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  • 5/1899,6/1899
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sunlit sea. “I can paddle my catamaran against both wind and tide; why cannot you do the same?” he would say. He did not understand the advantage or uses of sails. He had lost his own paddles in the storm, otherwise he would in all probability have left the island on his own account. He was like a fish out of water when the novelty of his situation wore off. On the other hand, I thought of water, provisions, and other equally vital necessaries. So Gunda had to rest content for a time, and he grew, if possible, more morose and sullen than ever.

During this period of impatient waiting, we made many experimental voyages out to sea, and generally got the boat into capital trim for the great and eventful journey. I saw to it that she was thoroughly well provisioned with tinned stuffs–long put on one side for the purpose; and I may say here that at the last moment before starting I placed on board three large live turtles, which supplied us with meat until we reached the Australian main. I also took a plentiful supply of water, in bags made from the intestines of birds and fishes; also a small cask containing about ten gallons of the precious fluid, which was placed near the mast. In short, as far I was able, I provided everything that was necessary for this most important journey. But consider for a moment the horrible doubts and fears that racked me. I FANCIED the mainland was not very far away, but you must remember I was not at all certain how long it would take us to reach it; nor could I be sure, therefore, whether I had taken a sufficient supply of food and water. Our provisions, which included tinned meats, corn in the cob and loose, turtles’ flesh and intestines, flour, rice, beans, &c., would, however, on a fairly liberal allowance, last a little over three weeks. We also carried some blankets, nails, tar, and other requisites. Of my books I only took my Bible with me. This I wrapped up in parchment made from pelican skin, together with four photographs of a certain young lady which I carried about with me throughout the whole of my wanderings. The propulsive power was, of course, the big lug-sail, which was always held loosely in the hand, and never made fast, for fear of a sudden capsize.

Six months had passed away since the advent of my visitors, when one morning we all marched out from the hut and down to the beach; the two boys fairly yelling with joy, and waving bunches of green corn plucked from my garden. Their mother skipped gaily hither and thither, and I myself was hardly able to control my transports of excitement and exhilaration. Even Gunda beamed upon the preparations for our release. I did not demolish my hut of pearl shells, but left it standing exactly as it had been during the past two and a half years. Nor must I omit to mention that I buried my treasure of pearls deep in the sand at one end of the island, and in all human probability it is there at this moment, for I have never returned for them, as I fondly hoped to be able to do so at some future date. It is, of course, possible that the precious box has been washed away in a storm, but more probably the contrary is the case, and still deeper layers of sand have been silted over this great treasure. I dared not carry anything oversea that was not vitally necessary, and what good were pearls to me on my fearful journey, convoying four other people out into the unknown in a crazy, home-made boat? Even masses of virgin gold were of very little use to me in the years that followed; but of this more anon. My condition, by the way, at this time was one of robust health; indeed, I was getting quite stout owing to the quantity of turtle I had been eating, whilst Yamba’s husband was positively corpulent from the same reason.

That glorious morning in the last week of May 1866 will ever be graven in my memory. As I cast off from that saving but cruel shore, I thanked my Maker for having preserved me so long and brought me through such awful perils, as well as for the good health I had always enjoyed. As the boat began to ripple through the inclosed waters of the lagoon, the spirits of the four blacks rose so high that I was afraid they would capsize the little craft in their excitement.

There was a strong, warm breeze blowing in our favour, and soon my island home was receding swiftly from our view. The last thing to remain in sight was the shell hut, but this, too, disappeared before we had covered three miles. It would have been visible from a big ship at a much greater distance, but no one would ever imagine what it really was. Yamba sat near me in the stern, but her husband curled himself up at the opposite end of the boat; and from the time we reached the open sea practically until we gained the main, he did not relax his attitude of reserve and dogged silence. He ate and drank enormously, however. You would have thought we were in a land flowing with milk and honey, instead of an open boat with limited provisions and an unknown journey in front of us. He did exert himself sufficiently on one occasion, however, to dive overboard and capture a turtle. He was sitting moodily in the prow of the boat as usual one afternoon, when suddenly he jumped up, and with a yell took a header overboard, almost capsizing our heavily laden boat. At first I thought he must have gone mad, but on heaving to, I saw him some little distance away in the water struggling with a turtle. He managed to get it on its back after a time, and though I felt annoyed at his recklessness, I could not help laughing at his antics and the comical efforts made by the turtle to escape. The turtle was duly hauled aboard, and we then continued our voyage without delay. I was dreadfully afraid of being caught in a storm. Our boat must inevitably have foundered had the seas been at all rough.

Fortunately never once did the wind change, so that we were able to sail on steadily and safely night and day, without deviating in the least from our course. We travelled fully four knots an hour, the wind and current being nearly always in our favour. It was, however, a painfully monotonous and trying experience to sit thus in the boat, cramped up as we were, day after day and night after night. About the fifth day we sighted a small island–probably Barker Island, in the vicinity of Admiralty Gulf–and landed upon it at once solely for the purpose of stretching our aching limbs. This little island was uninhabited, and covered to the very water’s edge with dense tropical vegetation. It was a perfectly exhilarating experience to walk about on real earth once more. We cooked some turtle meat and stayed a few hours on the island, after which we entered the boat and put off on our journey again. Just before leaving I stored a quantity of corn, cobs, seeds, &c., in a little cairn in case we might be compelled to return. I always steered, keeping east by north, but Yamba relieved me for a few hours each evening–generally between six and nine o’clock, when I enjoyed a brief but sound sleep. Gunda never offered to take a spell, and I did not think it worth while to trouble him.

Thus night and day we sailed steadily on, occasionally sighting sharks and even whales. We passed a great number of islands, some of them wooded and covered with beautiful jungle growths, whilst others were nothing but rock and sand. None of them seemed to be inhabited. The sea was smooth all the time, but occasionally the currents carried us out of our course among the islands, and then we had to land and wait till the tide turned. No matter how the wind was, if the tide was not also in our favour we had to land. We cruised in and out among the islands for ten days or more, when we rounded Cape Londonderry and then steered S. by E. The current, however, carried us straight for Cambridge Gulf. One little island I sighted between Cambridge Gulf and Queen’s Channel had a curious house-like structure built in one of the trees on the coast. The trunk of this tree was very large and tapering, and the platform arrangement was built amongst the branches at the top, after the manner adopted by the natives of New Guinea.

You may imagine my feelings when, early one morning, Yamba suddenly gripped my arm and murmured, “We are nearing my home at last.” I leaped to my feet, and a few minutes afterwards the mainland came hazily into view. Instead of heading straight for it, however, we made for a beautiful island that stood in the mouth of a large bay, and here we landed to recuperate for a day or so. Immediately on our arrival, Yamba and her husband lit some fires, and made what were apparently smoke-signals to their friends on the main. They first cut down a quantity of green wood with my tomahawk and arranged it in the form of a pyramid. Next they obtained fire by rubbing together two pieces of a certain kind of wood; and as the smoke ascended we saw answering smoke-signals from the opposite shore. The smoke was allowed to ascend in puffs which were regulated by the manipulation of boughs. Not long after this curious exchange of signals (and the practice is virtually universal throughout the whole of aboriginal Australia), we saw three catamarans, or floats, each carrying a man, shooting across towards our island. These catamarans merely consisted of a broad plank with a stick placed transversely at the prow, on which the black placed his feet. He squatted down on the plank and then paddled forward. I viewed their approach with mixed sensations of alarm and hope. I was in the power of these people, I thought. They could tear me limb from limb, torture me, kill and eat me, if they so pleased; I was absolutely helpless. These fears, however, were but momentary, and back upon my mind rushed the calm assurances I had obtained from my clear-eyed mentor, Yamba, to say nothing about the mysterious message of hope and consolation that had startled the solemn stillness of that tropical night. I knew these people to be cannibals, for, during the long talks we used to have on the island, Yamba had described to me their horrid feasts after a successful war. Nevertheless, I awaited the arrival of the little flotilla with all the complacency I could muster, but at the same time I was careful to let Yamba’s husband be the first to receive them.

And he advanced to meet them. The newcomers, having landed, squatted down some little distance away from the man they had come to meet, and then Gunda and they gradually edged forwards towards one another, until at length each placed his nose upon the other’s shoulder. This was apparently the native method of embracing. Later Gunda brought his friends to be introduced to me, and to the best of my ability I went through the same ridiculous ceremony. I must say my new friends evinced an almost uncontrollable terror at the sight of me. Gunda, however, made it clear that I was NOT a returned spirit, but a man like themselves–a great man certainly, and a mysterious man, but a man all the same. Although by this time my skin had become tanned and dark, there was seemingly no end to the amazement it caused the blacks. They timidly touched and felt my body, legs, and arms, and were vastly anxious to know what the covering was I had round my body. In due time, however, the excitement subsided somewhat, and then the newcomers prepared more smoke-signals to their friends on the mainland–this time building five separate fires in the form of a circle.

It was interesting to watch this remarkable method of communication. Each fire was set smoking fiercely a few seconds after its neighbour had started. Finally, the columns of smoke united, and ascended together in the form of a huge pyramid, going up a tremendous height into the still, hot air. The meaning of these signals was explained to me. They indicated to the people on the mainland that the advance guard had found Gunda and his family; that they had a great man with them; and that, furthermore, they might expect us to return all together almost immediately. By this time, thanks to Yamba’s able and intelligent lessons, I was able to speak the queer language of the blacks with some show of fluency, and I could understand them well enough when they did not jabber too quickly.

The next phase of our arrival was that “smokes” were ascending in all directions on the mainland, evidently calling the tribes from far and near. How these smoke-signals gave an idea of the white man and his wonders I am utterly at a loss to imagine. In the meantime Yamba had prepared a great feast for the visitors, the principal dish being our remaining big turtle, of which the blacks ate a prodigious quantity. I afterwards told them that I was in need of a prolonged rest, my long journey having wearied me, and after this explanation I retired, and slung my hammock in a shady nook, where I slept undisturbed from shortly before noon until late in the day, when my ever-faithful Yamba, who had been keeping a careful watch, woke me and said that the festivities prior to our departure were about to take place.

Much refreshed, I rejoined the blacks, and, to their unbounded delight and amazement, entertained them for a few minutes with some of my acrobatic tricks and contortions. Some of the more emulous among them tried to imitate my feats of agility, but always came dismally to grief–a performance that created even more frantic merriment than my own. After a little while the blacks disappeared, only to come forth a few minutes later with their bodies gorgeously decorated with stripes of yellow ochre and red and white pigments. These startling preparations preceded a great CORROBOREE in honour of my arrival, and in this embarrassing function I was, of course, expected to join. The ceremony was kept up with extraordinary vigour the whole night long, but all I was required to do was to sit beating sticks together, and join in the general uproar. This was all very well for a little while, but the monotony of the affair was terrible, and I withdrew to my hammock before midnight.

In the morning I saw a great fleet of catamarans putting off from the mainland, and in a very short time between fifty and sixty natives joined our party on the island. Then followed the usual greetings and comical expressions of amazement–of course, at the sight of me, my boat, and everything in it. A few hours later the whole crowd left the island, led by me in the big boat–which, by the way, attracted as much interest as I did myself. The natives forced their catamarans through the water at great speed, using only one paddle, which was dipped first on one side and then on the other in rapid succession, without, however, causing the apparently frail craft to swerve in the slightest degree.

As we approached the new country, I beheld a vast surging crowd of excited blacks–men, women, and children, all perfectly naked– standing on the beach. The moment we landed there was a most extraordinary rush for my boat, and everything on board her was there and then subjected to the closest scrutiny.

The people seemed to be divided into clans, and when one clan was busy inspecting my implements and utensils, another was patiently waiting its turn to examine the white man’s wonders. I sat in the boat for some time, fairly bewildered and deafened by the uproarious jabberings and shrill, excited cries of amazement and wonder that filled the air all round me. At last, however, the blacks who had come out to meet us on the island came to my rescue, and escorted me through the crowd, with visible pride, to an eminence overlooking the native camping-ground. I then learnt that the news of my coming had been smoke-signalled in every direction for many miles; hence the enormous gathering of clans on the beach.

The camping-ground I now found myself upon consisted of about thirty primitive shelters, built of boughs in the most flimsy manner, and only intended to break the force of the wind. These shelters, or “break-winds,” were crescent-shaped, had ho roof, and were not in any way closed in in front. There were, however, two or three grass huts of beehive shape, about seven feet high and ten feet in diameter, with a queer little hole at the base through which the occupier had to crawl. The inside was perfectly dark.

I was told I could have either a break-wind of boughs or a beehive hut, and on consideration I chose the latter. It would, I reflected, ensure something approaching privacy. My indefatigable Yamba and a few of her women friends set to work then and there, and positively in less than an hour the grass hut was ready for occupation! I did not, however, stay to witness the completion of the building operations, but went off with some self-appointed cicerones to see the different camps; everywhere I was received with the greatest enthusiasm and manifestations of respect and friendship. My simple loin-cloth of crimson Japanese silk occasioned much astonishment among the blacks, but curiously enough the men were far more astonished at my FOOTPRINTS than any other attribute I possessed. It seems that when they themselves walk they turn their feet sideways, so that they only make a half impression, so to speak, instead of a full footprint. On the other hand, I of course planted my feet squarely down, and this imprint in the sand was followed by a crowd of blacks, who gravely peered at every footprint, slapping themselves and clicking in amazement at the wonderful thing!


Some queer dishes–Water wizards–A mysterious deputation–I protest against cannibalism–My marriage ceremony–A startling proposition–Daily routine–A diet of worms–I proceed cautiously– The cannibal poet sells his wares–Fishing extraordinary–How emus were caught–Eternal fires–A coming horror–The first cannibal feast.

I saw very little of Gunda from the moment of landing. I feel sure that the fact of his having seen so much of the world, and travelled such a long distance–to say nothing about bringing back so wonderful a creature as myself–had rendered him a very great man indeed in the estimation of his friends; and in consequence of this so much honour was paid him that he became puffed up with pride, and neglected his faithful wife.

Everywhere I went the natives were absolutely overwhelming in their hospitality, and presents of food of all kinds were fairly showered upon me, including such delicacies as kangaroo and opossum meat, rats, snakes, tree-worms, fish, &c., which were always left outside my hut. Baked snake, I ought to mention, was a very pleasant dish indeed, but as there was no salt forthcoming, and the flesh was very tasteless, I cannot say I enjoyed this particular native dainty. The snakes were invariably baked whole in their skins, and the meat was very tender and juicy, though a little insipid as to flavour. The native method of cooking is to scoop out a hole in the sand with the hands, and then place the article to be cooked at the bottom. Some loose stones would then be thrown over the “joint.” Next would come a layer of sand, and the fire was built on the top of all. Rats were always plentiful–often so much so as to become a serious nuisance. They were of the large brown variety, and were not at all bad eating. I may say here that the women-folk were responsible for the catching of the rats, the method usually adopted being to poke in their holes with sticks, and then kill them as they rushed out. The women, by the way, were responsible for a good many things. They were their masters’ dressers, so to speak, in that they were required to carry supplies of the greasy clay or earth with which the blacks anoint their bodies to ward off the sun’s rays and insect bites; and beside this, woe betide the wives if corroboree time found them without an ample supply of coloured pigments for the decoration of their masters’ bodies. One of the principal duties of the women-folk, however, was the provision of roots for the family’s dinner. The most important among these necessaries–besides fine yams–were the root and bud of a kind of water-lily, which when roasted tasted not unlike a sweet potato.

There was usually a good water supply in the neighbourhood of these camps, and if it failed (as it very frequently did), the whole tribe simply moved its quarters elsewhere–perhaps a hundred miles off.

The instinct of these people for finding water, however, was nothing short of miraculous. No one would think of going down to the seashore to look for fresh water, yet they often showed me the purest and most refreshing of liquids oozing up out of the sand on the beach after the tide had receded.

All this time, and for many months afterwards, my boat and everything it contained were saved from molestation and theft by a curious device on the part of Yamba. She simply placed a couple of crossed sticks on the sand near the bows, this being evidently a kind of Masonic sign to all beholders that they were to respect the property of the stranger among them; and I verily believe that the boat and its contents might have remained there until they fell to pieces before any one of those cannibal blacks would have dreamed of touching anything that belonged to me.

After a time the natives began pointedly to suggest that I should stay with them. They had probably heard from Yamba about the strange things I possessed, and the occult powers I was supposed to be gifted with. A day or two after my landing, a curious thing happened–nothing more or less than the celebration of my marriage! I was standing near my boat, still full of thoughts of escape, when two magnificent naked chiefs, decked with gaudy pigments and feather head-dresses, advanced towards me, leading between them a young, dusky maiden of comparatively pleasing appearance.

The three were followed by an immense crowd of natives, and were within a few feet of me, when they halted suddenly. One of the chiefs then stepped out and offered me a murderous-looking club, with a big knob at one end, which ugly weapon was known as a “waddy.” As he presented this club the chief made signs that I was to knock the maiden on the head with it. Now, on this I confess I was struck with horror and dismay at my position, for, instantly recalling what Yamba had told me, I concluded THAT A CANNIBAL FEAST WAS ABOUT TO BE GIVEN IN MY HONOUR, and that–worst horror of all– I might have to lead off with the first mouthful of that smiling girl. Of course, I reflected they had brought the helpless victim to me, the distinguished stranger, to kill with my own hands. At that critical moment, however, I resolved to be absolutely firm, even if it cost me my life.

While I hesitated, the chief remained absolutely motionless, holding out the murderous-looking club, and looking at me interrogatively, as though unable to understand why I did not avail myself of his offer. Still more extraordinary, the crowd behind observed a solemn and disconcerting silence. I looked at the girl; to my amazement she appeared delighted with things generally–a poor, merry little creature, not more than fifteen or sixteen years of age. I decided to harangue the chiefs, and as a preliminary I gave them the universal sign to sit down and parley. They did so, but did not seem pleased at what they doubtless considered an unlooked-for hitch in an interesting ceremony.

Then in hesitating signs, slaps, clicks, and guttural utterances, I gave them to understand that it was against my faith to have anything whatever to do with the horrid orgy they contemplated. The Great Spirit they dreaded so much yet so vaguely, I went on to say, had revealed to me that it was wrong to kill any one in cold blood, and still more loathsome and horrible to eat the flesh of a murdered fellow-creature. I was very much in earnest, and I waited with nervous trepidation to see the effect of my peroration. Under the circumstances, you may judge of my astonishment when not only the chiefs, but the whole “nation” assembled, suddenly burst into roars of eerie laughter.

Then came Yamba to the rescue. Ah! noble and devoted creature! The bare mention of her name stirs every fibre of my being with love and wonder. Greater love than hers no creature ever knew, and not once but a thousand times did she save my wretched life at the risk of her own.

Well, Yamba, I say, came up and whispered to me. She had been studying my face quietly and eagerly, and had gradually come to see what was passing in my mind. She whispered that the chiefs, far from desiring me to kill the girl for a cannibal feast, were OFFERING HER TO ME AS A WIFE, and that I was merely expected to tap her on the head with the stick, in token of her subjection to her new spouse! In short, this blow on the head was the legal marriage ceremony tout simple. I maintained my dignity as far as possible, and proceeded to carry out my part of the curious ceremony.

I tapped the bright-eyed girl on the head, and she immediately fell prostrate at my feet, in token of her wifely submission. I then raised her up gently, and all the people came dancing round us, uttering weird cries of satisfaction and delight. Oddly enough, Yamba, far from manifesting any jealousy, seemed to take as much interest as any one in the proceedings, and after everything was over she led my new wife away to the little “humpy,” or hut, that had been built for me by the women. That night an indescribably weird corroboree was held in my honour, and I thought it advisable, since so much was being made of me, to remain there all night and acknowledge the impromptu songs that were composed and sung in my honour by the native bards. I am afraid I felt utterly lost without Yamba, who was, in the most literal sense, my right hand.

By this time she could speak a little English, and was so marvellously intelligent that she seemed to discover things by sheer intuition or instinct. I think she never let a day go by without favourably impressing the chiefs concerning me, my prowess and my powers; and without her help I simply could not have lived through the long and weary years, nor should I ever have returned to civilisation.

The very next day after my “marriage,” having been still further enlightened as to the manners and customs of the natives, I waited upon Gunda, and calmly made to him the proposition that we should exchange wives. This suggestion he received with a kind of subdued satisfaction, or holy joy, and very few further negotiations were needed to make the transaction complete; and, be it said, it was an every-day transaction, perfectly legal and recognised by all the clans. Yamba was full of vigour and resource, while the only phrase that fitly describes her bush lore is absolutely miraculous. This will be evinced in a hundred extraordinary instances in this narrative.

But you may be asking, What of my dog, Bruno? Well, I am thankful to say, he was still with me, but it took him a long time to accustom himself to his new surroundings; he particularly objected to associating with the miserable pariah curs that prowled about the encampment. They would take sly bites out of him when he was not looking, but on the whole, he was well able to hold his own, being much more powerful than they.

I settled down to my new life in the course of a few days, but I need hardly remark I did not propose staying in that forlorn spot longer than I could help. This was my plan. I would, first of all, make myself acquainted with the habits and customs of the blacks, and pick up as much bushmanship and knowledge of the country as it was possible to acquire, in case I should have to travel inland in search of civilisation instead of oversea. I knew that it would be folly on my part to attempt to leave those hospitable regions without knowing more of the geography of the country and its people. There was always, however, the hope that some day I might be able either to get away by sea in my boat, or else hail some passing vessel. The blacks told me they had seen many pass at a distance.

Every morning I was astir by sunrise, and–hope springing eternal– at once searched for the faintest indication of a passing sail. Next I would bathe in a lagoon protected from sharks, drying myself by a run on the beach. Meanwhile Yamba would have gone out searching for roots for breakfast, and she seldom returned without a supply of my favourite water-lily buds already mentioned. Often, in the years that followed, did that heroic creature TRAMP ON FOOT A HUNDRED MILES to get me a few sprigs of saline herbs. She had heard me say I wanted salt, which commodity, strange to say, was never used by the natives; and even when I gave them some as an experiment they did not seem to care about it. She would also bring in, by way of seasoning, a kind of small onion, known as the NELGA, which, when roasted, made a very acceptable addition to our limited fare. The natives themselves had but two meals a day– breakfast, between eight and nine o’clock, and then an enormous feast in the late afternoon. Their ordinary food consisted of kangaroo, emu, snakes, rats, and fish; an especial dainty being a worm found in the black ava tree, or in any decaying trunk.

These worms were generally grilled on hot stones, and eaten several at a time like small whitebait. I often ate them myself, and found them most palatable. After breakfast the women of the tribe would go out hunting roots and snaring small game for the afternoon meal, while the men went off on their war and hunting expeditions, or amused themselves with feats of arms. The children were generally left to their own devices in the camp, and the principal amusement of the boys appeared to be the hurling of reed spears at one another. The women brought home the roots (which they dug up with yam sticks, generally about four feet long) in nets made out of the stringy parts of the grass tree; stringy bark, or strong pliable reeds, slung on their all-enduring backs. They generally returned heavily laden between two and three in the afternoon. I always knew the time pretty accurately by the sun, but I lost count of the days. The months, however, I always reckoned by the moon, and for each year I made a notch on the inside of my bow.

My own food was usually wrapped in palm leaves before being placed in the sand oven. Of course the leaves always burned, but they kept the meat free from sand; and my indefatigable wife was always exercising her ingenuity to provide me with fresh dainties. In addition to the ordinary fare of the natives, I frequently had wild ducks and turkeys, and–what was perhaps the greatest luxury of all–eggs, which the natives sent for specially on my account to distant parts of the surrounding country, and also to the islands of the coast where white cockatoos reared their young in rocky cliffs.

At the time of my shipwreck I had little or no knowledge of Australian geography, so that I was utterly at a loss as to my position. I afterwards learnt, however, that Yamba’s home was on Cambridge Gulf, on the NNW. coast of the Australian continent, and that the central point of our camping ground at this time was near the mouth of the Victoria River, which flows into Queen’s Channel.

Almost every evening the blacks would hold a stately corroboree, singing and chanting; the burden of their song being almost invariably myself, my belongings, and my prowess–which latter, I fear, was magnified in the most extravagant manner. Besides the corroboree they also would assemble for what might not inaptly be termed evening prayers, which consisted of a poetical recital of the events of the day. I ought to mention that at first I did not accompany the men on their excursions abroad, because I was far from perfect in their language; and furthermore, I was not skilled in hunting or in bush lore. Therefore, fearful of exciting ridicule, I decided to remain behind in the camp until I was thoroughly grounded in everything there was to be learned. Supposing, for example, I had gone out with the blacks, and had to confess myself tired after tramping several miles. Well, this kind of thing would certainly have engendered contempt; and once the mysterious white stranger was found to be full of the frailties of the ordinary man, his prestige would be gone, and then life would probably become intolerable.

Thus everything I did I had to excel in, and it was absolutely necessary that I should be perpetually “astonishing the natives,” in the most literal sense of the phrase. Accordingly, for the next few weeks, I used to accompany the women on their root-hunting and rat-catching expeditions, and from them I picked up much valuable information.

The corroboree was, perhaps, the greatest institution known to the blacks, who, obliged to do no real work, as we understand it, simply had to pass the time somehow; and there can be no doubt that, were it not for the constant feuds and consequent incessant wars, the race would greatly deteriorate. The corroboree after a successful battle commenced with a cannibal feast off the bodies of fallen foes, and it would be kept up for several days on end, the braves lying down to sleep near the fire towards morning, and renewing the festivities about noon next day. The chiefs on these occasions decked themselves with gorgeous cockatoo feathers, and painted their bodies with red and yellow ochre and other glaring pigments, each tribe having its own distinguishing marks. A couple of hours were generally spent in dressing and preparing for the ceremony, and then the gaily-decorated fighting-men would dance or squat round the fires and chant monotonous songs, telling of all their own achievements and valour, and the extraordinary sights they had seen in their travels.

The words of the songs were usually composed by the clan’s own poet, who made a living solely by his profession, and even sold his effusions to other tribes. As there was no written language the purchaser would simply be coached orally by the vendor poet; and as the blacks were gifted with most marvellous memories, they would transmit and resell the songs throughout vast stretches of country. These men of the north-west were of magnificent stature, and possessed great personal strength. They were able to walk extraordinary distances, and their carriage was the most graceful I have ever seen. Many of them were over six feet high, well made in proportion and with high broad foreheads–altogether a very different race from the inhabitants of Central Australia. One of their favourite tests of strength was to take a short stick of very hard wood and bend it in their hands, using the thumbs as levers, till it snapped. Strange to say, I failed to bend the stick more than a quarter of an inch. The women are not very prepossessing, and not nearly so graceful in their bearing and gait as the men. Poor creatures! they did all the hard work of the camp-building, food-hunting, waiting, and serving. Occasionally, however, the men did condescend to go out fishing, and they would also organise BATTUES when a big supply of food was wanted. These great hunting- parties, by the way, were arranged on an immense scale, and fire figured largely in them. The usual routine was to set fire to the bush, and then as the terrified animals and reptiles rushed out in thousands into the open, each party of blacks speared every living thing that came its way within a certain sphere. The roar of the fast-spreading fire, the thousands of kangaroos, opossums, rats, snakes, iguanas, and birds that dashed hither and thither, to the accompaniment of bewildering shouts from the men and shrill screeches from the women, who occasionally assisted, flitting hither and thither like eerie witches amidst the dense pall of black smoke–all these made up a picture which is indelibly imprinted on my mind.

As a rule, hosts of hawks and eagles are to be seen flying over the black man’s camp, but on the occasion of a bush fire they follow its train, well knowing that they will obtain prey in abundance. With regard to the fishing parties, these went out either early in the morning, soon after sunrise, or in the evening, when it was quite dark. On the latter occasions, the men carried big torches, which they held high in the air with one hand, while they waded out into the water with their spears poised, in readiness to impale the first big fish they came across.

When the spearmen DID strike, their aim was unerring, and the struggling fish would be hurled on to the beach to the patient women-folk, who were there waiting for them, with their big nets of grass slung over their backs. Sometimes a hundred men would be in the shallow water at once, all carrying blazing torches, and the effect as the fishermen plunged and splashed this way and that, with shouts of triumph or disappointment, may be better imagined than described. In the daytime a rather different method was adopted. Some acres of the shallow lagoon would be staked out at low water in the shape of an inverted V, an opening being left for the fish to pass through.

The high tide brought the fish in vast shoals, and then the opening would be closed. When the tide receded, the staked enclosure became, in effect, a gigantic net, filled with floundering fish, big and little. The natives then waded into the inclosure, and leisurely despatched the fish with their spears.

Nothing was more interesting than to watch one of these children of the bush stalking a kangaroo. The man made not the slightest noise in walking, and he would stealthily follow the kangaroo’s track for miles (the tracks were absolutely invisible to the uninitiated). Should at length the kangaroo sniff a tainted wind, or be startled by an incautious movement, his pursuer would suddenly become as rigid as a bronze figure, and he could remain in this position for hours. Finally, when within thirty or forty yards of the animal, he launched his spear, and in all the years I was among these people I never knew a man to miss his aim. Two distinct kinds of spears were used by the natives, one for hunting and the other for war purposes. The former averaged from eight to ten feet, whilst the latter varied from ten to fourteen feet in length; the blade in each case, however, consisting either of bone or stone, with a shaft of some light hard wood. Metals were, of course, perfectly unknown as workable materials. The war-spear was not hurled javelin-fashion like the hunting-spear, but propelled by means of a wommerah, which, in reality, was a kind of sling, perhaps twenty- four inches long, with a hook at one end to fix on the shaft of the spear. In camp the men mainly occupied their time in making spears and mending their weapons. They hacked a tree down and split it into long sections by means of wedges, in order to get suitable wood for their spear-shafts.

To catch emus the hunters would construct little shelters of grass at a spot overlooking the water-hole frequented by these birds, and they were then speared as they came down for water. The largest emu I ever saw, by the way, was more than six feet high, whilst the biggest kangaroo I came across was even taller than this. Snakes were always killed with sticks, whilst birds were brought down with the wonderful boomerang.

As a rule, only sufficient food was obtained to last from day to day; but on the occasion of one of the big battues I have described there would be food in abundance for a week or more, when there would be a horrid orgy of gorging and one long continuous corroboree, until supplies gave out.

The sport which I myself took up was dugong hunting; for I ought to have mentioned that I brought a harpoon with me in the boat, and this most useful article attracted as much attention as anything I had. The natives would occasionally put their hands on my tomahawk or harpoon, and never ceased to wonder why the metal was so cold.

Whenever I went out after dugong, accompanied by Yamba (she was ever with me), the blacks invariably came down in crowds to watch the operation from the beach.

But, you will ask, what did I want with dugong, when I had so much other food at hand? Well my idea was to lay in a great store of dried provisions against the time when I should be ready to start for civilisation in my boat. I built a special shed of boughs, in which I conducted my curing operations; my own living-place being only a few yards away. It was built quite in European fashion, with a sloping roof. The interior was perhaps twenty feet square and ten feet high, with a small porch in which my fire was kept constantly burning. When we had captured a dugong the blacks would come rushing into the sea to meet us and drag our craft ashore, delighted at the prospect of a great feast. The only part of the dugong I preserved was the belly, which I cut up into strips and dried.

The blacks never allowed their fires to go out, and whenever they moved their camping-ground, the women-folk always took with them their smouldering fire-sticks, with which they can kindle a blaze in a few minutes. Very rarely, indeed, did the women allow their fire-sticks to go out altogether, for this would entail a cruel and severe punishment. A fire-stick would keep alight in a smouldering state for days. All that the women did when they wanted to make it glow was to whirl it round in the air. The wives bore ill-usage with the most extraordinary equanimity, and never attempted to parry even the most savage blow. They would remain meek and motionless under a shower of brutal blows from a thick stick, and would then walk quietly away and treat their bleeding wounds with a kind of earth. No matter how cruelly the women might be treated by their husbands, they hated sympathy, so their women friends always left them alone. It often surprised me how quickly the blacks’ most terrible wounds healed; and yet they were only treated with a kind of clay and leaves of the wild rose.

I am here reminded of the native doctor. This functionary was called a RUI, and he effected most of his cures with a little shell, with which he rubbed assiduously upon the affected part. Thus it will be seen that the medical treatment was a form of massage, the rubbing being done first in a downward direction and then crosswise. I must say, however, that the blacks were very rarely troubled with illness, their most frequent disorder being usually the result of excessive gorging when a particularly ample supply of food was forthcoming–say, after a big battue over a tribal preserve.

In an ordinary case of overfeeding, the medicine man would rub his patient’s stomach with such vigour as often to draw blood. He would also give the sufferer a kind of grass to eat, and this herb, besides clearing the system, also acted as a most marvellous appetiser. The capacity of some of my blacks was almost beyond belief. One giant I have in my mind ate a whole kangaroo by himself. I saw him do it. Certainly it was not an excessively big animal, but, still, it was a meal large enough for three or four stalwart men.

In a case of fever the natives resorted to charms to drive away the evil spirit that was supposed to be troubling the patient. The universal superstition about all maladies is that they are caused by the “evil eye,” directed against the sufferer by some enemy. Should one member of a tribe be stricken down with a disease, his friends at once come to the conclusion that he has been “pointed at” by a member of another tribe who owed him a grudge; he has, in short, been bewitched, and an expedition is promptly organised to seek out and punish the individual in question and all his tribe. From this it is obvious that war is of pretty frequent occurrence. And not only so, but every death is likewise the signal for a tribal war. There is no verdict of “Death from natural causes.” Punitive expeditions are not organised in the event of slight fevers or even serious illness–only when the patient dies. A tribe I once came across some miles inland were visited by a plague of what I now feel sure must have been smallpox. The disease, they said, had been brought down from the coast, and although numbers of the blacks died, war was not declared against any particular tribe. As a rule, the body of the dead brave is placed upon a platform erected in the forks of trees, and his weapons neatly arranged below. Then, as decay set in, and the body began to crumble away, the friends and chiefs would come and observe certain mystic signs, which were supposed to give information as to what tribe or individual had caused the death of the deceased.

It must have been within a month of my landing on Yamba’s country, in Cambridge Gulf, that I witnessed my first cannibal feast. One of the fighting-men had died in our camp, and after the usual observations had been taken, it was decided that he had been pointed at, and his death brought about, by a member of another tribe living some distance away. An expedition of some hundreds of warriors was at once fitted out. The enemy was apparently only too ready for the fray, because the armies promptly met in an open plain, and I had an opportunity of witnessing the extraordinary method by which the Australian blacks wage war. One of the most redoubtable of our chiefs stepped forward, and explained the reason of his people’s visit in comparatively calm tones. An opposing chief replied to him, and gradually a heated altercation arose, the abuse rising on a crescendo scale for ten or fifteen minutes. These two then retired, and another couple of champion abusers stepped forward to “discuss” the matter. This kind of thing went on for a considerable time, the abuse being of the most appalling description, and directed mainly against the organs of the enemy’s body (heart, liver, &c.), his ancestors, “his ox, his ass, and everything that was his.” At length, when every conceivable thing had been said that it was possible to say, the warriors drew near, and at last some one threw a spear. This, of course, was the signal for real action, and in a few minutes the engagement became general. There was no strategy or tactics of any kind, every man fighting single-handed.

But to return to the battle I was describing. After a very few minutes’ fighting the enemy were utterly routed, and promptly turned tail and fled from the scene of the encounter, leaving behind them–after all the uproar and the flood of vilification– only three of their warriors, and these not dead, but only more or less badly wounded. Quarter being neither given nor expected in these battles, the three prostrate blacks were promptly despatched by the leader of my tribe, the coup de grace being given with a waddy, or knobbed stick. The three bodies were then placed on litters made out of spears and grass, and in due time carried into our own camp.

There were so many unmistakable signs to presage what was coming that I KNEW a cannibal feast was about to take place. But for obvious reasons I did not protest against it, nor did I take any notice whatever. The women (who do all the real work) fell on their knees, and with their fingers scraped three long trenches in the sand, each about seven feet long and three deep. Into each of these ovens was placed one of the bodies of the fallen warriors, and then the trench was filled up–firstly with stones, and then with sand. On top of all a huge fire was built, and maintained with great fierceness for about two hours. There was great rejoicing during this period of cooking, and apparently much pleasurable anticipation among the triumphant blacks. In due time the signal was given, and the ovens laid open once more. I looked in and saw that the bodies were very much burnt. The skin was cracked in places and liquid fat was issuing forth. . . . But, perhaps, the less said about this horrible spectacle the better. With a yell, several warriors leaped into each trench and stuck spears through the big “joints.” And the moment the roasted carcasses were taken out of the trenches the whole tribe literally fell upon them and tore them limb from limb. I saw mothers with a leg or an arm surrounded by plaintive children, who were crying for their portion of the fearsome dainty.

Others, who were considered to have taken more than their share, were likewise fallen upon and their “joint” subdivided and hacked to pieces with knives made from shells. The bodies were not cooked all through, so that the condition of some of the revellers, both during and after the orgy, may best be left to the imagination. A more appalling, more ghastly, or more truly sickening spectacle it is impossible for the mind of man to conceive. A great corroboree was held after the feast, but, with my gorge rising and my brain reeling, I crept to my own humpy and tried to shut out from my mind the shocking inferno I had just been compelled to witness.

But let us leave so fearful a subject and consider something more interesting and amusing.


A weird duel–The tragedy of the baby whale–My boat is destroyed– A ten miles’ swim–Gigantic prizes–Swimming in the whale’s head–I make use of the visitors–A fight with an alligator–The old craving–Bitter disappointment–My mysterious “flying spears”–Dog- like fidelity–I present my “card”–The desert of red sand.

The women of the tribe lived amicably enough together as a rule, but of course they had their differences. They would quarrel about the merits and demerits of their own families and countries; but the greatest source of heartburning and trouble was the importation of a new wife–especially if she chanced to be better looking than the others. In such cases, woe to the comparatively pretty wife. The women certainly had a novel way of settling their differences. The two combatants would retire to some little distance, armed with ONE STICK BETWEEN THEM. They would then stand face to face, and one would bend forward meekly, whilst the other dealt her a truly terrific blow between the shoulders or on the head–not with a cane or a light stick, be it remembered, but a really formidable club. The blow (which would be enough to kill an ordinary white woman) would be borne with wonderful fortitude, and then the aggressor would hand the club to the woman she had just struck.

The latter would then take a turn; and so it would go on, turn and turn about, until one of the unfortunate, stoical creatures fell bleeding and half-senseless to the earth. The thing was magnificently simple. The woman who kept her senses longest, and remained on her legs to the end, was the victor. There was no kind of ill-feeling after these extraordinary combats, and the women would even dress one another’s wounds.

I now come to an event of very great importance in my life. Elsewhere I have spoken of my penchant for dugong hunting. Well, one day this sport effectually put an end to all my prospects of reaching civilisation across the sea. I went forth one morning, accompanied by my ever-faithful Yamba and the usual admiring crowd of blacks. In a few minutes we two were speeding over the sunlit waters, my only weapon being the steel harpoon I had brought with me from the island, and about forty or fifty feet of manilla rope. When we were some miles from land I noticed a dark-looking object on the surface of the water a little way ahead. Feeling certain it was a dugong feeding on the well-known “grass,” I rose and hurled my harpoon at it with all the force I could muster. Next moment, to my amazement, the head of a calf whale was thrust agonisingly into the air, and not until then did I realise what manner of creature it was I had struck. This baby whale was about fifteen feet long, and it “sounded” immediately on receiving my harpoon. As I had enough rope, or what I considered enough, I did not cut him adrift. He came up again presently, lashing the water with his tail, and creating a tremendous uproar, considering his size. He then darted off madly, dashing through the water like an arrow, and dragging our boat at such a tremendous pace as almost to swamp us in the foaming wash, the bow wave forming a kind of wall on each side.

Up to this time I had no thought of danger, but just as the baby whale halted I looked round, and saw to my horror that its colossal mother had joined her offspring, and was swimming round and round it like lightning, apparently greatly disturbed by its sufferings. Before I could even cut the line or attempt to get out of the way, the enormous creature caught sight of our little craft, and bore down upon us like a fair-sized island rushing through the sea with the speed of an express train. I shouted to Yamba, and we both threw ourselves over the side into the now raging waters, and commenced to swim away with long strokes, in order to get as far as possible from the boat before the catastrophe came which we knew was at hand. We had not got many yards before I heard a terrific crash, and, looking back, I saw the enormous tail of the great whale towering high out of the water, and my precious boat descending in fragments upon it from a height of from fifteen feet to twenty feet above the agitated waters. Oddly enough, the fore- part of the boat remained fixed to the rope of the harpoon in the calf. My first thought, even at so terrible a moment, and in so serious a situation, was one of bitter regret for the loss of what I considered the only means of reaching civilisation. Like a flash it came back to me how many weary months of toil and hope and expectancy I had spent over that darling craft; and I remembered, too, the delirious joy of launching it, and the appalling dismay that struck me when I realised that it was worse than useless to me in the inclosed lagoon. These thoughts passed through my mind in a few seconds.

At this time we had a swim of some TEN MILES before us, but fortunately our predicament was observed from the land, and a crowd of blacks put out in their catamarans to help us. Some of the blacks, as I hinted before, always accompanied me down to the shore on these trips. They never tired, I think, of seeing me handle my giant “catamaran” and the (to them) mysterious harpoon.

After the mother whale had wreaked its vengeance upon my unfortunate boat it rejoined its little one, and still continued to swim round and round it at prodigious speed, evidently in a perfect agony of concern. Fortunately the tide was in our favour, and we were rapidly swept inshore, even when we floated listlessly on the surface of the water. The sea was quite calm, and we had no fear of sharks, being well aware that we would keep them away by splashing in the water.

Before long, the catamarans came up with us, but although deeply grateful for Yamba’s and my own safety, I was still greatly distressed at the loss of my boat. Never once did this thought leave my mind. I remembered, too, with a pang, that I had now no tools with which to build another; and to venture out into the open sea on a catamaran, probably for weeks, simply meant courting certain destruction. I was a greater prisoner than ever.

My harpoon had evidently inflicted a mortal wound on the calf whale, because as we looked we saw it lying exhausted on the surface of the water, and being gradually swept nearer and nearer the shore by the swift-flowing tide. The mother refused to leave her little one however, and still continued to wheel round it continuously, even when it had reached dangerously shallow water.

The result was that when the tide turned, both the mother and her calf were left stranded high and dry on the beach, to the unbounded delight and amazement of the natives, who swarmed round the leviathans, and set up such a terrific uproar, that I verily believe they frightened the mother to death. In her dying struggle she lashed the water into a perfect fury with her tail, and even made attempts to lift herself bodily up. Furious smoke-signals were at once sent up to summon all the tribes in the surrounding country–enemies as well as friends. Next day the carcasses were washed farther still inshore–a thing for which the blacks gave me additional credit.

I ought to mention here that the loss of my boat was in some measure compensated for by the enormous amount of prestige which accrued to me through this whale episode. To cut a long story short, the natives fully believed that I HAD KILLED SINGLE-HANDED AND BROUGHT ASHORE BOTH WHALES! And in the corroborees that ensued, the poets almost went delirious in trying to find suitable eulogiums to bestow upon the mighty white hunter. The mother whale surpassed in size any I had ever seen or read about. I measured her length by pacing, and I judged it to be nearly 150 feet. My measurements may not have been absolutely accurate, but still the whale was, I imagine, of record size. As she lay there on the beach her head towered above me to a height of nearly fifteen feet. Never can I forget the scene that followed, when the blacks from the surrounding country responded to the smoke-signals announcing the capture of the “great fish.” From hundreds of miles south came the natives, literally in their thousands–every man provided with his stone tomahawk and a whole armoury of shell knives. They simply swarmed over the carcasses like vermin, and I saw many of them staggering away under solid lumps of flesh weighing between thirty and forty pounds. The children also took part in the general feasting, and they too swarmed about the whales like a plague of ants.

A particularly enterprising party of blacks cut an enormous hole in the head of the big whale, and in the bath of oil that was inside they simply wallowed for hours at a time, only to emerge in a condition that filled me with disgust. There was no question of priority or disputing as to whom the tit-bits of the whale should go. Even the visitors were quite at liberty to take whatever portion they could secure. For about a fortnight this cutting-up and gorging went on, but long before this the stench from the decomposing carcasses was so horrible as to be painfully noticeable at my camp, over a mile away. Some of the flesh was cooked, but most of it was eaten absolutely raw. The spectacle witnessed on the beach would have been intensely comical were it not so revolting. Many of the savages, both men and women, had gorged themselves to such an extent as to be absolutely unable to walk; and they rolled about on the sand, tearing at the ground in agony, their stomachs distended in the most extraordinary and disgusting manner. It may amuse you to know that smoke-signals were at once sent up for all the “doctors” in the country, and these ministering angels could presently be seen with their massage shells, rubbing the distended stomachs of the sufferers as they lay on the beach. I saw some men fairly howling with agony, but yet still devouring enormous quantities of oil and blubber! Besides the massage treatment (with the thumbs as well as shells), the “doctors” administered a kind of pill, or pellet, of some green leaf, which they first chewed in their own mouth and then placed in that of the patient. So magical was this potent herb in its action, that I feel sure it would make the fortune of an enterprising syndicate. Other patients, who had obtained temporary relief through the kind offices of the medicine-men, returned to the whales again, and had another enormous gorge. In fact, the blacks behaved more like wild beasts of the lowest order than men, and in a very short time– considering the enormous bulk of the whales–nothing remained except the immense bones.

On the other hand, the orgie had its uses from my point of view, because I took advantage of the arrival of so many strange tribes to make myself acquainted with their chiefs, their languages, and their manners and customs, in the hope that these people might be useful to me some day when I commenced my journey overland to civilisation. For, of course, all hope of escape by sea had now to be abandoned, since my boat was destroyed. Several days elapsed, however, before I was able to remain in their presence without a feeling of utter disgust. To be precise, I could not talk to them before they ate, because they were so anxious to get at the food; and after the feast they were too gorged with fat to be able to talk rationally. In all my wanderings amongst the blacks I never came across anything that interested them so much as a whale.

Soon after the loss of the boat, Yamba made me a small bark canoe about fifteen feet long, but not more than fourteen inches wide, and in this we undertook various little excursions together to the various islands that studded the bay. The construction of this little canoe was very interesting. Yamba, first of all, heated the bark, and then turned the rough part underneath in order that the interior might be perfectly smooth. She then SEWED up the ends, finally giving the little craft a coat of resin, obtained by making incisions in the gum-trees. Of course, I missed my own substantial boat, and it was some little time before I grew accustomed to the frail canoe, which necessitated the greatest possible care in handling, and also on the part of the passengers generally.

One day I decided to go and explore one of the islands that studded Cambridge Gulf, in search of a kind of shell mud-fish which I was very partial to. I also wanted to make the acquaintance of the bats or flying foxes I had seen rising in clouds every evening at sunset. I required the skins of these curious creatures for sandals. This would perhaps be a year after my advent amongst the blacks. As usual, Yamba was my only companion, and we soon reached a likely island. As I could find no suitable place for landing, I turned the canoe up a small creek. From this course, however, my companion strongly dissuaded me. Into the creek, nevertheless, we went, and when I saw it was a hopeless impasse, I scrambled ashore and waded through five inches or six inches of mud. The little island was densely covered with luxuriant tropical vegetation, the mangroves coming right down to the water’s edge; so that I had actually to force my way through them to gain the top of the bank. I then entered a very narrow track through the forest, the bush on both sides being so dense as to resemble an impenetrable wall or dense hedge. It is necessary to bear this in mind to realise what followed. I had not gone many yards along this track, when I was horrified to see, right in front of me, an enormous alligator! This great reptile was shuffling along down the path towards me, evidently making for the water, and it not only blocked my advance, but also necessitated my immediate retreat. The moment the brute caught sight of me he stopped, and began snapping his jaws viciously. I confess I was quite nonplussed for the moment as to how best to commence the attack upon this unexpected visitor. It was impossible for me to get round him in any way, on account of the dense bush on either side of the narrow forest track. I decided, however, to make a bold dash for victory, having always in mind the prestige that was so necessary to my existence among the blacks. I therefore walked straight up to the evil-looking monster; then, taking a short run, I leaped high into the air, shot over his head, and landed on his scaly back, at the same time giving a tremendous yell in order to attract Yamba, whom I had left in charge of the boat.

The moment I landed on his back I struck the alligator with all my force with my tomahawk, on what I considered the most vulnerable part of his head. So powerful was my stroke, that I found to my dismay that I could not get the weapon out of his head again. While I was in this extraordinary situation–standing on the back of an enormous alligator, and tugging at my tomahawk, embedded in its head–Yamba came rushing up the path, carrying one of the paddles, which, without a moment’s hesitation, she thrust down the alligator’s throat as he turned to snap at her. She immediately let go her hold and retreated. The alligator tried to follow her, but the shaft of the paddle caught among some tree trunks and stuck. In this way the monster was prevented from moving his head, either backwards or forwards, and then, drawing my stiletto, I blinded him in both eyes, afterwards finishing him leisurely with my tomahawk, when at length I managed to release it. Yamba was immensely proud of me after this achievement, and when we returned to the mainland she gave her tribesmen a graphic account of my gallantry and bravery. But she always did this. She was my advance agent and bill-poster, so to say. I found in going into a new country that my fame had preceded me; and I must say this was most convenient and useful in obtaining hospitality, concessions, and assistance generally. The part I had played in connection with the death of the two whales had already earned for me the admiration of the blacks–not only in my own tribe, but all over the adjacent country. And after this encounter with the alligator they looked upon me as a very great and powerful personage indeed. We did not bring the dead monster back with us, but next day a number of the blacks went over with their catamarans, and towed the reptile back to the mainland, where it was viewed with open-mouthed amazement by crowds of admiring natives. So great was the estimation in which my prowess was held, that little scraps of the dead alligator were distributed (as relics, presumably) among the tribes throughout the whole of the surrounding country. Singularly enough this last achievement of mine was considered much more commendable than the killing of the whale, for the simple reason that it sometimes happened they caught a whale themselves stranded on the beach; whereas the killing of an alligator with their primitive weapons was a feat never attempted. They chanted praises in my honour at night, and wherever I moved, my performances with the whales and alligator were always the first things to be sung. Nor did I attempt to depreciate my achievements; on the contrary, I exaggerated the facts as much as I possibly could. I described to them how I had fought and killed the whale with my stiletto in spite of the fact that the monster had smashed my boat. I told them that I was not afraid of facing anything single-handed, and I even went so far as to allege that I was good enough to go out against a nation! My whole object was to impress these people with my imaginary greatness, and I constantly made them marvel at my prowess with the bow and arrow. The fact of my being able to bring down a bird on the wing was nothing more nor less than a miracle to them. I was given the name of “Winnimah” by these people, because my arrows sped like lightning. Six of the alligator’s teeth I took for myself, and made them into a circlet which I wore round my head.

Some little time after this incident I decided to remove my dwelling-place to the top of a headland on the other side of the bay, some twenty miles away, where I thought I could more readily discern any sail passing by out at sea. The blacks themselves, who were well aware of my hopes of getting back to my own people, had themselves suggested that I might find this a more likely place for the purpose than the low-lying coast on which their tribe was then encamped. They also pointed out to me, however, that I should find it cold living in so exposed a position. But the hope of seeing passing sails decided me, and one morning I took my departure, the whole nation of blacks coming out in full force to bid us adieu. I think the last thing they impressed upon me, in their peculiar native way, was that they would always be delighted and honoured to welcome me back among them. Yamba, of course, accompanied me, as also did my dog, and we were escorted across the bay by a host of my native friends in their catamarans. I pitched upon a fine bold spot for our dwelling-place, but the blacks assured me that we would find it uncomfortably cold and windy, to say nothing about the loneliness, which I could not but feel after so much intercourse with the friendly natives. I persisted, however, and we at length pitched our encampment, on the bleak headland, which I now know to be Cape Londonderry, the highest northern point of Western Australia. Occasionally some of our black friends would pay us a visit, but we could never induce them to locate their village near us.

Day after day, day after day, I gazed wistfully over the sea for hours at a time, without ever seeing a sail, and at last I began to grow somewhat despondent, and sighed for the companionship of my black friends once more. Yamba was unremitting in her endeavours to make life pleasant for me and keep me well supplied with the best of food; but I could see that she, too, did not like living on this exposed and desolate spot. So, after a few weeks’ experience of life there, I decided to return to my bay home, and later on make preparations for a journey overland to a point on the Australian coast, where I learned ships quite frequently passed. The point in question was Somerset Point, at the extreme north of the Cape York peninsula; and I had learnt of its existence from Jensen when we were pearl-fishing. The blacks were delighted to see me on my return, and I remained with them several months before attempting my next journey. They were keenly anxious that I should join them in their fighting expeditions, but I always declined, on the ground that I was not a fighting man. The fact of the matter was, that I could never hope to throw a spear with anything like the dexterity they themselves possessed; and as spears were the principal weapons used in warfare, I was afraid I would not show up well at a critical moment. Moreover, the warriors defended themselves so dexterously with shields as to be all but invulnerable, whereas I had not the slightest idea of how to handle a shield. And for the sake of my ever-indispensable prestige, I could not afford to make myself ridiculous in their eyes. I always took good care to let the blacks see me performing only those feats which I felt morally certain I could accomplish, and accomplish to their amazement.

So far I had won laurels enough with my mysterious arrows or “flying spears,” as the natives considered them, and my prowess with the harpoon and tomahawk was sung in many tribes. And not the least awkward thing about my position was that I dared not even attempt a little quiet practice in spear-throwing, for fear the blacks should come upon me suddenly, when I would most certainly lose caste. I had several narrow escapes from this serious calamity, but most of them cannot be published here. I must tell you, though, that the blacks, when drinking at a river or water- hole, invariably scoop up the water with their hands, and never put their mouths right down close to the surface of the water. Well, one day I was guilty of this solecism. I had been out on a hunting expedition, and reached the water-hole with an intense burning thirst. My mentor was not with me. I fell on my knees and fairly buried my face in the life-giving fluid. Suddenly I heard murmurs behind me. I turned presently and saw a party of my blacks regarding me with horror. They said I drank like a kangaroo. But Yamba soon came to the rescue, and explained away the dreadful breach of etiquette, by telling them that I was not drinking, but simply cooling my face; when we were alone she solemnly cautioned me never to do it again.

The months passed slowly away, and I was still living the same monotonous life among my blacks–accompanying them upon their hunting expeditions, joining in their sports, and making periodical trips inland with Yamba, in preparation for the great journey I proposed to make overland to Cape York. When I spoke to my devoted companion about my plans, she told me she was ready to accompany me wherever I went–to leave her people and to be for ever by my side. Right well I knew that she would unhesitatingly do these things. Her dog-like fidelity to me never wavered, and I know she would have laid down her life for me at any time.

Often I told her of my own home beyond the seas, and when I asked her whether she would come with me, she would reply, “Your people are my people, and your God (spirit) my God. I will go with you wherever you take me.”

At length everything was ready, and I paid a final farewell, as I thought, to my black friends in Cambridge Gulf, after a little over eighteen months’ residence among them. They knew I was venturing on a long journey overland to another part of the country many moons distant, in the hope of being able to get into touch with my own people; and though they realised they should never see me again, they thought my departure a very natural thing. The night before we left, a great corroboree was held in my honour. We had a very affectionate leave-taking, and a body of the natives escorted us for the first 100 miles or so of our trip. At last, however, Yamba, myself, and the faithful dog were left to continue our wanderings alone. The reliance I placed upon this woman by the way was absolute and unquestioning. I knew that alone I could not live a day in the awful wilderness through which we were to pass; nor could any solitary white man. By this time, however, I had had innumerable demonstrations of Yamba’s almost miraculous powers in the way of providing food and water when, to the ordinary eye, neither was forthcoming. I should have mentioned that before leaving my black people I had provided myself with what I may term a native passport–a kind of Masonic mystic stick, inscribed with certain cabalistic characters. Every chief carried one of these sticks. I carried mine in my long, luxuriant hair, which I wore “bun” fashion, held in a net of opossum hair. This passport stick proved invaluable as a means of putting us on good terms with the different tribes we encountered. The chiefs of the blacks never ventured out of their own country without one of these mysterious sticks, neither did the native message-bearers. I am sure I should not have been able to travel far without mine.

Whenever I encountered a strange tribe I always asked to be taken before the chief, and when in his presence I presented my little stick, he would at once manifest the greatest friendliness, and offer us food and drink. Then, before I took my departure, he also would inscribe his sign upon the message stick, handing it back to me and probably sending me on to another tribe with an escort. It often happened, however, that I was personally introduced to another tribe whose “frontier” joined that of my late hosts, and in such cases my passport was unnecessary.

At first the country through which our wanderings led us was hilly and well wooded, the trees being particularly fine, many of them towering up to a height of 150 feet or 200 feet. Our principal food consisted of roots, rats, snakes, opossum, and kangaroo. The physical conditions of the country were constantly changing as we moved farther eastward, and Yamba’s ingenuity was often sorely taxed to detect the whereabouts of the various roots necessary for food. It was obviously unfair to expect her to be familiar with the flora and fauna of every part of the great Australian Continent. Sometimes she was absolutely nonplused, and had to stay a few days with a tribe until the women initiated her into the best methods of cooking the roots of the country. And often we could not understand the language. In such cases, though, when spoken words were unlike those uttered in Yamba’s country, we resorted to a wonderful sign-language which appears to be general among the Australian blacks. All that Yamba carried was a basket made of bark, slung over her shoulder, and containing a variety of useful things, including some needles made out of the bones of birds and fish; a couple of light grinding-stones for crushing out of its shell a very sustaining kind of nut found on the palm trees, &c. Day after day we walked steadily on in an easterly direction, guiding ourselves in the daytime by the sun, and in the evening by opossum scratches on trees and the positions of the ant-hills, which are always built facing the east. We crossed many creeks and rivers, sometimes wading and at others time swimming.

Gradually we left the hilly country behind, and after about five or six weeks’ tramping got into an extraordinary desert of red sand, which gave off a dust from our very tracks that nearly suffocated us. Each water-hole we came across now began to contain less and less of the precious liquid, and our daily menu grew more and more scanty, until at length we were compelled to live on practically nothing but a few roots and stray rats. Still we plodded on, finally striking a terrible spinifex country, which was inconceivably worse than anything we had hitherto encountered. In order to make our way through this spinifex (the terrible “porcupine grass” of the Australian interior), we were bound to follow the tracks made by kangaroos or natives, otherwise we should have made no progress whatever. These tracks at times wandered about zigzag fashion, and led us considerable distances out of our course, but, all the same, we dare not leave them. Not only was water all but unobtainable here, but our skin was torn with thorns at almost every step. Yamba was terribly troubled when she found she could no longer provide for my wants. Fortunately the dew fell heavily at night, and a sufficient quantity would collect on the foliage to refresh me somewhat in the morning. How eagerly would I lick the precious drops from the leaves! Curiously enough, Yamba herself up to this time did not seem distressed from lack of water; but nothing about this marvellous woman surprised me. It took us about ten days to pass through the awful spinifex desert, and for at least eight days of that period we were virtually without water, tramping through never-ending tracts of scrub, prickly grass, and undulating sand-hills of a reddish colour. Often and often I blamed myself bitterly for ever going into that frightful country at all. Had I known beforehand that it was totally uninhabited I certainly should not have ventured into it. We were still going due east, but in consequence of the lack of water-holes, my heroic guide thought it advisable to strike a little more north.


The agonies of thirst–A ghastly drink–I ask Yamba to kill me–My ministering angel–How Yamba caught opossum–The water witch–A barometer of snakes–The coming deluge–The plunge into the Rapids- -A waste of waters–A fearful situation–Barking alligators– English-speaking natives–A ship at last–I abandon hope–The deserted settlement.

By this time I began to feel quite delirious; I fear I was like a baby in Yamba’s hands. She knew that all I wanted was water, and became almost distracted when she could not find any for me. Of herself she never thought. And yet she was full of strange resources and devices. When I moaned aloud in an agony of thirst, she would give me some kind of grass to chew; and although this possessed no real moisture, yet it promoted the flow of saliva, and thus slightly relieved me.

Things grew worse and worse, however, and the delirium increased. Hour after hour–through the endless nights would that devoted creature sit by my side, moistening my lips with the dew that collected on the grass. On the fifth day without water I suffered the most shocking agonies, and in my lucid moments gave myself up for lost. I could neither stand nor walk, speak nor swallow. My throat seemed to be almost closed up, and when I opened my eyes everything appeared to be going round and round in the most dizzy and sickening manner. My heart beat with choking violence, and my head ached, so that I thought I was going mad. My bloodshot eyes (so Yamba subsequently told me) projected from their sockets in the most terrifying manner, and a horrible indescribable longing possessed me to kill my faithful Bruno, in order to drink his blood. My poor Bruno! As I write these humble lines, so lacking in literary grace, I fancy I can see him lying by my side in that glaring, illimitable wilderness, his poor, dry tongue lolling out, and his piteous brown eyes fixed upon me with an expression of mute appeal that added to my agony. The only thing that kept him from collapsing altogether was the blood of some animal which Yamba might succeed in killing.

Gradually I grew weaker and weaker, and at last feeling the end was near, I crawled under the first tree I came across–never for a moment giving a thought as to its species,–and prepared to meet the death I now fervently desired. Had Yamba, too, given up, these lines would never have been written. Amazing to relate, she kept comparatively well and active, though without water; and in my most violent paroxysm she would pounce upon a lizard or a rat, and give me its warm blood to drink, while yet it lived. Then she would masticate a piece of iguana flesh and give it to me in my mouth, but I was quite unable to swallow it, greatly to her disappointment. She must have seen that I was slowly sinking, for at last she stooped down and whispered earnestly in my ear that she would leave me for a little while, and go off in search of water. Like a dream it comes back to me how she explained that she had seen some birds passing overhead, and that if she followed in the same direction she was almost certain to reach water sooner or later.

I could not reply; but I felt it was a truly hopeless enterprise on her part. And as I did not want her to leave me, I remember I held out my tomahawk feebly towards her, and signed to her to come and strike me on the head with it and so put an end to my dreadful agonies. The heroic creature only smiled and shook her head emphatically. She took the proffered weapon, however, and after putting some distinguishing marks on my tree with it, she hurled it some distance away from me. She then stooped and propped me against the trunk of the tree; and then leaving my poor suffering dog to keep me company, she set out on her lonely search with long, loping strides of amazing vigour.

It was late in the afternoon when she took her departure; and I lay there hour after hour, sometimes frantically delirious, and at others in a state of semi-consciousness, fancying she was by my side with shells brimming over with delicious water. I would rouse myself with a start from time to time, but, alas! my Yamba was not near me. During the long and deathly stillness of the night, the dew came down heavily, and as it enveloped my bed, I fell into a sound sleep, from which I was awakened some hours later by the same clear and ringing voice that had addressed me on that still night on my island sand-spit. Out upon the impressive stillness of the air rang the earnest words: “Coupe l’arbre! Coupe l’arbre!”

I was quite conscious, and much refreshed by my sleep, but the message puzzled me a great deal. At first I thought it must have been Yamba’s voice, but I remembered that she did not know a word of French; and when I looked round there was no one to be seen. The mysterious message still rang in my ears, but I was far too weak to attempt to cut the tree myself, I lay there in a state of inert drowsiness until, rousing myself a little before dawn, I heard the familiar footsteps of Yamba approaching the spot where I lay. Her face expressed anxiety, earnestness, and joy.

In her trembling hands she bore a big lily leaf containing two or three ounces of life-giving water. This I drank with gasping eagerness, as you may suppose. My delirium had now entirely left me, although I was still unable to speak. I signed to her to cut the tree, as the voice in my dream had directed me. Without a word of question Yamba picked up the tomahawk from where she had hurled it, and then cut vigorously into the trunk, making a hole three or four inches deep. It may seem astonishing to you, but it surprised me in no wise when out from the hole there TRICKLED A CLEAR, UNCERTAIN STREAM OF WATER, under which Yamba promptly held my fevered head. This had a wonderfully refreshing effect upon me, and in a short time I was able to speak feebly but rationally, greatly to the delight of my faithful companion. As, however, I was still too weak to move, I indulged in another and far sounder sleep. I do not know the scientific name of that wonderful Australian tree which saved my life, but believe it is well known to naturalists. I have heard it called the “bottle tree,” from the shape of the trunk. All through that terrible night, while Yamba was far away searching for water, Bruno had never left my side, looking into my face wistfully, and occasionally licking my body sympathetically with his poor, parched tongue. Whilst I was asleep the second time, Yamba went off with the dog in search of food, and returned with a young opossum, which was soon frizzling in an appetising way on a tripod of sticks over a blazing fire. I was able to eat a little of the flesh, and we obtained all the water we wanted from our wonderful tree. Of course, Yamba was unacquainted with the fact that water was stored in its interior. As a rule, her instinct might be depended upon implicitly; and even after years of her companionship I used to be filled with wonder at the way in which she would track down game and find honey. She would glance at a tree casually, and discern on the bark certain minute scratches, which were quite invisible to me, even when pointed out. She would then climb up like a monkey, and return to the ground with a good-sized opossum, which would be roasted in its skin, with many different varieties of delicious roots.

When I had quite recovered, Yamba told me she had walked many miles during the night, and had finally discovered a water-hole in a new country, for which she said we must make as soon as I was sufficiently strong. Fortunately this did not take very long, and on reaching the brink of the water-hole we camped beside it for several days, in order to recuperate. I must say that the water we found here did not look very inviting–it was, in fact, very slimy and green in colour; but by the time we took our departure there was not a drop left. Yamba had a method of filtration which excited my admiration. She dug another hole alongside the one containing the water, leaving a few inches of earth between them, through which the water would percolate, and collect in hole perfectly filtered.

At other times, when no ordinary human being could detect the presence of water, she would point out to me a little knob of clay on the ground in an old dried-up water-hole. This, she told me, denoted the presence of a frog, and she would at once thrust down a reed about eighteen inches long, and invite me to suck the upper end, with the result that I imbibed copious draughts of delicious water.

At the water-hole just described birds were rather plentiful, and when they came down to drink, Yamba knocked them over without difficulty. They made a very welcome addition to our daily bill of fare. Her mode of capturing the birds was simplicity itself. She made herself a long covering of grass that completely enveloped her, and, shrouded in this, waited at the edge of the water-hole for the birds to come and drink. Then she knocked over with a stick as many as she required. In this way we had a very pleasant spell of rest for four or five days. Continuing our journey once more, we pushed on till in about three weeks we came to a well- wooded country, where the eucalyptus flourished mightily and water was plentiful; but yet, strange to say, there was very little game in this region. Soon after this, I noticed that Yamba grew a little anxious, and she explained that as we had not come across any kangaroos lately, nor any blacks, it was evident that the wet season was coming on. We therefore decided to steer for higher ground, and accordingly went almost due north for the next few days, until we reached the banks of a big river–the Roper River, as I afterwards found out–where we thought it advisable to camp. This would probably be sometime in the month of December.

One day I saw a number of small snakes swarming round the foot of a tree, and was just about to knock some of them over with my stick, when Yamba called out to me excitedly not to molest them. They then began to climb the tree, and she explained that this clearly indicated the advent of the wet season. “I did not wish you to kill the snakes,” she said, “because I wanted to see if they would take refuge in the trees from the coming floods.”

Up to this time, however, there had not been the slightest indication of any great change in the weather. Many months must have elapsed since rain had fallen in these regions, for the river was extremely low between its extraordinarily high banks, and the country all round was dry and parched; but even as we walked, a remarkable phenomenon occurred, which told of impending changes. I was oppressed with a sense of coming evil. I listened intently when Yamba requested me to do so, but at first all I could hear was a curious rumbling sound, far away in the distance. This noise gradually increased in volume, and came nearer and nearer, but still I was utterly unable to account for it. I also noticed that the river was becoming strangely agitated, and was swirling along at ever-increasing speed. Suddenly an enormous mass of water came rushing down with a frightful roar, in one solid wave, and then it dawned upon me that it must have already commenced raining in the hills, and the tributaries of the river were now sending down their floods into the main stream, which was rising with astonishing rapidity. In the course of a couple of hours it had risen between thirty and forty feet. Yamba seemed a little anxious, and suggested that we had better build a hut on some high ground and remain secure in that locality, without attempting to continue our march while the rains lasted; and it was evident they were now upon us.

We therefore set to work to construct a comfortable little shelter of bark, fastened to a framework of poles by means of creepers and climbing plants. Thus, by the time the deluge was fairly upon us, we were quite snugly ensconced. We did not, however, remain in- doors throughout the whole of the day, but went in and out, hunting for food and catching game just as usual; the torrential rain which beat down upon our naked bodies being rather a pleasant experience than otherwise. At this time we had a welcome addition to our food in the form of cabbage-palms and wild honey. We also started building a catamaran, with which to navigate the river when the floods had subsided. Yamba procured a few trunks of very light timber, and these we fastened together with long pins of hardwood, and then bound them still more firmly together with strips of kangaroo hide. We also collected a stock of provisions to take with us–kangaroo and opossum meat, of course; but principally wild honey, cabbage-palm, and roots of various kinds. These preparations took us several days, and by the time we had arranged everything for our journey the weather had become settled once more. Yamba remarked to me that if we simply drifted down the Roper River we should be carried to the open sea; nor would we be very long, since the swollen current was now running like a mill- race. Our catamaran, of course, afforded no shelter of any kind, but we carried some sheets of bark to form seats for ourselves and the dog.

At length we pushed off on our eventful voyage, and no sooner had we got fairly into the current than we were carried along with prodigious rapidity, and without the least exertion on our part, except in the matter of steering. This was done by means of paddles from the side of the craft. We made such rapid progress that I felt inclined to go on all night, but shortly after dusk Yamba persuaded me to pull in-shore and camp on the bank until morning, because of the danger of travelling at night among the logs and other wreckage that floated about on the surface of the water.

We passed any number of submerged trees, and on several of these found snakes coiled among the branches. Some of these reptiles we caught and ate. About the middle of the second day we heard a tremendous roar ahead, as though there were rapids in the bed of the river. It was now impossible to pull the catamaran out of its course, no matter how hard we might have striven, the current being absolutely irresistible. The banks narrowed as the rapids were reached, with the result that the water in the middle actually became CONVEX, so tremendous was the rush in that narrow gorge. Yamba cried out to me to lie flat on the catamaran, and hold on as tightly as I could until we reached smooth water again. This she did herself, seizing hold of the dog also.

Nearer and nearer we were swept to the great seething caldron of boiling and foaming waters, and at last, with a tremendous splash we entered the terrifying commotion. We went right under, and so great was the force of the water, that had I not been clinging tenaciously to the catamaran I must infallibly have been swept away to certain death. Presently, however, we shot into less troubled waters and then continued our course, very little the worse for having braved these terrible rapids. Had our craft been a dug-out boat, as I originally intended it to be, we must inevitably have been swamped. Again we camped on shore that night, and were off at an early hour next morning. As we glided swiftly on, I noticed that the river seemed to be growing tremendously wide. Yamba explained that we were now getting into very flat country, and therefore the great stretch of water was a mere flood. She also prophesied a rather bad time for us, as we should not be able to go ashore at night and replenish our stock of provisions. Fortunately we had a sufficient supply with us on the catamaran to last at least two or three days longer. The last time we landed Yamba had stocked an additional quantity of edible roots and smoked meats, and although we lost a considerable portion of these in shooting the rapids, there still remained enough for a few days’ supply.

In consequence of the ever-increasing width of the river, I found it a difficult matter to keep in the channel where the current was, so I gave up the steering paddle to Yamba, who seemed instinctively to know what course to take.

On and on we went, until at length the whole country as far as the eye could reach was one vast sea, extending virtually to the horizon; its sluggish surface only broken by the tops of the submerged trees. One day we sighted a number of little islets some distance ahead, and then we felt we must be nearing the mouth of the river. The last day or two had been full of anxiety and inconvenience for us, for we had been simply drifting aimlessly on, without being able to land and stretch our cramped limbs or indulge in a comfortable sleep. Thus the sight of the islands was a great relief to us, and my ever-faithful and considerate companion remarked that as we had nothing to fear now, and I was weary with my vigil of the previous night, I had better try and get a little sleep. Accordingly I lay down on the catamaran, and had barely extended my limbs when I fell fast asleep. I awoke two or three hours later, at mid-day, and was surprised to find that our catamaran was not moving. I raised myself up, only to find that we had apparently drifted among the tops of a ring of trees rising from a submerged island. “Halloa!” I said to Yamba, “are we stuck?” “No,” she replied quietly, “but look round.”

You may judge of my horror and amazement when I saw outside the curious ring of tree-tops, scores of huge alligators peering at us with horrid stolidity through the branches, some of them snapping their capacious jaws with a viciousness that left no doubt as to its meaning. Yamba explained to me that she had been obliged to take refuge in this peculiar but convenient shelter, because the alligators seemed to be swarming in vast numbers in that part of the river. She had easily forced a way for the catamaran through the branches, and once past, had drawn them together again. The ferocious monsters could certainly have forced their way into the inclosure after us, but they didn’t seem to realise that such a thing was possible, apparently being quite content to remain outside. Judge, then, our position for yourself–with a scanty food supply, on a frail platform of logs, floating among the tree- tops, and literally besieged by crowds of loathsome alligators! Nor did we know how long our imprisonment was likely to last. Our poor dog, too, was terribly frightened, and sat whining and trembling in a most pitiable way in spite of reassuring words and caresses from Yamba and myself. I confess that I was very much alarmed, for the monsters would occasionally emit a most peculiar and terrifying sound–not unlike the roar of a lion. Hour after hour we sat there on the swaying catamaran, praying fervently that the hideous reptiles might leave us, and let us continue our journey in peace. As darkness began to descend upon the vast waste of waters, it occurred to me to make a bold dash through the serried ranks of our besiegers, but Yamba restrained me, telling me it meant certain death to attempt to run the gantlet under such fearsome circumstances.

Night came on. How can I describe its horrors? Even as I write, I seem to hear the ceaseless roars of those horrible creatures, and the weird but gentle lappings of the limitless waste that extended as far as the eye could reach. Often I was tempted to give up in despair, feeling that there was no hope whatever for us. Towards morning, however, the alligators apparently got on the scent of some floating carcasses brought down by the floods, and one and all left us. Some little time after the last ugly head had gone under, the catamaran was sweeping swiftly and noiselessly down the stream again.

We made straight for a little island some distance ahead of us, and found it uninhabited. Black and white birds, not quite so large as pigeons, were very plentiful, as also were eggs. Soon my Yamba had a nice meal ready for me, and then we lay down for a much-needed rest. After this we steered for a large island some nine or ten miles distant, and as we approached we could see that this one WAS inhabited, from the smoke-signals the natives sent up the moment they caught sight of us.

As we came nearer we could see the blacks assembling on the beach to meet us, but, far from showing any friendliness, they held their spears poised threateningly, and would no doubt have thrown them had I not suddenly jumped to my feet and made signs that I wished to sit down with them–to parley with them. They then lowered their spears, and we landed; but to my great disappointment neither Yamba nor I could understand one word of their language, which was totally different from the dialect of Yamba’s country. Our first meeting was conducted in the usual way–squatting down on our haunches, and then drawing nearer and nearer until we were able to rub noses on one another’s shoulders. I then explained by means of signs that I wanted to stay with them a few days, and I was inexpressibly relieved to find that my little passport stick (which never left my possession for a moment), was recognised at once, and proved most efficacious generally. After this I became more friendly with my hosts, and told them by signs that I was looking for white people like myself, whereupon they replied I should have to go still farther south to find them. They took us to their camp, and provided us with food, consisting mainly of fish, shell- fish, and roots. So far as I could ascertain, there were no kangaroo or opossum on the island. After two or three days, I thought it time to be continuing our journey; but feeling convinced that I must be in the vicinity of the Cape York Peninsula–instead of being on the west coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria–I decided not to go south at all, but to strike due north, where I felt certain Somerset Point lay; and I also resolved to travel by sea this time, the blacks having presented me with a very unsubstantial “dug-out” canoe. Leaving behind us the catamaran that had brought us so many hundreds of miles, we set out on our travels once more– taking care, however, never to lose sight of the coast-line on account of our frail craft. We passed several beautiful islands, big and little, and on one that we landed I came across some native chalk drawings on the face of the rock. They depicted rude figures of men–I don’t remember any animals–but were not nearly so well done as the drawings I had seen in caves up in the Cape Londonderry district.

We also landed from time to time on the mainland, and spoke with the chiefs of various tribes. They were all hostile at first. On one occasion we actually met one or two blacks who spoke a few words of English. They had evidently been out with pearlers at some time in their lives, but had returned to their native wilds many years before our visit. I asked them if they knew where white men were to be found, and they pointed east (Cape York), and also indicated that the whites were many moons’ journey away from us. I was sorely puzzled. A glance at a map of Australia will enable the reader to realise my great blunder. Ignorant almost of Australian geography I fancied, on reaching the western shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria, that I had struck the Coral Sea, and that all I had to do was to strike north to reach Somerset, the white settlement I had heard about from the pearlers. I felt so confident Cape York lay immediately to the north, that I continued my course in that direction, paddling all day and running in-shore to camp at night. We lived mainly on shell-fish and sea-birds’ eggs at this time, and altogether life became terribly wearisome and monotonous. This, however, was mainly owing to my anxiety.

About a fortnight after leaving the mouth of the Roper River we came to a place which I now know to be Point Dale. We then steered south into a beautiful landlocked passage which lies between the mainland and Elcho Island, and which at the time I took to be the little strait running between Albany Island and Cape York. I steered south-west in consequence; and after a time, as I did not sight the points I was on the look-out for, I felt completely nonplused. We landed on Elcho Island and spent a day or two there. Being still under the impression that Cape York was higher up, I steered west, and soon found myself in a very unpleasant region. We explored almost every bay and inlet we came across, but of course always with the same disheartening result. Sometimes we would come near being stranded on a sandbank, and would have to jump overboard and push our craft into deeper water. At others, she would be almost swamped in a rough sea, but still we stuck to our task, and after passing Goulbourn Island we followed the coast. Then we struck north until we got among a group of islands, and came to Croker Island, which goes direct north and south. Day after day we kept doggedly on, hugging the shore very closely, going in and out of every bay, and visiting almost every island, yet never seeing a single human being. We were apparently still many hundreds of miles away from our destination. To add to the wretchedness of the situation, my poor Yamba, who had been so devoted, so hardy, and so contented, at length began to manifest symptoms of illness, and complained gently of the weariness of it all. “You are looking,” she would say, “for a place that does not exist. You are looking for friends of whose very existence you are unaware.” I would not give in, however, and persuaded her that all would be well in time, if only she would continue to bear with me. Both of us were terribly cramped in the boat; and by way of exercise one or the other would occasionally jump overboard and have a long swim. Whenever we could we landed at night.

One morning, shortly after we had begun our usual trip for the day, and were rounding a headland, I was almost stupefied to behold in front of me the masts of a boat (which I afterwards found to be a Malay proa), close in-shore. The situation, in reality, was between Croker’s Island and the main, but at the time I thought that I had at length reached Somerset. I sprang to my feet in a state of the greatest excitement. “Thank God! thank God!” I shouted to Yamba; “we are saved at last!–saved–saved–saved!” As I shouted, I pulled the canoe round and made for the vessel with all possible despatch. We very soon came up with her, and found her almost stranded, in consequence of the lowness of the tide. I promptly clambered aboard, but failed to find a soul. I thought this rather strange, but as I could see a hut not very far away, close to the beach, I steered towards it. This little dwelling, too, was uninhabited, though I found a number of trays of fish lying about, which afterwards I found to be beche-de-mer being dried and smoked. Suddenly, while Yamba and I were investigating the interior of the hut, a number of Malays unexpectedly appeared on the scene, and I then realised I had had the good fortune to come across a Malay beche-de-mer expedition.

The fishermen were exceedingly surprised at seeing Yamba and me; but when they found I could speak their language a little they evinced every sign of delight, and forthwith entertained us most hospitably on board their craft, which was a boat of ten or fifteen tons. They told me they had come from the Dutch islands south of Timor, and promptly made me an offer that set my heart beating wildly. They said they were prepared to take me back to Kopang, if I wished; and I, on my part, offered to give them all the pearl shells left on my little island in the Sea of Timor–the latitude of which I took good care not to divulge–on condition that they called there. They even offered Yamba a passage along with me; but, to my amazement and bitter disappointment, she said she did not wish to go with them. She trembled as though with fear. She was afraid that when once we were on board, the Malays would kill me and keep her.

One other reason for this fear I knew, but it in no way mitigated my acute grief at being obliged to decline what would probably be my only chance of returning to civilisation. For this I had pined day and night for four or five years, and now that escape was within my grasp I was obliged to throw it away. For let me emphatically state, that even if civilisation had been but a mile away, I would not have gone a yard towards it without that devoted creature who had been my salvation, not on one occasion only, but practically every moment of my existence.

With passionate eagerness I tried to persuade Yamba to change her mind, but she remained firm in her decision; and so, almost choking with bitter regret, and in a state of utter collapse, I had to decline the offer of the Malays. We stayed with them, however, a few weeks longer, and at length they accompanied me to a camp of black fellows near some lagoons, a little way farther south of their own camp. Before they left, they presented me with a quantity of beche-de-mer, or sea-slugs, which make most excellent soup. At the place indicated by the Malays, which was in Raffles Bay, the chief spoke quite excellent English. One of his wives could even say the Lord’s Prayer in English, though, of course, she did not know what she was talking about. “Captain Jack Davis,” as he called himself, had been for some little time on one of her Majesty’s ships, and he told me that not many marches away there was an old European settlement; he even offered to guide me there, if I cared to go. He first led me to an old white settlement in Raffles Bay, called, I think, Fort Wellington, where I found some large fruit-trees, including ripe yellow mangoes. There were, besides, raspberries, strawberries, and Cape gooseberries. Needless to remark, all this made me very happy and contented, for I felt I must now be getting near the home of some white men. I thought that, after all, perhaps Yamba’s refusal to go with the Malays was for the best, and with high hopes I set out with Captain Davis for another settlement he spoke of. This turned out to be Port Essington, which we reached in two or three days. Another cruel blow was dealt me here.

You can perhaps form some idea of my poignant dismay and disappointment on finding that this dreary-looking place of swamps and marshes was quite deserted, although there were still a number of ruined brick houses, gardens, and orchards there. The blacks told me that at one time it had been one of the most important penal settlements in Australia, but had to be abandoned on account of the prevalence of malarial fever arising from the swamps in the neighbourhood. I came across a number of graves, which were evidently those of the exiled settlers; and one of the wooden headstones bore the name of Captain Hill (I think that was the name). I have an idea that the fence round this old cemetery still remained. There was food in abundance at this place–raspberries, bananas, and mangoes grew in profusion; whilst the marshes were inhabited by vast flocks of geese, ducks, white ibis, and other wild-fowl. Indeed in the swamps the birds rose in such prodigious numbers as actually to obscure the face of the sun. Here for the first time I saw web-footed birds perched in trees.

The blacks had a very peculiar method of catching water-fowl. They would simply wade through the reeds into the water almost up to their necks, and then cover their heads with a handful of reeds. Remaining perfectly still, they would imitate the cry of different wild-fowl. Then at a convenient opportunity, they would simply seize a goose or a duck by the leg, and drag it down under the water until it was drowned. The number of water-fowl caught in this way by a single black fellow was truly astonishing.

After having remained a fortnight at Port Essington itself, we returned to Raffles Bay, where Yamba and I made a camp among the blacks and took up our residence among them; for Captain Davis had told me that ships called there occasionally, and it was possible that one might call soon from Port Darwin. The vessels, he added, came for buffalo meat–of which more hereafter. I had decided to remain among these people some little time, because they knew so much about Europeans, and I felt sure of picking up knowledge which would prove useful to me.


In the throes of fever–A ghastly discovery–Pitiful relics–A critical moment–Yamba in danger–A blood bath–A luxury indeed– Signs of civilisation–The great storm–Drifting, drifting–Yamba’s mysterious glee–A dreadful shock–“Welcome home!”–My official protectors–Myself as a cannibal war chief–Preparations for battle–A weird apparition–Generosity to the vanquished–The old desire.

I had not been established in this camp many days, however, before I was struck down, for the first time, with a terrible attack of malarial fever, probably produced by the many hours I had spent wading in the swamps at Port Essington. There were the usual symptoms–quick flushings and fever heats, followed by violent fits of shivering, which no amount of natural warmth could mitigate. My faithful Yamba was terribly distressed at my condition, and waited upon me with most tender devotion; but in spite of all that could be done for me, I grew gradually weaker, until in the course of a few days I became wildly delirious. The blacks, too, were very good to me, and doctored me, in their quaint native way, with certain leaves and powders. All to no purpose, however; and for several days I was even unable to recognise my Yamba. Then the fever subsided somewhat, and I was left as weak and helpless as a little child.

It was some time before I quite recovered from the fever; and I was frequently seized with distressing fits of shivering. I also experienced an overwhelming desire for a drink of milk; why, I am unable to say. Therefore, when some of the blacks told me that wild buffalo were to be found in the neighbourhood–beasts which had formerly belonged to settlers, but were now run wild–I resolved, when sufficiently strong, to try and capture one of the cows for the sake of its milk. Captain Davis ridiculed the idea, and assured me that it was only possible to slay one with a rifle; but I determined to see what I could do.

Yamba, of course, accompanied me on my expedition, and her bushmanship was altogether quite indispensable. We came upon buffalo tracks near a large water-hole, and here we each climbed a gum-tree and awaited the arrival of our prey. We waited a long time, but were at length rewarded by seeing a big cow buffalo and her calf wandering leisurely in our direction. My only weapons were a lasso made out of green kangaroo hide, fixed to the end of a long pole; and my bow and arrows. I slid down the tree a little way, and when the calf was near enough, I gently slipped the noose over its neck, and promptly made it a prisoner under the very nose of its astonished mother, who bellowed mournfully. My success so elated Yamba that she, too, slid down from her hiding-place, and was making her way over to me and the calf, when suddenly an enormous bull, which we had not previously seen, rushed at her at full speed. Yamba instantly realised her danger, and swarmed up a tree again like lightning, just as the great brute was upon her. I called out to her to attract the attention of the old bull whilst I attended to the mother and calf. I dropped my pole to which the lasso was attached, and allowed the little one to walk quickly away with it; but, as I anticipated, the trailing shaft soon caught between the stumps of some trees, and made the calf a more secure prisoner than ever. It was a curious repetition of the story of the two whales. The mother walked round and round, and appeared to be in the greatest distress. She never left her little one’s side, but continued to bellow loudly, and lick the calf to coax it away. Quietly sliding down my tree, I made my way to where Yamba was still holding the attention of the bull–a fiery brute who was pawing the ground with rage at the foot of her tree. I had fitted an arrow to my bow, and was preparing to shoot, when, unfortunately, the bull detected the noise of my approach, and rushed straight at me. I confess it was rather a trying moment, but I never lost my head, feeling confident of my skill with the bow–which I had practised off and on ever since I had left school at Montreux. I actually waited until the charging monster was within a few paces, and then I let fly. So close was he that not much credit is due to me for accurate aim. The arrow fairly transfixed his right eye, causing him to pull up on his haunches, and roar with pain.

Yamba, full of anxiety, hurried down her tree; but she had scarcely reached the ground when the baffled bull wheeled and charged her, with more fury than ever. She simply glided behind a tree, and then I showed myself and induced the bull to charge me once more. Again I waited until he was almost upon me, and then I sent another arrow into his other eye, blinding him completely. On this, the poor brute brought up sharp, and commenced to back in an uncertain way, bellowing with pain. I forgot all my fever in the excitement, and rushing upon the beast with my tomahawk, I dealt him a blow on the side of the head that made him stagger. I brought him to the earth with two or three more blows, and a few minutes later had administered the coup-de-grace. No sooner was the big bull dead than I determined to test the efficacy of a very popular native remedy for fever–for shivering fits still continued to come upon me at most awkward times, usually late in the day. No matter how much grass poor Yamba brought me as covering, I never could get warm, and so now I thought I would try some animal heat.

Scarce had life left the body of the prostrate bull before I ripped open the carcass between the fore and hind legs; and after