A FRESH START
Four days sufficed to make preparations for another trip, to hear and read
the news, and write letters. My first, of course, was to my Syndicate, to
report our past movements and future plans, and how I intended making
northward, hoping that change of direction would change our luck.
January 4th we set out with the same three camels, and rations for three
months. My plan was first to revisit some known good country to the south
of Hannan's, and, if unsuccessful, to travel from that point in a more or
less north-north-west direction, and so follow, instead of crossing, the
trend of the various formations; for in travelling from east to west, or
VICE VERSA, one crosses a succession of parallel belts, first a
sand-plain, then a ridge of granite, next a timbered flat, then a stretch
of auriferous country, with possibly a belt of flat salt-lake country on
either side. Since these parallel belts run nearly north-north-west, it
seemed to the mind of the untrained geologist that by starting in a known
auriferous zone, and travelling along it in a north-north-west direction,
the chances of being all the time in auriferous country would be
increased, and the plan worth trying.
Passing the homestead of the Hampton Plains Land Company, where I was
given valuable information and a map by the courteous and kind manager,
Mr. Anderson (now alas! dead, a victim to the typhoid scourge), we
continued on the Lake Lefroy road as far as the Fourteen Mile rock-hole.
This contained water, but so foul that the camels would not look at it.
Nor were we more successful in our next water-hole, for it contained a
dead horse. Leading to this Namma-hole, which was prettily situated on a
low rock at the foot of a rough, broken ridge of granite, surrounded by
green and shady kurrajongs, we found a curious little avenue of stones.
These were piled up into heaps laid in two parallel rows, and at intervals
between the heaps would be a large boulder; evidently this was the work of
aboriginals, but what meaning to attach to it we could not think. The
beginning of our journey promised well for water, for we were again
favoured by a local thunderstorm which, in clay-pans and swamps, left a
plentiful supply. Mr. Anderson had told me of some hills in which he had
found gold in small quantities, and sure enough wherever we tried a "dish
of dirt," colours were sure to result. A pleasant camp was this, plenty of
water, numberless quartz reefs, every prospect of finding payable gold,
and feed of the best kind in profusion--a welcome change for our beasts.
They were shedding the last of their winter coats, and, as the weather was
hot, I hastened the transformation by pulling off great flakes of wool
with which Egan stuffed one of the saddles. Poor Misery had an
uncomfortable experience here in consequence of catching the rings of his
hobble-chain in the broken stump of a bush, so that he was held captive
The advance of civilisation was marked by the appearance of a small herd
of bullocks, evidently stragglers from "Hannan's," and had we been further
from that place I do not doubt that our desire for fresh beef might have
overcome our conscientious scruples. Virtue, however, was rewarded, for on
awakening one morning I saw advancing towards our camp, with slow and
solemn curiosity, two emus, peering now this way, now that, examining our
packs and other gear with interest and delight. Choosing the younger bird,
I took aim with my Winchester, and dropped him; the report of the rifle
startled my companions from their sleep with the thought that we were
perhaps attacked by the blacks, for emus are even less numerous than they.
But their surprise was not greater than that of the surviving bird, as he
gazed spellbound at his dead mate, whom we found most excellent eating.
Great as the temptation was to have a shot at the remaining bird, I
resisted it, as from the one we could get sufficient meat for our
requirements, and it seemed a shame to take the life, for mere pleasure,
of the only wild creature we had seen for many weeks.
Tiring at length of prospecting reefs, blows, and alluvial with no better
result than an occasional pin's-head of gold, we turned our faces to the
north, passing again the herd of cattle wallowing in the swamps and pans
of rain water.
Clay-pans usually occur in the neighbourhood of salt lakes, and are merely
shallow depressions with smooth clay bottoms. Though as a rule not more
than a few inches to a foot in depth, I have seen them in places holding
four to five feet of water. Immediately after rain all clay-pans are
fresh, before long some will turn salt; those containing drinkable water
are often distinguishable by the growth of cane grass which covers the
bed, a coarse, rush-like grass of no value as food for stock. Dry for
three-quarters of the year, these pans, with their impervious bottoms,
hold the rain, when it fills them, for a considerable period.
Salt-water pans are pellucid and clear, as the inexperienced may find at
his cost. One thirsty day, having tramped many miles horse-hunting,
deceived by a crystal-clear sheet of water, I plunged in my head and
hands, and, before I realised my mistake, took a deep draught with most
unpleasant results. I have been more careful since that catastrophe. An
effective method of clearing muddy clay-pan water is by dropping into it a
sort of powdery gypsum, called "Kopi" by the natives, which is usually to
be found round the margin of the salt lakes--a wonderful provision
of Nature, without which the water after a short time would be useless,
becoming as it does red and thick, and of the consistency of strong cocoa.
Amongst the many industries started on the goldfields is the novel
occupation of clearing clay-water for salt. The process was carried out by
means of a series of settling tanks, into which the water was led by
drains, and into the last tank the kopi was thrown; the cleared water was
then bailed into vessels or casks, and carted up to whatever mining camp
was being thus supplied.
Whilst on the subject of industries, I may mention that of obtaining
solder from meat-tins by piling them into large heaps and lighting a fire
over them. The melted lumps of solder thus formed were collected by the
ordinary process of dry-blowing, and sold to tinsmiths and others engaged
in the manufacture of condensers. Certainly the scarcity of water was not
an unmixed curse, for it gave employment to many who would otherwise have
been hard put to it to gain a living. Dam-makers, well-sinkers,
water-carters, tinsmiths, condenser-fitters, wood-cutters, employees on
condensing plants, water-bag makers, caretakers at Government wells, dams,
and soaks, engineers, and many more, all found employment either directly
or indirectly in connection with water supply.
By sinking in the bed of dry clay-pans water can usually be obtained, but
unfortunately it is almost sure to be salt. The difference between
clay-pans before and after rain is most marked. First we have the dry,
hard bed of red clay, blistered and cracked into all manner of patterns by
the sun's heat; around us the stillness of death, nothing astir unless it
be the constant shimmering haze of heat which strikes our faces like the
blast from a furnace. Rain falls, and within a few hours the air will be
filled with the croaking of frogs and the cackling of ducks.* To my mind
it is one of the most incomprehensible things in Nature that wildfowl
(for not only ducks, but sometimes swans and geese are seen) know when and
where rain has fallen.
[* Sir John Forrest, in his exploration of 1874, found ducks, geese, and
swans on Lake Augusta--a salt lake in the arid interior, five hundred
miles from the coast.]
But, stranger still, how do they know it is going to fall? That they would
seem to do so the following will go to show. Whilst we were condensing on
Lake Lapage, one moonlight night we saw a flight of ducks fly over us to
the northward. No surface water then existed anywhere near us. This was on
December 16th. No rain fell in the district until December 25th, but I
ascertained afterwards that rain fell at Lake Carey, one hundred miles
north of Lake Lapage about the same date that we had seen the ducks. The
exact date I am not sure of, but in any case the ducks either foresaw the
rain or knew that rain had fallen at least two hundred miles away; for
they must have come from water (and at that season there was no surface
water within one hundred miles of us) and probably from the coast. In
either case, I think it is an extremely interesting fact, and however they
arrive the ducks are a welcome addition to the prospector's "tucker-bags."