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Title: Wide Horizons: Wanderings in Central Australia Author: Robert Henderson Croll * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1403041h.html Language: English Date first posted: November 2014 Most recent update: November 2014 This eBook was produced by: Colin Choat Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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MADE THESE WANDERINGS POSSIBLE
My thanks are tendered to the proprietors of the Argus and the Australasian, the Herald, Stead's Review and Walkabout, all of Melbourne, in whose journals much of this matter first appeared. I am grateful, too, to that excellent institution, the Australian National Travel Association, and to my friends Mr Frederick Chapman, A.L.S., Hon.F.R.M.S., F.G.S.(Vic.), Professor S. D. Porteus of Hawaii, Mr H. R. Balfour, Mr S. R. Mitchell and Mr E. S. Lackman, for so generously lending photographs for reproduction. The map entitled "The Mantle of Safety" was kindly supplied by the Australian Aerial Medical Services; the end-paper is designed by Mr J. A. Gardner, one of the two artists with whom my latest trip to Central Australia was made.
R. H. C.
Impressions of that immense country generally referred to as the Inland vary markedly with each visit. I have had four trips into the centre of it and have gathered just about enough knowledge to show me the folly of being dogmatic. Its very size makes judgment hazardous. A cattle-station there may be greater than a European country; one in the north-west contains nine and a quarter million acres. I came one day to a more southern station the area of which was several thousand square miles. "Where are your men?" I asked. "Down the paddock," returned the manager. "Whereabouts?" I continued. "About seventy miles away!" was the staggering reply. Another man, the lessee himself this time, told me that his front gate was, in a direct line, eighty miles from his front door.
In those vast spaces the observer, if he is not altogether egoist, feels himself reduced to the insignificance of an ant. Kipling has said that an admiral knows a midshipman much as the Almighty knows a black beetle. Stand on one of those seemingly boundless gibber plains, the horizon of the whole circle as unbroken as if you were far out on the ocean, stand there if you wish to know your own proportion in the scale of the visible world.
England and Wales together contain less than 60,000 square miles, France has 213,000, all Germany is no more than 184,000; our Northern Territory alone has 523,000 square miles. In area the closest match for Australia, as a whole, are the United States of America with their 3,027,000 square miles to the Commonwealth's 2,975,000.
Who then is going to say he knows all Australia sufficiently well to write with authority about its scenery, its life, its past, its future? Certainly not the visitor from abroad, the typical tourist who remarks, "Paris? Yes, we did Paris. We spent ten hours in Paris!"
So, despite my six months' residence in the Inland and the travelling I have done there, I claim no more for these notes than that they are first-hand impressions by one who has moved much about his native land, loving it more the more he sees of it, hoping that some day this "last Sea-thing dredged by Sailor Time from Space" will solve all its problems, not the least being the effective settlement of the great spaces of Central Australia.
ROBERT HENDERSON CROLL.
II Old Man River
III The Train and the Alice
IV Transport Problems
VII Henrietta and the Artists
VIII Far Back
IX The Ameliorator
X Fact, Myth, Legend, Gossip
XI Some Notes for the Tourist
XII What of the Future?
XIV Hunting the Relics
XV The Living Aboriginal
XVI A Note on the Half-caste
XVII The Quick and the Dead:
Some History and a Suggestion
Close View of a Gibber Plain
Red-gums in Bed of the Todd River, Alice Springs
The Dry Bed of the Finke River
The Finke In Flood Near Hermannsburg
A Glimpse of Palm Valley
Section of the Macdonnell Ranges, Near Alice Springs
Heavitree Gap and Railway (Todd River), Alice Springs
Alice Springs and the Wall of the Macdonnell Ranges
Crossing a Dry Lake-bed
Post Office and Commonwealth Savings Bank at Coober Pedy
Kangaroos in Action
Restoration of a Diprotodon Skeleton
The Brolga (Native Companion)
Pool in the Finke at Henbury Station
Vertical Strata, Finke River Cliff, Near Hermannsburg
A Claypan Near Oodnadatta
The "Mantle of Safety"
Camels in Harness
Residual Hills, and the Gibber Resulting from Their Detrition
Glen Helen Gorge (Finke River)
Processional Caterpillars on a Walkabout
Mulga Killed by Drought
The Wilderness Blossoms
Clearing Railway After Dust-storm (Near William Creek)
A Dwelling at Hermannsburg
The Author and Some Tribal Relatives (A Bultara Group)
Yarumpa the Honey-ant
Professor Porteus and Author in a Tributary of The Finke
A Group Of Luritjas
"Black, but Comely"
My first Inland trip was made in 1929, my latest (I will not say last) in 1934. Between those I managed to squeeze in a shorter journey, as far as Marree, in 1930, and another, the longest of all, in 1933. I have seen the land resting in the arms of a five years' drought and I have seen it working overtime in production after satisfactory rains. To take the experiences of a single visit as typical of Central Australian conditions is to accept a solitary brick as a picture of the house it was taken from. Read the accounts by the early explorers: where one found a sandy or stony desert and lost his cattle through want of feed, the next lost his beasts in amazing growths of herbage. The term "desert" has been too freely applied to much of this country. No place is a desert (in the generally accepted meaning of that word) which will produce a plentiful vegetation after rain, and a great deal of the Inland, given moisture, is amazingly prolific.
In 1929 Professor Porteus and I saw what a practically rainless five years could do. The sight was a dreadful one. It was, as I remarked at the time, as though Life had taken one look at the place and gone away again. Porteus, fresh from the lushness of Hawaii, thought it would be well if rain never fell here again, for then no one would be tempted to stay in such a spot. We counted eighty-four dead cattle on the margin of a small depression which had once contained water. Each carcass was complete save that hollow sockets represented the eyes—it was a desiccated hide containing a skeleton.
The crow, ever hungry, ever crying his woes aloud, seemed to proclaim himself the only creature to survive. "What that pfella crow eat?" I inquired of an Arunta native. "Eatem bone!" came the response.
But even in those appalling conditions the white settlers hung to their holdings, their diet mostly hope. Apart from the fact, the all-important fact, that rain will assuredly come again and with it probably prosperity, apart from this and the even more pregnant matter that to desert the holding may be to abandon every penny of one's capital, there is frequently a genuine affection (that is not too strong a term) for this stern land, an affection the basis of which is difficult indeed to define. Those limitless plains, the changing mirage for ever playing on their edges, the scarlet sand-hills against the powdered blue of the great mountains, the thousand-mile rivers of sand, the clarity of the air, the amazing sense of space—these produce that strange fascination which many a visitor, no less than the permanent resident, has felt and must continue to feel. Professor Gregory, in his Dead Heart of Australia, confesses to knowing it: a winter never passes but I personally am restless under the urge to return.
On that 1929 trip I summarized my first impressions as I gazed at the scene. We stood on the bank of a dry river. "The last time we had rain enough to see it run," said the local man, "was in 1921. I dug a tank then. It's still empty!"
Seven years of drought!
I looked round at the loose red sand which rose and fell in billowy ridges, like waves, until it merged into the skyline. I noted the few stunted ashen-grey bushes which punctuated these blank pages where seemingly no living thing had written a single other character, and I marvelled that man had ever bothered to come to so obvious a desert.
Close View of a Gibber Plain
Red-Gums in Bed of the Todd River, Alice Springs
"Does anything ever grow here?" I asked. The question was purely rhetorical, but it brought a reply. "Grow here!" It was a younger man who spoke. "Grow here!" He waxed suddenly enthusiastic. "I've seen it in a good year with herbage that high" (he hit his thigh). "Beautiful! You'd have wanted to get down and have a feed of it yourself!"
And those extremes seem fairly to represent the so-called "dead heart."
It had been raining at Quorn, that sturdy little town where the Central Australian railway leaves the east-west line, but from there on to Oodnadatta the land was a waste. For hundreds of miles the plains lay bare as a sandy beach at low tide, or at best stippled with dust-coloured spinifex or its like. It was then that my professorial friend from abroad remarked that men should not be encouraged to try to settle here at all.
The outlook certainly justified the thought. But this country is such a mass of contradictions that one can understand a man, once in it, being reluctant to leave. The gambling element, so strong in most of us, comes into play. At the moment of writing, despite the fact that feed had disappeared altogether from such a huge stretch of country, fat cattle were being entrained at Alice Springs, itself as dry as a bone, and certain graziers were doing well out of the prices the animals were bringing. Their good fortune lay in the fact that a smart fall of rain had occurred some sixty odd miles east of "the Alice" and their properties were lucky enough to share it.
Outside that area the tale was one of ruin and despair, of herds destroyed, of living made almost impossible. The loss in cattle must have been enormous. The Finke River Mission had 3000 head at the beginning of the drought; at the end it had a dwindling 200. On a small flat near one of the rare springs lay numbers of carcasses. Queer, ghastly things they were, which had once been cattle. A moistureless air had mummified them.
On the Rudner Plain, out towards the Glen Helen Gorge, a grim humorist had lifted a horse and leaned it against a tree, where it stood like a figure from an Australian Dance of Death. Its grinning head was twisted round as if it watched you; but there were no eyes in the sockets which stared so fixedly across the sandy wastes.
The crows must have fed full earlier in the drought; now they looked as ravenous as the rest of the living things in this rainless region, including man.
"Hangry!" said a naked Luritja, passing his hand across his stomach. He meant hungry. It was his one English word.
They tell you tales here of how the herbage grows when the rain comes, of how the Finke rose in 1924 and all but swept away the Hermannsburg Mission buildings, of the natives waxing fat on euro and wallaby and rabbit (the rabbit has come as far as this); and you watch the shifting sands where no wild thing moves, you gaze at the depression which is the dry bed of the river, and you wonder if it can be true.
Bright day succeeds bright day, the nights are fresh, the dawns as lovely as one could wish, the sunsets a rich yellowing of the cloudless horizon. Every morning the south-east wind goes about its business of making sand ridges, the Hermannsberg glows red in the sun; there is no suggestion that rain has ever fallen in this wilderness.
And, to complete the picture, across the Missionary Plain comes, slow pacing, a train of forty camels with tinkling bells and Mahomet Ali leading the way.
But the long-delayed rain must come at last and Old Man River be alive again. I caught myself singing at the thought of it:
Ol' Man River,
That of man River,
He must know somethin',
But don't say nothin',
He just keeps rollin',
He keeps on rollin'
Yes! the Finke is running! And what does that mean to most of the seven million (or so) inhabitants of the continent it runs in? Nothing at all, for Australians generally do not know that such a river exists.
Yet it is the largest watercourse in Central Australia and its behaviour is of vital interest to those white people who have settled near it, to say nothing of many native tribes. The Arunta nation called it Larapinta, meaning "flowing water," and Baldwin Spencer suggested that a fitting name for Central Australia would be Larapinta Land.
J. J. Waldron, who did a great deal of exploratory work in that region, estimates the length of the Finke as at least a thousand miles, but states that the whole of its course has never been followed. Surely no more extraordinary stream exists. The geologist may know the reason, but to the layman it is hard to understand why a river should run at a chain of mountains instead of from it. The Finke is like the Irishman of legend—wherever it sees a head it hits it! Rising to the north of the Macdonnell Ranges, that great east to west barrier, the Finke accepts the challenge, hurls itself at the most formidable parts and eventually emerges on the south side through gorges of great beauty which it has cut in passing.
Then it wanders off into the wilderness and, as an aviator reported recently, "when last seen it was heading for Lake Eyre."
When I first stood in the bed of the Finke at Hermannsburg it held everything a river should have, except water. No Sahara was ever drier than this wide, irregular depression paved with sand and stones. On the high banks and on scattered ridges grew some fine red-gums. Flood-marks showed here and there, but not a drop of moisture—the last rain had fallen years before! The nearest water was five miles away at the Korporilya Spring. It doubtless supplied the few small birds which twittered in the trees, and the crows which cawed perpetually about the mission station.
"You eatem crow?" I asked one of the Arunta tribe. "Aua," he replied, signifying that he did, when he could catch them. They looked anything but edible; I felt like the American who said he could eat crow but he "didn't hanker arter it."
It was from the bed of the Finke, where I was watching the ceremonial dances of a group of naked Luritjas, that I was suddenly transported to childhood days in a Victorian country town. Through the monotonous chant of the old men, and the clack of the sticks and stones with which they were beating time, came breaking in the liquid "tip-tip-top-of-the-wattle" of a Crested Bell-bird's song.
At the famous Glen Helen Gorge, too, the magic carpet of memory operated once more at the call of a bird. The Finke has formed a deep brackish pool there by the foot of tall cliffs—so deep that even a five years' drought could not exhaust it. A bunch of reeds grows at the edge and, as we paused, a Reed Warbler gave voice, at our very feet, to that wild, compelling song of his, all rapture, that may be heard any spring by the Henley lawn on the Yarra near Melbourne.
A third bird-note was also a home voice in strange surroundings. That wonder-spot of the Centre, Palm Valley, is, we are told, a reminder that once upon a time climatic conditions were very different in the heart of Australia from what we know to-day. Exploring its delightful groves and luxuriating in its pools of fresh water under tropical growths we saw the flutter of a wing and next moment came the melody of Harmonica, the grey thrush of our Victorian bush, or a very close relative.
To reach that valley we followed the Finke in its cutting through the James Range and later, on camels, travelled down its bed for a good many miles. Save in the Valley, nowhere was there water; but in the long windings between the hills were numberless places suitable, it would seem, for embankments to conserve supplies of the precious liquid when rain actually came and the river was a river in something more than name. Water conservation is surely the cure for most of the serious troubles of the Centre.
Our camels paced solemnly along, making us marvel at the toughness of their lips and tongues as they snatched mouthfuls of thorny bushes, and slowly the panorama unfolded of sand and stones under high cliffs weathered into the quaintest shapes. Here was mulga, there a hillside of spinifex with good samples of eucalypts, their size suggesting that somewhere below the arid surface lay nourishment to their liking. At the entrances to gullies between Palm Valley and the Glen of Palms were occasional sentinels or groups of Livistona Mariae, the palm peculiar to these regions, and the smaller Zamia palm frequently hung from rocky crevices. A few fig-trees made a change of green at a crossing.
Occasionally a bird would call or be seen. Commonly it was the Mudlark, but now and then it was a parrot, hard to identify, a Willy Wagtail (the "titchi-ritchi-ritchi-ra" of the natives) with all the impudence of his southern relatives, or a hawk. Once we flushed a pair of quail, but bird life was not plentiful and of euro or kangaroo or wallaby we saw little trace. The noticeable tracks were those of the large goanna called by the natives pirinti. At a spring we saw the backbone of one of these reptiles—all that had been left by the blackfellow who had eaten him.
By the Lartna-tree near the Willy Wagtail Spring we passed a night that I shall long remember. A lengthy search for water had ended happily at this pool. The camels, hobbled, had been turned loose to pick up what they could; the little fire of Terence, an Arunta man, glowed in the young dusk; behind us stood, in solemn grandeur, grotesque peaks and turrets, their crests warm-red in the last of the sunset; before us rose a hillside which changed from grey to gold as the moon climbed up and flooded the heavens with soft light. The earth was warm and dry, the air crisp and cool; the tinkling camel-bells made a lullaby; we slept till the dawn came up even more beautiful than the night.
But the rain has come, and where our camels made their broad tracks on the windblown drift the welcome waters are racing, while along the banks the green herbage is rushing astonishingly to its full stature. The cattleman is rejoicing, despite his depleted herds, for here is his means of living restored to him, and the blackfellow will no longer know hunger with the immediate reappearance (miraculous beyond belief) of fish and frogs and other vanished game. Moreover he may now defy the dreaded scurvy which took such a toll one year owing to the absence of vegetable foods.
Old Man River don't say nothin' but he certainly does know somethin'. When the Finke moves he works miracles.
When Professor Porteus and I made our first trip we used the railway as far as Alice Springs, roughly a thousand miles north of Adelaide, before hiring a motor-truck to take us some ninety miles west. That meant a South Australian train as far as Quorn, a comfortable little town sitting at the foot of the Flinders Range, and there changing into a Commonwealth train, which completed the journey in another two days and three nights of continuous going. Our fellow passengers were an education in this new world of the Inland. A brown-faced constable of police was returning from a vacation spent at the distant seaside—we learnt that his "beat" covered many hundreds of miles and that a single case might keep him away from headquarters and in the field for two or three months at a time a couple of prospectors had been to the city to float a silver-lead proposition—the only trouble being that the mine was 300 miles from the nearest water; a Catholic priest was taking this 2000 mile route to Darwin—the "top end" as Darwin is always named in the Centre; several doggers dropped off at lonely stations to resume their pursuit of the dingo—7s. 6d. apiece is paid for scalps; late one night we delivered a sleepy schoolboy to his parents—the lad had come some 900 miles to be at home for the holidays; cattlemen talked of droughts and good seasons, opal gougers of the luck of that calling, mica miners spoke of the getting of their curious mineral and the difficulties of its carriage from the Jervois Range, and elsewhere, to the railhead—it was truly a new world we had entered.
We passed through Marree (Hergott Springs), still largely the home of the camel, we reached the Lake Eyre basin, that vast depression which is lower than sea-level, then we started to climb towards the blue Macdonnell Ranges, standing, an east-west barrier 300 miles long, right across the fairway. Heavitree Gap, cut by the Todd River, lets the traffic through, and two miles to the north of the Gap is Alice Springs. The Alice is only a few miles from the Tropic of Capricorn but the snug little township, cuddled by the hills about it, is some 2000 feet above sea-level, so knows frosts as well as a tropical sun. I have seen the water frozen there in May and I recall the experience of one of my friends who, camping in that neighbourhood, put his false teeth in his quart-pot for the night and found them in the morning grinning at him through a couple of inches of ice.
The Dry Bed of the Finke River
The Finke In Flood Near Hermannsburg
I fell in love with the Macdonnells. The best season in which to see them is winter. Here is a note written on the spot in that season (May 1934), a note which does all too little justice to their rare charm:
For early morning beauty I am prepared to
uphold the claim of the Macdonnell Ranges against the rest of the
world. It is true that I have not seen the rest of the world, but I
feel in this matter much as the old physician did about the
strawberry: "Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but
doubtless He never did." Looking up from my writing for another
view before the splendour fades, my first impression becomes
conviction that surely nothing better than this has been
We are camped on a flat between the public well and the railway line. Behind us, to the north, lies the township of Alice Springs, capital of Central Australia, about half a mile away. Roosters are crowing there, and a drift of white smoke from the first of the breakfast fires is spreading slowly down the valley of the Todd, scarcely moving, and keeping very low. Fine white-stemmed gums in the middle distance add greatly to the value of the picture.
But it is to the south that we turn with assured expectation, for we have been here now five days, and no morning yet has disappointed us. Some two miles away is the great wall of rock pierced by the gateway known as Heavitree Gap, and ending, from this aspect, with the abrupt peak of Mount Gillen. It is Gillen who first sees the sun. The flat is still in shadow, there is no hint of colour at our level, when Gillen suddenly flushes pink—like the Sultan's turret he has been caught in a "noose of light." Rapidly the glow extends. Between looking down and looking up, the crest of the range has reddened from end to end and the pure tone is flowing downwards to the base. Now the whole line of the mountain is rose-pink, shining as if lighted from within.
Not a breath of air is stirring. The trees stand as if asleep. In keeping with the peace of the scene a Jackeroo Bird, the mellowest singer of them all, pipes a few perfect flute calls, and a near-by magpie croons quietly as if for his own private ear.
A crow strikes an unexpected note of humour. Crows are everywhere about the outskirts of the town, white-eyed, well groomed, always hungry. A capable musician should compose the Song of the Crow: it is astonishing the variety of notes the bird has. This one is apparently attempting a rendering of "Hark, Hark the Lark!" He gets as far as "Ar-cark-ca-cark," but wisely stops at that. My sympathy goes out to a bird with such ambitions and such a voice!
One of the taller trees has caught the light and all at once our shadows lie stretched on the ground before us—the sun is here! From far away comes the noisy gossip of a large flock of Galahs. Louder it grows until they are passing right above us, heading, every morning, towards the Gap. When they fly high their wings fairly twinkle and they flutter like pink petals against the blue. Almost invariably a few drop lower to examine us and, as they settle, the dead bough they have chosen seems suddenly to have flowered. With much arching of crests and sotto voce remarks they stay for awhile, then, as one bird, they depart. We thought Galahs could not fly without shrieking, but sometimes an alarm call is sounded, the babel is hushed instantly, and the flock swoops low between the trees, travelling fast and silently for some distance.
Bird life is fairly plentiful, though this has been a dry season in the Centre. Black Cockatoos flap heavily along, creaking like rusty gates, a Whistling Eagle calls not unmusically, and sails by on steady wing, the Crested Bell-bird, most ventriloquial of singers, defies you to say whether he is near or far, those handsome creatures the Ulbujas, better known as the Port Lincoln Parrots, display their sleek dark heads and golden collars as they feed in the higher branches, Babblers make strange cat-calls, hopping distractedly about as they do so, trim Soldier-birds come fearlessly for scraps, and Red-eared Finches wheeze in their funny asthmatic way, often alighting within a few feet of us.
A soft tinkling comes from the rear. We turn to see a luminous cloud against the eastern light, the dust raised by the sharp hooves of the town herd of goats. Very picturesque they arelong-horned and long-bearded Billys, sedate matrons, frolicsome kids—of every age and every colour. Marching placidly with them are a few sheep and, moving them on as they would pause to snatch a mouthful here and there, are two aboriginal women, walking with the ease and grace of carriage for which these people are famous. They call to their charges and to their three dogs in rapid, soft Arunta, and the herd passes, in a golden haze, to feed somewhere to the west and return at sundown.
A Glimpse of Palm Valley
The Alice is awake. Domestic sounds come from
the dwellings to remind us of the homes we have left a thousand
miles away. To close the eyes for a moment is to forget that the
city is no longer with us; to open them is to see a team of camels
stalking solemnly past.
But the range—the range is the thing! You turn to find that the warm glory has gone; a new tone has taken its place. The whole long line of hill has come forward a step; every detail of rock and tree is now so plain in the clear air that you doubt the knowledge that they are so far away. Presently the colour will change again and towards the end of what, to Alice Springs, is a typical winter day, bright and sunny, the bold escarpments will take on a faint powdered blue which grows deeper and richer until they are no longer a definite mountain chain, but merely a sombre line at which the stars cease.
Only one thing is more beautiful than the fading light of evening: it is the miracle of the morning.
Good as the travelling is on the homely and friendly Commonwealth train, where the officials treat you as a long-lost brother, yet the best way to make intimate contact with the Inland is by motor-car. With it you may stop where you like and as long as you like and, best of all, you may see the folk of the solitary stations in their home surroundings and are afforded opportunity really to know a people who are surely the most hospitable in the world. Naturally you halt your car at each one of these outposts. Until that first unfortunate gold rush to The Granites drew a host of undisciplined people along the tracks—people who thought it proper to shoot at every creature that moved and whose general behaviour was, to put it mildly, boisterous—until the back-country people had that experience they welcomed all who passed. To-day the memory of the sorry invasion is dying and again the traveller is esteemed. I have called at a house intending to stay an hour and have found myself still there at the end of the next day. The people are kindness itself and there are often evidences of culture which one does not expect to see so far removed from towns. Good pictures on the walls, nice china and glassware, a library that would be notable in any city home—these are no unusual objects where difficulties of carriage alone would seem to forbid the possibility of their presence.
But the train is by far the easier way, if only because it provides meals and beds and no difficulties. In the car you must carry extra water, extra petrol and much food and be prepared to sleep in the open. Rivers whose dry beds are full of sand and stones, and sandy ridges rising one behind the other in quick succession, are obstacles which compel respect and occasionally beat the car completely. The country is so big, too. Very few people, including the native-born Australians, seem to realize its size and that in it one may easily be hundreds of miles away from the next human being.
Most Australians, of course, live on the edge; they know little or nothing of the interior. It is so vast that the quoted figures are difficult to grasp. To say that twenty-five Englands could be dropped into the Commonwealth without occupying all the room is impressive enough, perhaps, as is the equally true statement that Australia is of almost the same area as the United States. But those assertions evoke only a mild wonder. They produce much the same effect as is gained by saying, what is also true, that there are cattle-and sheep-stations which contain 10,000 square miles of country, or that on one of these stations 160,000 sheep are shorn.
It will be remembered that Mrs Aeneas Gunn records in that splendid book We of the Never Never that as her station home on the Elsey was first sighted by her "we had left our front gate forty-five miles behind us." The word "gate" is used metaphorically. One may travel many hundreds of miles over leased or freehold country without encountering a fence. To the passer-by there are two prime mysteries—how the proprietors know their boundaries, and how the stock on adjoining runs are kept separate. There is a key, to each of these conundrums, and every bushman possesses it.
A motorist who departs from the beaten track in the Inland does so with a certain amount of risk. In a journey of 4000 miles, which embraced some unusual places, we calculated that eighty per cent, at least, of the going might be classed as good. But in the remaining twenty per cent were some bad patches. A breakdown fifty or a hundred miles from the nearest house may be very serious. One can easily understand why some routes are labelled on the maps "Two-car tracks." Safety first would be one way of translating that; elaborated, it means that two cars would probably get through where one might stick.
A car driven by a Sydney woman, whose sole companion was her daughter, came to a full stop at the Arthur River in the Jervois Range. Nothing would make it go. A lonelier spot could hardly have been chosen. The girl, with great courage, set out on a walk of thirty miles to the nearest house, accompanied only by a dog. Strangely, in that unpeopled place, she met a man. He was a blackfellow, an aboriginal who—we were told on passing through—had escaped from an island prison in another State and had wandered thus far inland. Whatever had been his misdemeanour it could not have been of a very harmful character, for he took the girl in charge and proved a veritable good Samaritan. She arrived at her destination and a car was sent out which retrieved the other.
The owner was lucky. The Arthur River is notoriously difficult to cross. There is a double channel and, as we saw it then, it was waterless and deep in sand. A steep descent, a smart dash across a short channel, an equally steep pull out, and we found ourselves on a narrow neck overlooking the next and much wider river bottom. It was most discouragingly strewn with discarded coco-nut matting and narrow strips of wire-netting, the relics of struggles by other cars to traverse this slough of despond. Moreover, to depress us further, a serviceable double-seater car stood melancholy, deserted, about two-thirds of the way across. We tried to take the sand in a rush, using some of the old netting at the first of it, but within a few more yards the wheels were whizzing round without progress. Our two cars held eight people; with seven pushing and one at the wheel, we made the other bank. Then we repeated the operation—no easy one—with the second vehicle.
Section of the Macdonnell Ranges, Near Alice Springs
Our most serious trouble was the breaking of an axle. That would be the end in most cases, but our driver had come prepared with spares. Moreover, he was an expert mechanic. Thoughtfully—or so we said—he had contrived that the smash should occur at the end of the day. We camped and he went to work, with assistance from others. By ten o'clock next morning we were on the road again. Forlorn indeed is the picture of a car, its fires extinct, its owners departed, standing on a wide gibber plain or in a belt of river sand or "bull-dust." We were to see several such derelicts, and each evoked speculation. Occasionally we were able to learn something of the history of the breakdown. For instance, the Ford that waited dustily on the side of a western Queensland track had been used in an attempt to convey a group to a dance at the distant township, but had acquired incurable tyre trouble. How the would-be revellers fared we could not discover, but we were told at the township that a rescue party was going out to recover the car "some day."
Irrecoverable was a weary-looking trailer from which most of the detachable parts had been taken. It was a depressing sight. Curiosity about it could not be satisfied. Nor was there any hint of the cause of the fire which had destroyed a large motor-car at a spot even more remote from human habitation. Whatever the cause, no one could suspect deliberate intent when the immediate penalty must be a desperately long tramp over dry plains before food and shelter could be reached. Perhaps the most likely vehicle to be rescued ultimately was a two-ton truck which had incautiously run into the overflow of a bore and become bogged. It appeared to be in excellent condition.
These casualties recalled that East and West sometimes meet in Central Australia. There are occasions when the camel, so early man's beast of burden, may be seen yoked to a motor-car, almost the latest of human devices in travel. Australia presses most forms of carriage into the service of His Majesty's mails. A line of cattle-stations on a certain inland river still greets a monthly mail borne on the backs of camels, which travel some 400 miles on each journey. Other parts rejoice in an air service. But the motor-truck and the motor-car are perhaps now the most used means of transport, replacing many a slow-moving camel team, which could cover no more than about thirty miles a day. That is all to the good, but the camel, which nothing short of flood can stop, has his revenge when that worst enemy of the internal combustion engine, the shifting desert sand, decides that the car shall not prevail for once. Then it is that the mailman is lucky if he can obtain the help of one or more of the ungainly beasts to haul him and his helpless car across the dry creek or over the sandy ridge.
On another car trip, this time with my friend S. R. Mitchell, well-known as a geologist, and a young friend of his named Ray Golland, we drove from Melbourne to Broken Hill and so to Marree. Some of the minor incidents of that journey have fixed themselves firmly in my memory.
We had come through the Flinders Range to find ourselves at Parachilna, a station on that great railway line which begins in Adelaide and ends under the shadow of the Macdonnell Ranges at Alice Springs. Swinging round, we headed for Marree, for there I had to catch train back to the greener south, while my two companions took the Birdsville track for Mulka. There had been no rain for many months. Sand alternated with gibber; vegetation was represented by occasional starved-looking trees. Coming as we had by dry back-country tracks where settlement was far to seek, we carried supplies of water against emergency, so the fact that the creek we reached at nightfall had no sign of moisture did not deter us from camping. We spread our sleeping-bags in its very bed. Above us was the bridge supporting the railway. It supported more than that; every space between the sleeper ends held a nest, some with eggs, some with young ones, while the parent birds flew twittering about protesting at our presence. With the falling of the night peace came again to the little colony, and our camp-fire seemed the only living thing in that immense area of earth and sky.
Heavitree Gap and Railway (Todd River), Alice Springs
The quiet was remarkable. Only when the city man reaches such solitudes does he realize that his customary life is spent amid ceaseless noise. The wounds of sound were healed by silence; we found ourselves instinctively speaking in low tones, adjusting ourselves to the surroundings. But from far and far away, scarce heard, there rose a murmur, so low as to suggest rumour rather than reality. We sat expectant, but it died away. Again it came, this time as a singing, a faint, faint singing in the rails overhead. "A train!" said someone. Content as we had been, here was an event, and we hurried out to see it. The railway there is as straight as a spear for more miles than the eye can follow. For long the noise gathered and grew before anything was visible, then a little eye opened and grew greater till it shone as a mighty headlight blinding us to what was behind it. With a roar the train passed by, and the rails fell gradually quieter till at last even the faint whispers ceased. We wondered what the nesting birds had thought of it! Doubtless they had grown accustomed to this recurring wonder. No sound came from their homes as we made our beds and settled to sleep.
Morning saw the miracle repeated which for us had never staled in these wide spaces of the interior. This time it was more impressive than ever. Stars were still showing as we woke, but the east was even then full of the promise of the dawn. A low haze made the surface of the earth a nebulous thing, a mystery; above it hung a small clear pool of light, the harbinger of the sun. But he was far below the horizon as yet, and we were to see, before he appeared, the preparations made for his advent. The green of emeralds and the glory of cloth of gold were spread before him, the colours so pure and fresh as to be the eternal despair of any, even the greatest, of our artists. Then royally he came, and at once, fully and wholly, the day was with us. Under that searching light the mists vanished and the land stood once more revealed as a desert. But that it is no true desert has been told by many, and we also were to be given proof that this sandy waste is a potential garden. Twenty-four hours after we left, the rain came; a fortnight to the day my companions returned to the same camping spot. The creek had subsided, the bed was as dry as before, but in the blackened ring which marked where our fire had been stood a plant, eighteen inches high, in full flower. Nature has to hurry here if the species is to be perpetuated.
By midday, after a pause to extract from a tyre what was surely the only headless bolt lying on the track in the whole 2000 miles between Adelaide and Darwin, we saw Marree on the plain, and drew up to a civilized meal, a meal eaten at a table. There is little of the typically Australian in one side of Marree, for that portion is altogether Afghan. Camel-breeding and the carriage of goods by camel were for very many years the two industries of this township, once known as Hergott Springs. It is said that in its best days, before the motor-truck spoilt the carrying business, there were some 1500 camels about the place, and that a good beast was worth more than £100. Now they are, if not exactly a drug in the market, at least very easily obtainable. Indeed, they are running wild—"wild as rabbits," said the half-caste with whom I travelled on the homeward trip. He added that the authorities had found the strays such a nuisance that they had recently rounded up eighty of the big animals in a corner and shot the lot! In the main street of Marree I stood and gave a soured blessing to my friends as they turned the car on to the Birdsville track, hastening to overtake the mailman on his fortnightly trip. At a certain point he was usually assisted by camels to cross some bull-dust, and they hoped to share the assistance. They were too late, but they managed the crossing unaided.
I watched till their dust died down, then turned to the comfortable two-story hotel for dinner and bed. "At one stride came the dark," said Coleridge of the tropics, and twilight was very short here. By nine o'clock I was ready for sleep; the homeward train left very early next morning. I approached the landlord, "I'll do your room," said he, grasping what looked like a spray pump with a tin canister attached, and preceding me up the stairs. My bedroom, I noticed, had fine-mesh netting on the windows. Closing the door, mine host proceeded to spray, methodically and thoroughly, the walls and ceiling till the air was full of the highly volatile substance used. "There!" said he. "You'll have no mosquitoes now!" He was right. When he called me in the pitch black of earliest morning I had slept undisturbed, though this had been described to me in Melbourne as the worst place in the world for mosquitoes. Across rails and tripping wires I stumbled, burdened by a suitcase and a swag loaded with aboriginal implements, till the station loomed up, a still darker patch in the general blackness. Slowly, very slowly, the official world awoke. But there was still no glimmer of daybreak when the train rattled out of the yard. There was also no light in the carriage, so for many miles my two neighbours were no more to me than voices.
The gloom in which we sat gave us perfect conditions under which to watch the coming of the day. A thinning of the shadow on the eastern edge of the world was the first sign. An horizon became indicated. We grew aware of dark shapes of trees or little hills. The light extended upward, and the lower stars, brilliant till now, began to fade. Colour crept in, the faintest of pale ambers, so delicate as to be barely visible. It spread and deepened, and the sky above was, quite suddenly, a clear blue-green. The changing was so subtle that one knew it only in result and never by seeing the actual movement. Now the land was wholly in view, but with every harshness removed, a certain unreality, a soft greyness, wrapped tree and rock and level space. Even as we dwelt upon it, that, too, changed, and there was the sun, smiling upon a new earth. His coming seemed instantaneous; one moment he was out of sight, the next full-risen. It was then I knew what Kipling's soldier meant when he said: "the dawn comes up like thunder." What did the day matter after that? The south-easterly blew, the sand came filtering in to rob us of comfort, two passengers passed a convivial bottle round, each in turn drinking from its neck till some of the company were merrier than wise—these things were the ordinary incidents of daylight. We had seen the dawn!
No matter the mood in which you approach the amazing vastness of Central Australia you will not be human if that mood is not dominated by expectancy. After my four long trips I am still unsatisfied, still eager, still prepared for wonders.
The wonders do not always arrive: but what of that? Carlyle was not so much disturbed by the actual crowing of the cocks as by the waiting for them to crow. Anticipation and retrospect provide many of the keenest of our emotions. Always on the wide plains, their edges lost in the lakes of mirage, one knows that strange things are imminent, and even in their absence there is but little disillusionment; the sense of being is so keen that it carries over as reality.
But the natural wonders are truly many, wonders intruding themselves unexpectedly into an ordinary journey, and wonders to be deliberately sought out. This great island-continent was cut off from the rest of the world ages ago; the primeval creatures remain unchanged by intrusion and interminglings, remain at a stage in evolution long past and lost in every other land. Australia has been called a museum of living fossils and assuredly her most distinctive native creatures give colour to the term. The platypus, for instance, Nature's most freakish production, has the bill of a duck, lays a soft-shelled egg like a reptile's, has fur like a cat and suckles its young. One understands the state of mind of the new settler from overseas who described his first platypus as possessing a beak like a bird and "feathers like a 'possum."
You are unlikely to see this shy and mainly nocturnal animal on a trip to Central Australia; but kangaroos and wallabies, emus and bustards (known as wild turkeys), cockatoos and gaily feathered parrots in screeching flocks will be common sights, and at night the dingo, the native dog whose origin troubles the scientist so much, may perhaps be heard in high-pitched ululations, now near, now far, giving character to the lonely plains or the mulga forest. A characteristic of the dingo is that it does not bark.
It is a long road to the Inland from where the cities, and indeed most of Australia's population, are distributed along the coastline.
Varied as that long coastline is, it has nothing quite in keeping with the astonishing gaps and chasms which break the line of the Macdonnells and which are attracting more and more attention from tourists. With Alice Springs as a base, several of these great fissures may readily be visited—Standley Chasm is perhaps the most remarkable of them all. On our first visit, Professor Porteus and I found that this water-worn crevasse was still unnamed. We acted as godparents and called it Standley after the Mrs Standley who had been in charge of the half-caste home at the Jay River and had been the first white woman, we were told, to venture up this wild gorge. The naming was duly accepted by the authorities.
On the Inland way has been passed, but far out of sight over the western horizon, one of the greatest single stones in the world—Ayers Rock. It is a pebble lying all alone on the floor of a sandy desert, a pebble one and three-fifths of a mile long, seven-eighths of a mile wide and 1100 feet high. On the western side, too, are the Henbury Craters, deep holes created by a fall of meteorites in the far-off times before the white man came to those solitudes.
To visit places such as these needs special conveyance. Some may be reached by car, but to others the only way is by camel. The motor-car has done much to cut down distance in the Centre as elsewhere, and it was by car that we approached one of the strangest of settlements, a village of troglodytes which the aborigines have named Coober Pedy, "Coober" being, their word for "white fellow," and "Pedy" for "a hole in the ground." The map-makers call it the Stuart Range Opal Fields. The blackfellow title is the more descriptive, for here every one lives in a dug-out.
This was my second visit. I had been unfavourably impressed on the first occasion; this time I was accompanied by two artists, an oil painter and a water-colourist, who had also been there before and who assured me that I would live to repent my first judgment. They were right.
From our own little State of Victoria, down in the south-east corner, we had come to Coober Pedy by way of Port Augusta, a brisk town at the head of Spencer Gulf in the neighbouring State of South Australia. Here the east-west railway line begins in earnest its 1500 mile journey to Perth, the most westerly of the Australian capitals. One section of this line, by the way, crosses the Nullarbor Plains, a perfectly straight and perfectly level stretch for 300 miles. We followed this iron route for some 200 miles, then turned north, through cattle-station after cattle-station ("ranches" in America) whose unfenced boundaries cause the traveller to wonder what keeps the herds from mixing and how an owner identifies his beasts. Perhaps there is an explanation in the cryptic remark of a cattleman to whom I put that problem. "Well," said he, "it is not considered polite to visit your neighbour when he is mustering and branding!"
A seemingly limitless gibber plain gave us warning, with our local knowledge, that we were on the final stage of this portion of our journey. It is idle to look for the hills of the "Stuart Range;" you will find that this plain is the upper level and that the opal field lies in a valley carved out of the plateau. You go down to Coober Pedy, not up. It was dark when we reached the edge of the declivity on this latest occasion, but we knew the way and down we plunged, past the mouths of silent dug-outs in which never a light showed, past the one and only store, equally dark, round the dim bulk of a hill to the right, its curved summit outlined by the stars, and so to a fiat near the tank which the Government has provided as a water-supply.
But what was this! A row of lights shone, low down, a few hundred yards away, and there was a murmur of soft voices. Now Coober Pedy goes to bed with the fowls, so this was truly remarkable. The riddle was soon solved. Silently as a shadow falls, a man stepped out of the darkness into the circle of our firelight. He was an aboriginal: the tribe which at one time owned this as a hunting ground was on a "walkabout" and was revisiting its old haunts. For the next few days we were to see much of these poor dispossessed people, recipients now of the white man's bounty, beggars where formerly they were lords of the countryside.
Coober Pedy has no trees. That is one reason why there are no houses. Even firewood does not exist, unless the roots and tiny shrubs used by the aborigines may be so classed. We had carried wood many miles on the back of our car and had included every old discarded rubber tyre we could find along the track. Tyres produce a cheerful blaze. The month was May, beginning our Austral winter, and the nights were sharp with frost.
So we woke next morning to a tonic atmosphere, an air cold, dry and invigorating. Despite the dear skies there was no dew. Never have I changed an opinion so swiftly, or with such good cause, as when I looked round. The sun was just beginning to show behind the eastern bank; the valley was filled with a level light which transformed the torn earth until it appeared to have "suffered a sea change, into something new and strange." Every shade of soft pastel tone was represented in the dumps marking the shallow workings—pale mauves and pinks and creams and the faintest of blues and yellows, each taking its share of the light and returning it beautified tenfold. The grey-green hills sat all about "like giants at a hunting, chin upon hand," a worthy setting to a lovely scene.
There and then I recanted. I learnt, in a flash, why Stevenson could write of his Scottish moor:
Yet shall your ragged moor receive
The incomparable pomp of eve
And the cold glories of the dawn...
See Coober Pedy at dawn or at sunset if you would know the vivid charm of a strange place. The merciless light of midday reveals only too clearly the general bareness, the absence of vegetation, the scars and wounds inflicted by man in his endless search for wealth.
Alice Springs and the Wall of the Macdonnell Ranges
To our camp-fire at night came some of the old men who had drifted about many countries of the world in their more vigorous days and had now come to anchor in this harbour of hope—for to-day, if We may believe them, the place produces more hope than it does payable opal. We learnt much as they talked. Originally cattlemen found opal here as an outcrop. They worked it quietly, selling where they were little known and so keeping the field to themselves for a lucky period. When others followed their tracks the guide to the wealth below was still outcrop; later it was to be the "floater"—a piece of opal, commonly bleached to the whiteness of milk, lying loose upon the surface. Obviously these easily-moved fragments could not be altogether reliable guides, but they were better than to-day's complete absence of signs. "Now it is all stabbing in the dark," said one of our old gouger friends. "All guesswork; and you're either on it or off it—there's no in-between."
Anywhere you try in this 600 square miles of field might be good; every inhabitant assured us that there is still much virgin ground to test, and finds are still to be made. From a shallow hole one man had recently taken £200 worth of opal; on the other hand two men, working as partners, had sunk shafts aggregating 1700 feet and had put in 163 feet of drives, and for all that work, occupying many months, their return had been not more than £20. Opal, like gold, is sold by the ounce; but, unlike gold, there is a very wide range of values. "You might get threepence an ounce or you might get £50"—and we were not left in doubt that the highest-priced stuff is rarely found. It must have fire and clarity and pattern.
The deepest shaft in Coober Pedy is about sixty feet. The deeper it is found the more likely the opal is to crack and lose beauty as it comes to the light. Old Hungarian Joe, his tongue armed with the slang of the world, waved his pipe excitedly from the far side of the fire, as he told tales of the mines of his native country. There they sank hundreds of feet for the opal and took years to bring it to the surface, acclimatizing it, as it were, by resting it at various upward stages. Otherwise it would bleach and crack on exposure to the sun. With such generally shallow workings at Coober Pedy a man could work alone, and customarily did so, but occasionally there was a partnership. Sometimes a man would haul for another for the privilege of "lousing the dump," an inelegant but extremely expressive way of saying that he is allowed to take away any of the opal which has been unintentionally thrown out with the "potch" and worthless earth.
"Potch," by the way, suggests opal in the course of formation—"unripe opal," as someone called it. It is often charged with fire and shot with lovely blues and greens, but these do not gleam in shadow as true opal does.
The opal here is not the rarer "black" variety, which Americans purchase so readily when they visit Australia. That is obtained mainly from a smaller field, Lightning Ridge, in New South Wales. The buyers come from the capital cities, sit in the dug-outs and appraise the worth of the stuff offered, giving, of course, very little of the price at which they will eventually sell in their shops. I have seen a bespectacled elderly buyer bent over a table in his cave, gems spread before him, a pair of scales dimly seen at his side, the whole suggesting the old-world picture of The Miser.
Our friends told us that good finds are seldom made—but the buyers continue to visit! There are more discoveries, perhaps, than are confessed in a place where so many of the inhabitants are in receipt of aid from the Government in the form of "sustenance" or the old-age pension, aid liable to be withdrawn should there be any other source of income.
Crossing a Dry Lake-bed
Sea-shells are a curious product of this inland village. The nearest coastline to-day is some four hundred miles away, but the gouger's pick crashes into rich evidence that once this was ocean bed. A "sea change" indeed—no more arid scene could be imagined, but under that usually drought-stricken surface lie beaches once restless with the waves of ocean. How long ago? Who knows? The transformation of the shells into opal suggests periods which to man are vast indeed, but which to Nature are as yesterday. Farther inland, about the east side of Lake Eyre, are deposits of bones, all that remains of that giant herbivorous beast the diprotodon, long extinct, which once roamed in forests where now vegetation is unknown. And in the dry centre of the continent, surrounded by a wilderness which has none but desert plants, is a glen of palms; palms found nowhere else in the world, the final vestige of a tropical period.
Change, change, and ever change, but Nature, whose motto is Ohne hast, ohne rast, does her work so quietly that we think she sleeps, or that the end of change has come because Man has arrived.
To-day there are not more than forty persons on this field where formerly there were hundreds. The depression caught the gem trade early and it has not thoroughly recovered. Most of the people are elderly—"it is too costly to move away" we were often told. A few women remain and perhaps half a dozen children, their education carried on by the government system of correspondence tuition. The mother of a family of three has succeeded in establishing a community library—reading matter is more precious here than opal—and keeps it supplied by contact with Adelaide and Melbourne.
It is rash to fall ill. The nearest doctor and the nearest hospital are 400 bad bush miles away. At the time of my latest visit there was no telegraph or wireless; if a man became sick he had to rely upon the resources of the community medicine-chest and the layman knowledge of his mates. I ricked my back and was taken to the medicine dug-out in search for plasters. I had not seen the place before. "What are those boards?" I asked, indicating a neat pile. "They are for coffins," was the reply. In the absence of a magistrate or other law official the burial takes place first; the certificate of death comes later. The little cemetery holds half a dozen graves.
When times were better a meeting was called to secure erection of a hospital. Sufficient money was obtained to get the necessary dressed timber from the far-away city; it duly arrived, but no more money was forthcoming and enthusiasm had died. Gradually that timber melted away—most of it to line dwellings or prop up drives in the mines. To-day there is no trace of it above ground.
Looking up from our camp on the flat we see cuttings in the hillsides and know them to be homes. A drive straight-in leads to a room hollowed out of the earth, a curious soft pigmented earth which hardens by exposure to the air, so the ceiling requires no supports. Wood, as already said, is scarce: when a shelf or a couch or a seat is needed the wall is cut away down to the required height, leaving the piece of earthern furniture projecting. Light, the fierce white daylight of Coober Pedy, comes in from the doorway; a protected airway opening through the hilltop, or hillside, gives ventilation. As I wandered across a hill one day I saw a can standing on end. I walked over and looked into it, to be rewarded with a puff of smoke in my face. I was gazing down a cave-dweller's chimney!
The one official is the postmaster. He is also the representative of the Commonwealth Savings Bank. His duties consist in the main of selling stamps, making up the weekly mail and handing out the postal articles when the mail coach concludes its long journey on Saturday night or Sunday morning. His uniform appears to be composed of a sleeveless sweater and a pair of trousers. Obliging, cheerful, he is at your service whenever you can catch him, but that is when he is not away sharing the general occupation of the inhabitants. Like all the people of the back country these Coober Pedy folk are the soul of hospitality and the postmaster is no exception. His post office and bank are a dug-out, which, however, boasts a padlocked gate at its entrance. Thus, and by formal notices posted outside, does it proclaim itself a government institution.
It is said that a second reason for the dug-out as a residence is that the flies do not venture into its shadowed coolness. The old query, "Where do the flies go in winter?" is answered here. I have known plagues of the small house-fly in many places, but nowhere to equal what we found in Coober Pedy. From the first warm ray of sunshine in the early morning to well into the evening dusk they buzzed and crawled and bit. No mere waving of hands would disturb them from your face; you must literally pick them from your eyes. I had to write articles for a Melbourne newspaper; it was impossible in the open till I had placed a large gossamer veil over my head and tucked the ends well into the neck of my shirt all round. That left only my hands bare and I could work.
One of our party wrote a song about the flies of Coober Pedy. As it was produced while the insects were at their busiest it cannot appear in print. A line stated, cryptically, "There's not a single fly in Coober Pedy." The refrain explained that why there was not a single fly was because each and every one of them was married—and had a large family. The torment ceases, or at least is modified, they told us, with the advent of the severer frosts.
We had grown accustomed, as we had travelled over the seemingly endless plains, to the constant mirage on the horizon; constant yet ever-changing as we approached it. Sheets of placid water, with tree-clad edges, with bays and promontories and islands, with every sign of permanence, would dissolve into thin air, only to reappear in an altered form farther on. Lake Cadabirrawirracanna, a dry depression to the east of Coober Pedy, we named the Mother of Mirages, for every morning she presented us with a fresh deception. The most imposing was a sea on which floated two great battleships, the one stern on, the other presenting a side view. Even as we watched, these monsters wavered and passed, the sea rolled up as if the Resurrection trump had blown, and only the sandy waste remained—a stage from which the scenery had been completely withdrawn.
But the old men are sitting at the camp-fire this fine night and we listen to their tales. The oldest, Joe the Squeaker, is thin and dark, active despite his seventy years, perpetually smoking or waving his pipe to emphasize his points. His accent is markedly foreign; his speech is larded with strange oaths gathered in three continents and enriched by accretions gained in mining and cattle camps all over Australia. "By crabbie!" he will explode, and leave us in doubt as to what slang word he is parodying. As he warms to a subj ect his eyes light up, he rises and tramps restlessly about and his speech comes in a torrent of mixed slang hard to understand. He had struck it rich on a couple of occasions but had got no farther from Coober Pedy than a township where a hostelry was happy to welcome a digger with a pocketful of high-grade opal. "A feller was dere mit one of dose aerplanes," he remembered. Then, with vigour: "Had a few whiskies and I vent up. T'ought it would be a horrible feelin', but Lord! I vas too shick, too bletty full! You don't kit your aunt any more mit dem t'ings! One foot on de ole terry firma is goot enough for me—and de other not too bletty high!" It was on that bout that he found himself one night so shickered that he lost his way and slept where he lay down. "I yoke der nex' mornin' and a death adder he lie alongside me! By crabbie; he vake me up!"
Post Office and Commonwealth Savings Bank at Coober Pedy
So he came back to the field again—"only one store, only one butcher, only one everyt'ing!" as he summed it up. He spoke of a digger as having wasted his all on "slow horses" and added: "He's had more breakfas' times than what he's had breakfasts."
Joe's mate, sitting quietly on the other side of the cheerful blaze, is as reserved as Joe is boisterous. We are to learn that he has a passion for statistics and for accuracy of statement. He reads everything, but prefers serious books. He tells us the latitude and longitude of Coober Pedy, its distance from various better-populated parts, its height above sea level, its rainfall and its extremes of temperature; he branches off to recall the length of Australia's longest water-pipe line, mentions the year of its construction and the name of its engineer; he corrects, courteously but firmly, certain long-cherished beliefs of ours—his memory seems inexhaustible and infallible.
He, too, has travelled much. He has been completely round Australia by sea, and once he walked the 900 thirsty miles from Darwin to Alice Springs. With humour he spoke of his own early follies, with tolerance of those of others. Once in hospital in Darwin, just conscious after a severe bout of fever, he heard the doctor remark: "Well, God and I often have a struggle for a man: I've beaten Him this time!"
And so the talk drifts on. The discarded motor tyres we had retrieved along the track, and now burnt to save our firewood, have become circles of white ash, the full moon is high above us, and the soft chatter of our aboriginal neighbours has long since died away, but the flood of reminiscence has not spent itself. We warm our guests with coffee, and reluctantly we watch them go their several ways, each following his tiny path between the dumps to his lonely cave.
Steadily the dug-outs are emptying at Coober Pedy and the little graveyard is becoming fuller. At its present rate of decline this quaint settlement will soon be no longer a local habitation but only a name, a memory on the tongue of the present generation and a mere tale for posterity.
It is said that few Australians take to the sea, that the call which drew our forefathers round the watery world has but little appeal for us. That may be so, but the implication that the spirit of adventure has died in our generation is wholly false. Travel into the remote heart of this immense continent and you will find that our division of the "legion that never was listed" has merely turned its face landwise and is as busy as ever in its pursuit of the unknown.
Mining, of course, is one of its most notable manifestations. Opal attracts many; gold still more. The wilderness is being earnestly combed for gold and numberless "shows" will be bested in country so remote from settlement that the prospector literally takes his life in his hands in going there. The horse and the camel, particularly the camel, serve him well, and if he finds a payable field, the motor-truck will soon mark a track across the gibber and over the sandhills.
It was by such a track that we went to the mica mines in the Jervois Range, north-east of Alice Springs and not far from the western edge of Queensland. The visit was part of a long excursion which, at a respectful distance, circled Lake Eyre. These mines have long been worked, but the way is still far from being the easiest in the world to follow. The drivers, coming in with their loads to the railhead, are constantly seeking better river-crossings, safer or easier or shorter routes, and at times there is a confusion of pads to choose from, not all of them usable. It was easy enough while we were running along the great overland telegraph line, ant-hills punctuating the plain on either hand, but presently it was a course from well to well, from station to station, on sandy or red-soil plains or acres of white quartz pebbles. The season was good and occasionally the Mitchell grass rose about us six feet high. The Tropic of Capricorn was crossed and, contrary to all expectation, we were glad that night to wear overcoats as we sat about the campfire and gladder still to roll rugs about us as we curled up in the sleeping-bags.
Wonderful nights of stars they were, but cold, for the tableland is some 2000 feet above sea-level.
Finches swarmed at every well, each waterhole had its pair of Whistling Eagles, and the Kite, that friendly Autolycus of the back-blocks, hovered over all the station yards. The Galah seemed to be ever with us and so was his friend the Corella. One morning, waking at "piccaninny daylight," I smiled to recall Louis Esson's excellent definition of the bush day as "magpie to mopoke," for those two birds were calling together. They had overlapped; it was dark enough for one, and light enough for the other.
Occasionally a "turkey" (the Australian bustard) would stop eating grasshoppers to give us a haughty glance, both suspicious and disdainful; the Native Companion and the emu gazed with more curiosity than fear; and kangaroos seemed to regard the car as a pacing machine, for they would race parallel, or just in front, for miles.
Scraps of mica had become common along the track, sparkling at us as we passed, and presently there showed, well ahead, the collection of tents marking the Mica King Mine. It is the centre of what is surely the most remarkable landscape in the world. Everywhere were thousands of bright eyes watching us, myriads of heliographs flashed and winked and flashed again, the whole countryside was brilliant with quivering lights. Countless shining points were in the dust at our feet, on the floor of the valley stretching before us, and scattered along the opposing hillside; as the wind blew they trembled and shivered until the earth seemed alive.
Mica is obtained in "books," the layers (or leaves) of which are as thin as paper. It fractures easily; the camp was surrounded by the remains of broken and discarded sheets. Just as with paper, these fragments shook in every breeze and their glass-like surfaces threw back the sun in dazzling fashion. The Cock-eyed Bobs or Willy Willies (the Burramugga or Rooba-roobara of the aborigines) roar down the valley, flatten the tents, and pick up the loose mica to give a remarkable exhibition as the stuff is whirled sparkling into the heavens. "Jewelled in every hole," quoted someone. We were told that for hours after the passing of a whirlwind the flimsy sheets keep dropping slowly back to earth. Often the kites, ever watchful, dive at these floating scraps as possible food. "The finest thing we have about the place. They clean up all the scraps, bread, meat, anything," was the comment of the camp on the kites.
Kangaroos in Action
Restoration of a Diprotodon Skeleton
An open cut shows the original workings. From it goes down a slanting shaft which swallows greedily the blood-woods and other trees used to timber the drives. Two sturdy citizens, appropriately clad—that is with as few garments as need be—were handling the windlass, lowering the timber and raising the ore. From the crest of the ridge where they worked, the view stretched to infinity save on the western side where the main body of the Jervois Range formed the horizon.
We found this camp of the Mica King a home away from home. All but two of its denizens were from Melbourne. It was an instructive sight to see our public school lads, as several of them were, adapting themselves completely to such novel and difficult conditions.
Seated in a group apart, a tiny fire smouldering in the centre, were about a dozen blackfellows. Each was armed with a knife with which he cut flaws and imperfections from the sheets of mica. (All the waste mica, by the way, is destined eventually to be ground up into face powder. Looking at the wilderness about us, so far removed from any of the graces of civilization, it was hard to picture it in connexion with the dainty toilet-tables and daintier cheeks of Beauty.) These natives declared themselves, so far as one could understand their pidgin, to be of the "Louera" tribe, seemingly a division of the Arunta. Bearded, grave, their lithe legs doubled under them, they discoursed seriously as they did their job. They were just as willing as white people to knock off work to be photographed.
A baby kangaroo, still shaky on its little legs and bleating much like a very young lamb, was the well-protected pet of the camp, and a perfectly naked black boy, of about five years of age, a model of symmetry, seemed to share its popularity. The aboriginal mother of this small youth was camped in a dug-out half way up the hillside. We visited her in time to witness the family ablutions. The tableau presented could have passed for the advertisement of a well-known brand of soap. The boy stood by, a picture of shining cleanliness, while his sister, a few years older, knelt over a basin, her head and neck a mass of lather, the victim of a furious assault by the mother, who rubbed and scrubbed with vigour. Like all children in such case she protested as noisily as she dared, but the generous masses of the soap prevented any effective outcry. We were told that these youngsters were scrubbed regularly and at very frequent intervals.
Reluctantly we left this place of many interests (the camp's second name is surely Hospitality!) and turned our cars to the Queensland road. The Jervois Range, full of scenery which assuredly will someday attract the tourist, lay before us and then the long stock-route facing homewards.
Allow me to interpolate a chapter of sidelights on a journey made with two artist friends, they in search of landscapes, I on the track of fresh material for articles as well as fresh study of the aboriginal. They had no occasion for haste, and I was in the happy position of the retired man whose office cares were over, so we made progress in a proper way, that is, leisurely. We took about a month to reach Alice Springs, a journey commonly accomplished in a few days. With rich humour they assured me that they had hurried on my account! My retort was that I would advise any one desiring a foretaste of Eternity to go on a long trip with artists.
It was a delightful three months that I spent in their company and I left them with reluctance when I was recalled to Melbourne to organize the Art Exhibition for the Victorian Centenary Council. They were then busy, a couple of miles from Hermannsburg, putting the Krichauff Range and the Macdonnells on to canvas and surrounded by a horde of young aborigines from the Finke River Mission Station.
We had many adventures, the most startling one occurring when we had been barely a week in the field.
It was a lovely day. Young Winter was trying what he could do as a maker of charming weather, and his experiment had turned out a success. Sun and clouds combined to cast attractive patterns on the landscape, and a mild dash of rain brightened everything. Even Henrietta, our caravan, was affected. She fairly purred along the road and, for once, required no driving.
We were in South Australia, bound for the still distant Macdonnell Ranges. At our right was a railway line with which we were running a parallel course. Soft green hills drooped down to us on either hand, magpies warbled, a great flight of Galahs rose for a few minutes from their feeding and floated like a rosy cloud a few feet above the ground—never was there a more peaceful scene.
The two artists, as they sat beside me, broke into snatches of song, and my thoughts ran back home. There, in that far-away suburb of Melbourne, my son and I would often turn on the wireless before breakfast to enjoy a laugh at the "crooners." Some of their songs had evidently revenged themselves by lingering in my consciousness, for now I found myself, without at first realizing the fact, singing:
La-a-azy Bones, lyin' in the shade,
How do you expect to get your corn-meal made?
But, while I had the tune, I found that I could not recall any more of the words. That made it suddenly desirable. I appealed to the others, but they declared they had never heard of the song. "Well, it goes like this" said I—and the next moment Henrietta rose up like a startled horse, took a desperate dive with two wheels in the air and crashed over on her side.
People often speculate on their possible behaviour in times of stress. I was in a car once when a pair of bolting horses hit it from the rear and threw us all into a Sydney shop. Two plate-glass windows went with us. We landed right-side uppermost and still in the car. Our five passengers included two ladies and a small boy. There should, of course, have been screams, or at least loud exclamations. On the contrary there was dead silence for some seconds, silence during which I perused a label on the back of a sofa (we had landed in a furniture shop): "This handsome couch, reduced to 59s. 6d." A quiet voice from one of the ladies broke the spell: "I think we had better get out," it said.
In this new predicament was much the same apparent calm at first. Perhaps we were really too astonished to express our state of mind. As we tilted I recall saying to the driver, in tones of remonstrance, "Oh, Ja-ack!" but that was all, till the artist below me suggested that we had better get clear of the car for fear the petrol caught alight. That woke us up! The car was really a truck with a caravan perched on it. The one seat held the three of us. When the crash occurred Rex was underneath, I lay on top of him and Jack clung to the wheel, his heels dangling just over my head. Those heels twinkled out of sight at the word "alight," I scrambled after them and there we were, gazing at what seemed an immovable ruin. We found we had overturned on a railway crossing. Had we arranged it we could not have placed the car more exactly in the middle of the line.
The oil painter looked up the line and down the line, then without any warning he went mad—or so it seemed! He ran at Jack, snatched from his head a scarlet beret which sat jauntily and artistically there, and without a word set off at a run along the permanent way. We watched him in amazement. He appeared to be heading back for far-distant Victoria; only when his pace began to slacken did we grasp his idea. He was out to stop a possible train by holding up the red cap!
Back he came, as he realized that for all we knew the train might come the other way. No pushing or lifting had any effect on the caravan—the whole affair weighed some two tons—so we started to unload it. The worst of having a caravan instead of an ordinary car is its capacity for holding things. The trip was to last six months, during most of which we would be well away from civilization, so six months' stores, clothes, books, food, canvases, painting material, pots and pans, bedding, stools, motor spares, guns, rifles, cameras and numberless other articles necessary for such a lengthy excursion had to be taken out and piled on the roadside. The pile grew to astonishing heights—surely no caravan ever held it all! As we ran to and fro we noted with relief the strange fact that very little had been broken. Certainly a case of apples strewed the highway, and odds and ends of parcels, mysterious parcels some of them, had been spilt out in the dust. At last all was clear—but no, a brown paper bag still remained in the fairway. It looked to be empty and I raised my foot to kick it to the side. A good thing I didn't—it contained a set of false teeth!
Help came out of the blue. A truck stopped and the owner produced a fine new rope, a railway trolley arrived with a gang of willing men—in quick time Henrietta was again on her feet. Then we learnt that a train was overdue—delayed down the line somewhere!
The Brolga (Native Companion)
Thankfully we attended to Henrietta's bruises and abrasions and repacked her innumerable goods. But, thinking back over the adventurous days which were to follow, I cannot recall that any one of us ever again attempted to sing "La-a-azy Bones."
Later on we were to find that there was more damage than appeared on the surface. The steering gear went mad and at times the car would charge off the track, despite all efforts to control her, and burst wildly into the scrub. Sturdy mulga trees were occasionally smashed flat and we lived disturbed lives for a few days until we could effect repairs at a friendly cattle-station where there was not only an anvil but a kit of blacksmith's tools.
In one of the pauses I wrote a sketch which, by the way, to reach a Melbourne newspaper, had a ninety-mile journey on camel-back to a siding before it caught the fortnightly southbound train. I called it "Time to Stand and Stare," quoting W. H. Davies's
What is this life if, full of care,
We find no time to stand and stare!
At last I am actually able to live up to a
poet's ideal: I have time to stand and stare. Indeed, I have
improved upon his injunction: I am sitting to do my gazing. But
mind, this staring business may have its disadvantages.
It's all very well to have the time! What if you also have, as I have at the moment of writing, a thousand hungry flies, persistent as a canvasser, voracious as a shark, swarming into your eyes, crawling into your ears, refusing to be frightened from your hands—even the most ardent of poets would find his "stare" somewhat disturbed.
My seat is a petrol tin in the dry bed of the Coralella River (I think that is the way it is spelt; it is the sandy depression next that other sandy depression, the Hamilton River), so I am not far from the southern boundary of the Northern Territory. In this month of May the nights are cool—the temperature was 37 degrees Fahrenheit this morning before the sun rose—but the sun is distinctly warm. To-day may be classed as hot.
My two artist friends, Messrs Battarbee and Gardner, are not painting, though the huge white gums which adorn the river bed and so miraculously withstand the recurring droughts must tempt them sorely. They are engaged in one of those mysterious operations, which, it appears, most caravans call for from time to time in such rough country. Gadgets of various kinds are strewn about, and the water-colourist should certainly change his medium, he is so oily. He has discovered that Henrietta's steering gear is out of order (Henrietta is our car's Christian name; she is Henrietta Ford in full), and he has contrived to get most of the black grease of the inside works on to his hands and arms.
"Treat 'em rough!" he says, and bangs with a hammer. Possibly he has in mind the old saw:
"A woman, a spaniel, and a walnut tree—
The more you beat them the better they be!"
We have been on the road almost a month. "Time
to stand and stare" indeed! We left old man Hurry behind when we
left Melbourne, and he has not caught up to us since. We stop when
we like, where we like, and as long as we like, and so far we have
had a united mind about such matters. That mind has been to stop
often and stay long.
Coober Pedy, for instance. An hour there satisfies the tourist passing, as we are, on his way to Alice Springs, because the tourist lives up to a time schedule.
We arrived one evening after dark; it was three days before we left. Happy days, each one of them. The clustering dumps on the grey-green hillsides are opal-tinted when the sun is low: Nature has used soft pastels to adorn this barren valley. Here the artists had spent weeks two years before, and our days were passed in visiting the friends they had made and listening to tales of that most fascinating of all the gems (it is surely the most varied)—the opal. And at night the old men gathered at our camp-fire and talked till the moon rose to light them on the narrow paths between the shafts to the dug-outs they call home.
Just now a loaded car has passed. It stopped long enough to disclose an M.H.R. visiting his constituency. His district is some 600 miles long, and presumably is wide in proportion. He has no time to stand and stare; even as I write he is no more than a cloud of dust in the distance.
Every day has been fine. Henrietta never hurries, but even at that we slow her down at the edge of a gibber rise that we may miss nothing at all of "the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended," which has moved not only poets like Paterson, but scientists like Gregory to admiration. The gibber itself, stones of every size and colour, is full of interest, but it is the sandy track which we watch the most, for on it are the records of every creature that has walked, crawled, or hopped across it. A camel's plate-like pad comes in, and we speculate upon his coming and going; a snake has had a dust-bath there; a kangaroo's tail made those depressions while he idled here; those broad arrows were impressed by an emu's foot—we wonder if the dingo, whose deeply indented toe-marks show that he was in a hurry, was after that emu.
But night is best in these solitudes. The camp-fire lights up the whispering mulgas that stand round; the air scarcely moves; the galaxy sparkles with, fittingly enough, the great constellation of the emu defined—an outstanding figure as he thrusts his head into the cross and sweeps his dark body to the horizon.
That is the time to stare; you watch the myriad lights till sleep dims your eyes—and lo! it is morning again.
Yes, the night time is often the best time in these solitudes. A camp on a quiet evening by a waterhole is always enjoyable after a day of travel. We would boil the billy and cook a meal, then would come the inevitable yarn as we stretched out on our "naps" by the fire till sleep drove us under the blankets.
The fire is the very heart of such a camp. Outside the circle of its radiance is the wilderness; within is home. Just occasionally was there trouble in picking a suitable spot when that must be in the mulga or out on a plain. Water we carried on the car; wood might be the missing requisite. We came close to being fireless one night. Temperamental Henrietta had been doing well that day, she was in one of her best moods. She almost sang as she tackled the long stony rise from the saltpans at Wirrappa in South Australia to the tableland, and my two artist friends once more broke into carefree ballads that reflected her change of heart. Steadily we rose. Looking back we saw a bunch of houses making mushroom-like dots on the vast floor of the valley; the only sign of human occupation in the whole wide view.
Behind the houses rose a line of hills with a gap through which shone a false sea, an ocean of mirage, and on the right was a veritable island, a blue cone, perfect in contour, standing in the middle of a great dry lake of salt that glistened like snow.
Tradition has it that this "island" cannot be reached. Detail in support is the tale of the teamster who set out for the spot with camels, and he and the camels have not been seen since! Another bushman said he would walk to it; he walked all day and got no nearer!
Turning from this beautiful deceiver we faced an immense gibber plain. Over it the track ran, a narrow twisting track which snaked away and was lost to sight almost at once in the innumerable stones strewn everywhere about. "Gibber" (the "g" as in "give") means stone: never was a plain better named than this one. During the next 600 miles of our journey we were to cross many more of these plains, differing from each other only in the colour of the stones or in their sizes.
Someone suggested that this was probably the place to which good mathematicians go when they die, their enjoyable job being to calculate the number of stones of each colour. Judging by what we saw, this should easily occupy Eternity.
Should the contract exceed the period allotted, classification by size, shape and material could be added to it. Greater diversity could not be imagined. Miles of purple stones, miles of red, of black, white, grey, yellow, cream and mauve, and often, towering above them, astonishing flat-topped "residuals"—rocky hills which someday will descend, as their fellows did before them, to the gibber stage. Gazing at the scene one thought of the Scriptural: "Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low."
But we had come to this first plain late in the afternoon. Although the days were warm we knew, camping as we had been from night to night, that the evenings could be cold. Where was the wood for that very necessary thing—our fire? Treeless, and bare of all vegetation save a little stunted saltbush, the prospect ahead was not promising. That prospect was wide indeed. We had not yet advanced so far north as to have left all fences behind and we were to learn that the paddock we had just entered was one hundred square miles in extent. "There's only one tree in it," said our informant. "It's in a corner, and it has a bird's nest in it." Our natural wonder was where the other birds of that countryside found nesting places!
A kangaroo sat solitary on the stones, looking very large where all was so flat. As a missionary remarked at Alice Springs: "An empty beer-bottle on those plains amounts to a change of scenery!" We left the marsupial to his meditations and hurried on.
Some sandy stretches gave us hope, but the sun was still up and we did not stop. Immediately came another flat world, this time seemingly limitless. Out on its immensity we witnessed the phenomenon of a perfectly level horizon the whole way round. Nothing at all, whether tree, shrub, rock or hill, broke its evenness. The setting sun was cut sharply across by the straight line, seemed to hesitate a moment, then plunged out of sight.
Instantly came the dark, just as with the Ancient Mariner. We pushed Henrietta as much as we dared, we leaned forward and peered earnestly at every extra-dark object, we saw trees where there were none, and other familiar objects suffered a night change further to deceive us. "Timber at last!" called someone and pointed to where the horizon ahead hid the stars. Yes, something broke the dim skyline, but when we came to it the something was no more than a single small bush which looked large in the general flatness. It was distinguished on the principle that amongst the blind the one-eyed is king.
We grew hungrier and silent. Still Henrietta rattled along, still the darkness swallowed the world, the air grew chillier—hang it! we must camp even if there were nothing better than roots to burn. "There's an old dry lake about here somewhere," said the driver. "Woa! Henrietta!" and we stopped and clambered down. We found we were on the far edge of the gibber, sand was replacing stone—"we'll push on a bit" was the verdict. So away we went once more, hungrier than ever, ready to camp at the first excuse. It came almost at once in the shape of a patch of mulga.
Twenty minutes later there was that peace which comes of a good camp-fire, a good meal, and a good cup of tea; while all about us was that wonderful silence which dwells in our spacious solitudes, a silence in which you can hear your heart beat. (Nature, by the way, made a mistake with that gibber. Instead of spreading those broken stones over the Inland she should have dumped them in our suburbs for the municipalities to make roads with. They are wasted where they are.)
But there were other nights, not quite so peaceful.
It is said that a city never sleeps. That is much truer of the bush. As the dark puts an end to the activities of the day creatures, another great army stirs and comes from its hiding places to keep going, without perceptible break, that merry game of Life and Death in which we are all engaged.
Doubtless there are nocturnal animals in Australia of which man knows nothing—little secret things, voiceless, furtive in their habits, never exercising save in the comparative safety of darkness. But there are many others which advertise themselves by voice or deed, and from some of these, harmless as they generally are, the traveller in lonely places may, if only for a moment, know a thrill as great as if he heard a lion roar. Walking at midnight, in Victoria, tired and half asleep, I have leaped round with gun upraised because a curlew has suddenly uttered its bloodcurdling wail beside me. I have stopped dead, too, at the frightened scream of an unseen koala. The time and the place produce the effect quite as much as does the noise itself.
In these trips to Central Australia, it was usually the unexpected which made us really interested in the night cries.
The dingoes contributed the most exciting item. We had heard them, solo and chorus, many times as we camped in their hunting grounds, and occasionally they had come pretty close.
Now there is a certain romance about the distant calls of a pack, but when you are wakened by the yell of a very large wild dog and find him standing but a few yards from your bed, that is much too near to suggest poetry. Rather it suggests the urgent need for a gun. So it was at a camp in the Ellery Creek Gorge. We were sleeping by the fire one moment, the next we were sitting upright with this appalling shriek ringing in our ears. The moon was at the full; in the clear light stood the dingo, less than fifty feet away, regarding us with smouldering eyes. He raised his head and howled again; the echoes took it up and two more dogs broke into despairing howls on the other side of us. The next moment with a whoof! (the nearest approach to a bark which I have heard from a wild dog) he had gone like a shadow.
The tracks in the morning showed that three dogs, one a particularly fine specimen, had passed through the camp, between the fire where we lay and the car in which the third member of the party slept.
The Central Australian gorges have a greater variety and volume of wild life than would be suspected by one who merely travels along them and notes their rocky sides and sandy beds. To stay in them for a week is to discover an interesting day population, and to realize that there is an even more interesting body of nocturnal animals. Game tracks were everywhere in that Ellery Creek Gorge, all ending in the one rock pool where water was still to be had. In that small pool, by the way, were some fair-sized fish, wily veterans who refused to take any bait, however enticing, and who just as definitely declined to visit the shallows where they might be speared, native fashion. Their younger relatives, however, were more obliging and during a ten days sojourn in the gorge, but largely owing to certain pools in the near-by Finke, we had that most unlikely thing in such a dry country, five meals of fresh fish. After one rod had landed sixty-one perch, yellow-belly and bream, the successful fisherman suggested the formation of an Inland Fish Supply Company!
The Fish Hawk was constantly with us, uttering that whistling call or his, which is at once challenging and mournful. He is a lordly bird on the wing, but, for his dignity's sake he should never descend to earth. It is then that you discover that he wears feather trousers of the Oxford type, too wide for elegance. He walks, too, as if they chafed him.
Pool in the Finke at Henbury Station
He and the crow (a white-eyed, sad-voiced creature who is possibly of the short-billed variety) were the only diurnal birds of prey that we observed at this camp, but strange screeches in the dark indicated that several varieties of owl were operating in the neighbourhood. High cliffs, with caves and crevices innumerable, formed the walls of the gorge and afforded homes for many creatures, including the bats which did such remarkable aerial gymnastics every evening between us and the western sky.
Parrots are not usually regarded as birds of the darkness, but we were in a countryside where one, at least, of the family is credited with nocturnal habits. He is known indeed as the Night Parrot (Geopsittacus occidentalis) and, naturally enough, he is one of the rarest of Australian birds. His home is said to be in the porcupine grass; there was abundance of the prickly tussocks about the crest of the rises.
On two occasions, late at night, we heard bird-calls which we could not associate with any night-bird known to us, and which very definitely suggested the cry of a parrot.
Since a certain expedition a few years ago, the Night Parrot has interested the bushmen, and they are watching for it. Aborigines are also taking a hand in the pursuit of this elusive bird. An observant station owner, who has a fine aviary at his homestead, pointed out the large eyes of the Bourke Parrots and said that these parrots assuredly fly by night. He had camped at waterholes and noted that the Bourkes always came to drink after darkness had set in. They would arrive in a flock, and with them, quite often, would be a single bird, or perhaps a couple, with a different beat of wing. They could not be seen, of course—it was only his keen ears, trained to recognize every bush sound, that could distinguish something strange. This happened repeatedly. The Night Parrot is so commonly alone, on the rare occasions when he is seen, that the bushmen have named him the Solitaire, so it is quite possible that the individual bird which joins the Bourkes in their evening drink is Geopsittacus.
Another native of the Inland, commonly called the Elegant Parrot, is also largely nocturnal of habit. A pair kept in an aviary had to be removed because they flew about the cage so much after dark that the other birds could not rest.
None of these parrots were definitely visitors to our Ellery camp. To lie quiet there was to find the valley gradually wakening to a stealthy life, a life which seemed to be all adventure. The stones in the creek would be stirred, not to a rattling, but to a sibilant sound as the feet of rabbits and other small animals touched them lightly; a kangaroo would introduce a new note as he dragged himself gently over the sand with tail depressed (we would see his pad next day); a crash of rocks would betray where a euro had made a bad landing as he scaled the craggy hillside, or there would come the thump! thump! of one of the tribe racing across the flat. Titchi-ritchi-ritchi-ra, the wagtail, might raise a sleepy song, and the mewing of a cat, the tame cat gone wild to become the most destructive of prowlers, might add to these bush surroundings an unexpected touch of the city. The whole place, between the great red residuals, would be filled with gentle whispering noise until, faint and far and almost musical, or near and menacing, would sound the agonized cry of the hunting pack, and for a few moments all would be still.
Often the dingoes were the first to announce the dusk. Frequently they closed the night's proceedings. Their day ended with the coming of the dawn and, wailing always as though life held nothing for them but misery, they passed to their lairs.
For reasons not wholly unconnected with Henrietta and her grievances we camped for five days at the public well on the flat between Alice Springs and her guarding Macdonnells. A paternal and well-meaning government had caused the well to be dug, lined with boards, and equipped with a windlass, a rope and bucket. It was built, as the boys say, "for keeps." The iron handles of the windlass were long enough to take two men apiece, the metal rope would have held a team of bullocks, the bucket suggested a young tank. Fortunately the bucket leaked, or none but a strong man could have raised it unaided. As it was, the well was a great public convenience in a dry and thirsty land.
Teamsters used it for their horses or donkeys, the occasional motorist pulled in to refresh his radiator, an Afghan filled the trough for his string of camels, but its most regular users were the "travellers"—the swagmen (or "bagmen" as they are called in some of the back-country places), the unemployed moving from place to place looking for work, and that large army of men who are constantly "padding the hoof" in a purposeless sort of way about Australia.
A rough fence stood round the place. Within this enclosure they camped. Most of them stayed only a day or two before moving on, birds of passage with definite objectives such as this or that goldfield, or men to whom one place was just as good as another, merely tramping along to satisfy a craving for change.
One remained constant. We came to know him as the Philosopher. "Been here a year" he told us, and by long residence considered himself the guardian of the place, enforcing decency from the more casual lodgers and counting himself paid in the study their many types afforded. He was keen to know where each had come from, what he had been, and where he was going, and very dexterously he set about his inquiries, varying them to suit the temperaments of his victims. In better circumstances he would have been a psycho-analyst: his analyses were shrewd pieces of work, and he drew conclusions possible only to one who had had wide experience of the vagaries of his fellowmen.
"Paddy's gone!" he announced one evening, settling himself comfortably on his heels at our fire. "I found out he was in one of them crack Dragoon regiments in the old country, and he says he was one of the Prince's escort when he was in South Africa. Funny go to be here humping bluey after all that! You didn't see that chap who come in last night I suppose? Neatest fellow I ever see. Clean! Why he carried a scrubbing brush and he scrubbed himself when he got up this morning! Had a little bag for his knife and fork! Do you know he had £70 on him!" (Now, how had he found that out!) "He's off too; says he's going through on foot to the 'top end,' but he'll soon be looking for a lift I reckon..."
Here he was interrupted. The young, frank-faced cyclist whose wheel-tracks we had followed for a good many hundred miles, and who had been resting here for a day or two, had come across to say good-bye. He, also, was heading north, hoping, when the thousand miles to Darwin were behind him, to come down the western coast, and so return to his native town of Perth. He had started out from the Western Australian capital with less than ten shillings, had secured a job here and there, and as to the rest he spoke highly (as indeed everyone must) of the hospitality of most of the station holders whose homesteads had been on his route. He was leaving now, he said, with some tucker and sevenpence. "Time I got another job," was his cheerful comment. "It's a great life!" and he was away with a laugh to commence his long and lonely ride.
The Philosopher gazed after him thoughtfully. "Aye, it's well to be young! By the way, did you see the cove staying up at the pub? He looks as if he'd come out of one of them moving pictures of exploring in Africa. But we get some funny blokes here, I can tell you, since the railway's through. Jest a few weeks ago quite a young feller was parading the town and he was something to look at. He had shorts on his legs and wore a khaki shirt, and a big sun helmet, and round his waist was a belt with dozens of cartridges and two large revolvers. Someone asked him what it was all for, and he said he had been told the natives were very savage and dangerous about here, and he was going on to a part where very few white men had been before. I dunno who had been pulling his leg. The place he named has been running cattle for fifty year, and all the natives he'll ever see there are working on the run." He stopped to laugh.
"Talking of natives," he went on, "I've seen some queer things in this country. I was goin' across from Blank to Blank" (he named two back-country stations) "and I come on a camp of wild blacks. There was a devil of a row going on. The old king was dying and he was stretched out there with all the men beating sticks together round about him, and dapping their hands and singing, and an old gin was feeding him with grubs—jest like a bird!...He got better!...You know, those niggers can do some things that no white man can get the hang of. And they're born old too—I walked into a camp out back three hours after a gin had had a baby. The kid was lying in a wurley in one of them wooden pitchis and by the Lord, when I come in, it smiled at me! Yes, it smiled at me, only three hours old!...me hair stood up!
"They got a way of letting one another know what's going on, and they won't tell how they do it. Not they! I dunno that they know themselves how they do it. It's a sort of wireless of their own...I was at a place 350 miles from Oodnadatta and one of the gins come in and said to the boss 'big pfella wheelbarrow leavem Oodnadatta, come along this way,' and, sure enough, a big truck duly arrived at the station and it left Oodnadatta when the woman said it did. That was when motor-trucks were hardly known up here.
"They're rummy beggars, all right. And they can be pretty decent too...Had to leave a mate of mine in a blacks' camp once when he fell sick, and an old woman looked after him wonderful. Some of them are as tough as hell. Did So-and-So (he named a well-known landowner) ever tell you about the gin who poisoned herself? She found ten poison baits, strychnine they were, in a tin and melted them down for the fat. Of course she drunk it, and, when the boss was fetched, the only sign of life was a bit of a twitch in her limbs now and again. He forced some charcoal and stuff down her throat and, you believe me, she not only got better but she's put on weight ever since. She's quite a plump nigger now!
"Perhaps it was an overdose. They say strychnine won't kill you if you take enough of it. Anyway it won't kill niggers or donkeys. The policeman at Blank made a damper one day and put it out on the fence to cool and a feller's donkey reached over and et it. 'I'll settle that donk,' said the cop, and he made another damper and put it in the same place. He come over to me next day: 'Is it possible to poison donkeys?' says he, 'because that feller there has been walking about for twenty-four hours with half a bottle of strychnine in his inside!'
"Hullo! There's another chap come in. Wonder where he's from? I must go over and find out."
Eight of us, in two Ford cars, formed the party which, in 1933, travelled by way of Port Augusta and Coober Pedy to Hermannsburg and Alice Springs, then north and northeast to the mica mines in the Jervois Range, into western Queensland, down the Birdsville track (to the east of Lake Eyre) on to Marree, through the Flinders Range to Broken Hill and so back to Victoria. Our leader was A. S. Kenyon, then one of the Commissioners of the Victorian State Rivers and Water Supply, and the rest of the party consisted of Jack Shoebridge (who was also an officer of the State Rivers), H. P. McColl, A. H. Mattingley and my brother Charles Croll (members of the Field Naturalists' Club), Chris. Bailey (of the Melbourne Walking Club), Ron. Neal (of the literary staff of the Age newspaper), and myself, on furlough from the Victorian Education Department. It was too long a trip to describe in detail, so I shall mention only a few of the unusual incidents.
Like the jolly swagman of the well-known song we camped one evening by a billabong under the shade of a coolabah-tree. From another coolabah, rather more distant, hung our aerial, for part of the car's equipment was a four-valve wireless set to give us dinner music and the news of home as we sat by the camp-fire. In these days, with the ends of the earth speaking together as near neighbours, there may be nothing remarkable in hearing the conversations and music of a mere thousand miles away, but our situation made for wonder. We were in the very heart of that immense region, Central Australia, surrounded by endless miles in which the only trace of settlement was the occasional lonely cattle-station. "What is your acreage?" a townsman inquired of one of these cattlemen. The man looked blank—"acreage?" he queried. Then he smiled and added: "We have 5000 square miles!" It is a land without fences. "Where are your boundaries?" was asked at another station. The reply was: "Fifty-four miles over there" (pointing east) "and forty-six that way" (pointing west). One hundred miles across the run—no wonder men get lost in what are called the home paddocks!
The air was mellow, neither hot nor cold, the stars were clear, no wind blew to disturb the harmony of the night. Brolgas had been calling at sundown and Galahs had created the usual disturbance as they settled in their roosting places; but now the only native sound was the very distant moaning of a Boobook Owl. Everything was perfect for reception, and the voice of an announcer in a far distant city came to us with startling clearness. Music followed and we listened, charmed as much by the ideal conditions as by the playing or the singing. The thoughts of most of us, I fancy, were back at home, and no one noticed for a time that three strangers had arrived in the camp.
Two were white men, the third an elderly aboriginal. All seemed fascinated by the wireless.
Vertical Strata, Finke River Cliff, Near Hermannsburg
A Claypan Near Oodnadatta
In the course of our journey that day we had come to two stations, the second just at the end of the afternoon. At the latter we had been most hospitably received, given some very welcome fresh bread and directed to this waterhole. The house stood about a quarter of a mile away and on the quiet air our music had readily reached it. These were the advance guards; presently we were to learn that the rest of the family waited in the shadows for an invitation to come closer and share the concert. Fourteen of them there were—men, women and children, and, incredible as it may sound, not one of them had heard wireless before.
We turned on the headlights, spread a tarpaulin as a dress circle and called on Melbourne and Sydney and Adelaide and even distant Hobart to entertain our guests. Nobly they responded and poured out to the enraptured audience a medley of speeches and songs and instrumental music. The efforts of a boys' club seemed most popular. A mouth-organ competition excited particular interest, while the two leaders of the club would have been flattered could they have known the reception their jokes were given.
Swinging to another station a musical play was caught. This had originally been produced by the B.B.C. in London. How remote the artificiality of its life seemed in this setting! One wondered incidentally what pictures the scenes in theatres and in French cafés conjured up in the minds of some of our auditors. Old Binghi, the blackfellow, crouching well back in the darkness, appeared to be the most absorbed of all. The play was a success with its bush listeners. They obviously relished the bright dialogue and the catchy airs; probably the refrain of "Pray don't mention it, it's been no trouble at all," which kept recurring through the piece, is part of the common speech of that station to-day.
But time went on and still our guests stayed. We enjoyed their presence but were dead weary after a heavy day. Our cook rose to the occasion. He would give them a hint. After sundry incantations at the fire he returned with a large billy of coffee and proceeded to serve it with some biscuits. We had only eight mugs, but somehow they went round. "Folk always go soon after supper," the cook confided to me. But these did not. The babies went off to sleep and the elders settled themselves again, refreshed and ready for still more wireless. Our driver, whose set it was, wanted to go to bed but did not like to leave it to others to turn off. The hour was getting late. "It's pretty rough," he growled, "with such a tough day before us to-morrow." But at that moment, mockingly, came the last words of the play: "Pray don't mention it, it's been no trouble at all!" and the party broke up with many protestations of goodwill.
Earlier in the month we had listened while Mr Lyons, as Prime Minister, told us (and incidentally others) of his budget proposals. We were then in some mulga on the edge of a gibber plain north of Coober Pedy, and about 900 miles in a direct line from Melbourne. Australia has been labelled a land of contrasts: the Members of Parliament sat in their comfortable chamber on padded seats to hear the tale of the Commonwealth's recovery—we heard it equally well sitting on swags, or petrol cases, with the darkness like a wall beyond the circle of the firelight, and the bush peering in as if to see what sort of creatures men are.
But our wireless was to meet its Waterloo. It became so popular that we lost it. We had crossed into western Queensland and stopped for the night at a station which could be counted large even in that country of wide spaces. Its area is 10,000 square miles and at one time, before the seven years' drought, it boasted 40,000 head of cattle. When the drought broke, by the way, the head station, standing as it does just above the river, became an island. The men working outback could not get within five miles of their headquarters so a boat was placed on the top of a car, carried over the near sandhills and launched on the far side to convey provisions to them. Truly a land of contrasts—drought and flood!
A dozen men, homely, hospitable, gathered about the wireless. Even a meal would scarcely draw them from it. None had been heard on the station before. It was in particularly good form that night. Long before the voices ceased I had turned in. Half asleep I was aware that many wireless stations were being tried and dimly I could see that the set was being closely examined.
"Where's the wireless?" someone asked next morning as we were packing. "Sold it!" was the reply. The demand had been too insistent to refuse. We missed it, but we felt that, like the satisfactory boy scout, we had done at least one good deed in our travels.
It was in that same region that we were privileged to see a sight which was extraordinary indeed.
The tale of the Passenger Pigeon of North America is well known. Its countless numbers and its astonishing disappearance form one of the wonders of ornithology. The birds were slaughtered for food, and often wantonly because killing was so easy. In one year fifteen millions of their carcasses were exported. To-day not one Passenger Pigeon is known to be alive though substantial rewards have been offered for the production of a single pair.
It was with some thought of this tragedy that we watched the passing of a huge flight of our charming little "love birds," the Budgerigahs. They, too, were in thousands. While they retain their present popularity as cage-birds they cannot become extinct (though the tendency is to breed as far away as possible from the original colours) but the reflection would come that the wholesale and persistent trapping which goes on may possibly lead to complete destruction in their native haunts.
We had camped for the night at a waterhole in the Jervois Range, some couple of hundred miles north-east of Alice Springs, so not far from the western border of Queensland. As we breakfasted, two aborigines came across from a patch of scrub and stood with an expectant look at the food. One was truly a fine specimen of manhood, well built, good-looking by any standard, his countenance attractive, his eye clear and intelligent. He answered to the name of Jack. The other man, an older full blood, said his name was Pred (most aborigines find the F sound difficult). We had been speaking for a few minutes when a curious noise overhead made us all look up.
I had never before seen such a sight. At first glance the air seemed full of Budgerigahs. They were ten or twenty deep and they came in a long procession which stretched back farther than the eye could carry. Sometimes twenty feet up, sometimes just out of arm's length, they swept on above us in a green cloud which seemed endless. The crisp beat of multitudes of tiny wings produced a sound like the dry rustling of a swarm of locusts; through it ran a faint lisping—the voices of the birds. Unlike most parrots they did not scream as they flew, but merely whispered softly.
How mate kept by mate in these hurrying thousands and where they were all to find nesting hollows were conundrums quite beyond our guessing.
Evidently they knew of this waterhole and had headed to it for the morning drink. But we were a disturbing factor and they broke their ordered companies and wheeled about the creekside in groups which changed colour each time they presented a fresh angle to the light. Only when we began to move away did they, squadron by squadron, light at the water-edge to quench their thirst. The long lines of dainty heads dipped to the water and rose, dipped and rose; other lines took their places to repeat the performance; both ground and air were alive with the charming creatures.
Meanwhile Jack had been busy. Sentiment is all very well when the stomach is full; we had breakfasted but he had not. Moreover there was a lubra over in the wurley who had to be fed. Here was tucker. He hurled a boomerang through the thick masses and we saw a miracle: the ranks opened out and not a bird was hit! He repeated the shot, with the same result. Then one of our party threw a gibber; once more the birds, incredible as it may sound, dodged the missile. Desperate, the blackfellow picked up a big stick and put all the power of his strong arm into a throw fair in the face of an oncoming swarm. This time there was a crash and five birds fell—Jack had his breakfast at his feet.
We were to see more of these birds as we went on our way, for they, like ourselves, were travelling south. I have wondered if we reached the Riverina before the main body; certain it is we saw detachments from time to time. One big flight was resting at the Cockroach Waterhole. Just before coming to its very muddy depression, by the way, we had almost run over a printi (the giant lizard of these parts) about seven feet long.
Standing in the shallows, looking more like a carved image than anything living, was a handsome white spoonbill. She may have been fishing, but her stillness suggested rather that she was lost in admiration of her own reflection. Crows called their dismal messages to each other and flew aimlessly about while swiftly, but steadily (as become creatures on business bent), a pair of falcons patrolled the creek bed. A belt of low timber on the far side gave shelter to an amazing number of finches and Budgerigahs. As a falcon passed on his sentry-go they came out in a dense cloud behind him and settled at the river's brim to snatch a hasty mouthful. It was the old game of tip and run: they were no sooner down than they were up and making for safety.
Always was the group a mixed one of parrots and finches, and the falcons appeared to love both equally. Every time the big birds passed they swooped to catch one of the flock, and every time they missed. The small things seemed to enjoy the hurried flight to the water, the hasty mouthful, the swift return to the timber, dodging this way and that to avoid the savage claws.
These remarkable flights of the Shell Parrots (as the Budgerigahs are commonly called) came, seemingly, from the far north, where droughts are but little known. Other birds, more local, had apparently suffered badly from the dry spell which gripped for so many years the heart of the continent. The varieties were still present but their numbers had thinned.
It was pleasant to note companies of the Brolga (the Native Companion) feeding on the plains, even if the groups were small. Few people, fortunately, regard the Brolga as game, but occasionally this handsome bird is shot to eat. The cook, a stalwart humorist who ruled at a back-country station, gave us some hints regarding the cooking of a Native Companion should we be forced to try one for a meal. "Put a big stone in the pot with it," said he. "When the stone is tender, so is the brolga!" As the laughter subsided he added: "There's another way. Stuff the brolga with a duck. When the duck is ready you can throw the brolga away!"
"Dat mission, he is de best t'ing ever come to dis country," said old Hungarian Joe as we sat on petrol cases round a camp-fire one night in Central Australia. He rose and marched up and down, sawing the air excitedly with the hand that held his pipe.
"An' I'm Roman Cat'lic!" he added, with an emphasis that disposed of all argument.
We were motoring northward. Our car broke down in the Macdonnell Ranges when we were within cooee of Alice Springs. Largely (I'm afraid) as a compliment to the clergyman who had proved himself a healer of cars as well as of souls, we attended church on Sunday night. It was the only Protestant church building, by the way, in all the vast territory between Marree in South Australia and Darwin in the Northern Territory. There we heard our friend the Methodist minister pay public tribute to the work of another denomination. He spoke of "that great and good man John Flynn, whose services the Inland can never repay."
And I was to hear still another sect join in the chorus of praise. It was at Hermannsburg, where the Lutherans conduct the long-established Finke River Mission. The conviction was there confided to me that, lacking the efforts of the Presbyterian Church in the form of its Inland Mission, the heart of our continent would never really be fit for white people.
It was the Australian Inland Mission, the A.I.M. of John Flynn's dream, of which all these people spoke so cordially. It has known no distinction of creed and, like the similar mission conducted by the Methodists, which walks along many parallel lines with the A.I.M., it will go to the aid of any white man, without question, no matter where he may be in the lonely depths of that huge territory.
Everybody knows now of the Flying Doctor, but does everybody realize that until the A.I.M. came into existence there were citizens living hundreds of miles from any medical aid, and that some still do so? It is to aid people so situated that a larger organization, known as the Australian Aerial Medical Services, has come into being. It is hoped that this national organization, which has sprung out of the A.I.M., will become Australia-wide and be supported accordingly.
The "Mantle of Safety"
How would you like it, O Citizen of Melbourne, if you had to set out and ride to Sydney for a doctor when your wife fell ill or your mate broke his leg? But these back-country six hundred miles would not be on the sort of highway you get between capitals. Another few thousands out of our city riches and we make those people safe, for all, then, may have the ingenious sending-and-receiving wireless sets invented by the A.I.M. and may have also the inestimable boon of a medical service which uses the most expeditious form of transport yet devised by man—the aeroplane. Although Victoria has no "back-blocks" to be served by this scheme, it was here that the scheme originated and this State has ever given liberally in its support.
Lonely beyond belief are some of those outposts. The homestead of a station 5000 square miles in extent cannot well have near neighbours. But the A.A.M.S. is mending even that. Sitting pedalling at her wireless set, very much as if she were at her sewing-machine, the housewife, so cut off from the world, may gossip ("over the back fence," as Dr Vickers put it) to the housewife next door, perhaps 200 miles away!
The comfort of that possibility! To exchange thoughts and ideas is the commonplace of our city existence—what must this possibility mean to folk who seldom see a stranger!
Another valuable aspect is also apparent. The relative safety created by this organization, and its power to destroy loneliness, have made the Inland more attractive to the white woman. That means not only increased settlement but a general improvement in health and morals. It follows that such a scandal as the half-caste problem must be reduced by this, although, in my pessimistic view, it can never be wholly wiped out.
If there is a service in this world to which we Australians should subscribe, it is the A.A.M.S., for it exists solely to help our own people and incidentally to make our land fully habitable.
Gathering together loose ends of memory, how many interesting items, otherwise unrecorded, present themselves. Scraps they are mostly, things noted at a casual glance because peculiar to this wild region, or perhaps more seriously because they proved themselves matters of some importance. The general result is a kind of mental moving picture, a "talkie" at that. On the inward screen I see, for instance, a naked aboriginal whose dignity and grace of carriage would distinguish him in any company in the world; the skyline of a rugged range of high hills with unbelievably fantastic weathering; a burst of crimson which is a sandhill so vivid in colour that, seeing it suddenly in reality I exclaimed "A bush fire!", and so on and so on. And I hear again the talk of this and that—tall tales told by the grave-faced bushmen with never a twinkle to betray their humour; grim stories of drought and fear and death; the expression of beliefs scientifically based or merely the children of credulity; shrewd observations on life as a whole; and, binding all as with a loosely-woven thread, gossip that one has gathered at friendly firesides or in casual camps during many tours.
Much of that gossip, of course, it would be unfair to repeat, but it helps, more than anything else, to give life to the picture.
A famous jurist once asked, jestingly or in sad earnest: "What is truth?" Perhaps nowhere is that more difficult to define than in this red heart of Australia. A prodigal, but seemingly grudging, Nature practises disguises until one learns to be slow indeed in answering even such a customarily plain question as—is this life or death? He was a competent observer who pronounced judgment, after several years' experience, that here is a desert, a land where no rain falls and no grass grows. But he was equally competent who, the very next year, reported a smiling garden where the other man's desolation had been. Desert, said one; a land of plenty, said the other.
I have told elsewhere of a seed germinating and producing a plant eighteen inches high in exactly fourteen days. Moreover the plant was in flower. That seed, seemingly dead, had blown about in the shifting sand for perhaps years. Somehow we are not so astonished at tenacity of life in vegetation, but what of the molluscs (Bithinia australis) gathered by Sir Baldwin Spencer from the bed of a dried-up waterhole—just to quote a well-authenticated case of animal survival after extreme desiccation. He records that he placed the tiny creatures in a tin matchbox and forgot about them till he opened the box fifteen months later in his Melbourne laboratory. They were still alive!
The claypans in which such animals live are features of every plain. They are usually shallow depressions which hold water for only a short period after rain and may continue dry for years on end. Their parched surfaces will then be covered with curled-up flakes of thin clay and fissures open to the depth of a foot and over. Nothing more utterly barren could be imagined, but beneath that arid crust live creatures, endowed like the Bithinia just mentioned, which, dead though they appear, will know resurrection when the rain transforms the pan into a pool. The Burrowing or Water-holding Frog is not the least remarkable of these aestivating animals. When the pools begin to dry it fills itself with water and burrows deep. The mud closes firmly round it and there, in a chamber just its own size, it sleeps away the period of drought.
The natives, with their almost incredible skill in discerning signs, have little difficulty in discovering the hiding places, and in times of drought they will dig out the frogs and drink the liquid the provident creatures had intended for their own use. Spencer tested the water and found it perfectly pure and fresh.
Those pools, transient as they are, are rich with life almost as soon as rain comes. Birds, such as duck, water-hens, teal and plover appear from the unknown, frogs croak, water-beetles and other "small deer" dart about. Nardoo and similar plants give brightness to the water and its edges and hasten to their appointed task of continuing the species—no transformation scene ever presented a more startling change.
The ability of the aboriginal to find water does not always serve him. My two artist companions, Messrs Battarbee and Gardner, on an earlier trip to the interior, found a native in the last stages of exhaustion. It was near the dry bed of a river, and the man, almost dying of thirst, had dug numbers of holes in the sand in his search of water. There has been much discussion regarding the capacity of a blackfellow for food and drink—this big, able-bodied man drank, straight on end, four dishfuls of water, in all a measured two gallons! Prolonged droughts have accustomed these people to "perishes." Little wonder they gorge deep when plenty comes their way.
Because the country is naturally arid (apparently it is becoming increasingly so) the note commonly struck is that of desolation, yet, as I have stressed, beauty is always there, beauty of a kind which betrays itself somewhat shyly till you have been blooded to its wild charm. Then it holds you, whatever your station. Dr Madigan is the latest scientist to confess in print its powerful attraction. Long before him Gregory, in The Dead Heart of Australia, spoke of the glamour of the
...wide plain, the low horizon and the magnificent expanse of sky, giving a sense of joyful freedom. Watching the desert at sunrise, and the soft, rich colours in their rapid play on plain and sky, I felt thrilled again by the weird fascination of it all and impatient to follow over the table-topped hills into the haze-filled basin beyond.
Baldwin Spencer, too, possibly the most capable all-round member of any trans-Australian expedition, a scientist who was also artist, paused many times in his scientific recordings to picture the scene in terms of praise. Observing a sunset across a gibber plain he wrote:
Away to the east the land rises to flat-topped terraced ranges. In the foreground are white-blue salt-bushes with pale light blue patches of herbage and still lighter tufts of grass amongst them, standing out in strong contrast to the purple-brown gibbers. Dark lines of mulga mark the creek-bed, and streak away to the hills which stand out sharply against a cold steel-blue sky which melts into salmon pink and this into dark ultramarine. In the west is a rich after-glow; against it the stony plains and hills look dark purple with the Mulga branches standing out sharp and thin.
Strange that so few painters have attempted to capture these scenes; those who had done so could be numbered on the fingers of one hand.
There is a flavour of romance (rather spoilt by greed of gain) about some of the Inland birds. Most evasive and desirable of them all is the Night Parrot, already referred to. Both science and commerce covet it; it has been sought by ornithologists especially sent out for its capture and it has been eagerly watched for in recent years by doggers and cattlemen and aborigines. Rumour has raised its value, until I have heard it quoted in the Inland as £500 for a single bird! Seldom seen at any time, mainly because of its nocturnal habits, and never flying, like most parrots, in flocks, it has seemingly vanished altogether. Its custom of nesting low in the porcupine grass and going abroad at night has possibly made it an easy prey to that scourge of our bush, the tame cat gone wild.
It was in 1923 that perhaps the most determined attempt was made to secure specimens of this elusive bird. Commissioned by the well-known collector, H. L. White, of Belltrees, New South Wales, F. L. Whitlock set out for the Centre, eventually making his headquarters for some time at the Finke River Mission Station, Hermannsburg. From there he worked thoroughly the likely places. The natives told him that they knew Tnokkapaltara, as they called the Night Parrot, but that it was scarce and seldom seen. It was occasionally flushed from the porcupine grass, under which it tunnelled, and was so poor a flier in daylight that it could readily be run down. The sequel to this effort was both tragic and comic: the scientist saw not so much as a feather of the desired bird but (this was discovered all too late) the native children one day caught, cooked and ate a specimen while he was still at the station.
More recent endeavours have met with the same want of success. Travelling through the parrot's old haunts one still finds the man who knows somebody who once saw it, but, somehow, that actual observer himself is never met.
Extinction has possibly claimed Tnokkapaltara. That other, one time extremely rare, parrot, the Princess Alexandra, has been luckier. Discovered by Waterhouse when with the McDouall Stuart Expedition in 1863, it disappeared completely until Keartland, ornithologist with the Horn Expedition, captured some specimens at Glen Helen in the Macdonnell Ranges in 1894. Gould named this slender, long-tailed, soft-coloured creature Polytelis alexandrae; the natives knew it as Inilturung. Not until 1905 was it again recorded, this time as far south as Oodnadatta. By that time the feeling was strong that it too had vanished for ever, but it is now being bred in captivity, so should be safe for posterity. It was one of my most pleasant experiences when I entered the aviary at Tieyon, a station on the "back track" to Alice Springs, and two Princess Alexandras flew to me, one resting on my shoulder and gently nibbling an ear, the other perching on my wrist to eat a nut from my fingers.
Twenty pounds sterling had been offered (unavailingly) for that delightful pair. Taken as babies from the nest they had been reared without difficulty on wheat made fine by passing through a mincer—"the easiest of all the parrots to rear," said the proud owner, Mrs Smith.
In the same cage were five Bourke Parrots, just as tame as the Alexandras, so friendly indeed that they jostled one another for footholds on my hat. The background held a row of those general favourites, the Budgerigahs, forming a living (and loving) frieze, and at my feet crawled a Mountain Devil (Moloch horridus), surely the most libellously named of all innocent creatures.
That happened to be a good season, so we were given opportunity to see what recent rain could do to country which, on a previous occasion, might well have been called desert. "Everything looking wonderfully well," says my diary and, in parenthesis, follows the entry: "Huge scorpion dived down hole on track this afternoon"—an item of some interest to one who, like myself, slept close to the ground each night. The flats before Erldunda were a field of white everlastings, a gay mantle of parakelia purpled the slopes, the crests of the sandhills were hidden beneath a white-flowered shrub, and on the saddle, where the track crossed, the beautiful blue of Brunonia shone against its background of red sand.
It was on that trip, by the way, that I plotted to perform what may strike the average reader as an act of prime impudence; I took a couple of boomerangs with me to teach the natives how to throw them! The intention was not, however, quite as rash as it sounds, the point being that these were "return" boomerangs (weapons that return to the thrower) and the Arunta people know only the hunting, or war, boomerang, which is more in the nature of a bent throwing stick and does not come back. I looked forward to some interesting displays as the blacks grasped the idea, and particularly was I curious to see how soon it would be before they improved upon my own efforts. Unfortunately I damaged my back in a motor smash on the outward journey and during the whole period of the excursion, lasting some three months, I was unable to make a throw. In the circumstances, as I could not demonstrate, I did not show the weapons at all.
I hesitate, as a mere layman, to enter into the controversy which for a time raged so fiercely about the famous "Jervois skull," now reposing in the National Museum at Canberra; but some notes I made when in the Jervois Range in 1933 may be of interest. There I met Tom Hanlon, on whose station the skull was said to have been found. Hanlon said:
O'Neil came here and asked if there were any skulls about. I told him of this one lying in the paddock. I was astounded to hear later that it was a million years old! There was a white man's tomahawk and a bag with some red ochre alongside the skull—they didn't have those a million years ago, surely! I knew the gin whose skull it was: she has two strapping sons here now, Archie and Jack. She was an undersized old woman of the Bulltanga tribe. She went bush and died there.
This Jervois country will be familiar to all who have read Plowman's fascinating books. On a very far-back station I have heard The Man from Oodnadatta acclaimed as the truest work on the Inland. It assuredly is one of the best. Many of the characters of all Plowman's three books may still be met by the traveller. In the west of Queensland, as we passed out of the Territory and prepared to trace the long Birdsville track, we encountered the hero of Hatfield's book Ginger Murdoch. He was locally known as Red Murphy. I spent the evening listening to his tales and wishing that it had been my luck to have met him before Hatfield did. He was a treasure house of excellent stories.
One of the drought problems for the missionaries at a place like Hermannsburg is how to find employment for the able-bodied men who have become attached to the Mission and make it their home. The long-debated pipe-line to bring the constant water of the Korporilya Springs to the station is now an accomplished fact and gardening is giving occupation to a number, while the improvement in the seasons has restored some of the old pursuits. But drought will come again and once more unemployment must result unless the Government takes a useful hand in the game. Tourists are now a recognized source of national wealth in every country which can attract them: let me revive here a suggestion, made by H. A. Heinrich when I was at Hermannsburg in the 1929 drought. The work would both assist tourist traffic and help the natives. The estimated cost was £3000 and his idea was to construct a road, passable for motor-cars, to embrace in a round tour most of the best-known scenic features to the west of Alice Springs. Starting from that township, the first place of call would be the magnificent gorge known as Simpson's Gap (twelve miles), then eighteen miles farther on would be visited the picturesque Jay River (where the home for half-caste children used to be), with its adjacent Standley Chasm. In turn would come Narrow (or Spencer) Gap (10), Ellery Gap (10), the Glen Helen Gorge (30), Redbank Gorge, only three feet wide (12), over the hills at Umbatcha Springs to the Missionary Plain (20), Gosse Range (6), Gilbert Springs (15), Lilchera Springs (12), Korporilya Springs (6), Hermannsburg (5), Palm Valley (15), Glen of Palms (4), Boggy Hole (about half a mile of good water—a spot to which the whole population of the Finke River Mission Station went on one occasion for a week—a "big fellow picnic"), and back to Hermannsburg via Todd's Glen (17), Wallace rock carvings (30), and into Alice Springs (60). The figures quoted are subject to revision; the total distance is roughly 300 miles. Hermannsburg would provide a convenient camping spot en route.
A considerable part of the way is now possible for cars, but that is not recommending it to the city driver! To see where motors are taken in this land of few roads—roads, that is, within the meaning of that word in the coastal States—is a liberal education in the power of the internal combustion engine, the durability of bodies and the resilience of springs. The truck is the favoured official vehicle. If you chance to meet Wishart Smith (an old boy of Scotch College, Melbourne, by the way), the Resident Engineer of Alice Springs, you will probably find that his truck is equipped with supplies of everything that might be needed—food, petrol, water, tools—to meet possible breakdown, all neatly packed in special containers. The precaution is necessary; so extensive is his territory that an accident might find him hundreds of miles from his base and a great many from the nearest aid. The padres, too, of both the A.I.M., and the Methodist Inland Mission, to name the only two religious organizations there with which I am familiar, have their vehicles similarly provided. Plowman has proved a capable historian of the earlier period of the Presbyterian work; there is room for someone to continue the tale now that the camel and packhorse stage has been passed. As for the equally interesting Methodist movement, its history has apparently either to be written as a new work altogether, or collected from the journals in which its fragments have appeared. These missionaries serve the white population of a parish which, in the case on one of them at least, I know to be nearly 1400 miles from north to south and 800 from east to west. They know no distinction of creed or belief and, literally, they "serve." I have grateful reason to remember that one of them can mend a lame motor, but their skill, experience and willingness carry them far beyond that.
Sitting with my good friend, the Rev. H. H. Griffiths, the present Methodist padre at the Alice, I have heard him discourse on many an unusual incident (unusual to town folk, that is) which he regarded as the commonplaces of his life and, behind his back, I have learnt much more, tales of a devotion to the cause of humanity that compels admiration. Grim tales, some of them; but, when the speaker was the padre himself or his wife, who accompanies him on the long lonely journeys, the humorous predominated. Harry, a native from the "top end," was the centre of many a good story. Judging by the ambiguity of some of his pronouncements he could have been a descendant of the Delphic Oracle. "What name that fellow tree, Harry?" asked Mr Griffiths as he noticed a specimen new to him. Harry stood up in the truck, fixed an intent regard on the tree until it was lost to sight, then delivered judgment. "Him might be whatyoucallem, I t'ink!" Harry, cured of the habit of swearing, would not allow other black to indulge, at least not in the presence of his master or mistress. Like most converts he became a zealot. Passing a camp one day, far out in the wilderness, a naked aboriginal was seen racing across to intercept the car. Breathless, and evidently proud of his pace, the blackfellow panted: "Me run like hell!" Instantly Harry was out of the truck. Clapping his hand over the fellow's mouth, he poured at him a fierce string of native talk. What he said was not followable by the two white folk, but the result soon explained it. The stranger first looked dazed and then reconstructed his first remark: "Me run like anyt'ing!" he now said. It was this same Harry who unconsciously fired a fine double-barrel on a certain occasion: in a single remark he rebuked a fellow countryman and uncovered the cause of the trouble. "You go wash your mout' wit' soap!" he stormed at a swearer. "You talkem like white man!"
To officiate at a wedding the padre drove some 400 miles, the bridesmaid came some 600 miles. All stayed at least two days. The parson's first job was to cut the hair of the male guests—nine of them had not had their hair trimmed for nearly twelve months! "My hands were tired out," he laughed, as he recalled the experience. "I took that hair off in lumps!" For the wedding feast their hosts killed a bullock, two pigs and twelve roosters.
Tragedy comes too often into their life. Mr and Mrs Griffiths and another missionary were travelling to Darwin and had taken with them a half-caste lad. They ran into rain and presently were bogged. The car was jacked up and the boy crawled under to see the cause of a certain trouble. Night had fallen. Mrs Griffiths was holding the light of a torch on the lad when the jack collapsed and, to her lasting horror, he was crushed to death before her eyes. Then a miracle happened: the two men, unaided, lifted the car off the body. Somehow they struggled out of the bog, reached a station on the overland telegraph line and obtained permission to bury the poor child. Moved beyond tears, those two clergymen, accustomed though they were to such scenes, found it almost impossible to officiate at the grave.
It was the artists' car which Mr Griffiths assisted us to cure at Alice Springs. At the conclusion of the treatment I have a diary entry which indicates that we were about to set forth again: "Henrietta had breakfast with us this morning. We had poached eggs; she had the white of an egg in her radiator to check leaking." A stick-up just before reaching the Alice had not been altogether Henrietta's fault. We ran out of petrol, thanks to the final crossing of the Hugh River, which took us nearly a full day to accomplish and ate up all our supplies. Eventually, when the car stopped for want of "juice" a little south of the Macdonnell Ranges, we thought we were about five miles from Heavitree Gap, so only seven from Alice Springs. Gaily one of the artists set off bearing two petrol tins. But his gaiety lessened as the distance grew—we were really sixteen miles out. It was evening when he reached the township. Carrying three gallons of petrol he started the return journey, but the darkness was so great he kept straying from the sandy track and at last, about midnight, he camped, blackfellow fashion, with a fire on each side of him. Meanwhile we kept watch for him till weariness took us and we lay down by the fire and slept. About 2 a.m., my companion woke and looked towards the gap. "Here he comes," he said, "someone has given him a lift." Sure enough, there was the single headlight of a car showing in the distance through the mulga. Casting off sleep we built up a generous blaze, made a billy of tea, cut sandwiches, and generally prepared the fatted calf to welcome the prodigal. But he did not arrive till twelve hours later. The bright light was the planet Venus rising!
During three lengthy trips those artists gathered experiences grave and gay. They were painting, one day, when a passing bushman offered criticism: "Yes," said he; "the picture's all right; but y'oughter have that stump grubbed outer the front!" One of them is a pretty capable player of the fiddle. His Waterloo came when he was persuaded to entertain a group of natives. They wasted no compliments—"plenty too much tomcat!" was the summing up as they departed. Another of those blacks used a quaint method of explaining that a fellow tribesman had no English: "Dis my friend. He no hear you. Me speak for him."
In the permanent pool of the Finke at Henbury lurks a debbil-debbil snake of immense proportions and outrageous habits. He cannot brook disturbance and incontinently swallows the native who chances to trouble the waters. I may count myself fortunate, I suppose, that he allowed me to bathe there, as I did one lovely winter morning when the air was tonic in its freshness. But, formidable as this mythical creature is, he is nothing to the snake old Preddie (Freddie) knew to be living over by Lake Eyre. "Ever walkabout Lake Eyre, Freddie?" "No good, big pfella snake walkabout there—beeg pfella snake—debbil-debbil snake—shakem ground when he walkabout; no good!" "What name that big pfella snake, Freddie? What white man call him?" Freddie thought long and earnestly. Black snake? No. Carpet snake? No. Rock snake? No. Python? No. He knew that fellow snake name but he "no t'ink it now." Night fell, and just as the white man was in his first sleep came a yell from Freddie. He had thought of the name—"White pfella call him eart'quake!"
Elsewhere reference has been made to the intelligence of the aboriginal. Frequently he is judged by his seeming failure to understand questions, or to reply to them fully, but I found that he usually grasped all the implications, though he chose to reply to the obvious only. That practice, by the way, is often the result of the white man's impatience at the native's daring to have opinions as well as knowledge. It was certainly not stupidity which prompted the answer in the story told me by a missionary from the north-west. The two had reached the sea coast and the white man proposed to bathe. "Any shark here, Jackie?" he asked. "No shark here, boss," came the assurance. The bath was duly had, and, as he dried, the boss inquired: "Why no shark here, Jackie?" "Too plurry much crocodile, boss!" promptly returned Jackie. Or again, but this is an illustration of combined shrewdness and wit, the tale told by Dr Madigan in his excellent volume Central Australia. It came to me in this form. "You ride that warrigal this morning, Billy," ordered the manager of the station. Billy regarded the horse, a noted buckjumper and outlaw, with strong disfavour. Then he turned to his employer: "More better you ride him, boss. Blackfellow gettin' mighty scarce!" An excellent illustration of the natives' opinion of woman was afforded during a conversation on quite other topics. A bird lighted on a tree near by and the blackfellow picked up a stone and drove it away. It was a Willy Wagtail. "Him alla same woman; too much yabber-yabber," he explained. Then the white man remembered that the old fellows of the tribe will never talk secrets if a woman or a wagtail is about.
Camels in Harness
Residual Hills, and the Gibber Resulting from Their Detrition
In an endeavour to reach Boggy Hole we once ventured our car down the Ellery Creek by a route, I dare swear, that no other car had ever taken or is likely to take until something in the nature of a track is created. This was the roughest going met with on any of my trips and I counsel car owners to avoid attempting it. Two natives from the Finke Mission escorted us with a team of donkeys and, after passing the remains of the old Henbury homestead, we yoked four of the gallant little beasts to the front of the car. It was a treat to see them from the driver's seat, seemingly dressed in a new mouse-coloured costume, so neat that it suggested the tailor-made. Along the back and down the tail ran a clear dark line, and this line extended across the shoulders to form the perfect figure of a cross. (That, so the legend tells, is the distinction borne by the donkey ever since he carried Christ into Jerusalem). Miles of stony creek bed alternated with patches of sand and were broken by sharp rises and still steeper descents while, in our advance, the great red wall of the gorge rose higher and higher on each side. As she twisted and bounced over the obstructions, the old car, viewed from the front, appeared to be suffering from a combination of knock-knee, squint and St Vitus's dance. At sixteen miles we camped—that sixteen miles had taken four and a half hours!—and there we stayed, for not even the redoubtable Henrietta, plus her auxiliaries, could advance us past the next line of rocks. Some ten days later, this time with six donkeys pulling, we essayed to return. Here is a sample of my diary entries:
6th June 1934. Jack now attempting to crank up
the reluctant Henrietta. We should meet the donkeys somewhere up
the Gorge...stuck on first crossing (sand) for an hour just below
high red cliff. Two Wedgetail Eagles are working the cliff, flying
just below the skyline and close in to the rocks—possibly to
scare game into the open from the crannies and caves...One of the
eagles has gone aloft till he is now only a dark Cupid's bow near
the crescent moon, which is showing on the edge of some fleecy
cloud-lets...Henrietta has struck; unloaded car and prepared to
camp...Hooray! Jack has found a loose bolt jamming the works.
Proceeds to set the engine up again...Three Wedgetails are playing
circus overhead, following each other round and round in a small
air circle. I should say a pair and their young one—mother
seems to be playing tiggy with the boy. Circling higher now,
perhaps going up to look for grandfather who flew heavenwards when
we first came here...Nine donkeys and five natives
arrive...progress very slow...leak in radiator becomes
serious—attempted repairs with chewing gum (God bless
Wrigley!)...worst pinch of all just ahead—an almost vertical
rise of about ten feet and soft at that. The gorge resounds to the
shouts and shrill whistles of the abos. as they put the donkeys at
it—no, they are beaten and Jack is digging away the top of
the bank to ease the gradient...after many tries, gaining a little
each time, blocking the wheels, digging and pulling, we are on top
at last...the donkeys are yoked three in front, then two, then one
nearest the car. The centre one of the three leaders is much bigger
than his two mates; they lean in on him at every pull until they
must pretty well squeeze all his breath out, as well as rub his
hair off...One of our assistants has the largest mouth (short of
the late lamented Irving Sayles) I have seen on a human being. He
puts a finger in each corner, bares his beautiful teeth, and the
result is a whistle like the siren of a railway engine...Coming on
dark and still half a mile from old Henbury where we would like to
camp, though the water there is not good—"it 'tink" said our
abos. There is a good spring there, however,...could not reach
Henbury, so camped on the sand. Sent boys and donkeys home to
Hermannsburg. Dingoes howling as we retire.
7th June. Thermometer shows two degrees of frost. No dew, so frost not visible...9 a.m., the first fly...Henrietta braces herself for her now unaided task and for the next three hours my job is laying coco-nut matting and gathering it up again, while the other two alternately dig and drive.
Here are the notes I made of our progress during the first hour. The sand was very heavy: digging and laying of matting occurred between each two gains:
Gained ten yards; ten feet; twenty feet; ten yards; ten feet; five yards; five yards; two yards; three yards; ten yards; six yards; and so on. Out of the worst of it by twelve noon and on to plain with James Range on left and the blue Macdonnells at right...Hermannsburg, after several stoppages, at 3 p.m. So we have taken two days to do that return sixteen miles.
Hermannsburg, with its ever vocal population, seems a metropolis after such an experience. With the hospitality that sits so easily on these kind people, we were welcomed as old friends by white and black alike. Only when one has lived hard in a thirsty land does he realize the boon of the hot bath, the varied meal, the soft bed of home life. Sunday saw us at church as part of a crowded gathering of aborigines. The service was Lutheran and much like that of the Church of England—the responses, the creed and the confession would have dignified any congregation in the world, and the singing was equally good to hear. We white folk sat on chairs next to the group of young girls, the women all being on one side and the men on the other. Everybody was spruced-up for the occasion. Ahbel (Abel), in the midst of his class of little boys, had his white hair carefully combed and parted in the middle; from the pocket of his shirt projected a decorous corner of coloured handkerchief. On the platform, with the Rev. Mr Petering, sat Blind Moser (Moses), most eloquent of native preachers, and between them stood a table as altar. It was covered with an attractive cloth and supported two bowls of artificial flowers and four candles. Above all hung a large picture of Christ crucified.
Glen Helen Gorge (Finke River)
Blind Moser, grizzled of hair and beard, his sign of initiation as a savage (the gaps where his teeth had been knocked out) showing as he led the singing, was just below a portrait of Luther, whose round comfortable face seemed to regard the scene, as well it might, with complacency. Moser took for text John i, 13-18, stressing the need for practising, not merely protesting, brotherly love, and very impressive his sermon sounded. He knew the Scriptures thoroughly, for it was he who, in the late Mr Strehlow's time, had assisted in their translation into Arunta. He is still the authority in all such matters.
Always did we leave Hermannsburg with regret, but the Alice had still one more novelty to show before the South called so imperatively that it could not be disobeyed. A Jamaican negro, who resented strongly a suggestion that he was an Australian native, came to our camp peddling opals, and with him I went along the bed of the Todd to meet an opal cutter, whom I had not expected to see so far from the field. He sat in a bower hut with his bench and tools in front of him, a pleasant-faced man of about sixty, who spoke with a slightly foreign accent and said he had been cutting since he was fourteen years of age. For years he was on the sapphire fields of Queensland, when as much as £30 an ounce would sometimes be paid for good sapphires, and there were thirteen buyers' agents always in residence. Those fields are still going, he added, but have lost their importance. He came to Alice Springs for garnets, but the local stuff is poor and Madagascar now floods the market with better and cheaper stones. The opal he was cutting was from a find 160 miles west of Oodnadatta, and was said to be the hardest opal in the world. I noticed an Australite near his polishing wheel. He called it a "plainer" and mentioned that he cut that class of stone for mourning jewellery—the blackest stuff he knew. He scoffed at the idea that it was a meteorite.
And so the moving pictures pass before "that inward eye which is the bliss of solitude," the actors speak again, and the life is lived once more.
Every country has, of course, its characteristic nomenclature; Australia is no exception. In trying-out possibly unacceptable immigrants to our country, an exceedingly effective test would be their ability to write, or even pronounce, some of our place names. The persons who could manage an outback title like Tidnacoordinnina without stumbling, or overcome Cadabirrawirracanna or Meremendicowoke at a glance, might reasonably be regarded as even more than good Australians, for few native Australians could safely attempt such hurdles.
C. J. Dennis has written some clever rhymes about the titles of bush settlements and Banjo Paterson has pretty well summed up the matter in a racy poem which tells of a contest between certain shearers. One of them, waiting his chance, remarks:
"You've heard of Mungrybambone and the Gundabluey
Quobbotha, Girilambone, and Terramungamine,
Quambone, Eunonyhareenyha, Wee Waa, and Buntijo—"
But the rest of the shearers stopped him: "For the sake of your jaw, go slow."
How few Australians would pass a full examination in things Australian! City knowledge—yes!—but (to paraphrase Kipling) what do they know of Australia who only the cities know! To the majority of its citizens much of our continent has been what it all was to the ancient cartographer who wrote, in a blank space in his map of the world, the words, Austrialia incognita. There has been some excuse for our ignorance in the past, with distances so extravagant and the methods of travel so restricted that only a lucky few could find time or means to "see Australia first;" but, like Molière's doctor, we have changed all that. Opportunity now knocks at every door. It is true that distances remain the same, but they may be conquered by any one in a normal holiday and one need no longer be a Croesus to finance the trip.
So deep and broad a country necessarily means many climates and a wide diversity of creatures, just as it suggests and compels a great range of occupation amongst its inhabitants. Despite their homogeneity there is a feeling that presently the varied methods of living dictated by climate, and the very real differences in daily experience between the southerner who knows snow and the northerner bordering on the equator, will breed such noticeable changes in the people that a citizen may be identified at once as hailing from one end or the other of the Commonwealth.
Coming down from the far north by steamer, I met a lad of twelve years, born and bred in Australia, who asked me what a rabbit was like. Now every one is aware that the rabbit is not native here but, seeing that it owns so much of Australia, I wondered to find there was a country youngster who had not seen one. I told the tale to a Melbourne boy. He was amused at the Queenslander's ignorance. But when I mentioned that there were crocodiles in the creek on the northern chap's property, the Melbournian eyed me with suspicion. Crocodiles he classed with lions and elephants as wholly exotic. Yet they are as truly Australian as the kangaroo.
Before the motor-car was known in the land, two ladies were driving Tommy, their twenty year old hack, through the Pitchi Pitchi Pass in the Flinders Range. The way was lonely, and at its loneliest part they met a turbaned Afghan, tall and bearded, who made as if to stop them. They were thoroughly scared. They shocked their ancient steed into a gallop, almost ran over their assailant, and not until they had covered a couple of miles did they relax the best pace the old horse could give them. Then, just as they were exclaiming with joy over their deliverance, they encountered what the Afghan had been trying to prepare them for. Camels! A string from the breeding place, Marree, some 400 miles north of Adelaide, was travelling west, and here it came—a long line of ungainly bodies and swaying necks, each with an ugly arrogant face at the end of it.
The horse is notoriously afraid of the camel—that is why an Afghan was always sent ahead to warn drivers that a herd was coming. As this lot swept into view Tommy forgot his years and took to the hills, incidentally crossing a wire fence and leaving the jinker with the two ladies on the near side of it.
Processional Caterpillars on a Walkabout
An Arab legend would have us believe that in the far-off days of Creation the Horse was dissatisfied with his shape. He appealed to Allah as the High Court and submitted an outline of what was really required to meet his views—a longer neck, for instance, more arch to his back, a swishier tail, and so on. Allah worked on the specifications and called the Horse to view the result. It was the Camel. One look was enough for the Horse: he ran for his life, and his progeny runs to this day whenever they catch sight of Allah's joke.
The history of the camel in Australia goes back as far as 1840, when two were imported from Teneriffe. They landed at Port Adelaide. Then in 1859 Sir Henry Barkly, Governor of Victoria from 1856 to 1863, was authorized to import some for the use of the Burke and Wills Expedition. Twenty-four were brought from Peshawar in India, some of them as baggage animals and some for riding. An Afghan accompanied them. But 1866 saw the real beginning of the industry in this country: Sir Thomas Elder brought in one hundred. A few of these died of mange, but the rest bred freely on Elder's station, Beltana, South Australia. They were found useful in the construction of the great overland telegraph line (Adelaide-Darwin) in 1871 to 1873, and ever since they have been an almost essential part of the Inland, although their value has shrunk appreciably since the motor-truck has made the carriage of goods and produce so much more expeditious.
The total number in Australia when they were most in use has been given as from 12,000 to 15,000. It has been recorded that the Arabian camel will carry a pack of three hundredweight, the Egyptian up to four hundredweight, and the Australian-bred up to six hundredweight, and that they will cover twenty-five miles a day with these loads. During the Elder Scientific Expedition of 1891-2, David Lindsay's riding camel travelled for twenty days on six gallons of water!
Rare as the sight of a camel is in the coastal areas, their plate-like footprints may be seen in many parts of the country and the great beasts may be met far from civilization, for some are running wild.
Endless miles of gibber, great level plains where the horizon is unbroken the whole way round, dwarf the car that trespasses upon them, until the motorist feels that he is of no importance at all. The stones are of every colour and of every size. At times they are no greater individually than buckshot and they range up to fair-sized boulders, but the general effect, to the eye, is one of evenness. Fascinating expanses they form, often with the mirage making charming lakes about their edges, lakes whose bays, promontories, islands and decorations of timber are realistic in the extreme. If you are of the people who trust what they see, then you are to be sadly deceived here. Strange, too, are the residuals, lone peaks capped with tough desert-sandstone which has stood the weathering of countless years, but is ever reluctantly yielding fragments to form yet another gibber plain. Always reducing and building up, fantastic in the extreme, they provide one of the oddest landscapes in Australia, a fitting gateway to that remarkable river of sand, the Finke.
An experienced traveller, after a long trip by car through the Inland of Australia, pronounced the tracks, on the whole, good. But what of the remainder? Well, they provide the something different! A powerful car conquers easily enough the sandhills, the even sandier river crossings, the stony flats, but the heavily-laden caravan may linger long on some of those obstacles.
Mulga Killed by Drought
The Wilderness Blossoms
While the inland rivers are, as a rule, no more than sandy or rocky depressions, they can be, on occasion, mighty torrents. Cooper's Creek, when I saw it, was more like a sandpit than a watercourse but we were assured by a station owner that he had seen it a sheet of water thirty miles wide!
So dry are these stream beds that one of the jokes of the bushman is to tell the new-chum that a line of dust seen in the distance is caused by a shoal of fish swimming up the river!
Chasms! Is there a series anywhere in the world to equal that of the Macdonnell Ranges! From that little town of Alice Springs, lying snugly in its ring of hills, one may know a dozen great water-cut gaps, any one of which would be sufficient to make a reputation for its countryside. Nature has spilt them there with a lavish hand—astonishing evidence of the hoary age of the ever-changing hills which the creating rivers have helped to shape. Heavitree Gap, so dose to the township that it has become a commonplace to the inhabitants—yet how arresting between its tumbling red walls; Attack Gap, looking down on Temple Bar Creek, its stern sides ablaze in the live air; Simpson's Gap, narrowing from lofty cliffs in a way that disguises its immense size; the Glen Helen Gorge, which should be renamed the Finke Gorge for it is that river's greatest achievement; Standley Chasm, only eighteen feet wide for its first hundred yards, a straight cut through a rocky range which rises nearly a thousand feet above it—but their name is legion and each gap is distinct and like no other.
The Inland of Australia is one of the few places where a bore is not only tolerated but welcomed. Not the human bores, who buttonhole you and tell you about themselves while you should be telling them about yourself, but the bores which are holes in the ground tapping supplies of that great essential—water. You meet them in many places, notably about the western borders of Queensland. Strange it is to come upon one gushing from an iron pipe in an un-peopled wilderness, and refreshing to the eye is the surrounding greenness after many miles of grey sand or the dullness of mulga. Some are very deep—one at least goes down 5000 feet. If you want tea without trouble, camp by the bore, for the water is at boiling heat when it reaches the surface. People who use good bore water come to like its faint tang of the unknown; they say rain water is insipid. Stock, too, take to it readily. Inland legend holds the story of the horses which had been born during a drought and had never known rain. They had been watered all their lives at a bore. There came floods one night which covered the bore and its troughs. Next morning the horses were seen swimming out to the old spot to get a drink!
There are people who do not believe that story.
Many are the animal oddities in the heart of Australia. The kangaroo and his like, strange early types, are common there as elsewhere in the continent, but certain quaint forms of life are peculiar to the vast interior. As I have recounted, frogs outlast years of drought by filling their bodies with water and burrowing deep before the pool they live in becomes completely dry; pond creatures remain as dead for incredible periods to revive miraculously with the first moisture; several species of birds, including parrots, have caught the owl habit of flying after dark; insects and reptiles, both innocent and harmful, abound in new shapes. Conspicuous in the belts of eucalypts are the nests of a big hairy caterpillar which never goes out alone but moves about as one of a long line that looks alarmingly like a snake when you come upon it undulating through the bush. The leader presumably knows where he is going—the others trust him blindly. His immediate follower has him by the tail, number three has number two similarly held, and so on until number thirty or more waggles along at the end like a rudder. I have broken the procession by pushing an individual out of place. At once the rank was closed by the detached portion accelerating. But when I arrested the rearmost insect, the news was passed along, the wriggling ceased and all waited for the kidnapped one to rejoin them. It suggested that all guidance and direction were really from the rear—the rudder determining the course, so to speak.
The nests, shiny brown bags of a tough parchment-like substance, are loathsomely full of cast skins and a mass of excreta. The natives believe that the contents cause blindness if they fall on the face. On their looks I quite believe it. As many as a dozen nests may be seen disfiguring one unfortunate tree, a real burden when a single nest may be over two feet long.
The bushmen eye the ordered march of these processional caterpillars with amusement and, as usual, have created some tall tales about them. One said, in his dry way, unsmiling and serious-seeming, that he turned the head of a procession round till it joined on to the tail, so making a complete circle. Five days later, when he passed again, that ring of caterpillars was still going round and round on the same spot!
City folk are so accustomed to the postman's daily deliveries, the whistle at the gate, the letter written in the evening received next morning, that they learn with astonishment of places in their own country to which His Majesty's mails do not run, or, if they do, they arrive at long intervals on camel-back. Once a month, for instance, a camel team leaves the railway line at Rumbelara to follow the windings of the Finke River and Ellery Creek and so keep certain outstations in touch with the civilized world. The mailman takes five days to do the 160 outward miles, he spends a day at the Hermannsburg Mission Station, his terminus, then he and his black boy "Four O'Clock" (so called because of the angle at which he customarily places his feet when standing about) start the return journey, hooshtaing their camels down each night at a waterhole, and sleeping none the less soundly because dingoes prowl and howl round the camp.
Of the huge station properties on those wide spaces, it is permissible to speak only in terms of square miles. No one goes down to the gate to meet the postman there!
"In the high and far-off times," as Kipling would say, there came to Australia a man and a dog. They are both here to-day—the man still practising a stone-age culture which he possibly brought with him, the dog still serving him, or running free in packs, and known as the dingo. The antiquity of the old-world civilizations is as nothing to the age of these aborigines—meet them and you have stepped across the centuries to a period so remote that it is lost in the mists that hide the early history of the human race. Your ancestors stand before you; at least a suggestion of what they were like and what they did is pictured in the sayings and doings of these primitives.
It is still possible, despite civilization's cancerous effect upon the tribes, to see untouched aborigines. As recently as last May a missionary from the Lutheran station at Hermannsburg preached, in halting Pindupi, to a chief and his six wives, all as naked as Adam before the Fall, near Haasts's Bluff in the western Macdonnell Ranges. A tolerant and kindly folk, they listened courteously and gave the white man of their best.
Modern man has forgotten how his forbears created fire. In the Inland of this continent he may learn again. A stick twirled rapidly for less than a minute, or a spear-thrower sawed, edge-on, across a shield for less than half that time and behold! man's greatest comfort is licking greedily at the dry wood on which it feeds. They know many useful things, these ancient peoples, of which we have lost all knowledge. We have advanced to better methods in most cases, but it is questionable if all the practices of the blackfellow were known to us, to be dropped as useless luggage on our forward march. Was there ever a time in the dead and gone centuries of our evolution when we possessed the faculty of communicating with our fellow creatures at great distances without even such an aid as wireless? The smoke signal of the native is an obvious means, however little understood by us, but what of the cases, vouched for by many Inlanders, in which there is no visible manifestation at all!
A couple of days' march to the east of a certain station is a north-south track used by two tribes. When one of these groups of people is on a walkabout and arrives at the turnoff to the station, the home blacks at once advise the whites of the impending visit, that is, forty-eight hours ahead of the actual arrival of the strangers. Not only that, but the particular tribe is named on each occasion. "Missus bin finis," said a black woman employed in the kitchen of a back-country home. The "missus" was her employer's mother, then visiting just over 400 miles away. Careful note, it is said, was made of the time of the lubra's statement. When word came through, it was found that the "missus" had "finished" (died) the morning of the announcement!
More credible, because readily observable and because so many dwellers in the Inland are prepared to vouch for it, is the statement that sign-language is a lingua franca in Australia, a language understood by all the tribes. Whether that is literally true or not I cannot say, but here is the testimony of a resident of long standing: "I have had a native sitting in the back of my truck and as we passed, without stopping, he has made signs to other blacks who in return have signalled more news than in two columns of a newspaper." The "boy" in the truck had come from Darwin, the others were Arunta people. That boy could not speak Arunta. His employer was in doubt one day about the track. A passing Arunta was seen and after some hand-waving the boy said he had learnt from the signs that they were to keep closer to the range. It was the track all right.
Changing, ever changing, yet in the short life of Man seemingly changeless, this great continent presents to the observer a museum of oddities and contradictions, each more fascinating than the other. The motor-car, that special product of the twentieth century, halts by the crude fireside of the stone age; giant bones, lying in what are now sandy wastes, testify to a bygone luxuriance of vegetation which fed and sheltered huge beasts; dry areas, remote from the coast, betray departed seas which once washed them; strange creatures, living fossils they have been called, creatures which have never grown up (in an evolutionary sense) hop, though they have four legs, fly, though they are quadrupeds, lay eggs, though they suckle their young, do, in short everything that is unexpected; rivers know no moisture for long periods of years but may be twenty miles wide of racing water; and, finally, the white settler, leasing an area as large as a European State and so remote from civilization that his mails would reach him earlier if he lived in England—that man may yet be in close touch with his fellows, because the latest thing in radio has been devised specially for him and by its use he may converse with the outer world, and command, almost as handily as a city dweller may call a medical man, the services of a flying doctor whose sole job it is to look after him.
Before I touch on the problem of the aboriginal, let me consider what the white man has to look forward to. He is a bold man who would utter prophecies about the future of that great region which, disregarding political boundaries, is commonly referred to as Central Australia or the Inland.
In this chapter I shall concern myself not so much with conclusions as with certain facts gathered at first hand.
Any views at all, particularly those of a visitor, must inevitably be challenged when one finds that there is no complete agreement amongst the inhabitants themselves. As everywhere else, local opinion is swayed by the occupations of the speakers or by their other personal interests. One pessimist said the only industries worth anything in such a country were "dogging and birding," by which he meant killing dingoes for their scalps and catching birds, mainly parrots such as the delicate-toned Bourkes and the rare Princess Alexandra, for the southern markets.
On the other hand I met recently a landowner who, far back as he is from the fortnightly train, is outraging the cattle sense of his neighbours by successfully running sheep. He had luck, they say, for the rain came at just the right time to certain parts of his big property (all property is big here, judged by southern standards), but he has deserved his luck because of his courage and enterprise. When I last saw him he was bidding for another good year by increasing his flock; if his foresight is rewarded he will be in a position to face many bad seasons. Of course his sheep must be shepherded because of the wild dogs, but native labour is cheap and reliable, and he is prepared to pay, and is paying, for the advance he is making in prosperity.
His next-door neighbour (a very close neighbour as things go in that part, for he is only ten miles away) is also tackling sheep, and is likewise finding the experiment good. He is so far out that no mailman comes near him; when he wants news he must run the truck something over one hundred miles to the nearest siding, 100 miles of stony creek beds and soft sandhills. Sometimes his papers and letters have been three months old when he has received them.
A stranger came his way once. There was a lively dust-storm in progress. The visitor waited for the worst to blow past, looked at the moving landscape, then gazed reflectively at the settler. "You know," he said in tones of the most earnest conviction, "you're mad!"
But he is far from being mad. He is an enthusiast, he knows the land thoroughly, he likes his job and he is, in his own phrase, making a do of it. His one complaint is that a far-away administration, which knows little of the very real difficulties and dangers of this remote life, charges him—an opener-up of new country—the same rate as is charged those nearer settlement, and charges it while the whole enterprise is in the exploratory stage, and before water has been located. He did not object to having to find the fluid without which no settlement could be, or to sinking his own wells and tanks, but he thought, and with considerable show of reason, that the Government should encourage such enterprise as his, so materially helpful to the State, by remission of charges for the first few years, or at least until water had been discovered.
I have said that large stations are the commonplace. They must be large; there may be many waste miles in a run. The unit in the south is the acre; in the Centre it is the square mile. Reducing one of these runs to southern terms gives it nine and a quarter million acres. Cattle are, of course, the mainstay, and they need room. A small station (it was only some 1500 square miles) lost practically all its stock in a lengthy drought. Trouble did not cease with the coming of the rain; the herbage grew, grew in the wonderful way it does in the Inland, but there were no cattle to eat it, and years had to pass before the stock could be adequately renewed. On the other hand, I have been assured by an owner that in nine years (1922-31) he had a total rainfall of only eleven inches on his property, yet he sold fat cattle every year. He could do excellently, he said, on three inches a year.
Stock-raising would seem to be the lasting industry, but it must always vary in value with the seasons. The range of those values is all-embracing: it includes prosperity, in a series of good seasons, and absolute ruin, in a run of bad ones. But cattle, horses, camels, donkeys, sheep and goats are not regarded by all as the wealth of the country. A great portion of the Inland is known to carry minerals of value and never perhaps have there been so many men out prospecting as at the present day. The extremely high price of gold is an incentive Australia-wide, and the story about the unfortunate Lasseter's "reef" or "cave" has made gold-seeking in the Centre more than ever popular.
The more obvious of the minerals are opal (several huge fields have been proved about the borders of the Northern Territory), mica (the basis of a considerable industry), wolfram, tin and gold.
At the time of writing, Alice Springs is somewhat excitedly regarding Tennant Creek as a possible Coolgardie. Although 300 miles away, the Alice is the nearest township to this new goldfield and, if only commercially, as the most accessible source of supplies, it is naturally greatly interested. The rush to The Granites, two years ago, was a tragedy; but expert opinion in Alice Springs (the centre for that place too) declared that The Granites would yet pay its way and that one mine at least was doing well there. About Tennant Creek there appears to be less doubt.
It seems to me that the future of the Central Inland is summed up in one word—water! A steady supply of water is the great need. With it, much is possible; without it I venture to think the country as it stands has reached saturation point of population. (Yes, that sounds like a contradiction in terms, but let it go!) Many before me have stressed this need, and many have suggested a probable remedy in continuous boring to reach the underground reserves of water. Alice Springs gets good water by shallow sinking; in western Queensland bores 5000 feet deep spill endless millions of gallons of water, making possible the passage of cattle over otherwise parched areas.
A great river bed like that of the Finke, usually a sandy depression, and no more, in practically the whole of its thousand miles, brings down enormous floods from time to time. Can that water, now not used, be conserved? I put the question to the then head of our State Rivers and Water Supply, and he not only said "Yes," but indicated how the big problem of evaporation could be overcome.
But, suppose that dams were thrown across some of those narrow gorges cut by streams through the Macdonnell Ranges, and reservoirs were established—what follows? The answer is that the soil will grow most things—witness the gardens in Alice Springs—and here is the only requirement needed to stimulate that soil into activity.
Yes, but what are you going to do with the produce? The local population is small, other markets are so distant that transport costs would eat up all profit. There is only one reply—bring the population to the goods if you cannot get the goods to the population. Is that absurd? Not at all! All that is required is an important goldfield, a Kalgoorlie or a silver-lead field like Broken Hill. Both those places were in impossible wildernesses; look at them now! The Tennant Creek goldfield or the Jervois Range mineral deposits may yet prove the value of this theory.
Summarized it comes to this: a rich mining field produces not only the money necessary for water conservation and public work generally, but provides the population to make agriculture, cattle breeding, sheep rearing, and all other primary industries payable concerns.
Until that elusive field is discovered, my feeling is that Central Australia, with its periodical plunges into arid conditions, can progress only very slowly indeed. Immense areas must be reserved for the cattle-stations, and for the fewer sheep holdings, and these cannot be settled more closely. Yet without more settlers little advance can be expected.
I have not brought the aborigines into this matter. If settlement increases they will, unfortunately, be pushed aside as a matter of course. If the whole area were deserted by the whites the tribes are so shattered in most localities that their recovery, as tribes, seems impossible.
One thing remains—the tourist. He is of immense value to other countries, and his money is even now an appreciable item in the far Inland. But our Centre cannot be a Switzerland or a New Zealand until conditions of travel there are more to the liking of the type of traveller one commonly finds, constantly seeking the show places of nature, but expecting to view them under luxurious conditions.
Yet the charm is there, in that vast lonely Inland, a real charm which holds you for all time when once it catches you. The wide gibber plains give an unequalled sense of freedom, the fauna and the flora are unique (in the true sense of that abused word), and the mountains! See from the flat at the Alice the sun strike the Macdonnells as it rises on a clear winter morning and you will see a sight to stay with you for ever. I know nothing finer.
Professor S. D. Porteus, who occupies the chair of Clinical Psychology in the University of Hawaii, came to Australia at the instance of the Australian National Research Council, to test the intelligence of the blackfellows, and to take physical measurements of this dying people. That, as I have said, was in 1929. He it was who led the small expedition of which I was a member, and he it was who applied the mental tests, while to my lot fell the task of ascertaining and recording each man's height, chest capacity, strength of arm, leg and back, and many another necessary detail. This work was to throw us into such intimate association with the Arunta tribe, a tribe made world-famous by Strehlow, Baldwin Spencer, Gillen, Basedow, and others, that we were able to make some very interesting observations.
Our headquarters we fixed at Hermannsburg, where the Lutheran missionaries rule and where we found not only hospitality but abundant material for our researches. It is about ninety miles west of Alice Springs, the terminus of the north-south railway line built by the Australian Commonwealth. Camel trains plod in and out to carry supplies to Hermannsburg, and to cattle-stations even farther out, but the camels take three days to travel the ninety miles. A motor-truck reduced the time to six or seven hours.
The train to the Alice ran once a fortnight. A notice board had caught the eye at one remote spot where a dusty track showed that sometimes vehicles crossed the line at this point. All around lay unpeopled desolation. The notice read: "Beware of Trains!"
A fierce wind had raged a few days before our visit, and its effects were still visible. It had carried the desert sand, sand as fine as any in an hour-glass, as far as the coastal towns where it had fallen as "red rain," charging the Spring showers with a pigment which marked the streets and the dwellings as with stains of blood. Soft and almost in-palpable as this sand was, it stopped our train twenty-six times in one stretch of ten miles. Each time a gang of men, travelling ahead for the purpose, had to dig the line out to let us through.
Alice Springs was reached on the third day. We came to it by way of one of the amazing gaps cut by Nature through the Macdonnell Ranges. These mountains, as I have said, extend east and west for some 300 miles across the centre of Australia and they are pierced at irregular intervals by deep ravines, really river beds, which provide the only means by which north and south traffic may pass through such a mighty barrier. The ravines, or gaps, may be no more than a few yards wide; their walls may tower up seven or eight hundred feet. The rivers which have made them are usually destitute of water, but floods course down from time to time and turn them into formidable streams, often miles across.
Ours was the second passenger train to reach Alice Springs, so the people turned out, almost en masse, to welcome it. The population then might be 200; the shops and houses formed a long straggling main street, in the sand of which still stood some fine eucalyptus-trees. Deep indeed must the roots go to derive sustenance from such soil in such a season. A cool hotel, some official residences with deep verandas, an hostel maintained beautifully by the Australian Inland Mission, a few stores, a tiny school—and one had seen Alice Springs.
Some half-castes and a few natives living in diminutive humpies on the far side of the Todd River were all the aborigines visible in the settlement. We chartered a motortruck, loaded it with our measuring and testing apparatus and set out along the Macdonnell Ranges westward. We travelled most of the day; through Heavitree Gap, across plains covered with dusty mulga and desert oak and some Hakea, or over low hills rough with spinifex and porcupine grass, now rushing across stony river beds with never a drop of water in them, always with the mountains, now close, now distant, towering up on either side. Then from a sandhill we saw the Krichauff Range, standing a purple bar across the sunset, and in the middle distance the cement houses of Hermannsburg.
The Germans of this outpost in the wilderness have toiled long and faithfully as missionaries to convert the native people to Christianity. I shall not question the results; I shall only bear witness to the earnestness of the endeavour. Here it was that the missionary Strehlow laboured for so many years and from here he supplied the material of his monumental book on the Australian aboriginal.
He compiled, too, certain word-books of the Arunta, Dieri, Luritja and other native languages. It is a pity that these are still unpublished manuscripts, for the tribes are going or have gone, and their languages have gone with them. Strehlow's writings were in German; here is an opportunity for a learned society in the Fatherland, or elsewhere, to publish, and so place in permanent form, some unusually interesting work of scientific value.
About 300 men, women and children, mostly members of the famous Arunta tribe, were listed in the books of the mission, and a number of these was always available for testing. So for three weeks we worked every day and eventually put together a valuable set of records which Professor Porteus has since worked out in Hawaii and published in his Psychology of a Primitive People. Very friendly was the general attitude towards us and we were gratified when after a short period of close association we were told that we had been admitted as members of the tribe.
This can best be described as a kind of honorary membership; mercifully it called for no participation in the customary initiation rites, embracing as they do the knocking out of a front tooth, the ceremony of circumcision and the still more painful practice of sub-incision.
Clearing Railway After Dust-storm (Near William Creek)
A Dwelling at Hermannsburg
Nevertheless we were members, and it was soon apparent that every one knew exactly his or her relationship to us. Tribal kinship goes further than the white man's limited relationship by marriage or by blood. We found we had numerous brothers and sisters and even, absurd as it may seem, a number of (for want of a better name) fathers and mothers apiece. A little girl, Angeluka, was brought to me and introduced as one of my mothers. She was possibly nine years old. Eight others were later to claim similar relationship.
There were nearly a hundred children at the mission, bright-eyed smiling youngsters with whom we were soon very much at home. In the daytime they were our companions as often as we could have them; in the evenings they invariably sang to us. This is what used to happen on those spring nights. I wrote it at the time:
I mankilna kuta
Ara ntjara indora
Imka kat mugala
Lata bula ta itja
The soft desert darkness is all about us, the little fires of the children are lighted, they sit in circles round them singing. "Jinga arbalama..." what is this haunting new-old song? I feel like Wordsworth regarding his solitary reaper:
Will no one tell me what she sings?—
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago.
Yet the language should not, maybe, sound foreign to Australian ears. It is pure Australian. The singers are the youngsters of two native tribes, the place is almost the exact centre of our huge continent, and the tongue is Arunta, made world-famous by many scientists. The voices rise shriller than the cicada chorus of a still day in summer and with much of the vibrant quality that is in the high-pitched strains of those fairy fiddlers. But what is the air?—the words may be Arunta and strange, but the tune is familiar. Ah, I know; it is the ancient German Lorelei, transported to these wild surroundings, and words given to it to voice the feelings of a people who are doomed. They see their land taken from them, they see their native animals passing down a road on which their feet too are set, and a teacher, with rare poetic insight, has put into their mouths this version of the old-world song...Jimga arbalama... They are saying: "I do not know the name of my sadness. I often think of the olden days when plenty kangaroos sat on the hills. To-day I cannot find a single one."
Sad it is, but they are not deeply affected, these happy children of a naturally smiling race. "Mara imdora!" (very good) we cry, and with flashing white teeth, as yet unspoiled by the Arunta practice of knocking out an incisor, and with the merriest laughing eyes, they echo, even more shrilly than they sang, "Mara indora!"
Just as they have no form of salutation, so they appear to have no folk songs truly their own. The corroboree chants, at once monotonous and gripping, are not for these infants. Their world of music is a European one and they have adapted themselves to it wonderfully. Sometimes, too, they sing the English words. "Three blind mice!" announces the superintendent, and they are off, at a pitch I have never heard approached by any other human beings, in the repetitions of the adventures the farmer's wife had with the afflicted rodents.
It is hard to say which soars highest towards heaven, the boys' voices or the girls'. We chance it: "Warra mara yielima!" we proclaim in our best Arunta. There is a shriek of delight from all, but mainly from the boys, for what we have said is: "The boys sing nicely!" An excited yabber is followed by an unintelligible request from two of the older girls who have stolen up close, emboldened by the darkness. We guess its import. "Three blind mice, three blind mice," we chant and they are in full cry once more. This time we again applaud with vigorous "Mara indora," then, diplomatically, "Quarra mara yielima," signifying that it is the girls now who have excelled. Tumult greets this, laughter predominating.
A young moon hangs in the west, paled by the amber glow that lingers from the sun. Above is the great arch dwarfing us all to insignificance. The little fires die down and the little people creep towards us, less shy in the night than in the light of day. They come closer and closer till we are standing in a stirring pool of dark forms. "Quiet!" commands the superintendent. They have been served with fresh clothes to-day. "Are you all still clean and tidy?" he asks. "Aua!" they chorus, all safely agreeing to that in the dark. Then, for he is also schoolmaster, he attempts to display their mental paces. "What does 'untidy' mean?" he inquires, with strong emphasis on the "un." The bright boy, as much in evidence here as in any white school, knows and answers promptly. "Breakem trouser!" says he.
But they're off again. Someone has hummed "Abide With Me" and to hint at a known air is to start the whole pack. What vigour they put into it; still the rendering is not without a certain light and shade. Withal it is musical.
We find that they are always wanting new songs. So we rack our memories for fairly simple examples and presently they are following us in the Hawaiian "Mokehana Lei." It is astonishing how quickly they learn both the music and the words. Before the session is over they are giving a colourful imitation of our rendering, and next day, wherever a few of the younger natives gather together, we will hear solos develop into choruses:
Mokehana Lei with its sweetness
Bringing happy memories of Kauai,
There are all the valleys,
There are all the palis,
Mokehanai that I love!
One cannot help wondering what will be the speculations of the first visitor from Honolulu to encounter the song in these surroundings.
More popular still is "Old Macdonald had a farm," which they find humorous to a degree. They delight particularly in the turkeys—"With a gobble gobble here, and a gobble gobble there, here a gobble, there a gobble, everywhere a gobble-gobble" and while still in the learning stage they keep on asking for "Mo' tuckey." An additional gobble thrown in never fails to convulse them with laughter. We teach them also "Good Night Ladies" which they sing with fine effect.
Soft little hands are touching us by this time, timidly at first, then more boldly as they feel no repulse. A few wild children are amongst the others to-night, Luritjas from the naked tribe newly camped on the Finke River below the station, and they hold aloof; but it seems as if all the rest, every single one of the eighty odd, have attached themselves to our hands or our clothing. I did not know that an ordinary number eight hand could be so expansive—I must have at least half a dozen tiny grubby paws in each of mine. There is something attractive in every young creature, and these helpless babes of the Stone Age, thrust as they have been without any preparation into a world in which they have no place, make a special appeal...How close are tears and smiles! Sentiment is strong within me as I stoop towards the dark heads. One small fellow of about nine years lifts his face with a brilliant smile to meet me. "Me you fader!" he says. I laugh, but he is right: we two white men were made members of the Arunta nation a few days before. He is one of my several fathers. As we have each a number of mothers-in-law (who, by the merciful laws of our people, may never speak to us!) it follows that we have many wives. Personally I have recorded the names of nine belonga me. "How many wives this pfella?" I ask, anxious to learn my full responsibilities. A blackfellow readily counts up to ten by means of his hands; anything over that is "mob." "Oh, mob wife!" is the cheery response, the stress on "mob."
They don't know how comical their next selection sounds to our ears. It is Harry Lauder's "Roamin' in the Gloamin'," learnt from a gramophone record and reproduced with ludicrous imitation of the broad Scotch. In swift succession come "The Song of Australia" (their birthright song, if they only knew it!) and two war memories (though not for them) in "A Long Long Trail A-winding" and "Tipperary."
I flash my torch to see the effect. They are too much accustomed to fire to be impressed save by the ease of the lighting. "Blow!" I say, in an incautious moment, and set the example, switching off the light as I do so. Wild excitement follows. All must blow it out in turn and the circle of light reveals each time an eager young face, dark brown rather than black, surmounted by hair of the tone of ebony and relieved by a pair of the brightest of bright eyes and a set of the whitest of white teeth. How quick they are to smile, how readily they laugh! I feel a great liking for these, my own people of another colour and another Age.
"Kalla!" (enough) calls the teacher. It is bed-time. The little fires are dead, the moon is low, though the night is yet young. Everybody is vocal at once; a babel of rapid talk mingles with snatches of song. The song has it and all are united again in one melody. But what is it? This is something new, even to the teacher. The leaders are obviously two girls of about fifteen. We ask for it again and find it a song composed, words and music, by this pair of young people partly in our honour and partly in that of an Adelaide University party which had visited the station some months before and had done some fine medical work. The individual to be honoured is named in the last words of the verse. As Professor Porteus and I are present it is his or my name to-night, coupled with a reference to our projected departure from the station:
Jakkai, jakkai, angai
Lena atua tjulkaraka,
Reka ekara Mister Croll
is what they sing, meaning that they are sorry to thgink that the white man has gone from them whose name is Mister Croll (or Professor Porteus if it were his turn).
"A last song," says the teacher, "Era relia..." and with the vim that is too generally absent from more civilized gatherings they burst into:
Era relia mara indora,
Era relia mara indora,
Era relia mara indora,
In other words "For he's a jolly good fellow, and so say all of us!" For the "Hip Hurrah" they substitute "Jakkai! Ndurbai!" which being freely translated, says, "Yes! He certainly is!"
To a medley of "Good Night Ladies" and "Mokehama Lei" the girls move off to their quarters. The boys turn towards theirs, some fifty paces away. We find ourselves each with an escort of closely clinging forms, much as a queen bee centres a swarm. From one of those unable to secure attachment comes a burst of familiar song. His accent is quaint but the air is unmistakable.
"Mara, Mara, quite contrara," he sings, and "How does your garden grow?" I break in. It is delightful to hear them finish the old nursery rhyme.
They pass into their long cement house bearing armfuls of wood and many lighted sticks, for they must have a fire these cool nights. "Goood night, goood night, goood night" comes from them all; then, as the door is shut, a final call, in a voice so young as to be almost babyish, reaches our ears: "Goood night, Mister Croll, my son."
It is one of my youthful fathers bestowing his blessing in all seriousness upon his very much older tribal offspring.
"Bush tucker" could hardly be called plentiful about Hermannsburg; there was too great a congestion of natives for many food creatures or much edible vegetation to remain in the neighbourhood. I wanted honey-ants, and I thought, till I saw them, that I wanted to taste witchetty grubs. No ants were available on any of my visits; the grubs, the living ones anyway, I could not manage.
My young friend Urabulla had something in his hand. He held it out. "You eatem witchetty grub?" he asked. His dark pleasant face was serious; but there was a hint of humour in the bright brown eyes, and the hint grew to a definite sparkle of pleasure as I examined his offering. It was a wood-grub about four inches long and as thick as my finger, resembling a very faintly animated piece of suet. In Scotland it might have passed as the young of an anaemic haggis. A slight wriggle, as I took it, assured me that it was alive. Urabulla regarded it as a white child would look upon a stick of chocolate. He was evidently "treating" his friend.
"You eatem?" he asked again, and I remembered that I had asked for this, that I had said I should like to taste more of the native food—indeed had specifically named the witchetty grub. The thing wriggled again. Urabulla looked expectant; I think his mouth watered...No, I couldn't face it. "Urabulla," I said, "no eatem now; plenty dinner; no more."
A native youngster will masticate the grub au naturel, with the gusto of a white child chewing a lump of toffee. Urabulla, however, lit a small fire, browned his sample nicely, and in that way made an excellent hors-d'oeuvre.
I was reminded of this, and of happy days spent in Central Australia, by the arrival yesterday of a box of honeyants—another aboriginal delicacy. As an article of diet they do not offend white man's ideas quite so much as the grubs do, but all the same some courage is needed to tackle them. A live ant, whose head you grasp between finger and thumb in order that you may bite off its swollen body, cannot be regarded as attractive. This consignment, however, sent by Rex Battarbee, the artist whose work has done so much to make the Inland known, is not intended to serve as a meal. Several of the insects are alive, and these favoured specimens of Camponotus inflatus are now enjoying a luxurious existence at the Melbourne University, while those that have died have been added to several entomological collections.
Tillyard is responsible for the statement that the genus is represented in Australia by something like a hundred species, but apparently only a few of these have the honey-pot habit. That habit is surely among the most extraordinary of Nature's many queer provisions. Inflatus is in appearance just an ordinary ant, a creature somewhat smaller than our common red sugar-ant, and there is nothing about the worker, following his lawful occasions in the mulga, to suggest his unusual method of storing the honey he is gathering. He has apparently found it beyond the ability of his people to build suitable storehouses, as the bees do of wax, in which to keep safely such chancy stuff as honey, so he has invented a living storehouse—the body of a fellow ant.
How the choice is made of the fortunate, or unfortunate, creature which is to spend the rest of its days inert, a mere helpless bag of sweetness, is not known. Seemingly any ordinary member of the community is eligible. Once selected, the workers bring to it their daily gains of nectar from the exudation of insects, from the flowering mulga or other plants, or from wherever it is they find their supply. John Shaw Neilson wrote of the bees:
All their day's love is sunken
Safe in the comb—
The poet who would sing these other wonder-workers must find a rhyme for "abdomen," for that is where the "day's love" of the honey-ant is sunken. The "honey-pots" swallow the nectar brought to them, but keep it for the general use of the colony. They have two stomachs—the one private, the other communal.
I have a series of the ants before me as I write. The larva is a flabby, wrinkled, cream-coloured object, with but little definition of head; the adult worker is black, save for bands of brown across the back of the abdomen. The various stages of inflation are well illustrated in the next nine specimens. As the body swells, the brown bars (really a thin membrane) stretch until they present the appearance of a shiny deep-toned cherry, a cherry reinforced with dark bands of chitin, that horny substance which helps to form the overcoats of invertebrates. As the head and thorax remain unaltered, the animal looks ludicrously disproportioned.
The Author and Some Tribal Relatives (A Bultara Group)
Yarumpa the Honey-ant
Baldwin Spencer says that honey-ants similarly modified occur in certain parts of America, and suggests that the modifications may be connected with the fact that all these ants, including our Australian species, are found in dry, arid country.
When a member of the ant community requires nourishment, it caresses the honey-pot with its antennae, and the living pantry, this sentient storehouse, passes out from its mouth a drop of the desired food. One speculates upon how much of the precious substance the trusted guardian is permitted, or permits itself, to absorb for its own nutrition.
The aborigines are fond of the Yarumpa, as the Arunta tribe call this black honey-ant, and gather it, whenever they can, in great numbers. There is no mound on the surface to indicate where a nest is located; a small hole leads vertically to the passages and chambers in which the home life is led. Mr Battarbee, writing from Hermannsburg, records that these present ants were down in the earth about three feet and that the living honey-pots were stowed away in rows, the big, full dark ones being at the bottom in far corners, while the eggs were near the top. He added that the natives sometimes bring in the equivalent of a billyful, and I remember reading in Spencer, somewhere, that he had seen the surface of a stretch of country turned over for these ants so thoroughly that it looked as if it had been prospected for gold.
I was interested to know that it was an old acquaintance of mine, Titus (habitually pronounced Tittus), who had dug out this lot for me. He it was who looked so incredulous when we walked the bush together and I could not see certain tracks which were so obvious to him; but I remember him best because it was with him that Professor Porteus and I entered a certain sacred corroboree cave, once a storehouse for Churinga. It was black as midnight inside; we had to crawl with our heads close to the ground, and we had no torch. Very carefully did I sweep the floor ahead of me with a stick—I had no desire to meet a snake at face level. Then, as the roof lifted and a match was struck, something sprang at us suddenly and swiftly from the shadows and passed so dose that our light flickered and all but went out.
It was only a bat; but I never did care for caves, so we crept out again (I hope with no undue haste) to sit in the blessed sunlight and eat the lunch provided by the hospitable missionaries of the Finke River, a lunch, I need hardly say, which contained neither witchetty grub nor honey-ant.
After I returned to the humdrum life of the city, a public appeal was made by the Finke River Mission for funds to lay pipes from the Korporilya Springs to the Mission. The appeal reminded me of a walkabout I shared one day with some sixty little black children.
The Korporilya Springs are five miles from Hermannsburg. In a land where a drought may persist for years, the springs have never been known to fail; their value is beyond stating.
Great was the excitement at the station when the picnic was announced. The youngsters dashed about in great glee. By ten o'clock we were off, a long straggling chattering line, the older children carrying the tucker (mainly flour for a damper), the younger dodging about like dogs let loose from the chain, their sharp eyes missing nothing. Woe betide the animal, whether beetle, lizard, grub, snake, or anything else that could be tracked down, which showed a trail across the path to Korporilya that morning! Everything is food to the blackfellow.
The way led across sandy flats as dry as the Sahara or over stony ridges where only an occasional hardy tree, clinging desperately to life, broke the skyline. A broad pad showed plainly. To a southerner like myself, accustomed to the narrow tracks made by our native creatures and by sheep and cattle, this would have been a puzzle had I not known that two camels, burdened with metal containers, daily paced this ten miles to bring in water to the station. The camel's big spongy foot leaves a print as if a dinner-plate had been pressed on the soil; a much-used track winds across the desert with the definition of a motor road.
Crows caa-ed sadly, but beyond that there was no sign of life, at least to the eyes of a white pfella. But here came a change! All at once we had arrived at green vegetation, the lining of a creek bed where the waters of Korporilya spread out and vanished in the thirsty sands. Trees flourished, birds sang, and, from the shade, soft Arunta voices hailed the children. A group of adults was camped at this the only spot for many miles where there was a real chance of securing some "bush tucker." The well-picked backbone of a pirinti testified to one feast, and presently a tall native came down the hillside carrying on his shoulder the still-warm body of a euro (a kind of kangaroo) which he had killed.
Never had the value of water, both to man and beast, been so emphasized to me as when we passed from the desert into this oasis.
Pushing up the valley we came to pools sheltering below steep hillsides and finally to the actual source, where, crystal-clear, cool and inviting, the stream gushed from crevices in a face of rock. This was the spot, and the scattered children clustered round as a fire was lighted and the preparation began for lunch.
Bark was stripped from a tree to use as a kneading-board and busy little hands went to work, amidst a great clatter of tongues, to mix the flour and water to a right consistency. There were sixty-four children and enough separate little dampers were made to go all round, with one or two over for luck. While these were cooking in the ashes we scattered about the watercourse and the hot hillsides, the white pfellas finding much to increase their knowledge, the kiddies something, doubtless, to please their appetites. But we did not wander far with that smell of cooking ever calling us back.
Presently we were lined up, and the dampers, done to a turn (or so it seemed to the hungry circle) were scraped from the fire and handed out. To the joy of the youngsters I had taken my place in the line with them and insisted on my share, but something better than "store teeth" is needed for a successful attack on such food and, after a brave show of enjoying it, I was glad to give my bullet-proof lump to the better-equipped youngsters about me.
Two small naked Luritja children, whose tribe had come in from the far Macdonnells a few days before, had been brought to this walkabout. Shy, wondering little things, with no English and no Arunta, I would have given something to be able to know their thoughts of it all.
There was other food to follow, and we rested and took photographs, enjoying more than I can say the luxury (most city folk cannot realize what a luxury it can be) of running water to drink and to wash in. Later we sent the children downstream out of the way and we enjoyed to the full the second of the only two baths it had been found possible for us to have while in that drought-stricken country.
As we caught up with young Australia again, two of the boys raced to Mr Heinrich (the Superintendent) calling rapidly in Arunta. "They have two snakes down there to show you," he explained. "Saucy pfella?" I asked the lads, meaning were they poisonous snakes. They said "No." "Big pfella?" "Not big pfella." They led us to a little pool where the two "snakes" were being watched by a curious crowd of adults and kiddies. To our astonishment the reptiles, so-called, proved to be worms, apparently the common earth-worm. (Baldwin Spencer has noted that the earth-worm is seldom found in these parts.)
Near by stood a handsome tree, perhaps twenty feet high, with pendent branches and a crop of bright yellow seed-pods, resembling those of our Victorian pittosporum. The blacks called it tnauta. Round about were innumerable shells of a native snail which had perished in thousands, presumably because of the drought. A flat-topped rock, just the height of a table, proved to be of exceptional interest, for this was the famous rain-stone of the Arunta tribe. Taking a handful of the bleached snail-shells, the wise man rubbed them to powder on the stone, shaping clouds from their dust and invoking the aboriginal Jupiter Pluvius to fill them with moisture. There were no evidences that the rain-maker had made any recent attempts; he was probably too good a weather prophet.
And so home. The children straggled and grew weary and the bigger ones carried the smaller till we all reached Hermannsburg again. That they revived at once was evidenced by the shrill chatter that broke out at the sight of parents and was maintained for hours afterwards.
At the station itself the problem of water was serious indeed. It would have been too costly to remove the buildings to Korporilya so Korporilya must be brought to the buildings. The fall of the land favours a pipe-line, labour was available, and the supply of water inexhaustible. Three years before, the drought brought death by scurvy to forty-three of the natives at the station; how many perished in the wilds can never be known. Had there been then this water-supply, those lives would have been saved, for the water means fresh vegetables and fruit and, what is important indeed to these dispossessed people, steady employment to take the place of the native activities no longer possible to them but so essential to their health and well-being.
All this has now been attained, for the pipes are laid, the water flows, and the mission gardens, full of green vegetables, are a welcome sight to behold.
The camel is very much in evidence at Hermannsburg. He is still used as a beast of burden and many a tourist (for tourists now commonly pass through the mission reserve as a side trip on their way to Darwin) has had the novel experience of riding one of the big beasts from the Finke to the oasis at Palm Valley. I recall very vividly indeed my first mount.
The beast sat before me, saddled and bridled, holding his ridiculous head with that injured air which all camels affect. They seem to have been born annoyed, and to have disapproved of everything since. As I approached he turned his face my way, opened his mouth to show a set of great, ugly, yellow teeth, and let out an astonishing roar. It was at once plaintive and threatening, the roar of a beast dying in unendurable agony, but determined to slay any one who touched it. Later I was to know that this is the correct thing in camel circles; the performance was repeated whenever the proper occasion arose.
A stirrup hung from the saddle at the rear of the hump. To an accompaniment of heart-rending groans and threats of biting, I mounted to the seat, adjusted my feet, and took a firm grasp of the reins. I suppose that there is good reason for it, but to the novice the contrivance offered for the control of a lofty, overbearing creature like the camel seems the most inadequate which could be suggested. As I experienced it, it was a piece of clothes-line in a loop round the neck, the forward ends fastened to a few inches of ordinary string. This in turn was tied to a small stick, known as a nosepeg, and the nosepeg was stuck through a hole bored in the side of the left nostril of the camel. That was all there was either to guide the steed or to check any misbehaviour on his part. If you pulled hard the nosepeg came out, and if you did not pull hard the camel took no notice of you. I soon learned that a stout stick was better than all the pulling.
But the camel still sat; how was I to make him rise and go? Terence entered, a sturdy young Arunta native, perhaps aged twenty-five years, taciturn, up to all camel tricks. He kicked Korporilya (for so I named my mount) in the badly upholstered portion of him which to some extent concealed his ribs, and I had just time to grasp the pommel when the upheaval began. Without warning the rear part rose halfway and flung me forward. With no pause the front part responded and threw me back. Again the tail portion ascended, once more the front—and I was on a level keel and safe for the moment. The camel may be said to form fours as he rises, and he folds into fours as he subsides again. Some of my tribal friends made no attempt to disguise their enjoyment of the scene. I had figuratively, as well as literally, gone up in their estimation.
We were well out in the desert to the west of Alice Springs, and were about to follow the great Finke River as far as the Palm Valley and its neighbouring Glen of Palms—proofs, the geologists say, that once this country enjoyed tropical conditions, for there alone in that district grow palms. All about us stood groups of the Arunta tribe, appreciative to the full of the white man's awkwardness. Doubtless the scene was cleverly mimicked, good actors that they are, for the pleasure of many a future camp. How high it seemed on that elevated perch! I looked down with a feeling of almost Alpine aloofness. But just then we started, for Korporilya was not going to be left behind the other two camels which formed our team. In the lead was Ranji, an old bull camel, with Terence on him. He was easy to follow; we calculated that he roared a protest at every tenth pace. As we wound through the gorges of the Krichauff Range he woke the echoes until we felt that the whole listening world must know his woe. Only when he was unharnessed and turned loose at night did he subside. Once, on the homeward journey some days later, he missed his beat, and there was an astonishing silence. "Ranji has decided to be a strong, silent camel!" called my companion, and even the impassive Terence looked interested. But I was too soon with my answering quotation:
Silence, like a poultice, comes to heal the blows of sound,
for Ranji broke in midway, and peace fled.
The route by the ever-winding Finke has been described. Possibly there are few rivers in the world quite like this 1000-mile long depression, which customarily knows no water from end to end. The camels would grab at a thorn bush in passing, tearing off a spiky mouthful, or, suddenly stretching their long necks, would almost unseat the riders to snatch a hardly visible plant of parakelia, the only juicy-looking growth in all that wilderness. Into Palm Valley we passed at the pace set by camels; a pace, by the way, which is much faster than it looks. They cover thirty miles a day, even with heavy loads. Here, for the first and only time in a fortnight, we encountered fresh water. All about the creek bed were the famous palms; from the towering rock walls drooped cycads, birds twittered and sang, and we forgot for a while the savage desert which lay about us, since it held in its thirsty hands this cup of comfort.
A camper for so much of my life, I was particularly interested to see how our blackfellow would settle down for the night. It was simple enough; he chose a sandy spot, lit a very small fire, and was at home. But first, with many a vigorous "Hooshta!" we had made our still groaning camels kneel and had unloaded each. Hobbled, and with the traditional camel-bell tinkling, they were left to wander where they would. For a considerable time they ruminated, sitting like small hillocks in the growing dusk, then one by one they rose and began to feed. Their bells rang ever more softly as the great beasts wandered farther away, until at last we noticed them no longer.
Professor Porteus and Author in a Tributary of The Finke
A Group Of Luritjas
Terence was busy at his tiny blaze. He was kneading flour on a piece of bark. "You makem damper, Terence?" I asked. "Aua!" said he, and later gave me a generous hunk of the result. It looked rather like a grindstone, and had the taste which you would expect that useful implement to have. After much attempted mastication of a mouthful, I gave up the attempt to eat it. No wonder the natives have such good teeth! Having destroyed part of his damper, I offered Terence some of our bread. He accepted it with a readiness which was a most serious reflection upon his own cooking. In a land where fresh meat was at the time unprocurable, we had nothing to cook. We opened tins, gave Terence his share, and sat by our fire for the evening meal. Terence dined apart; our big white-pfella fire was not to his liking. He ate decorously, if hungrily. The tinned fruit, which followed, was particularly to his liking; every black-fellow seems to have a sweet tooth. Tea was just as great a weakness—but in that we bore him stout company.
It was, in R. L. Stevenson's happy phrase, "a wonderful clear night of stars." The darkness had taken to itself the bodies of the strange hills which surrounded us. Only their fretted crests showed dimly against the sprinkled sky. With that lofty dome above us, and the remembrance that, whichever way we turned, at least 1000 miles lay between us and the surrounding sea, we felt small beyond measure. But Terence wasted no time in philosophic reflection. He coiled himself in a pair of blankets close to his private fire, and was, seemingly, at once asleep. We white men, as usual, piled on so much wood that we had to make our beds well away from the cheerful blaze. The night grew cold, our fire died, and, shivering, we had to crawl from our beds and build it again. Not so Terence; he had the end of a long dry sapling burning, and as he felt the warmth subsiding he merely put out his hand and pulled on another foot or so of the stick. No turning out into the cold for him!
Morning broke dear and fresh. Directly above us two starved-looking crows commented sadly on our being alive, and flew away disappointed. Terence, too, had made off, for the camels were miles away, and he had to track them. That was easy to his trained eye, and by noon we were lunching in the Mpurrenteturri Cave, some miles farther on in the journey.
My first expedition quickened a lifelong interest in our aborigines, an interest that had lain dormant for want of just such an experience. Incidentally I began then a collection of native implements and sacred objects which has grown to be of considerable importance. To increase that collection I have paid visits to most of the well-known, and long-deserted, camping grounds in Victoria, but none of these journeys equalled in interest the motor drive to Marree with my friend S. R. Mitchell in 1930.
Never was there a keener collector than Mitchell. He drove, but he had an eye for everything—the road, the timber, the flowers, the birds, the sluggish blue-tongue lizards which so frequently flirted with death by lying across the track, the occasional kangaroos, the hurrying emus; he missed none of them. But these, after all, he took in his stride. They were incidentals. His eye was all the time seeking other game. "Blackfellow!" he would call, the brakes would go on and we were out in a moment eager for the hunt.
The sign had probably been a little pile of stones, burnt brown or black, lying on a claypan, or helping to form a mound on a sand-blow. These blackfellow cooking places are commonly near the banks of creeks or swamps or water-holes and are most numerous where the precious fluid has been most nearly permanent. About them, hidden by the sand or exposed by the action of the wind, lie the stone implements dropped by the tribes when they moved camp to another site. They will never return to recover them, for in this particular part of Australia, distant though it is from cities, not one blackfellow remains in his native state to care what becomes of the tools and weapons and articles of daily use which he and his ancestors had taken such pains to fashion. Those implements were what we were hunting.
We had come long miles to their collecting. Narrow little Victoria, from Melbourne to the Murray at Tocumwal, had been no more than an afternoon's run. But a different tale was to tell when we began to crawl, like ants on an endless floor, across the wide plains of New South Wales. A very small mound would show as a considerable hill on those seemingly boundless flats. Ever we pushed the horizon before us, never apparently getting nearer.
It is true the surface varied; here was mallee and there pine; a low-growing scrub, sometimes gay with flowers, made a patterned carpet; saltbush, bluebush and grasses had their turn; and, glory of glories, occasionally we came upon acres of Sturt's Desert Pea in profuse bloom. Surely never was a finer sight of its kind than is made by this lovely Clianthus in its vivid crimson and black. It looked as if multitudes of tiny flames, deeper-toned than ordinary fire, trembled upwards through the cool grey-green of the foliage. "The bush burned but was not consumed." That picture must always remain with us; for it alone, if for nothing else, our journey would have been worth while.
Industrious Chinese gardeners, one would think, had been busy in many parts. Not that any dwelling showed—we learned to expect no more than one house in forty or fifty miles—but we would run into patches of melons growing as thickly as in the most carefully cultivated of gardens. One variety was round and dark-green, very like the pie-melon of the greengrocers' shops; another was larger, yellow of skin, oval in shape, in outward semblance a cousin of the vegetable marrow. "Paddy melon" and "squash melon" were local names. A Burbank may rise to make this waste material profitable; at present the melons lie in their myriads, covering the ground for miles, unused. "The stock will eat them at a pinch," said someone, but he made it clear that they were not popular with man or beast and he added the alarming intelligence that one species causes blindness in the animal which eats it.
A line of gums ahead generally indicated a creek. The car would plunge down the near bank, groan and rock across the shingly bottom, generally dry, and lurch up the opposing side to the accompaniment of screams from gaily-painted and very noisy Galahs, always making the most of any chance to seem scared, the rattling calls of Top-knot Pigeons, and alarms and excursions of the bird world generally. A sandy, pebbly hillside would attract attention—here might be good hunting. So a-hunting we would go, stooping and rising over our finds like feeding emus.
We are told by the scientists that many of the relics we were discovering are common to stone-age peoples the world over. Here in Australia we have actual contact to-day with the one considerable body of such folk that still exists; but, and it is an amazing thing, we have to guess at the meaning of much that we pick up. None knows why some of the implements were made and whether they were for particular or general use. There are plenty of speculations of course, and some probably have hit the truth, but in the absence of agreement amongst the experts the layman finds himself standing on the shifting sands of doubt.
However, some of the uses are perfectly obvious. Unmistakably the worn slabs known generally as Nardoo stones were the mills on which edible seeds were ground. Probably pigment in the lump was also reduced to a manageable powder by such means. They are of many kinds of stone, these mills, and of varying shapes; but all alike have a basin-like cavity which deepens from the edges to the centre as the result of rubbing. Some have the cavity on each side; in some a hole has been actually worn through. The rubbing-stones, usually fairly soft and just large enough to be easily grasped, may be found in numbers; also pounding stones, often smashed at the ends through smiting hard substances.
These are all objects easily, observed, but in the astonishing debris (astonishing both in quantity and variety) of a long-established camp were numbers of smaller objects which only the practised eye would distinguish as shaped by man—tiny "crescents," narrow "points," tuhlas (or scrapers) sometimes worn back by use to half their original size, the pointed tools known to the Wonkonguru as pirries, small stone knives, and many odds and ends which might have had any number of uses. Examination would show that they had been carefully worked over by the native artificer to secure the desired form. Of the pirrie, leaf-shaped and often beautifully chipped, Dr Horne has said that it is dainty enough to be worn as a charm on a watch chain. Certainly some we found could rightly be described as beautiful.
More rare, so the more eagerly sought, were stones generally called "cylindro-conicals," a foot or more in length, tapering like a cow's horn and occasionally, like it, curved. The base might be two or three inches across, always hollowed slightly, and mostly with the edges smashed as if the whole thing had been used as a wedge and in that capacity had suffered some powerful blows. An axe with a nicely ground edge was an occasional prize, but nothing wooden remained in all this countryside save a few fragments of ancient throwing-sticks.
Certain dry lakes were dotted with such obvious things as mills and pounding stones. A gleam of white bone made us pause. "Yorick!" said our expert, and carefully, very carefully, did we dust away the thin layer of sand which only partly hid the skeleton of one who, like Hamlet's jester, had doubtless had his gibes, his gambols, his songs, his flashes of merriment but now lay, even as Yorick, quite chap-fallen. This stretch of sheltered flat had been not only a camping ground for the living; several other skeletons showed their outlines from beneath the soft surface, and fragments of skulls were numerous.
We camped that night by the edge of this lonely lake and one at least of the party hoped, somewhat fearfully, that a ghostly company might dance a corroboree with the moonlight shining through the fleshless ribs. But a full moon rose in a still air and the dead tribes stirred not at all. Civilization destroyed them; no prayers of white or black can bring them back.
A wide river bed, innocent of water, broken into many dryas-dust channels by islands of sand and stones, a clear untroubled sky with nothing to stay the sun from his work of withering up the little remaining vegetation of this central region of Australia, and a group of natives, as naked and unashamed as our first parents, performing rites so old that they dwarf the white man's antiquity as the Pyramids dwarf the motor-car. We who watch have stepped back across the centuries, if not to the actual stone age, at least to an age of stone.
The Time Machine invented by H. G. Wells took apparently only a few seconds to carry its rider down the ringing grooves of change to those dim far-off days when order was first appearing out of chaos: lacking such means of moving in the fourth dimension we had done well to travel in four days the twenty thousand, fifty thousand, one hundred thousand—who shall say how many?—years that separate modern civilized man from these people.
We have arrived in their land, we have studied their every movement, but what do we know as the result of our close and interested observation? The springs of action remain concealed, to be guessed at and wrangled over, but no more. Who shall say with authority what these dark nomads mean in their ceremonies when they themselves have lost all but legend, and that of the very mistiest.
This group of some forty men, women and children, is of the Luritja nation, next-door neighbours of the Arunta. They have come in from the far Macdonnell Ranges to pitch their simple camp, a few bushes piled to the windward of little fires, in the bed of the great Finke River near the Hermannsburg Mission Station. As no rain had fallen in any appreciable quantity for years, the river had passed out of existence save as a thirsty depression in which, miraculously, many fine gum-trees still survived.
Long-muscled men they are, shapely enough, runners and walkers rather than lifters or diggers, neat in action, brown (not black) of skin, shaggy-headed and shaggy-bearded, frank of eye, carrying themselves with a natural dignity which is very attractive, utterly spoilt in appearance when, to obey the missionary convention in approaching the station, they must put on clothes. That act transformed them from kings to beggars; the borrowed rags were an ass's head upon the natural man.
Their shelters, quickly erected, were no more than a leaning line of boughs, about three feet high, on the side from which the south-easter blew. Under this they lay at night with their little fires glowing in front. The domestic scenes were often attractive. A young mother, sitting on the sand, suckled her baby. Near by played her elder son, a boy of perhaps eighteen months or two years. He stopped his play, ran to his mother and helped himself at the other breast. That same family was met later on a food excursion. Mother carried the few possessions and the infant; father had his weapons in his hands, and straight across his back lay the bigger lad, his head resting in the crook of father's left elbow, his legs in the bend of the other arm.
Although these Luritj as are the nearest neighbours of the Arunta tribe, the two languages differ so markedly that none of the tribe could speak Arunta, and, of course, they knew no English. We secured the services of Gerog, who declared he could "speakem two side" (that is he could speak two languages), and he opened the door to intercourse by informing our hosts that we were brothers of the Arunta. Much interesting matter followed.
We had been made members of the Arunta tribe a few days before, members by adoption, not by formal initiation, the Powers be praised! Only the young and strong could endure with safety the searching ceremonies preliminary to admission by prescribed ritual, the mildest being the knocking out of a front tooth by means of a stick as a gouge and a stone as a hammer. Every Arunta man who smiled at us, and it is a generally friendly nation, displayed that disfiguring gap in the white line of his wonderful teeth. In their wisdom the old men (all is old-man rule; there is no chief or king in the accepted sense) had placed my companion, Professor Porteus, in the matrimonial division called Pungata and had given him the Ilya (the Emu) as his totem. I was joined to the Bultara division and became Tchilpa (a Wild Cat).
This was all serious enough to the tribe, as we soon found. From the babies to the greybeards every one knew exactly our relationship to every member of the community. A goodly number of these mission natives knew a little English. "What name?" I would ask. "Gerog," would perhaps be the reply. "Arunta?" was invariably my next question; for a few Luritjas were about. "Aua!" (yes) would come the answer, generally in a tone suggesting that I should know an obvious thing like that. Inquiry as to "What skin" (what division of the tribe) the man belonged to, was the final interrogation and quite often the bright eyes would look incredulously at me before there came, in rather astonished tones, "Bultara—your brudder!" I should not be ignorant of a fact so patent.
The Arunta have evolved a marriage system which, all pronouncements to the contrary notwithstanding, is the puzzle of the anthropologist. Disregarding the legends of the Alcheringa, that far-off time when the Spirits were busy creating everything, what great leader had the mathematical mind suggested in a scheme whereby (was it accident or design) in-breeding was prevented, just to mention one of the results? There are eight divisions. As a Bultara I may marry into the Kumara division only. My son becomes automatically, by birth, Knuria. He in his turn may marry only into the Ngala division. His male children (my grandchildren) come back again to Bultara, while it takes five crosses over to achieve the same result when the offspring are female. It is the same with the other divisions—no one may marry into his own section of the tribe. Very closely is this observed; so firmly is its need believed in, even today, that the missionaries have had to recognize and allow it.
With such definite bounds determining whom he may wed, is it any wonder that my tribesmen regard with scorn the casual unguided ways of the white man in such an important matter. "White pfella alla same dog. Catchem any pfella!" was the caustic summing-up of a certain Oknirrabata (wise old man).
A child's tribal division, it will be seen, is determined by his parentage, but his totem is acquired in quite another way. That comes to him from the locality in which his mother was when she felt the babe quicken within her, so in a family of half a dozen or more children there may be as many totems, while the parents' totems again may differ from that of the offspring. The totem may be regarded as an accidental matter. It certainly appears to have nothing to do with descent. A father may be Paroola and of the Emu totem, the mother Panunga and a Witchetty Grub, and the children, who would be Kumara, may be a Hakea Tree, another a Frog, another a Wild Cat, another a Hawk, and so on.
But the tribal practices, ceremonies, beliefs and legends are going. They are being pushed into the limbo of forgetfulness by the pressure of the white man as sweepings, good and bad alike, vanish before a new broom. The old men are the repositaries of the wisdom which has come down the centuries and a time is approaching, and is not so far away, when they will have no one to transmit it to. Their sons are in touch with a new world, many of their grandsons are going to school, never to know the sacred things of their ancestors save as strangers know them, never to know how to live as those ancestors did, pitting knowledge against the often scanty resources of their native land and winning through. White man dwellings must replace the wurleys, white man tucker, bought and not caught, oust the natural foods. "You spearem euro?" I asked a mission-bred black with whom we camped in Palm Valley. "Me no spearem euro. Old pfella spearem euro," was the reply. His contact with civilization, and his dependence on the white man's supplies, had robbed him of ability to spear the euro. In other words he could no longer live as a blackfellow.
But, and it is a disastrous but, there is commonly no white pfella work for such as he. There was none anyway during such a drought period as we saw—and it had lasted five years! The cattle of the station had dwindled by then to a couple of hundred, and with their disappearance had gone the main source of white man employment for the native.
I have said that a problem faced by the missionaries is that of providing work for the man or woman they have attracted to their station for the primary purpose of turning the heathen into Christians. The trouble is a real one and no one deplores it more than the missionaries, for no one sees its effects more clearly. But they have no hope of overcoming it in any fair degree, so we have the anomalous case of a body doing good, and intending nothing else, yet doing also harm. To bring the native to a centre and hold him there for at least fixed periods is believed to be necessary if he is to learn the new doctrines; but that implies a certain disqualification of him as a native, while the leaving of his children to be brought up in a white environment, pupils of a school, victims of the clothing habit, sleeping under roofs, eating canned foods, marks, quite frequently, the end. To the native the price of Christ, as of civilization, is, far too often, death.
Here let me say that apparently the only direct friend the native has is the missionary. Inevitably the tribes must pass out as the European finds more ways of using this wild region, whether by damming its occasional flood waters and converting the wilderness into cultivation areas, or by making its bizarre scenery and its peoples a draw for tourists, or, most expeditious method of all, by working the hills for their many minerals. A good goldfield would shorten appreciably the period of the blackfellow on earth. All the present civilizing agents can have but the one result. At least the missionary's way is kinder than most, and the more thoughtful of the natives may find hope in the vision of a life beyond this, a life in which drought is unknown and tucker always plentiful.
The Australian aboriginal has been frequently spoken of as deficient in intelligence—"the lowest type of mankind" is the term in common use. We were concerned inter alia with testing that intelligence. Professor Porteus, from his University in Hawaii, has reported the scientific results in his book. Here I may only say that the general impression that the blackfellow is of very low mentality is, to my mind, wholly wrong. "Their intellectual development has reached heights that few white Australians realize," to quote an acknowledged authority (Rev. J. R. B. Love). The native is judged largely on his inability to understand the white man's requests; the white man, completely assured of his own superiority, forgets too often that he would be in much worse case were the boot on the other foot and the black man questioning him in a strange tongue. The European is apt to disregard all standards save his own; a native taking the same stand must be utterly contemptuous of the adult human being who starves in the midst of plenty because he has not the intelligence to recognize the food that is about him. In that land as we saw it, gripped by drought until all its juices had been squeezed out, the foreigner turned loose to forage for himself would be dead or demented in three days; but the tribes have managed to survive, however sorely put to it to maintain life.
That struggle through countless generations against adverse fates has produced a race of observers probably unexcelled in the world. The old saying, "Root hog, or die," may be translated, in application to the desert peoples, as "learn how to track or perish." From the swaying back of a camel we saw our black guide riding Ranji, the roaring, grumbling old bull oont, and watching, watching, watching the sands below him. A sign, invisible to most, would take his gaze—track of bird or snake or giant lizard or occasional wallaby—and, half-turning in the saddle, he would follow it with keen look as far as might be, then survey thoughtfully the hills that closed in on either side. Quite evidently he was speculating as to where the beast was now and what other live food was running about there.
We found that the white man's camp holds unexpected humour for his darker brother. A fire too big to sit near is a sign of mental aberration to a people accustomed to make tiny blazes both back and front by which they are really warmed. It is as little understandable as the white's desire to return home at the end of a day—where the black is at sun-down is home. His contempt is great for the European's ignorance of tracks: why any one should be lost in the bush beats him altogether. "What you do when you get lost, Jackie?" asked a white of an aboriginal; "you must get lost sometimes." Jackie reflected: "Yes, me get lost sometime. When me get lost, me go back to camp."
His art of tracking is taught in earliest childhood and is practised throughout life. It becomes ingrained habit. No mark escapes the aboriginal, nothing moves that he does not see. And he knows, moreover, which way the creature whose faint pad he has noticed was heading and how long since it passed. "Snake track, Jackie," exclaimed someone, proud to draw attention to what he thought his native boy had missed. But Jackie had seen it and merely grinned. "Why you no catchem?" persisted the white man, knowing that snake is an aboriginal delicacy. "No good," came from Jackie. "Two day!" In other words the track was two days old.
Who could doubt it? Certainly no one who has seen a blackfellow identify the footprints, not only of his companions but of their dogs! "That fella belonga Tapinah," and so on.
At every native camp we noticed how seemingly careless the owners were of their spears and shields and boomerangs and their few other belongings. These were usually hanging about on the roofs of their wurleys and, as no native house is high enough to stand upright in, they could be reached by any one. But, if any did take them, inevitably would it be known who was the thief. An old fellow at Hermannsburg was credited with being able to identify the footprints of all the natives who formed that community of hundreds. Remembering the reputation our Australian brother has earned as a tracker, we made a special test one day. Those present, in addition to Professor Porteus and myself, were half a dozen of the Arunta, a Luritja named Tapinah, and a young German who was attached to the mission.
A portion of the prevailing sand was smoothed and a native impressed a footprint and rejoined the others standing against the wall. All marks were obliterated save that one. Meanwhile I held Tapinah in converse the other side of a shed. (I had no Luritja save one word, "Balalingo," meaning very good; he had no English; so our converse was largely smile and gesture.) At the call I led Tapinah round and indicated the solitary footprint. One glance and he turned and pointed to the right man. Eight times was he tried and seven times was he correct without hesitation or apparent consideration, although one man was put on twice in succession to try to confuse the tracker. The eighth time Tapinah gazed at the print, gazed at the row of men, and made no sign. "That fellow, that fellow, that fellow?" queried Professor Porteus, pointing at each in turn, but Tapinah still stood mute. Then the professor swung round and indicated the young German—"That fellow?" he asked, and Tapinah's face became one large smile of assent. It was that fellow all right; the white man had slipped off a boot and made the print. "Balalingo!" we chorused, and Tapinah beamed as much at the praise as at the trade tobacco which was his reward.
At his camp near the Finke, his lubra, Wanti Wanti, suckled a young baby girl, and her sister, Lucy, wife of Ali, nursed an infant boy. Through an interpreter who could "speakem two side" (talk both Luritja and English) we were invited to bestow names upon the children. So there are two Luritjas of the rising generation who will rejoice in the names' of Mokehana and Robin respectively, to the possible bewilderment of future students of that interesting nation. A very old woman, her teeth worn down by hard foods until they were level with her gums, lay always at the constant fire of the wurley. A foot had been burnt off and the maimed leg was wrapped in rags. Flies, attracted by the refuse of a too-long-established camp, swarmed and buzzed everywhere. One small child, all head and protuberant stomach, lifted a face with no visible eyes. In their places were two moving black-grey masses, one of which he rubbed off to observe us. They were masses of feasting flies. Here, too, was a babe, found deserted in the ranges, the thinnest and most pitiable living thing I have ever seen. Bear in mind that this was a camp seen under unusually bad drought conditions.
"Black, but Comely"
We were told that the children of the aborigines are the freest creatures in the world in their native state. They may do as they please, even to being inordinately impudent to their elders. That condition of things lasts till the age of formal admission to membership of the tribe has been reached. Then, just when they should be ranking as unbearable egotists, a startling change is effected. They are subjected to trials, fierce and bloody, most of them directed to the one end, that is, respect for the wisdom of the old men and fear of the magic powers of which the elders of the tribe alone have knowledge. These ceremonies bear a lasting result: the youth gains a proper tribal perspective and becomes a good citizen (from the tribal point of view). There is an incidental matter which some observers claim is at the root of much of the procedure. The old men know what their fate must be in a country so inhospitable when once their powers fail, and much of what is taught the young men as sacred is obviously intended as an old-age pension for the cunning Oknirrabata. Certain foods, and they are always the most delectable, may not be eaten by youth, but only by grandfather and his fellow greybeards; their totem animals may not form the diet of the young men, save in exceptional circumstances, and then only sparingly, but there is nothing barred from the ancient one, his totem creature included. Incidentally, he appears to have first choice of wives so may always have a young lubra or two to collect the succulent witchetty grub, the honey-ant with its swollen bag of sweets, the lizard and the snake, dig the various vegetable roots and prepare the seed flour to nourish his withered body. Do they lack intelligence, these old men, judged by any standard?
But down in the great sandy river bed sit the men of the tribe that has just come in from the sunset. The women and children have now been sent out of sight and hearing, for some of the ceremonies we are to be shown they may not see and live. The men make fire for us as a beginning; not by the method of rolling an upright stick between the hands, as we know it in Victoria, but by rubbing the hard edge of a wommera (a spear-thrower) to and fro across the softer wood of a shield. One tall fellow stands on the shield as it lies on the ground, back upwards; two others pull from opposing sides, using the wommera like a cross-cut saw. I time them with a stop-watch. In fifteen seconds there is smoke; in fifty-seven seconds the fire is blazing merrily.
Each of these men is circumcised and all have suffered the terrible rite of subincision. With the proper ceremonial knife, stone-bladed and its handle made of grass-tree gum, they proceed to demonstrate how the Lartna (the act of circumcision) is performed. Wild-haired and naked, terribly in earnest, they form an arresting group.
From that to blood-letting is a short step. One of the younger men, whom earlier we saw as head of a family group composed of his shapely wife and two small children, sits and selects a water-worn stone from the river bed. With another larger pebble he hits this several times, and behold he has made a three-cornered knife, the blade a couple of inches long. The cutting edge is hardly of razor keenness, but it is sufficiently sharp for his purpose. With a length of native string he binds his arm just above the elbow to make the veins swell, then deliberately he sets to work, with no sign of emotion, to cut open with his crude weapon the largest visible blood-vessel. By way, possibly, of sterilizing the part, he rubs his hand first on the sand, then on his arm. After the operation he loosens the string, rubs his hand over the wound and pays no more attention to it. To secure more blood, with which to sprinkle a shield, he now opens a small artery in another part of his body. No sign of discomfort is betrayed at any stage of these unhappy doings.
The full company now claims attention. They have ornamented themselves with eaglehawk-down stuck in lines about their bodies. A thick-set fellow stands above a small depression, lined with acacia leaves, in which lie four round stones, decorated with down, which represent emu eggs. Round the neck of the man is a hair string suspending a much decorated bag (the emu's heart) in front of his chest. He is the emu on guard and he peers this way and that and never relaxes his vigilant outlook. To him enter the others, stooping low and calling and whistling like young birds. They peck about, near the parent bird, then group at his feet. "Wah, wah, wah," they cry, then louder, "Wow, wow, wow, uwah, uwah," working their bodies fiercely from side to side. All this while the old men sitting in the river bottom beat time with sticks and stones, singing something which sounds like "Nanjua-ay, nanjua-ay, nanjua-ah!" repeated and repeated and repeated, varying only in intensity as their ancient blood warms to the scene. It ends with a leaping-up of all the performers, who mass about the central figure and throw up their arms to a united yell.
More thrilling is the bone-pointing which succeeds the corroborees, for this spells death to someone. Spencer tells that the natives would not do this ceremony for him till a wind blew. That was to disperse the poison and ensure that none lingered about the camp.
Our people to-day are willing to show their powers, the conditions apparently being favourable. Two men take part, one kneeling low in the sand, the other crouching over and behind him. They have a pair of poison bones joined by hair string, and they know that they have but to point these at an enemy and "sing" him and he assuredly dies. I find myself on their front, though well to one side, and I am beckoned to move more out of the line of fire; they do not want to "bone" me. I obey, and the dread ceremony is gone through.
In retrospect I have sometimes wondered whether that exhibition granted to us—looked upon by us just as a queer proceeding, a matter of scientific interest—gave opportunity for one of those warriors to work off a private grudge and, if so, what were the reactions.
They compelled respect, these people, even as, apart from certain habits and customs, they inspired liking. We pondered upon their future. An early estimate gave 300,000 as the probable number of natives when we Europeans took possession of their country some 150 years ago. The grave scandal of their rapid disappearance is accentuated by the equally grave scandal that in this year of grace 1936 there are 20,000 half-castes in Australia and that the number is rising fast. These men, now resting after their display, are as yet uncontaminated—how long will it be before settlement robs them of their liberty to roam? Cattle, which they are forbidden to kill, take the place of their native game—their natural food supplies—and white stockmen hound them off the waterholes, which are now their most precious possessions, for without these, their only water storages, they cannot live.
I look at them again. They are a smiling, good-humoured folk. They sit in a circle and pass from mouth to mouth the battered stump of a pipe charged with our tobacco. One of them breaks into song, a high-pitched series of repetitions which would lead you to suppose the man a tenor till he suddenly drops his voice to a deep baritone. Gerog translates. The songs tell of hunting and of dogs; and one apparently, but this is obscure, suggests the sort of triangle one finds so often on the movie stage.
Two old men sit apart. There is something secretive about their movements. No word is spoken by either. The elder has produced two thin sticks about three feet long. He fashions them into a cross by binding them with hair string in the centre. Now he proceeds to take the string from point to point until he has an outline resembling that of a boy's kite. Twisting the string round each arm of the cross as he turns it about he fills in the frame for several inches. He pauses and looks at his companion. Faint and low, with an indescribable earnestness, solemnly as in any church office, the other begins to sing. The winding is resumed, and I realize that I am seeing the creation of a sacred implement. Moreover I sense that the singing is the act of making it sacred. I learn later that it is a waninga, an object used in secret ceremonials.
These two men are well past their prime. They will end their days in the native way. With the younger men of the group it is different. As I see their lean muscular frames, their keen eyes, their obvious healthiness, and as I remember that each has in his camp a family of little children, I recall with a pang the song the Hermannsburg youngsters sang to us a night or two ago: "I do not know the name of my sadness. I often think of the olden days when plenty kangaroos sat on the hills. To-day I cannot find a single one."
As a good Australian I deplore that we must confess failure in dealing with our native races. We have studied them as museum specimens are studied, we have tried humanitarian suggestions for their betterment, but we have utterly failed to keep them alive. Some outside advice is needed, or in a few years, a very few years, there will be none of these unique stone-age people left—they will have gone the way of the vanished Tasmanians, the way of death.
The observer was not altogether cynical who declared recently that the principal output of Central Australia, in live stock, was cattle, sheep, and half-castes. Challenged, he amended the statement—but only to add the whole of the Far North and most of Western Australia. Certain it is that the half-caste is increasing notably in the Commonwealth. With the falling of full bloods from an estimated 300,000 to about 60,000, the half-castes have risen to 20,000. It is obvious to any one who knows the conditions of life in the vast Inland that while they continue to be as they are there can be no hope of preventing the mixture of black and white, with the inevitable consequences. Men are cut off from their own womankind; they are surrounded by young shapely creatures, often of much natural grace. The result, however deplorable, is natural, and no statute made by man has power to stop it. The law of the Commonwealth is drastic enough, but consider its enforcement. I asked a policeman in Central Australia to indicate his beat. He waved his arm in an arc which took in about half the horizon, and said: "Two hundred and fifty miles!" He was not overstating it. A single cattle-station may be a hundred miles across. It is ridiculous to suppose that such amazing areas can be adequately policed. Whether it be the forbidden act of harbouring native women at stations where only men are employed, or assault in the secluded parts of the run, evidence is hard to get, and, being native, it is regarded lightly. So the possibility of detection being slight, and human nature being what it is, the half-caste population will continue to increase.
In the old Indian saying that God made the white man and the black man, but the devil made the half-caste, there is no reproach levelled at the unhappy result of miscegenation. The implication is only that the part-white child has a devil of a time. Quite recently I saw more than a hundred of these unfortunates in the home the Government has made for them at the old telegraph station at Alice Springs. Very well tended and cared for they looked, and happy enough. All were young; they had not reached the age at which they would realize they were neither white nor black. But that consciousness will come. "I wish my mother had strangled me at birth," said one young woman, about twenty years old, to a missionary. She had been brought up to white ways, educated, given a taste for the refinements of civilization—only to find that no civilized people wanted her, save in a way that was intolerable. The blacks' camp and the life of the wurley were impossible now; she was an outcast without a people. Yet these girls of mixed blood are sometimes fairer than their white sisters, and both girls and boys, as has been proved many times, may grow into dependable and intelligent women and men.
But the problem of their aboriginal relatives, the full bloods, is just as far from solution, it would seem, as that of the half-castes. Most stations in the remote back country have their blacks' camps. Indeed, many of the stations would find it difficult to carry on without aboriginal labour. We found one camp on a bare sandhill. No able-bodied blacks were about; they were away mustering on a distant part of the huge property. A couple of gaunt old men, one a striking figure some six feet high, were crouched over a tiny fire in the entrance to a wurley. Half a dozen other wurleys stood about, miserable structures, neither windproof nor rainproof. Dogs scratched in every doorway, and a few old women jabbered unintelligible comments on the visitors. Everything was sordid in the extreme. One of the men was blind, the other suffered from an eye trouble, which suggested that he too must soon lose his sight. These, one could not help remembering, were originally the owners here. The home of the present owners stood, a group of substantial comfortable dwellings, in a sheltered spot, some three hundred yards away. "The big fellow used to be a handy cattleman before he got so old," said the manager, as we regarded the camp. "He's pensioned off now, I suppose?" suggested someone. "Pensioned! What for? Let the old blank look after himself!" was the reply. I do not say that is typical, but it is true.
In another camp one of the old women, with more than average English, spoke freely of her "harp-caste" children, one working alonga such and such a station, the other "ober dat away." At still another the patriarch who styled himself king, and wore a metal label to that effect on his bare chest, was obviously proud of two small half-caste sons of his lubra, who was much younger than he.
Again let me say that it is idle to suppose that half-castes will not continue to increase in numbers so long as opportunity serves as it does at present—and that in despite of any legislation, however minatory. The real problem to be faced is how to deal with these people, justly and adequately. With diffidence, for the question is a grave one and of growing importance, I suggest that the matter of merging them into the general population, with full citizen rights, should receive early and sympathetic study. The first necessary step is obviously greater facilities for education and insistence that all, wherever possible, shall be treated in this regard as white children are.
As a sporting people we Australians are proud of our records; for such a handful of folk, scattered over a huge area, we have done rather well in quite a number of ways. But, unfortunately, some of the achievements are records of a kind any country would rather be without, and perhaps the worst is that of our treatment of the original owners of the land we now possess.
What a shocking tale it is! Never mind for a moment who has been to blame; take just the plain fact that in less than 150 years the black population has been reduced from an estimated 300,000 (a report to Exeter Hall in 1840 gave it as 1,400,000) to about 60,000, and these remnants are going fast.
Tasmania leads the way; not one of the interesting race which once peopled that pleasant island remains alive today. Whites settled there first in 1803; the Tasmanian race was extinct by 1876. It is always difficult to gauge the numbers of a shy, nomadic people, but there seems to be little doubt that the native Tasmanians numbered something like 2000. Brough Smyth described them as a mild, kindly folk, diffident, willing to be friendly. Captain Cook said they showed neither fear nor distrust. An early writer, the Rev. T. Dove, remarked that harmony and good humour reigned generally among the members of the tribe, and that "the force of the parental instinct was strong enough to render the maintenance of their offspring a care and a delight." He added that, looking to
the methods which they devised of procuring shelter and subsistence in their native wilds, to the skill and precision with which they tracked the mazes of the bush, and to the force of invention and of memory which is displayed in the copious vocabulary of their several languages, they claim no inconsiderable share of mental power and activity.
They seemed on the whole rather afraid of the invaders of their territory until escaped convicts and ticket-of-leave men began to steal the black women, and settlers began to occupy their lands. Then the spears flew and a bloody war of extinction started. Brough Smyth, the historian of the Victorian blacks, writing in 1876, has some caustic things to say about this:
If they had not been men and women, if they had not been human creatures, if they had been quadrumanous, every detail connected with them would undoubtedly have been investigated and recorded. But they were indeed human; and they were the enemies of the white man because they wished to live in places where cattle and sheep would thrive, and it was deemed necessary to exterminate them; and they have been exterminated.
Leading up to that, the famous "line" was drawn in an endeavour on a large scale to drive the whole of the aborigines into one corner of the island. Despite the thoroughness of the preparation the attempt was a signal failure, the entire result being the capture of one native. The others slipped through the cordon. That was in 1830. More pacific and suitable methods were then adopted by some well-disposed citizens, and in the succeeding five years the remaining Tasmanians were gathered together and placed on one of the islands in Bass Strait. In 1854 there were but sixteen survivors. Trucanini, last of her race, died in May, 1876.
Estimates of the number of aborigines who existed in Victoria before the coming of the European vary considerably. One early investigation placed it at 7500, another at 6000, another at 5000; the lowest was 3000. An official return to the Legislative Council made it 6000; by 1851 that was down to 2693; the 1871 census set the total as 1330. Sir Thomas Mitchell, in his excursions through Australia, saw very few natives, but, early as his journeys were, one of the gifts of the white man to the black had already been given; smallpox had been introduced and had destroyed a great many of the original inhabitants.
It seems certain that in Gippsland there were more than a thousand blacks. In forty-nine years they had dwindled to 200. The two Melbourne tribes in 1838 tallied 292; there were twenty left in 1876. When the first settler camped on the Barwon the Geelong tribe was about 200 strong; at the end of twenty years thirty-four remained alive. To-day, in the whole of the State, there are certainly not more than 100 full bloods—the official figure is forty-five as the number under the care of the Aborigines' Protection Board of Victoria.
But in this matter the history of one State is the history of all States. At the 1921 census the New South Wales numbers had come down to 1597 from 4287 in 1901, and those of South Australia to 1609 (the estimated number of the southern portion alone, when the colony was founded in 1836, was 12,000), while Queensland still had 12,614, Western Australia 25,597, and Northern Australia 17,349. The next census will assuredly show further decreases, for civilization so far, in whatever form it has touched these wild peoples, has been deadly in its effects.
It was inevitable that there should be clashes between invaders and invaded in this, as in every other country. In many places, though, where bold exploratory nations have pushed a way in, they have had to contend with people, armed and organized, whose powers of resistance made them formidable opponents. Not so the Australian. His tribes were in small, scattered groups, speaking many tongues, and quite incapable of unity because of these and many other reasons, such as the huge distances separating the parts. The black had his spear and his boomerang against the gunpowder and weapons of precision; it was the stone age against the age of armaments; a baby against a grown man.
Nomadic they were, these native Australians, but nomadic only within well-defined areas. "My country" was a very definite place to which the owner was bound by sacred ties hardly to be understood by a European, and wherein he looked for his means of living. Those means were the native animal, the fish, the root, the berry, whatever flourished in his domain. Strangers must not enter there, save by formal sanction or at the risk of challenge to battle. Suddenly the tribes found men stalking about their immemorial territory, asking no sanctions, disregarding or pushing aside the aboriginal owners, uprooting the trees and building huts, despising all that the tribes held sacred. More and more of these intruders came, they travelled inland, and, behold, the native game was destroyed, fences criss-crossed the land and new animals cropped the grass where the kangaroo had fed. Deprived of his natural food, forbidden to roam at liberty across his old hunting grounds—what was the black-fellow to do? He did what the white man would have done in like case—he killed a sheep or one of the cattle and filled his empty stomach.
An English doctor, travelling in the Mallee, wrote in 1851:
The result of my investigations as to the treatment of the blacks by white men was a profound pity for the blacks, and indignation against some of the whites for their cruel neglect of, or barbarous behaviour to, the defenceless aborigines, whose hunting-grounds have been rendered useless by the myriads of sheep and cattle introduced, which had utterly driven away the kangaroo and emu, upon which they had principally depended for food; and, while their main sources of food were thus destroyed, not the slightest attempt at compensation had been made by the powerful aggressors, who shot down mercilessly any tribe which, impelled by hunger, dared to touch a single sheep or cow of the vast flocks and herds around them.
In killing a beast the black broke the white man's law, and he must be taught the lesson. If within reasonable distance of settlement he was brought in (often strapped to the stirrup of his captor—even as sometimes happens to-day in certain remote parts of our Commonwealth) and put through a meaningless (to him) court ceremony which ended in imprisonment. Or, when the law did not conveniently function, the station might muster its hands and make a raid upon the nearest camp, shooting wherever a head showed. Retaliation followed; the lonely shepherd was speared in his hut and occasionally a homestead was attacked in force.
Then was the battle between white and black joined indeed. Once a state of war was established, the stockman went armed to protect himself, and organized raids were made wherever the natives were known to be gathered together.
With no intention of discussing the merits of a case which has been closed, readers may be reminded that within the last four years a policeman in Central Australia, who went out to arrest a native for killing a white man, stated in evidence that his party shot down seventeen blacks, and a little later another fourteen. The court of inquiry officially justified the action but the pity of it! It seems incredible that there was no better means of bringing a black criminal to justice than by the indiscriminate shooting of thirty-one of his tribe. By virtue of his office the constable was a protector of the aborigines!
Detailed tales of atrocities in the younger days of colonization are plentiful enough. Many awful deeds were done by the blacks, but, as E. R. Gribble points out in his Problem of the Australian Aboriginal, it must be remembered that they naturally resented the presence of the invader of their land, an invader against whom they were powerless in any other way—moreover, every dark deed perpetrated by the natives was duly recorded, but not every case in which whites were the culprits.
In 1843 an assistant protector of the aborigines in what is now north-western Victoria reported that he had gone carefully into the question and had found that from 1838 to 1842 the blacks in his district had killed eight white men, the greatest number slain at any one attack being two, while in the same period and locality forty-three natives were done to death by whites—as many as fourteen being destroyed at the one time. "This you will perceive exhibits a fearful preponderance against the whites," remarks the assistant protector.
Edward John Eyre, who in 1845 was resident in charge of the most densely populated native district in South Australia and lived there for three years, reported on certain acts of aggression by blacks:
I believe were Europeans placed under the same circumstances, equally wronged, and equally shut out from redress, they would not exhibit half the moderation or forbearance that these poor untutored children of impulse have invariably shown.
It may have been the massacre of some forty aborigines, young and old, male and female, at Myall Creek, in New South Wales, a massacre for which seven white men were hanged, that caused the Governor of the day to issue a proclamation in 1839 that a special Act had been passed "to put a stop to the atrocities which have of late been so extensively committed both by aborigines and on them." He went on to say that he had received instructions from Her Majesty's Government to cause an inquest or inquiry to be instituted in every case wherein any aboriginal inhabitants came to a violent death in consequence of a collision with white men, and that he meant to make no distinction in such cases whether the aggressors or parties injured were of one or the other race or colour, but to bring all to equal and indiscriminate justice. His Excellency concluded by stressing the importance which he and the Government attached to the just and humane treatment of the aborigines, and he declared earnestly and solemnly his deep conviction that there was no subject or matter in which the interest as well as the honour of the colonists were more essentially concerned.
Two years earlier it had been found necessary by the Governor to threaten landowners in the outlying districts with cancellation of their licences to occupy Crown lands, and with the intimation that prosecution would follow as well, if the practice on the part of "overseers and other persons in charge of sheep and cattle" of detaining by force in their huts black women of the neighbouring tribes were not stopped. "It is an offence," remarked His Excellency, "not only of a heinous and revolting character, but, in its consequences, leading to bloodshed and murder."
There he touched upon one of the most frequent causes of hatred of white by black. Again, what possible recourse had husband or tribe, in their ignorance of government proclamations and powers, but the spear?
Here may be mentioned the half-caste. Half-castes belong to neither race; they are customarily disowned by both. Hard indeed is their lot, unjustifiably hard. As a statesman once said in the Victorian Parliament: "It is not the child who is illegitimate; it is the parents." Though the full bloods decline, the half-castes steadily increase in Australia. In Western Australia his numbers leaped from 900 to 2853 in twenty-five years. That is typical.
But enough of assaults and atrocities. While it is clear that the aboriginal has suffered cruelly in that regard, it is equally true that he has been injured by many of the well-intentioned efforts at kindness. Civilization and he, as the two are now brought together, have proved themselves definitely incompatibles. To take the naked black, accustomed to the constant exercise of his faculties in the pursuit and procuring of his food, living altogether under the sky, knowing no restraint upon his freedom, and place him in a stuffy hut with a tin to open instead of a kangaroo to catch, and clothes to keep him dirty and unhealthy, is to invite him to a quick death.
Again I would record my conviction that the missionaries, earnest, self-sacrificing, and well-meaning, are among the very few who are doing any practical work in the interest of our natives. But again I would protest against some of the practices which strike me as ill-advised. One was referred to by Dr Elkin in his address, "Understanding the Australian Aborigine," when he said:
We do need to realize that the family spirit is a real thing in aboriginal life, and that, therefore, any system which separates the children from their parents for long intervals is unwise, unless it be while the parents are on walk-about. The dormitory system, according to which the children sleep, perhaps behind locked doors, and eat away from their parents, is not necessarily in the best interest of the children, their parents, or the tribe.
Bad, too, is the insistence upon the wearing of clothes when the natives have always been unclad. Centuries of exposure to cold and heat have inured them to what a white man would call very great hardships. A naked black has been seen to sleep in the sunshine, apparently without discomfort, when the temperature was so high that a bar of iron beside him was too hot to hold. And in the Macdonnell Ranges the tribes lie, quite uncovered, by their tiny fires when frost is thick on the ground, and again are seemingly content. Assuredly they need no covering or they would use the skins of the furred animals they are constantly killing. But too often the missionary, moved by compassion as much as by a sense of decency, demands that clothes shall be worn. Dr Ramsay Smith states:
Consumption, which is inseparable from the habits of clothing and housing, is responsible for a large number of deaths. It has been remarked that while many die from our diseases, a great many also die from our treatment.
Decency could be honoured by the adoption of a short skirt or loin-cloth, leaving the body otherwise free. Comparison of pictures of a native in his natural state with photographs of the rag-clad mendicants who advertise our Commonwealth so disastrously to tourists on the east-west railway line should prove a liberal education to those who are interested but do not know the aboriginal at first hand.
But what were these savages like to whom the coming of the European has proved so disastrous? Definitely, as a people, they were not warlike. They had no chiefs; all was old-man government. To avoid any hint of sentiment, let me quote from a scientist's description:
One can hardly be said to have seen human grace of carriage who has not seen an aboriginal walk...The voice is soft and musical and rich in inflections...Mentally the aboriginal in his native surroundings is observant, self-reliant, and quick...As a race the aboriginals are polite, proper in their behaviour, modest, unassuming, gay, fond of jokes and laughter, and skilful mimics...They are by nature frank, open, and confiding, and cheerful under all sorts of privation. Sometimes they show great delicacy of feeling. In many things the aboriginal is scrupulously honest; and his morality, according to his lights and teaching, is as high as among the generality of uneducated white people.
Thus Dr W. Ramsay Smith, permanent head of the Department of Public Health of South Australia.
Charles Pickering in his book The Races of Man tells us that
strange as it may appear I would refer to an Australian as the finest model of the human race I have ever met with; in muscular development combining perfect symmetry, activity, and strength; while his head might have compared with an antique bust of a philosopher.
Spencer and Gillen testified to the generosity of the natives. Mathew described them as a peaceful, kindly people. Many are the explorers who have spoken in glowing terms of black friends.
Professor Gregory, in his Dead Heart of Australia, after recounting how the natives with him offered to go without tea and sugar (the most precious of things in that country of bad water) when they found the supplies for the white men were running short, remarked:
The popular conception of the mental and moral characters of the Australian aborigines is as erroneous as is the caricature of their personal appearance. The extreme kindliness of the people, especially to the old, is one of their most striking characteristics. Instead of being cruel and without affection, they show a fondness for their children and a generous consideration for the old and infirm members of their clan unusual among primitive people.
He concluded, as so manyof the scientists do to-day, that the Australian is of Caucasian origin—that is, he belongs to the same race-group as ourselves.
To paraphrase Kipling:
They ain't no blooming angels
And they ain't no blackguards, too,
But simply human beings
Most remarkable like you.
An interesting commentary on the foregoing is contained in an official report by the chief protector of aborigines in South Australia. Of a certain reserve he said: "The aborigines on this land are practically untouched by the vices of civilization."
A few of the mission stations are now reporting small increases in the numbers of full bloods under their charge. These are but drops in the ocean of waste—still the tribes melt away! A century and a half of effort on the part of governments, missions, and numerous organizations and individuals has had no better result than this—the tribes continue to vanish! Professor Wood Jones has pointed out that all through the story of the settlement of our continent runs the declaration, almost wearying in its reiteration, that "something must be done" in way of repayment, the resolve that we must deal fairly with the blackfellow.
To-day these protestations are made with equal fervour; to-day, as yesterday, they beget ready sympathizers. Were the aborigine to find salvation in pious wishes, or were he to derive prosperity from sympathetic resolutions, then indeed we would have to rank him as a chosen people, so blessed would be his lot.
It is time, much more than time, that protestation and sporadic effort alike were put to an end. The regeneration of the black is a nation's job and can never be accomplished by any section, however earnest. Obviously it is a Federal matter, and one that the Federal Government should undertake promptly if it is to retain the world's respect.
Many are the suggestions which could be made as to the lines on which action should proceed. One basic essential, as I have already said, is the employment of a scientist, the best man the world can produce, one preferably with successful experience in the ruling of native races, a man of the Hubert Murray type, who should be given first a free hand regardless of expense (bear in mind we owe these people for the whole of a continent), and then the power to carry out his findings. That will do for a beginning.
Is it too much to expect any good results at this stage? Listen to one of our greatest authorities:
Those who think that the Australian aboriginal is doomed to die out, and the sooner the better; those who think the effort to save him is not worth the making; and those who deceive themselves into imagining that in Australia we already have native reservations, should go to Gallup in New Mexico and see for themselves the Navajo Reserves, in which an interesting and nomadic race is flourishing and increasing.
And as a final word:
No man should be entrusted with the care of captive kangaroos unless he has some understanding of the ways of kangaroos. Much more, no man should be entrusted with the care of a native race unless he understands the lore, the legends, the beliefs, and the prejudices of the people who are placed under his jurisdiction.
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