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Home -> David W Carnegie -> Spinifex and Sand -> Part 5 Chapter 7

Spinifex and Sand - Part 5 Chapter 7

1. Part 1 Chapter 1

2. Part 1 Chapter 2

3. Part 1 Chapter 3

4. Part 2 Chapter 1

5. Part 2 Chapter 2

6. Part 2 Chapter 3

7. Part 3 Chapter 1

8. Part 3 Chapter 2

9. Part 3 Chapter 3

10. Part 3 Chapter 4

11. Part 3 Chapter 5

12. Part 3 Chapter 6

13. Part 3 Chapter 7

14. Part 4 Chapter 1

15. Part 5 Chapter 1

16. Part 5 Chapter 2

17. Part 5 Chapter 3

18. Part 5 Chapter 4

19. Part 5 Chapter 5

20. Part 5 Chapter 6

21. Part 5 Chapter 7

22. Part 5 Chapter 8

23. Part 5 Chapter 9

24. Part 5 Chapter 10

25. Part 5 Chapter 11

26. Part 5 Chapter 12

27. Part 5 Chapter 13

28. Part 5 Chapter 14

29. Part 5 Chapter 15

30. Part 5 Chapter 16

31. Part 5 Chapter 17

32. Part 5 Chapter 18

33. Part 5 Appendix

34. Part 6 Chapter 1

35. Part 6 Chapter 2

36. Part 6 Chapter 3

37. Part 6 Chapter 4

38. Part 6 Chapter 5

39. Part 6 Chapter 6

40. Part 6 Chapter 7

41. Part 6 Chapter 8

42. Part 6 Chapter 9

43. Part 6 Chapter 10

44. Appendix



On August 22nd we left this kindly little oasis and directed our course
to the North. We were now nearly in the centre of the Colony, and had
made enough easting, a general northerly course being necessary to take
us through the heart of the great unknown. It was my intention to steer
due North for as long a period as possible, only deviating from it when
forced by the exigencies of water-hunting, and when it became necessary,
to bear somewhat to the eastward so as to hit off the vicinity of Hall's
Creek. Unless absolutely forced to do so, I did not propose to make any
deviation to the Westward--for from our small caravan it was incumbent
upon us to waste no time, unless we could do so in country where game was
procurable. So far, although our actual line of march had been through
unmapped country, we had traversed a region already crossed by another
party, whose route ran parallel to ours and some forty miles to the
north. Not that that was of the least benefit to us any more than if we
had been at sea; but it gave us the feeling that we were not in an
absolutely TERRA INCOGNITA. From the lagoon, however, our route lay
through country untrodden by any white man, with the exception of Ernest
Giles, whose track we should cross at right angles, about one hundred
miles North of Alexander Spring. But unless we sighted the Alfred and
Marie Range, named by him, we should have no guide, excepting our
position on the chart, to show us where we crossed the path of a caravan
which marched through the wilderness twenty years before.

To give a description of the country that we now encountered, from day to
day, would be so deadly monotonous that the kindest reader would hardly
forgive me; and even if it could serve any useful purpose I should
hesitate to recount the daily scene of solitude. A general account of
this country, followed by any incidents or personal adventures worthy of
notice, will suffice to give an idea of this dreary region.

From lat. 26 degrees S. to lat. 22 degrees 40 minutes there stretches a
vast desert of rolling sand, not formed in ridges like those already
described, nor heaped up with the regularity of those met with further
north. "Downs" I think is the only term that describes properly the
configuration of the country. "The Great Undulating Desert of Gravel"
would meet all requirements should it be thought worthy of a name. In
this cheerless and waterless region we marched from August 22nd until
September 17th seeing no lakes, nor creeks, nor mountains; no hills even
prominent enough to deserve a name, excepting on three occasions. Day
after day over open, treeless expanses covered only by the never-ending
spinifex and strewn everywhere with pebbles and stones of ferruginous
sandstone, as if some mighty giant had sown the ground with seed in the
hope of raising a rich crop of hills. The spinifex here cannot grow its
coarse, tall blades of grass--the top growth is absent and only round
stools of spines remain; well was it named Porcupine Grass!

Occasional clumps of mulga break the even line of the horizon, and, in
the valleys, thickets or belts of bloodwood are seen. In these hollows one
may hope to find feed for the camels, for here may grow a few quondongs,
acacia, and fern-tree shrubs, and in rare cases some herbage. The beefwood
tree, the leaves of which camels, when hard pressed, will eat, alone
commands the summit of the undulations. As for animal life--well, one
forgets that life exists, until occasionally reminded of the fact by a
bounding spinifex rat, frightened from his nest. Day after day one or
other of us used to walk away from the caravan carrying a gun on the
chance of getting a shot; never once did we succeed; the rats invariably
got up out of range, and after a time we voted it unnecessary labour. Had
they been easily shot their small numbers would hardly have made it worth
while to burden one's self with a gun; to see a dozen in a day was
counted out of the common. Birds were nowhere numerous--an occasional
eagle-hawk, or crow, and once or twice a little flock of long-tailed
parrots whose species was unknown to any of us. Unfortunately I was
unable to procure a specimen. At any waters pigeons, sparrows, crows,
and hawks might be seen in fair quantities; and very rarely a turkey.

From the 22nd to the 24th we saw no signs of natives. On the latter day
several smokes rose during the march. So far, we had no certain knowledge
of the meaning of these smokes. They might be native signals, or from
fires for the purpose of burning off the old spinifex to allow young feed
to grow and so attract the rats to a known locality; or it might be that
the blacks were burning the country to hunt out the rats and lizards. On
the 25th a sudden change took place, and we found ourselves in a small,
open thicket with a coarse undergrowth of grass, and scattered about were
a few boulders of decomposed granite and occasional low outcrops of rock.
Several old native camps put us on the alert, and presently we found a
well--a shallow hole, 7 feet deep, and 2 feet 6 inches in diameter,
entirely surrounded by high spinifex. Why there should ever be water
there, or how the blacks got to know of it, was a problem we could only
guess at. Everything looked so dry and parched that we were in no way
surprised at finding the well waterless. Prempeh had been very unwell
lately, refusing to take what little feed there was to be got. A dose of
sulphur and butter was administered, poured warm down his throat by me as
Breaden held open his month, grasped firmly by either lip. I believe
sulphur is an excellent thing for camels, and used often to treat them
to the mixture, some--Satan, for example--being very partial to it. The
position of this well I found to be lat. 25 degrees 15 minutes, long.
124 degrees 48 minutes; from the edge of the mulga, one hundred yards or
so to the North of it, a range of rough looking hills is visible. This I
named the Browne Range, after my old friends at Bayley's Reward, and the
two conspicuous points I christened Mount Gordon, after Mr. Gordon Lyon,
and Mount Everard, after Mr. Everard Browne, respectively.

Mount Gordon is flat-topped; and Mount Everard a double hill, a peak
rising from a flat top, bears 82 degrees from the well. This range stood
out boldly from the open country and promised well for hilly country
ahead. Nor were we disappointed, for after two hours' travel we sighted
an imposing-looking range, and altered our course to the highest point, a
queer dome-shaped peak, which we called Charlie's Knob, since he had
first seen the hills. On nearer approach the hills lost much of their
grandeur. By camping-time we were close to their foot amongst rocky
rises, very rough to the feet of our animals. They were rewarded for
their discomforts by a small patch of herbage which they quickly
demolished. That night we heard the dismal howling of two dingoes, who
might either be giving expression to their satisfaction at finding water
or to their disappointment at not having done so. Three miles more of
rugged ground the next morning brought us to Charlie's Knob, and beyond
it the range, which on close examination was not imposing, being a series
of detached sandstone hills, their summits flat and slightly sloping to
the South, capped with a hard reddish-brown rock (baked shale). On the
cap, loose fragments of shale and thick scrub; forming its sides sheer
cliffs, at most fifteen feet high, perforated by holes and caves, above
rough, stony banks. The whole covered with tufts of spinifex, barren,
wretched, and uninviting.

On Charlie's Knob a queer little natural pinnacle of rock stands half-way
up the side, and from a hill close by, an excellent view of the Browne
Range was obtained, Mount Gordon bearing 148 degrees. With the help of my
field-glasses I could make out the character of this range to be similar
to that of the Young Range on which I was standing. It is of course
necessary to name these hills for future reference, and this range got
its name from somebody's remark that it was hardly full grown. From the
knob the hills run in a crescent, a line joining the two horns being
North-East. In the bend of the crescent I could see some very
green-looking bloodwoods and made sure we should find a creek. First we
hunted the neighbouring hills without success, and then crossed on to the
bloodwood flat which had appeared like a creek. Here for the only time
our patience in carrying the gun was rewarded, and Charlie shot two fine
turkeys. This welcome occurrence, added to Godfrey's having seen a
kangaroo in the hills and the dingoes heard the night before, made us
confident that water was not far off. That night Godfrey and I took it in
turns to baste the turkeys, as they were baking between two prospecting
dishes. Godfrey was an excellent cook, and most particular that
everything should be done cleanly and properly. I was quite under his
orders in the kitchen, for the cook's art is one that I have not the
patience to learn, and cordially hate.

Cold turkey and tea for breakfast, and then I divided the party into two,
Breaden with the camels being directed to a prominent hill at the end of
the range there to await the arrival of Godfrey and myself, who went off
to the hills to make further search for water. All day we hunted in
different directions and everywhere found the same barren rocks. We had
fixed upon a certain gully as a rendezvous; each gully was exactly like
its neighbour. Towards the evening I returned to the gully, which I was
sure was the one agreed upon, and there awaited Godfrey. He did the same,
only chose another gully, equally sure that he was right. And there we
sat, each impatiently blaming the other. At last, to pass the time, I
fired some shots at an ant-hill; these had the effect of bringing
Godfrey over the rise, and we had a good laugh at each other when we
discovered that for nearly half an hour we had sat not two hundred yards
apart--and each remained firmly convinced that he was right! Godfrey had
shot a kangaroo and carried part of the meat and the tail; he had tracked
it a long way, but could see no signs of water.

Still following the hills, we made our way towards the point where the
camels should be, and presently cut a deep, rocky gorge, which we
followed down. The camels had crossed this; and, as it was getting late,
I sent Godfrey along their tracks to rejoin the others, telling him that
I should continue down the creek, and return to wherever they made camp;
to guide me to it they were to light a fire. I followed the creek, or
storm channel as I should rather call it, for some four miles; climbing a
tree I could see it apparently continuing for some miles, so, feeling
that I had already had a fair tramp, I noted the direction of the smoke
from the camp and returned to it. As luck would have it, it was the wrong
smoke; Breaden on arriving at the end hill had made a fire, and this the
evening breeze had rekindled; and the camp-fire happened to die down at
the very time it was most needed. In due course I arrived at the hill,
named Mount Colin, after poor Colin Gibson, a Coolgardie friend who had
lately died from typhoid. From the summit a noticeable flat-topped hill,
Mount Cox, named after Ernest Cox, also of Coolgardie, bears 76 degrees
about fifteen miles distant, at the end of a fair-sized range running
S.S.W. Between this range and that from which I was observing, I noticed
several belts of bloodwoods, which might be creeks, but probably are only
flats similar to that crossed by us. Picking up the tracks of the main
party, I followed them to camp, not sorry to have a rest; for it was ten
hours since Godfrey and I had had anything to eat or drink, and the rocks
were rough and the spinifex dense. I mention this, not as illustrating our
hardships, but to show what training will do; any one of us would have
been quite ready to do the day's tramp over again had any necessity

That night as I was shooting the stars, by which I found we were in lat.
24 degrees 57 minutes, long. 125 degrees 9 minutes (dead reckoning), I
noticed several bronzewing pigeons flying down the creek which I had
followed, and on which we were camped. In the morning others observed
them flying up the watercourse. As a bronzewing drinks just after dark,
or just before daylight, this was pretty good evidence that water existed
in the direction in which the creek ran--and probably an open pool would
be found. No such luck! for we followed the channel until it no longer
was one, that is to say its banks became further apart, and lower, until
its wash was spread out in all directions over a flat whose limits were
defined by bloodwoods and grass. Here we found an old blacks' camp and
spent some time examining its neighbourhood. Little heaps of the yellow
seed of a low plant, swept together on clear spaces on the ground, and
the non-existence of any well, led us to suppose that this was merely a
travelling camp of some buck who had been sent to collect seed. It was
rather aggravating to be morally certain that water existed and yet be
unable to find it; we still had hopes of the creek making again, and so
followed the direction of its previous course.

Before long the tracks of a buck and a gin crossed our path, and we at
once turned to follow them through all their deviations. We saw where the
woman had dug out bardies from the roots of a wattle, where the buck had
unearthed a rat,* and where together they had chased a lizard. Finally we
reached their camp. Several implements lay about, including two bark
coolimans. These, the simplest form of cooliman, are made by peeling the
bark off the projecting lumps so common on the stems of bloodwoods. The
bark so obtained forms a little trough. In some regions they are gouged
out of a solid piece of wood, but this requires a knowledge of carpentry,
and probably tools, not possessed by the desert black. Another kind more
simple than the first mentioned, is made by bending the two sides of a
strip of bark together, so as to form the half of a pipe; then, by
stuffing up the two ends with clay and grass, a serviceable little trough
is made. In those we saw the clay was moist, and we knew that this was no
mere travelling camp. However, search as we would we could find no water,
until a flock of diamond-sparrows rose in front of Warri, and he
discovered a little well hidden in the spinifex--so perfectly hidden that
our own tracks had passed half an hour before its discovery within a few
paces of it!

[* The rat mentioned here was probably a "Bandicoot," "Boody," or "Bilby,"
the scientific name of which I do not know; I have never seen one, only
their burrows, and these have always shown every appearance of being
unoccupied. Most of the burrows that I have seen have been in a low
mound, perhaps 30 feet across, of white powdery soil, like gypsum. The
only living things I have seen emerge being a cat (near Lake Prinsep) and
snakes or lizards.

There is a smaller rat, which the natives in the goldfields districts get
in rather an ingenious way. This rat makes a single burrow, with a nest
at the end of it close beneath the surface. When it is inside the hole it
fills in the entrance and retires to its nest. This is ventilated by a
little hole to the surface, the mouth of this hole being hidden with
small stones and sticks. The rat, however, with all his cunning has only
built a mark by which his home may be discovered by the native. I had
often noticed these little heaps of stones in the scrub, and until a tame
boy explained it had no notion of their meaning.]

What chance has one of finding water, except by the most diligent search
and by making use of every sign and indication written on the surface of
the ground? This well was similar to the one already described,
excepting in one important respect. This one had water. Turning the
camels out we started work, and by sundown had the well in order. Tying
the others down we proceeded to water each camel in turn. Picture our
surprise and joy when each turned from the bucket without drinking more
than two gallons. Billy rolled up like a great balloon, and one would
have sworn that he had just had a long drink. What was this miracle? Here
were camels, after an eight days' drought, travelling eight to ten hours
daily in hot weather, over rough stones and gravel, actually turning away
from water!

The answer to this riddle was "Parakeelia." This is a local, presumably
native, name in Central Australia for a most wonderful and useful plant.
A specimen brought back by me from this locality was identified at Kew as
CALANDRINIA BALONENSIS. This plant grows close to the ground in little
bunches; in place of leaves it has long, fleshy projections, like
fingers, of a yellowish-green colour. From the centre grows a pretty
little lilac flower at the end of a single thin stalk. The fingers are
full of watery juice and by no means unpalatable. We tried them raw, and
also fried in butter, when they were quite good eating. The plant is
greedily devoured by stock of all kinds, and in dry tracts in Central
Australia has been the means of saving many head of cattle. As we found
it, it was not easily got hold of, for invariably it grew right in the
centre of a hummock of spinifex. At first the camels, not knowing its
properties, would not risk pricking themselves, but after we had shown
them, by clearing away the spinifex, how nice it was, they did not
hesitate to plunge their soft noses into the spiny mass, with what good
effect I have already described. Indeed, this plant is a wonderful
provision of nature, and compensates a little for the hideous sterility
of the country. I am not wide of the mark when I say that given
"parakeelia" every second night or so a camel would never want to drink
at all, though it is not really as serviceable as water--not having the
same lasting effect. A similar plant, also found in Central Australia, is
"Munyeru." In the centre of this a little bag of black seeds grows;
these seeds are crushed and eaten by the natives. Munyeru, Breaden tells
me, is quite a good vegetable for human consumption. Why the locality of
this well, "Warri Well," should be specially favoured by the growth of
parakeelia I cannot guess.

The well itself was sufficiently remarkable. Our work took us some twelve
feet from the surface, and in the well we had nearly five feet of water
and the probability of a deal more, as we had not reached "bottom." The
question that presented itself to my mind was whether the natives had
sunk the well on a likely looking spot and been fortunate in finding a
supply, or whether, from tradition, they knew that this well, possibly
only a rock-hole covered by surface soil, existed. The depression in
which the well is situated must after rain receive the drainage, not only
from the channel we followed, but from the stony rise to the north of it.
After a heavy storm--and from the way in which this creek has been torn
through the sand, scouring a channel down to bedrock, it is clear that
occasionally violent storms visit this region--a large volume of water
would collect in this depression. Some of it would be sucked up by the
trees and shrubs, some would evaporate, but the greater part would soak
into the ground where, so long as the bed-rock (which in this particular
case is a hard sandstone and iron conglomerate) is impervious, it would
remain. I should think it likely, therefore, that on this and similar
flats, not far from hills or tablelands, water by sinking could be
obtained at no great depth. A good guide to this well is a bare patch of
rock on Mount Colin, which bears 138 degrees three miles distant.

This hill is visible from ten miles due North of the well, from which
point it shows up prominently. Continuing a northerly march from that
point we found that the gravel and stones for the next few miles became
much rougher, and made walking tiring work. Occasionally mulga thickets
free from stones had to be passed through; in these there often occurred
very shallow depressions overgrown with grass and floored with clay. From
the floors rose high, pinnacled ant-heaps, built by the white ant; these
hills, grouped into little colonies, sometimes attained a height of
eleven feet, and had in the distance a weird appearance, reminding me in
shape, at least, of the picture of Lot's wife turned into a pillar of
salt. Around these clay flats large white gum-trees were growing, a
different species from the desert gum, having a quite smooth bark.

On September 1st we sighted the Alfred and Marie Range due East of us. I
had expected to find this almost on our course; however, my reckoning
differs from Giles's by eight miles, my position for the range being to
the East of his. As we approached the range the country improved greatly,
and had every appearance of having experienced recent rains, for green
abundant--that is to say, little patches of it, perhaps twenty paces
across. These we saw were feeding-grounds for kangaroos and wallabies.
Turkey tracks were fairly numerous; of the latter we saw six, and shot
one. They are very wary birds and not easily stalked. A very good plan
for shooting them is for one man to hide in a bush or behind a tree
whilst the other circles round a good way off, and very slowly advances,
and so drives the turkey past the hidden sportsman. He, if he is wise,
will let the turkey rise before firing, as their wings are easily broken,
whilst the thick breast-feathers readily turn shot.

We made camp one mile from the foot of the hills, and Charlie and I
walked over to see what was to be seen. This range is of sandstone, and
made up of a series of flat-topped hills of peculiar shapes, standing on
the usual rough, stony slopes. The hills are traceable in a broken line
for a considerable distance, perhaps twenty miles, in a North-Easterly
direction. No doubt some good water-hole exists amongst these hills,
judging from the tracks of kangaroos, turkeys, and dingoes. I fancy that
animals and birds follow up rain-storms from place to place to take
advantage of the good feed which springs into life, and it is most
probable that for ten months in the year these hills are undisturbed by
animal or bird life. Certainly Giles found that to be the case when he
crossed them in 1876; so disgusted was he with their appearance that he
did not trouble to investigate them at all. Indeed, he could have no
other than sad remembrances of this range, for he first sighted it from
the East, when attempting to cross the interior from East to West--an
attempt that failed, owing to the impossibility of traversing this desert
of rolling sand and gravel with horses only as a means of transport.
Baffled, he was forced to return, leaving behind him, lost for ever,
his companion Gibson. After him this desert is named, and how he lost his
life is related in Giles's journals.

In 1874 Giles, Tietkens, Gibson, and Andrews, with twenty-four horses,
left the overland Central Australian telegraph line, to push out to the
West as far as possible. Keeping to the South of the already discovered
Lake Amadeus, they found the Rawlinson and neighbouring ranges just
within the Colony of West Australia. Water was plentiful, and a depot camp
was formed, Giles and Gibson making a flying trip ahead to the westward.
The furthest point was reached on April 23, 1874, from which the Alfred
and Marie was visible some twenty-five miles distant. At this point
Gibson's horse "knocked up," and shortly afterwards died. Giles thereupon
gave up his own horse, the Fair Maid of Perth, and sent his companion
back to the depot for relief; for it was clear that only one could ride
the horse, and he who did so, by hurrying on, could return and save his
companion. With a wave of his hat, he shouted goodbye to his generous
leader and rode off. "This was the last ever seen of Gibson." It appears
that the poor fellow failed to follow back the outgoing tracks, got lost
in the night, became hopelessly "bushed," and perished, alone in the
desert. Giles meanwhile struggled on and on, every hour expecting relief,
which of course never came. At last he staggered into camp, nearly dead.

No time was lost in saddling fresh horses, and Tietkens and his exhausted
companion set out in search of the missing man. Picking up the Fair
Maid's tracks, they followed them until they were four days out from
camp, and it became clear that to go further meant sacrificing not only
their own lives but that of their mate left behind at the depot, as well
as that of all the horses. Gibson's tracks when last seen were leading in
a direction exactly opposite to that of the camp. Luckily the cold
weather (April) stood their horses in good stead; but in spite of this
and of the water they packed for them, the horses only managed to crawl
into camp. It was manifestly impossible to make further search, for
seventy miles of desert intervened between the depot-camp and the tracks
when last seen; and the mare was evidently still untired. So, sorrowfully
they retraced their steps to the East, and the place of Gibson's death
remains a secret still. I have heard that months after Giles's return,
Gibson's mare came back to her home, thin and miserable, and showing on
her belly and back the marks of a saddle and girth, which as she wasted
away had become slack and so turned over. Her tracks were followed back
for some distance without result. Poor thing! she had a long journey, and
Giles must have spoken truly when he said, "The Fair Maid was the gamest
horse I ever rode."

Giles's account of this desert shows that the last twenty years have
done little to improve it! He says "The flies were still about us in
persecuting myriads; . . . the country was, quite open, rolling along in
ceaseless undulations of sand, the only vegetation besides the
ever-abounding spinifex was a few bloodwood trees. The region is so
desolate that it is horrifying even to describe. The eye of God looking
down on the solitary caravan as it presents the only living object around
must have contemplated its appearance with pitying admiration, as it
forced its way continually onwards without pausing over this vast sandy
region, avoiding death only by motion and distance, until some oasis can
be found."

Not a cheerful description certainly! Every day's Northing, however,
would take us further in or out of this region, as the case might be, and
fervently we hoped for the latter. Whatever country was before us we were
firmly determined to push on, and by the grace of God to overcome its
difficulties. Again referring to Giles's journal I find that during this
part of his journey--viz., near the range where we were now camped--the
change of temperature during night and day was very excessive. At night
the thermometer registered 18 degrees F., whilst the heat in the daytime
was most oppressive. This, in a less degree, was our experience, for the
month being September the days were hotter and the nights less cold. No
doubt this extreme change in temperature, combined with the dry
atmosphere and the tremendous heat of the sun, has caused the hills to be
weathered away in the remarkable shapes of which McPherson's Pillar is a
good example. The pillar is formed of a huge square block of red rock,
planted on the top of a conical mound, perhaps fifty feet in height,
whose slopes are covered with broken slabs and boulders. This remarkable
landmark, which, from the North, is visible from twenty-four miles
distant, I named after Mr. McPherson, a well-known and respected
prospector, who, though leaving no record of his journey, crossed the
Colony from West to East, visiting the hills and waters on Forrest's
route as far East as the Parker Ranges, and thence striking Giles's route
at the Alfred and Marie, and so VIA the Rawlinson into Alice Springs, on
the overland telegraph line. Though little of his journey was through new
country, yet it had the valuable result of proving the non-existence of
auriferous country in the belt traversed.

Due West of the Pillar, distant two and a half miles, situated in a
scrub-covered rocky gorge, is a fair-sized rockhole. Breaden and Godfrey
managed to get about two gallons of filth from it; I have swallowed all
kinds of water, but this was really too powerful. Had we been hard
pressed it would undoubtedly have been used, but since we had not long
left water, we discarded this mixture, after trying it on Czar, whose
indignation was great. In the branches of the mulga round the rock-hole I
noticed what I have seen in several other places, viz., stones wedged in
the forks--dozens of stones of all sizes and shapes. I have no knowledge
of their true significance. It may be, and this is merely a guess, that
they indicate the presence of poison in the rock-hole; for by means of a
certain plant which is bruised and thrown into the hole, the water is
given a not actually poisonous but stupefying property. Thus birds or
beasts coming to drink fall senseless and an easy prey to the ambushed
native. This is a common plan in many parts of Australia, and was
described to me by a tame boy from the Murchison. Here, too, were more
little pyramids, similar to those at Empress Spring. Some quaint
black-fellows' custom, but what it signifies even Warri cannot explain.
Breaden has a theory that they point to the next water-hole. This may be,
but, unless for a stranger's benefit, quite unnecessary, as every black
knows his waters; and if for a stranger it is equally peculiar, for his
welcome is usually a bang on the head! It may be that messengers or those
who, wishing to trade from tribe to tribe, get the free passage of the
district, are thus guided on their way. The number of pyramids may
represent so many days' march.

There must have been some open water besides this dirty rock-hole, but
having sufficient for present requirements we did not waste time in
further search, and on September 2nd turned again to the North. On this
course we continued until September 6th, the country showing no change
whatever, which constrained me to say of it, so I find in my diary,
"Surely the most God-forsaken on the face of the earth"; and yet we had
worse to follow!

Our rate of travel over the gravel was a small fraction more than two
miles per hour. This I carefully reckoned by timing, taking into account
every halt of ever so small a duration in our march in a due North line
between two latitudes.

In lat. 23 degrees 34 minutes, long. 125 degrees 16 minutes, there rose
before us, visible for several miles, high banks of stones, such as one
sees on either side of the old bed of a river which has altered its
course. The slopes were covered with spinifex and on the top red and
weeping mulga--the latter a graceful little tree, whose bowed head adds
little to the gaiety of one's surroundings. I cannot offer any
explanation of these curious banks, except that, from the appearance of
one or two large flat boulders on the summit, it may be that they were
formed by the entire disintegration of a sandstone cliff, to which decay
has come sooner than to its neighbours further South. Future experience
showed us that further North the gravel becomes small and smaller until
it disappears, the rolling sandhills giving place to regular ridges. If
this is the case viz., that the hills and ranges are gradually rotting
away until they disappear, leaving only gravel behind, which, in its
turn, decays and decays until only sand remains, then in the course of
ages the whole of this region will be covered with ridge upon ridge of
sand formed by the wind, whose powers so far have been checked by the
weight of the gravel. For the sake of future generations I hope my
reasoning is incorrect.

As I stood on the stony bank, I could see several native smokes to the
eastward. Determined to take advantage of any help extended to us by
Nature, to spare no pains in the all-important matter of finding water,
to let nothing pass that might assist us on our way, so that if it was
our fate to go under in the struggle I should not be assailed by the
thought that I had neglected opportunities, determined, in fact, always
to act for the best, so far as I could see it, I decided to make use of
this sign of the presence of natives, and altered our course in
consequence. We started due East and held on that course for eight miles,
Godfrey and Charlie lighting the spinifex at intervals. Some men have a
theory that the blacks signal by smokes, the appearance of which they
vary by using different grasses, branches, or leaves. That may be the
case in some parts; here, anyway, they are no more than hunting-fires, as
we later proved. If the desert blacks do go in for smoke-telegraphy they
must on this occasion have thought that the operator at our end of the
wire was mad! Perhaps unknowingly we sent up smokes which appeared to
them to be rational messages! If such was the case our signals could not
have meant "Please stay at home," for when eventually we did find their
camp they had left. Taking the bearing of the most northerly smoke we
travelled for the rest of the day in its direction. The next morning,
though the smoke had long since died down, we continued on our course and
in a few miles reached a large area of still smouldering spinifex. Around
this we searched for fresh tracks, and, having discovered some, made
camp. And now I have to chronicle the only occasion on which any one
disputed my orders. And this goes far to show that all I have said in
praise of the loyalty and untiring energy of my companions, is not meant
in empty compliment, but falls short of what they merit.

It was necessary for one to stay in camp and watch our belongings and the
camels, while the rest were engaged in tracking the natives. Our zeal was
so great that the camels were hardly, unloaded and hobbled before each
one had set out, and it followed that one must be sent back. For no
particular reason I fixed on Godfrey, who, instead of hailing with joy
the prospective rest, was most mutinous! The mutiny, however, was
short-lived, and ended in laughter when I pointed out how ridiculous his
objection was.

Charlie and I went in one direction, whilst Breaden and Warri took
another. Before long, so complicated were the tracks, we separated. A
more annoying job it is hard to imagine: round and round one goes
following a track in all its eccentric windings, running off at right
angles or turning back when its owner had chased a rat or a lizard; at
length there is a long stretch of straight walking and one thinks, "Now,
at last, he's done hunting and is making for home"; another disappointment
follows as one wheels round and finds one's self close to the
starting-point. Such was the experience this day of Breaden, Charlie,
and myself, and disgusted we returned to camp at sundown. Warri was so
late that I began to think he must have come upon the natives themselves,
who had given him too warm a welcome. Presently he appeared, slouching
along with an expressionless face, save for a twinkle in his eye
(literally eye, for one was wall-eyed). My supposition was more or less
correct; he had been fortunate in getting on the home-going tracks of
some gins; following these for several miles he came on their camp--so
suddenly that they nearly saw him. Luckily, he beat a hasty retreat,
doubtful of his reception, and hurried home.

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