Spinifex and Sand/Part V/Chapter IV
Part V: The Outward Journey
Chapter IV: We Enter The Desert
Our position was in lat. 28 degrees 35 minutes, long. 120 degrees 57 minutes, and from this point I started to map the country as we went. We left here on July 23rd steering a general N.E. by E. course, my intention being to strike Mount Allott and Mount Worsnop, on Forrest's route of 1874 — two very noticeable hills, 280 miles distant. I chose these for the double reason that by hitting them off correctly, as I hoped to do, I should not only give confidence to my companions, but have the opportunity of comparing my amateur work with that of a trained surveyor. Our course would clear the southern end of Lake Wells with which I had no desire to become entangled; and by so avoiding it I should cross a piece of country hitherto untraversed.
Our way lay across a rough range of bare diorite hills, whose stony slopes and steep gullies were not appreciated by the camels. Beyond the hills flat mulga-clad country extended for several days' march, only broken by the occurrence of low cliffs or terraces of sandstone. These are of peculiar formation, running sometimes for five or six miles without a break; abrupt, on one side, and perhaps fifty feet high, with broken boulders strewn about the foot of the cliff from which jut out occasional buttresses. It takes some time to find a break in the cliffs, or a gully, up which one can pass. Once on the top, trouble is over, for the summit is flat though often covered with dense scrub; from it a gradual slope takes one presently down to the same level as the foot of the cliffs. Occasional pines find a footing on the face of the rocks — how they manage to grow or get moisture is hard to tell — showing up fresh and green against the dull grey background of rock. Round the foot of the cliffs a small plain of saltbush is usually found, through which numerous small creeks and watercourses wind their way into the scrub beyond. In any one of these, as we saw them, water could be obtained by sinking in the gravelly bed. From the summit of the cliffs, which is often perforated by caves and holes opening on to the sheer face, square bluffs and walls can be seen, standing up above the sea of scrub, each exactly like its neighbour, and itself when again seen from another point. Doubtless the numberless creeks join and form one larger creek probably running South, as the general trend of the country is in that direction.
We were getting well into the swing of things now, for at first there is always some trouble in the distribution of the loads and in loading up and unloading. On camping at night the camels were always put down in a circle, as near as might be. All top-loading was taken off and placed near the centre; the side loads placed one on either side of the camel, and the saddle by his tail. Thus everything, instead of being scattered about in a long line, was handy, and easily reloaded the next morning. At this time, when the packs were heavy, it took us thirty minutes from the time Breaden and Warri brought the camels in to the time we were ready to start; Breaden, Charlie, Warri, and I loading, whilst Godfrey, who acted as cook, got his pots and pans together and packed the "tucker-bags." There is little of interest in this scrub; an occasional plant perhaps attracts one's attention. Here and there a vine-like creeper (an Asclepiad) trails upon the ground. With the fruits of this, commonly called cotton-pods, the black-fellows vary their diet of grubs and the very rare emu or kangaroo. The skin, the edible part, is soft, thick, and juicy, and has quite a nice sweet taste. The blacks eat them raw or roasted in wood-ashes. The seeds are of a golden yellow, and are joined on to a silky fibrous core. When bruised the pod exudes a white, milky juice.
Numerous large spiders inhabit the scrubs and build their webs from tree to tree; wonderfully strong they are too, and so frequent as to become a nuisance to whoever is walking first. It is quite unpleasant when one's eyes are fixed on the compass, to find, on looking up, that one's hat has swept off a great web, whose owner runs over one, furious at unprovoked assault. Though I got the full benefit of these insects, I was never bitten; they may or may not be poisonous, but look deadly enough, being from one to four inches from toe to toe. The scrubs for the most part are thick and without a break for many miles. Sometimes open country is met with — not always a welcome change.
July 26th the thickets became more and more open until we came across a narrow salt-lake; by leading each camel separately we reached the other side without mishap, and congratulated ourselves on our good fortune, until the next morning when we found that our camp had been on an island; and the lake stretched North and South as far as the eye could reach, until lake and sky became one in a shimmering mirage. I think it probable that this lake joins the Eastern portion of Lake Darlot, which lies to the N.N.W., and connects with the narrow lake seen by Luck and myself in 1894, to the S.S.E. Whatever its extent there was no doubt about its nature; from 8.30 until 1.30 we were occupied in hauling, digging out, and dragging our camels, and in humping on our backs some 5,000 lbs. weight of packs, across a channel not half a mile wide. Camels vary very much in their ability to cross bogs. Those which take small steps succeed best; the majority take steps of ordinary length and, in consequence, their hind feet slide into the hole left by the fore, and in an instant they are pinned by the hind leg up to the haunch. Kruger was splendid, and simply went through by main force, though he eventually sank close to the shore. I had carried over some of the loading, amongst it my camera, and was just in time to take a snapshot as he was sinking. Shiddi, the cunning old rogue, could not be persuaded across; he would try the ground with one foot and then draw back like a timid bather. We left him roaring to his mates and yet afraid to join them, until we were ready to start again. As soon as he saw the caravan disappear over the sandhill which abutted on the lake, he took a desperate plunge and came through with ease.
The shores of the lake, as usual, were covered with samphire, having something the appearance of heather. At this season the plant is soft and juicy, and, though salt, makes capital feed for camels. In the summer it withers up to dry sticks and has no moisture. Once out of sight of the lake we were disgusted at coming into a belt of flat spinifex country, and were afraid that already we had reached the confines of the desert, more especially since in 1894 I had placed its edge in that longitude. However, we were agreeably disappointed, for after a few miles the spinifex ceased, and on penetrating a dense thicket we debouched on a fine grassy flat. In the centre ran a line of large white gums (Creek gums, Eucalyptus rostrata), the sure sign of a creek. We were not mistaken, for down the avenue a watercourse wound its way. The gravelly bed was quite dry. Climbing a tree, from which to follow with my glasses the course of the creek, I could see some hills to the northward; in them the creek evidently rose. Whilst I was climbing, Breaden amused himself by breaking off pieces of the small roots of the gums which the creek had washed here. By breaking these quite an appreciable amount of moisture could be got, enough to save a man's life. But I fancy that these roots only hold water after rain, and that when they are water-bearing, pools also are to be found in the creeks. Numerous emu and turkey tracks led up the watercourse, but, though seeing several emu, we were unable to get a shot. Following the creek upwards, for near the head one is likely to find rocky pools, we soon came on a nice waterhole and made camp. I traced the creek to its source in the evening and found the hills to be granite, and discovered one deep pool in the solid rock under a steep step in the creek bed. Along the banks herbage and green stuff were growing in profusion. Our beasts were content to feed amicably together, and with the exception of a sly bite no longer showed signs of ill-feeling. We were thankful indeed to see them "off season." Here we gave them a good drink and filled our casks and neckbags, carrying in all sixty-two gallons. We had been so well off for water up to this point, that we had hopes that the rain had penetrated inland.
Leaving the creek on July 29th we again entered the scrub, finding it lower and more open, the ground covered with occasional patches of grass and a little squashy plant straggling along the ground — "Pigweed" is the local name; it belongs, I believe, to the "portulacaceae." It is eaten by the blacks, and would make excellent feed for stock were it higher from the ground.
This day we saw the last auriferous country we were to meet with until Kimberley was reached. These hills, of diorite, with occasional blows of ironstone, I take to be a continuation the Neckersgat Range (Wells, 1892). Many traces of prospectors were visible here — the last to be seen for many a day — shallow dry-blowing holes and little heaps of sieved dirt, and the tracks of camels and horses. This was a piece of country worth trying, had we not had other objects in view.
Two rather curious ironstone dykes, standing square and wall-like above the ground, occur in these hills, some seven miles apart, running nearly North and South and parallel; between them a deep but narrow creek, a saltbush flat, and a ridge of diorite. Standing out prominently to the south of the first dyke are two sugar-loaf hills, and, beyond them, distant ranges are visible. Leaving the range the country to the East underwent a distinct change for the worse; and midday of July 31st found us on the borders of an unmistakable desert, the North-West corner of the Great Victoria Desert. We had so far travelled 110 miles from Cutmore's Well, only some 250 in a direct line from Coolgardie and were already in the desert! Wilderness perhaps would be a better name for this part; for the sand now flat, now blown into dunes, is not bare, but overgrown by the hateful spinifex and timbered pretty thickly with desert gums (Eucalypus eudesmoides) and low acacia bushes.
I am told that the term "spinifex," though generally employed by those who have the pleasure of the acquaintance of the plant, is wrongly used. I do not know its right name, and have seen it described as "Spinifex," "Porcupine Grass," "Triodia," "Triodia pungens," and "Festuca irritans." Why such a wretched, useless plant should have so many names I cannot say. So often am I bound to refer to it that I might vary the monotony by using each in turn. However, I will stick to the term I have always heard used. "Spinifex" grows in round, isolated hummocks, one to three feet high; these hummocks are a dense mass of needle-like prickles, and from them grow tall blades of very coarse grass to a height of sometimes six feet. Occasionally the hummocks are not round or isolated, but grow in crescent form or almost complete rings, sometimes there is no top growth — however it grows it is most accursed vegetation to walk through, both for men and camels. Whatever form it takes it seems to be so arranged that it cannot be stepped over or circumvented — one must in consequence walk through it and be pricked, unpleasantly. Camels and horses suffer rather severely sometimes, the constant pricking causing sores on their legs. So long, however, as a camel does not drag his hind legs he will be no worse treated than by having all the hair worn off his shins. The side of the foot is an easily affected spot, and a raw there, gives them great pain and is hard to cure.
There are two varieties of spinifex known to bushmen — "spinifex" and "buck" (or "old man") spinifex. The latter is stronger in the prickle and practically impossible to get through, though it may be avoided by twists and turns. There are a few uses for this horrible plant; for example, it forms a shelter and its roots make food for the kangaroo, or spinifex, rat, from its spikes the natives (in the northern districts) make a very serviceable gum, it burns freely, serves in a measure to bind the sand and protect it from being moved by the wind, and makes a good mattress when dug up and turned over. I should advise no one to try and sleep on the plant as it grows, for "He who sitteth on a thistle riseth up quickly." But the thistle has one advantage, viz., that it does not leave its points in its victim's flesh. In Northern Australia spinifex is in seed for three weeks, and when in this state, forms most excellent feed for horses, and fattens almost as quickly as oats; for the rest of the year it is useless.
I can imagine any one, on being suddenly placed on rising ground with a vast plain of waving spinifex spreading before him — a plain relieved occasionally by the stately desert oak, solemn, white, and mysterious — saying, "Ah! what a charming view — how beautiful that rolling plain of grass! its level surface broken by that bold sandhill, fiery-red in the blaze of sun!" But when day after day, week after week, and month after month must be passed always surrounded by the hateful plant, one's sense of the picturesque becomes sadly blunted.
This was our first introduction to the desert and, though a little monotonous, it seemed quite pleasant, and indeed was so, when compared to the heartrending country met with later in our journey.
The sand has been formed (blown, I suppose) into irregular ridges, running more or less parallel, but in no one fixed direction. From the edge of the desert to Mount Worsnop, a distance of nearly two hundred miles in a straight line, the country presented the same appearance. First a belt, eight to ten miles wide, of sand-ridges from thirty to fifty feet high, with a general direction of E. by S. and W. by N.; then a broad sand-flat of equal breadth, either timbered with desert gums, or open and covered with spinifex breast-high, looking in the distance like a field of ripe corn; next another series of ridges with a S.E. and N.W. direction; then, with startling suddenness, a small oasis, enclosed or nearly surrounded by sheer broken cliffs of desert sandstone, from which little creeks run out into the sand, winding their way for a mile or two between the ridges. Dry watercourses these, except immediately after rain; in their beds are found native wells five to ten feet in depth, sometimes holding water; on their banks, round the foot of the cliffs, and on the flat where the creeks merge into the sand, grows long grass — kangaroo-grass — and, in the winter magnificent herbage. Next we find a dense thicket, and, this passed, we come again to open plains. And thus sand-ridges now E. and W., now S.E. and N.W., now S.W. and N.E. (as in the vicinity of Empress Spring), and now sandhills heaped up without regularity, alternate with mulga thickets, open plains of spinifex, and flat, timbered country. The most noticeable vegetation is of course spinifex; as well as that, however, are several shrubs which form good camel feed, such as ACACIA SALICINA, with its pretty, scented flower like a little golden powder-puff; the quondong (Fusanus acuminatus), or "native peach tree," a graceful little black-stemmed tree, against whose fresh, green leaves the fruit, about the size of a cherry and of a brilliant red, shows out with appetising clearness. Alas! it is a fraud and delusion, for the stone forms more than three-quarters of the fruit, leaving only a rather tasteless thick skin, which is invariably perforated by small worms.
Dotted over the open plains the native poplar (Codonocarpus) stands sentry, its head, top-heavy from the mass of seeds, drooping gracefully to the setting sun; the prevalent wind at the present day would seem to be from the E.N.E. Here, too, an occasional grass tree or "black-boy" may be seen, and at intervals little clumps of what is locally termed "mustard bush," so named from the strong flavour of the leaf; camels eat this with voracity, of which fact one becomes very sensible when they chew their cuds.
This description hardly suits a "desert"; yet, in spite of the trees and shrubs, it is one to all intent. All is sand, and throughout the region no water is to be found, unless immediately after rain in the little creeks, or in some hidden rock-hole. Even a heavy storm of rain would leave no signs in such country; half an hour after the fall no water would be seen, except on the rocky ground, which only occurs at very long intervals. The greedy sand soaks up every drop of water, and from the sand the trees derive their moisture. The winter rain causes such a growth of herbage around the cliffs and on the sandhills — to die, alas! in a few weeks' time — that one is inclined to wonder if by means of bores this wilderness will be made of use to man. What artesian bores have done for parts of Queensland and Algeria they may in the distant future do for this, at present useless, interior, where all is still, and the desert silence unbroken by any animal life, excepting always the ubiquitous spinifex rat. A pretty little fellow this, as he hops along on his long hind legs, bounding over the prickly stools like an animated football with a tail. As he jumps, he hangs one forepaw by his side, while the other is stretched out with the little hand dangling as if the wrist were broken. Everything must be spoken of comparatively in this country; thus the ubiquitous rat may be seen, at the most, a dozen times in a day's march; an oasis may measure no more than thirty yards across; a creek is dry, and may be only half a mile long and a few feet broad; a high range may stand three to four hundred feet above the surrounding country, seldom more; and "good feed" may mean that the camels find something to eat instead of being tied down without a bite.
For instance, to continue our journey, on August 1st we have "...the same miserable country until the evening, when a sudden change brings us into a little oasis enclosed by cliffs, a small creek running through it. Here we made camp, the camels enjoying a great patch of feed — could find no water — saw several small quails — a number of grasshoppers and little bees — flies of course in abundance. Lat. 27 degrees 40 minutes, long. 122 degrees 54 minutes. Cloudy night."
The next day we sighted a big range to the East across a deep valley, and a broken table-top range to the North. Following down the little creek we came on a shallow native well, quite dry; crossing the grassy flat in which it was dug, winding through a thicket, we again reached open sand. Here we saw for the first time since leaving Coolgardie the tracks of wild aboriginals, and the first tracks of blacks, either wild or tame, since leaving Cutmore's Well. Evidently this part of the world is not overpopulated. Since everything pointed to the rain having been general, since the tracks were leading in a direction nearly opposite to our own, and since at the time we had water enough, we did not waste time in following them up.
That night we were forced to camp on a barren spot, and tied the camels down foodless; one night without feed does them no harm — less harm than if they wandered miles in their hobbles looking for it. The weather was now distinctly hot, unpleasant and stuffy, as if about to thunder; but the nights were still cold. At midday we saw two fine quondong trees; how the camels devoured them, leaves, fruit, stones and all! Emus swallow the stones without inconvenience; apparently a camel has an equally convenient interior, but he brings them up again in his cud and drops them out of his mouth as his jaws move from side to side.
Amongst some broken rocks this day, Breaden found a dingo camped in a cave with a litter of pups. Had we been returning instead of only just starting on our travels, I should certainly have secured one — not, I expect, without some trouble, for the mother showed signs of fierce hostility when Breaden looked into her lair. There were no traces of water anywhere near, and I have no doubt that the mother, having found a suitable spot for her expected family, would think nothing of travelling many miles for her daily drink. Near the rocks I noticed a little blue-flowered plant with the leaf and scent of the geranium.
The appearance of the country now soon began to get less fresh, and drier, and all the next two days we were crossing sandhills, the only variety being afforded by Valerie. She had lately made it evident that she would soon follow the example of the lady dingo. Though I had frequently tried to make her ride on one of the packs, she preferred to trot along at the heels of Czar, receiving from him occasional kicks if by chance she touched him, which did not tend to improve the pups so soon to see the light. Tying her on was no better; she only struggled and nearly hanged herself. She had therefore to walk as she desired. Having made camp, and unrolled our blankets ready to turn into them when the time came, Breaden and I experimented on numerous mallee-roots which we dug up, but in every case failed to find any appreciable moisture, On returning to camp we found our party had been increased by one — a large pup which Val had deposited in her master's blankets. It was dead, which was fortunate, as we could hardly have kept it, and would not have liked to destroy the little animal, born in such unusual surroundings.
No change occurred in the country the next day, but the march was saved from its usual monotony by Warri finding two mallee-hens' nests. Unluckily they had no eggs, though the birds' tracks were fresh and numerous. These nests are hollowed out in the sand, to a depth of perhaps two and a half feet, conical shaped, with a mouth some three feet in diameter; the sand from the centre is scraped up into a ring round the mouth. Several birds help in this operation, and when finished lay their eggs on a layer of leaves at the bottom; they then fill in the hole to the surface with small twigs and more leaves. Presumably the eggs are hatched by spontaneous heat, the green twigs and leaves producing a slightly moist warmth, similar to that of the bird's feathers. I have seen numbers of these nests, never with eggs in, but often with the shells from recently hatched birds lying about. How the little ones force their way through the sticks I do not understand, but Warri and many others who have found the eggs assure me that they do so.
Towards evening we neared a prominent bluff that we had sighted the day before, and got a further insight into the habits of the wild dog. A dingo — a female, and possibly our friend with the pups — had followed us persistently all day. Godfrey, who was walking behind the camels, opened the acquaintance by practising his revolver-shooting upon her. His poor aim seemed to give her confidence, and before long she started to play with Val. By nightfall we had petted and fed her out of our hands, and given her a small drop of water from our fast diminishing supply — this at the earnest request of Godfrey, who offered to give her some of his share; and indeed it seemed rather cruel to refuse a poor famished beast that had come to us in her distress. We all agreed how nice it was to have won the affections of a real wild dog. By daybreak our feelings of love had somewhat abated, as our friend prowled about all night, poking her nose into pots and pans, chewing saddles, pack-bags, straps, and even our blankets as we lay in them, and cared no more for blows than for the violent oaths that were wasted upon her. This strange creature accompanied us for two more days, trotting along ahead of the camels, with an occasional look behind to see if she was on the right course, and then falling at full length in the shade of some bush with her head on her paws, waiting for us to pass. Eventually my irritability got the better of my indulgence, and a shrewd whack over the nose put an end to our acquaintanceship.
Near the bluff were many low, stony hills, with the usual small watercourses; in them we hunted high and low for water until darkness overtook us. To the North other similar hills could be seen, by my reckoning a part of the Ernest Giles Range (Wells, 1892). No doubt from the distance these hills would look more imposing. Our camp was in lat. 27 degrees 9 minutes, long. 123 degrees 59 minutes. August 6th.
On August 7th we continued to search the hills, but had to leave them without finding water. We had now been since July 29th without seeing any, and in consequence of the ease with which we had, up to that date, found water had not husbanded our supply as carefully as we might have done, and now had to put ourselves on a very short allowance indeed. The further we advanced the worse the country became, and the greater the increase in temperature. Shortly after leaving the hills we came again on to sandhills. About midday my hopes were high, as I cut the fresh tracks of two black-fellows.
Warri, after a short examination, said, "Yesterday track water that way," pointing in the direction in which they were travelling; not that he could possibly tell which way the water lay, and for all we knew they might have just left it. However, we decided that better success would probably attend us if we followed them forward. Soon several equally fresh tracks joined the first ones, and not one of us doubted but that our present discomforts would shortly be over.
"There must be water at the end of them," was the general opinion, and so on we went gaily; Warri leading, and Charlie, who was an almost equally good tracker, backing him up. After much twisting and turning, crossing and recrossing of our own tracks, the footprints at last took a definite direction, and a pad, beaten by perhaps a dozen feet, led away North-West for two miles and never deviated. Any doubts as to Warri's correct interpretation were now dispelled, and on we hurried, looking forward to at least water for ourselves, and perhaps a drink for the camels. At full speed through mulga scrub, over sand and stones, on which the tracks were hardly visible, we came suddenly to an open patch of rock on the side of a low ridge, and there in the centre of the flat rock lay before us a fair-sized rock-hole — dry as a bone! — and all our visions of luxury for our beasts and ourselves were ended.
Not only were we baulked of our water, but nothing but dead scrub surrounded the rock, affording no feed for the camels, who had therefore to be tied down. Leaving the rest to dig out the hole on the chance of getting a drop, though it was evident that the natives had cleaned it out nearly to the bottom, Warri and I started off to follow the tracks yet further. Taking a handful of dried peaches to chew, which give a little moisture, for we were very dry, we walked until darkness overtook us. The tracks (a man, two women, and a child) led us back towards the West; we could see their camps, one close to the namma-hole, another four miles away, with crushed seed lying about, and a few roots pulled up. Warri said they were "tired fella" from the way they walked. All this made us doubtful if they knew where the next water was. In any case we could make no further search that night, and made our best way back through the scrub, to the camp.
Godfrey had unsuccessfully explored the neighbouring hills, while Breaden and Charlie cleaned out the rockhole with like result. A very hot, cloudy night did not make things any more pleasant; we were all a bit done, and poor Charlie was seized with a violent and painful vomiting — a not unusual accompaniment to want of food and water. It seemed useless to follow the tracks any more, since they led us in exactly the wrong direction; and as we loaded the camels in the morning two turkeys (bustards) flew over us to the North-East. We would have given something to have their knowledge! We started, therefore, in this direction, and soon came on other tracks, which after some time we concluded were only those of natives who had been hunting from the rock-hole before the water was finished.
I called a halt, and, sitting on the sand, expounded my views as to the situation. "We had determined on getting through this country — that was the main point. Turning back, even if wise, was not to be considered. The tracks had fooled us once, and though doubtless by following them we would eventually get some water, where would we be at the end of it? No further forward. Therefore, since we had still a drop or two to go on with, let us continue on our course. None of us have any idea where water is, and by travelling North, East, South, or West, we stood an equally good chance of getting it. We would therefore go on in our proper direction, and trust to God, Providence, Fate, or Chance, as each might think. I should feel more satisfied if I knew their opinions agreed with mine, for, whatever the outcome, the responsibility rested on me."
Breaden answered quietly, "It's a matter of indifference to me; go where you think best." Godfrey's reply was characteristic, "Don't care a d--n; if we are going to peg out we will, whichever way we turn." Charlie was inclined at first to question the wisdom of going on, but soon cheerfully agreed to do as the rest. So on I went, much relieved in mind that I was leading no one against his will. Possibly I could not — so far as I know, no occasion arose.
The day was sweltering, the night worse; in any other country one could with safety have backed heavily the fall of a thunderstorm. We had to be content, where we were, with about three drops of rain; and even this, in spite of tents, flys, and mackintosh-sheets spread for the purpose, we were unable to collect! Towards dawn the thermometer went down to 40 degrees F. This sudden change was greatly to our advantage, though the sun soon after rising showed his power. The ridges were now running almost parallel to our course, about North-East, and gave us in consequence little trouble. Up to this point I had walked all day, partly because one can steer better on foot and I wished to do all the steering, until we picked up the point on Forrest's route, and so give my companions confidence; and partly because I looked upon it as the leader's duty to set an example. To-day I took my turn with the rest, each riding for an hour — a great relief. Sand is weary walking and spinifex unpleasant until one's legs get callous to its spines.
We had not gone far before our hopes were again raised, and again dashed, by coming on rocky ground and presently on another rockhole — quite dry! We began to think that there could be no water anywhere; this hole was well protected and should hold water for months. Thinking did little good, nor served to decrease the horrid sticky feeling of lips and mouth. "Better luck next time," we said, with rather forced cheerfulness, and once more turned our faces to the North-East.