Old Melbourne Memories/Chapter 2
THE FAR WEST
It seems only the other day—but surely it must be a long time ago—that January evening of 1844, when I camped my cattle near the old burying-ground at North Melbourne. I was bound for the Western district, where I proposed to "take up a run." And towards this pastoral paradise the dawn saw my "following" winding its way next morning.
A modest drove and slender outfit were mine; all that the hard times had spared. Two or three hundred well-bred cattle, a dray and team with provisions for six months, two stock-horses, one faithful old servant, one young ditto (unfaithful), £1 in my purse—voilà tout. Rather a limited capital to begin the world with; but what did I want with money in those days? I was a boy, which means a prince—happy, hopeful, healthy, beyond all latter-day possibilities, bound on a journey to seek my fortune. All the fairy-tale conditions were fulfilled. I had "horse to ride and weapon to wear"—that is, a 12-foot stock-whip by Nangus Jack—clothes, tools, guns, and ammunition; a new world around and beyond; what could money do for the gentleman-adventurer burning with anticipation of heroic exploration? Such thoughts must have passed through my brain, inasmuch as I invested 75 per cent of my cash in the purchase of a cattle dog. Poor Dora, she barked her last some thirty-five years agone.
On the next day we crossed the Moonee Ponds at Flemington, took the Keilor road, and managed to bustle our mob all the way to the Werribee. A slightly unfair journey; but the summer day was long, and we made the river with the fading light about eight. I had a reason, too. Here bivouacked my good old friend the late William Ryrie, of Yering. He, too, was journeying to the west country with a large drove of Upper Yarra stores. He had kindly consented to join forces—an arrangement more to my advantage than his. So, as his cattle were drawing into camp, I cheerfully "boxed" mine therewith, and relieved myself by the act of further anxiety.
Night watches were duly set, after an evening meal of a truly luxurious character. I felt at odd moments as if I would have given all the world for a doze unrebuked. At last the whole four mortal hours came to an end. Then I understood, almost for the first time in my life, what "first-class sleep" really meant.
At sunrise I awoke much fresher than paint, and walking to the door of the tent, which held three stretchers—those of the leader of the party, his brother Donald, and myself—looked out upon the glorious far-stretching wild. What a sight was there, seen with the eyes of unworn, undoubting youth! On three sides lay the plains, a dimly verdurous expanse, over which a night mist was lifting itself along the line of the river. The outline of the Anakie-You Yangs range was sharply drawn against the dawn-lighted horizon, while far to the north-east was seen the forest-clothed summit of Mount Macedon, and westward gleamed the sea. The calm water of Corio Bay and the abrupt cone of Station Peak, nearly in the line of our route, formed an unmistakable yet picturesque landmark.
The cattle, peacefully grazing, were spread over the plain, having been released from camp. The horses were being brought in; among them I was quick to distinguish my valuable pair. Old Watts, the campkeeper, a hoary retainer of Yering—who gave his name to the affluent of the Yarra so called — was cooking steaks for breakfast. Everything was delightfully new, strangely exhilarating, with a fresh flavour of freedom and adventure.
After breakfast we saddled up, and, mounting our horses, strolled on after a leisurely fashion with the cattle. I was riding, as became an Australian, a four-year-old colt, my own property, and bred in the family. A grandson of Skeleton and of Satellite, he was moderately fast and a great stayer. Mr. Donald Ryrie rode a favourite galloway yclept Dumple—a choice roadster and clever stock-horse, much resembling in outline Dandle Dinmont's historic "powney." He and I were sufficiently near in age to enjoy discursive conversation during the long, slightly tedious driving hours, to an extent which occasionally impaired our usefulness. When in argument or narrative we permitted "the tail" to straggle unreasonably we were sharply recalled to our duty. Our kind-hearted choleric leader then adopted language akin to that in which the ruffled M.F.H. exhorts the erring horsemen of his field.
Ah me, what pleasant days were those! A little warm, even hot, doubtless. But we could take off our coats without fear of Mrs. Grundy. There was plenty of grass. "Travelling" was an honourable and recognised occupation in those Arcadian times. "Purchased land" was an unknown quantity. Droughts were disbelieved in, and popularly supposed to belong exclusively to the "Sydney side." The horses were fresh, the stages were moderate, and when a halt was called at sundown the cattle soon lay contentedly down in the soft, thick grass. The camp fires were lighted, and another pleasant, hopeful day was succeeded by a restful yet romantic night.
So we fared on past the Little River and Fyans' Ford, where a certain red cow of mine was nearly drowned, and had to be left behind; then to Beale's, on the Barwon; thence to Colac, for we had decided to take the inner road and not to go by "the Frenchman's," or "Cressy," then represented solely by Monsieur (and Madame) Duverney's Inn, as it was then called.
Apropos of Fyans' Ford, there was an inn as we passed up. When returning I met with an adventure nearly similar to that in "She Stoops to Conquer." I left the station for Melbourne in the December following, having earned a Christmas at home. When I arrived at Geelong I turned out early next morning, and rode to Fyans' Ford to see if I could find "tale or tidings" of the red cow left behind, as before mentioned. How honest were nearly all men in those days! I did hear of her, and, having discovered her whereabouts, I went to the old house to breakfast, preparatory to riding to Heidelberg, fifty-seven miles all told, that night.
Dismounting at the stable door, I gave my mare to the groom, with a brisk injunction as to a good feed, and passed into the house. In the parlour was a maid-servant laying the breakfast. I stood before the fireplace in an easy attitude, and demanded when breakfast would be ready.
"In about half an hour, sir." I noticed a slightly surprised air.
"Can't you get it a little sooner, Mary?" I said, guessing at her name with the affability of a tavern guest of fashion and substance.
"I don't know, sir," she made answer meekly.
"Come, Mary," I said, "surely you could manage something in less time? I have a long way to ride to-day."
She smiled, and was about to reply, when a door opened, and a middle-aged personage, with full military whiskers, and an air of authority, looked in.
"I don't think I have the pleasure of knowing you, sir," he stated, with a certain dignity.
"No," I said; "no! I think not. Not been here since last year." (I did not particularly see the necessity either.) I was cool and cheerful, and it struck me that, for an innkeeper, he was over-punctilious.
"This is no inn, sir," he said, with increased sternness.
In a moment my position flashed upon me. I then remembered I had not noticed the sign as I rode up. The house and grounds, large and extensive, had been occupied by a private family. Nothing very uncommon about that. So here had I been ordering my horse to be fed, and lecturing the parlour-maid, all the while in a strange gentleman's abode.
I could not help laughing, but immediately proceeded to apologise fully and formally, at the same time pointing out that the place had been an inn when I last saw it. Hence my mistake, which I sincerely regretted. I bowed, and made for the door.
My host's visage relaxed. "Come," he said, "I see how it all happened. But you must not lose your breakfast for all that. Mrs. —— will be ready directly, and my daughter. I trust you will give us the pleasure of your company."
"All's well that ends well." I was introduced to the ladies of the house, who made themselves agreeable. There was a good laugh over my invasion of the parlour and Mary's astonishment. I breakfasted with appetite. We parted cordially. And, as my mare carried me to Heidelberg that night without a sign of distress, she probably had breakfasted well also.
I recollect—how well!—the night I reached Lake Colac. Mr. Hugh Murray had, I think, the only station upon it, and the Messrs. Dennis were a short distance on the hither side. The Messrs. Robertson farther on. The cattle had rather a long day without water. Not quite so bad as the Old Man Plain, but a good stretch. We did not "make" the lake until after dark. How they all rushed in! It was shallow, and sound as to bottom. We concluded to let them alone, not believing that they would wander far through such good feed before day. So we had our supper cheerfully, and turned in. We could hear them splashing about in the water, drinking exhaustively, and finally returning in division. At daylight, the first man up (not the writer) descried them comfortably camped, nearly all down within a few hundred yards.
How far is the Parin Yallock? It is many a year since I saw the Stony Rises, as we somewhat unscientifically called the volcanic trap dykes and lava outflows, now riven into boulders and scoria masses, yet clothed with richest grass and herbage, which surround for many miles the craters of Noorat, "The Sisters"—Leura and Porndon. Well, we took it very easily along that pastoral Eden, the garden of Australia, where dwelt pastoral man before the Fall, ere he was driven forth into far sun-scorched drought-accursed wilds to earn his bread by the sweat of his brain, and to bear the heart-sickness that comes of hope long deferred—the deadly despair that is born of long years of waiting for slow remorseless ruin. Ha! how have we skipped over half-a-century, more or less! Bless you, nobody was ruined in those golden days, because there was no credit. Riverina was almost as much a terra incognita as Borneo—much more the Lower Macquarie and the Upper Bogan. But I must get back to Colac, and feel the thick kangaroo grass under my feet, quite as thick as an English meadow (I have been there since, too), as Donald and I led our horses. He had a rein which slipped out at the cheek, contrived on purpose for his horse, and the better sustentation of him, Dumple.
We leave Captain Fyans' station on our right. He was the Crown Lands Commissioner in those days, and had the sense to take up a small, but very choice, bit of the "waste lands of the Crown" on his own account. There abide the "FF" cattle to this day, if the Messrs. Robertson have not deposed them in favour of sheep, or the rabbits eaten them out of house and home.
We pass the police station, another rich pasture reserved for the mounted police troopers and their chargers. There old Hatsell Garrard dwelt for a season, with his fresh-coloured English yeoman face, his pleasant, racy talk, and unerring judgment in horse-flesh. Did not Cornborough, that grand old son of Tramp, emigrate to Victoria under his auspices? I need say no more.
Then we come to Scott and Richardson's, the Parin Yallock station proper. Both good fellows. The latter might aver with Ralph Leigh—
Those were the days when my beard was black,
and the good steed Damper was not much averse to "a stiff top rail," though carrying a rider considerably over six feet, and a welter weight to boot. Between the station and the crossing-place—difficult and dangerous it was, too, even for horsemen—we camped. It came on to rain. It was our only unpleasant night (except one when we missed the drays and had no supper. I didn't smoke then and oh! how hungry I was). The cattle were uneasy, and "ringed" all night. Next morning the camp was like a circus on a large scale. The soil is rich and black. I have seen no mud to speak of for the last ten years. Even the mud in those parts was of a superior description.
Next day we faced the Parin Yallock Creek and its malign ford—save the mark! One dray was bogged; several head of cattle; my colt went down tail first, and nearly "turned turtle," but eventually the corps d'armée got safely over to the sound but rugged stony rises. Crossing them, we reached the broad rich flats around the lovely lake of Purrumbeet.
It was late when we got there, the cattle having been hustled and bustled to get out of the labyrinthine stony rises before dark; and the day turning out warm after the rain, they were inclined to drink heartily. To this intent they ran violently into the lake, I don't know how many fathoms deep, and shelving abruptly. All the leaders were out of their depth at once, and swam about with a surprised air. However, the beach was hard and smooth, so back they came, in good trim to set to at the luxuriant herbage which borders the lake shore. I wonder what the Messrs. Manifold would think now of a thousand head of cattle coming ravaging up close to the house, and walking into their clover and rye grass, without saying "by your leave," much less "reporting."
When the day broke how lovely the landscape seemed. The rugged lava country that we had left behind had given place to immense meadows and grassy slopes, thinly timbered with handsome blackwood trees. The Lake Purrumbeet was the great central feature—a noble sheet of water, with sloping green banks, and endless depth of the fresh pure element. On the western bank was built a comfortable cottage, where flowers and fruit trees by their unusual luxuriance bore testimony to the richness of the deep black alluvial.
We did a "lazyally" sort of day—the cattle knee-deep in grass, every one taking it extremely easy. Leura, another volcano out of work, surrounded by wonderful greenery, wherein the station cattle lay about, looking like prize-winners that had strayed from a show-yard, was passed about mid-day. Next morning saw us at Mr. Neil Black's Basin Bank station. Here we saw the heifers of the NB herd. They were "tailed" or herded, as was the fashion in those days, and a fine well-grown, well-bred lot they were. The overseer was either Donald or Angus "to be sure whateffer," one of a draft of stalwart Highlanders which Mr. Black used to import annually. Very desirable colonists they were, and as soon as they "got the English," a matter of some difficulty at the outset, they commenced to save money at a noticeable rate. A fair-sized section of the Western district is now populated by these Glenormiston clansmen and their descendants, and no man was better served than their worthy chief—Neil of that ilk.
From Basin Bank we drove towards the late Mr. William Hamilton's Yallock station, where we abode one night. Here, or at the next stage, the trail was not so plain. I have a reminiscence of our having camped one night at a spot not intended for such a halt, and losing our supper in consequence. No doubt we made up for it at breakfast.
Now we had come to the end of the genuine Colac country. What we were approaching was a good land, richly grassed, and, agriculturally speaking, perhaps superior to the other. But I shall always consider the sub-district that I have just described, including Messrs. Black's, Robertson's, Manifold's, and one or two other properties, having regard to soil, climate, pasture, and distance from a metropolis, as the very choicest area to be found in the whole Australian continent.
A few more days' easy travelling took us nearly to our journey's end. We reached the bank of the Merai, at Grasmere, the head station of the Messrs. Bolden, and there, not many miles from the site of the flourishing township of Warrnambool, we drafted our respective cattle, and went different ways—Mr. Ryrie's to his run, not far from Tower Hill, and mine to appropriate some unused country between the Merai and the sea.
Here I camped for about six months, and a right joyous time it was in that "kingdom by the sea." I remember riding down to the shore one bright day, just below where Warrnambool now stands. No trace of man or habitation was there, "nor roof nor latched door." As I rode over the sand hummock which bordered the beach, a draft of out-lying cattle, basking in the sun on the farther side, rose and galloped off. All else was silent and tenantless as before the days of Cook.
I took up my abode provisionally upon the bank of the Merai, which, near the mouth, was a broad and imposing stream, and turned out my herd. My stockman and I spent our days in "going round" the cattle; shooting and kangaroo-hunting in odd times—recreation to which he, as an ex-poacher of considerable experience, took very kindly. The pied goose, here in large flocks, with duck, teal, pigeons, and an occasional wild turkey, were our chief sport and sustenance.
On the opposite side of the river was the first cultivated area in the Port Fairy district, then known as Campbell's farm. An old colonial whaling company had their headquarters at the Port, and Captain Campbell, a stalwart Highlander long known as Port Fairy Campbell, had utilised his spare crews in the early days, and tested the richness of that famous tract of fertile land now known as the Farnham Survey.
We were not without practical demonstration of the bounty of the soil. One evening I was astonished to see splendid mealy potatoes served up with the accustomed corned beef.
"Where did you get these, Mrs. Burge?" said I to the stockman's wife.
"From the lubras," rather consciously; "I gave them beef in exchange."
"A very fair one," but a light suddenly striking upon my mental vision,—" Where do the lubras get them from? They toil not, neither do they spin!"
"I don't know for certain, sir," she answered, looking down, "but they're digging the potato crop, I believe, at Campbell's farm." Here was foreshadowed the enormous Warrnambool export, that immense intercolonial potato trade, which has latterly assumed such proportions, and which invades even this far north-western corner of New South Wales. What glorious times I had, gun in hand, or with our three famous kangaroo dogs, slaying the swift marsupial. In those days he was tolerated and rather admired, no one imagining that he would be, a couple of generations later, a scourge and an oppressor, eating the sparse herbage of the overstocked squatter, and being classed as a "noxious animal," with a price actually put on his head by utilitarian legislators.