Spinifex and Sand/Part V/Chapter VI
Part V: The Outward Journey
Chapter VI: Woodhouse Lagoon
But for the flies, which never ceased to annoy us, we had enjoyed a real good rest, and were ready to march on the morning of the 16th, no change occurring in the character of the country until the evening of the 18th, when we sighted a low tableland five miles to the North, and to the West of it a table-topped detached hill. Between us and the hills one or two native smokes were rising, which showed us that water must be somewhere in the neighbourhood. From a high sandhill the next morning, we got a better view, and could see behind the table-top another and similar hill. I had no longer any doubt as to their being Mounts Worsnop and Allott (Forrest, 1874), the points for which I had been steering, though at first they appeared so insignificant that I hesitated to believe that these were the right ones. From the West, from which direction Forrest saw them first, they appear much higher, and are visible some twenty miles off. From the North they are not visible a greater distance than three miles, while from the East one can see them a distance of eight miles.
I altered our course, therefore, towards the hills, and we shortly crossed the narrow arm of a salt-lake; on the far side several tracks of emus and natives caught my eye, and I sent Charlie on Satan to scout. Before long he reported a fine sheet of water just ahead. This, as may be imagined, came as a surprise to us; for a more unlikely thing to find, considering the dry state of the rock-holes we had come upon, could not have been suggested. However, there it was; and very glad we were to see it, and lost no time in making camp and hobbling the camels. What a glorious sight in this parched land! — so resting to the eye after days of sand! How the camels wallowed in the fresh water! how they drank! and what a grand feed they had on the herbage (Trichinium alopecuroideum) on the banks of the lagoon! Charlie and I spent the afternoon in further exploring our surroundings, and on return to camp found our mates busily engaged in plucking some teal and waterhen which they had shot. The latter were numerous, and Godfrey at one shot bagged nine. They are almost identical in size and appearance with our British waterhen, though they seem to have less power of flight, thus enabling us to drive them from one gun to the other, and so secure a fine lot for the pot. I doubt if in civilisation they would be considered good eating, but after tinned horrors they were a perfect delicacy. The teal were as numerous; but though there were several emu tracks we saw none of those queer birds. Our bag for three days was seventeen teal, twelve waterhen, one pigeon. The natives whose smoke we had seen, disappeared shortly after our arrival. Godfrey, whilst shooting, came across their camp; the occupants, a man, woman, and child, fled as soon as they caught sight of him, leaving a shield behind them, and did not appear again. This small oasis deserves particular attention, for it is bound to play an important part in any scheme of a stock route from the cattle-stations of Central Australia to the Murchison or Coolgardie Goldfields.
There are three lagoons (or deep clay-pans) connected by a shallow, sandy channel. They are entirely surrounded by sandhills, excepting at one spot, where a narrow creek breaks through the sand-ridge. Of the three the largest and most South-Westerly one is nearly circular, and has a diameter of 600 yards with a depth varying from 1 ft. 6 in. to 4 ft. 6 in. It is capable of holding considerably more water than we saw in it. The bottom is of rock, a sort of cement in which ironstone is visible in the middle, and of clay near the edges. From the N.W. a narrow channel enters, traceable for a distance of two miles to a cane-grass swamp; into this, small watercourses, and the tail end of a larger creek lead.
Following up this flat, it will be found to develop into a defined channel running through a grassy flat timbered with bloodwoods (a kind of eucalyptus). This creek rises in the sandstone tablelands to the N. of Mount Allott, and in it at its head, is situated Alexander Spring (Forrest. 1874).
Round the foot of these hills, extending to the lagoon, is a fine little plain of grass, saltbush, and numerous low shrubs, all excellent feed for stock. Mounts Allott and Worsnop are certainly remarkable hills, perhaps 200 feet above the surrounding country, quite flat on the top, which is covered with scrub. From the latter the lagoon is visible, one mile distant on bearing 150 degrees. Our camp at the lagoon was in lat. 26 degrees 10 minutes, long. 124 degrees 48 minutes. This reckoning placed Alexander Spring in a position agreeing very closely with that given it by Forrest, which was very gratifying to me. This water was marked by Forrest as "permanent." He says in his journal: "July 13th . . . Fine water at this place. I have no doubt water is always here. I named it Alexander Spring after my brother, who discovered it. Abundance of water also in rock-holes." This was in 1874. Since that date this spot has been revisited, first and not long after Forrest, by W. W. Mills, who was commissioned to bring over a mob of camels from South Australia. He followed Forrest's track from water to water, at first with no difficulty; depending on Alexander Spring, he made a longish dry stage, reached the spring only to find it dry, and had a bad time in consequence. The second party to follow Forrest's route was that of Carr-Boyd in 1896, whom Breaden accompanied, and who was prospecting for an Adelaide syndicate. They passed by this spot, but having plenty of water, as it was raining at the time, did not visit the spring. From Mount Worsnop, Woodhouse, one of the party, sighted the lagoon; but neither he nor any of the party had troubled to see whether it was salt or fresh, or of what extent it was. I have named it after Woodhouse, who first saw it. Breaden had told me of the fact of his having seen it, but I had supposed that, as rain was falling, Woodhouse was only looking on a shallow pool that could by no possibility hold water for long.
Shortly after Carr-Boyd, there followed Hubbe's party. He was sent out by the South Australian Government to follow Forrest's route, to ascertain its suitability or otherwise for a stock route. Hubbe found the spring dry, or practically so, and was much disappointed. He did not happen to find the lagoon, and had a long stage before he found water. His party arrived at Menzies shortly before we started. I was unable to get any information from him beyond the opinion that the country was worthless and a stock route impracticable. I put more faith, however, in Breaden, whose life has been spent amongst stock and travelling cattle. When with Carr-Boyd he came to the conclusion that as far as the Warburton Range cattle could be taken without much trouble; and indeed in 1873, so I have read, Gosse drove some bullocks as far as that point, which was the furthest west he penetrated when attempting to cross the Colony.
From the Warburton Range to Lake Wells the awkward part came in, but now this lagoon and the Empress Spring go far to bridge it over. I have no doubt that a fortnight's work at both these places would be sufficient to make splendid wells, supposing that the lagoon was found dry and the spring too hard to get at. At the expenditure of no great amount I feel confident that a serviceable stock route could be formed, easily negotiated in the winter months and kept open by wells during the rest of the year. The country through which the route would pass is excellent as far as the border. From there it would be necessary to hit off the small oases which are met with near Mount Squires, Warburton Ranges, Blyth Creek, and Alexander Spring. From this point the route could be taken to Empress Spring, thence to Lake Wells (or direct to Lake Wells) and the Bonython Creek, and from there to Lake Darlot there would be no difficulty. The only really bad bit of the route would be between Woodhouse Lagoon and Lake Wells, and this is no great distance. Whether the scheme would be worth the expenditure necessary to equip a really serviceable well-sinking party I am unable to judge; but it seems to me that it would be a tremendous advantage to Central Australian cattle owners to be able to drive their bullocks direct to the West Australian goldfields, even though they could only do so in the winter, at which season alone it is probable that the feed would be sufficiently good. The fact that Forrest with his horses traversed this route is evidence enough that at some seasons certain surface waters exist at no great distances apart — in some cases large supplies. For cattle to follow the route that we had come so far would be manifestly absurd, and these remarks, especially where the country between Woodhouse Lagoon and Lake Wells, and between that lake and Lake Darlot is discussed, are made with the further knowledge of these regions that our return journey gave us.
It seems a remarkable fact that while a spring should be found dry, not five miles from it a fresh-water lagoon with millions of gallons in it should exist. In the first place Alexander Spring is no spring; Sir John Forrest told me himself that at the time of naming it he was very doubtful. Hubbe dug it out to bedrock and proved it to be merely a local soakage in the gravelly bed of a narrow gully. Now a heavy downpour sufficient to run the creek and fill the lagoon must certainly first fill the spring and neighbouring pools. But the water in the spring would soon evaporate, whilst the depth and area of the lagoon would save its contents from diminishing from this cause, for a much longer period. So that after all it is easily understandable that we should find the lagoon full and the so-called spring dry.
Near the foot of Mount Allott we found Hubbe's camp, and in it several straps and hobble-chains; two tin-lined packing cases had been left behind, and from them we took the lids, not quite knowing to what use we could put them, but yet feeling they might be serviceable; and indeed they were.
On the summit of the hill Forrest had raised a cairn of stones; this had been pulled down by the natives and subsequently replaced by Hubbe. The blacks had again started to take it to pieces; I rebuilt what they had removed and placed on the cairn a board on which I wrote directions to the lagoon, in case any other traveller should pass.
By the side of the little creek to the North-West of the hill a bloodwood tree has been marked on one side with the number of Mills's camp, and on the other with a record of the objects of Hubbe's expedition, S.R. standing presumably for "Stock Route."
The flat on which these trees are growing is, in my opinion, a very likely spot for finding water by sinking.