts for baling; when my turn came my companions did not wake me, but did my shift for me. I am sure I appreciated their kindly thought, and felt thankful indeed, and not for the first time, that I had managed to choose such excellent mates — for I had long realised that without peace and unanimity in such a party, our chances of getting through the desert would be greatly minimised.
I found our position to be lat. 21 degrees 49 minutes, long. 126 degrees 33 minutes.
By morning we had given the camels another five gallons apiece and had some to go on with in our tanks, having, by working for two days and three nights, scraped together 140 gallons in all. On the 30th we travelled again Westwards, though making some Northerly progress towards the smoke which Charlie and I had located. We had a long talk about our methods of travelling, and Charlie thought that I was inclined to spare the camels at the expense of ourselves. We travelled all day without a break so that they should have the longer to look for feed at night, then we always hunted for tracks and water on foot, and when we found water, gave it to the camels before looking after our own wants, and he thought we might do longer stages straight ahead so long as we had a native. I held, and I think the outcome of the journey proved me correct, that our own well-being was a secondary consideration to that of our animals, for without them we should be lost. "Slow but sure" was my motto.
Though anxious to make as much northing as possible I did not feel justified in passing by almost certain water for the sake of a few hours. I felt always that we might come into an even more waterless region ahead, and perhaps be unable to find any natives. Some twelve miles brought us to the well — the smoke had been beyond it — and a more wretched spot I never saw. Absolutely barren, even of spinifex, were the high ridges of sand between which was the well — merely a small, round hole, with no signs of moisture or plant life about it, not a tree "within cooee." We had to go far to collect enough wood for a fire, and cut two sticks with which to rig up a fly to shade us from the sun — a purely imaginary shade, for light duck is of little use against the power of such a burning sun; but even the shadow cast by the fly gave an appearance of comfort.
At this camp we made two new caissons, as our old tin-lined boxes were no longer strong enough. Amongst our gear were two galvanised-iron boxes, made to order, with lids which completely covered the boxes and were held on by straps. "Concertina-made boxes" they were called by the tinsmith — a name which gave rise to a curious misstatement in a Perth paper which published a letter I wrote to Sir John Forrest. The letter read: "... We made boxes out of concertinas"! I fear any who read this must have thought me fairly good at "romancing." I had them made that shape so that they might be filled to nearly double the capacity of the boxes and still have serviceable lids. I had hoped to have filled them with specimens of plants and birds. Unfortunately we had neither the time to, nor the opportunity of making any such collection, though we might easily have filled them with specimens of the desert house-fly which swarm at every well! By sawing off the ends of these lids we had two useful boxes, with neither top nor bottom, and by screwing them on to a framework of wood we manufactured a most useful caisson, 2 feet deep by 1 1/2 long and 1 foot wide. By forcing this into the sand in the well and digging out the sand contained in it, and then patiently waiting with a pannikin for the small trickle of water creeping in from between the outside of the caisson and the sides of the rock-hole, then again forcing the box lower, and clearing out the sand above, now drained of its moisture, and repeating the baling process, we were enabled to drain the well of almost every drop it contained. On first acquaintance with these wells a novice's impulse would be to dig out the sand until the bottom was reached; but as the sand holds the water he would find himself with a nicely cleared hole, but cleared of sand and water alike. Therefore, without some such makeshift as that already described one would be in the most unsatisfactory position of knowing that water existed, and yet of being unable to obtain any but a very small supply. The natives use comparatively little water, since it is only for drinking purposes, washing being unknown, and as the water sinks in the well the sand is scooped out gradually and carefully and plastered round the sides of the hole, so preventing the inrush of sand. Very often when they require a drink they bend down and suck up the water through a bunch of grass, which prevents the sand from getting into the mouth.
The water from the wells was always bad, and on first being brought to the surface was hardly fit to use; the camels would not, unless really dry, drink it until it had been exposed in our canvas troughs to the air for some time. Lying stagnant perhaps for a year or more, protected by the sand, it is not to be wondered at that its flavour is not of the best. Digging in the sand discloses all sorts of odds and ends that could not fail to contaminate the water. It contains also — derived, I suppose, from the sandstone — a certain amount of iron, which I believe to have acted as a sort of tonic to us. A many-tinted, bluish scum always floated on the surface and tea made with it turned as black as ink — nevertheless it was quite good drinking.
October 1st and 2nd we spent at the well, working as above described, whilst Warri tended the camels a couple of miles away on a patch of weeds he discovered. This weed which I have mentioned is the only available feed in this region — without it the camels must have starved long since. The plant somewhat resembles a thistle, but has a small blue flower, and when fresh forms the best feed. So far, however, we had only seen it dry and shrivelled. It is known to science as Trichodesma zeylanicum. This camp was the scene of a vicious onslaught on Charlie, made by the buck, whilst away looking for the plant from which to make a chewing-ball. Taking Charlie unawares he nearly accomplished his escape. Charlie, as it happened, was the very worst to try such tricks on, for he was the strongest of the party, and a very powerful man. During the struggle the black-fellow grabbed Charlie's revolver pouch, and somehow the revolver exploded, the bullet narrowly missing them both. It had the useful effect of attracting our attention, and we were in time to save Charlie some nasty wounds, as the buck was using his powerful jaws to great advantage. Of course we could not blame him for trying to escape — that was only natural — but it made us more cautious in the future. Excepting the inconvenience of being unable to get away, he had nothing to complain of, and had the advantage of plenty to eat and drink without the trouble of looking for it. The manufacture of the "quid" mentioned above is interesting. Cleaning and smoothing a place in the sand, a small branch from a silvery-leafed ti-tree (a grevillea, I think), is set alight and held up; from it as it burns a light, white, very fine ash falls on to the prepared ground. Now the stems of a small plant already chewed are mixed with the ashes. The compound so formed is squeezed and pressed and kneaded into a small, oval-shaped ball, of sticky and stringy consistency. The ball when in use is chewed and sucked but not swallowed, and is passed round from mouth to mouth; when not in use it is placed behind the ear, where it is carried. Nearly every tribe we saw had such "quids." No doubt they derive some sustenance from them. Sir John preferred his "chew" to any food we gave him; though he did not care about tobacco.
For the next two days the sand-ridges seemed to vie with each other in their height and steepness, between them there was hardly any flat ground at all; mile after mile we travelled, up one and down and over the next without ceasing. First came the native and his guard, then in a long, broken line the string of camels. What a labour it was! Often each camel had to be urged in turn over the ridge whilst those behind were continually breaking their nose-lines to lie down or hurry off to the nearest shade, however scanty, and there await the blows and exhortations of their driver; those which remained in their places were continually lifting their feet, for they could not stay still on the burning sand; then their packs were always being jolted about and thrown out of place, necessitating reloading, and when at last we had them again in line the whole performance had to be repeated a few ridges further on.
Sometimes our caravan would cover half a mile or more, the guide and guardian waiting far in advance whilst the broken line was rejoined and the stragglers brought in, and away far behind the last camel would appear alone, with his nose-line dangling and tripping him up. Usually Billy brought up the rear — nothing would induce him to follow close behind; a jerk of his head and away went the nose-line, and Billy was left behind to follow when so inclined. The heat was really tremendous. It can be fairly sultry around Coolgardie, but never before have I experienced such scorching heat; the sun rose like a ball of fire, and in two hours' time had as great power as at any period during the day. How one prayed for it to set, and how thankful one was when in due course it did so, sinking below the horizon as suddenly as it had risen!
I am not sure which felt the heat most, poor little Val or the buck. He, curiously enough, seemed more affected by it than we were. At night he drank more than we did, and then was not satisfied. Sometimes when waiting on ahead he used to squat down and scoop out a hole in the ground to reach the cool sand beneath; with this he would anoint himself. Sometimes he would make a mixture of sand and urine, with which he would smear his head or body. Poor Val was in a pitiable state; the soles of her paws were worn off by the hot sand; it was worse or as bad for her to be knocked about on the top of one of the loads, and although by careful judgment she could often trot along in the shade of one of the camels, she was as near going mad as I imagine it possible for a dog to go. Poor little thing! She used to yell and howl most agonisingly, with her eyes staring and tongue hanging. We had, of course, to pack her on a camel when her feet gave out, and by applying vaseline alleviated her pain.
Our guide took us to two dry wells and watched our disgust with evident satisfaction, and I had to resort to the unfailing argument of allowing him no water at all. He pleaded hard by sounds and gesture and no doubt suffered to some extent, but all was treated as if unnoticed by us. Thirst is a terrible thing; it is also a great quickener of the wits, and the result of this harsh treatment, which reduced the poor buck to tears (a most uncommon thing amongst natives), was that before very long we were enabled to unload and make camp in one of the most charming little spots I have ever seen. A veritable oasis, though diminutive in size; but not so in importance, for without its life-giving aid it is hard to say how things would have gone with us. The weather, as I have said, was scorching, the country destitute of feed, almost waterless, most toilsome to cross, and our camels were worn to skeletons from starvation and incessant work, and had they not been fine specimens of an exceptionally fine breed must have long since succumbed. Surely this is one of the noblest of creatures and most marvellous works of the Creator!
Brave, dumb heroes, with what patience and undaunted courage do they struggle on with their heavy loads, carrying what no other animal could carry in country where no other could live, never complaining or giving in until they drop from sheer exhaustion! I think there are few animals endowed with more good qualities than the much-abused camel — abused not only by the ignorant, which is excusable, but by travellers and writers who should know better. Patience, perseverance, intelligence, docility, and good temper under the most trying conditions, stand out pre-eminently amongst his virtues. Not that all camels are perfect — some are vicious and bad tempered; so far as my experience goes these are the exceptions. Some few are vicious naturally, but the majority of bad-tempered camels are made so by ill-treatment. If a camel is constantly bullied, he will patiently wait his chance and take his revenge — and pick the right man too. "Vice or bad temper," says the indignant victim; "Intelligence," say I. In matters of loading and saddling, ignorance causes great suffering to camels. I can imagine few things more uncomfortable than having to carry 150 pounds on one side of the saddle and perhaps 250 pounds on the other, and yet if the poor beast lies down and complains, in nine cases out of ten his intelligent master will beat him unmercifully as a useless brute! Nearly every sore back amongst a mob of camels is the result of carelessness. It is hard to avoid, I am well aware, but it can be done; and I speak as an authority, for during our journey to Kimberley and the journey back again, over such country as I have endeavoured faithfully to describe, there were only two cases of camels with sore backs — one was Billy, who had an improperly healed wound when we started, which, however, we soon cured; the other Stoddy, on the return journey. This state of affairs was not brought about except by bestowing great care and attention on the saddles, which we were continually altering, as they were worn out of shape, or as the camels became thinner — and thin they were, poor things, tucked up like greyhounds! A few days' rest and feed, fortunately soon puts a camel right, and such they could have at the little oasis we had reached on October 5th. In the centre of it lay a splendid little spring, in many ways the most remarkable feature we had encountered, and therefore I christened it after one whose love and helpful sympathy in all my work, has given me strength and courage — my sister Helena.