CHAPTER 2: ALICE AT LAST- HALF WAY MARK - AND BEYOND
1:Alice At Last
Our arrival had been heard by the blacks in the Gap, and shortly two boys appeared. From one Harry we learned that he had charge of the police sergeant's goats, and he promised to bring along all the boys he could muster in the morning in case we required assistance in crossing the river, which was dry and sandy. The township was about a mile away, so, being rather tired we postponed visiting it until the morrow. 80 miles had been most strenuous as only 14 or 15 miles had been on good, firm ground.
Inspecting the track in the morning, we found the ruts made by camel wagons to be about 18 inches deep although covered by loose sand; so, keeping a little off the track with about 18 boys pushing, we soon got over the first crossing. Between the two crossings there were a few hundred yards of hard ground, and so as not to waste any time we allowed the boys to scramble onto the car. Standing on the running boards and mudguards the boys were in the glory, but several had to jump off owing to Dinkum biting their fingers. The second crossing being longer and heavier, we unloaded the car, and in a short time we had reached the opposite side and were safely through Heavitree Gap, one of the three passages through the MacDonnell Ranges and the most central point in Australia and almost on the Tropic of Capricorn.
As we would be delayed here for some time we soon had the boys making a bough shed, and the river being lined with trees - mostly white gums (ghosts) -there was no shortage of bushes. We made our camp on the rise above the river surrounded by saltbush, but had our nets rigged in the soft, sandy riverbed. There being no surface water available, we dug a soak in the sand and at a couple of feet, pure water was obtained.
This river is another of the raging torrents in the wet season, receiving all their drainage from the surrounding ranges. The sand is estimated to be over 40 feet deep, under which the river is continually flowing, eventually finding a resting place somewhere in the South East. I considered that one of the biggest engineering difficulties of the proposed North South line would be in effecting a passage through the MacDonnell ranges. The two crossings of the Todd River would necessitate very long, high and substantial bridges as, to get bed rock, it would be necessary to go down over 40 feet; in flood time, the river reaches a great height and travels at a great pace, bringing down trees and logs, et cetera. Moreover, the position of the mountains forming the Gap on the northern side would present extreme difficulties.
After straightening up and making our camp as comfortable as possible, we motored up to the town, leaving the boys plenty of flour, tea, sugar, syrup, and tobacco. A hotel, two stores, police station, a few houses, and a dozen whites, (excluding aboriginals) but including three or four white women, and you see Alice Springs -or, rather, Stuart.
Alice Springs is a Telegraph Station about 2 miles up the river from the town, then in charge of Postmaster Price and four operators, and is connected with the town by telephone. I will call the whole community "Alice Springs", as it is known. In this out of the way township being labelled with two names is certainly, to the uninitiated, rather misleading, and many a man who has travelled in those parts would not know where to find Stuart.
Our first social call was at the police station, south of the river, where Sgt.Stott welcomed us cordially and showed us around. I was interested in the bungalow for half caste children, of whom most were girls. These children were gathered in from the district for miles around and educated by Mrs Standley and when old enough, were given positions on Stations in the south. A member of Parliament once mentioned Alice Springs as the "Home of Iniquity", and after inspection of the children I could not but help agreeing with him. And there were some queer and deformed specimens of humanity amongst them, who, although quite a few were white, included mostly aboriginal, Japanese and Indian blood.
We took a photograph of them, dressed up for the occasion, but they could not be said to appear very happy at having their photograph taken. Should any of these girls get into trouble with men in the district they are severely dealt with by Mrs Standley. There is no doubt that they benefit by Mrs Standley's training, and any fault lies with the men, for the time there were several travellers in the town who very intimately conversed with the girls; whereas, as I made no overtures towards conversation, the girls would pass me with heads drooped and would not dare to speak unless they had some message from the "boss".
The owner of the hotel, Len Browne, was away but his wife and her mother, Mrs Standley, greeted us warmly, while the "town lawyer", George Ballingall, was thirsting for our views on the prospects of a railway, and putting forth various proposals himself, finishing by saying he would die peacefully if he only knew that trains would eventually run through Alice Springs.
The Afghan's garden was interesting, proving the soil to be very fertile. Both temperate and tropical fruits and vegetables thrived in the mild climate.
Afterwards we climbed Billy Goat Hill in the ranges to obtain a view of photos of the township and surrounding country. The Mac Donnell ranges being the most elevated part of the Northern Territory, form on their southern side an almost perpendicular wall rising several hundreds of feet. Running east and west for 400 miles and some of their peaks rising to 5000 feet above sea level, the ranges have a great influence on the climate. The temperature Alice Springs rarely exceeds 90° F, and although lying almost on the Tropic of Capricorn, snow has fallen and surface water has been frozen in winter time. Imagine such a glorious climate as this in Rockhampton on the Queensland coast, which is also on the Tropic of Capricorn!
Looking into the thickly grassed valley from the top of the range I imagined the time centuries hence when Australia - perhaps crisscrossed with railways and populating scores of millions of people - could have Alice Springs as its Capital. And why not? It is the most appropriately situated in the centre of Australia 1000 miles from Adelaide and 1000 miles from Darwin, with a larger equal mileage to the east and west coasts.
From a defence viewpoint Alice Springs could be made practically impregnable, being surrounded by mountains, which could be fortified to resist an invasion - if an army could get that far from the coast. That was my 1921 reasoning. The only access on the south is through Heavitree Gap and on the North through a narrow gorge which forms the bed of the river.
During the first week we overhauled the car, ready for the next part of the journey. Old Pat had left us, having got a position as cook on an outlying station. Sgt Stott had instructed Harry to give us a few quarts of goat's milk every morning, which we greatly appreciated, Dinkum doing full justice to it also. There was one old billy goat always hanging around the camp, but it never came too close on account of Dinkum. Unless when hunting, Dinkum would tackle nothing except on the word from either of us, even if any animal or native came within a few yards of the camp. This old goat came too close one day and Dinkum chased it for a little and grabbed one of its hind legs. Walking backwards, he brought the goat right into the hut when we forced him to let it go. Five minutes later Harry came along, saying "big pfella fool, that one wild pfella goat". Later, we learned that nobody owned this old billy goat and we were annoyed for allowing it to go as it would have supplied us with a weeks meat. There is very little difference between sheep and goat, especially young animals. Perhaps that is why the Territory residents called goat "Queensland mutton".
Postmaster Price brought us down a telegram one day, and stated that his wife would like us to have afternoon tea at the hotel with her. We went up in the car, and turning a corner noticed Price with three horses. Although we pulled up, the horses were already frightened, and Price holding the reins had no chance with two pulling in one direction and one in the opposite; they eventually pulled him over and started off dragging him along a few yards.
On another occasion, Dinkum tackled Price's goat pet goat, inflicting injuries. As Price had gone out of his way several times in assisting us, I was extremely sorry for him as we were a source of trouble instead of otherwise. However, we found Price to be a goodhearted chap, and as we had shifted our camp to a quieter place near the Telegraph Station, we spent several evenings with him and his family.
About ten days after our arrival Len Browne returned, and we decided to stay at the hotel with him. We had finished our writing and would find it very convenient to develop our still films at the hotel. As the bulk of the cooking fell to my lot I was quite pleased with the change and preferred the new yeast bread to my dampers, although I was now an expert in that line.
Considering the length of time some of the films had been exposed, and the hot and wet weather which had intervened, they all turned out remarkably well, and had we known what was to be their fate later, we would have sent the negatives home. As it happened, we only sent a few prints away, and they are the sole remains of our efforts. With regard to the cinema films we developed tests strips of several inches each, and as all were perfect we sealed the boxes up and stowed them away and the car. Only a few photos can be reproduced owing to their age.
2: Close Shave
As the camels had not arrived with the benzine we filled in the time by photographing anything interesting, which often took us to the top of the range. In endeavouring to obtain a photograph of the Telegraph Station I had a narrow escape from being precipitated into space for a few hundred feet.
As I was nearing the top of Billy Goat Hill for the second time a boulder about 6 feet above me and fully 18 inches in diameter, which apparently had been dislodged by Frank who had gone ahead, suddenly fell. As it happened, the position I was in made it impossible for me to jump in any direction. I was standing on a boulder with space at the back and the wall of the cliff in front. Throwing my head back I tried to take the weight of the falling boulder with my arms which would, at any rate, break the fall. Then, with my hands seeming to act before my brain, I grabbed an overhanging root and held myself in position before the force of the boulder could severely strike my legs. Badly shaken, I then sat down to listen to the boulder smashing its way head long down the side of the hill, finally to settle in a pool of water at the bottom. It was some time before I realised that my arms and legs were scraped and scratched fairly extensively, the blood just oozing out as it does from a gravel rash. Frank being out of sight, I turned back and very stiffly made my way to the car where I literally bathed the scratches with iodine, which made me "sit up" for a quarter of an hour or so, after which I only felt stiff. Frank was quite concerned when he returned, realising exactly what could happen without each other's knowledge when only out of one another's sight for a minute or two.
It was nearly three weeks after our arrival in Alice Springs that we received a telegram from Pearce to meet his boy with the benzine at Deep Well. We were at a loss to understand why he was not coming to Alice Springs with our benzine, but had no alternative but to return to Deep Well 50 miles. This extra hundred miles would seriously deplete our benzine supply, and as it was 800 miles from Alice Springs to Katherine (the next township where we could obtain supplies) we were all ready feeling anxious. As a matter of fact, we had arranged with an oil company in Sydney, before leaving, to send six cases of benzine to Oodnadatta and 12 cases to Alice Springs.
Although it was the fault of that company or their Adelaide Agents, we do not know; but, nevertheless, we were experiencing serious inconvenience owing to that benzine not arriving at either place. Had this benzine arrived we would have been able to make a journey to Arltunga Gold Fields and the Hermannsburg Mission Station, each about 80 miles East and West, respectively of Alice Springs.
However, intending to make the best of the six cases the boy was bringing and two cases we could procure at Alice Springs, together with some kerosene, we left for Deep Well, Len Browne accompanying us.
The Johannsens were rather surprised to see it again, and as the camels had not arrived we camped overnight. Next morning, we were surprised to see a motor car arrive from the south, the occupants being three young chaps going prospecting to Arltunga. They had had an equally rough journey from Oodnadatta as we had, and were pulled through the Depot Sand Hills. They had seen no sign of the boy with our benzine. A big corroboree was being held near Horseshoe Bend, and they thought the boy had probably spent a few days there. We therefore, expecting a few more days delay, Len Browne decided to return to Alice Springs with these chaps, who were not too pleased when we told them of the sand ahead of them. The boy arrived that same afternoon about four o'clock, stating that, when he heard the other motor car approaching, he had left the track so that his camels would not be frightened. Therefore, the motorists had not seen him. He had only two camels - one for riding and the other for the loading. To those not familiar with camel transportation, six cases of benzine may seem an enormous load; but this is a mere trifle as I have seen big bull camels with up to half a ton stacked on their backs, and six cases of benzine would only be about four hundred and eighty pounds.
One case of benzine is not exactly awkward or heavy for the average man to handle, but we were struck by the comparative ease with which the boy lifted the first two cases from the camel's back. Suspiciously lifting one of the cases myself, I was dismayed to find that it weighed only about 10 pounds, and examining the six cases you can imagine our feelings when we found several of the tins absolutely empty, and others with contents of only a couple of gallons. Altogether, we mustered less than two cases, or about 14 gallons, of benzine and not a hole to be found in any of the tins. Only a month had passed since the benzine had left Oodnadatta, but the hot sun of that month had caused the evaporation of more than two thirds of the original load. It is rather fortunate that little benzine is used in this country, for under such conditions the spirits required for petrol engines on stations for bores, lighting and other purposes would cost more than the plant itself. Even the heavy iron drums will not withstand the fierceness of the sun, although losses by evaporation is not so great, of course, as from the cased 4 gallon tins. It was five o'clock by the time we left Deep Well. As we had left all the loading in Alice Springs we were travelling very light. Moreover, this was our third time over this part of the track and we were back in Alice Springs in two hours time, the two crossings of the Todd River having been accomplished easily by keeping on the wagon tracks.
The storekeeper stated that he could let us have one case of benzine and about 64 gallons of kerosene which was contained in eleven 4 gallon tins and two 80 gallon drums, so we deemed it would be better to push on and do our best on the kerosene than be delayed perhaps two months more before any benzine could arrive from the south. We therefore decided to use the rear 16 gallon tank for kerosene, and, by fixing tap to a 2 gallon benzine tin, placing the tin outside above the dash and then affixing it to the vacuum tank.
After filling this tin with benzine, we would turn on the tap start the engine. After a few revolutions, during which the engine would start sucking the kerosene from the back tank, the benzine tap could be turned off and the engine run on pure kerosene, or be turned on slightly, thus using a mixture of each spirit.
3: Leaving Alice
At last, all was in readiness to bid the town "au revoir", for we expected to return by another route through Alice Springs in three or four months time. The car would have been well loaded without the drums of kerosene, and by emptying four small drums into the back tank we reduced the bulkiness very little. Drums lashed to the running boards and on the front mudguards near the engine, the back portion of the car stacked to the hood caused the springs to turn downwards at the ends, rather than upwards. (There was no boot on the car, and we had a bicycle tied to the back).
The first few miles were very rough, and we had to go carefully, especially through the gorge and over steep gradients. Could ever a township be made more secure from invasion? I doubt it.
Sgt Stott had very graciously provided 10 or 12 native prisoners to remove boulders which continually fall from above on to the track through the gorge to enable us to get through. These prisoners have little chance to escape for they are kept in chains attached to their ankles, their only attire being a shirt with a belt around the waist.
Our first day passed not without trouble, as only about 10 miles had been covered when the engine "snuffed out", which we knew was caused through getting no benzine - in this case, kerosene. Inspection showed us nothing wrong till I noticed that the sand at the back of the car was wet, the draining tap underneath the tank having been broken off, and we had not felt any bump. This was indeed bad luck, as we were none too plentiful with "juice" and the whole tank had leaked out, with the exception of perhaps a gallon used in travelling the 10 miles.
A little difficulty in replacing a bolt fitted with a "home-made" lead washer on the inside and outside and the nut lightly bolted on made an excellent job of it.
Evening brought us to Burt Well and, after drawing the water from a couple of hundred feet and filling our drums, we went on a few miles further, on account of ants and mosquitoes at the well. The country now was still sandy, but not very heavy. Various species of gum trees abound on the rivers and creeks, but otherwise, the only vegetation was the thick mulga scrub - a dense growth of the dwarf eucalypt, out of which a tree occasionally starts up, making a lonely landmark.
The centre of Australia is blessed with a godsend, which only seems to exist in numbers within a radius of 50 miles or so of Alice Springs. We never encountered it elsewhere, to my knowledge. This is the "policeman fly", and well named too. It is just a little longer than the ordinary bush fly, and its sole duty seems to be to clear out this pest. The "modus operandi" is to catch the common fly and carry it off, kill it, eventually placing it in a hole in the ground. Many a time I sat watching their operations, gradually sneaking up to an unsuspecting fly when within an inch bound on top of it. Some of these policeman flies were experts at catching their victims on the wing.
5 Ryan's Well
Lunchtime next day saw us at Ryan's Well, a station occupied by one Nikka. Old Pat Burns was also here, employed as a cook. Sheep and goats thrive well, but overlanding them to the market in such a disadvantage that only private killing stocks are at present reared.
Our next main objective was Barrow Creek Telegraph Station, approximately 190 miles from Alice Springs, and 100 miles from Ryan's Well. The track was covered with ant beds in long grass in seed. The ant beds were mostly of the same kind, about six or 8 inches in diameter, two or 3 feet high, and rising to a point. During the course of a day hundreds of these would get knocked over by the car, they being so thick that it was useless attempting to dodge them. Moreover, a strong girder had been specially fitted in front of the car to protect the radiator, the only damage done was to ourselves caused by showers of dust. Of course, we occasionally had to steer clear of extra large ant beds or a low, oval shaped one, the latter being as hard as rock and not able to be shifted like the tall, narrow anthills. The spear grass seeds had very sharp points and the myriads flew into the car made it fairly uncomfortable. Weeks afterwards, when well away from this class of country, I have picked some of these sharp points of these seeds out of my body, their tendency been to work inwards, corkscrew-like, if left untouched.
The car was doing marvellously well on the kerosene, but so far the state of the country was good, and our only trouble was that, every time the engine was stopped, we had to drain the kerosene out of the vacuum tank and fill it with benzine as it was impossible to start the engine on kerosene (although we had to, later).
Evening brought us to a wide, sandy creek. As there is practically no vehicular traffic in these parts at any time there was, consequently, no beaten path across the creek, and the car being extremely heavy with a large loading, we thought it advisable to unload. The chance of getting held up being considerably lessened.
So, switching the engine onto pure benzine, the empty car charged the crossing at about 40 miles an hour. I was standing on the opposite side in place which Frank was to steer for. As a matter of fact, a large gutter ran into the creek at this spot, and by Frank keeping the left wheel headed for me, the gutter would be "straddled" by the car. Elsewhere, the banks were too steep to allow regress.
There was a slight washout at the entrance to the creek, though Frank did not lessen speed. The car bounded over it, and on entering the creek the four wheels left the ground. I obtained a wonderful photograph with the reflex camera and immediately jumped out of the way as the car came up the bank before we realised it had happened. Carrying the loading across and repacking the car was not as strenuous as "working our passage" which would have been the result had we attempted it with a fully loaded car.
Walking down the creek a couple of hundred yards we found a small supply of surface water - on top of which thousands of prettily-plumed butterflies were resting and fluttering. Indeed, they did not move at our approach and it was necessary to brush them aside to obtain a billycan of water. There was very little surface water anywhere and some of the water holes presented pretty pictures with innumerable parrots, cockatoos and smaller birds lazily resting, drinking, or on the wing. One remarkable little bird of the interior which I have heard on hundreds of occasions, and scores of times have endeavoured to obtain at least a glimpse of, is the bell bird. Its melodious, bell-sounding voice will draw you into the scrub, and although only a yard of two from you, the little beggar remains unseen. Then, although you did not see or hear it move, the sound will come from the other side of you, and more and more your curiosity is aroused. My patience never seemed to exhaust when looking for the bell bird, yet I cannot say that I have consciously seen one, neither had Frank in all his travels.
Lunchtime next day saw us working in a bluebush swamp, our first taste of bog since leaving Alice Springs. It was not exactly a bad bog, but it took us a couple of hours to extricate the car. A remarkable feature about a bluebush swamp is that you can be bogged up to your axles and not a drop the water is to be had. The same afternoon we got into a very bad patch of cane grass growing 12 feet in height in a boggy depression. Making a big deviation to the left of the track we could see only a few feet ahead of us owing to the growth of the cane grass when we ran into a large washout. In reversing the car out we then ran into a tree about 10 inches through, the force of the contact splitting it. Yet it was firmly jammed between the wheel and the body of the car. It was then I found that we had now lost our big new axe, and the only other possession in this line being a shingling hammer with a narrow blade. However, we soon chopped the tree away, and found that the only damage done was to the push bicycle which was strapped on the back, the front wheel having been twisted into a figure of eight. We had carried this bicycle from Sydney for emergency use, and had often been tempted to dispose of it, as it was a source of annoyance and awkward to carry. Later on, we were glad of it.
Evening brought us to a creek crossing such as the previous evening, and , after repeating the performance, safely crossed without any trouble. As it was fairly early when we camped, I made a few large dampers and thought I'd like some refreshing drink. We obtained some lemonade crystals at Alice Springs, and the instructions clearly stated - use "white sugar". White sugar was practically an unknown commodity this time in Alice Springs, and we were supplied with brown sugar. Digging in the bottom of the car I discovered some old white sugar that had got fairly mixed with some specimens of gypsum and ochre which we had collected.
I sifted this conglomeration as best I could, but the results of my labours supplied a blood-red drink, which, after settling in the billy, contained half an inch of clay. Despite this and it's brackish taste, we drank it - although Frank passed uncomplimentary remarks.
6 Stirling Station
Our progress would have been retarded somewhat on each day had the country not been of a sandy nature. Surface water was plentiful and large, fresh-water lakes swarmed ducks, hens, et cetera, and the presence of cattle suggested that we were close to Stirling Station.
Two large heavy sandhills loomed up, running parallel East and West, and to avoid crossing these sandhills we skirted around the bottom, bearing East and keeping close to the water's edge of the lake where the ground was hard. Gaining the other side of the hills, we met a well defined track which we thought inadvisable to follow as it would possibly lead us to an out-yard of the station. We therefore kept going until we met the Telegraph line, which we followed, although the going was very rough.
7 Barrow Creek
Several miles further on a track crossed the Telegraph line at right angles, and rugged mountain ranges appeared directly in front. Presuming rightly that the eastern track led to Stirling Station, we followed the western track and, after 16 miles further, on rough ground which bore many black fellows' footprints, we reached Barrow Creek Telegraph Station. A large number of blacks were in the vicinity, some lazily lolling around the creek and others leisurely walking in different directions, apparently breaking up after a big corroboree. They all carried spears, head-dress and other decorations, the boys' attire being a loincloth while the lubras wore a more-or-less gaudy coloured cloth from the waist to the knee.
Crossing the Creek without difficulty, we entered the courtyard and were welcomed by the two operators, although they presented a sorry spectacle. The officer-in-charge, Jack Cain, was suffering from sandy blight and, of course, could not keep his eyes uncovered.
He introduced us to his assistant, who was down with a bad attack of malaria fever and really looked a physical wreck. Yet these two men had to carry on their work, although neither was in a condition to be out of bed.
We inspected the graves of the two men who were killed by the blacks in earlier years, and later Jack Cain told us the story and showed us the exact places where the men were killed. Indeed, I purposely stood on the threshold of the door where one unfortunate man had stood who was not quick enough in getting into the room. Just as he reached the door a spear settled in the small of his back and mortally wounded him. The outbreak of the blacks on that Sunday afternoon on 23rd of February, 1874, resulted in the deaths of two white men while two more were severely wounded. It appeared that the attack was so sudden that the men were unable to close the iron gate leading to the courtyard as spears were already flying with dangerous precision; neither were they able to safely cross the courtyard before two of them had been mortally speared. Once inside, the remaining men could put up a good fight by firing at the uncovered blacks through the small holes in the building specially made for that purpose.
The blacks in this part are, of course, quite docile now and a few are employed and supported by the government, but the majority that come within the precincts of the Telegraph Station are only half civilised and still dependent on their own prowess with a spear, throwing-stick and other weapons for their daily food. Then we have the uncivilised blacks who are still living in the primitive age with their stone implements. The wild Australian black (unlike the natives of other countries) is a "nomad". He has no recognised home or permanent shelter, neither has he any habitual eating times.
Wandering about during the day, he eats as he or his lubra finds iguana, snakes, berries, wild fruits, yams, grubs, ants, honey or other such delicacy, and usually objecting to travel by night lies down wherever he might be by nightfall. The same routine day after day, and no wonder the Australian black is reputed to be lazy. Even the working Station black must have here is periodical "walk-about" which generally extends over a period of moonlight nights, and I consider this custom sufficient evidence of the instinctive wildness in the "civilised" black who, once away from the station, divests himself of his shirt and trousers for a scanty loincloth or nothing, and for the few following weeks leads an absolutely primitive life.
I might mention here that there were nine Overland Telegraph Stations between Oodnadatta and Darwin when the submerged line went to Java. On each station there were from 3 to 5 men: the station manager, one or two Morse telegraphists (of course, the manager was also a telegraphist) and one or two linesmen. These men keep the line in order and if a break occurs -perhaps by a tree falling over the line, a fallen post, or a lightning strike - the linesmen would ride the line with a packhorse carrying gear and food. Actually, one man would start from each of the two stations between which the fault was, which ever reached the trouble first, he was able to get in touch with the other with his portable phone and he could then return without going further. It has been known for a lost or sick man to have cut the line and so obtained assistance. The house staff at the stations were blacks, and occasionally a governess was employed where the manager had young children.
When the line was built, the surveyors apparently followed the ridges or hills to avoid boggy country and to make it easier for the linesmen to follow on horseback - hence, the bridle track which we had to follow most of the time.
The original posts were of wood and there were continually posts going down through grass fires and termites (white ants). However, eventually iron posts replaced the wooden ones, with a minimum of troubles.
We left Barrow Creek full of sympathy for the two sick men, who informed us we were likely to strike some heavy bog before we reached Tennant Creek Telegraph Station, which was our next main objective about 150 miles northward. The evening after 26 miles of fairly easy travelling brought us to a very large Creek known as Tailor's Crossing. Once again we found it necessary to unload the car, but the bed of the Creek was of a granite formation with narrow, intervening patches of sand, and we crossed easily.
Next day, we encountered heavy sand covered with high grass and innumerable anthills. The accompanying heat made travelling very tiresome. After we had covered 15 miles the engine, fed by kerosene, was running very hot and we had to rest awhile to enable it to cool off. During the short time we pulled out all the grass seeds which had packed around the engine and in every small crevice and opening. As a matter of fact, on firstly alighting, we found that the engine could not be seen owing to being so covered with the grass seeds, which are very inflammable.
We covered about another 5 miles when, suddenly, flames shot up through the holes in the floor of the car through which the various foot controls protrude. Immediately stopping the car, we jumped out, and while Frank grabbed a water can I opened up the bonnet. Flames shot up from the engine and there was a lively 10 minutes before we could subdue the fire with water and sand.
9 Wycliffe Well
It appeared that the grass seeds on the exhaust pipe, which was practically red hot, fanned by the draft from the fan on the car's motion, had become alight, and immediately all the seeds packed around the engine had burst into flames. Congratulating ourselves that no harm had been done other than a few burns to our hands, we started off again, and, to be ready for another similar happening, we devised a plan of action in our minds. A large billycan of water was carried in front with us and, in the event of fire, I would immediately jump out and dash the water on while Frank would go to the rear of the car and get out another tin. Although we did not expect it, more flames shot up before we had covered many miles. We quickly extinguished them before any damage could be done, but made a complete inspection of likely places where we discovered oil to be smouldering. Satisfied that everything was in order, we started off once again, our nerves highly strung with expectation. Moreover, the engine was consuming a large quantity of benzine to keep it as cool as possible. The heat, combined with the use of kerosene, was making it run fearfully hot. So we could not afford to waste too much water on extinguishing flames. However, without further mishap, but with many stoppages to "give the engine a drink" we reached Wycliffe Well and Station with only a pint of water to spare.
The country was mostly well grassed, red, sandy soil with mulga, tea tree and other indigenous shrubs. When wet this was difficult to traverse as the soil was slippery and the scrub dense.
Mr Crook, who had a lease of the country surrounding this well, built his station adjacent thereto in order to have a permanent supply of water for domestic purposes at least. Mr Crook was away at the time, mustering cattle, and Mrs Crook with her two daughters welcomed us.
Such a woman must be admired and titled as one of the "Queens of the Never Never". We had met very few women so far. They sacrifice everything by coming out into this loneliness and helping their husbands to carry on. The nearest white woman would be in Alice Springs about 240 miles south. Yet Mrs Crook could greet us with a happy smile, with no sign of complaint. We had had no opportunity of a wash and presented a very much travel-stained pair, so we adjourned to the Creek nearby for a bathe before sitting down to an excellent lunch which Mrs Crook prepared for us.
After lunch, Dinkum got into trouble with the two cats which for some time had been eyeing him from the top of the bough shed which served as a dining room. Presently, Dinkum jumped high and managed to catch the tail of one of the cats and bring it down. The other cat followed, and after a lot of barking and spitting, both cats made off. One made for the well and with a bound reached the woodwork and commenced to climb, not stopping until it reached the top. Dinkum, meanwhile, unsuccessfully endeavouring to clamber up. Beaten, he indignantly sauntered off in search of the other cat and found it near the banks of the creek. Without waiting, the cat took a "header", and I think Dinkum was so surprised for the moment that he stood cock-eared, and gaped. But only for a second or two, and then he followed, and very shortly the cat was missing amid muffled screams. The powerful Dinkum was apparently trying to drown the cat by holding it under the water. Suddenly, the cat appeared at the top of the water again and frantically tried to clamber on to Dinkum's back, and then Dinkum did a most peculiar thing. Grabbing the cat by the nape of the neck between his teeth, we thought he was going to drown it once and for all, but he swam to the opposite side of the creek and deposited the cat on the bank.
Then, at our call, he gave it a disgusted look and returned to us. Very slowly, the cat crawled to a neighbouring tree and perched itself in a fork thereof, only a foot from the ground. It could not possibly jump any higher. I believe that the cat was now embarking on its ninth and last life, and we left Wycliffe and the good Crooks wondering how its last life would end.
10 Devil's Marbles
The country was now gradually rising, but a large quantity of water was lying about on the track followed the foot of large, rocky hills where the water rushing down the sides had washed out the ground in places and made the travelling bumpy. We expected a broken spring any minute, for the weight of the car bumping up and down might have easily caused it. Yet those springs seemed unbreakable, perhaps because we had spares with us. By the rules of contrariness a spring would have broken had we not had spares, just as the differential cogs stripped at the 460 mile post.
However, by camping time, we reached the Devil's Marbles - so called because of the shape of the granite rocks. These rocks are isolated in the midst of rugged country and highly situated. In an area of a square mile or so these rocks -egg shaped - oval shaped - some absolutely ball shaped and standing in every position imaginable - from a distance more resemble the remains of an ancient Grecian city. Some of the boulders are of huge size and pretentious appearance. Two of the most striking stand close together, egg shaped, and are balanced on a big granite slab. They seemed so lightly balanced that I was tempted to push them over, but having withstood nature for perhaps thousands of centuries my chance was remote. The only vegetation which existed was a course shrub which was useful for firewood.
11 Bonney's Well
Leaving this imposing sight next morning, we reached Bonney's Well by midday. The creek here has a good rock bottom and was crossed easily. The water in the creek was the clearest we had yet seen, and fish were abundant. In fact, we managed to catch a feed of small, black bream and later indulged in a swim. In the afternoon, a little excitement was caused by a large, wild cat. The wild cat must not be thought of as the native cat, which is not much bigger than a large rat. A wild cat is nothing more or less than a domestic cat gone bush years ago. But the breeding in the bush produces a large animal, and, of course, not the same furry purring little thing you find by a kitchen fire or the small, indigenous native cat. No, this wild cat was very little smaller than Dinkum, and he is a big cattle dog.
The cat crossed the track about a quarter of a mile in front of us, and when we reached that spot we pulled up because the grass was long, and as it was impossible to see the cat, Dinkum would have to follow its scent. The dog was off like a shot through the grass. We followed closely to the point where Dinkum made off - but he returned, as we expected. He had lost the scent, but only for a little while, and soon he made off in double-quick time. We followed as best we could, when suddenly, about 20 yards off, we saw the cat make a jump for a tree, but Dinkum just grabbed its tail in time. Then followed a fight in which the cat, with its several rows of sharp, pointed teeth, held on to Dinkum's lop ear, during which Dinkum howled and whined, but had a good hold of the cat's neck. By the time we arrived, Dinkum was putting in the finishing touches, which consisted of severely shaking the cat, its head coming into contact with the ground about twice per second. It is not every dog that will tackle a big wild Tom cat, but I think Dinkum knows his own strength and ability and would shirk at nothing.
Nightfall brought us into country the like of which I never will forget and never want to see again. We were only about 60 to 70 miles from Tennant Creek Telegraph Station and, had the track permitted it, would have reached it in half of days travel. Yet it was fully a month before we did eventually get there, during which time we lost count of the days and time.
This part of the Northern Territory had experienced a late wet season, and some parts were nothing short of a quagmire. This particular evening saw us in a bog in which we had to camp. The swampy, grassy, snake-infested country at night gave me a queer feeling as I laid waterproofs on the ground and securely tucked my net in as a guard against the entrance of snakes. The singing of the mosquitoes, the chirruping of crickets and the croaking frogs utterly banished the hope of sleep. A slight rustling in the grass was sufficient to give you the "heart into the mouth" feeling - remembering that this country contained amongst others the brown, black and tiger snakes as well as the death adder, and this last reptile the most common.
It was about three o'clock next day when we extricated the car from the bog and as a thunderstorm was coming up, we decided to camp on what looked like higher ground. We could see there was a creek within a mile or so of us, and if we kept in low country could guess what the result would be after the storm. We were surrounded by mulga scrub and acacia bushes spiked with strong and sharp spines and numerous large ant-beds shaped like tombstones.
Loud crashing of thunder and vivid lightning added greatly to our depressed feelings. Then, about five o'clock, the sudden downfall of rain forced us into the car, and, putting up the side and back curtains, we would keep at least dry.
But that was to be our nights camp and, after a little damper and jam, we made ourselves as comfortable as possible under the circumstances, all the drums and conglomeration of travelling accessories making not too soft a bed.
Morning dawned very clear, but where were we? All around us was water. The car was in no less than 2 feet of water. We never expected this. The Gilbert Creek was, we were nearly sure, fully a mile away, but we were on high ground. We knew what a thunderstorm means in countries such as this if one is camped near a creek on low ground. The water drains from the hills around and, entering the dry creek, soon transforms it into a raging torrent which can be heard approaching for miles. Then, as it reaches the low-lying country, spreads out over square miles of land.
Becoming interested, we waded through the water and found it to be bubbling up from underneath. What a quantity of water, and in a few months time one could perish for the want of it at the same spot. We have been told that this country could never be settled because no water is to be had. Why, literally speaking, the water which falls with one storm would last the country a whole year if properly conserved, to say nothing of the sub-artesian water to be obtained almost anywhere.
Our first thoughts were of a fire, and while Frank obtained some dead branches from trees I levelled off an anthill a foot above the surface of the water, and placing the wood on top with a little kerosene applied we only required flame, but we had no dry matches. This would have been easy, had our engine being dry as we could easily have run a wire into a little benzine and, sparking the wire, would have soon had a flame. As it was, the engine was nearly covered with water. Our method of making fire, therefore, was by focusing the sun's rays onto a piece of dry paper through a camera lens.
To obviate this little difficulty on every occasion we wanted a fire be set to work and collected ant-hills, making a big mound, after which we chopped down dry trees and always kept a log burning.
It rained again during the day and we were absolutely helpless. From the continual walking around the car the ground had got so soft that we sank up to our knees in bog, bringing the water well up to our waists.
To ensure a little comfort that night we stacked the drums and cases up to the height of the back of the seats and placed all our bedding, clothes and bags on top. Then the mosquitoes were so bad that it was necessary to hang out to nets. The rain at night forced us to keep the curtains fastened down - so it can be imagined the restless night we spent.
Next day was fine, but the water had not receded and so we set out, clothed in the trunks of a bathing suit, to inspect the track ahead. As we thought, the creek was about a mile ahead and running strongly, while the overflow lazily ran into the creek. The track itself more resembled a creek by the way the water flowed along. Not noticing the steep banks of the creek, we stepped into it simultaneously, and immediately got carried away, but as there appeared no danger, it was quite pleasant being carried downstream without any effort.
The current carried us to a bend on the opposite side where we scrambled out and walked back to the track, which we followed for half a mile or so. The country was now rising, and soon we were on dry ground. Swarms of galahs, cockatoos and ducks were flying around and we were intent on having some, but had no rifles with us.
We therefore returned to the car, making a deviation to the West where the ground was higher. The continual wading through water was weakening us and we could not allow this as we had a big fight to put up before reaching Tennant Creek. Moreover, the only food consisted of flour, syrup, tea and sugar and a few pieces of dehydrated salt meat fall of weevils. The weevils are about 3/8 of an inch long and more like beetles, and as the meat was filled with them, all we could do was to boil the meat and so kill the weevils. We were continually running out of tucker and I came to the stage where I could eat anything. Wild turkeys were scarce, but an occasional duck or cockatoo was very acceptable.
I have mentioned that our big axe had been lost, but we had obtained a tomahawk with a 4 inch blade from Barrow Creek Telegraph Station. The next three days we did nothing but cut wood to corduroy the ground over which the car would have to travel before we could reach ground firm enough to hold the car without it bogging. The tomahawk and shingling hammer did the work of big, broad-bladed axes for we had to cut down trees up to 12 inches through. The trunks and heavy boughs were required to put under the wheels once the car was lifted out of the bog, while the smaller boughs up to 4 inches thick were cut into 3 foot lengths and placed closely together in two rows for over a quarter of a mile for the car to pass over. On top of this we placed the lighter branches and leaves to give the wheels a good grip. That was all really easy work compared with what was to follow.
Both the lifting jacks were "out of commission" owing to the vast amount of lifting they had already done. They were both beyond repair, although we had spent a lot of time in trying to get some use out of them. It would therefore be necessary to lift the car with levers. This was done by placing a large log parallel with the car, then by obtaining a couple of long saplings about 6 inches thick at the bottom end, trimming off the ends and placing them between the wooden spokes. By then using the log as a buttress and putting our weight on the other ends of the saplings we would be able to lift the wheels one after the other out of the bog.
It took us a whole day to get out the back wheels of the empty car 6 inches above the sloping, bottomless bog. First of all, the log used as a buttress, directly it got a little weight on to it, gradually settled down into the bog itself. This meant obtaining more logs, and when we did raise the wheel a bit and jam the 12 inch log underneath, the weight of the car just pushed this log further down as though it had never been there. This procedure had to be followed until we got the wheel well out of the bog, the whole time the quagmire in which we were working getting worse, so that by the end of the day we were weak with exhaustion from the hard work in slush nearly up to our waists. The only humour was caused when either of us, troubled by a fly in the eye would - forgetting for the moment - viciously slapped himself in the face, leaving a plaster of mud. This happened several times so that we both had the pleasure of laughing at each other.
Three more days elapsed before we were ready to make a move. By this time, we were fairly weak from exhaustion and insufficient and poor food. Our skins were practically black from exposure to the sun, and we had the opportunity of criticising each other's growth of hair on the face, the two extremes of Frank's beard being fair and curly while mine was jet black and bristly.
12 Little Edinboro Creek
The water had practically all gone now, save along the track which it was necessary to cross to gain the higher ground. We had carried the corduroy right over the track and after a final inspection we were ready to start, and used our last drop of benzine to get us out of the scrape. How thankful we were when we successfully reached the higher ground and ultimately crossed the creek. But misfortune dogged us, for the same night we encountered further bog as we neared the Little Edinboro Creek. A week's hard toil saw us only a mile further, by which time our food consisted of flour and water and black tea, no sugar being left. Our biggest stage was a quarter of a mile, and rather than cut hundredweights of logs to put under the wheels, we spent a full day in walking backwards and forwards from the previous stopping place, carrying the muddy logs which we had used there.
And not a sight of game in the country. We might have been able to get some game, but we could only go a limited distance from the car and were more anxious to push on rather than spend a full day tramping around the country looking for game. Dinkum was very sullen at having to eat dry damper, but in his occasional romps it is quite likely that he picked up titbits.
To crown our trouble, we had only kerosene to run on, and as it has no "body" in it like benzine, the engine would "snuff out" at the least heavy pull. The starting of the engine always proved difficult as we found it necessary to heat the kerosene by the fire and also boil the water for the radiator, and after drawing the engine oil from the crankcase, heat it and return it, also placing hot coals over the engine and around the carburettor. Even then this had to be done in the middle of the day while the atmosphere was hot, as the engine was too cold in the morning.
The track leading to the crossing of the Little Edinboro was greatly washed out and a stream 18 inches deep was running along the track very strongly. For fully half a mile we floated our tins, drums and other objects down the track until it reached the creek running right angles. Then we had to carry the whole of the loading another half mile to higher ground. After this had been done we managed to get the engine started and slowly picked our way through the water until the high ground was reached.
Re-loading without stopping the engine and wondering how long our good luck with last, we started again, only to go 2 miles. Desperately, we alighted, to find it was "no go". It was somewhere in the vicinity of three weeks since we left Bonney's Well, and we could not judge too well how far we had come because we had made several deviations off the track, but as Kelly's Well is about 60 miles from Bonney's Well, we could not have gone more than 30 miles in three weeks.
It rained during the night, making it, if possible worse, so next day we decided we could hang out no longer. Even if we were successful in getting out of the bog that day, there was a very remote chance of getting to Tennant Creek for some days at least, although it may be only 40 or 50 miles. I agreed to stay behind while Frank rode a bicycle, thinking that he could get there and back by the time both of us had walked in. It took the whole day to mend the bicycle, which had been badly damaged when we hit a tree back further. That night finished our damper, with the exception of a little Frank was to take with him, as he had work to do and might need it, where as I could lie down all day, until his return.
Frank started off early in the morning without awakening me, and although I woke several times I did not get out of my net until about one o'clock in the afternoon. With a very empty feeling I took a small rifle and, with Dinkum, went in search of game. I made for the creek, but found nothing so followed the track along for a mile or so and the result of my afternoon's "sport" brought me three small birds as big as sparrows. Returning to the camp, I disgustedly threw them on the coals, and after the feathers had been burnt off it was necessary to obtain the aid of the big lens from the reflex camera to locate the bodies. I raked them out and allowed Dinkum to hungrily devour them. So ended my first foodless day following a few weeks of half starvation.
The next day, I again stayed in my net until early afternoon, when I made another attempt to get a "birdie" meal. I did not dare to leave the track because, had anything unforeseen happened to me, I might not have been found, although the faithful Dinkum would never have left me. Not a lizard nor an iguana was to be found, and Dinkum is especially smart at rooting them from their nests. Not even a crow, yams or wild berries. Had any blacks been in the neighbourhood they would have soon found something.
So it was that, about five o'clock, I returned to the camp with half a dozen small birds, the same as the previous day. Leaving the rifle by the car, I walked over to my net which was on higher ground 100 yards away. As I neared the net I noticed a fairly large dingo walking towards me, but looking in another direction. My heart bounded with hope, as I bobbed behind a bush and sneaked round to my net. Grabbing the other loaded rifle I kept there, I took aim through the bush, still unobserved by the dingo.
Dinkum, who had been lying down, was on the alert the instant he saw my suspicious movements. Taking good aim, and thinking of the repast that Dinkum and I would enjoy within an hour, I pulled the trigger, but no report followed. As I cocked the rifle again Dinkum, who had heard the click, bounded out to the other side of the bush. The dingo, thus scared, took to his heels, with Dinkum and myself in rapid pursuit. Over the hill went the fleet animal, and by the time I gained the top Dinkum had returned, the dingo having been too fast for him.
Feeling too exhausted and depressed to be annoyed with Dinkum, I returned to the camp and threw the small birds on the coals. I ate 4 myself and Dinkum had two. But those four birds would have made just about two mouthfuls off the side of a young chicken.
Crawling into my net, I lay down and allowed my mind to wander over the events of the journey since leaving Sydney. What we had gone through. I had been cooped up in the city the whole of my life and, leaving a law office with which I was associated for six years, had undertaken this expedition, being fully aware of the danger and trials and tribulations. I admit that, for the first few weeks, I was a little soft, but the battling and hardship had toughened me and made me as hard as nails. I could never boast of superfluous flesh, being of a wiry build, yet for a while my weight had increased only to be reduced again, owing to the hard work and scanty food.
What was in store for me before our journey could be completed and we were safely back in Melbourne (which seemed such a long way off), considering we had still 6000 or 7000 miles of travelling yet, part of which would carry us to totally unexplored land which was said to be impossible to traverse owing to the ruggedness of the country.
Another day! By noon, Frank had not arrived and I was beginning to get anxious as to his safety. The gruelling we had received in the last month had, if anything, taken more effect on him than it had on me, although he was quite hardened to overlanding. But the difference in ages had its effect. I had just attained my majority, whereas Frank was serving in the Boer War when I was born and could, therefore, give me a score of years. However, I decided to wait until nightfall and if he did not put in an appearance, I would start off for Tennant Creek in the cool of the evening and take Dinkum with me.
Therefore, much to the disappointment of the hordes of flies, I entered my net again. I was just dozing a couple of hours later when Dinkum's heavy bark caused me to jump out. Running to the car, I looked along the track, but could see nothing and thought Dinkum mistaken. As he continued to bark and look in the northerly direction from where a slight wind was blowing, I asked him, "Where's Frank?", Which he answered by darting along the track and trying to persuade me to follow. Whether Dinkum got the scent from the wind, or whether it was some dodgy instinct, I am unaware, but it was fully ten minutes before Frank came in sight, wheeling his bicycle. Without waiting for explanations, I commenced to unload the bicycle and what a feed -fresh bread, honey, jam, cold steak, tea, sugar and even a tin of condensed milk.
The billy was boiled in double quick time, but I must admit I did not wait for the tea to be made before commencing on the eatables. We hear of prisoners hunger striking. Such men are heroes, and I can understand their agony for the first week or so.
After such a meal as I had there seemed to be something missing, and Frank, realising this - although himself a non-smoker - took from his pocket a couple of sticks of Nigger Twist tobacco, the only tobacco he could obtain.
This mattered not to me as I had been smoking strong, dark tobacco since leaving Alice Springs. So, while I puffed joyfully away at my pipe, we adjourned to our nets and Frank gave an account of his ride.
It appeared that there was plenty of bog yet, but a lot could be avoided. He had to walk more than half of the way to Tennant Creek carrying his bicycle on his shoulder. As I surmised, we were about 45 miles from Tennant Creek and about 10 miles from Kelly's Well. Mr Dixon, the officer-in-charge at the Telegraph Station, had been very kind, and in case of further trouble had despatched three black boys with food for us. About eight o'clock we had another meal and I retired that night with a lighter heart but heavier stomach than had been the case for some weeks.
13 Kelly's Well
Dinkum warned us of the boys arrival next morning, and apparently certain that they had meat amongst their parcels, he did not attack them, but they were not too sure of him as he trotted at their heels. Parcels consisted of bags of flour, meat, jam, tea and sugar and 2 pint bottles of benzine, also some flour and tea for the boys. With the boys help we soon had the car out of the bog, but a couple of days elapsed before we reached Kelly's Well.
Nanny Goat (that was the name of the boy's spokesman) was the best worker, although he was lazy; of the other two, one was a big, husky boy with a bone through his nose, while the other one was an old boy, practically useless and was always singing for rain, firmly believing it would come. And come it did one night and made things worse, so we told Nanny Goat his "rainmaker" must stop, although we had no belief in his powers. The trouble was, he would start his yowling night time when we were trying to sleep.
Nanny Goat wanted a pipe, so I gave him my briar, and shortly afterwards, while getting some saplings to work with, I lost my other pipe, the Cherrywood. Search as we would it could not be found, and I was forced to make cigarettes out of a piece of paper and coarse Nigger Twist tobacco. It was really exasperating endeavouring to smoke such a cigarette - half the tobacco with fallout of the paper before I could get it to my lips. I could not bring myself to ask Nanny Goat for my briar.
The benzine Mr Dixon had sent out was a godsend, but, with the car bogging every mile or so and a cup full of benzine being required to start the engine every time, it did not last too long, and then began again the old trouble of heating the water, oil and kerosene to start the engine. We also found it necessary sometimes to cover the engine with redhot coals to make it sufficiently warm. On one occasion we spent two hours in preparing the engine, and when it did start we only travelled 50 yards and bogged again. I leave the reader to imagine what was said. I am sure Nanny Goat did not understand.
Gradually, we reached higher country, and one day we had a fair run the 20 miles, camping at night at a native well. This well was so near the track and overgrown with grass that we almost ran into it. Although situated in high, sandy country, it was only about 6 feet deep, but there was only about a foot of water in the bottom, the well-being only about a foot in diameter. After taking the water out it would take about an hour to make the same quantity.
14 Tennant Creek
Next afternoon we arrived at Tennant Creek. The Telegraph Station with its white buildings could be seen from the stony hills we had crossed some miles before reaching the creek.
We attempted to cross the creek under our own power, but, although safely negotiating the water, we could not overcome the steep bank on the opposite side. We made our camp on the creek bank and had a swim.
Next morning, Mr Dixon came down from the station, which was a mile away. After very close scrutiny he believed that I was a white man and invited us to dinner at midday. I have a vivid recollection of the work that followed.
First, I had a good scrubbing down in the creek, and after sorting out the best of my rusty safety razor blades and cleaning a pair of scissors, I reluctantly parted with my "ziff" which I was just beginning to like. The work of the scissors was easy enough, but oh! The razor. After considerable hacking I manage to get the worst off. Frank did not fare so well, so finished up by only shaving his cheeks and leaving a stubby, untidy growth on his chin and upper lip.
The transformation must have been remarkable for, when we arrived at the station, Mr Dixon could hardly recognise me. A clean shirt and a pair of trousers from my suitcase, hair nicely parted and face fairly smooth all tended to disguise, so he said. Leading me to a large mirror, he asked me if it really was myself, and it seemed a long time since I really saw my real self but I was a little doubtful.
Mr Dixon introduced us to "Gabby", his assistant, who was responsible for the cooking, and the meal consisted of roast beef and vegetables, pudding and preserved fruits, cake and cream, and lovely butter. What more could we want after our damper and tea? And in such an isolated place as Tennant Creek. We learnt that this was Sunday, 13th of March, 1921.
After dinner, we mustered about a dozen boys and succeeded in getting the car out of the creek, but, when within about 400 yards of the station, the last drop of kerosene was used up and the car stopped. Tennant Creek is about halfway between Alice Springs and Katherine, and that meant 400 miles from any township where we could obtain benzine supplies. We had expected to get a lot further than Tennant Creek on the kerosene we had obtained in Alice Springs, but we had encountered such a lot of heavy travelling that the engine had literally drunk the fuel. Moreover, we had lost nearly 16 gallons when the tap was knocked off the tank after leaving Alice Springs. Also, we had had many detours from the Overland Telegraph line through scrub and already had lost one mudguard - being torn off and discarded.
After tea with Mr Dixon that evening we sat talking, Gabby providing plenty of amusement with his "true" yarns and humorous witticisms. Mr Dixon informed us he had a bicycle which he would lend us, so it was suggested that we ride to Katherine, 400 miles north, and make arrangements there for benzine supplies. Next morning, we examined Mr Dixon's bicycle, which required a good dealer repairing, and we spent the remainder of the day doing this and preparing for our long ride.
However, these plans were to be altered when, after sundown, two drovers' plants arrived, heading north. One of the men informed us that he was certain that there was a big supply of benzine at Hatches Creek, the owner, Hanlon, living in Charters Towers, Queensland. We therefore wired to Hanlon for confirmation. Meantime, we obtained a supply of stores from the drovers, who were overstocked, and we were quite satisfied with the prices principally flour and sugar - one penny per pound.
After waiting a few days and no reply to the wire, Frank decided to push ahead on the bicycle so as not to waste more time than was necessary, the arrangements being that, in the event of confirmation regarding the benzine at Hatches Creek, I would go out for it, and he could be advised along the Telegraph line and would return or wait until I brought the car along.
So Frank started off, while I spent the next few days thoroughly overhauling the engine. The engine was not as carbonised from the kerosene as I expected it would be, and very little sign of wear was shown anywhere, although there was plenty of mud and oil combined.
Four days after Frank had gone a telegram came from Hanlon in Charters Towers to the effect that we could have as much benzine as we required. Hatches Creek is the wolfram field 120 miles south-east of Tennant Creek. During the war, when wolfram was so much in use and, consequently, at a high price, thousands of pounds were mined at Hatches Creek and transported by camels either to the railroad for Brisbane at Longreach, or Adelaide to Oodnadatta. Molybdenite was also mined. Wolfram had a high melting point and was used for this quality, mainly in the manufacture of case-hardened steel products.
Arranging with Mr Dixon to let me have sufficient riding and pack-horses and a boy who knew the country, I prepared for the journey, but, as the horses were "out", more than a day passed before they were mustered. I was considerably surprised on the fifth day when Frank returned and stated that he had met Hanlon's brother at Banka Banka cattle station 60 miles north, who had informed him that there was plenty of benzine at Hatches Creek and had permitted us to take our requirements. He also stated that there should be plenty of food at a store kept by George Masters.
So it happened that the next morning we set out for Hatches Creek with five riding horses and four pack-horses and an old boy named Zulu in charge. Dinkum had sore feet from spear grass so he stayed with Mr Dixon. Within half an hour of leaving we struck trouble. The horses were very fresh, having been running around the country unridden for a long time. They were kicking each other playfully when one horse received an extra hard kick which sent him galloping off. The pack-saddle worked loose and got under his belly and he soon had the contents of the bags strewn all over the ground. His hoofs finally got entangled with some coats and mosquito nets which upset him. Galloping up, the boy took him in hand while we gathered up our belongings. Frank found his coat in two pieces, while the collar was missing from my overcoat. The enamel plates and cups and that tinned fruits and jams were squashed flat from contact with trees, mostly mulga. I considered this an exciting start to my first practical pack-horse journey. I was handicapped with a bunged eye, the swelling being so great that I could see my left cheek with my right eye without the trouble of looking cross-eyed.
It was extremely hot, and the pace was slow, but when we reached Woggary Creek for lunch it was pleasant to sit on the horse's back while he walked across the sand, whereas, had we been in the car, we would probably have had to scratch sand for an hour or two before successfully crossing the creek. After lunch we changed our riding horses, giving the horses we had ridden during the morning a spell.
There had been no water available at Woggary Creek, so we left the track about three o'clock to take the horses to a nearby waterhole known to Zulu. The scrub was very difficult to push through, and we sustained numerous scratches.
On leaving the waterhole I came to grief owing to my sight being handicapped by the bunged eye and swollen cheek. In bending to avoid one bough of a tree I struck another bough with my chest and upper arms, the force of which lifted me from my saddle. Directly my horse felt my weight lifted from his back he sprang forward and, luckily, my feet left the stirrups. Consequently, I was left hanging in the tree, and as I dropped to the ground I left half of my shirt hanging to the bough. This little incident greatly amused Frank and Zulu, but let me with a few nasty scrapes on the chest and arms.
Our first night's camp was near a boggy swamp where mosquitoes were literally the size of small dragonflies. Luckily, and nets had not been torn when the horse bolted earlier in the day, or we would never have got any sleep.
The country in this part resembled the Alice Springs country. Rugged, auriferous mountains, interspersed with valleys, covered with numerous varieties of edible and stock-fattening grasses. Indeed, in one place within a radius of 30 yards and we found no less than 30 different varieties of grasses, samples of which we took. I might mention here that we were gathering samples of grasses, water, minerals and soil from various parts of the country - our intention being to place them in the hands of the Government so that they could get advice on them from various scientists. Such advice, coupled with our report on the nature and approximate area of the country in which such articles were discovered, would assist the government in arriving any decision in connection with the advantages of a railway through or near such country. The grasses found in the locality through which we were present travelling were the best sheep-rearing and fattening varieties so far found in our travels, but there was only a limited area.
A very large, permanent waterhole - which, Zulu told us, "never die" - afforded us a swim about midday. It was with difficulty that we restrained the horses from rolling in the water with their pack saddles on. Gaping sores were near the corners of the eyes of every horse, the flies giving them absolutely no peace. As a matter of fact, very few horses are seen in central Australia and parts of the Northern Territory that do not have sore eyes. At every opportunity our horses would stand in water to their waists and continually bob their heads into the water to rid their eyes of the flies. On other occasions I have seen them form a circle so that each horse's tail brushes the flies out of the rear horse's eyes. In this way, every horse is doing the next one a good turn; or they stand close together, head to tail, their tails brushing each other's eyes.
15 Mosquito Creek or Meat Ant Creek?
Our second nights camp was Mosquito Creek, but was not appropriately named as far as mosquitoes were concerned. I would have called it "Meat Ant Creek" owing to the prevalence of these ants in the district. We made a practice of airing our salt meat every night, generally placing it up in trees away from the dingoes' reach because these animals will come right up to your camp and steal any eatables lying around, and we did not have Dinkum with us.
On this particular night we placed the meat in some small acacia bushes, and in the morning it was covered with large, red meat ants, which fortunately did not alter the flavour after the meat was cooked.
On several occasions I was struck by the absence of blowflies when we were in country habited by meat ants. Whether this is only a coincidence, I do not know, but if it were proved that the blowfly will not exist where meat ants exist, then what a large amount of money would be saved in New South Wales alone where the blowfly causes enormous losses annually in sheep breeding.
Thousands of pounds have been spent in experiments in an endeavour to eradicate the blowfly. Moreover, insects have been imported from other countries in this direction, but what a victory it would be if the blowfly's worst enemy and victor proved to be the meat ant! But would this type of ant eventually become a pest itself to the country? That question is for the scientists who are endeavouring to eradicate the blowfly, and I only make the suggestion.
The next days travelling took us through heavy bog and more than once we had to wade into mud to take the pack off a horse and extricate it from the slush. Some of the horses, directly they felt themselves sinking, would stand still for a while and then with an effort would lift their front legs the same time throw them forward on to firm ground. Then follow with their hind legs, while other horses, directly they felt themselves sinking, would kick and fight and finally find themselves practically helpless in a quagmire.
We camped on the bank of the sandy creek, and after we had hobbled the horses out for the night, two wandering blacks floated into the camp. During the day we had noticed the smoke of a good many fires and presumed that there were plenty of nomad blacks in the vicinity. To say the Australian Black is not a socialist is false, and I believe they are the greatest socialists on earth. For instance, Zulu shared his pipe with the two boys, taking it in turns to have five minutes puff each. Zulu also treated the boys to his white man's tucker, and in the morning gave them nearly all of his flour, meat and sugar. Mr Dixon had given him sufficient food to last him until his return, but we were only three days out and he had only enough to last him another day. We did not begrudge Zulu our food, but we were not too sure that we would be able to obtain a supply at Hatches Creek, and we had barely enough to take us there.
Returning with the horses, Zulu said that there were three missing. That tracks had shown that they were making back for Tennant Creek, and although he had followed was some distance he had not caught up with, so thought it best to him to return so that we could push on, while he returned later. We had our own thoughts as to the missing horses because they were hobbled, but said nothing at the time. Our assumption was that he had planted the horses a little distance off and, after we were well on the way, he would make for one of the blacks camps in the vicinity for a "yabber".
We were just camping for lunch when Zulu came along with the missing horses and, after taxing him on the subject, we found our assumptions to be correct.
Our dinner camp was in country similar to the Devils Marbles and I am not sure that it could be a continuation of that range. In the afternoon we passed a gold mine shafts which was sunk by one Davidson over 20 years previously. We refrained from inspecting the shafts as they had been lying dormant for 20 years and might have proved dangerous. A little gold had been obtained, but not sufficient to justify the work and expense of bringing out foodstuffs and mining material. This country is of a particularly auriferous nature, and I can foresee great possibilities in the future. The hills were glittering with metallic "iron" which proved to be very trying on the eyes. In one place we spent a little time in following a reef of the metal which gave every appearance of molybdenite, specimens of which we kept.
16 Whistle Duck
Our evening camp was at a very deep, permanent waterhole called Whistle Duck. With a pin attached to a string on a stick we caught a good haul of fish about 6 inches long, Zulu landing more than we two together. Having no scales we threw them on the coals.
When cooked, the inside swells up, and are being opened up a whole of the inside of the fish comes out the shape of the ball and leaves the fish cleaner than would have been the case had we cleaned them with a knife. I must say that they were delicious, and fried Murray cod or schnapper would not have been in the running.
17 Frew River
Next day brought us through Frew River where police Constable Mackie was stationed. The ramshackle buildings from the old homestead of Frew River Cattle Station, which in the early days had been the scene of three fierce battles with the natives. Zulu, who had been a police boy during these fights, gave us a descriptive account of the "fun", as he called it, finishing by saying, "Many black boy me shoot that time."
Zulu was partly educated, and talked pidgin English, but he was of the old school. He did not know his age. He never rode behind us - always in front - and would say, "You go first time, boss". This we interpreted as their instinct to kill. He also did not have much idea of time or distance, and when asked how far to a certain place, he would say, "only little bit long way now", or maybe "two sun ups".
Mackie was away, and the lubra in charge told Zulu he would not be back before "two sundowns", so next day we left for Hatches Creek, which was 12 miles away. I still cannot understand why the police station is situated at Frew River. There was none at Hatches Creek. During the rush at Hatches Creek when 100 men were congregated there it meant half a day's travel each way to the police station when advice or police authority was required.
18 Hatches Creek
The 12 miles journey to Hatches Creek was very rough and most dangerous. The Frew River was running very strongly and, on account of the bog caused through the overflowing of the river, it was necessary to travel over rough, stony hilly country. In some places we had to scramble on our hands and knees, leading each horse in turn. But the horses were more surefooted than we, and it seemed marvellous to me that none of them broke their legs.
On another occasion where we had to cross the river which was running strongly the horses had to swim. With difficulty we got the pack-horses in and followed ourselves, but some of the pack-horses were carried down the stream a little and then turned back for the bank. By the time I turned my horse they had scrambled out and made off. Galloping after them, I turned them towards the river again and dismounted, as it was very difficult to swim my own horse and at the same time attend to three others. So, with the whip around them, the pack-horses entered the river and I kept throwing stones at them until they reached the other side, where Zulu and Frank took charge. Mounting again, I soon joined them, and as the mountain came close to the river here and it was necessary to go over the mountain to avoid bog, we rested awhile.
Zulu was an expert guide, but, by keeping well away from bog, he took us over river crossing and mountains where the slightest slip would mean disaster, and I was not sorry when we reached Hatches Creek. The abundance of grass in the valleys seemed to denote the absence of animal life. Standing in an elevated position for as far as the eye could see was a series of mountain ranges, and here and there dotted a black speck which indicated a mine shaft.
Presently, we came nearer to the scene of our goal, but no life was visible, with the exception of some lubras. Some peculiar tribal custom prevented Zulu from going within several hundred yards of those lubras, but he conversed with them by means of the right hand. This sign language of the blacks is remarkable in so far as only one hand is used and the signs are given at surprising speed.
Passing a number of empty shanties, we hobbled the pack-horses where we intended making our camp and crossing the creek, rode up to the only inhabited shanty in Hatches Creek. This was occupied by the elderly man named George Masters who, with two other white men, were the sole white inhabitants of the place at present. The very low price of wolfram and enormous freight prices had sufficed to clear Hatches Creek of the scores of men who had worked there are few years previously. Masters could afford to live there for some years yet and keep on digging away, living in anticipation of another war which would cause the price of wolfram to soar again.
Masters invited us to lunch, after which he showed us around his diggings. The mountains, apparently, were full of wolfram, it being a common thing to dig out a block of pure wolfram too heavy for one man to carry. Scheelite and bismuth were plentiful, and a little molybdenite was found. We asked his opinion as to the specimen we had found and he was certain it was molybdenite, but, although he could be credited as an expert, I had my doubts. The specimen had the same soft, flaky appearance of molybdenite resembling graphite, but it was very hard. This hardness, he said, would be caused through perhaps centuries of years of exposure to the sun.
In the afternoon we asked Masters about food, and he stated that he himself had just returned from Barrow Creek and on his return has found that the flood had carried away eighteen 50 pound bags of flour and three 70 pound bags of sugar, and he did not expect his next supply for a few months. Having taken a dislike to him we did not believe him, and pointed out that he had at least 1000 pounds of flour stacked outside his hut. However, for a pound note he let us have a little flour, syrup and sugar, which would probably have cost us two or three shillings in the city. We returned to our camp, none too pleased at the little food we had to take us back to Tennant Creek, but there was a probability of Mackie being able to spare us a little more at Frew River.
There were a lot of cats in the neighbourhood and when we went to sleep one was lying near the fire. In the morning we were surprised to see a dead rabbit in the camp, having been apparently caught and left by the cat. This was the first rabbit we had seen since way down in South Australia, and was proof that they were gradually working northwards. We had a little salt beef left, so Zulu gratefully accepted the rabbit.
The fuel was in Hanlon's shanty a couple of miles back, so before leaving, we went up to see Masters to bid him a courteous goodbye. When we arrived he was just dishing out breakfast to fully 14 boys and lubras. So, as we surmised, this was his reason for refusing us food. He could not keep a harem of gins and at the same time supply two of his own countrymen with sufficient food to keep them from starving. We could hardly control our tempers, and had they run loose, we surely would have forcibly taken what food we required and risked Masters inciting the blacks to tackle us. For such are the ways of Australians christened "Combo" men who actually resent the appearance of white strangers in their midst, instead of welcoming them.
Leaving "Combo" Masters and his harem we trusted to luck when reaching Frew River. By the time we arrived at Hanlon's shanty and got all the aviation spirit there -which was six 8 gallon drums - and made strong wire nooses for slinging the drums onto the pack saddles, it was too late to make a start that day.
We were told that, during the 1914-1918 war, a company mining the wolfram occasionally sent representatives to the field by aircraft and had sent supplies of aviation spirit by camels for use on their return to Adelaide. This was very fortunate for us. Moreover, it cost us no fuel to get it. The 240 or so miles we would be travelling would have used at least 20 gallons of precious fuel.
Without any serious mishaps, but watching the fuel with anxious eyes as we crossed the rough country, we arrived at Frew River just as Mackie himself arrived. He had been away for some time, looking for a lost white man and had been successful. Mackie was actually short of provisions himself and was depending on Masters for a supply, but he let us have some tea and half a goat, and I obtained some tobacco.
Our progress was very slow owing to the awkwardness of the drums on the pack-horses. The jolting caused by the rough country continually altered the position of the drums, which necessitated stopping to replace them. What are the horses developed a habit of going as close to a tree as possible without touching it, and many a time we expected to see a drum smashed by crashing into a tree. At every waterhole we managed to catch a few fish, which considerably helped.
Also, on this particular day, we struck a very bad bog. Actually, we could have avoided it, but the pack-horses were trotting slowly ahead of us and got into the bog before we could stop them, and, unfortunately, it was a deep mire.
As they kept going, by the time we reached them and they were up to their bellies in it. Leaving Zulu to look after the riding horses, Frank and I walked in, but could not get the horses to move, each having two drums of fuel on its back and other sundry camp items. Therefore, it was necessary for us to unload the drums and carry them to dry land, and eventually got the horses out. Carrying a drum of fuel through the bog was very heavy work, as we were, of course, in it up to our knees.
I have not yet mentioned the big spiders which exist in this country. The festoons of their webs were a veritable nuisance, and the golden, silky thread as strong as thin string. Many of the webs we ran into would be sufficient to bring a walking man to a standstill owing to their strength. If the webs were of any commercial value fortunes could be made out of the myriads of them. I really think that, if the thread were treated with some durable substance, it could easily be used for the same purposes as silk thread.
The spiders themselves, which have a body about the size of a shilling piece and nine or 10 legs about 2 inches long, build their webs so that the centre - where they live - is about 8 feet from the ground. Zulu explained that this was a precaution against the dingo, which eats the spiders, so they build high up out of the dingoes reach.
Come into camp on the fourth night after sundown, we found it difficult to round up the horses to unpack them, and, cantering about the scrub in the semi-darkness, we got covered with the sticky threads - to say nothing of the big insects clambering all over us when their webs were broken. Although perhaps harmless, you can imagine the feeling when a big spider is crawling up your leg or down your back, or over your face. Practically blinded with tickling threads in my face, I gave up the chase, followed by Frank, and let Zulu attend to the horses himself.
During the night, Zulu shifted his camp quite close to us. (This camp being only himself, of course, as he had no covering.) It is usual for a black boy to have his fire some distance from the white man's fire. We did not hear him shift, but in the early morning asked him "Why?" He said black fellows walkabout all night, and showed us tracks quite close to our camp. He was out of his tribes particular territory and was afraid of being attacked and reckoned it was safer to be close to us.
After breakfast on the fifth day we had about 2 cups flour and a little tea left. Not enough to make one meal for the three of us. So Frank and I went ahead with the horses, and giving Zulu one rifle, setting off in the hope of his bagging a rock wallaby or turkey. For lunch I mixed a cup of flour with water and made a few "johnny cakes" on the coals.
19 Woggary Creek
Evening brought us to Woggary Creek, and when the Zulu arrived all he had was a "sugar bag", which is honey of the wild bees, chopped out of a hole in a tree. He also had an iguana inside his shirt for his lunch, but had seen no game at all.
There was a little dripping left, so, making a very watery mixture out of the last cup flour, I made some small and very flat pancakes which we ate with the honey. With a cup of tea for breakfast the following day we left at a smart pace for Tennant Creek. In most of our journey so far I think we had seen more "meal times" than "meals" - at least, meals of any substance.
The horses, knowing they were near home, needed no whip. In fact, in their hurry a drum of fuel became loose on one of the horses, and, getting restless, he bolted. The drum fell to the ground, but got caught in the surcingle, and for a quarter of a mile was dragged along the ground. When the horse was stopped we were surprised to see the drum standing upright and not a drop of fuel lost.
TO BE CONTINUED.