A CAMEL FIGHT
Leaving Hannan's on our left, we continued our northerly course, over flat
country timbered with the usual gum-forest, until we reached the
auriferous country in which our camp had been robbed by the blacks;
nothing of interest occurring until January 17th, when we found ourselves
without water. Knowing that we must soon strike the road from Broad Arrow
to Mount Margaret, this gave us no anxiety, and, beyond the necessity of
travelling without having had a drink for eighteen hours, but little
We struck the road as expected, and, following it some five miles, came to
a small, dry creek running down from a broken range of granite. Sinking in
its bed, we got a plentiful supply. Mosquitoes are very rarely found in
the interior, but on this little creek they swarmed, and could only be
kept away by fires of sticks and grass, in the smoke of which we slept.
From the granite hills a fine view to the eastward was obtained, across a
rich little plain of saltbush and grass, and dotted here and there over it
was a native peach tree, or "quondong," a species of sandalwood. We had
now left the timber behind us, its place being taken by a low, straggling
scrub of acacia, generally known as "Mulga," which continues in almost
unbroken monotony for nearly two hundred miles; the only change in the
landscape is where low cliffs of sandstone and ranges of granite, slate,
or diorite, crop up, from which creeks and watercourses find their way
into salt swamps and lakes; and occasional stretches of plain country.
Through these thickets we held on our course, passing various
watering-places and rocks on the several roads leading to the then popular
field of Mount Margaret.
All such rocks bear names given to them by travellers and diggers, though
one can seldom trace the origin or author of the name, "Black Gin Soak,"
"George Withers' Hole," "The Dead Horse Rocks," and the "Donkey Rocks,"
are fair samples.
It was at the last named that we had a slight entertainment in the shape
of a camel-fight. On arrival we found another camel-man (i.e., a man who
prospects with camels instead of horses, not necessarily a camel-driver)
in whose train was a large white bull. Misery, with his usual precocity,
at once began to show fight. The owner of the white camel, a gentleman
much given to "blowing," warned me that his bull was the "strongest in
the ---- country," and advised me to keep my camels away. Anxious to see
how Misery would shape in a genuine bout, I paid no heed, but took the
precaution to remove his hobbles, thus placing him on equal terms with his
older and stronger adversary.
Before very long they were at it hammer and tongs, roaring and grunting to
the music of the bells on their necks; wrestling and struggling, using
their great long necks as flails, now one down on his knees and almost
turned over, and now the other, taking every opportunity of doing what
damage they could with their powerful jaws, they formed a strange picture.
Misery was nearly exhausted, and the white bull's master in triumph
shouted, "Take 'em off, beat 'em off; your ---- camel'll be chewed up!"
But no! With a last expiring effort, brave little Misery dived his long
neck under the body of his enemy, and grabbed his hind leg by the fetlock,
when a powerful twist turned him over as neatly as could be. It was now
time for us to interfere before the white bull's head was crushed by his
conqueror's knees and breast-bone. With sticks and stones we drove him
off, and the white bull retired abashed--but not more so than his master.
Leaving the rocks in possession of our late adversary we once more plunged
into the scrub, altering our course to the west with the object of
revisiting the country around Mount Ida, where Luck and I had found
colours. Our way lay between salt lakes on our left, and a low terrace or
tableland of what is locally known as "conglomerate" on our right. At the
head of a gully running from this we were fortunate in finding water,
sufficient to fill our casks, and give each camel a drink. This was on the
morning of January 25th, and until the 31st about noon we saw no further
signs of water. Every likely place was dry. Where Luck and I had found
water before, not a drop of moisture could be seen; the holes contained
nothing but the feathers and skeletons of disappointed birds. Unable to
stop at Mount Ida without packing water twenty-five miles, which the
prospects of the country did not warrant, we turned northwards across much
broken granite country, which we vainly searched for Namma-holes or soaks.
Far ahead of us we could see sharp pinnacles, standing up high and
solitary above the scrub. These turned out to be huge blows of white
quartz, and were no doubt connected underground, for we traced them a
distance of nearly thirty miles. Interesting as these were, our thoughts
were turned to water-hunting, for the weather--the season being
midsummer--was scorching; the poor camels, sore-footed from the stony
granite, parched with thirst, and forced to carry their loads, eight to
twelve hours a day, showed signs of distress. Weary and footsore
ourselves, tramping at full speed all day over the burning rocks, one with
the camels, the others on either hand, scouting, our casks all but empty,
our position was not enviable.
The night of the 30th our water was finished. The nearest known to us was
thirty-five miles off, and a a salt lake was between--a sufficient bar to
our hopes in that direction. Matters were by no means desperate, however,
for thirty miles north we were bound to cut the Cue-Mount Margaret road,
and having done so it would be merely a question of time, with a certainty
of arriving at a watering place eventually, if we and our camels could
hold out. A dry stage, however long, with the certainty of relief at the
end of it, gives little cause for anxiety when compared with one on which
neither the position nor even the existence of water can be known.
Next morning we followed up a small creek, and on crossing saw the tracks
of several kangaroos and emus making towards two peaks of quartz. Here was
our chance. It was my place of course to go, but I yielded to the
persuasion of Paddy and Jim, who insisted that I had denied myself water
to eke out our scanty supply (though I doubt if I had done so more than
they), and must rest. So, putting the camels down in the welcome shade of
a kurrajong, I lay down beside them and was presently relieved by the
sound of a revolver-shot, our signal that water was found.
What a beautiful sight it was! Nestling in the hollow between two great
white blows of quartz, this little pool of crystal-clear water, filled
evidently by a little gully falling over a steep ledge of quartz beyond,
presented no doubt a pretty picture after the rains. A soakage it must be,
for no open rock-hole could hold water in such terrible heat; and its
clearness would suggest the possibility of an underlying spring. A popular
drinking-place this, frequented by birds of all kinds, crows, hawks,
pigeons, galahs, wee-jugglers, and the ubiquitous diamond-sparrows. During
the night we could hear wallabies hopping along, but were too worn out to
sit up to shoot them. Though our sufferings had not been great, we had had
a "bit of a doing."
One day's rest, occupied in various mendings of clothes, boots, and
saddles, and we were off again to the north, cutting the track as
expected, and presently found ourselves at the newly established mining
camp of Lawlers, prettily situated on the banks of a gum-creek, with a
copious supply of water in wells sunk in its bed. A great advantage that
the northern fields have over those further south is the occurrence of
numerous creeks, sometimes traceable for over thirty miles, in all of
which an abundance of fresh water can be obtained by sinking at depths
varying from fifteen to fifty feet.
Towards the end of their course the well-defined channels, with banks
sometimes ten feet high, disappear, giving place to a grassy avenue
through the scrub, lightly timbered with cork-bark, and other small trees.
It is on such flats as these that the wells are sunk. All creeks find
their way into the lakes, though seldom by a discernible channel, breaking
and making, as the expression is, until a narrow arm of the lake stretches
to meet them. At the most these creeks run "a banker" three times during
the year, the water flowing for perhaps three days; after which pools of
various sizes remain, to be in their turn dried up by evaporation and
soakage. In the dry weather the creeks afford a weird spectacle. Stately
white gums (the only timber of any size in these districts), with their
silvery bark hanging in dishevelled shreds around the branchless stems,
bend ghost-like over an undulating bed of gravel; gravel made up of
ironstone pebbles, quartz fragments, and other water-worn debris washed
down from the hills at the head of the creeks.
What a marvellous transformation the winter rains cause! It is then that
the expert, or journalist, takes his walks abroad; it is then that we read
such glowing accounts of rich grass lands, watered by countless creeks,
only awaiting the coming of an agriculturist to be turned into smiling
farms and fertile fields.
Numerous parties were camped at Lawlers, with some two hundred horses
turned out in the bush, waiting until rain should fall. Though with no
better feed than grass, dry and withered, the freedom from work had made
them skittish. What a pretty sight it is to see a mob of horses trooping
in for water at night; the young colts kicking up their heels with
delight; the solemn old packhorse looking with scorn on the gambols of his
juvenile brethren, with a shake of his hardy old head, as much as to say,
"Ah! wait till you've done the dry stages that I have; wait till you make
your evening feed off mulga scrub and bark--that'll take the buck out of
you! Why can't you have your drink soberly, instead of dancing about all
over the place?"
Then bringing up the rear, far behind, just emerging from the scrub, are
seen those who, from their wandering habits, must wear the bracelets,
hurrying and shuffling along with a rattle of chains, tripping up in their
eagerness to be even with their mates in the scramble for water: presently
they pause to look about and neigh--a delay resented by those behind by a
friendly bite, answered by a kick; which starts them all off at full
gallop, in the approved rocking-horse style, with a tremendous clatter of
hobbles and bells. Suddenly they halt, snorting, and as suddenly start
aside, wheel round, and dash away, as they catch sight of our long-necked
beasts. They have seen them often enough, and know them well, but they
must keep up an appearance of panic, if only to please their masters, who
never cease to jeer at the ungainly shape of the camel, until they possess
one themselves. These unemotional animals watch the horses' play with lips
turned up in derision, and hardly deign to move their heads from the bush
or branch on which they are feeding. Many of the prospectors, though
openly sneering at the camels as slow and unmanageable beasts, secretly
envied us our ability to travel in hot weather, whilst they had nothing to
do but to kick their heels and be thankful they had feed and water for
their ponies. And they envied us all the more on account of the vague
rumour that rich gold had been found in the neighbourhood of Lake Darlot,
towards which some had pushed out only to be driven back by thirst. Seeing
our evident advantage, should the rumour prove correct, in being able to
get there before the crowd, I decided to steer for the lake, with the hope
of picking up the tracks of the supposed lucky diggers.
A large creek, the Erlistoun, was given on the chart as running into the
lake, and on it was marked by the discoverer Mr. Wells, of the Elder
Exploring Expedition, 1892, a permanent pool. To cut this creek was my
object, and, by following its course, to find the pool, and there make a
base from which to investigate the truth of the rumour.
Leaving Lawlers February 7th we struck an arm of the lake on the 10th
the country traversed being mostly sand plain, timbered with desert-gum.
To reach the creek it was necessary to cross the lake; and what a job we
had, twisting and turning to avoid one arm, only to be checked by another;
carrying packs and saddles across what we supposed to be the main lake,
only to find ourselves on an island. All things have an end, even the
ramifications of a salt lake, and eventually we and our mud-plastered
camels found ourselves on the northern shore; and travelling east,
expected confidently to cut the Erlistoun creek. By its position on the
map we should have already crossed it but to make sure we went on five
miles more, when our passage was barred by another salt lake not marked on
the chart. It was clear that the creek did not reach Lake Darlot. Where
could it be? Was it worth while to look for it further? It was evident how
it came to be so shown on the map. Mr. Wells had cut the creek near its
source and seeing only one lake to the south, naturally supposed that
it was joined by the creek, and so had marked its probable course by a
dotted line. His work, copied on to other maps had been carelessly drawn,
and the creek shown running in a defined channel into Lake Darlot. That
this was the case I found afterwards on studying his original chart.
Now to decide our best course! Again our supply was all but done, but we
knew of no water save Lawlers, sixty miles away, and to attempt to return
to that, recrossing the lake was manifestly absurd. To the south-west we
could see some hills which might or might not be granite. We were inclined
to think that they were, as in the setting sun of a few nights before they
had taken a ruddy glow. These rocks appeared to be our only chance.
It has always seemed to me better in such cases to make people follow
one's own wishes by seeming to consult theirs, rather than by a direct
order. Acting on this plan, though with my own mind made up, I consulted
with my two mates. I felt sure that Jim would agree with me, from a remark
he had made to a mutual friend to the effect that "he would follow me to
h--l." Of paddy I was not so sure; nor was I mistaken. He strongly
advised turning back, but, having agreed to abide by the majority, said no
more, and so to the hills we turned our steps.
Our hopes that the two lakes were separate were soon shattered, for before
us lay a narrow neck connecting the two. There was nothing for it but to
go straight ahead. The lightest-packed camel crossed without mischance,
but not so the other two; down they went, too weak to struggle, and again
the toil of digging them out, and driving and hauling them foot by foot,
had to be gone through. Then the packs had to be carried piece by piece,
for we sank too deep in the sticky mud with a heavy load, and our weary
legs had to be dragged step after step from the bog. Hungry and thirsty,
blistered by the glare of the salt in the pitiless sun, we struggled on,
with a wondering thought of what the end would be.
Think of us, picture us, ye city magnates, toiling and struggling that
your capacious pockets may be filled by the fruits of our labour: think of
us, I say, and remember that our experiences are but as those of many
more, and that hardly a mine, out of which you have made all the profit,
has been found without similar hardships and battles for life! Not a
penny would you have made from the wealth of West Australia but for us
prospectors--and what do we get for our pains? A share in the bare sale of
the mine if lucky; if not, God help us! for nothing but curses and
complaints will be our portion. The natural rejoinder to this is, "Why,
then, do you go?" To which I can only answer that one must make a living
somehow, and that some like to make money hard, and some to make it
easily. Perhaps I belong to the former class.
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that in the heat of the summer we
were ploughing our way through salt-bogs, without water or any immediate
prospect of getting any, and realised, not for the first time, that the
prospector's life in West Australia is not "all beer and skittles."
The lake negotiated, we decided to rest under the scanty shade of a mulga
tree, and regaled ourselves on oatmeal washed down with a mouthful of
water, the last, hot from the iron casks. At a time when water is
plentiful it can be carried and kept cool in canvas bags; but it owes
this coolness to evaporation, and consequent waste of water. During the
hot weather, when water is scarce, I never allowed canvas bags to be used,
and so saved water, not only by avoiding evaporation, but from the fact
that water carried in galvanised-iron casks becomes so hot and unpalatable
that one is not tempted to take a big draught, and thus the supply is eked
That night we camped in the thick mulga, and from one of the larger trees
I could see the hills, dead on our course, and not more than two miles
off. But we were too tired to go further that night, and in any case could
have done but little good in the dark. The poor camels were too dry to
eat the mulga we cut for them, too dry even to chew the cud; and lay
silent, tied down beside us--the stillness of the night being unbroken by
the rhythmical "crunch" of their jaws.
Before sunrise we were packed and away, and shortly reached the hills
which we found to be, as we had hoped, bare granite rocks. Leaving the
camels, we spread out, and searched every hole and corner without success.
Every rock-hole was dry. One native soak we found, from which we scraped
about half gallon of water none too clear, and the less tempting from the
close proximity of the dead body of a gin, a young native woman,
fortunately not long dead. The ashes of a native camp but lately deserted,
could be seen close by; no doubt they had moved off as the supply of water
was so nearly done. Whether they had left the body to become a skeleton,
before making a bundle of the bones (a practice common to some Australian
tribes), or whether it is their usual custom to leave the dead where they
die, I do not know. I know, however, that this body was subsequently
moved, not by the blacks, but by those snarling scavengers, the dingoes.
This finding of a corpse at the mouth of the only soak we had seen was
hardly encouraging; but still there was a large extent of rocks that we
had not yet visited. Shortly before sunset, as I stood on the summit of
the highest rock, I was astonished by the sight of some horses grazing in
a little valley beneath. I could hardly believe that I saw aright; it
seemed incredible that horsemen should have reached this drought-begirt
spot. Little time was wasted in idle speculation, and the appearance of
our camels soon proved the horses to be flesh and blood, and not mere
phantoms of the brain, unless indeed phantoms can snort and plunge!
The owner of the horses soon made his appearance, and, with reluctant
resignation, showed us the soak from which his horses were watered. He and
his mates, he said, were sinking for water in a likely spot some half-mile
away; in the meantime they used the soak, though it was evident it would
not last much longer. We must have water for our camels, and must use the
soak, I said, until their thirst was somewhat relieved, then in our turn
we would dig for soaks round the rocks. In the hottest time of the year
our poor patient beasts had been eight days without food, except of the
driest description, and eight days without water, struggling and kicking
in the salt-bogs. It was indeed a delight to quench their thirst at last.
All that night we worked without a minute's rest, digging, scraping, and
bailing, and secured enough to keep the camels going. For the next two
days we were engaged in sinking trial holes for soakages; no water,
however, rewarded our labours until the night of the second day, when we
struck a splendid supply, and for the time being our troubles were over.
Pitching a "fly" to keep off the sun's rays in the daytime, we were
content to do nothing but rest for the whole of the next day. Here again I
was fortunate in shooting an emu, a welcome addition to our provisions.
McIlwraith and his mates (the owners of the horses) had also struck a good
supply. From them we got the news which we already suspected that a new
find of gold had been made not five miles from the rocks. An apparently
rich find too! How strangely things turn out. Our ill-fortune in failing
to find the Erlistoun had forced us into a most unpleasant experience,
and yet that ill-fortune was turning into good. For here we were on the
scene of newly-discovered reefs and nuggets, at the new rush, the
existence of which we had gravely doubted. We were the third party on the
field, and from Messrs. Rogers and friends I heard the history of its