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Home -> David W Carnegie -> Spinifex and Sand -> Part 6 Chapter 5

Spinifex and Sand - Part 6 Chapter 5

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



Shaping our course from the lake (Lake White) towards the highest point
in the range, which I named Stansmore Range after poor Charlie, we had
the novel and pleasant experience of travelling with, instead of across,
the ridges--if only we could have turned the country round at right
angles, or changed the North point of the compass, how nice it would have
been! As it was, South we must go to get home, and take the ridges as
they came; our Westerly course was only temporary. For twenty-seven
miles we steered W.b.S., keeping along the trough of two ridges the
whole time, seeing nothing on either hand but a high bank of sand covered
with the usual vegetation. The trough was flat at the bottom, and about
150 yards wide. For ten miles we travelled between the same two parallel
ridges, then in front the butt-end of another appeared, as the trough
widened out. Deviating slightly to the South from our former course, we
were again between two ridges, one of which was the same that we had
followed along before. Then, again, in a few miles another ridge would
start, and altering our course again, this time a little to the North,
continued our march between two fresh ridges, and so on. Thus it will be
seen that the ridges, though apparently parallel, are not accurately so,
and that one may be continuous for more than ten miles or so, when it
ends and another takes its place.

On our march our captives cleverly caught a spinifex rat and a snake (one
of the very few that we saw); they greedily devoured both, and were much
pleased when Godfrey refused to partake of a piece of half-raw snake which
they politely offered him. We discovered that they had a great liking for
our beef-water--that is, the water in which our salt beef had been
cooked--and made no bones about swallowing a couple of gallons of this
brine-like soup. It had one good effect, for it made them most anxious to
take us to water the next morning! The hills we found to be of the usual
character, barren sandstone, from which numerous rocky creeks have torn
their way through the sand. Following up a little glen, terribly rough
and steep for the camels, we came at length to a fine pool, hemmed in by
almost sheer cliffs sixty feet high. Climbing to the top of these, I
could see that the same rough country extended for a considerable
distance to the westward, and that further travel up the glen was
impossible; so we retraced our steps down the creek, on the banks of
which we found grass and bushes in profusion, and poison plant. This
drove us away into the sandhills beyond all harm, and, unfortunately,
beyond all feed as well, nor had we time before night set in to cut and
carry any bushes for the camels, as we might otherwise have done.

That night our camp was in lat. 21 degrees 25 minutes, long. 128 degrees
20 minutes. The following morning I ascended the highest point in the
range, whilst Breaden and Warri took our animals for a final drink up the
glen. The lake was just visible, lit up by the rising sun, but I doubt if
during the day it could be seen. From the range numerous creeks, nine in
all, run Eastwards, one of which, I think, reaches the lake, as
with field-glass I could follow a serpentine line of gum trees. The rest
run out a few miles from their head on to grass-flats timbered with large
gums. The hills are of sandstone in layers, dipping to the West; these
seem to have been forced up into three-cornered blocks, the faces of
which have weathered away on the East side, forming steep slopes of
stones and boulders. Between the hills low ridges of sandstone running
North and South outcrop only a few feet above the surface, and are
separated by strips of white sand timbered with stunted gum trees. The
whole scene has a most strange and desolate appearance.

Returned to camp, I liberated the two guides, for I did not wish to
inconvenience them by taking them beyond their own country. They were
quite unwilling to go, and indeed waited until we were ready to start,
and were most anxious for us to go to the East again. "Gilli nappa,"
they assured us, was to be found, making their meaning clear by tracing
in the sand a winding line to represent a creek; and when at the end I
drew a lake, they were highly pleased, and grunted and snapped their
fingers in approval. However, when I showed them that we were going due
South their faces assumed so dismal an expression, and so vehement were
their exhortations to go in the other direction, that we concluded we had
no picnic before us. Had they had any intentions of coming further our
change of course decided them, and they made tracks for the glen, bearing
with them many rich gifts. An empty meat tin and a few nails does not
sound a very great reward for their enforced services, and yet they would
have been far less pleased with a handful of sovereigns; they could put
these to no use whatever, whereas the tins will make small "coolimans,"
and the nails, set in spinifex-gum on the end of a waddy, will find their
way into a neighbour's head.

We had really terrible country that day, during which we made no
more than nine miles. At first travelling was easy, as a flat belt
of sand came between the range and the sandhills; later on, however,
we were forced to climb up and down, now mountainous sandhills over one
hundred feet in height, now jagged hills and breakaways of sandstone;
dodging down little steep gullies, with the camels' packs almost touching
each side, up steep rocks, or along their faces, until the horses and
camels alike were quite exhausted. Fortunately we were rewarded by a fair
camp for feed, close by a noticeable bluff. We crossed nine deep creeks,
in any of which, at their heads, pools may exist.

Climbing the bluff next morning, I could see that the range curved round
to the South-East for some miles, possibly a great many. To continue
following round the foot would advance us but little; I therefore decided
to cross the range somehow. It was evident that any great extent of this
rocky country would soon place the camels HORS DE COMBAT, as every step
cut their feet, and every few minutes they ran the risk of a sprained or
broken limb; mules would be more suitable for such country. The further
we advanced the rougher became the ground, the narrower the little glens,
and the steeper the rocks. However, one final and tremendous scramble
landed us all safely above the hills, and to our joy we found that a flat
plain of spinifex spread before us. On it were clumps of mulga. Now we
hoped we had done with the ridges. But no! more yet, in spite of hopes
and prayers, and for the next two days we were crossing them at the rate
of eighty-eight per eight hours. It really was most trying, and had a
very bad effect on one's temper. I fancy my companions had the same
difficulty, but I found it nearly impossible to restrain myself from
breaking out into blind rages about nothing in particular. But the cursed
sand-ridges made one half silly and inclined to shake one's fist in
impotent rage at the howling desolation. Often I used to go away
from camp in the evening, and sit silent and alone, and battle with
the devil of evil temper within me. Breaden has told me that he had
the same trouble, and Godfrey had fearful pains in his head to bear.
The combination of heat, flies, sand, solitude, the sight of famished
horses, spinifex, and everlasting ridges, and the knowledge that the
next day would be a repetition of the day before, was enough to try
the sweetest temper; and I, for one, never professed to have such a
thing. Added to this we had the feeling that our work and energies
could have but a negative result--that is, the proof that the country
was barren and useless; and yet its very uselessness made it harder to
travel through. But with all this we never had a complaint or growl
from any in the camp. About this time I again became deaf, which did not
tend to make me any more patient.

Another stretch of plain country, a mile or two in width, again raised
our hopes and again dashed them, as more ridges confronted us on the
other side. A change of any kind is welcome, therefore the gloomy desert
oaks were greeted with joy; for though their sombre appearance is
eminently appropriate to a funeral procession, they give some shade and
relieve the eye. In due course we reached the burnt country for which we
had steered, and, after hours of tracking, singled out some footsteps
going straight away as if to camp. Warri and I were leading, riding
Highlander in turn; on cresting a high ridge we saw before us a little
clump of mulga and grass, amongst it a camp of some dozen or more
natives. As soon as we advanced they all ran, except two men, who stood
their ground for a short space, then, throwing a stick and boomerang in a
most warlike way, they followed their tribe. It was imperative that we
should have a fresh guide, so I followed on Highlander, and succeeded in
stopping the last man simply by wearing him out. He was a most diminutive
man, almost a dwarf, absolutely without ornament, not even a girdle of
string, with a most repulsive face, and wall-eyes like a Welsh sheepdog.
He was by no means afraid, and before long became friendly and returned
with me to their camp.

The tribe had left behind them a number of treasures--bundles of
firemaking sticks, bean-and-gum ornaments, and the usual bark
"portmanteaus" [Note at end of paragraph.] containing hair-string,
feathers, red ochre, and other knick-knacks. Amongst their weapons was a
curiously shaped boomerang; on one of the woommeras was a rough carving of
either a spider or crab. As soon as the camels arrived we unloaded and set
to work on the well, "soak-sucking" in our old style. By morning we had
watered the camels and horses. The former were of course pretty fit,
but the poor ponies had done a fair stage, especially so since they had
had no feed except the rank dry tops of the spinifex. May 3rd sunrise,
to May 8th sunrise, they had travelled on what water we could afford them
from our own supply, viz., three gallons apiece nightly, and six gallons
the first night. The grass around the well, though dry, was of great
benefit to them. For the camels we had to cut down the mulga trees, the
branches of which grew too high from the ground to permit them to browse
off the leaves. A number of dingoes serenaded us as we worked at night;
what they live upon is not quite clear, unless it be spinifex rats. There
were other small rats in the locality, two of which the dwarf had for
supper--plucked, warmed upon the ashes, torn in pieces by his long nails
and eaten; an unpleasant meal to witness, and the partaker of it badly
needed a finger-bowl, for his hands and beard were smeared with blood.
He did not take kindly to salt beef, for his teeth were not fit for hard
work, as he pointed out to us; and salt beef is not by any means easy to
masticate. As a rule the blacks have such splendid teeth that the dwarf's
case is remarkable, seeing that he was not at all an old man.

[* Note: A native bark "portmanteau," brought back from this locality,
was opened at Newstead Abbey and found to contain--

1. Plumes of hawks' and crows' feathers.
2. Neck-bands of opossum wool.
3. String bracelets.
4. Fragments of quartz, suitable for spear and chisel heads.
5. Fragments of sandstone, for making red paint.
6. Message-stick.
7. A stick 12 inches long, wrapped in downy feathers and greasy string;
on this was wound a great length of human-hair string, forming a
bobbin-shaped article, the use of which I do not know. I have now three
portmanteaus still unopened.]

The Dwarf Well had a better supply than any we had seen, and it is
possible that there is some soakage into it from the surrounding country.
It lies nearly five miles south of a low range of hills, the highest
point of which bears 1 degree from it; to the North a sand-ridge, to the
South a spinifex plain, six miles wide, then more ridges. I make its
position to be lat. 22 degrees 19 minutes, long. 128 degrees 16 minutes.
On the plain to the south are one or two small outcrops of ironstone and
quartz, sticking up out of the sand, as if some hills other than sandstone
had existed, and become buried by the all-spreading sand. I carved C on a
tall mulga-tree close to the well.

May 9th we left the well on a Southerly course, and were soon amongst the
ridges, which continued for the next two days. The night of the 11th,
having skirted a line of rough cliffs, we camped about three miles North
of a very prominent single hill, which I named Mount Webb, after W. F.
Webb, Esq., of Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire. As the sun rose that
morning the mirage of a lake of apparently great size was visible for
90 degrees of the horizon--that is, from East round to South. Neither from
the cliffs that we skirted, nor from Mount Webb, was any lake visible, but
it is more than probable that a large salt lake exists in this locality,
possibly connecting, in a broken line, Lake White and Lake Macdonald. A
mirage sometimes appears in exactly the opposite direction from that in
which the lake lies, but I noticed when standing on the Stansmore Range
that as the sun rose Lake White was clearly visible, whilst when the sun
had risen a few degrees above the horizon the lake disappeared. I am of
opinion, therefore, that large lakes will some day be found to lie to the
North-East of Mount Webb. Had we not been so pressed for time I should
have made a flying trip in this direction. Mount Webb is flat-topped,
isolated, rocky-sided, innocent of all vegetation, of sandstone capped
with quartzite, standing out with imposing clearness some five hundred
feet above a plain of spinifex and mulga scrubs. From its summit numerous
hills and bluffs can be seen; to the South spinifex plains and ridges;
to the South-East a tabletop between two bluffs; to the West a low line
of stony hills, beyond them a limitless sea of sandhills; to the
North-West a broken range of peaks, and, far distant, a large hill
swaying in the haze of heat.

From the foot of the hill a hunting-fire was seen close by. "Gabbi,
gabbi," said the dwarf, greatly excited; and when we turned towards
it "Yo-yo-yo" in approval. As we silently approached we saw two
old hags flitting about, as nimbly as their aged limbs would allow, in
the blazing spinifex--now picking up a dead lizard, and now poking about
with their yam-sticks as if in search of some rat which had been roasted
in his burrow. It is impossible to describe the look of terrific awe on
the faces of these quaint savages. Let us imagine our own feelings on
being, without warning, confronted by a caravan of strange prehistoric
monsters; imagine an Easter holiday tripper surrounded by the fearful
beasts at the Crystal Palace suddenly brought to life! What piercing
shrieks they gave forth, as, leaving their hunting implements, they raced
away, to drop, all at once, behind a low bush, where, like the ostrich,
they hid their heads, and so hoped to escape detection.

It was almost impossible to gain the confidence of the gins: old ladies
seem so very suspicious. The dwarf somewhat reassured them, and after
much difficulty one was persuaded to show their camp--and such a
camp!--perched up in the rocks on a little plot of sand, close by a
miniature watercourse, and in this a small native well, so rock-bound
as to preclude further opening out. And yet for this miserable affair we
were glad to offer up thanks, for the sake of the ponies. What labour for
a few gallons of water, not so much as we use in our baths every morning
in civilised countries! But no man could stand idly by and watch the mute
longing of his faithful horses. So freeing the dwarf and the old gin, a
fit pair, we set to work. All that afternoon and all through the night we
dug and hauled and scraped, and by morning had the horses watered and
twenty gallons to boot. There had been eight or nine blacks at this camp,
who, on their return from hunting in the evening, watched our proceedings
with intense annoyance. They stopped about one hundred yards away, and,
yelling and shrieking, brandished their spears in a most warlike manner.

That night they camped not far off, and, as on every other occasion on
which we invaded their homes, I consider we owed our immunity from attack
to the fact that work on the well entailed one or other of the party
being up all through the night, thus acting as a watch. Had they known
their power they might have made things most unpleasant by spearing our
camels. Fortunately it is only those natives who have come within the
civilising influence of the white man, that learn such little acts of
courtesy. It is noticeable that amongst the treasures in this camp were a
great quantity of "letter-sticks," which is evidence that the carvings
on letter-sticks cannot be written messages, unless this camp was a
desert post-office! If, however, the sticks are tokens, as I suppose,
then one of this tribe may be a craftsman who carves distinctive symbols
on each stick to order, and who had lately received a number of
commissions for such sticks. It seems likely that one man or tribe should
have a special aptitude for manufacturing message-sticks, whilst others
perhaps make a speciality of hair-string or spears. Or again it may be
that the number of sticks, certainly two dozen, denote orders from
far-off tribes, who wish to barter such articles as pearl-shells for
perhaps spinifex-gum of a superfine quality. (I have noticed that the
spinifex growing on the sandstone hills, particularly on the Stansmore
Range, exudes a great deal more resin than that growing on the sand.)
This bartering of goods is very remarkable, and here we found pearl
oyster-shells which must have passed from tribe to tribe for at least
five hundred miles; pieces of glass, carefully protected by covers of
woven feathers and opossum-string; the red beans which are found in
Kimberley, and, as Warri tells me, in the MacDonnell Ranges of Central
Australia; a stone tomahawk-head, a dark green stone (serpentine); and
besides, numerous sporrans of rats' tails, feathers, nose bones, red
ochre, and a piece of the top part of a human skull polished and slung on
a string. Certainly for its size this was the best appointed tribe we had

The position of this well, a very poor one, is lat. 22 degrees 57 minutes,
long. 128 degrees 20 minutes--one mile West of Mount Webb.

Some good grass grows in the mulga scrubs which are dotted over the plain
surrounding the hill. Nine miles south of the Mount, sand-ridges, East
and West as usual, are again met with; from the crest of one we saw the
last of Mount Webb, twenty-two miles distant. We now hourly expected to
get a view of Lake Macdonald, a large dry salt lake discovered by Tietkens
in 1889. Tietkens was Giles's right-hand man in all, or nearly all, his
journeys--a man whose great services to his country have never been
acknowledged, because, I suppose, as second in command his name seldom
appeared in the accounts of his leader's travels, and yet he shared his
dangers and troubles, stood by him in many tight corners, helped him no
doubt with counsel and advice; and though by his work--for Tietkens was
an eminent surveyor--many hundreds of miles of previously unknown regions
have been mapped, a grateful country has nothing to give in return! We
all know, though, how generous Governments are in such matters. Did not
Ernest Giles die, only the other day, in poverty and neglect? I know he
had a Government billet at 2 pounds 10 shillings a week, noble and
generous reward for the best years of his life spent in toiling over the
howling wilderness of the interior! Doubtless all debts will be
considered paid by the erection of a statue, and nine people out of ten
will not have any notion of who the man was or what he has done! Tietkens
in 1889 led an expedition to determine the true extent of Lake Amadeus,
the confines of which were marked as "probable." His work resulted in
greatly decreasing the area of the lake, which now lies entirely in South
Australia. However, this side of the border he found the lake already
mentioned, and, encircling it, returned to the point on the
Adelaide-Port-Darwin telegraph line from which he had started.

The lake is surrounded, at a distance, by numerous sandstone ranges and
hills, the drainage from them no doubt forming it. Tietkens experienced
rains in this region; no such luck fell our way, and everything was
parched and drought-stricken. I was able to identify the Winnecke Hills,
and one or two others, but, having only a small map of this part of the
country, could not locate many points.

Close to the Winnecke Hills we again surprised two gins hunting, and,
amongst their spoils of the chase, were astonished to see a common
domestic black cat, evidently just killed. It must have wandered far from
home! One of the women took us to their camp and small well, which was in
so awkward a situation that I decided not to do any work upon it. Its
position was in a very steep, narrow gorge in the sandstone, along which
the camels could pass with difficulty. There was no feed for our animals,
except at the mouth of the gorge a mile distant, and then there was but
little. It would take three to work the well, leaving only one to look
after the camp, and "tail" the horses and camels. Since the supply was
problematical, the well almost inaccessible, and waste of time the only
likely result, we passed on--the one and only occasion on which we left a
well untried. Numerous natives must have been in this camp, for I found
no less than thirteen bark "portmanteaus." As the gin had shown us the
well without demur, I left all these untouched. It was a struggle between
honesty and curiosity; but it seemed too mean to take things, however
interesting, when they had been left so confidently unprotected. And yet
birds' nests are robbed without any such scruples! I had no hesitation,
though, in taking the gin with us, in spite of her unwillingness, for
famished horses must be relieved. Once across the hills the sand-ridges
became less high, were dotted with oaks, and even had some herbage
growing on them.

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