Spinifex and Sand/Part V/Chapter XVI
Part V: The Outward Journey
Chapter XVI: Kimberley
Since we were not to retackle the sand forthwith, we laid ourselves out to rest and do nothing to the very best of our ability. This resolve was made easy of execution, for no sooner had the Warden, Mr. Cummins, heard of our arrival, than he invited us to his house, where we remained during our stay in Hall's Creek, and met with so much kindness and hospitality that we felt more than ever pleased that we had arrived at this out-of-the-way spot by a rather novel route.
Since Kimberley (excepting the South African district) must be an unknown name to the majority of English readers, and since it is one of the most valuable portions of West Australia, it deserves more than passing mention.
Hall's Creek, named after the first prospector who found payable gold in the district, is the official centre of the once populous Kimberley goldfields, and the seat of justice, law, and order for the East Kimberley division.
Attention was first drawn to this part of the Colony by the report of Alexander Forrest, who discovered the Fitzroy, Margaret, and other rivers; but it was not the pastoral land described by him that caused any influx of population. Gold was the lure. The existence of gold was discovered by Mr. Hardman, geologist, attached to a Government survey-party under Mr. Johnston (now Surveyor-General), and, though he found no more than colours, it is a remarkable fact that gold has since been discovered in few places that were not mentioned by him. Numerous "overlanders" and prospectors soon followed; indeed some preceded this expedition, for Mr. Johnston has told me that he found marked trees in more than one place. Who marked them was never ascertained, but it was supposed that a party of overlanders from Queensland, who were known to have perished, were responsible for them.
In 1886 payable gold was found, and during that and the following year one of the largest and most unprofitable "rushes" known in Australia set in for the newly discovered alluvial field. The sinking being shallow, what ground there was, was soon worked out, and before long the rush set back again as rapidly as it had come, the goldfield was condemned as a duffer, and left to the few faithful fossickers who have made a living there to this day. The alluvial gold was the great bait; of this but little was found, and to reefing no attention to speak of was given, so that at the present time miles upon miles of quartz reefs, blows, leaders, and veins are untouched and untested as they were before the rush of 1886. No one can say what systematic prospecting might disclose in this neglected corner of the Colony. There are many countries less favoured for cheap mining; Kimberley is blessed with an abundant rainfall, and the district contains some of the finest pasture-lands in Australia.
A scarcity of good mining timber, the remoteness of the district from settled parts, and the bad name that has been bestowed upon it, are the disadvantages under which the goldfield labours. Nevertheless two batteries are working at the present day, and a good find by some old fossicker is not so rare.
Setting aside the question of gold-discoveries, which may or may not be made, this district has a great future before it to be derived from the raising of stock, cattle, sheep, and horses. So far only a limited area of country has been taken up — that is to say, the country in the valleys of the Ord, Margaret, and Fitzroy Rivers and their tributaries. There still remains, however, a large tract lying between those rivers and the most Northerly point of the Colony as yet unoccupied, and some of it even unexplored. One or two prospectors have passed through a portion of it, and they speak well of its pastoral and, possibly, auriferous value.
Cut off, as it is, by the desert, the district has the disadvantage of none but sea communication with the rest of the Colony. This necessitates the double shipment of live stock, once at either port, Derby or Wyndham, after they have been driven so far from the stations, and once again at Fremantle. A coastal stock route is debarred by the poverty of the country between Derby and the De Grey River, and a direct stock route through the desert is manifestly impracticable. It seems to me that too little attention has been given to horse-breeding, and that a remunerative trade might be carried on between Kimberley and India, to which this district is nearer than any other part of Australia.
What horses are bred, though otherwise excellent, are small — a defect that should easily be remedied. The cattle, too, are rather on the small side, and this again, by more careful attention to breeding, could be improved upon.
Hall's Creek is by no means a large town; in fact, it consists of exactly nine buildings — post and telegraph office and Warden's office and court, Warden's house, hospital, gaol, police-station, sergeant's house, butcher's shop and house, store, and hotel.
Besides these there are several nomadic dwellings, such as tents, bush humpies, and drays.
A house is a luxury, and some of the oldest residents have never built one. "Here to-day and gone to-morrow, what's the good of a house?" was the answer I got from one who had only been there for ten years!
Mud-brick walls and corrugated-iron roofs is the style of architecture in general vogue. The inhabitants are not many, as may be supposed, but those there are simply overflow with hospitality and good spirits. One and all were as pleased to see us, and have us live amongst them, as if we had been old friends. The population is very variable; the surrounding district contains some fifty or sixty fossickers, who come into town at intervals to get fresh supplies of flour and salt beef — the one and only diet of the bushmen in these parts, who, though very rarely seeing vegetables, are for the most part strong and healthy. Sometimes cases of scurvy, or a kindred disease, occur; one poor chap was brought in whilst we were there, very ill indeed. I happened to be up at the hospital, and asked the orderly (there was no doctor) what he would do for him in the way of nourishing food. "Well," said he, looking very wise, "I think a little salt beef will meet the case." And such would indeed have been his diet if I had not luckily had some Liebig's Extract; for the town was in a state verging on famine, dependent as it is on the whims of "packers" and teamsters, who bring provisions from the coast, nearly three hundred miles, by road. Twice a year waggons arrive; for the rest everything is brought per horseback, and when the rains are on, and the rivers running, their load is as often as not considerably damaged by immersion in the water.
A monthly mail, however, and the telegraph line places the community much nearer civilised parts than its geographical position would lead one to suppose. The arrival of the mail, or of the packers, is a great event, more especially since no one knows what they may bring. Thus a train of pack-horses arrived at a time when flour was badly needed, but each load consisted of either sugar or lager-beer — both excellent articles but hardly adaptable to bread-making. The climate, situation, surroundings, and want of means of recreation all combine to make the publican's business a lucrative one. When, as sometimes happens, a fossicker comes in with a "shammy" full of gold, and lays himself out to make himself and every one else happy, then indeed the hotel-keeper's harvest is a rich one. And since nobody cares much whether he buys his liquor, or makes it of red-pepper, kerosene, tobacco, methylated spirits, and what not, the publican's outlay in "only the best brands" need not be excessive.
Christmas and New Year's Day were, of course, great days of revel; athletic sports were held, and horse-races. The latter were not quite a success; the entries were very few, and the meeting was nearly resolving itself into a prize-fight when one owner lodged a complaint against the winner. As a rule the race-meetings are better attended; every bush township has its meetings throughout the continent, and, in remote districts, there are men who entirely "live on the game." That is to say, they travel from place to place with a mob of pack-horses, amongst which, more or less disguised by their packs, are some fast ones, with which they surprise the community. These men, though great scoundrels, are considered to be earning a legitimate living, since no man need gamble with them unless he likes; if he is taken in by them he has himself to thank.
Christmas Eve is celebrated by a performance known as "tin-kettling," in which all join. Each arms himself with a dish, or empty tin, which he beats violently with a stick. To the tune of this lovely music the party marches from house to house, and at each demands drink of some kind, which is always forthcoming. Thus the old institution of Christmas-waits is supported, even in this far corner of the world.