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Title: Newspaper Articles Author: Edward Sylvester Sorenson * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1601241h.html Language: English Date first posted: December 2016 Most recent update: December 2016 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore 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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Sunday in the Bush
Fishing in the Bush
Among the Dingoes
In Pursuit of Waterfowl
The Type Australian
Eve in the Wilderness
The Cocky’s Natural Enemies
On a Railway Journey
The Children of the Bush
The North-West: How Squatters Manage for Water
“Removing” in the Country
With Western Whips
With Australia’s Roughriders and Cowboys
Life on the Track: Swagmen and Bagmen
My First Trip With Cattle
Christmas In The Bush
Some Bush Turn-Outs
Sunday in the bush to young people is an important day, a day that atones for all the little annoyances of the week, giving opportunities for the storage of happy memories. To the “old folks” it is a day of rest and relaxation. They put on their “Sunday clothes”—which have lain in the box all the week—and walk round the farm or the selection, inspecting the crops and the cattle and the pigs. It is surprising, too, what a lot they can find to say about Dolly and her foal, or Strawberry and her calf. These old people can stand and talk about Strawberry and her calf for two solid hours at a stretch.
The fowls also claim a good deal of attention, and are called up for the weekly review. Speculation as to where the black hen and the white pullet are laying leads to a general egg-hunt in the scrub and the long grass. Bandicoots and kangaroo-rats are flushed from their nests, and the dogs, with much barking, give chase.
A snake is killed, and then an old “gohanna,” which has been “sucking all the eggs,” is either run down, or run up a tree—mostly up a tree. Native cats, that nightly rob the fowl-roosts, are rooted out of hollow logs, and caught by the dogs waiting at the end. In this way the old people spend a pleasant afternoon with very little exertion. The old people don’t like exertion.
* * * * * *
There are so many ways of enjoying Sunday in the Australian bush that the day can never drag. Going to church, I must admit, is not a pleasure to the average bushman. It is a sacred performance which most of them contrive to avoid when the opportunity offers by playing hide-and-seek with the peregrinating parson. It interferes with sport and other things. There is nothing attractive, exciting or sensational about it. It is too solemn and dreary for those who yard their herds of brumbies on Sunday morning; or race like the wind in the afternoon by the side of a fluttering skirt and a mass of waving hair.
In the wake of the wild kangaroo.
* * * * * *
Kangarooing has from the earliest days held a foremost place, and is as thrilling and exciting to-day as it was when the “old man” ‘roos roamed the bush in thousands. Still it is not much indulged in now. The rifle has played such havoc among them in the settled districts that it is a long ride to-day to find an old man worthy of the chase. Those awkward wire fences, too, crop up too frequently for most women to indulge freely in the sport; and, when all is said and done, half the attraction and pleasure are gone when you miss the sparkling eyes and the fascinating countenance of lovely woman.
In the wilds of Western Queensland, and the backblocks of New South Wales, where ‘roos, dingoes, and brumbies are still plentiful, scattered stations occasionally turn out little troops of enthusiasts on Sunday mornings for “the life-stirring chase” across the wooded hills and grassy flats.
They carry home a tail or two for soup, and, perhaps, the scalps and brush for trophies. It is always a wild run home, a go-as-you-please to the stock yard rails, with shouting, cheering, and peals of laughter. The day’s outing invariably affords food for lively chatter at dinner and through the long evening, particularly if one of the company chanced to be a new chum. This very often happens, for the new chum is at all times an incentive to such an outing.
* * * * * *
Duck shooting is another Sunday pastime; also fishing and boating; more favoured now by the rivers and lakes, though less exciting than ‘rooing. I have seen men, after shooting round a swamp till the game had disappeared, gather on the slope, and shoot at sheets of paper pinned to a tree with the blades of their pocket-knives. This is done to ascertain the merits of the different guns by the number of shot put through the paper. A “close throwing” gun has the advantage over a gun that “scatters” in a contest of this kind. Several rounds are fired, the guns changing hands each time to show that it is not the aim of the man that is at fault in respect to guns that throw but a few pellets into the paper. The sportsmen mostly require new pocket knives when the contest is over.
* * * * * *
Some prefer cricket played with a home-made bat and a stump, box, or kerosene tin for wicket. The test is to see who can stay in the longest, the game being considered closed when the ball goes crash through the old woman’s window or hits somebody in the eye.
Some are fond of quoits, which they play with horseshoes; whilst others pin their faith to cards, playing all day and half into the night for matches and tobacco, or else it is a rubber for somebody’s girl, who is mostly black.
There are always a certain energetic few with colts to try, and consequently races are arranged through the week for Sunday afternoon. Some intermediate place is chosen for the meet, where racing along some level track or straight bit of road and jumping over “the big gum log” are indulged in. This sport not infrequently attracts a good crowd, among which gaffing schools are formed as a side attraction.
* * * * * *
A favourite pursuit among many bushmen is “sugar-bagging,” that is cutting wild honey out of trees, which combines business with pleasure, and often misery. The nests are generally discovered during the week whilst timber-getting or cattle hunting and noted for “Sunday.” Everything that is not included in the actual routine of everyday work is left for Sunday. If a man has a horse to shoe, a boot to mend, a button to sew on his pants, or a splinter to take out of his finger he “must do it on Sunday,”
A couple, sometimes three or four, and occasionally the whole family, will sally forth in the morning armed with buckets and axes for the bees’ nest. It is seldom nearer than two miles; at times it is as much as 10 miles away. In the latter case horses are the means of locomotion, and sometimes a pleasant drive is enjoyed in the farm dray with Bowler m the shafts.
Cutting down the tree, which is seldom a small one, is the hardest part of the performance. Once down the rest is easy, providing the bees are not too vicious. I have seen them so bad as to drive all and sundry away from the neighbourhood. In such cases smoking with green leaves is resorted to. Whilst the dogs and youngsters are busy hunting for ‘possums and cats among the branches, the axes again get to work on the fallen trunk. A long strip is cut out at the nest, the comb extracted, brushed of dead bees and particles of wood, and dropped into the buckets.
The quantity varies considerably. I once saw 200lb. of honeycomb taken out of a single tree. In the same vicinity two of us worked half a day cutting down a red gum, which was 6ft. in diameter, and gnarled and knotted at that; and when we cut it open there wasn’t as much honey in it as would fill a pickle bottle. It was a new nest. We called it several other kinds of nest.
Another time we cut down a big tree on the river bank, which we knew had been “inhabited” for three months past. It caught in another tree and hung. We left it there for two months, and one Sunday we went out and chopped down the other. It fell into the river, and the nest was buried two fathoms under water.
The worst of it was the two trees formed an obstruction, preventing the steamers from plying up and down the river. There was a £50 fine attached to this, and the only way we could get out of it was to swear each other to secrecy.
The steamer passed down stream late at night, and unless warned a disastrous wreck was certain. In great trepidation my accomplice ran down and informed the captain of the place where the trees had been felled “by somebody unknown.” She hove-to till morning, when we went down and assisted to cut them away. We were glad to get out of it so easily.
Our last sugar bag on the Richmond panned out two ordinary sized tubs of comb-honey, which restored our good opinions of sugar bags generally. It was out of a tall ironbark on Bungawalbyn run.
* * * * * *
Sunday for station hands is a busy day. Everyone shaves and gets his hair cut, pares his corns and cuts his toe-nails on that day; he also half-soles his old boots, washes and patches his clothes, has a full wash himself, and writes letters. The rest of the day—if there’s any rest about it—is spent in card-playing, spinning lies, or yarning and reading “Deadwood Dicks.”
One or two may ride away “to see the girl,” or to drop a letter in the bush post-office—a hole in the trunk of a tree concealed by the roadside. If the girl dwells far away the letter is dropped into a little box nailed to a tree, which the mailman clears en passant. These mail-boxes are a feature of every bush road and convenience many station hands and selectors’ daughters.
Some of my happiest Sunday afternoons were spent in wanderings about the banks of the Richmond River gathering bluebells and violets, which grew on the shaded slopes in rich profusion. Of course I didn’t gather them for myself.
Woram—a few miles below Casino—was once a fruit lover’s paradise, but is now all cut up into farms. The scrub trees were covered with passion fruit vines, and the ground strewn with fallen fruit. Cherries, wild figs, tomatoes, strawberries, blackberries, lilli-pillies, and gooseberries, grew there by the cart load. Every Sunday we rowed down the river in an old punt and filled her with fruit, feasted in the scrubs, and made merry.
What could one wish for better than this, with some little flower of Eden beside him, pulling an oar with dainty hands, and pausing now and again to gather the luscious fruit by the river side; to float down on the ebbing tide, husking gooseberries, or shaking the cherry branches till the boat was blood red with fruit; plucking the beautiful water-lilies along the edge, and landing anon to gather ferns for the hearth at home?
Aye, give me the girl and the boat in a place like this, and you may have all the sport that game in the bush can afford. Under the circumstances I could wish that every week contained six Sundays and a public holiday.
Around the little far-back town of Tibooburra (N.S.W.), and at several other places in the Mount Brown district (where M’Douall Stuart, Captain Sturt, Poole, and others met (with such hardships years ago), are hundreds of natural pyramids—huge piles of rocks and gibbers—the facsimile of the kopjes of South Africa. Among these are to be found, perhaps, the prettiest wallabies in Australia, a shy and nimble little creature with a white stripe down the back, and a white-ringed tail. Some are striped like a zebra. A kindred variety is found in Westralia, and is known as the Banded Wallaby. Perched on the rock-cones and potting them as they hop from cover to feed about the little flats and gullies, is a profitable pastime, if one be after skins and scalps; but as sport it is no more exciting than shooting the “Boongarry,” or Tree Kangaroo of Northern Queensland and New Guinea A peculiarity, of the latter is that, though a natural climber, like the monkeys its tail is not prehensile. It has, however, a cat-characteristic in that, no matter in what position it may fall from a limb, it always alights on its feet. The shy, black wallaroos, of the New England Ranges and north coastal scrubs of N.S.W. afford, perhaps, the liveliest sport; though flying shots, at Rat Kangaroos, Potoroos, and Bettongs is “good fun.” The latter is a pretty little animal, and is notable for the fact that, when making its cosy nest, it carries the grass in little bundles with its tail.
* * * * * *
Macropods of all descriptions are hunted in places expressly for the tail, which, though seldom touched by a bushman, is relished by a great many townspeople. An Englishman, who spent some time in Australia, on returning to the “old dart,” wrote: “Many give such glowing descriptions of the high esteem in which kangaroo-tail soup is held in the colonies, that one is somewhat surprised to find the orthodox ‘ox-tail’ figuring in the club menu, while the vaunted native article is regarded as a pis aller, even in the back blocks.” Well, kangaroo-tails have been very largely exported into England, and are considered a luxury by those “down under.” In Australia, when other meat is scarce and recourse has to be made to native animals, the rat kangaroo and wallabies are preferred even to the caudal appendage of the larger animal. Old bushmen will not look at any of the species if there is a ‘possum or a koala to be had. Marsupials are being rapidly exterminated, and in a few years Australia’s pride, the kangaroo, will have joined the great Moa of the Maori. They are classed as noxious animals in most settled districts, and large sums are paid yearly by stock-protection boards for scalps. In Dubbo district alone last year nearly 14,000 rat kangaroos, and 224,000 wallabies were slaughtered. Excepting where transport facilities give a marketable value to the skins, the big drives that were a feature of the pioneering days are rarely heard of now. Scalpers and farmers in new scrub country—where wallabies are numerous and a pest to growing crops—are, perhaps, the only people who hunt the wallaby to any extent.
* * * * * *
The first farmers on the Richmond, when the banks were lined with dense scrub, had much trouble to contend with through the ravages of these animals. Those living within a certain radius banded together to exterminate them, meeting at one farm the first Sunday, and at another farm the next. Most of them came on horseback. Those who brought their families came in carts or slides. The nearest neighbors walked, the “old man” and the “missus” carrying the baby in turns, the boys and girls bird-nesting or gathering wild flowers en route. The little farmhouse and the hostess would be taxed to their utmost resources to provide for all at dinner time. Dishes and saucepan lids were utilised for plates; for drinking vessels there were jugs and basins, and at times the dipper and the quart pot were conspicuous among the cups and, pannikins. When table knives ran short, men used the clasp ones they usually cut their tobacco with; and spoons were passed round from one to another. For sitting accommodation the sofa was placed at one side of the table and the long stool at the other, while blocks, oil-drums, and boxes were dumped down at the ends.
After dinner the men adjourned to the verandah, or to the shade of a big gum tree, to smoke and yarn. The women gossipped inside. The “old couple” exchanged “news” at night, and in this way everybody got to know everything going on in the neighborhood. About 2 o’clock the men went in a body “down the farm,” shouting to their dogs to “come behind” or “go and lay down,” most of the way. At the point of the scrub they divided, one lot going along on the outside, the other between the corn and the fringe of scrub on the bank. The dogs were sent afield between them to hunt out the game. Shotguns were mostly used, and some of these farmers were crack shots. Each animal shot was slung across a stump and left to rot. Sometimes they would skin one or two if they were short of boot laces—the only use they had for the skin, unless it was for a foot-mat in the bedroom. The whitened bones of the slaughtered animals lay as monuments on the charred stumps for months afterwards.
* * * * * *
A good plan is for a party on horseback to round up a mob, and drive them along a fence to a corner or a gap, where two or three good marksmen are posted, who shoot them down as they pass. Kangaroo shooters, with Martini-Henry rifles or Winchesters, often make a coup in this fashion, shooting as many in an hour as they can skin in a day. Put these marksmen on horseback, and the order is reversed. Again, a crack mounted shot, who can kill nine times out of ten on a galloping horse, would miss nine times out of ten on foot. For all that, there are plenty of good “all-round shots,” whose aim is unerring, whether afoot or mounted, stationary or galloping. The wild cattle and brumby shooters of the far-out Queensland ranges are amongst the best all-round shots to be met with. When driven onto a fence, kangaroos will leap clean over it; but the wallaby generally makes a dive through, or turns and follows it. It is a pathetic sight to see one hung by the legs to the top of a wire fence. Apparently it has jumped at the second wire, and so struck the top one, which it had missed sight of. As the body topples over, the second wire is caught up by the foot and drawn to a loop over the other, which holds the leg like a vice. The struggling of the unfortunate brute only tends to tighten it; and there it is doomed to hang, head downwards, till death releases it from its sufferings. When hunting with dogs, the huntsman keeps close up, and as soon as the animal is thrown he jumps off and hamstrings it to prevent the dog from being ripped by that terrible “long toe.” A good greyhound or kangaroo dog lays hold of the tail, and, with a sudden twist, throws it, and then grips it by the head. I saw a splendid dog ripped from shoulder to quarter during a hunt in the Wyan Mountains, Richmond River, in 1886. Another, a half-bred greyhound, was killed by running on to the broken limb of a fallen tree. The limb, about 2in in diameter, entered at the chest, and pierced half its body. With wallabies, no precautions are needed. Any ordinary dog can kill a wallaby unassisted. Young dogs occasionally get torn, but they soon learn to take care of themselves.
* * * * * *
In a large tank on Whittabranah Run, Tibooburra, are still standing (1899) the four posts and stage of a shooting box that was used a few years ago by kangaroo shooters. Posted there, several yards out in the water, they shot the animals down as they came in to drink at dawn and dusk. In drinking, I might remark, the animal holds its mouth to the water like a cow or a sheep, but laps the water up with its tongue. The tongue shoots in and out very rapidly, and unless the observer be close, he would not notice that it drank differently from a sheep, as its nose remains stationary on the water. In the locality mentioned, in the summer of 1897, these marsupials were dying wholesale of starvation, as many as five and six lying together under one tree. The little water in the tanks was their only stand-by, and these were boggy. One morning I saw five bogged together in a tank close to the station. It would be hard to imagine anything more pathetic than those poor creatures clawing hopelessly at the soft mud with their hands, and their eyes expressing mute appeal for mercy. Though their preservation was harmful, I am glad to say they didn’t appeal in vain.
* * * * * *
Once I spent a week at a scalpers’ camp in Queensland. The main camp was pitched on the bank of a waterhole. It was a wild spot, being over a hundred miles down the river. The camp consisted of three tents, one being used for storing scalps and skins, a cooking galley, and three or four gunyahs. Here dwelt the proprietor of the plant, and boss of the scalpers, a tribe of blacks camped about four miles further out. Only four gins were at the head camp on my arrival, two of them in skirts without bodies, and two in short shirts. Their work was stringing scalps on wires, stretched from tree to tree to dry, and pegging out the skins. The blacks consumed £10 worth of opium per week, and the desire of this drug was their main object in hunting. Owing to some trouble with them the proprietor took me one evening to the out-camp. Here I found about thirty blackfellows and about twenty gins, besides a host of youngsters. All were naked. They closed round us, some squatting and some standing. The proprietor handed me a six chambered revolver, and I stood on guard outside the ring. They objected to the meagre dole of rations, and struck for more. A long parley ensued, which ended in their being ordered to the main camp. Here the dispute was settled; and operations were henceforth conducted from this camp. They camped on the opposite side of the waterhole, about two hundred yards away.
During my stay there I acted as cook, and caretaker of the camp. Often in the absence of the proprietor, the gins would come to me with tears trickling down their cheeks, begging for opium. This I could not give them, but I frequently gave them damper and tobacco. Night and morning, a kerosene tin of water was boiled, and in this was put a small handful of tea and a little less than a pannikin of sugar. A pint of this mixture and a few pipes of tobacco were portioned to each for breakfast, and a pint, and a smoke of opium, for supper. Some, according to their hunting successes, obtained a thin slice of damper, which was a luxury. Nothing was served at midday, all being absent with the exception of a few old gins. It was generally 9 a.m. when the tribe started for the wallaby grounds—patches of scrub, a few miles out. All were naked, not even a “tabby” being worn. Some buckled a strap round their waists, under which spare boomerangs were thrust. The scalping knives were carried by closing the blade on a tuft of hair on the head. A few were supplied with guns and rifles. The only other weapons used were spears and short nullas. The gins, youngsters, and a great many dogs, accompanied them. Their modus operandi was to surround a patch of scrub, some close in, and some out wide, the “gunners” mostly on the outside of all, who shot what the nullas and boomerangs failed to bring down. The dogs and some of the gins were sent into the scrub to beat out the game. The other gins did most of the skinning and carrying. They also quartered some of the animals, and roasted them. When the wallaby darts out, mostly pursued by pack of yelping dogs, the wooden weapons are hurled at it till knocked over. The man whose weapon brings it down claims the scalp and skin. Some stand behind trees within the scrub watching the track, and strike the wallaby with a nulla-nulla as it passes. All day long this goes on at different patches of scrub, the blacks dancing and running, and brandishing and hurling weapons, with much shouting and yelling and barking of dogs. The children take an active part, using miniature nullas and boomerangs. Towards sunset they beat back to camp, and one by one hand in their scalps and skins, which are punctured to prevent spoilation. With their doles they then go contentedly to their gunyahs.
I began fishing when quite an infant, my tackle consisting of a piece of thread and a bent pin; and the first thing I caught was my father’s hat, which I whisked into the river. He “whisked” me up the bank. Another time I nearly knocked the old man’s eye out, besides smashing his cuddy, with a garfish. I can still see him, with the back of his hand to his optic, looking round for a stick. Then he took his belt off. But I wasn’t there.
When still very young, I had my first experience with a net. I was then going to school, and for that purpose was living with a farmer named Harry Beckford. We borrowed the net from a neighbor. It was too short, Harry said, to put in the river, the fish would get round it; so we took it to a creek five miles down. We also took a large sack each to carry the fish home. We decided to stretch it across a deep hole just above where the creek entered the Richmond River. As we had no boat, I had to swim across with one end and lash it to a tree. Then I sat naked on one bank, and Harry sat smoking his pipe on the other. An hour had passed, when a fish struck it in midstream. As Harry knew of no other way of getting it out, I had to untie my end of the net and swim back with it. We hauled it out in a tangled heap, but, to our disgust, the fish remained in the creek.
Our second and last ground was a mile above Tathan Bridge. Here was a deep pool, clear as crystal, in which a shoal of fish were swimming about. Just above the stream shallowed suddenly, being no more than a foot deep, with a clear, sandy bottom. We stretched it across this shallow and again I had to undress, This time I was told to plunge in below the pool, and swim up stream to drive the fish into the net. It reminded me of an old blackfellow, who compelled his lubra to dive in the river to put fish on his hook, as they wouldn’t bite. When she failed to catch any, he chastised her for being too lazy. However, I plunged in and swam up, shouting and splashing, and now and again emitting a terrified yell as the darting mullet brushed my sides, or tickled me with a fin. About twenty leaped over me, and one did actually dart into the net. Harry was greatly excited, and yelled to me to come and take it out. I was rather long in coming, so he rushed in himself, with his boots on, and had got nicely wet when the fish got out on its own account.
We then, one on each bank, dragged the net into the pool, and went, half a mile down, and beat the water all the way back with long sticks. The corks were bobbing when we returned. I untied my end, and Barry dragged the net across. He wasn’t going to run any risks this time. Out it came with a splash—a squirming, wriggling mass of eel. Harry said lots of things, but nothing printable. The net was a pitiable sight when he had done belting that eel. It had “gashes” from end to end, and a great quantity of leaves, twigs, and branches were rolled in it, and glued to it with slime. “How much did Dougherty say he wanted for it?” asked Harry. “A pound.” He threw it under a bush. “Fetch the sacks, boy. We’ll get.”
A few years later (1884), I drove with two men named Dalton and Page to Drury’s Lagoon, a few miles north of Casino, for net-fishing. We took a small canoe with us, and reached the lagoon about sunset. Whilst the men dropped the net I made a fire and boiled the billy. During supper we frequently heard the slashing of the floaters, and anticipated a good haul. It was a still, starlit night, and across the water came the lone, lone cry of the curlew. His pipe filled, Dalton and I got into the canoe to secure the fish. At the first lift we got a surprise. Entangled in the meshes were the heads of five large mullet. We pulled a little further along, and lifted again, with the same result—heads. In fact, it was the same right to the end of the net. Every fish had been decapitated, and we brought back twenty-seven heads. We examined them at the fire, and after much speculation, concluded they had been bitten off by some monster inhabiting the lagoon. Page then decided to remain on the water, and ascertain if possible what kind of a thing it could be. I went with him, armed with a lantern. We were scarcely afloat, when there was a commotion in mid-water. We hurried out, and lifted the net. Near the top was the head of a big perch. It was quick work, and we were more interested than ever. We remained there with the light covered, waiting for an opportunity of proving the nature of our piscatorial pirate. We had waited about half an hour, when the chance came. A mullet struck the net near the surface, and I flashed the light upon it. In a few seconds a broad, dark head shot up, and almost at a chop the fish was severed. With a great splash it turned downwards, and we saw the long white belly of an enormous eel! After that there was nothing for it but to lift the net. The lagoon was literally alive with rapacious eels, and from the rapidity with which they snapped up the netted perch and mullet they appeared to be patrolling the net.
My favorite style of fishing was with the rod and line, and the pursuance of this sport has led me into some queer predicaments. I have paddled myself out on a log to reach a coveted spot, and have had to hang the flapping things to my belt with a wire hook. I have straddled over hanging limbs, at times having to swing the fish towards me and catch them between my knees. On one occasion, I desired to fish a fine hole in Tomki Creek, Richmond River, but could not do so from the bank, which was very steep, as thick scrub grew to the water’s edge. A dead sapling, however, spanned the creek from bank to bank, being about 10ft above water. Along this I climbed, with my pickle-bottle of grasshoppers and crickets in my pocket. It was the season, early summer, when perch bite readily at this kind of bait. Straddling the sapling in the centre, I cast out. The cork had scarcely touched the water when it was jerked under, and drawn away in the quick decisive manner that delights the heart of an angler. I had just got the weight of the fish when the sapling snapped, and let me a tremendous souse into the creek. After scrambling out, I had a wild chase through scrub and bush after my rod. Gliding like a live thing along the surface, diving into the deep holes, dipping and plunging, with many a mad rush, it shot down the creek, and out into the broad river. That was the last I saw of it—and I had walked five miles to fish that hole! I was somewhat recompensed, however, a week later. Seven miles below the creek I caught a perch that had a hook stuck firmly in its upper lip. To this was attached about 4ft of line, with my floater on the end of it.
Another day I lost two hooks within a few minutes, and half-an-hour later, at a different spot, I landed a cat-fish with both hooks in its mouth. Generally after losing one or two fish, no further bites will be obtained for some time. This has led people to believe that such fish as the perch, mullet, bream, etc., have some method of communication. Now, it must be admitted that, before a fish can communicate danger to others, it must first be conscious of danger itself. That it is not is shown by the fact of its biting at another spot shortly after escaping. Neither has it any sense of observation, otherwise it would not be possible to catch a number, one by one, from a comparatively small shoal. The reason that they cease biting when one or two have been dropped is that the escapee immediately darts away, and the others follow; for fish, like most things else, follow a leader.
Once, at Texas, on the Severn River, Queensland, a mate and I, while spelling our horses, had a fortnight’s splendid sport among the black bream and Murray cod. They bit so well that we could have supplied the metropolitan markets with fish had facilities for exportation permitted. We had no local market, of course. The Texas housewife, if short of meat for dinner, has only to say to the old man: “Go and get me six bream and a cod for supper.” The old man goes down with his line, and in ten minutes returns with the required number. Texas is a great tobacco-growing district, though the industry is mostly in the hands of Chinese. We regretted this, as the Mongolians could not be induced to barter with us. Among the few whites outside the town, however, we did better. We exchanged fish for tobacco at the factory, and for beef at the station. What we could not dispose of immediately we salted, and stacked for the mail man, who, the Texas people told us, bought all he could get at threepence a pound, and took a load every week to Stanthorpe and Goondiwindi. Pleasure now became business, and daily we fished our favorite spot, which we called Codshearer Bay, and carried to camp as much fish on a long pole as the two of us could stagger under. Even then we had once or twice to tether a cod in the river till morning. It was hot weather, and the cod, being exceptionally fat, were hard to cure. Every morning we had to look over them, and wash the maggots out of any the flies had got at. By the end of the week we had a great square stack as high as our tent. Then we interviewed the mailman at the local pub.
“No, he wasn’t taking any more. The market had dropped, and he’d sold only about half of his last load.”
Next morning we left Texas very early. We also left the fish.
I have on two occasions caught an old boot with the rod-line. I have yanked my fish up into a tree, and had to climb after it; and once I hauled a dead dog to the surface. But the most curious thing I ever caught on a line was at Eurombar Station, Dawson River, Queensland, in September, 1895. We were after barrimundi, a rare fish of large size, and excellent quality, but extremely shy, and difficult to catch. This was the first opportunity I had had of fishing for barrimundi, and was thus rather eager to make my first catch. Before going out, Mr. Lord, of Eurombar Station, favored me with some instructions. I was to select calm water, on the sunny side for choice, throw far out, with my floater not more than 2ft from the hook. Then I was to conceal myself and remain very quiet. I went up about a mile and a half to what is known as the washpool, and selected a place where concealment would be easy in a patch of long, blady grass. I baited with a large brown frog, just hooking it by the skin, so that it would kick about and attract the fish. I cast out, and then sat down, and remained so quiet that I fell asleep. I must have slept an hour, and on waking, commenced to haul in my line. To my astonishment, instead of coming from the water, I was hauling it through the long grass from up the bank. I opined that a turtle had taken the hook, and gone ashore with it. But presently a great commotion in the grass undeceived me. I admit I felt a little uneasy at this juncture, and shifted to a clear spot close by, and as I hauled the thing nearer to me, edged towards a stout waddy. Tradition has it that this lagoon was haunted by a bunyip. The blacks dreaded it, and none would ever swim in its waters. I thought of this as I drew the long line in. Had it actually been a bunyip, I could not have been more startled than I was at the reality. What was it but a large black snake! It broke into the clear space in a writhing mass of coils, darting and striking at the line, its head flattened in deadly anger. I picked up the waddy, and while it bit at its own body, killed it. I made no attempt to recover my hook. I was content to cut the line. Apparently the frog had kicked away till it got ashore with the line, when it fell a prey to the snake.
The habits of the dingo, or native dog, form an interesting study, and are frequently a source of argument, even among experienced bushmen. The true dingo is reddish yellow in color, with short, pricky ears, and a bushy tail. The ears are always erect. The tail hangs straight, in some cases having a slight upward curve. He has a good eye, and can discern objects at a great distance. He has also a sharp ear, and a keen sense of smell. In certain other respects, there is a difference in dingoes of different localities, particularly in the matter of taste.
On the upper part of the Richmond River, I have known them to eat anything in the line of flesh, even putrid meat and rotten hides; and this in the midst of an abundance of game, and when fresh meat could have been easily got. One evening in November, 1894, on Sandy Creek, near Casino, I saw a dingo eating of a beast that had been dead a considerable time. It tore off a strip of soft hide and flesh, gave it two or three gentle shakes to dislodge the maggots, and then ate it with gusto. Yet this dog would not touch the daintiest piece of fresh meat, if handled by man. In poisoning baits, it is necessary to take care, and not maul them. The strychnine is placed in small incisions with the point of a butcher's knife, and the bait wrapped in clean paper, and dropped into a tussock or bush at the side of a cattle pad. After taking such a bait, the dingo makes for water, and seldom gets out of sight of the hole before death supervenes. I have found them dead at the water's edge, and once in the water.
In the far west of New South Wales, in the neighborhood of the Paroo, the dingo is a perfect epicurean in comparison. Though I spent three years in this locality, and saw some thousands of dead sheep scattered about the runs, I never knew one to be touched by a dingo. That astute animal likes to kill his own meat, and, sheep being plentiful, he kills at least once a day, mostly about sunset. He returns to his quarry early next morning for his breakfast, after which he never touches it again. The boundary-rider, knowing this, carries a little bottle of strychnine in his pocket, and whenever he surprises a dingo at his prey, poisons the carcase, and returns for an almost certain scalp next day. This is the surest way of poisoning here. Another method, much used, is to poison a bone, and hang it to a fence or a low limb with tie-wire. Some drag a trail with the fresh paunch of a bullock, leaving it poisoned on a favorite beat. Aniseed is also employed at times for trailing, particularly over buried traps. An old-time device for trapping was a deep hole with a lid or door on top swinging on an axle. In places along the border fences, this trap is still used for catching rabbits. Though epicurean in their tastes, these dogs show no antipathy to the human aroma objected to by their eastern brethren. This, I consider, remarkable.
The dingo differs from all other dogs in that they are hostile to man even when reared among children from sightless pups. No matter how tame a dingo may become, he can never be trusted; and though the natural instinct may be long dormant in the dog, there is always a slight hankering after his native wilds. This is particularly noticeable at nightfall. When crossed with other breeds, there is an inborn tendency to kill for the mere sake of killing, which is not a characteristic of the true-bred dingo. In the daytime, except in the wilds of Queensland, and the far west of New South Wales, packs are seldom seen; but, if plentiful in the neighborhood, they collect and travel together at night. The signal call is a sharp, snappish yelp, and a short howl, that breaks suddenly on the night air, and dies away to nothing, having a far-away sound that lingers in the ear. It can be heard at a greater distance than the much noisier howl of the domestic dog. It is a lonely, dismal howl; yet with nothing of melancholy in it; it simply fills you with a sense of utter loneliness. When camping out with others, I rather like to hear that peculiar howl; but I can't bear it when alone. It sends my mind wandering at once to far-away places, and begets an unutterable yearning for the haunts of olden times. The curlew's cry has this same influence, tempered to a certain extent by time and locality. To a bushman there is in both that weird, unfathomable charm that one feels when standing alone on a wide plain, looking across the caps of distant hills, mellow-tinted with a red sunset, on a calm autumn eve.
The dingo is notable for his cunning and strategy. Though it will not fight, unless "cornered," and then only in a shuffling, half-hearted manner, it has often escaped by feigning death. It is also very tenacious of life, and has been known to recover after being dropped with a stirrup iron and scalped. While droving down the Maranoa in November, 1895, I had the good luck to witness a scene in which the cuteness and strategy of the dingo were well illustrated. A little off the Mitchell-St. George road was a cow with a young calf. Two dingoes were continually dodging round her, and nipping the calf whenever occasion offered. Presently one took up a position in front to draw the cow, and as soon as she charged, the other darted between and cut off the calf. Five other dogs, that had been laying low for the opportunity, now sprang up and surrounded it. They displayed all the skill of experienced stockmen in their endeavor to drive it away, blocking it promptly whenever it attempted to break in any but one particular direction. With frantic bellowing the cow came running back. Three dogs essayed to block her, whilst two others made desperate efforts to slay the calf. One had gripped it by the flank, and one by the throat; and had almost borne it to the ground, when the cow rushed through the triumvirate and rescued it. Five of the number now drew wide; and a pair, working steadily, recommenced their former tactics. It was a very hot day, and the cow was already tonguing. Out of pity for the poor animal I galloped up and drove off her assailants. I let her stand awhile in the shade of a tree, then drove her across to a mob of station cattle.
A similar case was witnessed by my brother and a man named Toohey, on Paradise Creek, near Nanango, Queensland. If I remember rightly, they were brumby hunting on Taromeo, and on riding to the bank of the creek beheld in the hollow below a cow and calf being attacked by two dingoes. Toohey cracked his whip, and immediately about twenty more dogs sprang up out of the long grass, forming a complete circle round the cow. They were a determined lot, and were chased about with whips for several minutes before they finally quitted the scene. In April, 1896, I was travelling from Thargomindah to Eromanga (Q.), and on several occasions met dingoes on the road. They were the boldest I have seen. Instead of running off into the bush, they simply make a circuit round me at a radius of thirty yards, and, coming up behind, follow my horse's track, sometimes for over a mile. One day at noon I was dining with some drovers near Mount Margaret, when three dingoes came close up to the waggonette. The cook threw a bone, and after a little beating about, one of the trio approached and picked it up. This is the only instance of the kind I have met with, though the drovers informed me it was common enough in that neighborhood.
A favorite breeding ground is among the sandhills on the Diamantina, far west Queensland. Some of the hills are actually honeycombed with holes, for the dingo burrows in the sand here in a somewhat similar manner to the wombat. These dingo hills are as dangerous to a horseman as the rabbit-riddled country to the west of the Darling. Frequently the roof of these burrows is a mere shell of compressed sand, and a horse stepping on it falls through with a sudden plunge. But where the burrowed ground is indicated, no horse bred in the country can be forced to cross it. The same applies to horses with respect to rabbit warrens. Between August and November pups are dug up in hundreds, and as many as forty scalps have been obtained in a single day by a couple of scalpers. Though not so plentiful, as a few years ago, they are still in great numbers in the neighborhood of Boulia, and thicker still as you travel towards Winton, or in the direction of the Northern Territory.
On the eastern rivers they mostly breed in hollow logs and dark mountain caverns. I have frequently cut litters out of logs on Myrtle Creek, between Casino and Grafton, N.S.W. The most I got from one log was five, and the least two. I never once knew the bitch to make any attempt to defend her young. At the first blow of the axe, unless the opening is blocked, she will rush out and bolt into the bush, leaving her progeny to take care of themselves. In some instances, when thus hunted, she goes right away, and never returns for tidings of her pups. In and about these logs and caverns there is always a great quantity of bones and feathers. The great sandbanks to the north of Sturt's Stony Desert is one of the principal whelping places of Western N.S.W. In drought time they gather at the flood waters of the Bulloo and Paroo Rivers, and from here diverge in all directions after heavy rains. They mostly follow a watercourse, and occupy for a fortnight to a month in passing through each sheep run. Odd ones remain on the different runs until forced by the next drought to retreat to the "flood water." This is mostly open country, and consequently they are seldom molested there.
After the breaking-up of the big drought of 1896, dingoes appeared in great numbers on the border runs, north and west of Tibooburra and Milparinka. They came up Whittabranah Creek from the open country, and down it from the South Australian side, and in from the Cooper, and the mountain scrubs and lignum holes of the Wilson, on the Queensland side. Along this creek the country was well grassed, and, being soft and green, it was easy to pick out the places where dingoes had been at work. I particularly noticed two patches, one on each side of the boundary fence of Whittabranah and Olive Downs, and each about an acre in extent, that were trodden as bare as a claypan by ringing sheep. It appeared as though two flocks had been held on the fence all night while the ground was yet soft and mucky. On riding round these patches I found several dead sheep outside the trodden ring. They were all partly eaten, and in all stages of decomposition, showing that the flocks had been bailed up here a number of times, and one or two killed on each occasion. As these paddocks are from sixty to one hundred square miles in area, it is safe to presume that the sheep did not feed each time into the vicinity of this trap; but having once—accidentally, perhaps—been run on to the fence and caught, they were subsequently driven there by dingoes in a systematic and business-like manner. I am all the more convinced of this from the fact that the boundary-rider actually saw a flock being quietly driven by two dogs.
It might be argued that a dog would not go to such trouble in voluntarily working a flock when he could rush in and make a kill at almost any moment. But the real dingo does not kill for killing's sake; and, unlike the half-breed, that will tear and mangle a score for mere-sport, though he may play with a flock if his appetite is not very keen, he will leave no torn ones behind him if he can help it. Put a hungry dingo into the midst of a penned flock, and he'll harm but one, and that one he'll kill outright. It will not be the first he comes to either. He may beat about for some time before he finds a hogget fat and tempting to suit him. He is extremely partial to lambs and hoggets. As the sheep give him little chance to make a good pick in the open, long experience has taught him to follow or drive them to a corner, where he can pick.
In February, 1898, in the same locality, I saw a dingo approach a poverty-stricken ewe that was standing alone on a flat. He trotted round her twice, stopping and sniffing at her occasionally, then gave a low howl, and trotted off. I gave chase, and, after a short run, secured him by knocking him over with the stirrup-iron. In these parts many of the old horses are trained to gallop on to a dingo, and strike him down with their forefeet. Another day, on a flat in the same paddock, I found two dingoes quietly shepherding a mob of sheep, whilst a third was dodging about trying to get a lamb on the outside. This occurred at midday, a favorite time for running down the dingo; but I had the misfortune to lose both in the interminable tangle of billabongs and blind gullies which characterise these far-back creeks and rivers. In June, 1899, we were lamb-marking at the Twelve-Mile yards at Whitttabranah, and every morning found the half of a freshly-killed lamb in the middle of the yard, and the spoor of a dingo outside. Though we watched, and set traps about the yard, we failed to catch him. He came regularly every night, killed his one lamb, and decamped, without hunting another hoof.
In running down a kangaroo, the dingo exhibits great patience and perseverance. Though the former is much fleeter, the latter has more stamina; and, if he is a mile behind at an early stage of the long chase, his steady swinging gallop will ultimately wear down the speedier animal. Just watch him pelting along on the scent, his nose down, and his tongue lolling out, perhaps several minutes in the rear of his quarry, but determined and confident of success, and you will admit that he is a hunter of no mean calibre. In fact, the dingo is a wonderfully sagacious animal.
The aboriginal methods of catching wild ducks are interesting. Some steal quietly into the water above where the ducks are feeding, and diving under, catch them by the legs. This requires more skill and endurance than any other means, necessitating a long stay under water, part of the time with the eyes open. It is also necessary to swim near the surface for light, and this must be done without producing bubbles or ripples. The ability to locate the birds with exactness while under water is a great factor to success. I have seen little black boys, when practising this feat, dive twenty yards above three floating cherries, and attempt to locate the three by thrusting a little pointed stick, about the size of an ordinary lead pencil, above water, before rising to the surface. They can frequently go within an inch or two of touching the berry, and when one is actually touched the distance of the dive is lengthened. Those children are taught to swim as soon as they are able to walk. The mother throws her child out into deep water, as one would threw a pup, then swims after, it, and brings it ashore. The first fears quickly wear off, and the little one goes whirling with a laugh into midstream, and is soon able to paddle out without assistance. It is taught to throw handsprings and somersaults into water, and to dive for pebbles and mussels. Then they are initiated into the art of diving after ducks.
Ducks have central depots, or headquarters, which is generally a lake, lagoon, or large swamp. Hundreds leave these waters at night, and travel many miles over the surrounding country, dropping into little pools and creeks, into tanks and dams, gilghi holes, and claypans, places where man is the disturbing element by day; returning to headquarters at dawn or sunrise. Thus it comes that the traveller often finds a duck on his line in the morning, and the settler secures a brace in his waterhole by taking the gun with him when going for his matutinal bucket of water. Other nocturnal visitors are the nankeen crane and the black swan. The former appears between sundown and dusk; the latter on starlight nights. Many a summer’s night I have lain out on the soft grass, listening to the shrill cries of the swans and the whistling ducks, the whistling whirr of wings, the flop-flop of the flying fox mingling with the low quick quack-quack of the black duck. And many a gun waits a flight time, with ominous muzzle pointing starwards, ready to discharge a hail of lead into the flying squad. Now and again you hear a thud and a clatter on the galvanised roof, as the deluded birds, mistaking the gleaming iron for water, swoop down upon it. A favorite sport with travellers when camping at a waterhole is catching black duck with fishing lines. The line is thrown across the selvage of weeds, watercress, or lily-leaves, so that the hook, baited with grasshopper, cricket, or shrimp, hangs just over the outer edge. The hook must be very small, so the bird can swallow it, and the line light and strong.
Water-fowl of all descriptions are very plentiful throughout the eastern portion of New South Wales. The swamps and lagoons of the Richmond River have always been exceptionally well favored. One could take any small chain of waterholes, or medium-sized swamp, and there spend the whole day, beating backwards and forwards, shooting till he wearied of the sport.
One particular swamp I visited every Sunday, with old Dash at my heels, and a double-barrelled breechloader on my arm. This swamp measured a mile to two miles in diameter, and was green with patches of water-grass and reeds, with many a little nook and corner and hidden gully, where ducks lay quietly, or slept in long lines or in dense masses along the shore. It was nothing to see ducks rise from the pools here in such clouds as to throw a deep shadow, covering ten acres, and with a sound like the rumbling of thunder, or the rushing of water over a precipice. One morning I crept within range of a bevy of beauties, all with heads under wings, nestling on a patch of floating grass. I fired into the midst of them, reserving a second barrel for the “rise.” ‘But it missed fire. Chagrined, I looked for the result of my shot, expecting half a dozen at least. Imagine my surprise when I saw nothing there but a dying snipe. It was a puzzle to me how I had killed this tiny bird, which I had not seen, and missed the ducks that nestled round it so closely as to obscure every vestige of grass. However, I was more than recompensed a couple of hours later by killing thirteen ducks and a cormorant in a single drive. This was a “pot-shot” as the birds rose from the water.
I could always rely on old Dash to bring the birds to land until one fatal Sunday. I had shot a brace in a clear pool, and Dash, as usual, sprang in after them. He brought one ashore, and returned for the other. It lay very still on the water, apparently dead; but just as he was about to lay hold of it, it fluttered, and dived. Startled, the dog lifted himself suddenly, swung round, and swam with all speed to land. After that, nothing could induce him to approach the deadest of dead ducks on the water, and hence forth I had to do my own swimming.
Where game was in abundance, I could pick my birds where swimming would not be difficult, and avoiding it altogether if possible. One day I had quite a sensational experience. I had shot two ducks on what I took to be a narrow strip of land running out into the water like a jetty. One lay dead, but the other was flapping towards the clear water. A shortage of cartridges induced me to act economically, and, running down, I jumped out on to the level to grab it. I struck the grass close to it, and shot through, deep down into the water, over my head! Scared and breathless, I scrambled out, and sat on the bank staring at it for several minutes before I realised just what had happened. My “strip of land” was nothing more than a patch of floating grass; my gun was on the bottom under it; and the wounded duck had disappeared. I had to strip, of course, and dive for my shooting piece, and it was the hardest bit of diving I ever did. The long grass roots and weeds had an amorous way of clinging about my neck and arms, and groping under seven or eight feet of water in this fashion is anything but a matter of sport. But I recovered the gun. Another time, after swimming out to a duck, a brown hawk swooped down and lifted it from under my nose. That was hard luck; but worse happened when, one cold morning in June, I swam out with my bird and threw it down on the shore. I had carried it in my mouth, and it had not stirred; but the instant it touched the ground it gave a flutter, and flew away as blithely as though nothing had happened.
Shooting whistlers on trees is good sport. This is the only duck that habitually settles in trees, alighting on the limbs in flocks like parrots. It is the easiest of all ducks to kill; the musk-duck is the hardest, but the wood-duck runs it close. The latter may often be seen perched in trees, but mostly on low limbs over water. The black duck never alights on a limb till wounded; when its wings are injured it will leave the water to hide on land. The kite hawk is its deadliest enemy, and the presence of one in the air will keep every duck on the water. When the hawk dips towards them they bunch, and, with loud cries, thrash the water with their wings.
I have frequently gone out before daylight on Sunday morning (the bushman’s holiday), and spent nearly the whole day in the old Racecourse Swamp, Casino, wading up to my shoulders in water, half the time hidden among tall green rushes. Sometimes I went alone, other times with two or three companions, and many are the adventures we had with snakes and eels tangled among the rushes. Occasionally our grounds were shared by blackfellows and gins treading for turtles, and once or twice we had to lie low, up to our necks in water, as some disagreeable squatter came along on the lookout for trespassers. In this swamp was a great clump of mangroves, growing on a floating bed of decayed vegetable matter. Through this, walking on the buoyant, spongy bed, we had trampled a path to the edge of a clear pool, much frequented by ducks and geese. Many a good drive we made there (five geese was my record); but the most exciting part of it was stealing through the mangroves. Generally two or three of us went together, and it was amusing to see one or another break through a weak spot and drop out of sight. Scrambling back on to the spongy bed is something like trying to climb on to weak ice out of a deep hole. There’s only one way to get out—in a desperate hurry, with a cyclonic usage of arms and legs. It often happened that the right of way was disputed by a green or a black snake. As we could not kill it with out making a noise, we mostly lobbed our hats on to it to scare it away.
Down by Codrington, Richmond River, we used to enjoy a row in the early morning, shooting coots or redbills in the weeping willows. The banks are thickly lined with these trees, and it is a pretty sight to see hundreds of coots and nankeen cranes darting out and flying past the little steamers. Duck-shooters, who shot for a living in this neighborhood, use a small canvas dingey or canoe, which is carried on the shoulder, or tucked under the arm, from swamp to swamp. A screen of bushes is rigged in front, and a two-bladed oar, 4ft or 5ft long, is used to propel it. In some localities—Bungawalbyn Creek, Richmond River, for one—fancy prices are paid by these men for the right to shoot on particular swamps. Sydney is their main market, but hundreds are retailed locally at 2s and 3s per pair.
One morning in September, 1895, I was walking along the bank of the Dawson River, Queensland with a single-barrelled muzzle-loader on my arm, when I flushed two young emus. I gave chase, and while running along the bank, noticed two black ducks swim out abreast of me. Stopping short, I lifted the gun quickly and fired, killing both. Dropping the gun there, I continued after the emus. Though still in their infant stripes, they had a fair dash of foot, and I had a long run before I captured the first. Whilst I hobbled it with my handkerchief, the other stood about twenty yards off calling to its mate. The spell refreshed it, and I ran it half a mile, dodging in all directions, before I caught it. I presented them and the ducks to a young man in Taroom, from whom I had borrowed the gun. A fortnight afterwards, at Kinnoul Station, I heard a shearer telling the yarn about “the hare-footed bloke wot run the emus down.” Whenever I tell it people smile significantly; but if I am modest enough to relate it in the third person, I am not considered an Ananias at all; which is human nature all the world over.
Very few people believe it possible to produce fire by the friction of two sticks; yet fires were burning in thousands of aboriginal camps when the first white man landed in Australia. How were they lighted? The method, as described to me by an old blackfellow, consisted in twirling a hard pointed stick in a shallow hole in a particular wood, the hole being filled with dry powdered bark. The stick was held upright between the palms, and twirled rapidly by rubbing the palms together. A gin knelt before the operator and blew gently on the powdered stuff the moment it began to smoke. It sometimes tired out a dozen male operators before the fire came, but the one gin waited to blow all the time.
A waggon wheel, turning on a dry axle, will set it ablaze, and even weld the axle to the box. It takes a tremendous heat to do that, and such heat has been generated by friction. However, fire making by friction is a forgotten art, and had probably been disused long ere the landing of Captain Cook, for the blacks never travelled without firesticks. Even to-day the fire-stick is carried, swung gently in the hand to keep it alight. Nor is the custom confined to the aborigines. Many a hunter is seen on the track swinging his firestick from camp to camp. When he sits down for a spell, he puts a few twigs on it to keep it burning.
In the early days, when the blacks were bad, diggers and others, striking across country to new fields, left their fires at sundown, and went on for two or three miles before camping for the night. The blacks, attracted by the blaze, would often gather round the abandoned fires, and throw in a shower of spears.
The tramp makes at least two fires a day—one at noon and one at sundown. The first—the "billy fire"—is a midget, to boil a drop of water for tea. Even this is methodically built. He places a stick the thickness of the forearm on the ground, leans a few lighter pieces on it the width of the billy apart; then between, and against the back piece, he places a handful of dry leaves, ferns, grass, or shredded bark, with twigs and sticks on top to light it. The billy is planted against it, and the fire fed with light wood until the water boils. The "johnny-cake fire" requires a good armful of picked wood—iron-bark, box, or gidgea for preference—which is burning while the dough is being worked up. The unburnt sticks are then put aside, the coals levelled by stamping them lightly; and the johnnies dropped on. A blaze of good red coals is kept going at one side, where the johnnies, as they stiffen, are stood to toast. The damper fire should burn all night so as to leave a heap of clean, hot ashes—not coals. A few coals are raked over the top to keep the heat in, but there must be enough ashes between to keep them from burning the damper.
In a "working" camp a round excavation is made for the oven to concentrate the heat and shield it from the wind. Game is roasted in these holes by travellers without an oven. A bird is placed on a piece of doubled wire a few inches above the coals, and a fire is made on a sheet of tin laid over the top. Another way is to wrap the dressed bird in a sheet of greased brown paper and roast in the ashes. Cakes, eggs, chops, steaks, &c., can be satisfactorily cooked in this camp oven.
At sundown, the bushman's camp-fire is lit—the most important of all, the fire that denotes home. For this he has a large back-log and sees that there's sufficient "big wood " on hand for the night. In summer, he'll be satisfied if the log "keeps in," and makes coals for morning. To keep a fire in over-night, it is covered with ashes. Glowing red coals will be found under them in the morning, and it is only necessary to throw on a few dry sticks to set the fire going. The best woods for fire-purposes are box, coolabah, grey gum, mulga, gidgea, forest oak, cypress pine, ironbark and blackbutt. On a summer's night, mosquito fires are necessary adjuncts; They are lit at intervals with cowdung, corkwood, green bark and leaves.
In winter time the single fire is not a luxury. Lying beside it you get half-roasted on one side, while the other side is freezing. A fire at each side is better. Those who are troubled with cold feet light a third to keep them warm. Under such circumstances it does not do to be fidgetty in one's sleep. Many a one has been wakened by a blaze among his blankets, and I saw a man kick one night till he got right down into his foot fire, and but for a timely billy of cold tea would have been incapacitated from walking for a week or two.
A man should know his "sleeping character" before trusting himself among three fires. An ex-horse-trainer, tramping out-back, was addicted to steeplechase riding in his sleep. The nights were cold, and he had to supplement his "feet-fire" with side-warmers. At first he put two stakes at each side of him to keep himself in; but he rode his dream-nags over these, and came a cropper in the fire. So he had to be content with one warmer, and to keep out of that he tethered himself to a tree on the opposite side. He always travelled alone. Any mate he picked up, as soon as bed-time came, would pack and leave hurriedly, with the observation that, "A feller wot ties himself up at night must be a bit cronk in the upper storey,"
The blackfellow's fire is the best. It is very small, permitting him to lie close to it all night; and to enjoy an even temperature. "White pfeller big fool," says Murri. "Him make um big fire—can't get close. By'n'bye fire go down an white man catch um cold. No sense 'bout dat."
Many travellers have a fatal habit of lighting fires against the butt of a tree. No one can judge how long a tree will take to burn down. A small tree may burn for days, and a big one fall in a few hours, I once saw a burning tree rain streams of honey and melted wax. It was a small dead ironbark in a projecting limb of which there was a bees nest. As the fire roared up the hollow trunk and burnt into the limb, the bees were driven out, and the honey began to pour down. We caught a lot in a billy, but it was so full of melted wax, bee-bread, and burnt bees as to be unusable.
Another dangerous fire is the one built against a hollow log. Apart from the danger of setting the bush on fire, all manner of horrible things come crawling out as the fire eats its way into the hollows. A Barwon native, who dearly loved his log-fire, used to surround himself with newspaper, pinned to the ground. Snakes, scorpions, and centipedes make a great noise crawling over or under dry paper; and, being a light sleeper, he was always warned when danger approached. In ant country he made a little trench round his nap-ground, averring that no ant would cross it.
Bushmen are generally careful with fires; out there are many whose carelessness has caused enormous damage and loss of life. A few smouldering embers are left by the track side, a wind fans them up, carries a spark into the dry grass, and the result is a disastrous bush fire. The culprit is frequently a new-chum, or an immigrant from the Paroo country, where bush fires are unknown. There is seldom any grass there to carry a fire, and a sojourn in such a place makes a man careless. Glass bottles, lying in dry grass, with a hot sun shining upon them, have stared many a bushfire for which innocent swagmen have been blamed. Note that bushfires are always plentiful on very hot days.
South Australians are the most careful people in this respect—perhaps because the law is more rigorous there than elsewhere. There, the wax match is tabooed, and anybody seen carrying a firestick would be chased as a lunatic, or arrested by the nearest policeman for imperilling life and property. Nearly everybody uses safety matches—made in Germany—and no one is allowed to smoke an uncovered pipe in the august presence of a wheatfield.
Anyone who has crossed the One-tree Plain, or travelled on the Darling Downs, knows what economical firing is. There he is fortunate if he has the posts of a wire fence from which to break splinters and little bits of bark. Failing this, he boils his billy with tufts of grass and the bones of a dead sheep. There is generally a strong wind blowing; and the best way to light up is to face the wind, holding the match low down and striking it into the kindling material.
Lighting a fire in wet weather, when the ground is soaked, and wood, leaves, and everything else is sopping, is an art in itself. If there are any iron-bark trees, blackbutts, or woollybutts about, the task will be easy. Under the wet exterior there are layers of dry, crumpled, highly-combustible bark. Dry bits of bark may be found on one side of gums and other trees; a few dry leaves and twigs in hollow logs; a bit of greased rag may be procurable, and, as a last resource, take a bit of the bagging with which your coat or vest is padded. Splintered pine and mulga twigs are the quickest fire-lighters m the bush.
A small fire in the tent, alongside the flap, is cosy on a cold or wet night. A heap of short sticks close by, a slush-lamp or a penny candle at your head, two or three late papers to read, your dog coiled against the coals, your pipe in good going order—and not much is wanted to complete your happiness.
Lighting a fire with the last match is a serious task. No matter how careful you are. something is sure to go wrong. There is bound to be a strong breeze blowing, without intermissions; or else a whiff springs up just as you strike. Then it may only fizz and smoulder away, or the head will fly off. All creation seems to be against that one match. When you have a box full you can strike them as off-handedly as you like, even in a strong wind, and you have to blow hard in addition to put the match out. But what a little puff puts the last one out! It snuffs out for no reason whatever. You have your leaves, grass, bark, and twigs all nicely and carefully nested; you get down on your knees, hold the bottom of the box close to the nest, grip the match close to the head with thumb and fingers, and strike gently off the box into the finest grass—and 10 to 1 you'll bump it against something and put it out.
You can then sit down and meditate on the dullness and dreariness that broods over everything, and realise what a comforting friend and companion is the camp-fire.
The big cumbrous tobacco pouches made by saddlers, and once extensively carried on the belt as a “hold-all” for tobacco, matches, knife and money, are becoming obsolete, And its place is taken by a small watch pouch. The pipe nowadays, if not pocketed, is thrust under the belt, or under the hat band. Some effect a peculiar fashion in belts made of gohanna skins, carpet-snake skins, and other skins and hides neatly plaited; while wrist-straps are often plaited eel-skins. Caps are made from the skins of swans, platypus, squirrels and native cats. Love of novelty and originality is one of the strong points in the Bushman’s character.
His characteristic call is the world famed coo-ee. Webster’s Dictionary refers to it as being of imitative origin: “a peculiar whistling sound made by the Australian aborigines as a call or signal.” This is not quite correct, though I believe the source is genuine. When gins are calling to one another at a distance they “yabber” rapidly, the voice being raised to a long shrill cry with the last word of each phrase or sentence, the terminal frequently sounding like wa-a-y. This habit, I believe, is peculiar to the majority of tribes throughout the Continent and undoubtedly originated the Bushman’s now famous coo-ee. Strictly speaking, coo-ee is feminine, that is, it is the call of the Bush-woman; the male call is more like ca-a-w-whey—the first syllable lingering and comparatively low, the second loud, sharp and abrupt, which is the secret of its far reaching quality.
The “smoke-o” is an honoured and long established custom. Nothing is more suggestive of ease and comfort than the evening “smoke-o,” when the day’s work is done and supper is over, and dad sits on his favourite block in front of the “humpy” in summer, and before a blazing log-fire in winter, meditatively puffing at his pipe. That is the time he becomes reminiscent, and entertains all and sundry with his quaintly-embellished experiences of “Old Times.” In the shearing shed “smoke-o” is indulged once between breakfast and dinner, and twice between dinner and “knock off.” At weekly work “smoke o” occurs pretty well every hour; but at piece-work it doesn’t happen along nearly so often.
The Bushman’s nights are spent in card-playing, reading, yarning, patching, whip-making, soling and heeling old boots, cutting out pipes, etc.; and occasionally, in the case of a settler, he will go out on the flat with his gun, a bare-legged boy following with the ammunition-bag, to shoot a ‘possum or two for the dogs, or merely for pastime. Many in the settled districts make a big profit by shooting and trapping for skins.
It is notorious that the settler is as a rule a stickler for home. Many a one of middle-age has never seen a train or a ship; and there are old men who have never looked upon the sea. Though there are roving spirits among them, the average, even when in search of work, keep within certain limits like their native crows. When they go droving, on a journey of several hundred miles, they make straight back for their old haunts on being paid-off. At the same time, there may be nothing to call them back but familiar stations where they have worked, or a few mates they have worked with; no fixed home and no kindred, and never a pair of bright eyes to induce them to “turn their grays once more to the south.”
Some of the numerous bush inventions are hard to beat: the water bag, the salvation of thousands; the buckleless bridle of plaited hide, the buckleless hobble-strap, the “fork” for straining wire, and the “over-lander.” The latter is a pack-saddle made with crossed sticks, hide, wire and bag, stuffed with grass. It is light, serviceable, and quickly made.
Though a resourceful person in the main, the Bushman’s home doesn’t show to advantage, except from a picturesque point of view. It is built on the assumption that “it will do in our time,” and the principal object aimed at is to make it keep out rain. In other respects it permits one to take a perspective view of the country without going outside. The usual humpy is walled with rough slabs, and roofed with bark, secured to battens with strands of green-hide, and held down with poles, the tops being pegged together over the apex, and having a transverse pole across the bottoms. A dog-leg fence staggering down to the creek on one side, and wobbling up a gum-ridge on the other, is a congenial adjunct. Fowls feed around—timid, athletic fowls, trained in the pursuit of grass-hoppers; a clothes-line stretched between two trees, a few stumps here and there; a lot of dead-white trees, littering the ground with dead limbs and bark, at the back; a man ploughing or splitting in the distance, and a general boundary of ever-lasting gums.
Slabs, bark, green hide and dog-leg fences were the leading features of the Old Bush Home, and still are in many places; but in settled districts shingles have taken the place of bark, and two railed fences succeed the old dog-leg. Nowadays, fencing wire is the article of general utility, filling a thousand wants ranging down to boot laces. Neat cottages, too, with iron roofs, gleam every where; and carts and buggies rattle in the wake of the old slide. Yet I doubt if the man in the modern cottage it as happy as his progenitor in the old bark hut, whose saddle reposed on a peg in one corner, his bag-bunk in another; who stepped out on a cow-hide mat, stood his dampers on a packing case, and slung his billy on a wire hooked to a blackened trace chain.
The Kookaburra (the word is spelled in various ways, such as "Kukuburra," "Gogoburra") forms one of an important quartette that have been associated with Australian literature from its inception, the other three being the Curlew, Mopoke, and Emu. Though the latter is generally regarded as our national bird, the Kookaburra is equally worthy of notice; indeed, it may be said that, in certain parts, at least, it has claimed more interest from bushmen and visitors as one of the world's feathered oddities. Its striking appearance alone commands attention, while its "laugh" is even more remarkable. Forbearance on the part of bushmen has made it fearless, and it is a constant companion at all bush homes. Never very shy, it has always been a conspicuous object to settlers, even apart from its remarkable and irresistible cry. In earlier times it was known as the "Settler's Clock," from a belief that its joyful paeans were vented regularly at morn, noon, and dusk, being quiescent through the heat of the forenoon and the wane of the afternoon. That belief has long been shattered. The Kookaburra laughs just when the fit takes it, particularly when excited, which occurs at any hour during the day. A wounded bird makes a demoniacal row, which will bring all others within hearing into the neighbouring trees, and these at once set up an echoing cackle that is repeated again and again. I have also noticed, when a bird alights alone in a tree, it will generally laugh loudly, repeating at intervals until joined by its mate. A bird in one tree will also answer a brother in an adjacent tree, the refrain being caught up by others in the distance, in the same manner as cockerels will answer one another at night. Again, when two come together on a limb, they express their approval in a "hearty laugh," and when several converge from divers directions, it is mutually accepted as an occasion for general rejoicing.
The Kookaburra is the giant of the kingfishers, more than half of which family belong exclusively to Australia. With the exception of the brilliant blue-and-white, which frequents rivers, creeks, and lagoons, the best known members, unlike the usual order of kingfishers, have no love of the water, and do not live on fish. The blue and white or sacred kingfisher is also known as the Van Dieman's Land Jackass, though it is never seen in Tasmania. The one other well distributed member is the bush kingfisher, which, like the Kookaburra, nests in hollow trees, often miles away from water. It has also a fondness for the wart-like ant nests that are built high up on the trunks of dead trees, into which it pecks a circular hole and lays its eggs. I have often watched these little fellows gamely fighting the huge "goanas" that encroached upon the precious precincts of the nest. It is identical with the mangrove kingfisher of northern and far north-western New South Wales.
Compared with the brilliant colours of the other members of the group, the plumage of the common Kookaburra is dull and commonplace. The upper parts vary from brown to chestnut brown, and from white to dirty white below: while the wings are relieved by dashes of shimmering blue. The tail feathers are fairly long, fan-shaped when open, and barred or mottled with brown. It has a peculiar habit of throwing the tail up, even to an incline over the back, on alighting on a limb. It has also a sort of crest, which is in evidence when the bird is excited, when catching its prey, or at such times when several are "holding a corroboree."
Perched on a limb, it looks much bulkier of body than a crow, though not so long; stripped of its feathers, however, it is remarkably small, ridiculously so in comparison with the size of its beak. Though possessed of considerable gripping power, the legs and toes are somewhat weedy; its flight is short and heavy, lacking the wing-skill of most bush birds. Its great strength lies in the beak, as I have had reason to know more than once when handling wounded ones. They vary considerably in colour, and even in size, in different parts of the country, the snow white and white and chestnut being not uncommon. The Kookaburra of Eastern Queensland is a beautiful bird, greyish-brown on the back, with a broad, light-blue band near the tail, and varying shades of blue on the wings. The breast is of a light-greyish hue, closely streaked with brown. It is known as Leach's Laughing Jackass.
Though not a water-haunting bird, it is not a frequenter either of the dry country, being totally unknown in the north-west of New South Wales, and favouring mostly the eastern portion of Australia. In the west and north-western parts of the country we find only an allied species known to science as "D. cervina."
The Kookaburra's usual food consists of grubs, worms, frogs, caterpillars, small lizards, and small snakes. It will also pick up fresh meat, and I have known them to haunt a slaughter yard, though it will not touch a dead beast. On account of its snake-killing reputation, it was protected by Government in many parts of the country, and looked upon as a sacred bird by bushmen. It was averred that no snake could approach a hut while a Kookaburra was about. This however has gone the way of many other old time beliefs. The big black snake may bask in the sun with impunity, though a score of Kookaburras may be watching it, and venting their cachinations overhead. A reptile will always excite them, but they are chary of tackling one, except the small green or whip snakes.
I saw a pair killing one of these snakes once on the Richmond River. One of the birds at first was perched on a low limb. Its mate picked up the snake, carried it towards the top of a high tree, and dropped it. As it neared the ground, the other bird darted out suddenly and caught it, carrying it high into the air when it was again dropped. Then the first bird swooped down and caught it. This was repeated several times, the birds rising with a heavy fluttering motion of the wings, the beak downwards, evidently guarding against the doubling movements of the enemy. Finally, one of them carried it to a limb; the other joined it with a triumphant laugh; and then commenced a lively tug-of-war. One moment the snake would be hanging over the limb, perceptibly stretching, and a bird hanging under each side with closed wings. Presently, one would let go, and the other would fall with a sudden recoil of snake, followed by a short, startled squawk. The battle was renewed on the ground; then again in the air; and the last I saw of them was a wild flutter in the distance, mixed up with several others in a general squabble.
I have witnessed the same interesting combat between them over a chicken. The Kookaburra is far more partial to that diet than it is to snake. Though it will kill small snakes, like the Yankee who ate crow, it doesn't hanker after them. But let it once taste chicken, and it becomes as great a pest to the poultry-yard as the hawk and crow. For this reason many settlers now shoot it at sight. I saw a farmer at Woram (N.S.W.) shoot as many as a dozen in one day without going ten yards from the door. They are among the easiest birds in the bush to kill.
On a farm on the Clarence River I often watched a pair of Kookaburras following the plough, and picking up the white grubs and worms. A farmer in the same locality told me that a pair was always waiting for him on a stump when he went to work in the mornings, and as soon as the plough started they would fly to the furrow and follow it. Occasionally when the ploughman didn't turn up as usual they would linger for hours about the ground, waiting for their breakfast to be unearthed, now and again relieving their feelings in a noisy duet.
The Kookaburra is also known as the Laughing Goburra and the Laughing Jackass. The latter is the most common. How this name originated is not very clear. There is nothing about the bird to suggest a jack or an ass. Barton ("Australian Physiography") suggests that the name is derived from a French word meaning to giggle. One bush version is that its cry in the distance was mistaken for the bray of an ass by a new chum named Jack. His mates afterwards so mercilessly chaffed him about his ass that the bird became generally known as "Jack's Ass." The best version I have heard has an aboriginal origin. A blackfellow, struck by some resemblance in a hilarious miner to the laughing bird, called him "Chaka-Chaka." The miners subsequently alluded to the birds as Chaka-Chakas.
This was soon shortened to Chakas, and that in turn corrupted to Jackass.
Whatever the origin, Jackass to-day, when applied to a silly person, conveys the same meaning as "an ass." In a different sense, we have also the term, "From jackass to jackass," meaning from daylight till dark. It might be remarked that no name fits the bird better than Kookaburra, the first two syllables of which it seems to continually utter in its so-called laugh. In giving vent to this, its head is held up, the huge mandibles wide apart, pointing skywards, and its wings continually move in little flutters against its side. It would seem to require some little exertion to properly modulate the cackle; when it is over, the bird gazes down with a quaint aspect blended of apathy and reflection.
In "A Sketch of the Natural History of Australia," it is claimed that Jack is one of our "incomparable mimics." This he decidedly is not. During many years' experience I never heard one attempt to imitate any foreign sound. His "laugh" embodies all the notes peculiar to him, and when the laughing fit has passed, there is no more sedate or sober-looking bird in the bush than the Kookaburra.
Out in the far West where rain is a novelty and grass is such a precious item that one may ride a couple of miles in search of even a stalk to clean his pipe, bullock punching is an occupation calculated to damn a man’s soul for all eternity. It is bad enough on the sticky black-soil flats and spongy ridges of such places as the Richmond and Clarence Rivers. There the waggons are often pulled bed-deep through mud and slush; but even that is belter than the grassless, waterless track’s of the West.
There is plenty of hard, unsatisfying work out-back, but it would be hard to find anything more depressing and life-grinding than “punching.” It is cruel; but men forget the cruelty, when, at a pinch in the blistering sun, the way-worn brutes refuse to pull together. I have seen many a man, after tearing up and down like an escaped lunatic, gesticulating wildly, slashing left and right, and venting all the execrations known outside of Sheol, throw himself down by the waggon, exhausted and speechless. When he has cooled down, he looks remorsefully at the whip-streaked ribs of his beaten team, and his conscience pricks him as one by one the dumb brutes turn their heads slowly towards him, their eyes full of suffering and mute appeal. He looks, pityingly—and then curses himself.
Some men are naturally cruel and even go to the extent of lighting a fire under a stubborn animal. A peculiar instance of a bullock turning the tables on the driver occurred two or three years, ago on a western track. One of the pin-bullocks had lain down, and all other means failing to shift him, the man with the whip lit a fire under his middle. When it began to burn well the jibber jumped up and put his shoulder to the yoke with great energy and, assisted by his mate and the polers, pulled on just far enough to leave the waggon fair over the fire. The smile that had momentarily played on the driver’s face died suddenly; he rushed forward with dilating eyes, lashed with the whip, belted with the handle, yelled and howled; but the whole team had gone on strike. The waggon, loaded with inflammable material, caught fire and, despite all he could do, it was very quickly reduced to cinders. He was more than a day, older next morning, and probably a good deal wiser.
It is an old saying that no man can drive bullocks who cannot swear. This may not be altogether true, but it is a fact that cuss-words make more impression on such docile quadrupeds than all the polite exhortations a man could utter. The same thing applies to horses. A parson was one day driving towards Walgett with a buggy and pair, when the horses stuck him up in a creek. He shook and tugged at the reins, clicked, shooed, and shouted; he whipped them and dragged at their heads till the winkers came off; he patted them, coaxed, prayed and begged; said “get up” and “get along there,” and all the rest of it. But they didn’t get up or get along one step. The parson was very tired and likewise very hot, and he was thinking of turning out for the night when a bullocky came along. He took the reins and the whip. “Now. then,” he cried, “stand up there, you —— skulking —!—!! Blank—and — you, gee up!” —and before he had finished, the horses were half way up the bank.
“Thank you, my good man,” said the parson, stepping, into the trap. “If I had known your recipe, I’d have been in Walgett ere now.”
The dreary, dry roads, with their frequent intermissions of heavy sand, between Bourke and the Queensland border, would ruin the reputation of a saint if he tried his hand at bullock punching. A long day through blistering heat, flies, and dust, crawling over stony hills and heavy flats; and then a ride back with tired bullocks eight or ten miles to the last water; and to-morrow a long night ride ahead to the next water. There he camps for the night, getting back to the waggons about sunrise next morning. There is often no grass or herbage, and after taking his cattle to water, he has to cut scrub to feed them. One can hardly blame the poor bullocky if he helps himself to a nip from the tempting consignment of hotel goods he has on board. He has many ingenious ways of accomplishing this. One of the hoops on the beer cask is knocked up the least bit, and a small hole bored through the side. This is afterwards plugged with deal and concealed by replacing the hoop. The rum or brandy cask is managed in another way. A couple of quarts of boiling water are poured on top and left there all night. In the morning it is strong enough to make the hardiest of them drunk if they drink enough of it. Again, when the worn-out ox-persuader feels the need of a reviver in the shape of a glass of whisky, one feels inclined to excuse him when he lets some heavy weight drop—accidentally, of course—on the whisky case and smashes a bottle. It is only natural and in accordance with the laws of economics that he should catch the flowing spirit in his billy, and drink “better luck” to the rest of the consignment. It is only with mean or stingy consignees, however, that the bullocky resorts to these practices; by the majority he is allowed a reasonable percentage of the beer casks for refreshment. And on the hell-fire roads at the back of Bourke no one will deny that the poor devil wants it.
If there is one person more than another whom the bullocky has a set on it is the boundary-rider. Some of them are good hearted enough to go out of their way to assist the man with the team, but some would voluntarily camp all night at a tank to catch him, in order to win the good graces of his boss. To a great extent the stations depend on the teamster for supplies, and for the despatch of wool; they might assist him, at least to the extent of feed and water. Yet the majority, unless he has goods for them or their immediate neighbors always dog him through their runs. I knew a teamster to drive his stock one evening four miles to a tank, and just as they were going over the bank—some had almost reached the water— an officious boundary-rider galloped up and blocked him. Though he humbled himself to the station man, beseeched and begged for just one drink, he was denied, and saw his thirsty herd remorselessly driven back. And he was loaded for the adjoining station!
Many have to carry feed. In December, 1901, five teams were travelling from Norda Downs to Hughenden, four loaded with wool, and one loaded entirely with hay and chaff to feed the animals on the road. Many teamsters on the western tracks are bound to time, and in making up for some unforeseen delay the cattle suffer, and not infrequently several head are left by the roadside to die. There is a stiff penalty for dilatoriness, ranging up to one pound per day. Sometimes they are docked so much per ton for every day over contract time. I remember one unfortunate teamster who, on reaching Tibooburra with loading from Wilcannia, after losing five bullocks on the road, was brought in several pounds in debt to the consignee for overtime. That trip virtually ruined him, and when I saw him last, he was boundary-riding on a sheep station.
One hears a good deal about lucky and unlucky trips; but the luck or otherwise of a trip depends greatly on the management and general ability of the man. Some men go up and down the roads, year after year, with the regularity of clock-work, breaking records in time and weight-carrying, and with scarcely a mishap. Some have their bullocks always in good condition, sleek, fine looking animals, tried and true—not a waster in the team. Others on the same roads have hungry, miserable, hunted looking beasts, generally cris-crossed from horn to tail with whip-marks. They get stuck on every little ant-hill, and in every little gutter; and, after a considerable expenditure of energy, sweat, and cussology, often have to double-bank, or, failing that, throw off part of the load and dig their way out. When a man has to cut away the hills, and ease the gradients at creeks with pick and shovel, besides removing a good deal of the first strata of soft flats there isn’t much in carrying. I saw a carrier start one evening from a shed with seven tons of wool on. He intended to have a Yankee Start for morning; but he hadn’t gone half a mile before he capsized; and he spent the rest of next day righting his waggon and loading up again. He had an extraordinary run of misfortunes, and the first load of the following year’s clip was on the road before he reached his destination, 200 miles away.
Mention of record loads reminds me that Wilkinson in January last drew 130 bags of wheat, equal to 14½ tons, into Temora, Railway Station with 14 bullocks. In 1898, Dick Turbot brought over 18 tons of Edgeroi wool into Narrabri in one load, probably the record for Australia; but what number of bullocks he had I cannot say.
It has often struck me that the Queensland bullockies are generally in better pickle than those of N.S.W. There they take their families, and their fowls and goats with them on their far-inland trips. I happened upon a camp of them once in a bend of the Ward River, spelling on good feed. There were eight teams; each man had his wife and family, his herd of goats, and his coop of fowls; and the place resembled a prosperous farmyard. The women clustered under trees in the cool of the evening, the men reclined by the waggons, all swopping yarns and experiences; while the bare-legged children yelled and gambolled about the billabongs. When travelling, the missus sat on top of the load, or drove behind in a tilted cart; the children—some mounted, some walking—drove the goats and spare oxen; while the coops swung under the tails of the waggons. On reaching camp the fowls were let out to chase the unwary grasshopper and disport themselves in the bush until all was ready to trek next morning. Under such circumstances the carrier gets some pleasure out of life. Every camp is home; and when the day’s work is done the voices of his wife and children add cheeriness to the camp-fire’s blaze.
Many bullockies, who have spent years at the calling, could hardly be happy if released from the yoke. To them bullock punching is part of their existence. They can talk bullock to you for a week at a stretch, and dilate on the merits of Strawberry and the skull-dragging propensities of old Leopard; on the fashions of yokes, the strength of chains, the shape of bows, and the marvellous things that can be done with a whip. Hell-fire Jack, for instance, never used an axe on barren roads, but fed his stock by whipping showers of leaves from the trees; he could pick up a sixpence nine times out of ten with a whip-thong; and he flogged his name, as neatly as a man could carve it, on the trees in passing.
I innocently gave my ear one day to Crooked Mick as he reclined lazily on a bale of wool, waiting for a load at a border station. He started at 9 a.m. to tell me his experiences down the track in loading up a refractory team. When we adjourned for lunch he had one bullock—named Bismarck—yoked, and was bringing back his mate, Rattler, across the mulga paddock for the forty-’leventh time. He was the illegitimate son of an ornamental cow, was Rattler, and could scratch gravel like greased lightning to save his neck, but when he was yoked he was too lazy to swing his own tail.
Mick always made for me afterwards while he remained at the shed to edify me with the yoking up of the other 14 cloven-hoofed, horny-pikes. Fourteen more Bismarcks and Rattlers! I always suddenly remembered urgent engagements elsewhere.
While smoking a pipe in a bullocky’s camp one evening, the conversation turned on Tattersall’s sweeps, and I asked Come-Hither-Jack what he would do if he had the luck to draw a big prize.
“I’d ‘ave one glorious drunk,”’ he said, “just one solid month at mother’s—no more. A month’s spree satisfies me at any time. Then I’d get a real spankin’ new table-top with broad tires that’d carry 20 tons. I’d have it made to order. I’ve got it all specified an’ drawed out—an’ it’s runnin’ beautiful—in me mind. I’ll lay it’ll take a bend outer some o’ these blanky carrion choppers out ‘ere. It’ll be a ding-donger!”
“What would you do, Bill?” I asked, turning to another man.
“I’d have the best blanky etcetera team this side o’ Bourke!” said Bill in an emphatic burst of confidence!
From which I deduced that nothing short of a miracle could release Bullocky Bill and Come-Hither-Jack and their mates from the thraldom of the yoke.
The life of the average woman in the bush is not a sinecure, and yet I would prefer it to existence in the miserable tenements of a city suburb, where the cramped terrace has no front, and a back yard that is no bigger than a cockie’s calf-pen.
Of course, there are a million delights outside in the parks and the gardens, and the sights of the streets; that would be the crowning of happiness, once in a while, to the bushwhacker.
On the other hand, the bush, with its grassy flats and timbered hills, its fascinating bird and animal life, and its wealth of native flowers; its freshness, freedom, boundlessness; its originality, unique forms and experiences; the rides after cattle, shooting, hunting, fishing; the quaint jungle life of the scrubs, mountaineering—all these to the town-dweller constitute the makings of an earthly paradise.
One can have a surfeit of either; there is a pleasant and gloomy side to both forms of existence; but that one is any better than the other, in the long run, is a mere matter of disposition.
There is no denying the fact, however, that the country is the healthiest, and that it produces the prettiest girls. They have a bewitching, natural beauty that no sun or wind can destroy, and which finds no match among
THE POWDERED DOLLS OF THE CITIES,
who spend so much good time and energy before the looking-glass.
They are full-bosomed and broad-hipped; luscious, rounded, plump forms that attract the cosmopolite whose eyes are weary of the padded slabs that walk in silks and satins. They are for the most part unconventional; little dreams of bright eyes and merry laughter that one can hug and kiss and be happy with.
A great difference between country and city dwellers, which no traveller can fail to notice, is that in the country everybody knows everybody and everybody’s business; while one might live a year in a city terrace and not know even the name of the person next door. The advantage here is rather an arbitrary matter.
There are other city terraces where the next-door lady is everlastingly popping her head over the back fence to borrow something, or to blackball the she-cat in the third house; where the couple next door row like cats and dogs, and throw the furniture at one another; where the woman across the way takes a little drop too much, and raises pandemonium at midnight; and all manners of hawkers are ringing and knocking every minute in the day, and forcing their wares on a weary house-wife.
In the bush one has a casual visitor once a week, or once a month, according to the state of remoteness, and his approach is announced by
THE FAMILIAR SOUND OF THE SLIPRAILS,
as they are let down or put up. If there are no sliprails, there is always a dog lying about the verandah, somewhere, who considers it his bounden duty to bark at everybody who comes in sight. This brings the inmates to the door, and in many cases the unsuspecting stranger is studied through a telescope before he has got within coo-ee. By the time he arrives the place is ready for inspection, the missus has put on her stockings and a clean apron, the ragged children have been called in and stowed away in the skillion, and the others have washed their faces. He is well scrutinised and criticised through the cracks as he dismounts and walks up to the open door, or reins in by the verandah, and calls out cheerily, “Anybody at home?”
One objectionable custom prevalent, in many parts of the bush, that makes it hard for the women, is that which compels her to do the field work as well as the house work. Most cockies’ wives have to do their share of working the farm, even to ploughing and harrowing, carting, bullock-driving, harvesting, patching the fences, carrying water from the hole in buckets, or drawing it with horse and slide, and carting and cutting their own wood.
The wives of the poorer diggers on the small alluvial fields do a good deal of “hard graft” with pick and shovel, turning at the windlass, and rocking the golden cradle, or the dry-blower. The ragged, sunbrowned children, who are too young to work, amuse themselves meanwhile among the gullies and in the brush; or else they are
TETHERED LIKE PODDY CALVES
by the humpy, to keep them from rambling; and the baby is left to roll on a bag in the shade of a tree. At “smoke-o” time she gives it a drink, while the old man pulls at his pipe. Her lot is a hard one, and yet she is happy in a way if there are a couple of “weights” to clean of black sand by the slush-lamp at night.
She has to sit there, too, long hours into the night, patching the children’s rags, and doing other home duties that have been neglected in the interests of the more important work at “the claim.” They seldom have machines to lighten the labor; nearly all the clothing is laboriously made and mended by hand. In many instances, the husband does the baking, and helps in other ways to equalise things in these humble little homes.
The majority of such places contain two rooms, in one of which is a wooden bed and a box table; in the other a few shelves, a side-table, a rough safe, and a couple of stools. There is sometimes a floor of adzed slabs, but mostly there is only the bare earth, with a bag or a sheepskin thrown down here and there for mats. There is little house-keeping to do; a sweep out once in a while, a couple of plain beds to make, and a little cooking. The bed itself is eloquent of poverty; and the tick may be stuffed with grass, cornhusks, leaves, or horse-hair; and one notices that a
THREADBARE BLANKET IS SEWN ON TO BAGGING
to make it warm and weighty, while a sample quilt, made of patches of all sizes, shapes, and shades, conceals the general failings of the itinerant digger’s couch.
In the interior, where timber is scarce, the houses are made of case-wood, pieces of tin, iron, cane grass, hessian, bagging, and calico; it is not uncommon to see all these in the construction of one little humpy.
The fireplace, in many instances, is simply a couple of forks in the open, with a pole across from which to hang the pot or billycan. In the thickly-wooded coastal districts, the settlers have more substantial homes, built of slabs and shingles; but even here there is an aboriginal ruggedness within.
The hard-worked house-wife does her best to make it warm and snug by stuffing the cracks with paper, rags, and bagging, by nailing strips of tin or bark over the joints outside; while she covers the walls with newspapers to relieve them of their uncouthness. She has none of the luxurious furnishings, ornamental and decorative furniture that her town sister delights in; no pictures or bric-a-brac; no oilcloth, carpets, or curtains; and there is not a pane of glass through the whole domicile.
The wash-house is a rough bench on the bank of the creek, whither the clothes are carried on washing-day. A great many of them are dried on the grass, on logs, and along the fence. She seldom has a washing-board, never a wringer; and
STANDS BAREFOOTED, FOR HOURS
on a wet, muddy bank. She carries her own wood for boiling the clothes, gathering it up about the bush, at the risk of being bitten by snakes, scorpions, or centipedes; and she uses, in place of the usual copper, an ordinary boiler, or even a kerosene tin. Sometimes, while dipping water, she slips into the creek; and there are many instances on record of lonely settlers’ wives losing their lives in this way.
Among the poorer selectors I have seen women felling trees, grubbing and burning off; while it is common to see women and children in the west burning charcoal for the town or station blacksmith.
Many, to supplement the inadequate earnings of the bread-winner, and to save the meat bill, take a hand at parrot trapping, rabbit catching, and possum snaring, and, in their spare time, they catch crawfish in the tanks and waterholes to vary the mutton and damper of their meals. It falls to their lot, also, in dry times when the men are on the roads with teams, or rouseabouting on stations, to cut scrub for the stock, and to pull out bogged sheep and cattle. Once or twice a week they take eggs and butter into town, carrying them in a basket or bucket on horseback, or in a two-wheeled trap that is peculiarly their own.
LIFE IN A TENT.
Very different is the life in a tent, which is generally the lot of tank-sinkers’, fencers’, and road contractor’s wives.
There is usually a bough shed—thrown up hurriedly for shade—close by the tent for eating in. The table is a sheet of bark or galvanised iron nailed on two rough planks, and the seats are rough saplings—one at each side—laid across three forks.
There is a little inconvenience in a dining room of this kind, from falling leaves and dust, but a tactful bush woman can make it natty enough, and she has an easy, comfortable existence on the whole.
One thing, perhaps, she misses is the companionship of her own sex; and at night, when the men foregather on the grass or by the open fire, she sits by listening, with her chin resting on her palm, occasionally taking a modest part in the conversation.
The wives of drovers and shearers, whose homes are 20 miles from anywhere, and who are away for many months in the year, while bearing the responsibility of homestead managers, have a lonely time. They are at the mercy of every alien hawker, and of every evil tramp, who looks upon them as good prey—until
THE INEVITABLE GUN IS PRODUCED.
They acquire a habit, that becomes almost irresistible, of staring up the track that winds away into the bush, and of searching the usual approaches for a moving object. Even after years of usage these women feel nervous and utterly lonely at times when the still bush night envelops them, and the curlews call plaintively from the neighboring hills. They peg the doors securely at dusk, and retire early to sleep away those lonely hours, never forgetting to search the room, to look carefully under the bed and among the clothes for a lurking snake. A stout stick stands in readiness at the head of the bed for any such unwelcome visitors that might intrude during the night.
In these still hours, in place of the caterwauling that disturbs the citizen’s rest, there is an occasional
‘POSSUM FIGHT ON THE ROOF,
which is startling if nothing else.
A woman on the Richmond River, on opening her door one morning, was horrified to see twenty or thirty blacks standing still and silent on her verandah. All were armed with boomerangs and spears, and in a state of semi-nudity. They only wanted to be rowed across the river, knowing she had a punt moored to the bank below. To get rid of them, and fearing to give offence, she went at once to the river, and “rowed them o’er the ferry” in four loads. The last one to step ashore said,
“Tank yer, mithus; you berry good woman,” which was all she got for her trouble. The more serious experiences that women had with blacks in the pioneering days are matters of history, and represent one of the terrors that have been banished by the march of civilisation.
Among the farms on the South Coast, along the eastern rivers, and on the scrub lands and the beautiful downs of Queensland, one comes into a different atmosphere, though the hard-worked woman is still very much in evidence.
Girls and women do more work in the farm than in the houses, chipping, planting, pulling, harrowing, and even ploughing; and at harvest time, when the day is done and supper over, they repair to the barn to husk com till 11 or 12 o’clock at night. They are often barefooted, particularly the girls, or
SHOD WITH HEAVY BOOTS WITHOUT STOCKINGS.
The usual dress consists of a cheap print, a flannel petticoat, chemise, and a homemade bonnet.
During a trip through Fassifern, Boonah, and Dugandan districts, Queensland, in 1894, I visited the homes of many settlers, mostly Germans, and only occasionally found a woman wearing boots, and these apparently belonged to “the old man.” Many of them were pegging out skins, and stringing scalps on wires or cord to dry; while a few were cooking wallaby joints in camp-ovens.
This country is thickly infested with wallabies, and here, as elsewhere, the care of the skins is one of the duties of the trapper’s wife. Not always, of course; there are hundreds of men in the bush who would not, except in extreme cases, ask their womenfolk to do anything that is included in the category of men’s work; and these women are generally neat and happy, and their homes inviting and comfortable. On the other hand, there are
LAZY LOUTS WHO LOAF ON THEIR WIVES,
working them like slaves, ill-using and abusing them, and generally treating them with no more respect than the aborigine shows to his gin. Fortunately they are not numerous in the bush, and those that be are looked upon by their fellow men with the contempt and odium their conduct deserves.
On the small dairy farms, where the people live by selling milk and butter, eggs and bacon, woman’s life is an everlasting weary round of toil—and that under the most unpleasant circumstances. They get up at any time from two to four o’clock in the morning, milking in dirty, slushy yards for hours before daylight, and for hours afterwards, in rain and shine, Summer and Winter.
Then they milk again in the afternoon, while the interim is filled in with straining and skimming milk, making butter, washing dishes, cleaning out bails and pens, feeding paddy calves and pigs, gathering eggs, turning the bacon, and many other things. Girls run the milk cart to town from many places, delivering the milk at the factory or to customers in the town, while the boys are working the farms. Girls, too, muster the cattle, riding bareback, man fashion, or in the orthodox style on a man’s saddle.
ON BIG SHEEP AND CATTLE STATIONS.
Among the more pleasant of Eve’s rustic experiences is the life on the big sheep and cattle stations, and on the better-class homestead selections, where woman receives the treatment and the little home comforts that is due to her sex.
It is no novelty to see station girls mustering the half-wild cattle on the broad runs with the stockmen, and attending to gates in the drafting yard. But this is not work to them; it is pleasure and recreation, a taste of the wilder life that is replete with thrilling adventures. It gives them something to talk about in the drawing-room when fingers are tired of strumming on the piano; and it keeps these leisured, dainty little confections free of ennui. They drive, too, once or twice a week into town behind a pair of good trotters, and so keep in touch with the moving world and the progress of civilisation. They discuss the important questions of the day, and the prevailing fashions—that delightful evergreen of womenkind—and endeavor in a way to emulate the caprices of the fickle modiste.
To them the bush is delightful, and in after life, when circumstances have led them into the busy whirl of more congested centres, their thoughts wander back with regret to the pleasures and freedom of their station home.
With the poorer classes life in the bush is generally a compound of loneliness and drudgery, lacking even the weekly relief of an entertaining newspaper. But even for them
THE BUSH HOME IS THE BEST,
being free of many of the exigencies of the cities, and it is a poor part of the country that will not afford them the means of existence in bad times when town dwellers are verging on starvation; and they are ever children of freedom, with a feeling of independence which the poorer suburban dwellers cannot know and cannot feel.
Known throughout the world, no Australian bird has been given more prominence in the artistic world than the stately emu, and for years it was a conspicuous figure on the postage stamps of New South Wales. Unlike those of its oversea relatives, the American rhea and the South African ostrich, its peculiar feathers are of little or no value. Cushions are occasionally stuffed with them, and a few years ago, when every head carried a Government reward, and the whole country was up in arms against the unfortunate bird, emu feather beds were no novelties in the bush. So ruthlessly was this fine bird hunted and shot that more than 10,000 are reported to have been killed in a single district in 1888, while upwards of 2000 eggs were smashed in the nests, or otherwise wantonly destroyed. Thus it has already become a rara avis in many parts, and ere long, like the moa of the Maori and the great dodo, will have entirely disappeared.
Though a stately-looking bird enough in repose, its movement when running cannot be said to be graceful: in fact, its locomotion looks awkward and laboured. The miniature side limbs that take the place of wings are almost invisible except when the bird is in flight, when they may be seen working in sympathy with the legs. Aborigines, on capturing an emu, will in most cases break the tiny wings, while giving little or no attention to the powerful legs. This has led many people to believe that it has power to inflict injury with these members, in some such manner as the spur-winged plover does when handled, and the strong-winged swan. But having on numerous occasions closely watched the bird running, I am inclined to think that it owes not only its speed, but its equilibrium in flight, in a great measure, to the agency of these diminutive members. Indeed, it seems to me that to deprive it of these embryonic wings would be, in effect, equivalent to depriving the kangaroo of his tail.
For defensive purposes it uses its beak and feet, principally the latter, with which it is capable of delivering a very severe blow. Some doubt exists, however, as to the manner in which it kicks. The consensus of opinion in the bush is that it kicks forward. Bennett (“Gatherings of a Naturalist”) says that the mooruk, an allied species found in New Britain, kicks forward, while the emu kicks outward and backward. This is rather remarkable when we consider that there is but a trifling difference of colour and head armament betwixt the mooruk and the cassowary of Northern Queensland, and that the habits and main characteristics of the cassowary and emu are practically similar. I have noticed that when chasing one another, or playing about on their camps, the emu occasionally strikes forward with its foot, in what would appear to be a ludicrous attempt at boxing; but I never saw one kick backwards at such times. Judging by its appearance, and its capers at play, I should say that it is quite capable of kicking both ways.
Apart from the eggs, which are largely used for ornaments (carved and painted), candle shades, etc., its only product of any commercial value is the clear oil that is contained in the skin. A good skin will produce several quarts, and this oil, like that of the sperm whale, is considered beneficial in rheumatic complaints. I have heard old bushmen say also, though I have never put it to a practical test, that its action is similar to bluestone in eating through tinware or ordinary iron vessels.
The flesh is eaten with avidity by aborigines, but is rarely touched by whites, principally on account of its strong aroma, The eggs, however, though somewhat rank, find ready acceptance in most bush camps. In May, 1896, I was in a drovers’ camp on Thurlungra, Cooper’s Creek, Queensland, and a dish of emu eggs was a specialty night and morning. They were mostly fried in an oven, all mixed together like a great pancake, and then cut into squares. Cooked in this manner I found them much more palatable than when boiled in the shell. Finding the eggs was a simple matter, the birds being flushed by the cattle which we were tailing on the well-grassed plains. The nests in the majority of cases were no more elaborate than the primitive repository of the plover or the curlew; partaking in places of a bare patch under a lignum bush, or a circular depression between tussocks of Mitchell grass. The number of eggs ranged up to seven, the average being about five. But this is in no wise indicative of a limit. I saw a brood of eight young ones on the Logan in 1894, and again, in the same year, on the Rocky River I came upon a pair of old birds with a brood of nine in tow. In 1898, at Whittabranan Station, North-west New South Wales, I saw a pair come in to the sheep troughs for water followed by 12 young ones. The latter were about three-parts grown, and formed the largest clutch I had ever seen. An old shepherd who was with me at the time expressed the opinion that it was a mixed family, the majority being “adopted orphans.”
The old birds make no attempt to defend the young when surprised. They rush away immediately, leaving the chicks to look after themselves. These will run for cover, uttering shrill cries when closely pursued, dodging sharply to right and left, and doubling back. I have noticed that where there are two birds and one is pursued, the other shows more concern for its mate than for its own safety, and will hang about, calling to it, rather than avail itself of the opportunity to escape.
The young are always marked with broad parallel stripes, which give them a gay appearance. These disappear in about three months, and the plumage gradually assumes a uniform smudgy grey-black colour on the surface, while below the general hue is a dull grey. This applies only to the birds inhabiting the eastern and southern portions of the continent. In the west and north-west there is a different species, known as the spotted emu; while Northern Queensland claims the black emu, or, more properly, the cassowary. The latter, which belongs to a family inhabiting the Bismarck Archipelago, is smaller in stature and less known than the emu, and has been considerably hunted for its fine skin. It has many characteristics differentiating it from the emu, the principal of which are the blue head, black helmet, and red wattles on the neck. It is said to lay only five eggs, of a pale green colour; those of the emu are dark green, the shell being thick and rough. These shells, for which there is always a good market, are conspicuous objects in the windows of most curio dealers. One sees them also hanging on the walls and reposing on mantel-shelves in hundreds of bush homes.
Ramsay, discoursing on cassowaries (“Proceedings of the Zoological Society, 1876”) says:—“towards evening and early morning they usually visit their favourite feeding trees, such as native figs, Leichhardt tree, and various species of Acmona, Jambosa, Davidsona, etc. They appear to be particularly fond of the astringent fruit of the Leichhardt tree, and of a species of Maranta. . . . The birds are very powerful, and dangerous to approach when wounded. On more than one occasion a wounded bird has caused a naturalist to take to a tree; the sharp nail of the inner toe is a most dangerous weapon, quite equal to the claw of a large kangaroo, and capable of doing quite as much execution.” This is rather overstepping the mark. Powerful as the bird is, its capability in this respect is not to be compared to the kangaroo. I have seen a dog ripped clean open for nearly the whole length of its body by one sweep of a kangaroo’s toe, a wound that is utterly impossible for an emu to inflict. Aborigines and white hunters show a dread of the animal’s formidable toes, while exhibiting comparative carelessness in their dealings with the bird.
Ramsay further states that a cassowary “succeeded in jumping out of its yard, over a fence more than 6ft high.” This is rather an exceptional case. The emu, though it gets over some big logs and leaps fairly wide gullies when pursued, is not much given to jumping. It is a common sight in the northwest corner of New South Wales to see a pair of emus that have become separated by the repairing of a broken fence, walking up and down the line for days, looking for their accustomed opening. I knew a pair to be thus separated for a fortnight, though the fence was little more than 4ft high; and when I at last forced one into a corner it made an awkward plunge through the wires. I have seen them also in captivity at stations, and in little town squares, where the enclosures were under 5ft high, and never knew them to jump out.
I have never known them either to destroy even the flimsiest structures in the way of fences; though, when tamed and kept as pets, they become to a certain extent destructive about a house. Out on the big cattle and sheep runs they are looked upon as the most harmless of birds; and it is only an inborn tendency to hunt and kill that induces an occasional horseman to run them down. Yet the coastal settlers averred that they not only destroyed fences and kept down the grass, but chased and pecked young lambs to death, which alleged malicious habits caused them to be included in the category of noxious birds. I have frequently, when mustering sheep, observed them feeding among ewes and lambs, neither taking any notice of the other. I do not say that the emu is absolutely without a fault, but it is certainly a very much maligned bird.
Many people prefer emu hunting to kangarooing. It affords a capital chase, and is easily killed, once overtaken. Some ride alongside and tap it on the head with a stick or stockwhip handle; others drop it in the same manner as stockmen knock over calves in the bush, by throwing a stout waddy at the legs. Others, again, catch it round the neck in a loop of the whip, oftentimes releasing it after having half-strangled it. This ruthless hunting of the bird, however, is to be deprecated.
The emu takes readily to water, and is an excellent swimmer. In August 1895, I saw one, which had been stalked by blacks in a bight of the Dawson, Queensland, run straight to the river, swim across, and streak away into the bush on the other side. In the same month, three miles above Taroom, I saw one feeding on a little island in the Dawson, which it could not have reached without swimming part of the channel. On another occasion I found one hopelessly bogged in a silted tank near the north-west border of New South Wales, and it was with considerable difficulty that I released it from its unpleasant predicament.
The diet of the emu does not consist wholly of native fruits, nor is fruit necessarily essential to its existence. On the open plains of the Stony Desert, where fruits of any description are exceedingly rare, and at times there is nothing but dry saltbush, emus feed regularly and in great numbers, only seeking the stunted trees that line the watercourses when disturbed or for shelter from the midday sun. They have certainly a decided penchant for quondongs, geebungs, native figs, and other similar fruits; but they also feed extensively on various grasses, herbage, seeds, and ground berries. Their staple food varies considerably in different localities; among the well-wooded ranges of eastern and southern Queensland they could subsist through the greater part of the year on wild fruits, while in the north-west of New South Wales, and over a wide belt of Centralia, such stray fruits as they might pick up would form but an infinitesimal portion of their daily food. Though strictly vegetarian in the wild state, the pet emu, on the other hand, when allowed to roam at leisure about station homesteads, shows considerable depravity in taste. While having a healthy appetite for boiled potatoes, turnips, and various green vegetables, it will readily eat damper, pastry, fresh meat, fish, and even pieces of household soap, and has a decided fondness for picking bones. Its propensity for swallowing bones, wire nails, tacks, chips of iron and lead, pieces of broken glass, and kindred indigestible morsels, has gained for the emu in general an almost world-wide notoriety. The stories that are told of it would shame a De Rougemont. One is to the effect that a squatter could never keep a shoe on his horses while his feathered pet was off the chain. The bird followed the horses about the paddock, and pecked out the nails as the animals lifted their feet.
It might be remarked that the metallic substances mentioned are merely swallowed by the tame emu as an aid to digestion, as the wild emu, ducks, and other fowl, swallow pebbles and shells. Its digestive powers are inferior to those of the kookaburra. This is easily demonstrated by caging them and feeding on hard grain.
The innate curiosity of the emu has times out of number proved fatal to it. Any tinkling of musical sound will attract rather than disperse it. I was sitting one morning in front of a splitter’s tent on Myrtle Creek, N.S.W., when two emus passed within a hundred yards of the camp. The splitter picked up a stick and began tapping gently on a square tin bucket. The birds stopped immediately, with a sudden straightening of the bodies; and presently they passed back within a chain of us. They returned still nearer; and as the monotonous tap-tap continued, they approached the fourth time to within 15 yards of where we sat. Here they stood for about two minutes, with heads held high and slightly moving, staring at us. The splitter ceased tapping, and suddenly, with a short, vibrating cry and a ruffling of feathers, they turned and ran swiftly into the bush.
In the locality mentioned there is a low, sandy mound, which was much frequented by emus, and the numerous oppressions, with heaps of sand scattered around, proclaimed it a favourite rolling ground. Such places are plentiful in various parts of the country, and are generally shared by kangaroos; but in quondong country the camps are mostly situated about the roots of the trees. Here they race around and play; here, too; they exhibit various attitudes of the kangaroo, now lolling lazily oh their sides, now squatting on their haunches. The most reposeful position is nestling flat on the breast.
At ordinary times they may be seen in large flocks—I counteed 57 together on the Wilson River in 1896—but when the breeding season commences, they pair off and thenceforth through the season each couple keeps rigorously to themselves, the male bird taking his turn in the process of incubation. This habit of feeding about in pairs at such times tells the bushmen when to look for eggs, and, as the birds never wander very far from the nest, the latter are seldom difficult to find. Travellers, in fact, often “shadow” the emu, watching it through the day somewhat in the manner of the settler’s wife who “foxes” a truant pullet.
Besides droughts, floods, and periodic bush fires, the luckless “cocky,” or small settler, on the wayback creeks has no end of natural enemies to do battle with; in fact, his life is one of continual warfare against some pest or other. He is one of those hardly, unfortunate men who, as the Yankee farmer says, “never seem to get any forarder,” moiling the year round, age after age, in the same old groove, and ever the butt of Fate. He goes on the land with a stout heart, talks enthusiastically of its boundless resources, its wealth of timber, and traces with pride the windings of the paltry little creek that forms his frontage. He builds a slab hut, generally with bark roof, and Mrs. Cocky commences housekeeping, in a humble way, and with great hopes of a marvellous mansion in the future. A wire fence creeps round the selection, and a “cultivation” is enclosed with a dog-legged fence across a bight in the creek. A few fowls and pigs, a small herd of cows or sheep, and two or three horses are introduced, and the young couple’s dreams of bacon and eggs, fresh milk and butter, are realised; and the little settlement that is to produce wealth and happiness is at last a going concern.
But here, whence progress might be reasonably expected, the long struggle for existence commences. He has reckoned without his natural enemies. No sooner do his hens begin to lay than crows; pheasants, jackasses, and goanas raid his nests; crows and hawks carry off his chickens; and his roosts are nightly visited by native cats and carpet snakes. The fowls are often accommodated with nothing more than a few roosts in the open air; or, at best, with a small bark or slab shed. I can recall many exciting experiences in connection with these places. A frantic squark some time in the night would be the signal to light up the slush lamp, and, armed with this and a waddy, we would hurry to the scene of disturbance. Some times the marauder was a native cat, triumphantly staggering towards the doorway with a hen by the neck, in which case one would remain at the door with the lamp; then would follow an exciting chase round the walls until the animal was captured, or broke through the door guard and escaped. At other times the long sinuous coils of a carpet snake on the roosts would confront us. These were ugly brutes to deal with if they got on the ground, as the old slush lamp threw more shadow than light.
What makes the carpet snake more destructive than a dozen hawks is that it can steal up to a hen as she sits over her brood of chicks, and, thrusting its head under her, swallow chicken after chicken, probably half the clutch, before being discovered by the mother. The carpet snake, however, is not without his good points. In mice or rat haunted houses he is to be recommended before the family cat. One was kept for a long while in Tomki Dairy, and could be seen in daytime stretched along, or coiled upon, the ridge pole. They are easily tamed, and there are bushmen who keep them expressly for pets.
The white hawk and the common brown kite hawk are the worst daylight robbers of the chicken yard; though the crow and the jackass are almost equally as bad. The latter is looked upon as somewhat of a sacred bird, and was protected by Government on account of its snake-killing propensities, and it was considered by many as little short of sacrilege to accuse it of chicken-killing. Experience, however, has seriously affected Jack’s reputation. It is even doubted nowadays if he is worth his salt at killing snakes, if any other food is procurable. Still, I have seen him at work more than once, and his method is interesting. He carries the snake, always a small one, high into the air and lets it drop, catching it again before it reaches the ground. The process is repeated until the reptile is listless enough to be taken to a limb and leisurely torn to pieces. I have seen hawks kill snakes in the same manner, and am inclined to believe that they have a better record in this respect than the kookaburra.
It is common to see a Jack clinging to a limb with the head of a chick in his mouth, and another Jack hanging to its legs and swinging underneath, others perch alongside, watching the tug-of-war, occasionally venting a loud laugh, probably by way or encouraging the contestants.
Depredations of this kind have caused many settlers, who erstwhile treated Jack with some degree of reverence, to put an abrupt end to his cachinations at the hut with a charge of shot.
Crows, again, severely harass the sheep, clinging to the necks of poverty-stricken ewes, and pecking out their eyes, in spite of all efforts to shake them off; and the eagle hawk lifts the young lambs as easily as the kite would a mouse. Another raider of the sheep flock is the fox, once unknown here, but now becoming plentiful in many parts of the country. In November, 1901, 30 were captured within a short radius of Coolamon; and 23 were killed on Marrar Station, Junee, in January, 1902; while 102 scalps were collected at Wagga in May. In Victoria, whence the fox has spread, 31,000 were killed and paid for in 1901. The fox is a more formidable enemy than the dingo; for, whereas the latter will eat his fill off one sheep, the former has been known to kill as many as a dozen in one night, eating only the tongues and kidneys. He is particularly partial to the latter, tearing them out immediately on capturing his prey. The stock-owners around Mount M‘Donald pay £6 for each fox killed on their property. The tiger-cat is also destructive among lambs, though fortunately it is not very numerous. This is about the fiercest animal we have, and has been known more than once to attack man.
In the cultivation paddock, the cocky has another class of animals to fight against. No sooner has he sown his corn than the bandicoot follows along in his tracks in the quiet hours of the night and roots it up. “Minding bandicoots” is one of the most dismal tasks on earth, and shooting them on a dark night about the most precarious sport, there being seldom anything more sightable than the thuds of the retreating animal to shoot at.
Passing, the bandicoot stage, and when the tender plants show green above ground, the paddymelon or wallaby makes his appearance, and crops it down. When it has got beyond their reach, there is a short respite, until the crop begins to ripen. Then the black ‘possum plays havoc with it by night, and parrots, redbills, crows, black magpies, and cockatoos swarm upon it by day.
It is one of the disagreeable necessities of the cocky to leave a warm bed at daylight on a cold winter’s morning, and wade waist-deep through wet grass and weeds, and with frost crackling under foot, to drive these birds away. Scarecrows, however cunningly devised, have little effect upon them. One ingenious cocky took much pains to build a “bogie man” with sticks, which he dressed up in an old brown suit, topped with a big straw hat. He set him on a high stump, with a gun-shaped stick tied in position to his hands. He slept late next day, having every faith to the sentinel. Some time latter, however, he was chagrined to find his crop alive with birds. A flock of crows were holding a sort of inquest on the dummy. The hat had been knocked off, and on the wooden head stood a crow, with head averted, apparently looking for eyes. The trees around were black with noisy birds, and more were flocking in from every direction. It occurred to the astounded cocky that they were jubilating over his supposed corpse; and thus the scarecrow had proved an attraction.
In many parts of Australia wild pigs have become a pest, particularly in the scrubby country of Northern Queensland, where the depreciated inbred mongrels exist in great numbers, and raid the potato crops, cane fields, and any other accessible products. Pig shooting, once considered “rare sport,” has now become a stern business matter on the Johnstone River, where the settlements are severely pestered with wild swine.
One appreciable advantage of big game is that they are more easily coped with than the small fry. When plagued with insects, the cocky is almost helpless. Moths attack his fruit; aphides cover his cabbage; beetles destroy his skins, and bore into his bacon; sandflies and botflies are a danger to his horses; while caterpillars, of all shapes, sizes, and colours, attack everything green.
He notes with grim humour that, no matter what he plants, some special kind of caterpillar comes along to live on it, and persists in hanging around, like a poor relation, as long as there’s a leaf held out to it. His potato crops are riddled by ladybirds, and the tubers are often attacked by hordes of white ants. It was formerly supposed that these termites confined their attention to dead timber, and would not touch anything green. In reality, they attack and kill green fruit and other trees, boring up through the heart from the ground; they are frequently found in cane stools; and they are ploughed up in vast swarms in cultivated ground. According to a Liverpool (N.S.W.) farmer, “the Brownell is their fancy potato, and with their peculiar heart-devouring proclivities, they eat all the spud save the outer skin. In digging the crops myriads of these insects are found in the soil.” They will also attack newspapers and books. I saw a pile of papers, 18in deep, bored clean through from top to bottom; while thousands of termites were distributed among the leaves. In America the Australian ladybird is used as a check on sealed insects.
In swampy and scrubby country, and in damp, deeply-grassed gullies, leeches are a menace to the dairy herd, and it is not a pleasant reflection that there is no practical means of getting rid of them. They seem to be particularly partial to the cow’s udder, which makes them all the more to be dreaded by dairymen. I have also seen horses, among mobs continually pastured in wet country, whose lips and noses were simply masses of raw flesh, the disease having originated from the bites of leeches.
A caterpillar plague is an ugly thing to look at. Nothing escapes them; every vestige of herbage, everything green, is mown down before the march of the crawling horde. Some cockies at such times, to save grass for the stock, or to preserve a growing crop, keep rollers running round the paddock from daylight till dark, only to find in the morning that the rear guard has come up during the night, crossed the slimy track, and assailed crops, grass, and everything before them. The best check was adopted by a cane grower. He ploughed a deep trench round his crop, into which he poured barrels of treacle. Into this glutinous stuff the caterpillars dropped in millions, which necessitated frequent raking and replenishing to prevent others crawling over the pontoon formed by the thousands floating and struggling in the molasses. The stench around the crop in a day or two could be felt. The plan, however efficacious, is too expensive to commend itself to the majority.
Apart from moths, beetles, ants, etc., fruit trees are constantly molested by various birds. Among the worst may be mentioned the banana bird, leatherhead, magpies, parrots, and the crow. That black fiend has his beak in every pie. The most formidable pest is the flying fox, a foul-smelling bat that flops into the trees at night crawling and flapping over the branches, and leaving an abominable odour upon everything it touches. One of the most remarkable bush sights I ever saw was a colony of flying foxes sleeping in a clump of trees near Gundurimbar, N.S.W. They numbered several thousands, all hanging head downwards, closely together, and in places hanging to one another. The aborigines, who are fond of the Great Kalong, despite its foetid odour, score heavily in these places with the boomerang.
Considering the variety of the vast army of natural enemies that is ever waging war against him, day and night, Sunday and Good Friday included, it is not to be wondered at that the average cocky on the far back creeks is a fairly good bush naturalist, and can beguile many an hour relating anecdotes, and describing peculiarities of insects, birds and animals.
Among the denizens of the bush there is no happier mortal than the timber-getter of Queensland and north-eastern New South Wales. Yet the work is heavy, and the logs of pine and cedar are got out under irksome and often disagreeable conditions. For days together he is drenched to the skin, and plastered to the belt with mud; for rain falls frequently on the scrub-clothed ranges. Here, too, the leeches swarm over the bed of dead leaves, and drop from drooping branches. Clothed in old, thorn-ripped trousers and a thin singlet, with a floppy old felt on his head, he plies the bright, long-bladed axe in perpetual gloom, and takes all risks with apparent unconcern. Along the steep inclines of mountain gullies, stages have to be built in awkward places round many of the trees, which are scarfed to throw them in a particular direction. As the back cut goes deep and deeper in, the lithe axeman, standing perhaps 12 to 15 feet above ground, listens attentively for the first crack, and glances from time to time at the top for a sign of movement; and presently one hears the warning cry, “Look out, she’s going!” and the men leap down from the staging with the agility of ‘possums.
They are not altogether free from danger even on the ground, for the big cedar or pine is frequently fastened to a hundred surrounding trees by a network of vines, and the reefing of these, and consequent breaking of smaller timber, keep them continually on the alert until the severed giant has crashed through the undergrowth. After being sawn into convenient lengths, a narrow road has to be cut through the jungle to enable the bullocks to reach the logs, which are “spare-chained” to the open, and thence conveyed on trucks or jiggers to the river to be rafted.
Cutting in these scrubs after rain, or in the early morning, when every stroke of the axe brings down a shower from the loaded leaves, is anything but pleasant; yet these men work merrily on through the day, and go singing and whistling to camp at sundown. Use is everything; and wet or dry, in shine or shadow, their spirits are ever buoyant. Only one thing seems to affect them, and that is a fall in the price of timber.
The camp is pitched near the edge of the scrub, the tents showing white against the background of foliage; and here foregather the axemen and the bullock-drivers, forming a circle round a blazing fire, each with a junk of damper and beef in his hand, or a tin plate resting on his knees, and a pannikin of tea on the ground beside him. They eat heartily, and meanwhile discuss the record trees and the day’s adventures, for there is always some adventure, some thrilling incident happening, in these big scrubs. When pipes are lit, someone starts a yarn, and soon the yarning becomes general; then someone gives a song or a recitation; and there is always rude joking, loud laughter, and skylarking going on between times, that remind one of the pranks and merry-making of mischievous school boys. Here, as in all bush camps, there is at least one “scholar,” who supplies information on various subjects; a “bush lawyer,” who settles all forensic questions; a vocalist, who’s always appealed to for a song—it is his custom to modestly protest that he “can’t sing for sour apples,” and to cough 17 times before commencing; and there is always a butt or fool who supplies the company with fun when nothing else is on tap. This amicable and complaisant person is much imposed upon, and is general factotum to Tom, Bill, and Harry.
In the scrub behind the camp the mopokes are heard at frequent intervals; while the deep-sounding bullfrog bells go clunk-clunk along the ranges. One sounds faintly in the far distance, and a long bullock-driver straightens up, and stepping away from the hum of voices, stands and listens. “That flamin’ old Strawberry’s moochin’ off ag’in,” he says presently. “I’ll rattle his hoofs back to-morrer, I know!”
The bullockie has a fine discriminating ear for bell notes. At times he gets puzzled when the bell is far away, and this leads to an argument, which may last an hour or a week, as to whether the ringer is Strawberry or Rattler. Good bells are prized, and fancy sums are given for them. I saw £5 planked down once in a roadside pub on the Clarence River for a bullfrog bell, and the money was refused with scorn. Many a bell has been unstrapped at night, and carried miles away across country; for there were times in the old days when bullockies would risk anything to get possession of a jingler that took their fancy. There was a beauty on the Upper Richmond in the 80’s, which, an old scrub ranger assured me, had been purloined from a teamster on the Barwon 30 years before.
The bullockie can talk to you for hours about bells, and bar-chains, bows, keys, coggles, and yokes, poles, bullocks, and waggons. He particularises his team from polers to leaders; how Brindle and Ball stop dead and will stand dragging, at the call of “whey!”—and would steady a waggon down any hill without chain or brake; how Spot handled the steer, shoving him off, and lugging him to; and how Starlight was the devil’s own for turning his yoke. He gives you novel ways of starting a sulky bullock—making a fire under him, pounding his ribs with a shovel, or rubbing a stick smartly backwards and forwards on his tail; and he has equally effective methods of dealing with the “skull dragger,” and that son of a cow that is always getting his “splaw-foot” over the chain.
Many an exciting incident hinges on a broken pole, of which I have had an experience myself. It was on Bungawalbyn Creek; New South Wales, and I had just loaded with sawn timber at the water’s edge. There had been heavy rain in the mountains, and the creek was rising rapidly. My anxiety to get to the top of the bank proved disastrous. There was an awkward bend at the start, and in trying to round this too sharply, the pole was snapped off. We were without a spare chain, and there was no alternative but to make a rough substitute post haste. We were an hour getting it completed, by which time the water was washing the naves of the waggon. Then it was the deuce’s own work backing the bullocks into the flood; and finally I stood nearly waist-deep in water to fix the pole-ring and bolt, and when our timber was almost aswim, we drew out.
Many catastrophes have happened through the pole breaking, or the brakes failing to act, when going down a mountain side, or rounding a bluff on the edge of a gorge. Some of the timber tracks are so steep that the loaded jigger slides down of its own weight with all four wheels locked. On one occasion a truck was grinding down a range at the head of the Richmond River, laden with three heavy logs, one being lashed on top of the other two. A sudden jolt burst the twitchings, and the top log shot off like an arrow, killing two of the bullocks, one being almost completely severed through the back. In such places the bullockie owes many a hair-breadth escape to a tractable leader, or a pair of trusty polers, that respond instantly to his commands. On the Dividing Range, between the Richmond and Clarence Rivers, a bullockie one day walked back half a mile to show me the track of his wheel on the very brink of a precipice. “By George!” he said, and his hair bristled even then, “if old Bismarck hadn’t ‘a’ gee’d double quick when I yelled at him, the whole box an’ dice would ‘a’ gone ter smash. It’s the nearest shave I ever ‘ad.” Every bullockie has had his “nearest shave.” A quiet old fellow was one evening driving steadily along between two hills on Dyraaba run, New South Wales, loaded with cedar, when a thunderstorm burst over him. A flash of lightning struck the team, killing 12 out of 16 bullocks, besides singeing the driver’s clothing and splitting his boot open. He was knocked down, but, beyond a severe shock, he escaped unhurt. Such an experience might happen to anybody, and cannot well be guarded against; but the ordinary risks on the mountain side are different.
Where it is possible to clear a course with little expense, the logs are rolled instead of drawn down. I saw much of this rolling done in 1895 in the mountains on the Upper Caboolture, Pine, North Pine, and Stanley Rivers, Queensland. At one place near the Stanley, the logs had a clear roll of three miles from the top of the mountain to the level below. They travelled at a tremendous rate, gaining momentum with every revolution and bounding high into the air on striking a boulder or stump root, and with a sound like the boom of distant thunder. One log, swerving a little from its course, crashed into a hardwood stump at the bottom, and flew into the air in 20 great slabs. Examining this locality afterwards, I found the ground strewn with splintered pine, showing how frequently the huge logs thundered down to destruction.
This reminds me of an exciting experience that happened on the Richmond. Near Tomki station, 20 years ago, was a big pine scrub—now all disappeared— extending back from the bank of the river. A main road was cut through the centre of this scrub, whence branch tracks were made to the trees. The logs were first dragged to the highway, whence they were trucked to the river. The trucks were low, “home-made” affairs, with thick block-wheels from 20in. to 24in. in diameter. Those were sunk in the ground, and the logs drawn on to the truck. At their destination they were drawn off in a similar manner. When 200 or 300 had been collected on the bank, they were rolled into the river and rafted, a boatman towing them into position as they floated clear, and stapling each one to a long chain, which was run down the centre of the raft.
One day a log was poised on top of the shoot, which was long and steep, when a thick piece of wood, dislodged from the side by the preceding log, was noticed on the incline, and one of the men ran down to throw it aside. He had just accomplished this when the log broke away, and came bounding towards him. A yell from his mate above warned him, and he cast one horrified look at the revolving pine, then only a few feet from him, and fled with mighty strides for the river. He could not very well have escaped any other way in the time, as the rolling ground was a narrow hollow, with dense scrub on both sides. The men watched the race for life with blanched faces, and held their breaths as he dived wildly into the deep water, and the log plunged with a resounding splash fair over him. No one expected to see him come up alive; but up he came, sure enough, ten yards out, and turned a scared face towards the dancing log. “Are you hurt?” cried everybody. “Not much!” said the swimmer; and when he had scrambled out he said that the log struck him hard on the soles of his boots, and drove him to the bottom of the river. “I’ll take my solemn oath no logs go pile-drivin’ me ag’in!” he concluded.
The cutters or axemen have different experiences, and their work is generally amid surroundings of absorbing interest. The deep jungles of the Tweed and Richmond, besides affording a fascinating study of plant life, are full of birds and animals, and the adventurous spirit finds plenty to satisfy it. Sunday is devoted to shooting, hunting, and exploring the dark recesses of their field of labour. While the bullockie is fashioning new yokes, cutting out key-strings, or tending bows to suit awkward necks, the timber-getters spend hours under the dense foliage, shooting wonga pigeons, brush turkeys, and other game. Their work is, perhaps, attended with more risks than is that of hauling the timber from the rugged ranges. The “axe slip” is a common accident, often resulting in a severe wound, from the axe catching or striking a neighbouring tree or bush, an overhanging branch or vine, or through the slip of a foot on an incline. There is always danger from falling limbs, the collapse of staging, rolling logs, kicking trees, and the sudden recoil of snapped vines. The dangers cannot always be seen and escape is not easy in a dense jungle. Quite recently a man was knocked down by a tree in a scrub at Billinudgel, Tweed River, and the crook of a limb completely severed his leg above the ankle, burying the boot 12in. in the ground. Another man was pinned down by a tree near Cairns, Queensland. The tree contained two bees’ nests, and the sufferings of the unfortunate man may be imagined when it is stated that when discovered 24 hours after the accident he was covered with bees and green ants. He was taken to the hospital in an unconscious condition and died shortly afterwards.
One hears a good many arguments in the timber-getters’ camp concerning record trees and champion axemen. The biggest cedar trees have been cut in the scrubs of the Richmond River. About 1885 I saw one log on the jiggers in Casino after it was squared, and it was then 12ft. x 12ft.—a girth of 48ft. It was cut from several feet up the trunk, and its original girth wouldn’t be much short of 60ft. Among the hardwood species the great forests of Gippsland, Victoria, produce the tallest trees, eclipsing even the giants of California. Strangely enough Tasmania claims the champion axemen. It must be admitted, however, that while wood-chopping contests are frequently held on the island opportunities are seldom given to the men on the mainland to show their abilities in public.
One of the most interesting features of the timber-getter’s life is the rafting of the logs. In the early days of the cedar trade on the Richmond River the logs were merely drawn to the bank nearest the scrub and there left until the rains put a sufficient fresh in the river to carry them down to tidal waters, where they were blocked by a cordon of logs stretched from bank to bank. They were simply levered into the flood and floated away in single file, or else they were left on the low lands whence the first fresh would wash them away. When all were launched a man followed in a flat-bottomed boat to release those that became stranded or fast against snags or trees, and to muster up any that had strayed into the little arms or reaches. This was a pleasant trip, full of excitement and adventure. The stream was strewn with fallen timber, and wound like a serpent through dense scrubs; and there were many small rapids to shoot and whirlpools to negotiate. With his dog in the stern and his gun at hand for wild ducks and pigeons, the boatman spun merrily along till nightfall, when he made his fire and boiled his billy on the bank. He was off again at sunrise, down a gradually widening river, catching glimpses of station homesteads through the timber, and startling the browsing cattle from the grassy slopes. Scores of logs were lost, despite his watchfulness, and some can be seen to-day rotting in the scrubs, and others resting high up in the forks of trees.
As the loss was thus heavy, and floods did not come along with the regularity required, the method of despatching the produce of the wild scrubs was abandoned, and the logs were carried down over rough bush tracks on timber waggons or jiggers. At the head of the tidal waters they were rafted, and the rafts are floated down on the tide to the shipping port, the trip occupying about a fortnight. The pilot, barefooted, and armed with a long light pole, walks from end to end, shoving his awkward craft off from the bends and keeping her straight with the current. A little tent is pitched in the centre, where he camps when the tide is running up, his craft being then moored to the bank. When, on occasions, he fails to wake with the turn of the tide, the raft—if only tethered in front, as is often the case—takes a sweep round and becomes jammed between the banks. The pilot, rudely awakened by the creaking and grinding of logs, swearing at large, has then an hour’s hard work to get her straightened and under way again.
I once spent a day fishing and shooting on a raft that was piloted by a married man, who had his wife and four children with him. It was round a long bight near Codrington, and when I left them at sunset I had only a mile to walk home, having secured a good bag of ducks and fish. It was washing day, and, the “stewardess” had a line of flags flying at the stern. Water was handy, and the children sprang ashore at the bends and gathered armsful of wood, the fire being made on a sheet of iron and the clothes boiled in a kerosene tin. These youngsters spent half their time in the water, diving under the raft, and swimming along at the side, and now and again going ashore, and racing and yelling along the bank. Farms were plentiful on both banks, and the crops, particularly the melon beds, were freely sampled. Towards evening two or three fish leaped on board, and were quickly secured by the nimble youngsters. Passing under the overhanging cherry trees they reddened the logs with fruit and painted themselves a vivid red with cherry juice. They were a happy family and lived well. The only unpleasantness that occurs is when a snake comes on board, which happens pretty frequently.
Several rafts of 500 logs have been taken down the Tweed River single handed. It is slow work going with the tide and waiting for the ebb, but it is anything but monotonous. Indeed, the history of the cedar log is an interesting one from the time it is cut, in its native jungle till it goes on the benches in the mill.
Many years ago a schooner left the Tweed with cedar and capsized at sea, but the buoyant timber prevented her from sinking. She drifted ashore near the Brunswick. Soon afterwards two timber-getters were travelling along the beach when they noticed the black object in the distance. An aborigine, who was with them, said it was a marrandoey (ship), and hastening towards it they found the vessel high on the beach, bottom up, with her masts gone. Surmising that her crew had perished they were walking away from the stern when some peculiar sound from inside arrested them. They tapped on the hulk, and discovered to their astonishment that some one was imprisoned in the wreck. The blackfellow was sent to a distant hut for an axe, and with this they cut a hole in the bottom and liberated two men—the captain, and one who had been a passenger. They had passed through a terrible experience in the vessel before being finally cast on the beach and left by a receding tide, where slow death by starvation awaited them had not a casual circumstance led the timber-getters to the rescue.
Doubtless the most satisfactory way of travelling, when one has to cover long distances, is by train, particularly if one has a “sleeper” apartment, and there is plenty of room. Even minus the sleeping car, the passenger may enjoy all the comforts of a moderately furnished drawing-room on almost any of the main lines—if he has plenty of money to pay for it.
Unfortunately we are not all possessed of big banking accounts, and the majority of us have to be content with second-class accommodation. There being no third-class carriages, I mostly travel second-class myself, and only on one occasion have I had cause to anathematise the accommodation. This was on the Serviceton (Murray River) to Melbourne line. The seats were hard, narrow, and straight-backed, and the space between them so small that one was cramped and huddled up as badly as in a mail coach. Add to this the annoyance of
A SLEEPY, HALF-DRUNKEN LOUT
lolling and bumping against you on one side, a portly, straight-laced old dame, surrounded with parcels and baskets, on the other, and two or three youngsters sleeping among a bundle of shawls and pillows on the floor, and you envy even the unfortunate swagman who casts a cursory glance at the train as it rushes past him. You can’t enjoy even the comfort of a pipe, for the portly old lady objects to smoking, and though it may be a smoking carriage, you refrain for the sake of muffled beauty on the opposite seat.
Women are so indiscriminate and inconsiderate. In the rush and confusion at the platform, they plunge in wherever they see a vacant seat, irrespective of what the carriage may be. Often a man enters a smoking carriage to enjoy the luxury of a pipe or two on the way, and his wife or daughters, or other female attaches, rather than be separated, elect to share the compartment with him; and this they do to the inconvenience of other male passengers. Their presence also
ATTRACTS OTHER WOMEN,
and it is no uncommon thing to find the smoker almost entirely filled with women. Under such circumstances the man who entered in the first place to enjoy his pipe has to forego that pleasure, or suffer the withering looks and innuendoes of the petticoated fraternity around him.
I remember on one occasion a soldier, who had been imbibing rather freely, entered our compartment, and taking the pipe from his mouth, said:
“Any of you ladies object to smoking?” The ladies glared at him, but no one answered. “Cos, if you do,” he continued, “there’s carriages reserved specially for non-smokers. This is mine.” And down he sat, and puffed huge, curling clouds to the ceiling.
At Nhill, the little town that the big cyclone played skittles with a few years ago, we had lost all our ladies but an 18st dame from Bordertown, who looked immaculate in a sheeny black silk dress, bedecked with shimmering black beads, and with a quaint little toque skewered to the bundled thatch at the back of her cranium. A roughly-dressed, bluff old farmer got in “for a bit of a run to Ballarat,” and edged towards the vacant space beside her. He took out his pipe, but before he lit it, he turned to the old lady in silk.
“Do you smoke, ma’am?” he asked.
The old lady started, and peered at him from under knitted brows.
“I do not,” she snapped.
“You’re in the smoker, ma’am?” continued the irrepressible farmer.
“That needn’t stop you from smoking,” she returned. “Though I don’t smoke myself,” she added, graciously, “I have no objection to tobacco smoke.”
“All right, old woman,” said the farmer, and a grin ploughed round to his ears as he winked at us.
* * * * *
The carriages on the South Australian lines are generally well furnished. One of the best trips I have enjoyed was from Broken Hill to Adelaide, the 344 miles occupying a day and a night. The country is uninteresting, being for the most part low, stony hills, covered with stunted growth, and
GREAT LONELY GREY PLAINS.
From Petersburg, down, however, one gets glimpses of pretty valleys, sloping, grassy hills, picturesque homesteads, and villages, and big wheatfields. But the giant timber, the grandeur of mount and gorge that flash past on the line from Melbourne to Albury, and from Albury to Sydney, are wanting.
It is interesting to note the leading topics of conversation on the sections of a long line. Leaving the Silver City, and until you reach Petersburg (190 miles), whence the line branches to Port Pirie, where the Broken Hill ores are treated, everyone is interested in mining, and discusses the fluctuations in the price of lead and silver; you hear of the perils of tunnelling, the dangers of the open cut, of men being leaded, and roasted in boiling slag; of creeps in Block 10, and of falls of earth in the Big Mine. You can hear the whole history of the Barrier if you care to keep awake; and when you reach the Burna you hear something about copper; but after leaving Petersburg, and until the lights of Port Adelaide blaze across the flat to rightward, you find that all newcomers are interested in the price of wheat, in stripping, threshing, and harvesting operations generally.
So, too, on the run to Melbourne. From Adelaide to the Murray, and to Glenorchy, on the Wimmera River, it is dried fruits, vineyards, and wine, timber and agriculture; while from Stawell, one of the prettiest of Victorian towns, right down to Bacchus Marsh, it is of gold—gold and Eureka! Indeed, you
CANNOT HELP TALKING OF GOLD,
and resuscitating the golden tales of old, for, on nearing Ararat, and thence onward till you have passed Ballarat, you see the miners’ tents gleaming whitely through the suckers on either side, and you pass along between thousands of mining shafts, with little heaps of dirt dotting hill and flat for miles.
From Stawell into Melbourne, which takes you past Lake Windermere—or is it Windouree?—the view is replete with scenic beauty, and you pass many historic spots that will never be erased from the memory of man. The gold towns are fairly big places, and pretty enough to attract a painter’s eye. One of the loveliest spots is Bacchus Marsh, viewed at sunset as you traverse its long girdling hills.
Going north again, from Melbourne to Sydney is like travelling through another world. It is a world of giant trees, of vast wildernesses, deep gorges, and towering mountains. This is the paradise of timber getters and bark strippers, and the haunt of bullock teams. You catch glimpses of bush homes high up on the hillsides, or nestling deep down in a far-off valley, and here and there you see late settlers erecting a future home
IN THE HEART OF THE TIMBER,
or grubbing and burning off a strip of land for cultivation.
School children show for a moment, and disappear into the forest of trees, following various bridle tracks away to hidden homes. The tall wooden telegraph posts, straight as arrows, contrast markedly with the low metal posts that carry the wires across the north-west of New South Wales and through the interior of South Australia.
The towns on this line are not an interesting feature. One feels disappointed on finding such widely-known places as Glenrowan—famed as the scene where the careers, of the Kellys ended—and Wodonga are small and commonplace. Wagga, Goulburn, and Moss Vale, on the New South Wales side of the Murray, are prettier and more interesting.
* * * * *
One thing which strikes the traveller on these various lines is the manner of catering at the refreshment stalls. In South Australia, from Mannahill to Adelaide, and thence to Murray Bridge, the waiters give one the impression of being all new hands; they bustle about a great deal without appearing to get much done. They were not particular whether you paid your 3d or 4d when you got your cup of tea, or when you brought back your cup. Either they were too flurried, or else they had marvellous faith in the honesty of travellers. If the latter, their confidence was sadly misplaced. The
TEA WAS ALWAYS BOILING HOT,
and a three or five minutes’ stay doesn’t always suffice to drink it. Women mostly keep their seats, and the men carry cups of tea in to them. They sit sipping it, and gossipping, of course, till the train starts on—and the crockery is carried away. And the breakage is tremendous. I saw five cups broken at one carriage door at Gawler, and altogether 30 were broken along the train through careless or hurried handling in passing from one to another. At some place boys and girls ran along the platform to receive cups and saucers from passengers before the train started, and even then a good many departed for pastures new.
Through Victoria and on the N.S.W. side the stallkeepers are more wary, and do more service with less show. You pay for your cup as well as for the tea, the cup money being refunded when you return the vessel. It is remarkable how much quicker the ladies get through their tea under this system, while the breakages are scarcely worth mentioning. At one place in Victoria we had to return empty handed to our proteges and inform them that they must come and get their own tea, as all the cups were on chains, and could only be carried away in pieces.
I have a pleasant recollection of two merry girls who energetically canvassed our “special” at Serviceton, where ordinary trains stop over night. One handed me a card, on the back of which these set rules were printed for the guidance of travellers:—
“Federal Railway Rooms. Board, 6d per foot. Breakfast at 5, dinner at 6, supper at 7. Guests wishing to get up without being called can have self-raising flour for supper. Guests are requested not to speak to the dumb waiter. Guests wishing to do a little driving will be supplied with hammer and nails on application. The rooms are convenient to three cemeteries—hearses to hire at 1/11½ per day. If you are fond of athletics, and like good jumping, lift the mattress and see the bed spring. If the room gets too warm, open the window and see the fire escape. If your lamp goes out take a feather out of a pillow—that’s light enough for anyone. Anyone troubled with nightmare will find a halter on the bedpost. Don’t worry about paying the bill, the house is supported by its foundation.”
A LIVELY EXPERIENCE
On the same Victorian line I had a rather lively experience one night. Two volunteers bound for South Africa were making merry on the way to Melbourne, in which they were joined by a long, dark-bearded man in leggings. They had a bottle on board, besides which they “refreshed” at every hotel we touched at. They played cards for money on the seat, drank, quarrelled, and at last the long one in leggings and one of the khaki men got to blows. They tumbled all over the rest of us, who soon mounted the seats, and they pounded each other from one side of the carriage to the other. It was a gory go, and ended in a portmanteaux falling off the rack on to the long one and flattening him out.
* * * * *
The South Australian lines stand over all for ticket clipping. You begin to wonder, as puncture after puncture is made in your bit of cardboard, if there will be enough of it to carry you through. An old station hand, holding up his riddled ticket, remarked:
“That joker with the clips won’t get many more earmarks on to him.”
Another backblocker, from Farrell’s Flat or somewhere, used to slip his ticket inside the top of his long boot for safety. When the collector came round, he had to take his boot off to get it, and as his memory wasn’t very good, he mostly took the wrong one off first; and sometimes it got inside his socks, which necessitated taking them off also. He was several times
THREATENED WITH VIOLENT EXPULSION,
but he would meet the official’s impatient remonstrances with a bland smile and a confident shake of his head.
“Just hold on a bit, sonny,” he’d say, “it’s about one o’ me feet somewhere, an’ we’ll round him up directly; you take it from me.”
When he did “round him up,” the official clipped it with a vengeful snap, and banged the door with extra force. He got used to old Backblock after a time, and would give him timely warning on opening the door.
“Now, then, old party, you get your boots off and round up that ticket.”
And the ticket was duly rounded up.
On the run from Adelaide to Murray Bridge, which takes you through numerous long tunnels and narrow cuttings, particularly in the Mount Barker and Mount Lofty country, you are locked in like prisoners before starting, and only released at places where there is at least three minutes interval between the arrival and departure of the train. Then you are locked up again for safe custody.
On the Melbourne end of the line you enjoy more freedom, and may lean out through the open windows without fear of having your thinking end
DASHED AGAINST A JUNK OF ROCK,
or something equally unpleasant, and you may “break” your journey if you feel that way inclined, by taking a dive on to the swimming metal without hindrance. There are people who do that sort of thing, as witness a recent case on a Queensland line, and it is a thoughtful Government that ukases that railway passengers shall be kept securely under lock and key. In times like this it is necessary for their own well being.
City children, who are taken once in a while for a holiday in the country, where everything to them is new and fresh and interesting, are apt to look upon the bush generally as little short of an earthly paradise, They see only the chosen spots of tourists, the recognised holiday resorts, that are picked for the sake of the charming scenery and other beautiful natural features; and these are nearly always placed within easy reach of the coast that give no idea what the great inland world is like, or of the life of the children who are compelled by adverse circumstances, like their scattered flowers, to
“Waste their sweetness on the desert air.”
* * * * *
On the far-back selections the life is anything but a round of pleasure to the little ones. A typical home is built of slabs and bark, and it is planted on the bank of a scrub-lined creek, and several miles away from its nearest neighbour. There is often no floor but the caked earth, and the wind whistles through the gaps between the shrunken slabs. In winter some effort is made to remove this unpleasantness by stopping the gaps with bagging and strips of paper. But the doors and shutters are rudely made and rudely hung, and the numerous openings there are not so easily blocked up. So the little ones huddle round the big log fire as long as they can keep their eyes open; and they are back to it again at a very early hour in the morning. There is not much comfort in a bed which you have to leave to warm yourself.
* * * * *
They put on their few thin, ragged clothes by the fireside, and, barefooted and often coatless, hurry away through the frost-coated grass for the cows and horses. In dairying centres they get up at 3 a.m. and search for the cows by starlight, then milk as hard as their little fingers can go till sunrise, when the milk is run away to the factory. A scanty breakfast, eaten hurriedly on the doorstep or on a wood block by the fire, then more work—feeding pigs, calves, cleaning pens, carrying water in buckets, carrying wood in their arms, and putting in their spare time in the cultivation patch. In the evening they go through all the milking, feeding and cleaning again. The yards are frequently quagmires, where the mites wade knee-deep through mud and slush to bail up a cow. On the maize farms they have even a harder time, for there they have to husk corn till 10 or 11 o’clock at night on top of a long day’s work.
* * * * *
The schooling of these children is, unfortunately, from the parents’ standpoint, a secondary consideration. Some of them attend regularly enough when there is a school within reach. Many of them walk five or six miles to and from school, starting away before sunrise in the morning and reaching home after dark in winter. What would city children think of walking 10 and 12 miles a day, and without boots, for schooling? More than that, if they live on a farm, they join the other workers after tea in the barn. One would expect to find their growth stunted after such trying circumstances, yet such is seldom the case. They grow into fine, big men and women, due to their healthy surroundings; but they are mostly, through lack of opportunity, intellectually inferior to their city cousins. There are bright minds and keen wits among them; they are well trained in bush lore, but one seldom meets a scholar. As settlements grow thicker, however, this aspect of child-life becomes more narrowed to the lonely interior.
* * * * *
Out in the north-west, where little else than the dreaded dust storms relieve the monotony of existence, there are no beauty spots, no rivers, no running creeks, no wild flowers to scent the torrid winds, and very few birds and animals. There is dust and drought; there are flies and crows in millions, and you see little ones suffering with sore eyes for months at a time, There is sometimes a doctor and a hospital within a hundred or two hundred miles of their lonely homes; schools are 50 miles apart and churches are unknown. They see a priest perhaps once a year, and they hide in the creek or behind trees until he goes away. Sometimes the mother succeeds in hunting them up, and they receive his blessing in fear and trembling and talk of him in whispers for a month after. They know the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary, learnt at their mother’s knee; they know there is a God Who will punish the wicked and reward the good; but those who can say their Catechism are sadly few.
* * * * *
In these lonely parts there are men and women who have never seen a ship or a train; and there are those whose eyes have never been gladdened by the sight of a simple flower garden! You happy little city dwellers, with your harbours and beaches, your theatres and gardens, your crowded streets and miles of shop fronts, your trams and ‘busses and what not, can form no conception of the monotonous, cheerless lives of those lonely little bush folk.
Theirs is a life of suffering and drudgery, with no recreation but what the naked bush affords. They hear no music but the wind in the mulga trees, and look ever on the same lonely scenes of brooding hills and silent plains. Occasionally they see a fresh face, when a swagsman passes or a cattle buyer calls, or when they are out stock hunting and meet teams wending along the main road with wool, and camels filing out with station stores.
* * * * *
Compared with the city youth, the youngster of the backblocks is shy and silent. He is innocent where the other is cunning; and though he is mostly callous to brute suffering, his virtues would doubtless outweigh his vices. In a big town, if he happened to get down with a mob of cattle, they would call him a gawky; but in his own bush world he is shrewd enough and skilled. He learns to ride almost as soon as he can walk, and his ambition is to break in his father’s colts and ride the selection outlaw to a standstill.
His knowledge of the bush is similar to that of the aborigine. He knows the notes and tracks of every bird; he can tell you by tracks if a horse that has passed was hobbled or not; if it was walking, trotting, cantering or galloping; and he can pick his own horse’s tracks out of the tracks of a mob. He rides long distances over hill and dale without fear of getting lost, and can turn from any point and steer as straight as a crow for home. He shows commendable grit and extraordinary endurance under trying conditions. To give an instance, in the Mount Browne district last October, a boy named Barraclough, aged 14, while riding alone in the bush, was thrown from his horse and broke his leg. He dragged himself along the ground until he obtained a forked stick, and, using that as a crutch, he recovered his horse, which he mounted by pulling himself on by the mane. Then he rode 12 miles home, and was subsequently driven to White Cliffs, a long, rough journey, for medical treatment.
* * * * *
Younger children often wander away from home and get bushed, and these, too, show remarkable endurance. A little girl named Evelyn Harris, 2½ years old, was lost last August near Bollon (Q ), and was found on the following day walking along Mitchell-road, having covered a distance of 20 miles. In August, 1901, Linden Culnane, aged 9, and Alfred Collins, aged 7, lost their way while rabbiting at Reno, near Gundagal, and wandered about the bush for 36 hours in bitterly cold and rainy weather. Eventually they reached a settler’s hut on Cooba Creek, having travelled 30 miles. The little Wagners, who were lost for several days near Niangala (N.S.W.), had the company of a faithful dog; while the little Pine children, who were lost at Nowendoo (N.S.W.) during a snowstorm, kept themselves warm by cuddling up to a dog and a pet goat.
* * * * *
In the great, humming gum bush surrounding the big towns that are built by the tidal waters the children are bright and happy, and keep in touch with the progress of civilisation. This is the country life of which the poets sing, the country life that fringes the enormous inland wastes. Childhood there, for the most part, is spent under the most pleasant and favourable conditions—always providing the cow-yard is not the main source of the family income; but better the crampness and sordidness of your slums of Sydney than the monotony of existence in many of the far-out parts of that world called bush.
What Broken Hill is now facing in the shape of a water famine has been the common experience of many Western pastoralists in every ordinary drought, and dozens were only enabled to continue in occupation of their holdings through the late protracted period of dry weather by the fortunate circumstance of small thunderstorms bursting in the vicinity of almost dried-up tanks. “Looking for thunderstorms” is a common phrase out West, and stockmen ride out day after day (when weather conditions have been favourable) looking for the tracks of storms and following them across the runs. When any holes or tanks on a storm’s course have received a few days’ supply, sheep are at once shifted on to them, only to be removed on to the track of another storm, perhaps many miles away, a week later. The tracks of these storms are often not more than half a mile wide, sometimes less than that, and it is one of the most tantalising experiences of Western squatting to see storm after storm cross the parched runs and miss every hole and tank upon them, while filing a long chain of claypans between. These claypans the next day present the surface of miniature lakes, and a couple of days after the bare depressions show hard and white under a blistering sun. An alluring mirage hovers over each one, like a body of water, until the horseman draws near; then it lifts, and appears again at the next. Cattle, viewed through the everlasting haze of the plains, look like giraffes, elongated monstrosities that seem to hover on a shadowy surface several feet above the earth! Sheep assume the proportions of oxen, and the whole atmosphere appears to be filled with films of dancing, shimmery silk. Distances are hard to gauge, and horsemen disappear at no great distance on open plains. You see something coming towards you, but, until quite close you cannot tell whether it is a footman or a horseman, an emu or a bullock team, for all objects seem to float, sometimes to within speaking distance, till the haze flits beyond them, when they resume their normal shape and dimensions.
I have known the tanks and dams on one run to miss every storm through a whole summer, and the station has been virtually dried out, while an adjoining run has had every hole filled, and Mitchell grass growing like fields of wheat in almost every paddock; with only 12 miles separating two homesteads, one was centre of a dry and almost feedless run, and the other has stood in the midst of plenty. Another season might see the conditions of these two stations reversed. Homesteads that depend for water on tanks or dams are occasionally dried out when the drought is restricted to a small area; and in some cases, when it is too far to cart water for general use, the occupants remove to a tank or well on a distant part of the run, and where there may be a boundary-rider’s camp. Here tents, and perhaps a canvas humpy, and bough sheds are erected, and this is then the temporary headquarters of the station until sufficient rain enables the people to return home.
About the only natural hole of water that has any claim to permanency in the extreme north-west is that known as Depot Glen, near Mount Poole. This was the hole that Captain Sturt had the good fortune to strike on his last journey to the Central Desert when the whole country was sun scorched, barren, and gaping, and where Poole, the second in command, left his bones. Fish are fairly plentiful in this water. There are hundreds of creeks in the country around, and though there are many long and fairly deep holes in these, they give out if not yearly replenished by good rains. Dams are made in many of the creeks—a huge bank of earth, rocks, and boughs (for binding) being formed across a narrow neck to throw the water back. Many such dams are constructed at considerable expense, only to be swept away by the first flood that comes down. After heavy rains the water rushes down from the rocky hills with considerable force, and in places several miles in width, levelling fences, yards, and all such structures before it. At such times half that desert country presents the aspect of a vast inland sea; yet in a little while a man might perish of thirst following the winding creeks in search of a pothole. All that enormous bulk of water has run to waste, and the four winds begin to gather up the dust again.
One misses the elaborately constructed overflow dams so conspicuous in parts of Queensland, particularly west and north-west of Thurgominduh. Here in the Western Division the squatters go in more for excavated tanks, and the majority of these are too small to carry water through an average drought. Being exposed also to the strong winds they silt up rapidly, tons of dust being deposited in them during every dry storm, and the evaporation is very considerable. Roley-polies do a great amount of damage, and are a leading source of annoyance. These are huge white balls of grass and burrs—from two to three feet in diameter—that roll mile after mile across the plains, banking up against fences and completely smothering them, and bowling down into the unprotected tanks. In a few isolated places stub walls have been built as partial protection; but these are soon buried under sand, and “roley” takes a flying leap over them and goes gambolling on in triumph. Then marsupials, rabbits, and birds (all very numerous in the West) depend almost wholly on these tanks for water; and with this drain, added to the continual silting and evaporation, the watering capacity of the average tank for sheep is reduced by half.
Years of experience have taught the pastoralists many economic points in the excavating of tanks; and there is still room for much improvement. The open-fronted tanks, into which everything poured unchecked and played havoc with the batters, are no longer made; nor is the partially banked with a catch tank in front, from which the force of the overflow out huge gutters through the intervening space, carrying the silt into the main tank, or ploughed through the light wings and cut gutters down the outside of the bank. Banks nowadays are banked high all round with earth scooped out of the excavation. A small catch-tank is made at the top end, from which fluming is laid through the banked-up earth, having a self-acting valve on the inside, and from this a race made of galvanised iron, posts and rails, runs down to the bottom of the main tank. These tanks hold well if a foot of water is first run in, and the bottom and sides are puddled and trampled by putting a mob of sheep in and driving them round. The great bulk of the shifting sands is checked by the earth walls, but still a lot goes over. What is needed is a few good clumps of trees. Pepper trees grow well in this neighbourhood, and possibly the big willows of the eastern rivers would thrive round the margins of the catch tanks.
Tank-sinkers reaped a rich harvest in the early days of the north-west, getting a shilling a yard for excavating, which is now done for as low as fourpence. The station finds the plant—horses, ploughs, scoops, and harness. Bollocks are sometimes used for ploughing, but as a rule they are considered too slow and unwieldy. Horses are worked three and four abreast to save time in turning, and to prevent unnecessary climbing and consequent damage to the batters. Close by the work is a sapling yard, with grindstones, water tanks in drays, and a small forge for pointing shares and picks, and shoeing horses. The men live in tents walled in with bushes; and there is a long shed, walled and roofed with boughs for eating and cooking in; while out in front is a fire place, enclosed in a semicircular wall of stones to protect it from the wind. Round the fire, in this roofless enclosure the men sit and smoke their pipes and “swap yarns” after tea. Occasionally on moonlight nights they work an hour or two at the forge, repairing damaged swingle-bars or mounting new ones, and making horseshoes and scoop-handles. On Sunday morning a tank or two of water is carted, and a load of dry mulga or gidgee for camp use. The tanksinker makes hay while the sun shines, working from daylight till dark. Then the horses are driven away to water and feed, a sheep is killed by starlight, and now and again a bag of grass is cut and carried home on the pommel of the saddle for the hack, which is kept in the yard all night for running up the draught horses in the morning.
Many stations have wells to tide them over bad times when the tanks give out. These are fitted with pumps or buckets, worked by hand, windmill, whim, or portable steam engine; and the water is pumped into huge open tanks—often made of galvanised sheet iron and tin, tacked on to a rough wooden frame—from which the troughs are fed. In very dry summer months pumping goes on day and night, with short lapses to allow water to “make” in the well. Well-sinking provided lucrative employment to many before tanks came into general favour, and men followed it as a regular trade. But so many were sunk without striking an adequate supply of water that tanks were found to be the cheaper, if less permanent. Tebooburra has both a Government well and a Government tank; but the mining population of this place, as also that of Milparinka and Mount Browne, depend principally on soakages. Many have cemented underground tanks, and nearly all householders have iron tanks standing at the corners of the buildings, the water being caught from the roofs. A great many stations have underground tanks at the homesteads, where rainwater is conserved for household use. This is precious fluid in drought time, and a gallon bag of it is a welcome Christmas or birthday present to those who are forced to subsist for months at a stretch on dam or soakage water.
We were shifting from Grafton to Myrtle Creek, where Jack—Big Jack, as we called him—had taken up a selection. There are numerous selections about there now, and the railway will soon be roaring through the giant gums, to the wonder of many men and women who have never seen such things; but at the time we trekked it was all virgin forest. Only half of the road was cleared of timber, and very little of that was metalled. In wet seasons the unformed highways north of the Clarence would bog a duck, and the drip, drip of the everlasting trees makes the roughest bush camp look cheerful and cosy by comparison.
The rain started soon after we did, and before sundown we had left the macadamised road, and got well on into difficulties. We had two teams, and a combined muster of ten bullocks. Jack had charge of six and a small waggon, while I endeavoured to make the other four pull an old dray. We were loaded only with household effects, tools, rations, and a coop of fowls, and with fair weather we might have got through our 50-mile journey comfortably in a week; but the Fates were against us.
Neither of us knew much about bullock driving, and the bullocks were a bad lot. They took very little notice of what we said, and when we laid the whip on to the leaders they would run off and tangle the whole team up. Once Jack’s team ran right off the road, knocked down part of an old two rail fence, and bolted down a paddock. We both ran after it, one on each side, yelling “Whey!” till the off front wheel caught against a small spotted gum and stopped them. It was hard work cutting that tree down from behind the wheel and when it fell it nearly crippled two bullocks and set them going again. We shooed them towards the road, and got back at the expense of another panel of fence. Another hour was lost repairing the damage, and then we got into heavy ground. At the foot of a hill my off leader jibbed, and when we proceeded to infuse some energy into him with a waddy he lay down and sulked. We left the team there while we took the waggon to the top of the hill, where we intended to camp. Then we returned with the six bullocks for the dray. Spot—the sulker—still refused to get up, and finally we had to unyoke him and “spare-chain” him out of the way. He got up later on, and followed us to camp.
There was a drizzling rain all the time, and, as we couldn’t take the tarpaulin off the furniture, we had to make a camp under the waggon, crawling in and out on hands and knees. A cow hide and a sheet of tin served us for mattresses on the wet ground, and, with a lot of patience, we managed to get a good log fire going under a sheet of bark behind the waggon. It wasn’t a safe place to sleep, and we thought of the teamster who, years ago, slept under his dray on rain-softened ground, and during the night the wheels sank till the bed of the dray pinned him to the earth. But our waggon didn’t play us any scurvy trick like that. We were stoking most of the night, and also lost much rest driving ‘possums away from the rations.
We had only gone about a mile next day when Spot jibbed, and had to be dragged off the road again. He followed us for the rest of the day. He was a great bullock to follow. He got to like being a spare bullock so well that as soon as the yoke was put on him in the morning he would lie down, with an injured expression on his face, and we had to unyoke him again, and shift out of his way. This left us with a workable team of eight, which necessitated a change in our mode of progression. We would draw the waggon along for a mile or two, then return with the team for the old dray. Jack drove the near side bullocks, and I looked after their mates on the off side. This enabled us to keep on the road much more than usual, but still we got bogged pretty often. We managed to dig our way out in most cases, but occasionally we had to unload as well, and load up again on firm ground.
Our greatest cause of annoyance were the registered gates on the road. They weren’t wide enough, and, though we took every precaution, the posts still evinced a desire to come with us. Generally we only pulled down one, but occasionally the team would become obstreperous, and we would be considerably put out on seeing the waggon knock down one post and the dray bowl over the other. It cost us a lot of time and hard labour putting in gateposts on the way over.
Old teamsters will tell you that a bullock whip is a formidable weapon when you know how to use it, and most effective in “putting the come-hither” on the off-siders. We had got down to one whip—made of remnants. It looked formidable enough, but in its wet and flabby state it was as awkward as it was useless. The thing would cling to the handle, get fast round the yokes and chains, or encircle your neck like a wet dishcloth, just when you wanted to get the “come-hither” on Snider at a critical moment. Nothing could get a crack out of it, except when the handle snapped in the middle; and it left big, wet, muddy streaks on an animal’s ribs—when you got it that far without knocking your eye out. As a rule, Jack used to flop it on the road, and say “Whoosh!” which answered just as well.
Crossing Myall Creek our coop fell off and broke, and half the fowls got out. We tried to catch them with damper crumbs; but they seemed to prefer grasshoppers. So we had to run them down, and in the process left half our clothes hanging on tenacious, myall twigs. That, same afternoon the dray brushed a dead iron-bark tree, and a sheet of loose bark, about 40ft long, came down on top of the bullock horse, completely covering him. He hung back so prodigiously that the greenhide halter snapped, and, with head and tail erect, and snorting like a locomotive, he started back for Grafton at full gallop. Luckily we had made a secure job of the last gate we passed through, and there we got him after a two-mile walk.
We reached the selection on the eleventh day, and a dozen ducks flew off as we drew up at a small waterhole. Here, under a tree, we stood a table and a couple of chairs, and had our first dinner on the “estate.” The grass grew knee deep around us, and in every direction stretched a vast forest of giant trees. A couple of emus walked past as the billy boiled, and a mob of kangaroos stared at us from the hill. The clink-clonk of the bullock bells died away in the distance, and at sundown the kookaburras laughed at us from the trees, and a swarm of mosquitoes came to welcome us to our new home.
Those who have been used to the comparatively comfortable coach travelling of the coastal districts cannot readily accommodate themselves to the altered conditions pertaining to the far west, where there are only little patches of made roads, no bridges or culverts across the creeks, and the distance from house to house ranges from 20 to 50 miles. The bush track winds like a serpent across the hills and through the forests of mulga and gidgea, whilst over the soft sand beds the tracks are as manifold as the beds and billabongs of an inland river, showing the many deviations made by drivers in their desire to save the horses. The latter, fed mostly on mulga and saltbush, are not always in the pink of condition, and the ever recurring droughts keep their strength at a pretty low ebb. The long stages, ranging up to 30 miles, and the immense loads that are piled on the great lumbering vehicles, are terribly severe on horseflesh, even when weather conditions are favourable.
Sitting behind knocked-up horses on a hot summer’s day, with dust and flies for accompaniment to the creaking of wheels and the rocking of a crawling coach, is an experience that the far-back traveller can look forward to without fear of disappointment. Sometimes, to avoid being stuck up, they have to walk over the bad places, and when there is a big load on they dig the sand and mud away with shovel, always kept on board for the purpose, and “spoke the wheels.” It seems like working one’s passage, but the westerners are used to that sort of thing, and pay their fares—amounting from 6d to 9d per mile—without demurs.
On the 200-mile journey between Tibooburra and Broken Hill, I and others, after sitting cramped up with numbed and shivering limbs for hours on a winter’s night in a crawling vehicle, have got out and walked five or six miles to the “mail-change” for a cup of tea, and have then enjoyed an hour or more’s sleep before the coach turned up. By this I do not wish to infer that the general run of outback coaches are slow affairs; but over portions of the rough and heavy roads it is impossible for such vehicles to travel at a faster rate than a slow walk. Though the casual passenger may at times grumble at having to use his natural means of locomotion after paying for a through ride, he does not think how the unfortunate whip, tied to his worn-out team, envies him his freedom, and wishes that he could step down likewise and walk away.
The western whip is a man of cast-iron constitution, and he needs to be. The exigencies of his calling require him to be on the box for 50 hours at a stretch, with only a day or two, and at one end of the trip only, a night’s rest between trips. Winter and summer, sunshine and rain, he works all day and all night, and all next day and right on through the night again without a spell, stopping only at the changes for fresh horses and refreshments, and refreshments on this route vary from eight to 18 hours apart. The changes are mostly wayside pubs., where little knots of people await the coming of the mail, and a good stiff whisky brightens up things considerably; but intermittently there is only a sapling yard and a tent, or bough shed, and the groom being a bachelor, living on damper and salt mutton, rationed out, you feel constrained to fast for another 10 or 12 miles. The conscientious whip has a snack at these places when alone, but refrains when he has passengers aboard.
At one place the passengers and driver walked nearly a mile off the road to an old roughly-built hut, where the groom’s wife supplied a substantial dinner for 2s a head. The dining-room was a bough-covered skillion at the back, and you sat on long forms before a narrow table made out of packing cases that called up recollections of shearers’ huts. But everything was spotlessly clean, the women were homely and chatty, and though mine host carved in a short-sleeved flannel, open at the neck, and bearing signs of recent hard graft, we felt very grateful as we climbed on board again.
We had a new experience at Packsaddle Station, where the road crosses a wide sandy creek. There had been rain in this neighbourhood, and the roads were heavy and creeks running. The up coach was met here—bogged in midstream—and the driver and a passenger were wading knee-deep in water, one at the horses’ heads and one “spoking,” while a Chinaman, bound for a border station, handled the ribbons and shouted instructions from the box. “Pullee gley ‘orse round more better,” he cried. “Hit ‘em the black cow—my wor’, lazy blute. Gee up, horsee.” We halted on the bank, and our leaders were transferred to the bogged team. Our amiable whip also stepped bare-legged into the water, and with their combined efforts the Royal Mail was rescued from the bog.
Now came our turn. Paddy, the driver, rushed them in so as to take the stiff part at a run. Alas, the pole-hook pulled out, and the leaders dashed away with the reins, leaving us stranded in the middle of the creek. Luckily the damage was easily repaired, and there were plenty of horses, and we got out of our difficulties after about an hour’s delay.
The coach-driver bears a great deal more responsibility than he is given credit for. Those who travel with him over the rough bush tracks of the west may well be said to place their lives in his keeping. Think of the many steep and nasty gullies crossed in the dead of night; the deep gutters, begotten of old time wheel tracks, that run parallel with the road on the down grades, where the least swerve might mean a capsize; the twistings through timber, where the road swings sharply round a stump or tree, or round the foot of a rugged ridge with the steep bank of a creek in juxtaposition, and you get some idea of what you owe to his steady hand, his keen eye, and his memory of the road, as he bowls you on through the long night. Half your time you can see nothing but a black bank before you, for through the sand beds, and over the stony plains and the powdery, grassless flats, the road is invisible, yet the horses swing on with an unfaltering stride that instills within you a sense of security. Commercials, and others whose avocations take them over many roads, know how to appreciate a good whip; they know what depends on the hand that holds the reins.
On very dark nights, when the skies are clouded, it occasionally happens that the road is missed, On a barren plain below Wonnaminta, where the track is hard to discern even when starlit, we got astray one night, and were two hours searching with coach lamps and matches for the track. Then, again, the low wire fences of the sheep runs that cross the track, and the ill-constructed gates, made wholly of small round timber and unpainted, are invisible until the horses are almost on top of them; yet the Royal Mail always leaves the fences and gates intact. I know a squatter in this neighbourhood who drove a buggy and pair over two five-wire fences one night without knowing it. He swore he was sober, too.
Throughout the summer months there is always the dreaded north-west dust storm to be reckoned with, and driving through one of these is worse than any night, for at times nothing can be seen, and the dust-blinded horses strive continually to turn from the blast. Once the Hungerford-Bourke coach was blown over and dragged across the driver, who, however, escaped without serious injury. During unusually heavy storms the team is mostly turned tail to the wind, and a halt is made until the worst has blown over.
Some extraordinary loads are carried on these backblock coaches. When it is mentioned that besides drapery, spirits and tobacco, such items as butter, fruit, bacon, hams, meat, vegetables, wool-sheets, tents, boots, &c, are sent through parcels post, it can be imagined what the non-postal matter is like. Every available inch of space is occupied, and bags of chaff and other bulky light stuff are piled on top to a height of several feet, particularly on the up trips. Then there are the passengers—generally a mixed lot. Coming down you might have a Chinaman on one side, a nigger on the other, and a couple of manacled prisoners, with a policeman on either side, on the opposite seat. And there is no room to stretch your legs, or to lean back; you are compelled to sit huddled in the one position mile after mile, hour after hour. It is very cheerful.
Floods—the backblock flood is an uncertain and treacherous element. One visitation may be the cause of forming a hard, level crossing, whilst with the next a washaway may occur, and the unsuspecting driver goes into it, his horses are drowned, his coach wrecked, and mails and baggage are distributed over miles of country. I saw one such disaster on the Mount Browne route a few years ago, and it happened only an hour after the mail had left Tibooburra. Four horses, I think, were drowned, and the driver only escaped after a very severe struggle.
Other and worse accidents happen at times, no matter how careful and steady a driver may be, as witness the smash on the Tarcoola (S.A.) track in October, 1902. The horses bolted near Wilgena station, and overturned the coach. The driver sustained a fractured collarbone, fractured ribs, and severe contusions, and the one passenger, a lady, had both legs broken. Both lay helpless by the roadside until accidentally discovered by a passing stockman. Probably the worst disaster in the annals of backblock coaching was that which overtook the Powell’s Creek and Anthony’s Lagoon (N.T.) mail, when the driver, passengers, and horses perished on a dry stage for want of water.
On the roads trending west from Bourke, and Broken Hill it often happens in midsummer that horses drop dead in harness from the excessive heat, and the driver, if unable to proceed with his weakened team, rides off to the nearest station, or to the next mail change, for fresh horses, while the passengers guard the coach and beguile the time the best way they can. While coming into Tibooburra one night a horse dropped from exhaustion, and the coach was pulled on to it before the team could be stopped. The coo-ees of the driver attracted a dozen of us to the scene, and after lifting the coach off the prostrate animal, and disentangling the others from the broken pole, we took hold fore and aft and rolled her on to the post office. This, however, might be considered a good “finish” when compared with the experience of a North Queensland mailman who, when his horses “caved in,” completed the last two days on foot, carrying the mailbags on his back.
The contract drover in Western Queensland is a man of note, and spends many a convivial evening with station managers along the stock route, thus escaping the weariness of the road, and making a pleasure trip of what is to others a continual round of hard work. Some of them simply ride from station to station, or from station to town, living in comfort and luxury, and leaving the stock to the care of the “second-in-charge.” There are others who never leave the mob, whose whole interests are centred in their charges, and who take every possible care of individual beasts through day and night. These are the men most sought for by owners, who obtain the best prices, and have often more offers than they can undertake, despite the fact that some of them keep two or three plants going, taking stock down on different routes, or from different stations on the same route. Sometimes the work is sublet, but subletting of any kind of work is highly objectionable in the Far West. Mostly the extra mobs are placed in charge of weekly men who have gained a reputation for good droving on previous trips with the contractor; or, again, the drover may be one of a company, the members sharing all proceeds equally. These men engage in no other work than piloting cattle from place to place, though many relinquish it to take up the duties of “cattle buyer” for some big stock company, or to manage a station.
The movements of these drovers, whether with stock or not, are regularly reported by many Queensland papers as Sydney journals report the movements of ships. Their names are known over thousands of miles of Queensland, where more prominence is given to cattlemen than in any other State of Australia. If you met a traveller on the road and mentioned that you had passed a mob of cattle, he would immediately ask, “Who’s in charge?” If you supplied the name, the traveller, nine times out of ten, could give you the drover’s history, his good and bad points, the standard of his victualling, where he learned to ride and what cattle he first went on the road with, and all the rest of it. If he happened to be a stranger, the query would be, “What kind of a drover is he?” There are two main kinds or classes of drovers, the contract and the weekly drover, and these are graded into many subordinate classes.
The contract drover gets either so much per head per hundred miles, generally from 1s to 1s 6d; or he agrees to deliver the mob at their destination for a lump sum. The uninitiated would expect little or no difference in working conditions under the alternative terms of agreement; but there is such a wide margin that many experienced men will not accept work under the lump-sum contractor if employment is to be had under the man who is being paid according to mileage. The former has, in the majority of cases a short trip and good cattle, and as time is money, he takes the shortest cut and rushes them along, no matter how bad the feed and water may be, and he is mostly short-handed and scantily accoutered and provisioned. He averages 20 to 25 miles a day, which is as much as a horseman will cover on the return journey; and thus it takes the men as long to go back empty-handed as it look them to go down with cattle; and, considering that the hours are from 10 to 20 a day, and their horses have been half starved on the trip, the monetary result is unsatisfactory.
The other man’s trip is always a long one, and he has to be content with an average stage of 12 to 15 miles to get his stock through in anything like creditable condition. He doesn’t look for short cuts; he takes every advantage of current reports as to scarcity of feed and water on the usual routes to make a detour, and while he is at it he generally makes a very material sweep to escape even the suspicion of bad country. The longest way home is the shortest way to fortune, and he aims at travelling as many hundreds of miles as possible. The men make big cheques, and after travelling 1000 miles with the cattle can often ride back to the starting point in a third of the distance. Besides which, if he has the proper plant—waggonette and team, the hall-mark of the “big guns”—there is an abundance of provisions, adequate cuisine, camping requisites, and other, necessary accoutrements for a long journey. He also kills his own meat on the road, and loads up with vegetables whenever a Chinaman’s garden comes handy.
With a waggonette a man can carry a bigger swag, containing many comforts that he has to deny himself under the regime of the packhorse drover, and there is not half the trouble of rolling up and packing, and comparatively no risk of losing things. Neither are the men compelled, as with most of the pack drovers, to carry quart-pots on their saddles, and lunch in their pockets or saddle pouches, for the waggonette carries a drum of water for tea, and the tucker box being always get-atable without unpacking, it can pull up at any spot that is convenient for the men for lunch. The cattle invariably camp for awhile at noon, and the men not infrequently enjoy a siesta, especially with the weekly drover, at the same time. Each man carries a boomerang-shaped water-bag swung under his horse’s neck, the side which lies against the animal’s chest being protected with leather.
Itinerant bush workers regard the pack horse drover with a degree of contempt, for the hampered cook seldom has any provisions or rations to spare, everything being carried on a couple of pack horses. Some are liberal enough to all comers as far as their means go, for it is one of the unwritten rules of the track that drovers, like shearers, should feed all travellers that come along. The waggonette man has full and plenty, and his “travellers’ bill” amounts to a goodly sum on a long trip. He is the best mark that the swag man knows next to a shearing shed, for the swagman gets a supper and breakfast equal to anything provided in a country hotel, and a supply of flour, tea, and sugar, and enough meat to last him a week. Swagmen always inquire for the whereabouts of big drovers, and meet them with such constancy that the victimised cattlemen are at times inclined to think that all Australia is on the “walkabout.” They meet more travellers in a day than the other man meets in a week.
These drovers are given a few head of cattle at the start for killing on the road. In some cases a certain percentage is allowed for losses on the road, over and above which the drover has to pay for at the purchase price per head; in others, probably the more general rule, he is required to produce the marked ears and brands of all that die from poverty, disease, or other natural causes, or as the result of unforeseen accidents, for which man cannot reasonably be held responsible, which is to guard against losses off camp at night, during stampedes, and through carelessness in passing through scrubs and forests by day. Cattle may be very simply dropped, and they string off very easily either at night or during the day, unless carefully and continually guarded by every man. I have seen them string off behind a man on an open plain and box with strange cattle half a mile away. But that sort of thing is rank carelessness. Getting bogged or smothered in a rush on a pothole is not a natural cause of death, but that is put down to poison weed, unusually luxuriant green feed, or something of the kind. No drover has yet invented a natural death for cattle actually lost, though the number can be minimised by the inclusion of the brands of cattle killed for meat; while some lost cattle, in favourable localities, are recorded is having disappeared in quicksands (together with one or two of the drover’s most valuable horses) and others are supposed to have developed tuberculosis, and deliberately committed suicide by going out into a river or lagoon where the checks couldn’t be obtained. I was once deputed to shoot nine stragglers, or crawlers, that were keeping the mob back while the horse-boy and cook followed and obtained the ears and brands. The entries in the drover’s diary showed a space of three weeks between the first and ninth death and the country was described as being so barren that a flea could be flogged across it by moonlight.
Cattle bred on some western stations are notorious rushers on the roads and can only be managed by experienced men. Good prices are obtained for droving those and no responsibility incurred. The reputation of the drover is a sufficient guarantee that they will be delivered with the least possible loss, for only good men will have any truck with them. I unknowingly dropped upon one of these mobs once at the back of Eurongella, and travelled with it for six weeks. During that time they passed only two nights without rushing—the first and the last. We spent half of one night up a tree. A couple of beasts had been crippled in a rush during the first watch and lay on the camp unnoticed. It was a dark night and the country was thickly timbered. Just as the mob would be brought back and rounded up one of the cripples would kick and moan in its agony, and in a second the whole herd would be crashing through the timber again in a wild panic. Twice they scattered the camp fire, and I believe if it had not been for the rattle of the tea bucket, as they bowled it over, they would have carried the tents and waggonette with them. Several were killed in stampedes during that trip, many more were crippled, and something like 150 horns were broken off.
It is surprising how quickly recumbent cattle can get into full swing. They may be all lying down, sleeping or chewing the cud, and everything perfectly still, and though the watchman sees nothing unusual and hears no sound, something startles them, and in a second they spring up like one beast, and the next moment there is only a cloud of dust over the camp where they had been lying. The watchman, shouting and whistling, gallops through thick and thin, to the lead to turn them, but takes care not to get directly in front. Sometimes they are easily and quickly turned, at other times they go at top speed for many miles. Once turned they are easily managed, for they ring, with a great clatter of horns and hoofs, and soon quieten down, when they can be brought back to camp with little trouble. During the stampede one hears no sound from them but the pounding of hoofs and crashing of timber, but when they turn and ring a multitudinous lowing and bellowing breaks on the night air. They are crying for their mates, from whom they have become separated in the inevitable jumble, for all drovers know that cattle have their fancies and friendships like human beings.
One hears a good deal about haunted camps, and of other strange and weird night experiences, where drovers are foregathered. There are many noted camps on main stock-routes in New South Wales and Queensland said to be haunted, on which no mob of cattle will stay the night. Common sense can hardly accept the ghost theory; but there is something about these camps that terrifies cattle and which could be explained, perhaps, if looked into. It might be merely the peculiar shape of a bush, a very limber tree bending low in the wind, a hawk or other bird nesting in a tree, or some singularity in the surroundings. The scent of a strange animal, too, will frequently cause a rush. Note how excited a horse will become on crossing a camel-track. Again, the “ghost” on many camps may turn out to be a carpet snake, which wanders at night. One beast has only to jump from it to start the whole mob, and, once they have rushed, the least thing in life will startle them again. It is the crushing that the majority get that makes them so terribly anxious to be up and away. We had a bullock in one mob we called “Rushing Rocket.” He was a very quiet bullock, and didn’t bother getting up in the first rush; but, when the hoofs began to pound him, his bellowing was something to remember. After that he always camped 20 or 30 yards out from the mob, with his head towards the bush. If a beast got up to stretch himself, or one coughed or switched its tail, “Rushing Rocket” would be on his pins and going for his very natural in one second. That bullock caused many a stampede through his anxiety to get a good start.
On cold nights the men sleep two and three and sometimes four in a tent, or in a circle round the fire, a chain or two away from the camping cattle. A common practice is for two men to make one bed with their blankets and sleep together. The nap of the man on watch is generally “borrowed” by his scantily covered mates. Men without overcoats, gloves, &c, use those of their mates, and timepieces are often passed round in the same way. One horse does duty all night, but with bad cattle another is kept ready saddled close to the cook’s fire for emergencies. These night horses as a rule are trusty, sure-footed, well trained animals. I have ridden many of them with slack reins when it was too dark to see the speeding cattle, or when doubtful as to the exact whereabouts of a wire fence.
Some drovers light fires around the camp, others do not believe in them, as the flitting of the horseman from shadow to light is apt to startle cattle that have been drowsing. He has also to dismount occasionally to replenish the fires. A drover many years ago got off at a fire to light his pipe, and while doing so the cattle stampeded in his direction. He tried to mount, but they swept upon him before he had time to do so, and both horse and man were killed.
Riding slowly round the cattle hour after hour is tiresome, monotonous work, and on stormy or rainy nights, when the cattle are restless, it is a misery. The watchman is supposed to whistle or sing all the time, and he has also to keep a sharp look-out for bush cattle, which come in if not driven away from the vicinity, or whose presence entice the cattle off camp; and there is either a box-up, necessitating a lot of drafting next day, or some are lost and not missed until the next count, when it is probably too late to find them.
The mob is counted once or twice a week. A very few make it a rule to count off camp every morning, a practice that involves a considerable loss of time. The mob is allowed to draw off to a point, then the horsemen form a line, through which they pass in a continuous string. The man in charge sits on his horse a little in advance, and at every hundred calls out “tally,” while the man next him, provided with a stick and a knife, cuts a notch to correspond. Cattle soon get used to this procedure, and give little trouble in breaking round the horsemen.
The best man to travel with is the weekly drover. He is never in a hurry, as the more weeks he puts in the more money it means to him. He works full-handed, has no responsibilities worth mentioning, keeps the camp well provisioned, and doesn’t harass his men. If he has a waggonette, cook, and horse-boy, droving under him is one of the most enjoyable occupations in the bush, and one can better appreciate the ever-changing scenery, the sights of numerous station homesteads, townships, and the fascinating panorama of a thousand-mile trip. Those who return with the plant have merry times on the way, and many a pleasant hour is spent fishing and shooting, with an occasional “fling” at a wayside pub.
Cattle drovers are not troubled much by boundary-riders; but those gentry keep pretty close on the heels of the sheep man, “seeing him” from boundary to boundary, and keeping him rigidly within the regulation limit on either side of the road. All drovers look upon boundary-riders as black sheep; they are the watchdogs that guard the choice pastures and the good waterholes, and compel the drover to travel the specified number of miles from camp to camp.
A favorite evening pastime in the bush is ‘possum shooting, which is indulged in by young and old. Hundreds of thousands were shot on the Northern Rivers by the early settlers merely for sport, the animals, after being worried by the dogs, being left to rot under the trees where they fell, or to be eaten by crows and eagle-hawks next day. Of late years bushmen have become more economical, and a considerable amount of money is made by preserving and exporting the skins, many people making a living wholly by this means. One man on the Richmond River in the Winter of 1902 accounted for 16 dozen in a week, his record being 63 in one night. Besides the marketable value of the skins, it has been found that the flesh of the ‘possum makes an excellent food for fowls and pigs, and it figured also on many a back-block table during the late drought as the best meat then obtainable.
There is a fascination in ‘possum shooting by moonlight that very few can resist. Many a mile I have tramped on Summer nights, when a boy, carrying the ammunition bag, and sometimes a gun of my own, wading knee-deep through dew-wet grass, over gullies and along thickly timbered ridges,
OFTEN MEETING WITH SNAKES,
and occasionally treading on one. Beyond a momentary scare, such as a quail gives on being flushed from under one’s feet, we thought little of that, and within a few minutes would be sidling blindly round a tree, mooning the branches.
We were mostly assisted by a couple of good dogs, which, the moment we stepped out with the guns, would rush off with their noses to the ground until they struck the scent, or put up a ‘possum that was caught wandering in quest of better trees. Under the purring animal they would squat, and bark at intervals, until the shooters came on the scene. It is more comfortable and satisfactory to wander slowly and aimlessly along till the dogs bark than to do one’s own hunting, for much mooning tells severely on the neck. Arrived at the tree, you get it between you and the moon, and, searching first the lower limbs, gradually work up to the higher branches until the game is discovered. ‘Possy sits very still, mostly in a fork, during this operation; though some remain boldly exposed, purring defiantly at dog and man. The pointed ears and frosted-like outline of the furry body shows clearly against the face of the moon, and makes a good target. The animal is easily killed, and drops with a heavy thud at the first shot. The ring-tail, however, cannot always be depended on to fall, even when killed outright. I saw
NINE SHOTS FIRED INTO ONE THAT HUNG BY THE TAIL
under a limb, and it hung there for two days afterwards. I have also known the common brown ‘possums to hang a considerable time when wounded. Some people aver that it will feign death by hanging thus when practically unhurt, but this is only one of the many fairy tales with which old hands were wont to entertain the gullible new-chum. Scores of like tales are in circulation, and form the basis of heated argument even among many present-day Colonials, and it will be a long while yet ere the jumble of fact and fiction is thoroughly sifted in the public mind. Generally a ‘possum, if it escapes severe injury when fired at, will scamper up to a higher branch, or spring into an adjacent tree.
When the light is bad, a damp match head is placed on the end of the barrel to sight by. But dark shooting has its disadvantages. I knew a farmer who, using a muzzle-loader, used to carry pieces of newspaper in his pocket for wadding. One night, in his enthusiasm, he forgot that he also carried a five-pound note, having that afternoon returned from town, and discovered next morning that he had shot it away. He spent the whole day searching around trees where he had fired, but only found a few valueless scraps. I have seen a good deal of ammunition fired away, too, at deceptive knobs, birds’ nests, and broken limbs.
The best time for shooting or trapping for skins is Winter, and to those who follow the pursuit for a living, tramping from tree to tree in the cold, freezing hours of early morn, it is anything but sport. On the Upper Clarence last Winter a man named Barton had both feet frost-bitten, and had to crawl several miles for assistance. He was found in a starving condition, and, after being taken to the hospital, had to have both feet amputated.
Chasing ‘possums from tree to tree with sticks, and pelting them off low limbs, is better sport, and more exciting than shooting. They can travel at a good pace on the ground, and are very nimble climbers. Their favorite trees seem to be the gum, apple, and box. They are not, however, strictly vegetarian. While travelling in different parts of Queensland, and camping out at night, I have often
HAD MY TUCKER-BAG DRAGGED AWAY
from my head and rifled by ‘possums. They would gnaw or tear a hole through it, and sample everything it contained. So inquisitive are they in this respect that I have seen them lapping cold tea in the billy can. They are gluttons for sugar, and have also a decided penchant for damper and cooked corned beef. They are also fond of grain. At many bush camps it is necessary to hang all tucker to wires run through an inverted jam-tin to escape these nocturnal marauders.
I remember some exciting experiences we had years ago on the Serpentine Lagoon, near Casino. We were making watering places for cattle, and were nightly pestered by ‘possums gambolling over our bark gunyah. When all was quiet, and we would be dozing off to sleep, half a dozen would drop lightly on to the roof, and, after purring defiance at us for a while, would slide down the sides, for mere devilment, it seemed, and then race full speed to the top again. Presently “Long Bill” would steal out with a pair of boots in each hand, and as these clattered on the roof, and ‘possums leaped right and left and hurried for the nearest trees, the neighboring hills would echo his boisterous laughter. Then he would pick up a long stick, and, with ear-splitting yells, race wildly through the timber, slashing in the most erratic manner at the astonished little gambollers. I don’t think he ever hurt anything, barring himself; but I lost a good pair of boots before the watering-places were finished. Bill missed the humpy with them one night in his excitement, and they disappeared in the lagoon.
One night on the Boyne River, Queensland, I went for an hour’s ramble with an old station hand.
THE FIRST ‘POSSUM WE SIGHTED
was perched on the cap of the stockyard gate— a capital shot for a boy with a catapult. Old Mat stood about ten yards off and let fly. The ‘possum sprang off the cap and ran up a tree, from a dark limb of which it purred mockingly at Mathew.
“Fust thing I ever missed in me life!” he said, in a surprised sort of way. “A bloomin’ moth bobbed in me eye just as I pulled. They do be bobbin’ about a lot to-night,” he added, apologetically.
He started to re-load under the tree while I mooned the ‘possum. Catching it in a splendid position, without giving a thought to my preoccupied mate, I let drive. Down it came thump on the old fellow’s head. It was mortally wounded, and for a few seconds clung desperately to his neck. The involuntary yell he emitted, and his subsequent roars or terror and agony, startled the men in the huts, and they ran, bootless and hatless, for the yard, believing some terrible accident had happened. We were violently arbitrating across a two railed fence when they came panting up. I endeavored to explain matters, while the indignant and enraged Mat continued to call me all the mean, despicable rapscallions that ever fired a shot on the snaggyfied Bine. When the combined laughter of the men rang out, he shut up like a spring-trap, and made a precipitate plunge into darkness. That ended our ‘possum shooting on the Boyne.
The ‘possum is not very widely distributed through Australia, being found mainly along the east coast, and not very far inland. A couple of species, however, are found in W.A., while the black ‘possum, which has a fine glossy fur and bushy tail, is found only in Tasmania. North Queensland has many pretty species, including the striped ‘possum (dactylopsila trivirgata), which extends to New Guinea. The Herbert River country has two rather black species in the sombre ‘possum (pseudochirus lemuroides) and the Herbert River ‘possum (P. herbertensis), both differing very much from the common species. I have also shot some very black specimens of the ring tailed ‘possum on the Richmond River.
Besides ‘possums, the sportsman in his night rambles encounters the ‘flying squirrel, tiger cat, native cat, koala, brush-tailed pouch mouse, and several smaller animals. The dasyures and brush-tailed mouse (phascologale penicillata), commonly known as the bushy-tailed rat, are hard to sight, being small, and both crouch flat on a limb. They are
DESPISED BY SPORTSMEN,
and would be little shot but for the raids they make on the fowl roosts. The spotted cuscus of Northern Queensland is better game. Though larger, than a ‘possum, it is not as easily sighted, being comparatively earless. It has a long prehensile tail, the latter half of which is hairless, and is altogether a peculiar-looking animal.
Some of the flying squirrels are pretty little creatures, particularly those of Queensland, but most of them are hard to shoot. As often as not the squirrel will greet the discharge of your gun with its characteristic squeal, and, spreading its parachute, float majestically away to another tree. It can go only a short distance through the air, and its flight is always downwards. It alights low down on the tree trunk and climbs up. I have seen many a one followed and caught by dogs before it could climb out of reach; but where the trees are not too widely separated the dog has no chance. Shooters, who mostly pass it by, can distinguish it at night from the ‘possum by its much longer tail.
The koala is encased in a tough skin that frequently defies ordinary shot. One of the most pathetic scenes I ever witnessed was the shooting of a koala one afternoon on the Richmond River. Unlike the other animals mentioned above, the koala does not usually seek the seclusion of a hollow by day, but sleeps on a limb, or
SQUATTED IN A FORK OF A TREE.
The female, with its young one perched on its back, thus forms a conspicuous object. The one referred to was perched on a bare limb of a big red gum, and seven shots were fired at it without shifting it from its position. Beyond slightly flinching and emitting an occasional snort, it took little heed of the first four shots; but at each subsequent discharge it raised its arm slowly and pawed at the air. It seemed to me that the poor brute was dumbly entreating its persecutor to cease, as a wounded man might motion with his hand. Even the callous heart of its would-be slayer was touched at last, and after the seventh shot he desisted.
Even when killed the koala frequently cheats its slayer by hanging with its powerful claws to a limb. It is very slow in its movements, and I have often surprised an old male on the ground in daytime. The solemn-looking creature is seldom in a hurry to escape, showing at time a placid indifference to man; but it will defend itself fiercely with tooth and claws. It makes a tremendous row when fighting; and when the combat commences in the tree tops it mostly ends in a thumping fall to the ground. With a parting snort or two, and the little eyes blinking savagely, it climbs slowly and tediously back into the tree.
The koala always descends backwards, while ‘possums and dasyures descend head first. The tailless one is often the sport of kingfishers and peewits, and one hears the strong teeth strike hard together as the old koala makes an occasional snap at his tormentors.
‘POSSUMS CAN SWIM.
Most ‘possums are fair swimmers, and spring readily into water when pursued; that is, of course, if a tree, is not handy. I have never yet seen a koala in water, though I once saw one floating down the Orara on a small log, and, judging by the keen interest it showed in overhanging trees, it did not appreciate its position.
Coming down once from Solferina to Yulgilbar I counted eight koalas in one tree. Like the ‘possum, it was once very numerous in that well-timbered country, despite the ceaseless calls upon its ranks by aborigines. It is now very rare, and it is only a matter of time when one of the most conspicuous of Australian animals will have altogether disappeared. The ‘possum, which is more strictly nocturnal, and hiding away by day, has a better chance of surviving; but it, too, must go; in fact, the same might be said of all the more important of our native fauna, which, years hence, will be seen only in the museums and the zoological gardens.
The fossicker is a class of miner mostly found on small fields, or in the neighbourhood of old alluvial workings. Unlike the prospector, who goes abroad, and seeks for possible treasure in new country, and is the pioneer of the goldfield, the precursor of all rushes, the fossicker comes in at the tail end, remaining on the field when the more ambitious miners have adjudged it worked out, and have passed on to better-paying quarters. There is always a big percentage of old men among them, and a good sprinkling of Chinamen. These old men have probably been the pioneers of many a field; have been hardy, vigorous, and eager miners, in the forefront of many a rush, and have followed the illusive glamour of gold from one end of Australia to the other; but at last dropped out of the ranks, and settled on the “poor man’s field,” to potter about, day after day, in one locality, satisfied to get sufficient to live on, until the time comes to peg out the final claim.
There are others who fossick all over the country, never making a home, but ever moving on from place to place, and carrying a limited kit of very small, light tools. After a long run of bad luck, one of these will take a job for a while on a station, to earn a pound or two for necessaries. His swag contains many little parcels of stones and gems, gathered from everywhere, carefully tied up in pieces of rag and old socks. In a general way, he is known as a prospector, and likes to call himself such; but a man who merely hen-scratches about the country, and, being mostly a hatter, hasn’t the means or ability to sink a shaft deeper than shovel-throw—and only an odd one has tools to do that—is a rather superficial sort of prospector, fossicker fits him better, notwithstanding he makes at times some sensational finds, as when he strikes the outcrop of a big reef, or hits on a shallow corner of a rich alluvial flat. The true prospector is accoutred with a somewhat cumbersome plant for deep sinking, tents, cooking utensils, etc., and at times spends weeks putting down a single shaft; but whether he bottoms a duffer or “strikes it rich” doesn’t disturb his equanimity much, for he is generally supported by tributers, often by a syndicate of working men, and, after he has descended a certain depth, by Government. Men prospecting for opal at White Cliffs receive varying allowances per foot—according to formation of strata—from Government, for sinking and driving, in specified localities. I once spent a little while with two prospectors, who were sinking on the side of a stony ridge, between Leyburn and Texas, Queensland. These men had been supported for two years by four station hands, working in the vicinity, and, though nothing payable had been struck during that time, the latter were still daily expecting the long-delayed summons to throw up their billets and go mining. It is a pity that the system is not more general throughout the country, for there is plenty of gold yet in Australia waiting to be discovered. The pursuit is healthy and fascinating; there is always a promise, a prospect of fortune; but it needs grit, patience, and perseverence. Many a man has become discouraged after working for mouths without any lucrative result, and “chucked it” when he has been within a pick-thrust of his reward, as exemplified by diggers going into abandoned shafts and striking a big nugget or a rich pocket within a few minutes. There is always hope in mining.
The Albert goldfield, better known as Mount Browne, is a good example of the fossicker’s happy hunting ground. It is the driest and most western field in New South Wales, dotted with conical piles of gibbers, and surrounded by treeless, stony hills, resembling the kopjes of South Africa, The peculiarities, of this field had a fascination for that much-travelled geologist, the Rev. Walker Curran. Though mostly butterfly ground, the colour can be got almost anywhere, the average sinking on the flats being about 4 or 5 feet, and in the cement hills 10ft. A stranger riding or driving into the township of Tibooburra runs a risk of breaking his neck through the broken ground, the half filled shafts and earth heaps, menacing him on all sides, and reaching to within a few feet of the houses; the one quarter-mile street ends abruptly on a honeycombed flat, across which runs a zigzag path, in places only a foot wide, and the whole neighbourhood has the appearance of a gigantic warren.
Hidden in all manner of nooks and corners among the piles of gibbers are some of the most primitive, picturesque, and peculiar habitations to be found anywhere in the Commonwealth. Every advantage is taken of depressions, pockets, and other adaptable formations in the rock heaps; so that it often happens that two or three of the four walls of a house consist of rough rock in irregular position as nature placed them, being roofed over with stones, tin, iron, or tarpaulin. Often the sleeping room is merely a large tent, sheltered in among the rocks, with a living room in front built wholly of bushes. Canvas houses are the most common, the walls being of cheap canvas or hessian, and the roof covered with iron, or a conglomeration of other material. A fireplace, made of small, uneven boulders and pug, fills one end, while the one door, made of packing cases, or straightened-out kerosene tins (in some cases there is only a bag curtain), is generally close beside it. There is also the inevitable bough-shed attached. In open places the whole is surrounded with a bush break. These structures are nearly always low, and one stoops under the lintel, and is at once aware of the stuffiness and dampness of the whole place, and wonders where the seven or eight youngsters that gape from all corners find sleeping room. There is seldom more than one bed, but shakedowns are made on the floor where the families are large.
Then there are the low gunyahs, made of boughs and earth after the fashion of the aborigines; the dug-out, with only the miscellaneous roof showing; stone and mud huts; humpies made of packing-cases, bags, cane-grass, scraps of tin, etc., and a nondescript lot known as cabooses, cribs, cabins, shanties, camps, and mi-mies. A few have huts or cottages built wholly of galvanised iron, or with walls of stone and roofed with iron. Every man is his own architect and builder, and as such things as squares, rules, spirit levels, and plumb-lines are not in the equipment, the results may be imagined. I have seen houses built here with no other tools than a crowbar, shovel, and tomahawk.
The fossicker mostly works in close proximity to his home. Occasionally when the ground peters out and he is unable to get on to another run, he takes his pick and shovel and goes away among the hills, fossicking about until he finds a likely spot. Here he sinks until he bottoms on granite, then fills his billy or handkerchief, or even his hat, with washdirt, and carries it to camp or to the nearest water to try it. It the prospect is good, he goes to work in earnest, bringing the dirt to water in a barrow, or in two kerosene tins on a yoke across his shoulder. Dirt is carried long distances in this way. Each man has his own soakage, but soakages are not to be had anywhere. It is common to see two holes sunk side by side, and while a good supply of water is obtainable from one the other is always dry. Again, one soakage will contain good drinking water, another, within arm’s length of it, will he quite brackish. A good soakage is the fossicker’s principal asset here.
Some, instead of carrying the dirt to the soakage, make a little dam at the claim, where the puddling tubs and cradle are fixed, and in various ways carry the water to it. The sluice-races, so much used in Maoriland, Victoria, and the coastal regions of New South Wales, are of course out of the question here. The poor fossicker has to trot along with his cans like John Chinaman, or, filling a cask and plugging it, he rolls it along as one would a barrel of beer. Some have a small iron axle screwed on to each end of the cask, to which shafts, held in position with a couple of cross pieces, are fixed, and the cask is pulled along like a hand-roller. Strolling about among the rock cones, one will meet here a team of youngsters drawing one of those casks of water to “father’s claim,” and there a team of goats similarly engaged, or drawing a load of wood on a cart made out of a gin case and the wheels of a perambulator.
The big man among the goldseekers here is the puddler. He owns horses, drays, a dam, and jinny-wheel; he has a fairly comfortable home, keeps a few goats, and sometimes a garden. Dams are worth up to £100 each. The jinny-wheel is built over the water, being a concave wheel, over which runs an endless chain, strung with small circular pieces of wood or stiff belting, called buckets. These lift the water up through a pipe, whence it is carried by a narrow overhead race into the puddling box at the top of the mullock heap. This useful contrivance is worked by a horse, circling slowly on the lower bank of the dam. A load of dirt, tipped into the sluice-box, is run through in a few minutes, being vigorously puddled with a hoe. This is harder than it looks; there is not much to choose between it and potsticking at a woolscour.
Though the dam and the place where the dirt is obtained may be a mile or more apart, drivers are not always employed. The horses are trained to bring in the load and take back the empty dray alone. One which had the Government stroke badly was accompanied to and fro by a steady dog, who would give him a quick, clean nip on the heel occasionally when his “tired feeling” became too pronounced. When father and son work in company, there is very little expense incurred, and three or four grains to the load is riches, for the old man seldom feels it incumbent upon him to give his relation any pay worth mentioning. With a hired man, the usual pay for pick and shovel work is 6d a load, and a good man will pick and shovel 20 loads a day.
No hatter was ever more close-fisted and reticent than these puddlers. They object to persons watching their operations, and invariably have a doleful tale to tell the inquisitive visitor who would know what they are getting. “Ground’s very poor, an’ dribbling to nothing,” one will tell you, while furtively covering a bright speck that shows through the clear water. “Barely more’n the colour in the last two loads,” says another. “Have to do a shift if things don’t improve.” But when you look round a month afterwards you will find him in the same place, and you notice that the old dray horse works mechanically backwards and forwards on the one well-beaten road. The blankets are not lifted, if they can help it, while there are prying eyes about; and the little bottle containing the washed gold is carefully concealed. There is a good deal of selfishness about all this; the fear that the few pennyweights they get might induce others to work in the vicinity, and ultimately drive them further afield when contiguous patches have been worked out.
When the dams dry up, as they do in drought time, the horses are turned out, and the puddlers join the fossickers and dry blowers. The dryer the weather the better for the latter, for they only require a little water for cleaning the gold, which is amply supplied by a small soakage. Only a very few have machines in this part, and those who work them do not regard them as very successful, even where the gold is fairly coarse. In good ground the tailings are piled in little heaps and “staked” till rain comes, when they are put through the tubs and cradle, and panned off in the usual way. Those who have not machines dry blow with two dishes, pouring the earth from one into the other in a gentle wind. This is slow work, each dishful requiring several operations to reduce it.
A good downfall of rain brings out the speckers. The little nippers are the best at specking. They roam the hills and flats, following every gully, rut, and watercourse, with eyes ever searching the wet ground for a glittering speck. All classes participate, and the children of the business people make good pocket money by this means.
The majority of the fossickers, as a rule, only get sufficient gold for a bare living. They work hard, live poorly, and are half their time in rags. At lamb-marking and shearing time, many of them are glad of the change afforded for a few weeks on the stations. In the meantime, in the case of the married men, the women practically keep themselves and children by fossicking. Some of those women can use a pick and shovel and the cradle, and pan off with the dish, as well as any miner. One man, who was a blacksmith by trade, and who frequently went out on the stations to “change his luck,” credited his wife with being a better miner than himself, and said that she could strike a run of gold in half the time that it would take him to find it. Like most old miners, he believed that “luck” favoured particular persons, while it persistently refused to assimilate with others. You will hear one say, “My luck is dead out,” or, “I have had rotten luck,” and, if he has the means, he will go and get dead drunk, or do something else equally foolish, to break the spell. John Chinaman, when his luck persists in running the wrong way, goes home and beats his joss; and between the fetish of John Chinaman and that of the old fossicker there does not seem to be much difference.
Shearing is always the most important item on the annual programme of the sheep farmer or pastoralist. For weeks before hand preparations are made for it, while any other work can be done at little notice. The shearers’ hut has to be patched up, the gaps in the shed repaired, gates, fences and yards fixed up, wool tables cleaned and put in place, the press erected, and a hundred and one other items attended to. It is the busiest time of the year, a time of hustle and excitement, that seems to accentuate the loneliness and quietness of the surroundings for the rest of the year. For three or four weeks you hear the constant click of the shears, the shouting of men, the bleating of sheep, and the barking of dogs; you see the flashing of snowy fleeces, the ringing and rushing of huge flocks, galloping horsemen, and clouds of dust. Then one morning the whole busy scene has vanished; there is the stillness of the tomb about the huts and shed, and the only living things to be seen are the crows feasting on dead sheep outside the yard.
In Full Swing
While the work is in full swing it is one of the principal sights of the district, and the board is often graced with the presence of ladies from town, their gay dresses contrasting markedly with the rough and rugged surroundings. The board is narrow. There is just room for them to pass along without brushing against the long row of stooping shearers. But their presence interferes with the pickers-up, who have no time for dallying, but have to whip up the fleeces and run, and many a muttered commentary is passed on them in consequence. The shearers resent their presence, and try desperately to hide their bare feet, or bag moccassins, and the gaps in their shearing togs. They are not seen to the best advantage, and they don’t like it. They are covered with grease and blood, and reeking with perspiration. Particularly unpleasant is it to the man by whom they happen to stand, criticising the “cut” and his operations generally. A word from the boss just then is poignant in its effect. Afterwards he is chaffed unmercifully by his mates, and a ripple goes along the board.
Talking of this reminds me of a youthful picker-up in a backblock shed, who was an excellent mimic. When occasion offered he would walk slowly and heavily down the board, and stopping opposite one who is cutting hard for a tally, say in imitation of the boss—“That tomahawking won’t do. You’ll have to shear better than that M’Nab.” M’Nab’s shears would give a nervous jump with the shock, and he would commence with some humble apology or explanation, when his eye would suddenly alight on his tormentor’s boots. The next instant there would be a hurry-skurry up the board, and the wild scamper of a released sheep, with half a fleece hanging off it, among the men, and wild yells, laughter, and angry protestations along the stands. The mimic was mostly cornered in the hut at night, when he would have to pay forfeit of some kind.
Places in the big sheds are booked weeks and months prior to date of shearing, applications being accompanied in many cases with a sovereign as a guarantee of good faith. Many men after sending their pounds along find as the time draws near that something more pressing or some unlooked-for circumstance will prevent them filling their engagements. This difficulty is easily surmounted if the shearer is not well known. He sells his stand to a mate, and thus saves his deposit. Dozens of men in this way impersonate others, and are known by certain names in one district, and by different names in other parts. A shearer whose cognomen, say, is Jack Dunn, will one year be a big, freckled-faced man, with red hair and beard, and next year he will be a little, dark man. Sometimes a Jack Dunn is discovered to be Jim Smith, and trouble ensues, but generally the culprits make pretty sure of their ground beforehand. Again, scores of men changed their names after the ‘91 strike. Tom Jones, the scab, would efface himself in a far-back locality, and appear long after among the unionists as Bill Smith. Wherever he shore he would hear the vilest epithets hurled at the memory of Tom Jones, and many a threat of vengeance avowed, and the pseudo Bill Smith, to keep up appearances, would do likewise, and express the most caustic opinion of all on his old self. Squatters, as a rule, soon forget the faces of men who have been temporary servants. They are familiar with the names in their books, but they are year after year being hoodwinked by Jim Smiths who are in reality Tom Joneses.
On the morning of the roll-call you will see two or three hundred men gathered about the hut. The majority are horsemen or bikemen. Some drive up in spiders, sulkies, tilted carts and other traps; the rest are footmen, who come in tired and footsore, carrying heavy swags, Gleaming white tents spring up like mushrooms among the bush clumps and along the creek, thin wreaths of smoke curl up from all manner of places, and the jingling of horse-bells makes music everywhere. These out-campers look on the hut with loathing; some of them, long inured to a gipsy life, would not camp under a roof under any consideration. Others have an equal dislike to the open. One of the latter, on reaching the hut, will first of all examine the vacant bunks, pick the most suitable and put his swag on it. Everybody recognises that bunk then as reserved, and if the owner of the swag gets on he remains in possession till the shed cuts out, but if his name is not called he has to vacate it pretty quickly.
The roll-call is an interesting function. The big crowd of men and boys line up near the hut. A pretty mixed lot they look; they are white, black, brown and brindle; all shapes and sizes, and of 20 or 30 different nationalities. Many are joking and laughing; some show absolute indifference—their names are not down, and all they can hope for is a supply of rations when the cook gets his stores; others stand with folded arms, or arms akimbo, watching and waiting with anxious, eager faces, No two are dressed alike. There are men in rags; there are many in silk, or starched white shirts, collars and ties, and with polished boots, gold rings and diamond pins. There are here University graduates, lost heirs to fortunes, sons of big men in England, broken down school masters, lawyers, ex-policemen, poets, artists, cheek by jowl with horny-handed navvies, and a few who put a cross for their signatures, all waiting with varying degrees of interest to hear the verdict of the wool king.
The manager appears on the scene with a bodyguard of two or three constables, and accompanied by the station bookkeeper, armed with a formidable-looking bundle of books and papers. The roll is called, and one by one the men answer to their names, When the list is complete the surplus quantity drafts itself out. They have little or no further interest in the proceedings. They now figure as travellers; the lucky lot are shearers and rouseabouts. The former for the time being are the guests of the latter, and as there are often more travellers than shearers, and they are coming and going all the time the shed lasts, and as it is a recognised rule to feed and give rations to all comers, it not infrequently happens that the travellers’ bill more than doubles the cost of the shearers’ mess. At one shed the average cost per head per week counting traveller’s, was 10s, but the cost per shearer, who, of course, footed the whole bill, was 30s. At this shed 100lbs. of flour alone was distributed among the surplus unemployed before a single sheep was shorn. Having checked the names of his men, the manager reads out the terms of agreement. If the shearing is to be conducted under the rules of the P.U, or the A.W.U. a good deal of time is occupied in signing; but under verbal agreement, which seems to give the most satisfaction, the business is quickly disposed of. Then the cook is chosen. There may be three or four candidates, and the election is then by ballot. The cook is paid at the rate of 4s per man per week, out of which he pays a slushy or offsider anything from 30s per week upwards, according to numbers. The men at once choose a representative, who becomes responsible head of the mess department, and through whom all negotiations take place as between employer and men, and to whom all disputes are referred. He accompanies the cook to the station immediately after election, and orders stores, utensils, tinware, cutlery, &c. The cook takes immediate charge of those, but the rep. is the responsible party. He must be a financial unionist; It is his office to receive the union delegates, distribute tickets, &c.
A Typical Western Hut
A typical western hut, where those men are temporarily housed, is a long narrow structure built of galvanised iron. Bunks are ranged in tiers along the sides, and the dining-table runs down the centre. It is of casing or sheet-iron, tacked on to a rough frame, the legs sunk in the ground, while the seats are simply round saplings, or narrow scantling, laid on rough forks, or spiked on to low posts. There is just enough room for a man to walk between them and the bunks. At night two or three evil-smelling slush lamps flicker and splutter and fizzle along the table, and these, with the odour of drugs, liquor, soiled shed clothes, stale boots and unaired blankets, have anything but an improving effect on the soul. One doesn’t need to be fastidious. The men seldom all sit down together, and some are sitting on the bunks, with feet on the stools, puffing tobacco smoke over the table while others are eating. Some are shaving or dressing, others are shaking out blankets and making beds. And there is the everlasting smell of saddles and packs and eucalyptus.
To a quiet man, or one who is fond of reading, the shearers’ hut is a den of horror. There are men whose tongues are never still, and, as might be expected, these are the ones who seldom say anything worth hearing. There is the rattle of dice and the shuffling and chatter of card players. The man who bangs his fist on the table with every winning card he plays is particularly obnoxious. Occasionally he gets his deserts in the form of a flying boot. There are draught players, domino players, noughts and crosses cranks, and fox and goose lunatics; there are loud discussions, arguments—mostly about dogs and horses—yarning, singing and whistling to the accompaniment of half a dozen mouth organs, tin whistles, Jews harps, and a cracked concertina. It’s hard to follow the adventures of Reginald de Clancy through the jungles of the Punjab under such disturbing conditions; it is harder still to compose a soulful epistle to your best girl, pining for her shearer boy down south, or to dash off a fetching little ode to the entrancing beauty of her eyes.
When the Lights are Out
At 10 o’clock a bucket of tea and another of coffee are placed on the floor, and there is a rush for pannikins and buns. You feel glad that there will soon be peace; but it is not unadulterated, When the lights are out you learn the sleeping characters of your shed mates. There are several asthmatical nuisances who cough intermittently; about a dozen go pig-hunting, and are pursuing the spotted one nearly all night; others fidget and kick and roll, have night mares, and yell blue murder in their sleep; a few are troubled with insomnia, and get up at frequent intervals to fill and light their pipes. And there are the town-goers, who come stumbling in about midnight, with noise enough, to awaken the dead. When that row has subsided, the 30 or 40 dogs tied up outside begin to corroboree in dismal and melancholy tones. Somebody yells at them to lie down, and one or two get up to throw sticks and jam tins at them. The nights are pretty near all alike, so you don’t wonder at the number of tents and bush gunyahs there are scattered about.
On Swell Stations
On some of the big stations there is separate accommodation for shearers and rouseabouts—detached kitchens and special dining rooms for each. The sleeping apartments are partitioned off, having two to four bunks in each, There are sitting rooms, card rooms, and reading rooms. There is no piano yet, but probably that will come along in the near future. These good sheds are often systematically worked by one band of men year after year. Now and again a couple drop out and strangers fill their places. Otherwise a stranger has little chance against the old hands, who are booked for the following year as soon as the shed cuts out. The A. W. U, has tried hard to put a stop to this practice, so as to give everyone an equal chance where sheds run or follow one another; but it goes on in spite of them. Under this long range booking system, New Zealanders, after finishing the season in their own country, often complete the year with a run of sheds through Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.
The Cook’s Bell
The day starts early. The cook’s bell, soon after daylight, is the first summons. There is more, tea and brownie, and the men file to the shed. Stands have been drawn for, water tins fixed up, oil bottles hung, and boards nailed conveniently for oil-stones, &c., and each man goes to his place. On one side of the board are narrow pens, one for each man, for the shorn sheep; on the other side a wide catch-pen for every two men. These pairs are called pen mates, and turn the grindstone for each other. They are not always the best companions; they are sometimes deadly enemies. Everything is pretty rough and slipshod about the average western shed. The yards and pens are built of logs, rails, stubs and boughs; the shed is covered with brushes or cane grass, occasionally further protected with hessian blinds. It is low, and dust, leaves and twigs are continually falling. There is not much comfort. The galvanised iron shed is cleaner, but in summer the heat is terrific. For working purposes the bough shed is the better.
On the “Board”
As the overseer or “man over the board” comes in, the men rise expectantly, and at the first jingle of the bell there is a wild rush into the catch-pens and a scramble for sheep. Struggling animals are dragged out and dumped on to each stand, and at once the shears are clicking from end to end. The breathless hurry of every man, the apparent desperate desire to separate fleece and sheep in a certain time, is the first thing that strikes the stranger in a shearing shed. The ringer, or fastest shearer, soon singles out. There are two or three jigging very close to him, and these keep up a perpetual race, whilst the others try to keep as near as possible, or are running one another. The drummer or slowest shearer is about the only man who doesn’t seem to care when supper time comes. In most sheds, where “pinking” is desirable, the ringer, no matter how good or fast he may be, is restricted to a certain limit, and no one is allowed to go beyond him. This prevents “tomahawking,” and it explains why a man will make a phenomenal record in one shed, and cut only an ordinary tally in another. Of course, the quality and weight of the fleeces, and the size, and condition of the sheep have also a lot to do with the fluctuations of tallies. The easiest of all to cut are lambs and hoggets, and the next best are the ewes. There is a big drop when the shears get to work on the weathers, whilst the hardest and slowest work is done on the rams and ram stags. Each of the latter is counted as two sheep.
Some Tallies and Earnings
A “run” is anything from 75 to 90 minutes, when the bell rings for smoke-ho, lunch, afternoon tea, or knock off. Shearers drink tea all day, a bucket of it being kept continually hung in the shed. One or two pannikins only are used, and everybody dips them into the bucket. The sheep are counted out at the end of each run, and the tallies are posted on a board in a conspicuous place every morning. Those morning bulletins command a good deal of interest; they are scanned by visitors and swagmen, and even the little tar boy, between cuts, derives a lot of satisfaction from comparing one man’s tally with another and computing the daily earnings of the big guns.
A shearer named John Hickey, who has used the tongs all over the Commonwealth, during the last big squabble between the pastoralists and shearers, gave the following particulars of his earnings. In 1899 he shore 23,538 sheep, receiving £235 7s 7d; in 1900, 22,976 for £229 15s 2½d; in 1901, 23,142 for £231 9s 5d; and during the first half of 1902 he shore 10,379, his cheque being £103 15s 10d. Hickey is a long way below being a champion. Any fair team of 20 men can average 100 per day. But bad weather and long breaks between sheds, especially the latter, prevent the majority of fairly smart shearers making enough to carry them through the year. “Jimmy” Power, who was the champion machine shearer of Australia, and whose record is 315 sheep in 7 hours 40 minutes, shore 40,000 in one season, His bones are now resting in South Africa. “Jackey” Howe holds the record for hand shearing, his tally being 327 in 7 hours 20 minutes at Alice Downs, Queensland. As a rule, better money is made with machines than by hand. The tallies are higher in the aggregate, the work is lighter and cleaner, and the shearer has to find neither shears, stone nor oil, and never loses any of his rest time at the grindstone. His only expense, so far as the actual work is concerned, is for cutters, merely a few pence each.
The work in and about the shed is under sectional heads. The man over the board, for instance, merely superintends the actual shearing, and keeps time. Occasionally he may brand a few bales as they come from the press, The woolclasser has charge of the men at the tables, such as the wool-rollers, who skirt, divide and roll the fleeces as they are thrown out by the pickers-up; the piece pickers, who, sort out the first and second pieces, stains, dags and locks. He also keeps an eye to the pressers, as they fill the press boxes from the bins. Those classers hail generally from the metropolis, travelling thousands of miles in a season, going from shed to shed, classing the clips at a pound per thousand fleeces, and very often taking wool scouring contracts as well. The mustering and drafting is usually under the supervision of the manager himself, or his station overseer. The most unfortunate would appear to be the pickers-up who keep the board clear of wool, and attend to the calls for tar. They are under everybody’s thumb. They are ordered about by the man over the board, and the moment they cross out of his kingdom to the wool tables they are subject to the ruling of the classer. Then they are hustled by the shearers, have to clean up when everybody else has left off, and when fleeces are falling quickly have to run hurriedly backwards and forwards to keep the stands clear.
There is very little talking in a shed. The work goes on smoothly and quietly, to the everlasting click, click of the shears. As day advances the musterers come in with fresh flocks. Then the tumult commences. From the time they reach the gates till they are through the drafting yards and into the feeding race from which the penner-up fills the catch pens, it is one long continual shrieking corroboree. Men are yelling and shouting, jumping, dancing, running, and waving their arms and their hats, bashing the woollies with bushes and bags, banging tins with sticks, ringing bells, and rattling jam tins with pebbles in them; whilst a dozen dogs are yelping incessantly, and clouds of choking dust overshadow everything. It is like a tribe of wildly excited aborigines closing on a mob of ambushed kangaroos on the eve of a big feast—only worse. When they come out of the ordeal they are smothered in dust, half-blinded, half-choked, and as miserable looking as though they had been dragged through a sandhill.
Loading the Teams
Loading the teams is another hard bit of work. The first team to leave the shed, with eight or ten tons of wool piled on a tabletop waggon, is often sent off with a cheer. In dry western parts camels are much used, two bales being slung over the back of each animal. A string of 70 or 80 loaded camels filing down the road was an interesting spectacle a few years ago, but is now too common to be much noticed. They are quicker and cheaper than teams, and there is no danger of a clip being left for months in the middle of a desert for want of grass and water.
The cut-out is the last scene in the drama, when operations terminate early, every man Jack being paid off before tea. In the morning the hut equipment is returned, horses run up and packed, swags rolled, and the majority of the shearers and rouseabouts have started for another shed before noon. A few may spend the day washing and patching; but generally within 24 hours after the last sheep has been shorn the shed is deserted. And so it remains until next shearing time comes round.
In old-world eyes no picture of Australia is complete without the stockman. He holds the same place here as the cowboy in the backwoods of America. Though he is more subservient to law and order, he in nevertheless every whit as wild and reckless, as daring among wild horses and cattle, and has proved himself a more skilled artist in buckjump riding. He has never adopted the lassoo, the long knife, or the six shooter, though in the early days, when the blackfellows spear and boomerang waited for him on his bush rides, he was seldom without a rifle, but with the stockwhip and tomahawk he is a master. One of his pastimes when waiting on a cattle camp is tomahawk throwing at a small mark on a tree. The mark is circular, about 3in. in diameter, and the object is to bury the blade in it; from a distance of 20 to 30 feet while galloping. Another and more dangerous feat is for two to stand a few feet apart and engage in a tomahawk duel, each catching the weapon by the handle as it revolves rapidly towards him. A slight slip would mean a nasty cut, and a miss would probably result in a head being split open, One of his favourite feats with the stockwhip is the whipping of a sixpence into the air and catching it while galloping. At times stockmen stand in front of a tree and cut out their names or the station brand on the smooth bark with their whipthongs. I have heard of the man, too, who could cut the eye out of a mosquito without touching its eyelash; but I never met him. There are many clever men away back of Beyond Somewhere, of whose doughty deeds you frequently hear, but they are hard to find.
A Happy-go-Lucky Type
The stockman is a happy-go-lucky, devil may-care individual. His life in a hard one, his work rough, and at all times dangerous; yet he in the jolliest of men, and wouldn’t change his pigskin, as one phrased it, to be “King of the Cannibal Inlands.” There in always some sensation where he moves; fresh adventures and scenes of excitement always occurring; something continually happening to thrill his wild blood that makes him love the life for life’s sake. What citizens look upon as the delights of civilisation do not appeal to him; as settlement advances, and his old runs become diminished and hemmed in, he begins to feel cramped and dull, and soon he rolls his swag and moves further back, where he can renew the semi-barbarisms in the freedom of the boundless bush. The finest riders and the wildest spirits are found in the backblocks. But they are not without vanity and conceit; no city dude takes more pride in his dress, though theirs is of the simplest. The most favoured rig-out consists of snow-white, tight-fitting mole skins, coloured shirt, black coat, light cossacks, and a gaudily-coloured silk neckerchief. Leggings, once universally worn, have pretty well gone out of fashion; but the long-necked spurs are inseparable from the stockman’s heels. They jingle him to dinner, and they kept time to his pirrouetting in the dance room. When he removes his boots at night the spurs are still strapped on them; if he is camping out he very often sleeps in them. The thinking end of him is decked with an expensive cabbage tree, or a broad-leafed felt hat—something like the sombrero of the cowboy. He’s a picturesque joker anyway, and not a bad sort, with all his whims and fancies. He is good hearted and hospitable, and though he has a mild contempt for a man who can’t ride a bucking horse down a precipice, he in at all times generous enough to give assistance and advice to a novice.
The Stockman at Home
On most of the big cattle stations half the stockmen are aborigines. They make the best riders, are marvellously quick in a yard, keen sighted, and are at home in any part of the bush. These supple-jointed nimble fingered gentry can pick up the smallest objects from the ground while riding at full speed. They fraternise like brothers with the whites, though at the head stations they have separate quarters. There are usually several huts, crudely constructed slab buildings, more substantial than ornamental. Each room or small hut is shared by three or four men, the bunks being ranged round the wall. Over these one notices each man’s “10 years’ gathering” hanging on nails and pegs, whilst soiled clothes, boots, overcoats and such things go to make up pillows. Under his head is also his favourite place for storing tobacco, matches, cards, money and “Deadwood Dicks.” A common table is a small board nailed to the wall at the head of the bunk, which supports the fat-lamp, pipe, glass and comb, &c. Those who abhor “slushy” drive in three or four nails in a circle for a candlestick, a bottle, with the bottom cut off, being placed over the candle on windy nights. Bottles are also used for candlesticks, so are jam-tins filled with sand. They play cards on the bunks, or on the hide carpet that covers part of the floor. Whites and blacks play together, sitting in a circle with their heels doubled under them in the aboriginal style. Stakes are mostly tobacco and matches, though many gamble for money, the debts being paid on the quarterly pay day.
The furniture in the dining room consists of a couple of long, rough tables, with peg-leg stools at each side. The blacks eat at one (when they haven’t a separate room) and the whites at the other, These tables are almost invariably carved all round with all the letters of the alphabet, a great many men having a habit of cutting their “monieres” or initials, with dates and the brands of stations where they have worked, on the wood in front of them. Cloths are unknown, and crockery in rarely seen on places where a big crowd of men are constantly employed. They have tin pannikins, tin plates, tin dishes, tin teapots—in fact everything in tin except knives and forks. These latter are hoop-iron and wire. Laden with salt junk, loaves of bread the size of a bucket, one or two vegetables and a white plum duff, the stockman’s table d’hote does not present a very inviting appearance to the visitor. There are no regular meal hours, except for breakfast, which happens at sunrise, or earlier. There is often no lunch at all for most of them; they come in at all hours from the run, in detachments—unless mustering together—and thus half their time subsist on two meals a day.
“Boot and Saddle”
The first thing one hears at daylight in the morning on any big cattle station in the thundering clatter of hoofs, as the horse boy comes racing in with the big mob of horses. Immediately after breakfast the boss and the head stockman appear, and the men follow to the yard, each with a bridle on his arm. The drafting and catching is quickly done, and the horses are led up and saddled in front of the stables, Each man has half a dozen or more horses to his own check, and as those are ridden in turn and spelled in batches for three or four months every year, they are always fresh. Consequently a morning seldom passes without two or three brisk sets-to at the homestead. Some of them are vicious brutes, and can be depended on to buck into the days of their old age every time a saddle is put on them, Quiet old stagers are rare. Every year a fresh batch of young ones is broken in, and the old ones, slow and defective animals, are fattened and sold off. So that the station has always a supply of rough mounts on hand that require skilled riders to deal with. With head and tail almost joined between its legs, and back arched like a rainbow, the colt roots round and round in a vain effort to get rid of its burden; some dash away across the paddock, bucking and galloping and rolling like a boat in a heavy sea; others plunge ahead in a succession of long leaps and bounds, varying the performance by kicking and rearing and jumping back. The majority are content with one good buck in the morning, after which their conduct throughout the day is most exemplary barring all emergencies, as a sudden fright, the breaking of a girth or the accidental touch on a sensitive spot with a spur; but there are many aggravating brutes that buck off and on through the whole day. They might be passing along as quietly as town hacks, and all at once fly into a series of lightning convolutions fit to loosen the rider’s back teeth; in the middle of a quiet canter, or when a rider attempts to start briskly after a breaking beast his mount whips his head down and goes to market in a determined and vigorous effort to chuck everything to the sky. Occasionally the brute succeeds, getting rid of not only the man, but the saddle and bridle also.
The work at the head station between musterings is not hard. Though they start out early in the mornings they are often back early in the afternoon, and can then amuse themselves as they please till next day. The home run is sub-divided into many paddocks, as the house paddock, horse paddock, and stud paddock; and there are separate paddocks for heifers, weaners, bulls, fats, bullocks, and pig-meaters or culls. There is always something to do among these different herds; and in summer time the creeks, lagoons and water holes have to be watched, and bogged cattle pulled out. With the fences, or any such job not connected with stock, they have nothing to do; there are men kept specially for that purpose. The personnel of an average station comprises, apart from stockmen, a gardener, cook, bullock-driver, carpenter, blacksmith, a ploughman, and a couple of fencers. But the stockmen have to join forces when bush fires break out, which occurs pretty frequently in summer. For days and nights for a week at a stretch these fires are sometimes fought, every available hand doing battle against the annual foe of the pasture. You will see 50 men retreating before a long line of flame, belting at it with bags and bushes wherever a chance offers in short grass; boys follow with the horses, or ride to and fro with buckets and bags of water; whilst others follow the fences, chopping burning portions off posts and rails, and removing lighted timber. The runs are otherwise periodically burnt off in sections, and this entails the same amount of hard fighting when the required area has been swept by fire.
Going From Starlight to Starlight
The hardest stock work is done at mustering times, when the men are kept going from starlight to starlight, Sundays included, through sunshine and rain for several weeks. As a rule there are only two general musters in a year; but it is often necessary to muster the whole run several times when orders come for cattle. The head station presents an animated appearance on the morning the cavalcade starts out on a mustering tour. Swags are being rolled in all directions, two or three pack horses are loaded at the store, blacks and whites in spotlessly clean clothes pass in and out for tobacco and matches, new boots, bridles, saddle-cloths, or other gear; a score of horses are ready saddled, and 60 to 100 spare ones wait in the yard. Then the rails are thrown down, and the big mob trots away towards the bush, with the old pack-horses leading
“With hobble chains and campware
All jingling to a tune.”
A score of jolly riders follow at their heels, whilst flourbags, the musterers’ cook, mounted on “the quietest thing they’ve got,” brings up the rear.
At the Outcamps
The outcamps or sub-stations may be several in number, and the musterers go from one to the other. There may be only a small hut, deserted between times, and a stockyard and horse paddock marking these places, though on some of the inside runs they are respectable homesteads in themselves, and are in charge of married couples. Here there are a whites’ hut and a blacks’ hut, and conditions vary but little from those existing at the head station. At the primitive out-camps, which obtain in the far-back country, the cook usually monopolises the hut, and the men spread out on the grass. When it rains in the night they pack up hurriedly and crowd in wherever they can. For scores of miles in every direction around them stretches virgin bush, where one may ride for days and never see a fence, and where lines of rugged hills or scrubby mountain ranges are the only boundaries between one squatter’s run and another’s. Stragglers cross from their own runs occasionally, and a couple of men come from neighbouring places to pick them out at mustering times, On many big runs there are vast herds of wild and unbranded cattle in these divisional ranges. Occasionally, in slack times, men go out and camp in the mountains, and attempts are made to drive them from their fastnesses. When success at times attends the venture the young stock are brought into the home paddocks; but the old cattle are shot down wherever sighted, There is plenty of excitement in this life, riding full speed through gorges and ravines, sliding down rugged spurs, tearing and reeling through scrubs and plunging through broad morasses, to the constant crack of rifles, strewing the way with dead and wounded. Now and again a man is unhorsed, as when a wounded beast turns suddenly and charges, or a mob breaks through from a tight corner, and he has to scramble into a tree in quick order. Then he finds his horse attacked, and is lucky if he doesn’t lose him altogether. Two or three weeks are spent in rounding up and shooting these wild cattle, skinning the carcases and packing the hides to the station.
Drafting in the Bush
The runs around the out-camps are worked in sections, and the cattle drafted in the bush. The men spread soon after leaving the yard, going off in ones and twos, and meeting again hours afterwards on some far-off cattle camp. The camps are merely clear spots in the bush, low sandy mounds, or a clump of trees by a waterhole. The musterers come in from all directions with little mobs of cattle, and when all are rounded up the drafting commences. The head stockman and one or two others, mounted on good camp horses, do the cutting out, the other men being posted at intervals round the mob to keep them together. The drafted cattle are gathered and held some distance away by a couple of boys. The work is lively and spirited all through; the cattle are continually breaking and ringing, and horsemen flashing through the trees, crossing and re-crossing each other; while the lowing and bellowing of cattle, the cracking of whips, and the shouting of men is at times deafening.
When all the cattle wanted have been cut out, the rejected are left to pick their way back to their own pastures, and a few men take the drafted lot on to the next camp, while the others spread again to gather up the stragglers from the surrounding bush, Towards sundown they reach the yards hungry and tired. If there is any daylight left, after a hurried meal, a start on the final drafting through the yards is made. All are now on foot, and the tumult is greater than on the cattle camps. Accidents often happen too in the yards. When driving them in lots from one yard to another, a beast will often break back and charge. Most stockmen spring on to the fence, but there are some reckless spirits who will stand, with a short stick in hand, and face anything with horns. As the beast comes almost within touch, the man springs nimbly aside, at the same time tapping the animal on the nose with the stick, and with a plunge and a snort it goes trotting away. But in a small yard a beast will return the attack time and again, One day on a Clarence River station a man, who was standing against a fence, made an attempt to spring on the rail from a wide-horned bullock, and missed his footing, Next instant the long horns crashed against the rails at each side of him, one snapping off. Only the huge bovine face hit the man, and though he was little hurt, he was in a pretty tight fix for a moment or two, Fortunately the other horn got caught between two rails, and in twisting his head to free himself, he gave his intended victim a quickly availed of chance to get away. Though there are thousands of men engaged in these pursuits who have the working and handling of the wildest cattle, in all parts of the country, one very seldom hears of a man being gored. Most of them are trained from their childhood, and are very rarely caught napping, It doesn’t pay to be absent minded, or to become interested in something outside while in the company of a lot of pugnacious scrubbers in a small enclosure. For all that, hair-breadth escapes frequently occur, and now and again a man in a slippery or dust-clouded yard is knocked over or tossed, but he generally manages to get away with no more damage than a slight bruise or a scratch. It is the constant risk attending the work that makes it so acceptable and fascinating to most men. Sheep work is dull and monotonous; there is no danger about it to excite the brain, no stirring incidents ever recurring to thrill the blood, and quicken the pulse, as among cattle. Thus a cattle man will never work on a sheep station if he can help it. The life is insufferable to him.
A Scene of Activity
The little drafting yard is a scene of continual activity. It is no more than a dozen feet square, with gates opening into a branding shed and three or four yards. A man sits on the cap in charge of each gate. The boss, with book in hand, is also perched on the capping, and to his calls of bush, bullock, calf, weaner, &c., the gates are kept almost continually swinging. A couple of men are in the yard, each armed with a stick, to turn and hunt up stubborn or refractory beasts, and as their eyes are on the gates and cattle are continually pouring in from the yards behind, their position is anything but a sinecure. But a fence is handy at every turn, and they merely step on to the rails from a charging beast. Sometimes they get a knock on the legs, or have their clothes ripped, but that is all.
The branding of calves is done each day immediately the drafting in finished. Some of the calves, or clean skins, have horns six inches long, and when strong and fat, give the men a rough tussle to throw them. Ropes are not used on anything that can be hand thrown. Two men handle each animal, one at the head and one at the tail, the latter having the worst of it. As soon as the calf is flung on to its side he has to sit down quickly, plant his feet against the under leg and hold the other back in his hands. The struggling of a strong calf under a burning brand makes his teeth rattle. It is fine warming exercise on a winter’s morning. When the drafting has been completed the night before, it is usual to see the fires burning, the brands hot, and the men waiting at the pen for daylight. There are perhaps 200 or 300 calves to brand before breakfast, and these are rattled through in a couple of hours. Two or three pairs are throwing, two more operate on each calf with brands and knife, and three or four boys are outside attending to the fires and passing brands to and fro. Breakfast is waiting when the job is over; then into the saddles again and out for more cattle; drafting again till dark, branding again at daylight. There is no stopping, no pause in the whole round, till the mustering is over; and the drafted mobs are paddocked.
Despite the long hours, the hard work, and the continual going from start to finish, they can sing merrily through it all; and as they approach the head station again with a long string of stock-horses leading the way, and a big mob of cattle ringing down from the timbered ridges, they are as one with Gordon’s hero as they voice his well-known lines—
‘Twas merry ‘mid the backwoods when we spied the station roofs,
To wheel the wild scrub cattle at the yard,
With a running fire of stockwhips and a fiery run of hoofs—
—Oh! the hardest day was never then too hard.
The term swagman is familiar to every Australian; but bagman is not so generally understood, and is often confounded with the other. Swagman, pure and simple, is a footman, yclept; also, tramp, who carries his swag on his back, and has his billy and perhaps a water-bag as well in his hand, A bagman is a mounted traveller, who may have anything from one to half a dozen horses, which he terms his mokes, nags, crocks, hacks or cuddies. Though both are travelling about looking for work, they move on very different planes; the latter is considered a cut above the former, and looks down with a mildly contemptuous somewhat pitying eye on the heavily-burdened and slowly-plodding swagman. They are rarely found in the one camp. If they both make a halt for the night at the same water hole, they camp apart from each other and though one may visit the other’s fire for a yarn, it is not as the meeting of two bag men or two swagmen. Apart from the perennial quest for a job, they have little in common.
Why They do not Mate.
The bagman’s main concern is grass and water. He is not always fortunate in getting both together. When he finds water there may be no feed there, and after watering his horses he has to ride on to feed, carrying a supply of water for himself. This is what the swagman calls a dry camp. To him a water-hole and a fire is home, and when night comes upon him without these associations he feels lonely and miserable. He can get sufficient water for his own consumption, too, where the horseman cannot, as by rooting in the bed of a creek, from an old well or a bore pipe with a tin and a few yards of string, from station tanks and dams and other private holes. He has no eye for grass; he doesn’t know whether the way he has come is barren or rich in feed. Again, what he would term good feed the other man would consider insufficient to feed a bandicoot, and vice versa. At times the latter is led off a good road on to a starvation track by the misrepresentations of a man who walks; his horses suffer in consequence, and the gulf between them widens. On the other hand, a brother bagman can not only accurately locate the good patches, but describe the different kinds of grasses and herbage along the road, and state whether the feed is sweet, sour, green or dry, substantial or otherwise. This is probably the most potent reason why the bagman disassociates himself with the swagman.
Where the Swagman has the Advantage.
But there are many more differences between them, apart from the fact that a horseman appears to greater advantage, can dress better and keep clean, hasn’t to work hard in looking for work, and can represent himself as a stockman or drover, or even a cattle buyer, while there can be no mystery about a swagman—affect what airs he likes he can’t disguise what he obviously is—a hard-up labourer. Though there is little difference on a long journey in the daily stages made by each, the horseman travels faster, and may not occupy more than half the time in going from camp to camp. But he always has a horse hunt to do in the morning’s, and if his horses are ramblers, or given to poking away as he terms it, he has often to walk the equivalent of a day’s journey in search of them before he starts, whereas the swagman has simply to roll up and strike straight away for the next station. The former also is listening half the night for his bell, is troubling over a lame foot, a swelled fetlock or a sore back, while the latter has nothing to disturb his night’s rest it he hasn’t inadvertently spread out on an ant’s nest.
The Swagman’s Horse.
At times one finds the bagman and the swagman merged in one, forming a link between the two classes. Two mates have a horse between them, upon which they pack their belongings. They walk themselves, either leading the loaded animal in turn or driving him before them. Sometimes he becomes obstreperous when being thus driven, and bolts, scattering the pack along the road. As a rule, he is a quiet old moke, rough and hardy, with prominent points, who plods resignedly along with half shut eyes, and sometimes goes to sleep altogether, and has to be “livened up” with a switch or a “gibber.” He is an excellent judge of distance, and when he considers he has done about the usual day’s stage he begins to look about for a camping place, turning off at a clump of trees, or making a bee-line for any depression in the landscape that has the semblance of a water hole. If his wishes are disregarded for long, he is likely to zigzag about, first on one side of the road and then on the other, particularly where there is any growing timber whose limbs are likely to bump the pack off him, or tear it off piecemeal. His eye shows annoyance; he begins to sulk, and his lip seems to hang lower than usual. If he happens to be far in front, and there are no trees convenient, he will probably lie down and roll, crunching up the billy cans and doing other damage before he can be reached; and another favourite trick of his, if not closely watched on reaching a waterhole, is to give the objectionable pack a mud and water bath. The men who own him travel with distinct duties apportioned to each. In the evening one carries wood, makes the fire and boils the billy, while the other unpacks, puts the bell on the horse and hobbles him out on feed; in the morning the first man gets the breakfast and rolls the swags ready for packing, whilst the other goes after Carbine—he’s usually called after some celebrated racer. He is seldom far away. Being mostly afflicted with tired feeling, his conduct as a camper is all that could be desired. He sighs heavily as the pack goes on, and he sighs again and sometimes softly whinnies his gratitude when it is being taken off. It is a pleasure to indulge any wish of Carbine’s in this respect; he appreciates it so much.
The One-Horse Men.
Of one-horse men there are two classes. One packs his horse and walks himself in the same fashion as the Carbine company. This horse is mostly more tired than Carbine, being some cheap old screw, or antiquated crock, that takes six months to fatten and gets dog-poor in a week, and is owned by a man who is more used to walking than riding, but objects to making a beast of burden of himself. He moves in a world of his own, being looked down on by the mounted men and regarded us lazy and a sundowner by the true swagman. The other man packs his horse and rides him too, he is probably lazier than the other fellow. When he is mounted you can see little more than the head, legs and tail of his animal. He has a small swag strapped in front, but most of his dunnage is carried in a wallet. This is made by sewing up the mouth of a wheat sack and making a slit down the centre, The contents are evenly divided, and it is thrown across behind the saddle. His quartpot and meat billy hang at the sides, his waterbag is suspended against the horse’s chest, and the bell and hobbles are strapped round its neck. The animal is a hardy, compact cob, very often a sturdy half-draft, more useful in a spring-cart than on a cattle camp. It is never put out of a walk, and is almost as omnivorous as the docile goat of back-block towns. If grass, herbage, or other fodder is unprocurable it shares the owner’s damper; in fact it would leave its natural food for a few mouthsful of dry damper or bread, and it thrives well on the diet. The swagman when he has got his ration-bags dusted solicits scragends of meat for his dog; but the one-horse man asks for any pieces of stale bread that may be on hand as a treat for the moke.
The Bagman and his Equipment
The bagman proper has at least two horses, one he uses as a hack and the other as a packer. He may be a shearer, drover, rouseabout or general bushworker, and has usually a very fair turnout. The majority are without packbags, and the pack-saddle is often an old riding saddle, the pack being rolled into a long bundle and laid across the seat and strapped down to the sides. His billycans, which are covered with tight-fitting bags, are strapped on top, and the ordinary small paraphernalia are distributed about on the encircling straps. His equipment comprises a yard or two of oil cloth as an outside covering for his pack and a foundation for his nap, a small tent or fly, a tomahawk, a gun or rifle, and sometimes a dish. He shoes his own horses, and is provided with a good shoeing tackle for the purpose. In districts where flies are bad his horses are fitted with leather protectors or netted veils. One of these animals is sometimes a “cutter,” a racehorse in disguise; and at stations, way side pubs, drover’s camps or shearing sheds he occasionally pulls off a match for a pound or a fiver. His best field are the little towns, The town swell ridicules the idea of his flash hack being put down by the “old pack horse,” and a match is easily made, and side-wagers laid as well, The packer, looking his roughest for the occasion, and moving slowly and sleepily about, becomes suddenly electrified on facing the starter, and to the surprise of everybody streaks away to the front like a second Malvolio. But the owner doesn’t call him Malvolio; he calls him Mulga Bill or something equally appropriate.
Training Mulga Bill.
He contrives to be handy for the grassfed races, or the annual meetings of back-towns, and having knocked about the neighbourhood for a while and got his harmless looking pair known to the officials, is rewarded for his trouble by getting Mulga Bill light weighted for the two handicaps. Then he goes a few miles out of town, pitches camp on a creek or in a scrub, and assiduously trains Bill for the event, hardening him with whatever sustaining feed he can buy, borrow or steal in the vicinity. A few stakes, with paper wrapped round the tops, stuck up on a flat marks his course. An occasional log in the way, or an odd patch of long grass, doesn’t matter, and if the ground is slightly undulating it is all the better for giving the animal wind. His equipment for grooming and rubbing down is rather limited. The billycan lid or a piece of rough bark does duty for a currycomb and for brushing the sweat off, and an old shirt does well for drying and rubbing down, while the tent fly or a spare blanket suits the purpose of a rug. If the mane and tail get matted, he searches the garbage tip for a broken rake, and if that should be a minus quantity a bit of deal and half-a-dozen two-inch nails will make an excellent substitute for a comb. Bill is pretty used to substitutes and rough preparations, and very often springs a surprise on the public when the races come on. If he wins a handicap or two he is taken 100 or 200 miles away, where he runs as somebody else’s Wallaby; but if there is something worth snapping at a neighbouring town, he will probably grow a white face or turn black one night, and after repeating his first performance he disappears before he has time to sweat too much.
The Man With the Spare Horse.
There is also the man with the spare horse, which might be anything from an incumbrance to a flyer—mostly an incumbrance. He either drives it and the pack horse before him, or loads the packer and lets the spare nag follow. It is useful at times; it comes handy to ride up to town while the others are spelling; but it is nevertheless a nuisance. It is always running off the road to feed or to get a drink; it turns down the creeks and gullies, and trots over to any strange horses that appear. When it is being driven it reaches the gates first and turns down the fence, and when it is following it is usually a mile behind when the gate is reached, and there is either a long wait or the owner has to go after it. It is often a colt, and is broken in on the road to carry a pack, and usually succeeds in breaking up the pack during the process. This man, if he has no money and desires to tap the stations for rations, takes the precaution to hide his stock, and goes up to the homestead on foot, sometimes carrying a readied swag, and specially dressed for the occasion. When he has got his supply he makes a wide detour to escape observation, and turns out where his bells won’t be heard by the station people. The two-horse gentry are not too scrupulous to adopt this practice either, as squatters contend that travellers with horses should be able to pay for their rations. They are often poorer than swagmen, but the squatters argue that stock can be translated into cash, otherwise it is sufficient to afford free grass in transition through the run without supplying the owner with meat, flour, tea and sugar as well.
Other Men on the Track.
Some men travel with several horses, all of the average stamp of station hacks. There are usually one or two flighty ones among them, but the majority are quiet and staunch. Those travellers are cattle-men, scalpers, buffalo-shooters or prosperous diggers. They have first-class riding gear, perhaps a couple of pack-saddles each, with complete fittings. They pay their way wherever they go, and never stoop to cadging at stations. Some of them employ a blackboy to look after the horses, This is common in the west and north-west of Queensland. Travelling to them is like a holiday, and when several meet in a camp they enjoy a merry evening. The packs will produce two or three different musical instruments, and music, songs, recitations and yarning alternate till late at night, while a dozen horse bells are jingling in the bush around them. They carry tinned meats, tinned vegetables, butter, jam and condiments and their camps resemble a picnic ground. Their breech loaders and rifles too enable them frequently to enjoy roast duck, pigeon pie, soups and other delicacies, while the rivers and permanent waterholes supply them with fish, and in season eggs are plentiful on the plains and mangrove swamp.
The Bike in the Bush.
Horses were very plentiful everywhere before the drought, but more than half of them either perished for want of feed or were sacrificed to “inside” cockies and horse dealers. Now, that there is abundance of grass on every track, horses are too dear for the average traveller’s pocket, and only the true bagmen, who never “hump bluey,” can sport horses. Bikes are rapidly replacing the quadruped in many parts of the bush, and are especially favoured by shearers. They are less trouble than horses, requiring neither grass nor water, and are always at hand when wanted. Sometimes a tire is badly punctured on a stony road; but as repairing material is always carried that is soon remedied. A journey that would occupy a horseman a week can be comfortably negotiated in a couple of days on the wheel. A very fair swag can be packed on them, too, and they are much more easily hidden than horses, if necessary, when the riders wish to interview the station store keeper. Not only are they coming into general use among travellers looking for work, but are utilised by many sheep drovers, and occasionally one is met with in the cattle drovers’ camp, being kept for the reporter who rides long distances ahead to notify the stations of the approach of the travelling mob. In a few years more it will probably be an exception to meet a horse man on a back-block road.
Among those who dwell in the scrubby, mountainous country along the eastern coast of New South Wales and Queensland there are few who have not at some time or other engaged in the inspiriting sport of wallaby shooting. Even bush girls at times join their brothers for an afternoon on the outskirts of a scrub, or along the rocky gullies, in proximity to their homes. Most of them merely go to look on, and to “be in at the death;” but many carry their guns or rifles, and are quick to fire when the game darts from cover. They post themselves along the edge of the scrub, by the well-beaten tracks of the animals, keeping out of range, or else in sight of each other, while the dogs are hunting through the brush. The barking of the dogs and the thuds of the pursued animal acquaint the shooters of the line of flight long before the wallaby appears in sight, or breaks into the open. If it escapes on the run out, like the fox, it frequently doubles back, and thus again runs the gauntlet of the waiting guns. Without dogs, in a quiet stroll along by the side of a scrub at sundown or early morning, one often gets a pot shot as the animals come out to feed, or venture down to the waterhole or creek for a drink.
The haunts of the rock wallaby are wild and picturesque. Going up the thickly-timbered gullies anywhere between the upper streams of the Richmond and Clarence Rivers, one wades neck deep through tangled grass and horse ferns, clambering over dead timber and huge, moss-covered rocks, while wonga pigeons call from the spurs above, and the omnipresent bellbirds keep up an incessant jingle in the towering gums and ironbarks. The mountain spurs end with a sheer drop of 50ft on either side, often honeycombed with caves, and enormous rocks lie scattered about on the open spaces. Under the little clumps of trees, and in the open caves, one may at times surprise the marsupial family at rest, or sleeping at midday in fancied security. Young fellows from the towns often run out on hikes to such places, riding as far as the nature of the country will permit, and walking the rest of the way. A couple will take up a position behind a jutting spur, or a big rock, while others beat round to the top of the gorge, and they pick off the wallabies as they come bounding down the pad. When not pursued, they hop along leisurely, with their heads low, pausing at intervals to listen, and not infrequently they stop right before the gaping barrel of a rifle. Silhouetted against a background of green and russet they present a beautiful target as they stand bolt upright, with ears cocked and paws drooping. Then the rifles crack, and there is a sudden halt above, and a frantic rush by the survivors in front. There is more satisfaction, however, in bringing down your game as it passes in full flight.
Here, too, drives are sometimes made by settlers, who band together for the purpose of thinning the ranks of the marsupial herd. Occasionally a squatter entertains his town friends, or visitors from “home,” in this way The stockmen do most of the hard work of rounding up, while the shooters close on a vantage ground below the rugged hills, and as the mob of 200 or 300 wallabies come swinging down, the 20 or 30 rifles pour in their leaden hail, and you hear the echoes rumble like distant thunder along the mountains. The bounding grey mass staggers and momentarily halts at the first discharge, then breaks in every direction, making frantic leaps to escape the closing horsemen. Finding themselves blocked on every side, they at times become so confused that they either stand still or plunge blindly ahead, occasionally leaping or colliding with the horses. With the reports of the rifles, the cracking of stockwhips, shouting of men, and barking of dogs, the scene is an exciting one, and the men on foot have some narrow escapes. So have the dogs. In a drive organised by some farmers one Sunday afternoon, near Tatham, one dog had its foreleg shattered, and another was shot dead. It was in long, blady grass, in a dry gully, and all the wallabies escaped.
Most bushmen like “sniping” in rugged country, where the wallaby shows boldly on top of a rock heap, and goes tumbling down like a ‘possum from a tree when shot. I was one morning horse hunting with a brumby shooter, who carried a rifle, in the ranges near Mount Hutton, Queensland. As we were crossing a creek, a wallaby suddenly stood up on a jutting rock a hundred feet above us. The brumby shooter looked at it for a moment then dropped his bridle. “It’s not a game of mine to waste cartridges on wallabies,” he remarked, “but I can’t let a shot like that go by me.” A minute later he wished he had let it go by. When he fired, the animal, with a side leap, tumbled into space, and dropped heavily into the creek a couple of yards from him, and the water splashed over him in a white sheet. As he stood dripping, and for the moment blinded, his victim scrambled out of the water, and bounded away at full speed, apparently unhurt. He said he would never waste another cartridge on wallabies. “There was nothing in it.”
On another occasion, at the “Gap,” near Casino, I was walking up between two steep ridges, with a bandy-legged kangaroo shooter, looking for wallaby. We had a dog with us, which, though it never went very far from us, was always very busily scouting about in our vicinity. We had come abreast of a big rock, when a wallaby suddenly sprang round it from ahead of us. There was no time to turn, and very little room in which to get away, even had we been quick enough, and the result was a violent collision. The bandy-legged man speared into a clump of wild raspberry bushes on one side of the track, and I went down on the other. The wallaby was knocked backwards, and the dog, which was following a few yards behind, pounced upon him before he could get on to his feet again.
One meets with many surprises when shooting in rocky country. The nimble-footed, sharp-eyed little creatures appear suddenly in all manner of places, darting out from under your feet, leaping chasms overhead, or dashing into the undergrowth below you. And often, after dropping one, you have to search about to find it. I once shot a striped wallaby on top of a pile of rocks near Tibooburra. It sprang off the ledge when I fired, and dropped out of sight. On going to the spot, I found it jammed deep down in the crevice of a split rock. It was impossible to get it, and its bones are probably there yet.
A man, shooting near Mount Lindsay, fired one day at a wallaby on the foot of a spur overlooking the river. The bullet went through it just under the arms, struck a rock beyond it, and, glancing off, hit a cow that was feeding on the opposite bank, thirty or forty yards to the right. With a snort she kicked up her heels several times and bolted. But she was not much hurt, for the flattened lead was picked up where she had been standing.
There used to be a good many wallabies on the plateau at the top of this mountain, which can only be ascended with great difficulty, by one narrow passage. The blacks never interfered with them. They have a legend to the effect that the first white man who came to that part of the country climbed to the summit, “to have a look about,” and there encountered a solitary and pugnacious blackfellow. A fight ensued, and both fell over the precipice, locked together, and were dashed to pieces on the rocks some hundreds of feet below. The blacks in the neighbourhood decamped, and even for years after the whites settled around there they never attempted to hunt the wallabies, averring that the passage was haunted by the spirits of the dead combatants, who would precipitate the venturesome into the abyss beneath.
From Coongbar to Tabulam, where the cattle were to be delivered, was only four-days’ trip, but I thought more of that little sprint then than I did afterwards of an overland journey from the Cooper to Wodonga.
I was only a boy, and it was my very first time on the roads—and every stockman likes to talk of his trips with cattle. Our lot consisted of a thousand head of stores, in charge of “Old Boss” as we called him, a name that distinguished him from his son, who had succeeded him in the management of the station a few months before; and there were besides me two experienced men and a newchum named ‘Arry. I may add that ‘Arry and I owed our inclusion among the drovers to the fact that another mob of cattle had to be mustered immediately, and only two of the old hands, who knew every inch of the big run, could be spared. The run was a Never-Never country to us, and Old Boss decided that we could do better service on the track than with the musterers. So we became drovers.
It was winter time, and the whole complement of twenty stockmen helped us out of the home paddock at daylight on a Sunday morning. I was too delighted to heed the biting cold that almost froze my ears and toes, and puffed at my pipe with an enjoyment I had never known before as I raced ahead to let down the slip-rails and afterwards steadied the lead as they filed through. Then the papers were handed over to Old Boss, and the stockmen diverged into the bush. We were now fairly on the road.
Our way lay up the creek to the dividing range, and our first stage was only twelve miles. We fed along quietly, though kept busy at times driving off bush cattle, and turning back recalcitrant members of our own mob. Cattle are always troublesome during the first two or three days, being restless and anxious to get back to their old haunts. After that they steady down, and you ride along comfortably, listening to the soft patter of hoofs, the contented breathings, and the peculiar sound of the ever-creaking saddles.
On the way up the men edified us with hair-stirring yarns of night rushes, of horsemen being run ever and killed, and of hopeless leaps over precipices. By the time we reached the Twelve-mile Yard ‘Arry and I were of opinion that all travelling cattle rushed, and rushed every night. This, however, did not daunt us; we were very eager to witness one of these wonderful happenings. Neither of us had ever seen a stampede, though we had often seen wild bush cattle ringing on a camp, and had a pretty good idea of what the other was like.
The Twelve-mile Yard was an old two-railed enclosure covering about two acres, on a sandy spot between the creek and a thickly -timbered ridge. We put the bullocks in at sundown, and made our own camp-fire on the creek bank a quarter of a mile below. Here two tents were pitched in a temporary fashion—one for Old Boss, and the other for two of us to sleep in while the other two were on watch.
Tea was eaten rather hurriedly, for the cattle were restless, moving round and round the yard; and ‘Arry and I were sent out for the first watch, that being considered the safest of the three watches. Fires had been built at intervals round the yard, and these we had, of course, to replenish from time to time. We rode slowly round and round in opposite directions, whistling and humming, and occasionally stopping a few minutes when we met to have a yarn, and discuss plans of action when the expected stampede should take place. We wondered why the ‘possums did not startle them as they scampered up the trees, or the curlew’s scream that broke out suddenly on the hill, or the dingoes when they howled across the creek. But time passed and nothing happened, and at the end of four hours we were relieved by the two stockmen, Old Boss having reserved the morning watch for himself.
‘Arry and I had turned in, and were almost asleep, when suddenly there was a fearful crash, followed by a continual noise like the roar of a cataract.
The next instant Old Boss shouted, “Horses, horses! They’re off!”
There was no mistake about that; they were off as hard as legs could pelt along the side of the ridge, which rang with the thunder of 4000 hoofs, and the shouts of the pursuing men. But it was the horses that demoralised us. They had been feeding below the yard, and now came galloping towards the tents with a clatter of bells and hobble-chains.
In the confusion of the moment we thought all creation was coming on top of us, and both made a dive to get under the back of the tent; but the structure came down, completely enveloping us. The collapse startled the horses afresh, and as they passed us at full gallop ‘Arry, with a yell of terror, clutched me with both hands. In desperation I struck at him to free myself, and for a minute there was a fierce fight, during which we both suffered considerable damage. Finally, ‘Arry got his head through a hole in the flap, and at once made a dart for a leaning apple-tree, up which he scrambled with the tent trailing behind him, leaving me panting on the ground. The sound of the stampeding herd had died away, and all I could hear was the far-off cracks of the stockwhips, and the jingling of horse-bells up the creek.
My first hurried glance around took in Old Boss hastily bridling a little chestnut mare, which he had managed to block. Throwing the reins over her head, he sprang on bareback, and dug his heels into her ribs. Down went her head, and at the first buck Old Boss took a dive through the air, landing on his stomach across a fallen sapling, where he lay gasping and groaning. He was a portly old gentleman, and that fall had knocked pretty near all the breath out of his body.
Unnoticed I slipped away up the creek, caught a quiet horse, and trotted gently across the ridge in the direction of the whipcracks. I came up with the cattle, ringing, about a mile from camp, helped to steady them down, and afterwards to bring them back to the partly demolished yard.
Old Boss met us before we got in, and was surprised to find me at the tail. “Well done, boy!” he said, and I shook hands with myself. To one of the men he added, with a chuckle, “That other adjective fool’s up a tree with a tent round his neck?”
Poor ‘Arry had a black eye next morning, and I was glad when he explained that he had got it through running against a limb in the dark. There was a good deal of chaffing through the day, and Old Boss would shake to his boots and turn quite red in the face whenever he came near ‘Arry.
We camped in the open this night, and had no trouble. On the third night we jammed them in the corner of a big paddock, the tents being pitched midway across the open space. ‘Arry and I were sent with our swags to sleep on the slope of the hill a hundred yards below the corner. Old Boss reckoned the mob was sufficiently quietened down now to dispense with any further watching than the keeping of a fire going on each side.
We took a saddled horse with us in case of emergency, and tethered him to a tree. Having gathered a heap of wood for the night, we made our fire behind a big gum log, and spread our naps close by. The log had been burnt out, and was only about 20 feet long; and before turning in I ascertained that it would be a safe refuge if the cattle broke suddenly down the hill. ‘Arry had condemned it as being a harbour for snakes, and carefully took the bearings of an accessible tree.
We did not undress, simply removing our hats and lying down beside the fire. The last I remember was ‘Arry’s warning to me not to get in his way again if we had to “cut”; he would get on the horse and block the cattle if left alone; then I fell asleep.
It was somewhere near midnight when a thunderous crash and the pounding of rushing hoofs awoke me. With a shout to ‘Arry, I sprang to my feet, and saw a compact mass sweeping towards us!
There was no time to get to the horse, and as ‘Arry jumped up and ran for the tree, I dived hurriedly into the log. Almost instantly the flying hoofs clattered over me, and the gum shell was bumped violently on to the burning wood. A shower of cinders almost blinded me, and I received several nasty cuts and bruises about the face and head. It was soon bumped clear of the fire, and began to revolve slowly down hill among the stampeding herd. A beast fell heavily over it, and for awhile the prostrate body stopped its progress.
Quickly I wedged myself in the hollow by planting my hands and knees firmly on the bottom, and pressing my back hard against the top, so as to incur as little injury as possible in the ordeal I plainly saw before me. Luckily for me, the beast was frustrated in its effort to rise, and only recovered its feet when the last of the mob had passed over. Then the log began again to revolve, gaining momentum with every turn, till I grew sick and dizzy, and found it impossible even to breathe for the dust and cinders that whirled about me. Every bump was recorded in abrasions on knuckles, knees, and back. It was a clear run of five chains or so to the foot of the slope, and it seemed to me as I neared the bottom that I was travelling at the rate of a million revolutions a minute. The sensation was several kinds of horrible, and the tension required to maintain the fixed position, and the consequent grinding, was plain agony.
All at once the world seemed to come to an end in one tremendous explosion, and I was flung several feet away into a patch of long grass. The log had struck against the exposed cap of a huge rock, and split in halves, one half flying into the air, while the other slid back and remained stationary.
For a while I lay in the grass, half dazed and gasping, my streaming eyes blinking at the moonlit trees that were careering round me at the rate of knots. I found myself vaguely counting the hundred and one moons that were bobbing about overhead. Gradually they ceased their devil’s dance and combined into one hazy disc; the trees stopped spinning, and the shouting of men and the clang of bells on the hills gave me the points of the compass. Slowly and painfully I picked myself up, and a snort to leftward at once drew my attention to the saddled horse standing against the fence with head erect and bridle reins swinging.
I saw my opportunity. Sick and sore though I was, I caught the horse, and dragging myself into the saddle trotted slowly down the flat till I was out of earshot. Then I rode at a hard gallop along through the cloud of dust that hung like a mist in the wake of the speeding cattle. Two miles away I found them ringing by the side of a long lagoon. They were easily steadied then; and I had them all stepping briskly campwards, singing “Molly Riley” to them in a happy frame of mind, when the men and Old Boss came up. The latter was delighted, and I believe, after that night, he would have trusted me alone with the wildest mob that could be mustered on Coongbar.
No one knew what the lagoon had done for me, or the part that hollow log had played in the stampede; for ‘Arry had been too busy getting up the tree to observe what had become of me or the horse, and believed I had sprung into the saddle and ridden with the cattle. Neither did anyone ever know what agony I suffered on that last day, and on the long ride home; and for a week I avoided stooping in anyone’s presence, for I was awfully stiff.
But I had won my spurs.
Most people in the bush contrive to be merry at Christmas time, and the humblest of homes are more or less imbued with the spirit of the season. Though lacking the attractions, variety of sights and entertainments, and festivities and general gaiety that the cities offer, Christmastide brings good cheer to the denizens of the ranges and forests, and is looked forward to and enjoyed in the most isolated places. To a town dweller the environment at such a time would be unbearable; but to those who pass their lives there, to whom the laughter of the kookaburras, the warbling of magpies, the chirruping of parrots, and the cries of the curlew and mopoke are pleasant and familiar sounds, it is more appreciable than a holiday amid scenes of excitement and splendor; for the old people somehow always like to spend Christmas in their own home, however humble that home may be. It is a time, too, when the scattered flocks foregather from far and wide under the old roof tree. There are innumerable homes from which many have gone out to battle with the world, leaving only the old couple and probably one or two of the youngest members of the family. The boys may be working within easy reach, and they may be hundreds of miles away—on stations, goldfields, or travelling with cattle; and, in either case, “mother” expects them home. There are many old couples who would fret and worry if one member of the family were absent on that important day. Preparations are made weeks before hand, and Willie and Jim and Bob are daily discussed, and surprises are planned for them. Their rooms are done up and readied, and the old paddock is made doubly secure for their horses, “which, being strange, are sure to try to make back.” The chips and bones and leaves, old rags and pieces of paper around the rough home, are raked up and burnt in little heaps; the garden is trimmed up, the house is painted or whitewashed outside, the steps and fireplace receive similar attention, and the inside walls are papered, if only with newspapers. It is surprising how neat and tidy the walls can be made with this kind of covering. All advertisements are tabooed, and the reading matter is put so that the walls can be read, and are plentifully sprinkled with such illustrations as are likely to please the wanderers.
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The sentiments and predilections of the old people in this respect are shared to a great extent by the young, whose thoughts turn now to home and kindred ties more than at any other time of the year, and some will bridge the gulf that lies between in spite of all obstacles. Last December a girl who had been at service in Winton (Q.) started by coach for Boulia, where her parents lived. There had been heavy rains on the way, and on reaching Caddie Creek it was found impossible to cross the flood by vehicle, and the horses were taken out. But the girl was determined not to turn back, and she was equally resolved not to remain on the bank of the creek. She won the sympathy of the driver and a male passenger by telling them that she had never missed a Christmas dinner at home, and she did not want to miss this one. The men then fastened a strap round their bodies, and, with the girl clinging to it between them, successfully negotiated a 70 yards’ swim, At Middleton, some miles further on, she swam another flooded creek on horseback, and, drenched and mud-covered, she eventually reached Boulia in time for the all-important dinner with her parents.
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One of the principal features of the time is the gay array of bushes that deck the verandah posts of the houses. In the towns men go round with dray-loads of green bushes, selling them for a few pence a bundle; but outside they are cut in the creeks or along the river banks, and dragged home by the children. A big armful is lashed to each post till the verandah is almost entirely hidden behind a wall of greenery. Even the selector’s hut, standing alone in a wilderness of trees, is annually decorated in this way, and the prospectors’ camp, pitched where no one passes, and where the usual greetings are exchanged only between the two mates, sports an emerald cluster on the pole for “Auld Lang Syne.”
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Another custom which is favored by those who still cling to old world associations is the hanging of the mistletoe from the centre of the ceiling. It is also called the kissing bush, for when a young lady steps under it, unwittingly, of course, her male admirers consider themselves privileged to kiss her. Any bush does for a mistletoe in Australia, but the shy young bushman seldom takes advantage of the privilege it gives him when some pretty little creature he admires stands defiantly under it. He knows nothing of the old traditions that enshrine the bough; in his home it is suspended mainly for the convenience of flies—to keep them off the table, and to minimise the annoyance that the perennial pests cause the inmates. More important than the mistletoe to him and his sisters is the Christmas mail, which brings the pictorial annuals, seasonable presents, cards and letters from far-off friends and relatives. The annual is more appreciated by bush people than by city folk, and the whole family will gather round it, with heads clustered together and peering over one another’s shoulders, while one turns the pages.
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The most important event is the making of the Christmas pudding, and it often happens that the whole family, from the youngest to the oldest, has a hand in it—if only in stoning the raisins. It is a good method of generalising the responsibility when tottery teeth grate disagreeably on seeds that were left in. Mary puts the blame on to Willie. “I told him,” she says with an arch look, “that he was eating the fruit and putting the seeds in the dish.” And Willie passes it on to his youngest brother. But the seeds are nothing to speak of; it is the threepenny bits and “mother’s ring” that are hard things to bite. The children are cautioned to eat slowly, and to be careful not to swallow any money. Those who get the coins are considerably lucky, as it signifies that they will not want during the coming year—and “mother” puts in enough silver to preclude everybody from want. Like many other things that signify this or that, it is not very reliable. I thought myself extremely lucky once on getting three coins out of one duff. That was ten years ago, and I’ve been poor ever since—and wanted just as badly as before. So with the ring; it is considered that the fortunate young lady who gets it will be married during the coming year. She often lives to be an old maid.
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On the goldfields the miners take delight in surreptitiously introducing a few small nuggets into the duff—and they do not go round the table after dinner collecting them as some women do the coins. The gold becomes the property of whoever finds it, and it is made into pins, rings, and brooches. This habit of salting the pudding induces a good deal of prospecting, and as the prospectors have to eat up the tailings, this is probably the reason that so many people “don’t feel very well” after the Christmas dinner,
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There are cakes and patties to make and hide away where the boys won’t find them, and the hop-beer, ginger-beer, and honey beer. “Sugarbags” are plentiful in many parts of the bush, and a good nest or two in usually left for December, when the trees are felled and the bees robbed. The beer is made from the comb after the honey has been drained out of it. The women and young people are fond of this home-made drink, but “father” is not always so enthusiastic. Sarsaparilla is also extensively made, the vines growing plentifully among the ranges along the eastern coast of New South Wales.
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A day or two before Christmas the wanderers return. First comes Jim, cantering up the track with a valise strapped in front of him, and a smoke-cloud trailing behind, while the old folks and the little ones are watching with glad faces from the verandah. Towards sundown Bill appears on the hill in another direction, and comes jogging along quietly with a well-loaded pack horse, and quart-pots, bells, and hobble chains rattling and jingling to every stride. The children run shouting to meet him, and some ride back behind him, and some perched on the pack. They help him to unsaddle, and carry his pack-bags in; they take his tired horses to water, and lead them through the sliprails, and let them go in the paddock with a gentle pat on the neck. The sun is down, perhaps, when Bob comes plodding slowly along through the trees, carrying his swag, and swinging a billy in one hand, while he shakes a little bush before his face with the other to keep the flies away. “Poor old Bob!” says his mother, “still walking!” The youngsters race down the road again, and they carry his billy and tucker bag for him, and hang on to his hands. They all talk to him at once, their eyes dancing with excitement, telling him that Jim and Willie are home, and that Strawberry has a young calf, and the speckly hen has ten chickens. Bob listens with a dry smile as he plods along, recalling when he, too, was interested in Strawberry and the hens. When he reaches the door the smile broadens, and he says “Merry Christmas!” and throws his swag down against the wall. They crowd round him, wringing his hands till he feels tired, and ask him how he’s been getting on. “Orlright,” says Bob, simply.
* * * * * *
Though Bob has “humped bluey” home, he has probably as many pound notes in his pockets as those who came in creaking saddles, and he feels well repaid for his long tramp and his many months of hard work and battling in the backblocks when he notes the pleased look on his mother’s face as he hands her the bulk of his savings. The brothers swop yarns till late at night, telling of their experiences and adventures by flood and field, and each has some curiosity to show, brought home as a token or keepsake from strange and far-off parts of the bush. The old home, which has so long been dull and quiet, now rings with merry laughter and glad voices, and when Bob does a jig in his clod-smashers the very roof shakes and the crockery rattles loudly on the dresser. There is an hour or two’s dancing, maybe, to the strains of a concertina or a violin. Then somebody goes off for the Jackson girls, and old acquaintances are renewed—and likewise the dancing.
* * * * * *
On the morning before Christmas the boys go out with guns for scrub turkeys, bustards, pigeons, and ducks. Often they spend the whole day shooting in the scrubs, wading through swamps and following lagoons and creeks, and they come home well laden with game. All hands and the cook turn to after tea and pluck the birds. Even where wildfowl are scarce or hard to get, there is generally plenty of poultry in the yard, so that the bushman’s table is rarely without game at this time.
* * * * * *
Christmas Day is quiet and generally dull—a day of rest; but Boxing Day makes up for it with a quantum or sport and excitement. There is usually horses races somewhere in the vicinity, or a cricket match between Wombat Hill and Emu Creek. A cricket match isn’t very sensational—except when the ball lodges in the hollow spout of a tree, or gets lost down a rabbit burrow and has to be dug out. A kangaroo hunt is more exhilarating. A dozen girls and young men ride out in the early morning with a couple of dogs, and when the game in sighted the whole cavalcade starts off at full gallop, with the dogs in the lead. The mob, when pressed, breaks right and left, and when the dogs separate there is often a split in the pursuing party, and some times, in a long chase, they do not meet again until they return home. Usually the chase is short; the dog picks out a “boomer,” soon overtakes it, and, catching it by the tail, easily throws it with a deft twist, and then as quickly seizes it by the throat. The men spring from their saddles and hamstring the animal as quickly as possible to prevent it ripping the dog with its formidable toes. The rest of the mob by this time has disappeared, and the party ride slowly on through the forest until they sight another mob—or, perhaps, a dingo, The latter is more cunning, and often gives a longer run, taking the pursuers through the thickest timber and over broken and marshy ground, Sometimes a horse comes down, or a lady rider, more enthusiastic than prudent, parts company with her mount in the timber, or loses her seat in jumping logs and watercourses. Sometimes the dingo is brought to bay in a mangrove swamp, or he darts into a hollow log, and has to be smoked, prodded, or chopped, out. The kangaroo, too, after a long run, will occasionally spring into a waterhole and fight his assailants. When the whole party have gathered round him with sticks, however, he has but a small chance of gaining the victory.
* * * * * *
There are many persons in the bush every year to whom the festive season is only a memory. Those are men camped in lonely parts, batching at station out-camps or boundary-riders’ huts, whose Christmas dinner probably consists of nothing more than damper and salt mutton, Some of them have been so long alone that, though they know that Christmas is somewhere near, they could not tell you whether it is two days ahead or two days past. I have often found men keeping up Saturday or Monday for the Sabbath, even within a few miles of a town. The majority of bush workers who have no homes of their own, and no kith or kin within reach, spend their Christmas at an hotel—mostly drinking. I remember one man who rode into a western town to enjoy himself, and got drunk the first night, and it was nearly a fortnight afterwards before he properly recovered his senses, Then he asked the publican how many days it was to Christmas.
“About 256,” said the publican. “Yesterday was New Year’s Day.”
The man from Wayback thought hard for some seconds, then he said, still hopefully; “Did I keep up Christmas?”
“You did,” said the publican. “You had a roaring time.”
“That’s orlright, then.” was the rejoinder. “S’ long ‘s I kep’ up Christmas, I’m satisfied. Let’s ‘ave a drink—an’ a ‘Appy New Year to yer, an’ many of ‘em.”
* * * * * *
New Year’s Eve is probably the merriest time in the back country. In the big towns a band starts out about midnight, playing a tune or two before each hotel and the houses of business people, and demanding drinks for all hands at each place. Sometimes the people are all in bed, and do not respond to the martial strains of the band. Then other means are adopted, and they persist and keep up a deuce’s own row until paterfamilias is glad to open the door or shove the window up, and thrust a bottle out. Proceedings end with the singing of “He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” and the performers pass on to the next place. The music is always appropriately chosen in accordance with the nationality of the resident. A Frenchman is honored with the “Marsellaise,” an Irishman with the “Shamrock,” the Scotchman pays tribute to “Auld Lang Syne,” and the Britisher to “God Save the King,” while Uncle Sam parts up his bottle on hearing “Yankee Doodle” or the “Star Spangled Banner.” The party serenaded has the privilege of demanding any song he likes if the one volunteered does not satisfy him. The performers present a sorry spectacle by the time they get to the end of their round. Many have dropped out, and are mixing the anthems somewhere in a gutter; the others have lost their music or can’t read what they have, and some are too staggery to blow two notes together, and occasionally fall over the instruments, or take a header into the big drum.
In the meantime another contingent are busily engaged in removing gates, exchanging signboards, shifting horses from one stable to another, taking wheels off vehicles, or running the traps away to other places, besides committing numerous other delinquencies. The majority of the residents spend New Year’s morning hunting up strayed property, replacing signs and gates, erasing chalk marks, and straightening up things generally.
In the small far back towns the band consists of a concertina or a tin whistle and a kerosene tin—and it draws its perquisites much quicker than a properly-constituted band. People are in a hurry to pass it on. So it gets hilarious without much loss of time, and the kerosene drum becomes a clamorous horror. But it fills a void, and the performers consider they have done their town a service and an honor when they have banged the Old Year out and the New Year in.
“How nice to have a dairy farm in the country,” I heard someone say not long ago, and that set me retrospecting. I had some experience on a dairy farm once; I don’t want any more. Agriculture is a perpetual delight when compared to cow-whacking. You get up hours before daylight and ride after your cows with the reins in one gloved hand and a lantern in the other. I always liked stock work until I was asked to muster cattle with a lantern. When the whole landscape is white with frost, and the biting wind numbs your ears, nose, and feet, and brings tears to your eyes, or in wet weather when the rain drives into your face and trickles down your spine, the pleasures of dairying are even more hidden than the cunning old cows that poke into every out-of-the-way nook and corner in the paddock. They are always further away and more securely hidden when the weather is bad, or when you are in a hurry. If there is a swamp in the paddock, either there are some in the boggiest part of it, or else they will make straight for it as soon as you rouse them up. It isn’t that they like mud and water, but, because they enjoy making things unpleasant.
When they are all jambed into the yard you start to work. Hunting them up out of the paddock; according to the farmer, is only a preliminary to shake the sleep out of your eyes. You have 40 or 50 cows to milk before breakfast. Of course, you would like a cup of tea and scone after your early ride; but the establishment allows no luxuries of that kind. Besides, you could milk one cow at least while you were drinking a cup of tea and eating a scone. So a drink of milk must do you till 9 o’clock. If, you are milking later than 9, the farmer will want to know what you’ve been doing. Five of us had over 200 cows to put through twice a day on the Richmond River, and on Sunday morning we had a race to get done early. We turned them out at the rate of 18 an hour per man, and after that the boss used to come into the yard pretty often to know why they were easier to milk that Sunday than on any week day. We explained that we could afford to use extra steam on Sunday morning, as we had a few hours’ rest before the afternoon’s work; whereas, on a week day, we spent the interim among the cane and the corn and the spuds. He couldn’t see it, and pretty soon a new set of hands were installed—each well primed with his views on dairying. He wanted only good men; a good man could milk 18 cows an hour without bustling himself in the least. Also the quantity of milk the last lot obtained was quoted at several gallons more than they really got.
The boss himself drove the engine and worked the separator, and churn. He allowed the milkers a certain start before he commenced. If he ran short of milk before the finish there would be the deuce to pay, and the men would hear all over again the feats of their predecessors. He overstepped the mark one morning when his bluster exasperated two new hands. One was a bit of a wrestler, and he threw old Butterfat into the deepest puddle in the yard, inquiring meantime if the other fellows did anything like that. His mate then lassooed the dairyman with the breaking in rope, and they hauled him into the bail and leg-roped him, while they questioned him, as to whether the other fellows did anything like that.
The yard is nearly always mucky—after a shower of rain it would bog a duck. You splash and struggle through it—bogged to your knees, and breathing typhoid germs at every breath. A few cows are anxious to get milked so as to get back to the paddock, but the majority think it very necessary to walk right round the yard before going into the bail. Stubborn ones won’t go in until you have run them round several times with a sapling. When they do bail-up you can’t see their udders for mud. And 99 cows out of every 100 have a notion that the bail is a place of ease—specially built for their convenience.
There is nothing more disgusting on a cold morning than to have a wet, and filthy tail flung round your neck and across your mouth, just as you sit down to milk. The dirtier the tail is the more the cow swings it at you, unless you take the precaution to hook it up. We had some cows that had lost the tail tuft through imperfect inoculation for pleuro, and a welt of the sore stump was simply abominable, to say nothing of the severity of the blow. A man doesn’t realize what power there is in that appendage till he gets a smack in the eye from a bald-ended-one. Sometimes they plant their claw-hoofs on your favorite corn; and for one that stands moderately still half a dozen kick continually. Some lift their feet slowly, so that you see the kick coming; others are so marvellously sudden that you are kicked before you know anything. Others, by insidious movements, gradually work the rope loose, and, just as you are stripping the last few drop’s, a dirty hoof is planked without warning into the bucket of milk.
I had all but finished a malevolent brute of that kind one morning, when she suddenly lashed out with a free leg that turned me a turtle over the block. I landed on the back of my neck, and, in trying to turn round, she jambed me there; with the bucket wedged between my knees. For a moment my breath was taken away in a deluge of milk. Another morning I opened the bail to let a young cow out, when she turned sharply and charged. Close by was a crush, used for docking and branding cattle, but now heaped up with wet muck from the yard. As I sprang on to the rails of this she struck me under the boots with her horns and tossed me over. It was the most obnoxious dive I ever took. After clambering out, I had to feel my way to the creek, where I deposited a considerable quantity of the cow-yard. And yet the cow is never miscalled or misnamed like other animals. She is always a cow with the most irate milkman—mostly with qualifications.
There are cows which kick at their own shadows. A man gets an unpleasant surprise occasionally after a run of quiet old milkers. Absent-mindedly he steps up to legrope the kicker, and the next instant he is lying on his ear somewhere out in the yard. At such times one is apt to ignore the golden rules laid down for the special benefit of the ignorant cow-whacker by the farm and dairy editor who sits in a cosy office and smokes big cigars. He tells you to learn her by patience and kindness, to stand without a legrope; to wash, her well with warm water before milking; to rub her udder gently to induce her to let the milk down from her horns; to whistle and sing to her; and always to talk to your cow as you would to a pretty maiden—then your cow will love you like a brother. It is also said that cows are fond of music, and that if the farmer puts his daughter to bang the piano in the yard, or to sit on a rail and strangle a concertina, during milking time; the increased yield under the soothing influence of the music, will more than repay him for his trouble. Of course, the cow-editor, never had to pick the gravel out of his eyes, nor shovel cow-dung out of his ears, nor inhale the noxious odors that pervade the precincts of the average milk man. He prescribes all sorts of luxuries for the poor cow in his snug office; he ought to milk 50 of her twice a day; then I’m afraid the songs he would sing to her wouldn’t harmonize with sacred music.
The rig of an old milkman is a revelation. Some use a leather apron, others leather trousers; but dungaree overalls are the most common. These become so stiff with milk and the yard’s dirty conglomerations that there is no need to hang them up when discarded. You simply stand them up against the fence to dry. Anything heavy does for yard boots, but a frequent change of Prince Alberts is necessary to prevent an excruciating toe-itch. A small antiquated felt is the favorite head-gear. Some wear finger-caps to escape the otherwise inevitable milk-rot, which attacks the fingernails and gradually decays them. Therefore, when he’s got ‘em all on the cow-whacker presents a capital figure for a comic artist.
Feeding the poddies is another edifying spectacle. They rush up in a clamorous mob at the first rattle of the buckets, and the man with the milk has some trouble to protect himself from being knocked over. They crowd to the troughs like pigs, wagging tails appreciatively, and butting the wooden mother between whiles; and when the last sup has been licked up they stand in groups, sucking each other’s ears and tails. A pot-gutted, lop-eared lot of monstrosities they look after a meal.
* * * * * *
A little old German, on my recommendation, once took a job of running a milk cart for a neighboring farmer. He ran it to destruction, and long afterwards he told me his experiences.
“You zee,” he said, “der beoples in der town vant dere cow-juice early, so I hafe to shake my drotters aboudt bretty lifely. Der early milkman catch der gustomer, Barlow tell me. Vell, I do my best. Budt, the cow vont go in der bail for me. I pick up a slibrail und break some sblinders mit her pack. By the time she ge up I vos in some more hurry. I make von desberate dardt mit der tie-him-up robe, undt she kick him to plazes undt send me after him like der tumble-Tommy.
“Dere vos cows mit shordt dits vot make der finger ache; some hafe der big von mit de small hole. You feel der milk in him, budt ven you skoo-veeze him it run up mit der cow. Some more hafe der secondt hole at der side. You try to sdeer dat mit der pucket, undt it strike your reskit, splidder-spladder, undt treeckle down your drouser.
“Some dimes I nodt gedt up too early, undt am in more hurry as nefer pefore. Den de cows von’t ledt der milk down. I pring oudt der calf. He hafe de sulk, undt vill nodings do budt gabe aboudt. Dat make me yumpin’ vild, undt I preak some more slibrails.
Somedimes Sdauspury, de van horse, yip at der brincipal corner. I sdrike der vhip mit his rips undt shout: ‘Gedt up!’ He rear up behind, undt run back so much as I lose mine balance undt he hit me on der head mit his rump. Beoples sdop undt laugh, undt gife me der komikal adfice. Dat make me so madt as gedt oudt. But vot der yoose? Dey laugh der more so, undt Sdanspury gedt no bedder very fasdt. I wish I hafe some slibrails.
“Von mornin’ I find der dank ran dry, undt I tak mine bucket down de svamp. Dat vos qvicker than tribble, tribble mit der shordt dits, so I dib der vater up bromiscuous undt vlop him in der milk-can. Next mornin’ der pank woman hafe some dings to say: ‘Dat vos bretty lifely milk you leafe us yesterday, Schumann,’ she says, qvite simbly, undt before I hafe time to sbeak leedle Carl run in. ‘Oh, mumma,’ he say, ‘did der man fedtch any more pully-frog?’ Mein Got! now I undersdant vot she mean. I feel bretty small, undt make hurry mit der sghool-house. I tink I nefer pefore see so many poys undt girls at dat place. Ven I bop roundt the corner, dey sing oudt, ‘Hulloa, ole pully-frogs!’ Efery von hafe a handful of him, undt I sbill der milk ven I yump to dodge some flyin’ pully-frog, budt—Got in Himmel! dere was pully-frogs eferywhere. I feel desperate, undt drive Sdanspury fasdt mit der bublic ‘ouse. The beer vos vait for me. I vould drink it; budt somethings sblash in dat beer. I hafe von look. Pully-Frog! Mr. Yordon look at me. ‘Don’t you care for beer this mornin’?’ he say. No, I vos nodt care for beer; I hafe wizky.
“I yoost drink it ven my friendt Schmidt come in. Ve hafe two more wizkies. At der door I meedt my friendt Schneider. Ve hafe some more of him. Now I would go home. I dumble in der milkcardt, undt ven I pick up der reins I make some slight misdake. I shoudt: ‘Gedt up, Pully frog!’
“Ven I gedt pack my senses dat day some beoples vos standt aroundt me. I look up, undt I see dat milkcardt—in den dousand bieces! Nodt far from him was Sdanspury mit a broken neck. It sdrike me somedings musdt hafe habbened.
“I go ‘ome on der foodt-back undt tell Barlow; undt Barlow tell me he don’t vant me nefer no more. I vasn’t vort my tucker. Budt ven he gool down he speak more as der shentleman. ‘I could pardon you for geddin’ drunk, Schumann,’ he say; ‘budt dem bullyfrogs vos a disgrace to my establishment. You bedder clear oudt!’ So I clear oudt!”
When the far-back Cocky has decided to pay his neighbour a Christmas call, he gets up very early, to grease the dray, and yoke up the bullocks. In the meantime, Mrs. Cocky bathes the youngsters, combs their hair, and puts on their “Sunday things.” It is a most eventful day, and everyone is tremendously excited. They set out soon after sunrise, the Cocky driving a team of four bullocks, the family squatted about the dray, their teeth chattering, in sympathy with the jolting of the concern, and some already fighting for level places, where there are no protruding bolts. The huge wheels are conspicuous as being the only part of the turn-out that is in anything like good condition; the pole has degenerated into a round sapling, half the decking has vanished, and the youthful passengers pluck at the long grass through the gaps; the broken railings swing from side to side, and add to the din made by the bumping of loose planks and the rattling of bolts that have lost their legitimate occupation by the shedding of the first decking. The pace is not hair-raising, though it is nearly as fast as a lovers’ walk.
The arrival at the neighour’s house is announced by a stentorian “whey”—the whip is leaned carefully against a stump, and the human cargo climbs out over the wheels, or drops down behind. Cocky produces his smoking paraphernalia from a huge leather pouch at his belt, and approaches the house filling his pipe. He sits on the verandah with his friend and yarns, while the women gossip inside, and the children career about the paddock like howling lunatics. Now and again the babble is momentarily checked by a peremptory “whey,” as the waiting oxen become impatient; and the dinner is interrupted intermittently by similar admonitions. They depart early, the juvenile members of the combined families loading the dray to its utmost capacity, and the women walking ahead for a mile or so, when they sit on a log for a final gossip, till the “Cocky’s express”’ catches up.
As a means of enjoying a drive, the bullock dray has pretty well gone out of fashion, and one doesn’t often see it going to the races, with a load of Long Gully enthusiasts, as in former times. Still, the old farm dray, which takes the family to church on Sundays, and wherever else it wants to go, with an ancient plough horse in the shafts, isn’t much better. But there is less risk of dropping through the floor, or rolling out through the dilapidated railings. It is easier to steer, too, and it looks homely, with the old man sitting near the front board, his legs dangling under the shaft, a part of a sapling in his hand, to keep the horse awake, and his tobacco smoke keeping the files and mosquitoes away from those near him; the mother, and as many olive branches as can find room, sitting in a row on a plank; the rest stowed behind, with the exception of the baby, who leans over the front, and helps to drive. A couple of dogs follow, and create a diversion occasionally.
The springcart is the next step upwards in the vehicular scale. It travels faster, and isn’t supposed to jolt so much, but one has to hold on mighty tight for all that when the motive power gets out of a walk. The dogcart is the dream of the small settler, though a few rise to the pre-eminence of a buggy or sulky. Any peregrinating bush worker may possess a “horse and trap” to travel about in; and many wandering families travel in tilted carts; but the man who goes “on the land” is usually a long while getting out of the dray-of-all-work. You will see a family driving into a backblock town in an alleged springcart, with the tires pegged all round, and lashed on with wire; the spokes rattling, and the springs straightened; while one shaft has been broken off, and a straight stick lashed on in its place. The harness is an object lesson in emergency patchwork. There is some leather in it, curled and perished; like wise rope, hide, wire, twine, hoop-iron, and dog chains, besides a yard or two of blanket and bagging, and some Mitchell grass and wool, which make up the collar.
The belly-bands used on these vehicles are the most surprising. Somehow, the original leather one nine times out of ten is missing. Its place is taken by a doubled trace-chain, a back-chain, the leg-rope from the cow bail, or several strips of woolpack sewn together.
In the Fassifern scrubs, about Boonsh, Dugandan,. Mount Esk, Nanango, and other Queensland centres favoured by German settlers, the prevailing vehicle is the German waggon. It is rather neat and handy, though I don’t suppose Mrs. Pottspoynt would care to be seen driving along Pitt-street in one. It is long and narrow, much narrower at the bottom than at the top, the sides starting outwards. In this the German Cocky takes his wife to town, and also his pigs to market. In Northern Queensland we find goat tandems drawing small carts made of packing cases, and running on small truck wheels, or the wheels of a perambulator.
The most curious turn-outs I ever saw were those used by the early Richmond River farmers. They were mostly slides, though made in a variety of ways. The most common was simply a fork of a tree, with a couple of pegs at each side. This is still much used for drawing water, the cask being stood on or laid across it, with a wet bag over it to keep the water from splashing out. One has to be careful in turning corners with it, as it always has an inclination to turn turtle, except when going straight ahead on level ground. This work is not infrequently left to the girls, many of whom can manage a horse or a pair of bullocks as well as their brothers. One of the prettiest girls I ever knew, the daughter of a well-to-do farmer, was an expert bullock-driver. A mounted constable married her afterwards, bad luck to him.
Another slide was made with two slabs placed on edge, bevelled at the ends, with cross-pieces morticed in, and roughly decked with battens. Some put sides and ends to it, so that it resembled a huge case. This was used for conveying the ears of corn from the farm, thus saving the trouble of bagging. These people took great pride in their slides, and when one invented some trifling improvement, or fashioned a new variation of the monstrosity, others would go miles to see it. Unlike drays, carts, and German waggons, they were not exhibited at the local shows. They would look remarkably well in an eight hour procession, drawn, as they often were, by a mixed team, as, for instance, a cow and a horse.
Another turn-out was fashioned somewhat like the box slide, but ran on low block wheels, sawn off a log, and revolving on wooden axles. I remember one Sunday seeing a farmer taking his family for a drive round the crop in one of these primitive vehicles. The sides were so high that you could see nothing of the passengers while they were sitting down; they viewed the landscape through the cracks. All went well until going down a bit of a slope, when, there being no brakes on the concern, it ran on to the horse’s heels. That patiently plodding animal remonstrated against this indignity by lashing out with great vigour, which sent Hayseed backwards with, such force that a subsequent jerk drove him right through the other end, to the accompaniment of broken battens and splinters. The old horse didn’t bolt; he merely turned round as if to look at the thing behind him; then the four wheeler went over with a crash and a heap of terrified humanity was spread out on the grass.
Hayseed took the horse out and hammered him with a green cornstalk. Then he hooked him on again and drove home. All the rest walked.
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