The Coming Colony/Chapter 15
The Drive across the Midland Company's Concession—A Bush Jehu's Opinion of Chinamen and Aboriginals—An Irish Gentleman—Comfortable Quarters.
What with the help of the completed portions of the railway at either end, my buggy journey along the course of the inchoate "Midland" resolved itself into a south-easterly drive of a little over 200 miles from Dongara, which, like the far-flowing Greenough, also boasts its "flats," to Gingin. This was, however, quite enough for comfort, and quite enough to give me a good general idea of the quality of the country. At first our four-in-hand team was somewhat of the "scratch" order, but about midway the contractor's buggy met us, with a crack team, and the most skilled imaginable of bush Jehus. The first day's journey was mostly in the valley of the tortuous Irwin, which, like most of the rivers of Western Australia, is a mere storm-water channel, assuming sometimes the dimensions of a torrent during the winter rains, but becoming dry as a bone in summer, with here and there an occasional water-hole in its parched and deeply-scored bed to remind one of its winter destiny. The next day we were on the sand plains which intersect the whole of this rich loamy and red ironstone country, and which are really more "downs" than plains. Forty or fifty miles of "sand plain" might well damp the ardour of the most sturdy of would-be settlers, and enabled one to realise, as our team ploughed painfully through it, what sort of chance the old denizens on the adjacent good land had had of making farming remunerative, with from 40 to 80 miles of such cartage in front of them before they could get their produce to the nearest market. What with the present rain and the prospect of railway facilities in the near future, the latter all seemed cheerful enough, and had somehow managed to "pull through" up to date, with sandalwood and kangaroo-ing to eke out their primitive agriculture. This is not a region of large timber, though there is plenty for every needful purpose. The species of grass-tree known as the "blackboy" rears its brown rough trunk and grassy topknot in every direction, whilst of real timber trees the jarrah and York gum, both of eucalyptus origin, are the main features in the landscape, in addition to the little raspberry jam tree, which is greatly in demand for fencing, but should be reserved for nobler uses considering its adaptability for furniture making and all the mysteries of the wheelwright's art.
Dr. Robertson's account of the "sand plain" is one of the most interesting portions of his report. Talking of the region which I have just described, he says the sand plains "represent the wear of the oldest rocks, probably deposited by aerial currents."
"These sand plains," Dr. Robertson continues, "are a striking feature of Western Australia, and to a material extent regulate the climate. In some parts they are redolent with flowers of every hue and are by no means unproductive or useless. These are not desolate barren wastes such as those of Central Asia, Egypt, Arabia, Algeria, Arizona or Chili, but are covered by rough grasses, herbs, bushes, and flowers. To some extent they resemble the country surrounding Madrid, the capital of Spain. Nor are they thoroughly desolate and useless as large tracts of the other colonies. North of Perth sand plains exist parallel with the Darling Ranges, and between them and the sea, broken at intervals, in the course of brooks and rivulets, by irregular 'straths' (valleys) of rich and fertile soils. North of Bindoon, in breaks of the range, zones of sand having a south-easterly bearing stretch inland and are of varying width. The coastal sand plain is divided by a long strip of excellent land forming the famous farming and agricultural districts of Yatheroo and Dandaragan. This is separated by about sixteen miles of sand plain, from and parallel to the route of the Midland Railway, while a south-easterly branch forming Long's sand plain connects the coastal with those of the interior.
Long's sand plain is 25 miles wide and is crossed by the Midland Railway. In it several good patches of land occur, while several springs yield water for travellers and stock. Further north the squatters, withdrawing their flocks of sheep from the drought now prevailing in the interior, are depasturing them on these much-despised sand plains. They really afford fair summer feed for sheep, as in Chinchilla, near Dalby, bounding the famous Darling Downs of Queensland, or the weary steppes of Algeria (where esparto grass is now successfully cultivated), or the vast waste to the east of the Rocky Mountains of America. The small area crossed by the Midland is insignificant in extent to any of those referred to. One remarkable and valuable feature of the colony is the abundance of water found at shallow depths. Innumerable wells a few feet in depth furnish water for the requirement of stock and settlement.
The next day we stopped at the station of a Mr. Whitfield, where we made acquaintance with that ingenious instrument of torture, the American buckboard buggy. The worst that we could wish the inventor was that he might have to sit on the back seat of his contrivance and be driven perpetually over such country as our kindly host drove us through, whilst our own horses were resting, in order to show us some of the copper deposits which abound over the whole of this portion of the country. The latter have never been profitably or systematically worked, but they may show another face in the good time coming. Close to Mount Scratch are the 5,000 acres which Sir John Forrest was allowed to select as part of the recompense for his services in the exploration of his native colony, of which it then seemed hardly likely that he was the predestined Premier. He sold his rights for 8s. 6d. an acre, and the land was now, Mr. Whitfield told us, worth £2. Some twenty miles to the north-east lies the famous coal seam on the Upper Irwin, which has inspired so many sanguine hopes for the future development of the district, and which the Midland Railway Company are now having tested in a business-like way, which promises to set at rest for all time the quantity and quality of the deposits, hitherto disclosing poor shaly stuff, which are traceable over a vast extent of country.
Dr. Robertson was inclined to class the product of the Irwin seam as lignite, and poor at that; but Mr. Robert Etheridge, F.R.S., of the British Museum, who was appealed to as an expert by Mr. Woodward, the Government geologist of West Australia, gives an opinion more favourable to the Company's hopes, though not quite on a par with their original wishes, which fathered a more sanguine belief.
Mr. Etheridge pronounces as follows on the sample sent him:—"It is a dull, soft, impure, sooty coal, ignites quickly, and burns to a fine ash, giving out great heat. This example, although impure, is not a lignite. It resembles 'Mother-coal,' bands of which often occur in the coal measure seams, inter-bedded between thick coals of the best quality. It appears to me to have been taken from near the outcrop, or at a little depth from the air. No woody, earthy, or sedimentary matter occurs in this sample, and although far less valuable than Nos. 1 and 2 (samples from another part of the colony), yet it is quite equal to much of the coal used on the North German railways, and is (although inferior) a true coal—measure coal, and not a lignite. No evidence of the ligneous structure could be observed under the microscope. It is to be regretted that such very small samples of coal were furnished for examination. Larger pieces would have been much more satisfactory to study."
On the evening of the third day, after passing the Carnamah lakes, which contain large salt deposits, we reached the farmhouse of a Mr. Long, where, as everywhere else along the road, we were hospitably accommodated with sleeping quarters and the best the larder afforded. Here Mr. Kellett, the Company's mineralogist, left us, and Mr. Stafford, the Company's engineer, and I went forward in Mr. Keane's buggy. The driver of the latter amused me by his racy converse as we all sat down at the common table to tea. He was talking of having overtaken a Chinaman whilst crossing the dreary sand plain alone in the buggy earlier in the day. Apologising for the momentary weakness, he confessed that he had at first thought of offering him a "lift," but at once said to himself, "No, you nasty beast; I'd see you hanged first." I asked him if the man had been an aboriginal instead of a Mongolian whether his decision would have been any different, and he confessed it would. This will illustrate how deep-rooted in the minds of the "bone and sinew" of this country is the hatred of the "yellow agony." There is not much love lost in the feelings with which the working class regard the "niggers," as they call the natives; but the slightly more humanitarian light in which they are viewed is due to the existence of a sneaking remembrance that the latter are the original owners of the soil and the whites themselves only interlopers.