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  • 5/1899,6/1899
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they taught me a good deal about religion which I had not known previously. Blanche would read aloud the most touching and beautiful passages from the Bible; and even as I write I can recall her pale, earnest face, with its pathetic expression and her low, musical voice, as she dwelt upon passages likely to console and strengthen us in our terrible position. The quiet little discussions we had together on theological subjects settled, once and for all, many questions that had previously vexed me a great deal.

Both girls were devoted adherents of the Church of England, and could repeat most of the Church services entirely from memory. They wanted to do a little missionary work among the blacks, but I gently told them I thought this inadvisable, as any rupture in our friendly relations with the natives would have been quite fatal–if not to our lives, at least to our chances of reaching civilisation. Moreover, my people were not by any means without a kind of religion of their own. They believed in the omnipotence of a Great Spirit in whose hands their destinies rested; and him they worshipped with much the same adoration which Christians give to God. The fundamental difference was that the sentiment animating them was not LOVE, but FEAR: propitiation rather than adoration.

We sang the usual old hymns at our Sunday services, and I soon learned to sing them myself. On my part, I taught the girls such simple hymns as the one commencing “Une nacelle en silence,” which I had learnt at Sunday-school in Switzerland. It is interesting to note that this was Bruno’s favourite air. Poor Bruno! he took more or less kindly to all songs–except the Swiss jodellings, which he simply detested. When I started one of these plaintive ditties Bruno would first protest by barking his loudest, and if I persisted, he would simply go away in disgust to some place where he could not hear the hated sounds. On Sunday evening we generally held a prayer-service in the hut, and at such times offered up most fervent supplications for delivery.

Often I have seen these poor girls lifting up their whole souls in prayer, quite oblivious for the moment of their surroundings, until recalled to a sense of their awful positions by the crash of an unusually large wave on the rocks.

The girls knew no more of Australian geography than I did; and when I mention that I merely had a vague idea that the great cities of the continent–Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, and Melbourne–all lay in a southerly direction, you may imagine how dense was my ignorance of the great island. I am now the strongest possible advocate of a sound geographical training in schools.

On ordinary days we indulged in a variety of games, the principal one being a form of “rounders.” I made a ball out of opossum skin, stuffed with the light soft bark of the paper-tree, and stitched with gut. We used a yam-stick to strike it with. My native women attendants often joined in the fun, and our antics provided a vast amount of amusement for the rest of the tribe. The girls taught me cricket, and in due time I tried to induce the blacks to play the British national game, but with little success. We made the necessary bats and stumps out of hard acacia, which I cut down with my tomahawk. The natives themselves, however, made bats much better than mine, simply by whittling flat their waddies; and they soon became expert batsmen. But unfortunately they failed to see why they should run after the ball, especially when they had knocked it a very great distance away. Running about in this manner, they said, was only fit work for women, and was quite beneath their dignity. Yamba and I fielded, but soon found ourselves unequal to the task, owing to the enormous distances we had to travel in search of the ball. Therefore we soon abandoned the cricket, and took up football, which was very much more successful.

We had a nice large football made of soft goose-skin stuffed with the paper bark; and in considering our game you must always bear in mind that boots or footgear of any kind were quite unknown. The great drawback of football, from the native point of view, was that it entailed so much exertion, which could be otherwise expended in a far more profitable and practical manner. They argued that if they put the exertion requisite for a game of football into a hunt for food, they would have enough meat to last them for many days. It was, of course, utterly impossible to bring them round to my view of sports and games. With regard to the abandoned cricket, they delighted in hitting the ball and in catching it–oh! they were wonderfully expert at this–but as to running after the ball, this was quite impossible.

About this time the girls showed me the steps of an Irish jig, which I quickly picked up and soon became quite an adept, much to the delight of the natives, who never tired of watching my gyrations. I kept them in a constant state of wonderment, so that even my very hair–now about three feet long–commanded their respect and admiration!

Sometimes I would waltz with the younger girl, whilst her sister whistled an old familiar air. When I danced, the blacks would squat in a huge circle around me; those in the front rank keeping time by beating drums that I had made and presented to them. The bodies of the drums were made from sections of trees which I found already hollowed out by the ants. These wonderful little insects would bore through and through the core of the trunk, leaving only the outer shell, which soon became light and dry. I then scraped out with my tomahawk any of the rough inner part that remained, and stretched over the ends of each section a pair of the thinnest wallaby skins I could find; these skins were held taut by sinews from the tail of a kangaroo. I tried emu-skins for the drum-heads, but found they were no good, as they soon became perforated when I scraped them.

Never a day passed but we eagerly scanned the glistening sea in the hope of sighting a passing sail. One vessel actually came right into our bay from the north, but she suddenly turned right back on the course she had come. She was a cutter-rigged vessel, painted a greyish-white, and of about fifty tons burden. She was probably a Government vessel–possibly the Claud Hamilton, a South Australian revenue boat stationed at Port Darwin–as she flew the British ensign at the mast-head; whereas a pearler would have flown it at the peak. The moment we caught sight of that ship I am afraid we lost our heads. We screamed aloud with excitement, and ran like mad people up and down the beach, waving branches and yelling like maniacs. I even waved wildly my long, luxuriant hair. Unfortunately, the wind was against us, blowing from the WSW. We were assisted in our frantic demonstration by quite a crowd of natives with branches; and I think it possible that, even if we had been seen, the people on the ship would have mistaken our efforts for a more hostile demonstration.

When it was too late, and the ship almost out of sight, I suddenly realised that I had made another fatal mistake in having the blacks with me. Had I and the two girls been alone on the beach I feel sure the officers of the ship would have detected our white skins through their glasses. But, indeed, we may well have escaped notice altogether.

There was a terrible scene when the supposed Government vessel turned back on her course and passed swiftly out of sight. The girls threw themselves face downwards on the beach, and wept wildly and hysterically in the very depths of violent despair. I can never hope to tell you what a bitter and agonising experience it was–the abrupt change from delirious excitement at seeing a ship steering right into our bay, to the despairing shock of beholding it turn away from us even quicker than it came.


The girls in sun-bonnets–I advise the blacks–Fatal excitement– Last moments–The catastrophe–I cannot realise it–A fearful contrast–“Only a withered flower”–Bruno’s grief–Steering by the ant-hills–Avoiding the forests–Myriads of rats–The flowing of the tide–Rats and the native children–Clouds of locusts–Fish from the clouds.

The weeks gradually grew into months, and still we were apparently no nearer civilisation than ever. Again and again we made expeditions to see whether it were possible for the girls to reach Port Darwin overland; but, unfortunately, I had painted for them in such vivid colours the tortures of thirst which I had undergone on my journey towards Cape York, that they were always afraid to leave what was now their home to go forth unprovided into the unknown. Sometimes a fit of depression so acute would come over them, that they would shut themselves up in their room and not show themselves for a whole day.

We had a very plentiful supply of food, but one thing the girls missed very much was milk,–which of course, was an unheard-of luxury in these regions. We had a fairly good substitute, however, in a certain creamy and bitter-tasting juice which we obtained from a palm-tree. This “milk,” when we got used to it, we found excellent when used with the green corn. The corn-patch was carefully fenced in from kangaroos, and otherwise taken care of; and I may here remark that I made forks and plates of wood for my fair companions, and also built them a proper elevated bed, with fragrant eucalyptus leaves and grass for bedding. For the cold nights there was a covering of skin rugs, with an overall quilt made from the wild flax.

The girls made themselves sun-bonnets out of palm-leaves; while their most fashionable costume was composed of the skins of birds and marsupials, cunningly stitched together by Yamba. During the cold winter months of July and August we camped at a more sheltered spot, a little to the north, where there was a range of mountains, whose principal peak was shaped like a sugar-loaf.

I frequently accompanied the warriors on their fighting expeditions, but did not use my stilts, mainly because we never again met so powerful an enemy as we had battled with on that memorable occasion. My people were often victorious, but once or twice we got beaten by reason of the other side having drawn first blood. My natives took their reverses with a very good grace, and were never very depressed or inclined to view me with less favour because of their want of success. We were always the best of friends, and I even ventured gradually to wean them from cannibalism.

I knew they ate human flesh, not because they felt hungry, but because they hoped to acquire the additional valour of the warrior they were eating. I therefore diplomatically pointed out to them that, in the first place, all kinds of dreadful diseases which the dead man might have had would certainly be communicated to them, and in this I was providentially borne out by a strange epidemic. The second consideration I mentioned was that by making anklets, bracelets, and other ornaments out of the dead braves’ hair, they could acquire for themselves in a much more efficacious manner the valour and other estimable qualities of the departed warrior.

Whilst I was on this subject I also advised them strongly and impressively never wantonly to attack white men, but rather to make friendly advances towards them. I often wonder now whether explorers who follow in my track will notice the absence of cannibalism and the friendly overtures of the natives.

Two half painful, half merry years, passed by. We had seen several ships passing out at sea, and on more than one occasion Yamba and I, taught by previous lessons, had jumped into our canoe and pulled for many miles in the direction of the sail, leaving the girls watching us eagerly from the shore. But it was always useless, and we were compelled to return without having accomplished our purpose; we merely inflicted additional pain on ourselves.

I now come to what is possibly the most painful episode of my career, and one which I find it impossible to discuss, or write about, without very real pain. Even at this distance of time I cannot recall that tragic day without bitter tears coming into my eyes, and being afflicted with a gnawing remorse which can never completely die in my heart. Do not, I beg of you, in considering my actions, ask me why I did not do this, or that, or the other. In terrible crises I believe we become almost mechanical, and are not responsible for what we do. I have often thought that, apart from our own volition, each set of nerves and fibres in our being has a will of its own.

Well, one gloriously fine day we sighted a ship going very slowly across the gulf, several miles away. Would to God we had never seen her! We were thrown, as usual, into a perfect frenzy of wild excitement, and the girls dashed here and there like people possessed. Of course, I determined to intercept the vessel if possible, and the girls at once expressed their intention of coming with me. I attempted earnestly to dissuade them from this, but they wept pitifully and implored me to let them come. They were filled with an ungovernable longing to get away–the same longing, perhaps, that animates a caged bird who, although well fed and kindly treated, soars away without a moment’s hesitation when an opportunity occurs. Quite against my better judgment, I let them come. Every second was precious and every argument futile. While Yamba was getting ready the canoe I rushed from one group of natives to the other, coaxing, promising, imploring. I pointed out to them that they could propel their catamarans faster than I could paddle my canoe; and I promised them that if I reached the ship I would send them presents from the white man’s land of tomahawks and knives; gaily coloured cloths and gorgeous jewellery. But they were only too ready to help me without any of these inducements; and in an incredibly short time at least twenty catamarans, each containing one or two men, put off from the shore in my wake and made directly towards the ship, whilst I struck off at a tangent so as to head her off. I now see that without doubt we must have presented a very formidable appearance to the people on the vessel as we paddled over the sunlit seas, racing one another, yelling, and gesticulating like madmen. Of course, the people on board quite naturally thought they were being attacked by a savage flotilla. But in the excitement of the moment I never gave this a thought. Had I only left my faithful natives behind all might have been well. Yamba and I kept the canoe well ahead, and we reached the neighbourhood of the ship first.

As we approached, the excitement of the girls was painful to witness. They could scarcely contain themselves for joy; and as I forcibly prevented them from standing up in the frail canoe, they contented themselves with frantically waving their hands and screaming themselves hoarse.

Nearing the vessel I was surprised to see the top-sail being hoisted, but, strange to say, the crew kept well out of sight. This was easy to do, considering the spread of canvas. She was not a Malay vessel, being decidedly of European rig. She was only a small craft, of perhaps ten or fifteen tons, with one mast carrying a main-sail and stay-sail, in addition to the top-sail that had been hoisted as we approached. To us, however, she was a “ship.” We were now about one hundred and fifty yards away, and I suddenly leapt to my feet and coo-eed several times. Still no one showed himself, and not a soul was visible on board. My own joyful excitement speedily turned to heart-sickness, alarm, and even terror. By this time the flotilla of catamarans was close behind me; and just as I was about to sit down and take to my paddle again, so as to advance still closer to the vessel, the loud report of a gun was heard; and then–well, what followed next is exceedingly difficult for me to describe accurately. Whether I was wounded by the shot, or whether the girls suddenly stood up, causing me to lose my balance and fall on the side of the canoe and cut my thigh, I do not know.

At any rate, I crashed heavily overboard in spite of Yamba’s desperate attempt to save me. The next moment I had forgotten all about the ship, and was only conscious of Yamba swimming close by my side, and occasionally gripping my long hair when she thought I was going under. We righted the canoe and climbed in as quickly as we could. I think I was dazed and incapable of any coherent thought. As I collapsed in the bottom of the canoe, I suddenly realised that Yamba and I were alone; and sitting up, I gasped, “The girls, the girls! Where are they? Oh, where are they? We must save them!”

Alas! they had sunk beneath the smiling waves, and they never rose again. True, they were expert swimmers, but I suppose the terrible excitement, followed by the sudden shock, was too much for them, and as they sank for the first time they probably clung to each other in the embrace of death. God knows best. Perhaps it was better that He should take my loved ones from me than that they should be dragged through the terrible years that followed.

But for a long time I utterly refused to believe that my darlings were lost–they were truly as sisters to me; and Yamba and I and the natives dived for them time after time, searching the sea in every direction. But at length, seeing that I was exhausted, Yamba forcibly detained me, and told me that I myself would inevitably drown if I went into the water again. The wound in my thigh (I am uncertain to this day whether it was the result of the gun-shot or mere collision with the rough gunwale of the canoe) was bleeding freely; and as it was also pointed out to me that there was a very strong and swift current at this spot, I allowed myself to be taken away without any further opposition.

I simply COULD not realise my bereavement. It seemed too terrible and stunning to think, that when God had provided me with these two charming companions, who were all in all to me every moment of my existence, as a consolation for the horrors I had gone through–it seemed impossible, I say, that they should be snatched from me just at the very moment when salvation seemed within our reach. Every detail of the incident passed before my mental vision, but I could not grasp it–I could not seem to think it real. I can never explain it. These poor girls were more to me than loving sisters. They turned the black night of my desolate existence into sunshine, and they were perpetually devising some sweet little surprise–some little thing which would please me and add additional brightness to our daily lives. This dreadful thing happened many years ago, but to this day, and to the day of my death, I feel sure I shall suffer agonies of grief and remorse (I blame myself for not having forbidden them to go in the canoe) for this terrible catastrophe.

After we returned to the land, I haunted the sea-shore for hours, hoping to see the bodies rise to the surface; but I watched in vain. When at length the full magnitude of the disaster dawned upon me, despair–the utter abandonment of despair–filled my soul for the first time. Never again would my sweet companions cheer my solitary moments. Never again would I see their loved forms, or hear their low, musical voices. Never again would we play together like children on the sand. Never again would we build aerial castles about the bright and happy future that was in store for us, looking back from the bourne of civilisation on our fantastic adventures. Never again should we compare our lot with that of Robinson Crusoe or the Swiss Family Robinson.

My bright dream had passed away, and with a sudden revulsion of feeling I realised that the people around me were repulsive cannibals, among whom I was apparently doomed to pass the remainder of my hideous days–a fate infinitely more terrible than that of joining my darlings beneath the restless waves, that beat for ever on that lonely shore. I was a long time before I could even bring myself to be thankful for Yamba’s escape, which was no doubt dreadfully ungrateful of me. I can only ask your pity and sympathy in my terrible affliction. What made my sorrow and remorse the more poignant, was the reflection that if I had retained one atom of my self-possession I would never have dreamed of approaching the little European vessel at the head of a whole flotilla of catamarans, filled with yelling and gesticulating savages. As to the people on board the vessel, I exonerated them then, and I exonerate them now, from all blame. Had you or I been on board, we should probably have done exactly the same thing under the circumstances.

Clearly the only reasonable plan of action was to have gone alone; but then, at critical times, even the wisest among us is apt to lose his head. God knows I paid dearly enough for my lack of judgment on this melancholy occasion.

My wound was not at all serious, and, thanks to Yamba’s care, it quickly healed, and I was able to get about once more.

But I ought to tell you that when we returned I could not bear to go into our hut, where every little bunch of withered flowers, every garment of skin, and every implement, proclaimed aloud the stunning loss I had sustained. No, I went back direct to the camp of the natives, and remained among them until the moment came for my departure. I think it was in the soft, still nights that I felt it most. I wept till I was as weak as a baby. Oh the torments of remorse I endured–the fierce resentment against an all-wise Providence! “Alone! alone! alone!” I would shriek in an agony of wretchedness; “Gone! gone! gone! Oh, come back to me, come back to me, I cannot live here now.”

And I soon realised that it was impossible for me to remain there any longer. There was much weeping and lamentation among the native women, but I guessed it was not so much on account of the poor girls, as out of sympathy for the loss the great white chief had sustained. I think Yamba went among them, and pointed out the magnitude of the disaster; otherwise they would have failed to grasp it. What was the loss of a woman or two to them? I felt, I say, that I could not settle down in my hut again, and I was consumed with an intense longing to go away into the wilderness and there hide my grief. In making an attempt to reach civilisation, I thought this time of going due south, so that perhaps I might ultimately reach Sydney, or Melbourne, or Adelaide. I argued thus casually to myself, little dreaming of the vast distances–mountain ranges and waterless deserts–that separated me from these great cities. For all I knew, I might have come upon them in a few weeks! All I was certain of was that they lay somewhere to the south. Time was no object to me, and I might as well be walking in the direction of civilisation as remaining in idle misery in my bay home, brooding over the disaster that had clouded my life and made it infinitely more intolerable than it was before the girls came.

Yamba instantly agreed to accompany me, and a few weeks after the loss of the girls we started out once more on our wanderings, accompanied by my ever faithful dog.

Bruno also missed his young mistresses. He would moan and cry pitifully, and run aimlessly up and down the beach looking out to sea. Ah! had I only taken Bruno on that fatal day, he would not have let my dear ones drown!

As I have said, I remained only a few weeks in my bay home, and then departed. The blacks, too, left the spot, for they never stay where the shadow of death lies, fearing the unpleasant attentions of the spirits of the deceased. The parting between me and my people was a most affecting one, the women fairly howling in lamentations, which could be heard a great distance away. They had shown such genuine sympathy with me in my misfortune that our friendship had very materially increased; but in spite of this good feeling, I knew I could never be happy among them again.

So we started off into the unknown, with no more provision or equipment than if we were going for a stroll of a mile or so. Yamba carried her yam-stick and basket, and I had my usual weapons- -tomahawk and stiletto in my belt, and bow and arrows in my hand. I never dreamed when we started that to strike due south would take us into the unexplored heart of the continent. Day after day, however, we walked steadily on our course, steering in a very curious manner. We were guided by the ant-hills, which are always built facing the east, whilst the top inclines towards the north; and we knew that the scratches made on trees by the opossums were invariably on the north side.

We often steered by the habits of insects, wasps’ nests, and other curious auguries, fixing our position at night by the stars and in the daytime by our own shadows. Yamba always went in front and I followed. The bush teemed with fruits and roots. After leaving our own camp in the Cambridge Gulf region we struck a fine elevated land, excellently well watered; and later on we followed the Victoria River in a south-easterly direction through part of the Northern Territories of South Australia. We at length struck a peculiar country covered with coarse grass ten feet or twelve feet high–not unlike the sugar-cane which I afterwards saw, but much more dense.

It was, of course, impossible for us to pursue our course due south, owing to the forests and ranges which we encountered; we had, as a matter of fact, to follow native and kangaroo tracks wherever they took us–east, west, and even north occasionally, generally to water-holes. The progress of the natives is simply from one water supply to another. But as far as possible we pursued our way south. You will understand that this kind of travelling was very different from that which we experienced on the Victoria River–which, by the way, traversed a very fine country. As we ascended it we passed many isolated hills of perhaps a few hundred feet, and nowhere did I see any scrub or spinifex.

After leaving the Victoria we came upon a more elevated plateau covered with rather fine but short grass; the trees were scarcer here, but finer and bigger. There was plenty of water in the native wells and in the hollows, although we frequently had to remove a few stones to get at it. There were plenty of kangaroos and emus about, as well as turkeys; these latter provided us with an unwonted dish, to say nothing of their delicious eggs.

Another reason for our coming round out of our course when we came to forests was because but little food was found in them. Kangaroos and other animals were seldom or never found there: they abounded usually in the more scrubby country. Our progress was very leisurely, and, as we met tribe after tribe, we ingratiated ourselves with them and camped at their wells. Occasionally we came upon curious rivers and lagoons that ran into the earth and disappeared in the most mysterious way, only to reappear some distance farther on. Of course, I may be mistaken in this, but such at any rate was my impression.

One day as we were marching steadily along, Yamba startled me by calling out excitedly, “Up a tree,–quick! Up a tree!” And so saying she scampered up the nearest tree herself. Now, by this time I had become so accustomed to acting upon her advice unquestioningly, that without waiting to hear any more I made a dash for the nearest likely tree and climbed into it as fast as I could. Had she called out to me, “Leap into the river,” I should have done so without asking a question. When I was safely in the branches, however, I called out to her (her tree was only a few yards away), “What is the matter?” She did not reply, but pointed to a vast stretch of undulating country over which we had just come; it was fairly well wooded. It lingers in my mind as a region in which one was able to see a fairly long way in every direction– a very unusual feature in the land of “Never Never”!

I looked, but at first could see nothing. Presently, however, it seemed to me that the whole country in the far distance was covered with a black mantle, WHICH APPEARED TO BE MADE UP OF LIVING CREATURES.

Steadily and rapidly this great mysterious wave swept along towards us; and seeing that I was both puzzled and alarmed, Yamba gave me to understand that WE SHOULD PRESENTLY BE SURROUNDED BY MYRIADS OF RATS, stretching away in every direction like a living sea. The phenomenon was evidently known to Yamba, and she went on to explain that these creatures were migrating from the lowlands to the mountains, knowing by instinct that the season of the great floods was at hand. That weird and extraordinary sight will live in my memory for ever. I question whether a spectacle so fantastic and awe-inspiring was ever dealt with, even in the pages of quasi- scientific fiction. It was impossible for me to observe in what order the rats were advancing, on account of the great stretch of country which they covered. Soon, however, their shrill squeals were distinctly heard, and a few minutes later the edge of that strange tide struck our tree and swept past us with a force impossible to realise. No living thing was spared. Snakes, lizards–ay, even the biggest kangaroos–succumbed after an ineffectual struggle. The rats actually ate those of their fellows who seemed to hesitate or stumble. The curious thing was that the great army never seemed to stand still. It appeared to me that each rat simply took a bite at whatever prey came his way, and then passed on with the rest.

I am unable to say how long the rats were in passing–it might have been an hour. Yamba told me that there would have been no help for us had we been overtaken on foot by these migratory rodents. It is my opinion that no creature in Nature, from the elephant downwards, could have lived in that sea of rats. I could not see the ground between them, so closely were they packed. The only creatures that escaped them were birds. The incessant squealing and the patter of their little feet made an extraordinary sound, comparable only to the sighing of the wind or the beat of a great rain-storm. I ought to mention, though, that I was unable accurately to determine the sound made by the advancing rats owing to my partial deafness, which you will remember was caused by the great wave which dashed me on to the deck of the Veielland, just before landing on the sand-spit in the Sea of Timor. I often found this deafness a very serious drawback, especially when hunting. I was sometimes at a loss to hear the “coo-ee” or call of my natives. Fortunate men! THEY did not even understand what deafness meant. Lunacy also was unknown among them, and such a thing as suicide no native can possibly grasp or understand. In all my wanderings I only met one idiot or demented person. He had been struck by a falling tree, and was worshipped as a demi-god!

When the rats had passed by, we watched them enter a large creek and swim across, after which they disappeared in the direction of some ranges which were not very far away. They never seemed to break their ranks; even when swimming, one beheld the same level brownish mass on the surface of the water. Yamba told me that this migration of rats was not at all uncommon, but that the creatures rarely moved about in such vast armies as the one that had just passed.

I also learned that isolated parties of migrating rats were responsible for the horrible deaths of many native children, who had, perhaps, been left behind in camp by their parents, who had gone in search of water.

Up to this time we had always found food plentiful. On our southward journey a particularly pleasant and convenient article of diet turned up (or fell down) in the form of the MARU, as it is called, which collects on the leaves of trees during the night. Both in its appearance and manner of coming, this curious substance may be likened to the manna that fell in the wilderness for the benefit of the Israelites. This maru is a whitish substance, not unlike raw cotton in appearance. The natives make bread of it; it is rather tasteless, but is very nutritious, and only obtained at certain times–for example, it never falls at the time of full moon, and is peculiar to certain districts.

During this great southward journey many strange things happened, and we saw a host of curious sights. I only wish I could trust my memory to place these in their proper chronological order.

We had several visitations of locusts; and on one occasion, some months after leaving home, they settled upon the country around us so thickly as actually to make a living bridge across a large creek. On several occasions I have had to dig through a living crust of these insects, six or eight inches thick, in order to reach water at a water-hole. These locusts are of a yellowish- brown colour (many are grey), and they range in length from two to four inches.

As they rise in the air they make a strange cracking, snapping sound; and they were often present in such myriads as actually to hide the face of the sun. I found them excellent eating when grilled on red-hot stones.

Yamba, of course, did all the cooking, making a fire with her ever- ready fire-stick, which no native woman is ever without; and while she looked after the supply of roots and opossum meat, I generally provided the snakes, emus, and kangaroos. Our shelter at night consisted merely of a small GUNYAH made of boughs, and we left the fire burning in front of this when we turned in.

When we had been fully three months out, a very extraordinary thing happened, which to many people would be incredible were it not recognised as a well-known Australian phenomenon. We had reached a very dry and open grass country, where there was not a tree to be seen for miles and miles. Suddenly, as Yamba and I were squatting on the ground enjoying a meal, we saw a strange black cloud looming on the horizon, and hailed its advent with the very greatest delight, inasmuch as it presaged rain–which is always so vitally important a visitation in the “Never Never.” We waited in anticipation until the cloud was right over our heads. Then the deluge commenced, and to my unbounded amazement I found that with the rain LIVE FISH AS BIG AS WHITEBAIT WERE FALLING FROM THE CLOUDS! When this wonderful rain-storm had passed, large pools of water were left on the surface of the ground, and most of these were fairly alive with fish. This surface-water, however, evaporated in the course of a few days, and then, as the blazing sun beat down upon the fish-covered country, we found the region growing quite intolerable on account of the awful stench.

Talking of storms, I have seen it stated that the Australian natives are in a state of high glee whenever they hear thunder. This is perfectly true, but I have never seen any explanation of this joy. It is simple enough. The natives know that thunder presages rain, which is always a blessing of great price in that thirsty country.

I think this was the first time I had actually SEEN it rain fish. But I had often been surprised, to find water-holes, and even the pools in grassy plains, literally alive with fish a few days after a storm. And they grew with astounding rapidity, provided the water did not evaporate. This was in the vicinity of my Cambridge Gulf home.

We remained in the neighbourhood for some time, living on a most welcome fish diet. Very frequently in our wanderings we were provided with another dainty in the shape of a worm, which, when broiled over charcoal, had the flavour of a walnut.

These worms we found in the grass trees, which grow to a height of ten to twenty feet, and have bare trunks surmounted by what looks at a distance like a big bunch of drooping bulrushes. The worms were of a whitish colour, and were always found in the interior of a well-matured or decaying stem; so that all we had to do was to push the tree over with our feet and help ourselves.

In the course of our wanderings we usually went from tribe to tribe, staying a little time with some, and with others merely exchanging greetings. With some tribes we would perhaps travel a little way south, and only part with them when they were about to strike northwards; and as their course was simply from water-hole to water-hole, as I have told you, it was always pretty erratic.


My usual introduction–A serious entertainment–The power of the bow–Repulsive blacks–Mysterious spears–Waterless wastes–A battle with snakes–More prestige–Rubies thrown away–Quarrying extraordinary.

Occasionally one of the tribes would display hostility towards us at first sight, but I generally managed to ingratiate myself into their good graces by the exercise of a little diplomacy–and acrobatics. Curiously enough, many of these tribes did not display much surprise at seeing a white man, apparently reserving all their amazement for Bruno’s bark and the white man’s wonderful performances.

I may here remark that, in the event of our coming across a hostile tribe who fought shy of my friendly advances, I would, without ceremony, introduce myself by dashing into their midst and turning a few somersaults or Catherine-wheels such as the London GAMINS display for the benefit of easily-pleased excursionists. This queer entertainment usually created roars of laughter, and set every one at his ease.

I remember once being surprised by the sudden appearance over the crest of a hillock of about twenty blacks, all well armed and presenting rather a formidable appearance. The moment they caught sight of Yamba and myself they halted, whereupon I advanced and called out to them that I was a friend, at the same time holding out my passport stick. By the way, the efficacy of this talisman varied according to the tribes. Yamba could make neither head nor tail of these people; they jabbered in a language quite unintelligible to either of us. I then reverted to the inevitable sign language, giving them to understand that I wished to sleep with them a night or two; but they still continued to brandish their spears ominously. Yamba presently whispered in my ear that we had better not trouble them any further, as they were evidently inclined to be pugnacious. This was a very exceptional rencontre, because I usually induced the natives to sit down and parley with me, and then I would produce my mysterious stick. In the event of this proving of little account, both I and Bruno would without a moment’s hesitation plunge into our performance. It always began with a few somersaults. Bruno needed no looking after. He knew his business, and went through his own repertoire with great energy and excitement. The accompanying barks were probably involuntary, but they were a great help in astonishing and impressing the natives.

Even in this instance I was unwilling to retire defeated; so suddenly pulling out one of my little reed whistles capable of producing two notes, I commenced a violent jig to my own “music.” The effect on the scowling and ferocious-looking blacks was quite magical. They immediately threw down their spears and laughed uproariously at my vigorous antics. I danced till I was quite tired, but managed to wind up the entertainment with a few somersaults, which impressed them vastly.

I had conquered. When I had finished they advanced and greeted me most heartily, and from that moment we were friends. I had completely done away with their enmity by my simple efforts to amuse them. For the most part, this was my invariable experience. The natives were the easiest people in the world to interest and amuse, and when once I had succeeded in winning them in this way, they were our warmest friends. This band of warriors took us back to their camping-ground, some miles away, and actually gave a great feast in my honour that evening, chanting the wonderful things they had seen until far into the night. The place where I met these blacks was a broken, stony, and hilly country, which, however, abounded in roots and snakes–especially snakes. My hosts had evidently had a recent battue, or fire hunt, for they had a most extraordinary stock of food. So completely had I won them over, that I actually hung up my bow and arrows along with their spears before retiring to rest. The expression “hung up” may seem curious, so I hasten to explain that the natives tied up their spears in bunches and placed them on the scrub bushes.

Next morning I brought down a few hawks on the wing with my bow and arrows, and then the amazement of the natives was quite comical to witness. Shooting arrows in a straight line astonished them somewhat, but the more bombastic among them would say, “Why I can do that,” and taking his woomerah he would hurl a spear a long distance. Not one of them, however, was able TO THROW A SPEAR UPWARDS, so I scored over even the most redoubtable chiefs. It may be well to explain, that birds are always to be found hovering about a native camp; they act as scavengers, and their presence in the sky is always an indication that an encampment is somewhere in the vicinity. These birds are especially on the spot when the blacks set fire to the bush and organise a big battue. At such times the rats and lizards rush out into the open, and the hawks reap a fine harvest.

My natives are referred to as “blacks,” or “black-fellows,” but they are not really BLACK, their hue being rather a brown, ranging from a very dark brown, indeed, to almost the lightness of a Malay. I found the coast tribes lightest in hue, while the inland natives were very much darker. Here I may mention that after having been on my way south for some months, I began to notice a total difference between the natives I met and my own people in the Cambridge Gulf district. The tribes I was now encountering daily were inferior in physique, and had inferior war implements; I do not remember that they had any shields.

The blacks I had whistled and jigged before were, perhaps, the ugliest of all the aborigines I had met, which was saying a very great deal. The men were very short, averaging little more than five feet, with low foreheads and hideously repulsive features. I noticed, however, that the animals they had for food seemed very much fatter than similar creatures farther north. One thing I was grateful to these people for was honey, which I urgently required for medicinal purposes. They were very sorry when we left them, and a small band of warriors accompanied us on our first day’s march. We were then handed on from tribe to tribe, smoke signals being sent up to inform the next “nation” that friendly strangers were coming.

Nevertheless, I gradually became uneasy. We were evidently getting into a country where the greatest of our wonders could not save us from the hostility of the natives. We presently encountered another tribe, who not only at first refused to accept our friendly overtures, but even threatened to attack us before I had time to consider another plan. I tried the effect of my whistle, but even this failed in its effect; and to my alarm, before I could give them an exhibition of my acrobatic powers they had hurled one or two war spears, which whizzed by unpleasantly close to my head. Without further ado, well knowing that vacillation meant death, I sent half-a-dozen arrows in succession amongst them, taking care, however, to aim very low, so as not unduly to injure my opponents.

The hostile blacks came to a sudden halt, as they found the mysterious spears flying round them, and then watching my opportunity, I dashed forward right among them, and turned over and over in a series of rapid and breathless somersaults.

I had conquered again. Do not blame the natives, for with them every stranger is an enemy until he has proved himself a friend. Hence it is that when white men suddenly appear among these natives they run imminent risk of being promptly speared, unless they can make it quite clear that no harm is intended.

Bruno ran the same risk. Incident after incident of this kind happened almost daily, and although they involved some peril, yet they came as a welcome break when life on the march grew too monotonous. Deliberate treachery was very rare among the natives I came across, but it was by no means altogether absent; and, notwithstanding all my knowledge, my wife and I were sometimes in serious danger of our lives.

One day we came upon a tribe as usual, and after the customary preliminaries were gone through they became apparently quite friendly. I was careful never unduly to exhibit my steel tomahawk, which I always kept in a kind of sheath or covering of opossum- skin, so that it might not arouse envy; a second motive for this was to prevent its chafing my body. I never used either stiletto or tomahawk unless absolutely necessary, reserving both for great emergencies. I knew they could never be replaced, so it behoved me jealously to guard such precious possessions. I never even used my stiletto at meal-times, nor even in cutting up animals for food, lest the blood should rust the blade and eat it away. Many times already had it come in useful at close quarters–notably in the case of the fight with the alligator and the killing of the cannibal chief who owned the white girls.

The chief of the tribe I am discussing saw me using my tomahawk one day, and eagerly asked me to make over the implement to him as a gift. I courteously told him that I could not do so. He seemed somewhat disappointed at my refusal, but did not appear to bear me any ill-feeling in consequence. The blacks, by the way, seldom cut down trees except for spears, and the reason for this is very curious. They imagine the tree to be a thing of life, and when they are forced to cut one down, quite a religious ceremony is held, and profuse apologies made to the tree for taking its life.

They never even take a strip of bark right round, knowing that this will kill the tree; they always leave a little bit of connecting bark.

As some reason for the refusal of my tomahawk was expected, I told the chief that it was part of my life–indeed, part of my very being, which was perfectly true. I also worked on the chief’s superstitions, assuring him earnestly that if I parted with the weapon it would so anger the spirits as to bring about a terrible curse in the country. The tomahawk I declared was a direct gift to me from the Sun itself, so how could I part with it? I had thought of offering it, curses and all, but the risk of prompt acceptance was too great.

That night Yamba warned me that trouble was impending. For myself I never knew, and I suppose she read the signs among the men and got certain definite information from the women. We therefore slept some miles away from the encampment in a makeshift gunyah built of boughs, in front of which the usual fire was made. After we had retired to rest, Yamba woke me and said that she detected strange noises. I immediately sprang to my feet and looked all round our little shelter. It was much too dark for me to see anything distinctly, but I fancied I heard retreating footsteps. Utterly at a loss to account for this strange occurrence, and fearing that some danger threatened us, Yamba and I covered in the front of the shelter, and then quietly retired into the bush, where we lay hidden without a fire until morning. When we returned to our shelter it was broad daylight, and, as we half expected, we found three formidable spears buried in the sides of our little hut. Three others were stuck in the ground near the fire, clearly proving that an attempt had been made upon our lives during the night. On examining the spears we found they most certainly belonged to the tribe we had left the previous day. The spear- heads were of a different kind of flint from anything I had previously seen, being dark green in colour; and they were extremely sharp. The individuality of the different tribes is strongly and decidedly marked in the make of their spears. Our treacherous hosts had evidently determined to obtain the coveted tomahawk by force, and when they reached the spot where they supposed we lay (they could not see into the interior from the front), they hurled their spears in the hope of killing us, but did not investigate the result, they being such arrant cowards at night. Remember, they had actually ventured at night into the bush in spite of their inveterate fear of “the spirits.”

The precaution adopted on this occasion was always followed by us when we had any real doubt about the natives; that is to say, we built a “dummy” gunyah of boughs, which we were supposed to sleep in; and we covered in the front so as our possible assailants could not easily detect our absence. We would then creep away into the bush or hide behind a tree, and, of course, would light no fire.

Many times was that same tomahawk coveted. You see, the natives would watch me cutting boughs with it, or procuring honey by cutting down branches with an ease that caused them to despise their own rude stone axes.

The case of treachery I have just described was not an isolated one, but I am bound to say such occurrences were rare in the interior–although more or less frequent about the western shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria. At any rate, this was my experience.

During our journey from my home to the shores of the Gulf, I remember coming across a flat country from which the natives had apparently disappeared altogether. When we did come upon them, however, in the high ground I was probably guilty of some little breach of etiquette, such as LOOKING at the women–(for many reasons I always studied the various types in a tribe)–and Yamba and I were often in peril of our lives on this account. As a rule, however, safety lay in the fact that the natives are terribly afraid of darkness, and they believe the spirits of the dead roam abroad in the midnight hours.

Month after month we continued our progress in a southerly direction, although, as I have said before, we often turned north- east and even due west, following the valleys when stopped by the ranges–where, by the way, we usually found turkeys in great numbers. We had water-bags made out of the skins of kangaroos and wallabies, and would camp wherever possible close to a native well, where we knew food was to be found in plenty.

At this period I noticed that the more easterly I went, the more ranges I encountered; whilst the somewhat dreary and mostly waterless lowland lay to the west. We would sometimes fail to obtain water for a couple of days; but this remark does not apply to the mountainous regions. Often the wells were quite dry and food painfully scarce; this would be in a region of sand and spinifex.

When I beheld an oasis of palms and ti-trees I would make for it, knowing that if no water existed there, it could easily be got by digging. The physical conditions of the country would change suddenly, and my indefatigable wife was frequently at fault in her root-hunting expeditions. Fortunately, animal life was very seldom scarce. On the whole, we were extremely fortunate in the matter of water,–although the natives often told me that the low wastes of sand and spinifex were frequently so dry, that it was impossible even for them to cross. What astonished me greatly was that the line of demarcation between an utter desert and, say, a fine forest was almost as sharply marked as if it had been drawn with a rule. A stretch of delightfully wooded country would follow the dreary wastes, and this in turn would give place to fairly high mountain ranges.

Once, during a temporary stay among one of the tribes, the chief showed me some very interesting caves among the low limestone ranges that were close by. It was altogether a very rugged country. Always on the look-out for something to interest and amuse me, and always filled with a strange, vague feeling that something MIGHT turn up unexpectedly which would enable me to return to civilisation, I at once determined to explore these caves; and here I had a very strange and thrilling adventure.

Whilst roaming among the caves I came across a pit measuring perhaps twenty feet in diameter and eight feet or nine feet in depth. It had a sandy bottom; and as I saw a curious-looking depression in one corner, I jumped down to investigate it, leaving Bruno barking at the edge of the pit, because I knew I should have some trouble in hoisting him up again if I allowed him to accompany me. I carried a long stick, much longer than a waddy; perhaps it was a yam-stick–I cannot remember. At any rate, just as I was about to probe a mysterious-looking hole, I beheld with alarm and amazement the ugly head of a large black snake suddenly thrust out at me from a dark mass, which I presently found was the decayed stump of a tree. I fell back as far as possible, and then saw that the reptile had quite uncoiled itself from the stem, and was coming straight at me. I promptly dealt it a violent blow on the body, just below that point where it raised its head from the ground. No sooner had I done this than another dark and hissing head came charging in my direction. Again I struck at the reptile’s body and overpowered it. Next came a third, and a fourth, and fifth, and then I realised that the whole of the dead stump was simply one living mass of coiled snakes, which were probably hibernating. One after another they came at me; of course, had they all come at once, no power on earth could have saved me. I wondered how long this weird contest would be kept up; and again and again between the attacks I tried to escape, but had scarcely taken an upward step when another huge reptile was upon me.

I was aware that Bruno was running backwards and forwards at the edge of the pit all this time, barking frantically in a most excited state. He knew perfectly well what snakes were, having frequently been bitten. I owe my life on this occasion solely to the fact that the snakes were in a torpid state, and came at me one at a time instead of altogether. It was the cold season, about the month of June or July. It is impossible at such moments to take any account of time, so I cannot say how long the battle lasted. At length, however, I was able to count the slain. I did this partly out of curiosity and partly because I wanted to impress the natives–to boast, if you prefer that phrase. Modesty, where modesty is unknown, would have been absurd, if not fatal to my prestige. Well, in all there were SIXTY-EIGHT BLACK SNAKES, AVERAGING ABOUT FOUR FEET SIX INCHES IN LENGTH.

I do not remember that I was fatigued; I think my excitement was too great for any such feeling to have made itself felt. When at length I was able to get away, I and Bruno rushed off to the native camp a few miles away, and brought back the blacks to see what I had done. The spectacle threw them into a state of great amazement, and from that time on I was looked upon with the greatest admiration. The story of how I had killed the snakes soon spread abroad among the various tribes for miles round, and was chanted by many tribes, the means of inter-communication being the universal smoke-signals. One important consequence of this adventure was that I was everywhere received with the very greatest respect.

It may be mentioned here that no matter how unfriendly tribes may be, they always exchange news by means of smoke-signals. I may also say that at corroborees and such-like festivities a vast amount of poetic boasting and exaggeration is indulged in, each “hero” being required to give practical demonstrations of the things he has seen, the doughty deeds he has done, &c. He warms up as he goes along, and magnifies its importance in a ridiculous way. It amuses me to this day to recall my own preposterous songs about how I killed the two whales WITH MY STILETTO, and other droll pretensions. But, ah! I was serious enough then!

In the mountainous region where I encountered the snakes, I also met a native who actually spoke English. He called himself either Peter or Jacky Jacky–I cannot remember which; but in any case it was a name given him by pearlers. He had once lived with some pearlers near the north-west coast of Western Australia–probably on the De Grey River. His story was quite unprecedented among the blacks, and he gave me many terrible instances of the perfidy shown by white adventurers towards the unfortunate natives. The precise locality where I met this man was probably near Mount Farewell, close to the border-line of South Australia and Western Australia. Well, then, Jacky Jacky–to give him the name which lingers most tenaciously in my mind–was persuaded to join in a pearling expedition, together with a number of his companions. They all accepted engagements from the whites, on the distinct understanding that they were to be away about three moons. Instead, they were practically kidnapped by force, and treated–or rather ill-treated- -as slaves for several years.

First of all, the poor creatures were taken to an island in the vicinity of North-West Cape, off which the pearling fleet lay. During the voyage to the pearling grounds the water supply on board ran short, and so great was the suffering among the blacks–they were kept on the shortest of short commons, as you may suppose– that they plotted to steal a cask of the precious fluid for their own use. The vessel was quite a small one, and the water was kept in the hold. But the two or three whites who formed the crew forcibly prevented the black-fellows from carrying out their plan. This gave rise to much discontent, and eventually the blacks, in desperation, openly rose and mutinied. Arming themselves with heavy pieces of firewood they proceeded to attack their masters, and some of them succeeded in getting at the water, in spite of the whites, by simply knocking the bungs out of the casks. The captain thereupon went down to parley with them, but was met by a shower of blows from the heavy sticks I have just mentioned. Half-stunned, he dashed out of the hold, got his musket, and fired down among the mutineers, hitting one black-fellow in the throat, and killing him instantly. Far from infuriating the rest, as would most certainly have been the case with any other race, this course of action terrified the blacks, and they barricaded themselves down below. Eventually the whites again sought them and made peace, the blacks promising to conduct themselves more obediently in the future. It may here be said that the ship had called specially at Jacky Jacky’s home on the coast to kidnap the natives.

On arriving at the pearling settlement, the blacks found themselves among a number of other unfortunate creatures like themselves, and all were compelled to go out in pearling vessels just as the exigencies of the industry required. Jacky Jacky himself was kept at this work for upwards of three years; and he told me many terrible stories of the white man’s indescribable cruelty and villainy. He and his companions were invariably chained up during the night and driven about like cattle in the daytime. Many of his mates at the pearling settlement had been kidnapped from their homes in a cruel and contemptible manner, and herded off like sheep by men on horseback armed with formidable weapons.

Their sufferings were very great because, of course, they were totally unused to work of any kind. The enforced exile from home and the dreary compulsory labour made the life far worse than death for these primitive children of Nature. Then, again, they were exiled from their wives, who would, of course, be appropriated in their absence–another tormenting thought. They were frequently beaten with sticks, and when they attempted to run away they were speared as enemies by other tribes; whilst, in the event of their escaping altogether, they would not have been recognised even when they returned to their own homes. One day Jacky Jacky’s ship came into a little bay on the mainland for water, and then my enterprising friend, watching his opportunity, struck inland for home and liberty, accompanied by several other companions in misery. These latter the coast natives promptly speared, but Jacky Jacky escaped, thanks probably to his knowledge of the white man’s wiles. He soon reached the more friendly mountain tribes in the interior, where he was received as a man and a brother. You see, he had stolen a revolver from his late masters, and this mysterious weapon created great terror among his new friends. Altogether he posed as quite a great man, particularly when his story became known. He worked his way from tribe to tribe, until at length he got to the ranges where I met him–quite a vast distance from the coast.

Many parts of the extensive country I traversed on my southward journey, after the death of the girls, were exceedingly rich in minerals, and particularly in gold, both alluvial and in quartz. As I was making my way one day through a granite country along the banks of a creek, I beheld some reddish stones, which I at once pounced upon and found to be beautiful rubies. Having no means of carrying them, however, and as they were of no value whatever to me, I simply threw them away again, and now merely record the fact. I also came across large quantities of alluvial tin, but this, again, was not of the slightest use, any more than it had been when I found it in very large quantities in the King Leopold Ranges. The test I applied to see whether it really WAS tin was to scratch it with my knife. Even when large quantities of native gold lay at my feet, I hardly stooped to pick it up, save as a matter of curiosity. Why should I? What use was it to me? As I have stated over and over again in public, I would have given all the gold for a few ounces of salt, which I needed so sorely. Afterwards, however, I made use of the precious metal in a very practical manner, but of this more hereafter. At one place–probably near the Warburton Ranges in Western Australia–I picked up an immense piece of quartz, which was so rich that it appeared to be one mass of virgin gold; and when on showing it to Yamba I told her that in my country men were prepared to go to any part of the world, and undergo many terrible hardships to obtain it, she thought at first I was joking. Indeed, the thing amused her ever after, as it did the rest of my people. I might also mention that up in the then little-known Kimberley district, many of the natives weighted their spears with pure gold. I must not omit to mention that natives never poison their spear-heads. I only found the nuggets, big and little, near the creeks during and after heavy rains; and I might mention that having with some difficulty interested Yamba in the subject, she was always on the look-out for the tell-tale specks and gleams. In some of the ranges, too, I found the opal in large and small quantities, but soon discovered that the material was too light and brittle for spear-heads, to which curious use I essayed to put this beautiful stone. Talking about spear-heads, in the ranges where I met Jacky Jacky there was a quarry of that kind of stone which was used for the making of war and other implements. It was very much worked, and as you may suppose was a valuable possession to the tribe in whose territory it was situated. The stone was a kind of flint, extremely hard and capable of being made very sharp, and retaining its edge. Natives from far and near came to barter for the stone with shells, and ornaments which these inland tribes did not possess. The method of getting out the stone was by building fires over it, and then when it had become red-hot throwing large and small quantities of water upon it in an amazingly dexterous way. The stone would immediately be split and riven exactly in the manner required.

My very first discovery of gold was made in some crevices near a big creek, which had cut its way through deep layers of conglomerate hundreds of feet thick. This country was an elevated plateau, intersected by deeply cut creeks, which had left the various strata quite bare, with curious concave recesses in which the natives took shelter during the wet season. One of the nuggets I picked up in the creek I have just mentioned weighed several pounds, and was three or four inches long; it was rather more than an inch in thickness. This nugget I placed on a block of wood and beat out with a stone, until I could twist it easily with my fingers, when I fashioned it into a fillet as an ornament for Yamba’s hair. This she continued to wear for many years afterwards, but the rude golden bracelets and anklets I also made for her she gave away to the first children we met.

In many of the rocky districts the reefs were evidently extremely rich; but I must confess I rarely troubled to explore them. In other regions the gold-bearing quartz was actually a curse, our path being covered with sharp pebbles of quartz and slate, which made ever step forward a positive agony. Wild ranges adjoined that conglomerate country, which, as you have probably gathered, is extremely difficult to traverse. Certainly it would be impossible for camels.


An eventful meeting–Civilisation at last–Rage and despair–A white man’s tracks–Yamba’s find–Good Samaritans–Bitter disappointment–Bruno as guardian–A heavy burden–A strange invitation–The mysterious monster–“Come, and be our chief”–I discover a half-caste girl–The fate of Leichhardt–“In the valley of the shadow”–A sane white man–Gibson is dying–Vain efforts– Unearthly voices.

When we had been on the march southwards about nine months there came one of the most important incidents in my life, and one which completely changed my plans. One day we came across a party of about eight natives–all young fellows–who were on a punitive expedition; and as they were going in our direction (they overtook us going south), we walked along with them for the sake of their company. The country through which we were passing at that time is a dreary, undulating expanse of spinifex desert, with a few scattered and weird-looking palms, a little scrub, and scarcely any signs of animal life. The further east we went, the better grew the country; but, on the other hand, when we went westward we got farther and farther into the dreary wastes. At the spot I have in my mind ranges loomed to the south–a sight which cheered me considerably, for somehow I thought I should soon strike civilisation.

Had not the blacks we were with taken us to some wells we would have fared very badly indeed in this region, as no water could be found except by digging. I noticed that the blacks looked for a hollow depression marked by a certain kind of palm, and then dug a hole in the gravel and sandy soil with their hands and yam-sticks. They usually came upon water a few feet down, but the distance often varied very considerably.

We were crossing the summit of a little hill, where we had rested for a breathing space, when, without the least warning I suddenly beheld, a few hundred yards away, in the valley beneath, FOUR WHILE MEN ON HORSEBACK! I think they had a few spare horses with them, but, of course, all that I saw were the four white men. I afterwards learned that, according to our respective routes, we would have crossed their track, but they would not have crossed ours. They were going west. They wore the regulation dress of the Australian–broad sombrero hats, flannel shirts, and rather dirty white trousers, with long riding-boots. I remember they were moving along at a wretched pace, which showed that their horses were nearly spent. Once again, notwithstanding all previous bitter lessons, my uncontrollable excitement was my undoing. “Civilisation at last!” I screamed to myself, and then, throwing discretion to the winds, I gave the war-whoop of the blacks and rushed madly forward, yelling myself hoarse, and supremely oblivious of the fantastic and savage appearance I must have presented–with my long hair flowing wildly out behind, and my skin practically indistinguishable from that of an ordinary black- fellow. My companions, I afterwards discovered, swept after me as in a furious charge, FOR THEY THOUGHT I WANTED TO ANNIHILATE THE WHITE MEN AT SIGHT. Naturally, the spectacle unnerved the pioneers, and they proceeded to repel the supposed attack by firing a volley into the midst of us. Their horses were terrified, and reared and plunged in a dangerous manner, thereby greatly adding to the excitement of that terrible moment. The roar of the volley and the whizz of the shots brought me to my senses, however, and although I was not hit, I promptly dropped to the ground amidst the long grass, as also did Yamba and the other blacks. Like a flash my idiotic blunder came home to me, and then I was ready to dash out again alone to explain; but Yamba forcibly prevented me from exposing myself to what she considered certain death.

The moment the horsemen saw us all disappear in the long grass they wheeled round, changing their course a little more to the south– they had been going west, so far as I can remember–and their caravan crawled off in a manner that suggested that the horses were pretty well done for. On our part, we at once made for the ranges that lay a little to the south. Here we parted with our friends the blacks, who made off in an east-south-easterly direction.

The dominant feeling within me as I saw the white men ride off was one of uncontrollable rage and mad despair. I was apparently a pariah, with the hand of every white man–when I met one–against me. “Well,” I thought, “if civilisation is not prepared to receive me, I will wait until it is.” Disappointment after disappointment, coupled with the incessant persuasions of Yamba and my people generally, were gradually reconciling me to savage life; and slowly but relentlessly the thought crept into my mind that I WAS DOOMED NEVER TO REACH CIVILISATION AGAIN, and so perhaps it would be better for me to resign myself to the inevitable, and stay where I was. I would turn back, I thought, with intense bitterness and heart-break, and make a home among the tribes in the hills, where we would be safe from the white man and his murderous weapons. And I actually DID turn back, accompanied, of course, by Yamba. We did not strike due north again, as it was our intention to find a permanent home somewhere among the ranges, at any rate for the ensuing winter. It was out of the question to camp where we were, because it was much too cold; and besides Yamba had much difficulty in finding roots.

Several days later, as we were plodding steadily along, away from the ranges that I have spoken of as lying to the south, Yamba, whose eyes were usually everywhere, suddenly gave a cry and stood still, pointing to some peculiar and unmistakable footprints in the sandy ground. These, she confidently assured me, were those of a white man WHO HAD LOST HIS REASON, and was wandering aimlessly about that fearful country. It was, of course, easy for her to know the white man’s tracks when she saw them, but I was curious how she could be certain that the wanderer had lost his reason. She pointed out to me that, in the first place, the tracks had been made by some one wearing boots, and as the footprints straggled about in a most erratic manner, it was clearly evident that the wearer could not be sane.

Even at this time, be it remembered, I was burning with rage against the whites, and so I decided to follow the tracks and find the individual who was responsible for them. But do not be under any misapprehension. My intentions were not philanthropic, but revengeful. I had become a black-fellow myself now, and was consumed with a black-fellow’s murderous passion. At one time I thought I would follow the whole party, and kill them in the darkness with my stiletto when opportunity offered.

The new tracks we had come upon told me plainly that the party had separated, and were therefore now in my power. I say these things because I do not want any one to suppose I followed up the tracks of the lost man with the intention of rendering him any assistance. For nearly two days Yamba and I followed the tracks, which went in curious circles always trending to the left. At length we began to come upon various articles that had apparently been thrown away by the straggler. First of all, we found part of a letter that was addressed to some one (I think) in Adelaide; but of this I would not be absolutely certain. What I do remember was that the envelope bore the postmark of Ti Tree Gully, S.A.

The writer of that letter was evidently a woman, who, so far as I can remember, wrote congratulating her correspondent upon the fact that he was joining an expedition which was about to traverse the entire continent. I fancy she said she was glad of this for his own sake, for it would no doubt mean much to him. She wished him all kinds of glory and prosperity, and wound up by assuring him that none would be better pleased on his return than she.

The country through which these tracks led us was for the most part a mere dry, sandy waste, covered with the formidable spinifex or porcupine grass. Yamba walked in front peering at the tracks.

Presently she gave a little cry, and when she turned to me I saw that she had in her hand the sombrero hat of an Australian pioneer. A little farther on we found a shirt, and then a pair of trousers. We next came upon a belt and a pair of dilapidated boots.

At length, on reaching the crest of a sandy hillock, we suddenly beheld the form of a naked white man lying face downwards in the sand below us. As you may suppose, we simply swooped down upon him; but on reaching him my first impression was that HE WAS DEAD! His face was slightly turned to the right, his arms outstretched, and his fingers dug convulsively in the sand. I am amused now when I remember how great was our emotion on approaching this unfortunate. My first thought in turning the man over on to his back, and ascertaining that at last he breathed, was one of great joy and thankfulness.

“Thank God,” I said to myself, “I have at last found a white companion–one who will put me in touch once more with the great world outside.” The burning rage that consumed me (you know my object in following the tracks) died away in pity as I thought of the terrible privations and sufferings this poor fellow must have undergone before being reduced to this state. My desire for revenge was forgotten, and my only thought now was to nurse back to health the unconscious man.

First of all I moistened his mouth with the water which Yamba always carried with her in a skin bag, and then I rubbed him vigorously, hoping to restore animation. I soon exhausted the contents of the bag, however, and immediately Yamba volunteered to go off and replenish it. She was absent an hour or more, I think, during which time I persisted in my massage treatment–although so far I saw no signs of returning consciousness on the part of my patient.

When Yamba returned with the water, I tried to make the prostrate man swallow some of it, and I even smeared him with the blood of an opossum which my thoughtful helpmate had brought back with her. But for a long time all my efforts were in vain, and then, dragging him to the foot of a grass-tree, I propped him up slightly against it, wetted his shirt with water and wound it round his throat. Meanwhile Yamba threw water on him and rubbed him vigorously.

At last he uttered a sound–half groan, half sigh (it thrilled me through and through); and I noticed that he was able to swallow a few drops of water. The gloom of night was now descending on that strange wilderness of sand and spinifex, so we prepared to stay there with our helpless charge until morning. Yamba and I took it in turns to watch over him and keep his mouth moistened. By morning he had so far revived that he opened his eyes and looked at me. How eagerly had I anticipated that look, and how bitter was my disappointment when I found that it was a mere vacant stare in which was no kind of recognition! Ever hopeful, however, I attributed the vacant look to the terrible nature of his sufferings. I was burning to ply him with all manner of questions as to who he was, where he had come from, and what news he had of the outside world; but I restrained myself by a great effort, and merely persevered in my endeavours to restore him to complete animation. When the morning was pretty well advanced the man was able to sit up; and in the course of a few days he was even able to accompany us to a water-hole, where we encamped, and stayed until he had practically recovered–or, at any rate, was able to get about.

But, you may be asking, all this time, did the man himself say nothing? Indeed, he said much, and I hung upon every syllable that fell from his lips, but, to my indescribable chagrin, it was a mere voluble jargon of statements, which simply baffled and puzzled me and caused me pain. Our charge would stare at us stolidly, and then remark, in a vulgar Cockney voice, that he was quite SURE we were going the wrong way. By this time, I should mention, we had re-clothed him in his trousers and shirt, for he had obviously suffered terribly from the burning sun.

Many days passed away before I would admit to myself that this unhappy creature was a hopeless imbecile. I was never absent from his side day or night, hoping and waiting for the first sane remark. Soon, however, the bitter truth was borne in upon us that, instead of having found salvation and comfort in the society of a white man, we were merely saddled with a ghastly encumbrance, and were far worse off than before.

We now set off in the direction of our old tracks, but were not able to travel very fast on account of the still feeble condition of the white stranger. Poor creature! I pitied him from the bottom of my heart. It seemed so terrible for a man to lapse into a state of imbecility after having survived the dreadful hardships and adventures that had befallen him. I tried over and over again to elicit sensible replies to my questions as to where he came from; but he simply gibbered and babbled like a happy baby. I coaxed; I threatened; I persuaded; but it was all in vain. I soon found he was a regular millstone round my neck–particularly when we were on the “walk-about.” He would suddenly take it into his head to sit down for hours at a stretch, and nothing would induce him to move until he did so of his own accord.

Curiously enough, Bruno became very greatly attached to him, and was his constant companion. Of this I was extremely glad, because it relieved me of much anxiety. You will understand what I mean when I tell you that, in spite of all our endeavours, our mysterious companion would go off by himself away from our track; and at such times were it not for Bruno–whom he would follow anywhere–we would often have had much trouble in bringing him back again. Or he might have been speared before a strange tribe could have discovered his “sacred” (idiotic) condition.

At length we reached a large lagoon, on the shores of which we stayed for about two years. This lagoon formed part of a big river at flood-time, but the connecting stretches of water had long since dried up for many miles both above and below it. The question may be asked, Why did I settle down here? The answer is, that our white companion had become simply an intolerable burden. He suffered from the most exhausting attacks of dysentery, and was quite helpless. It was, of course, my intention to have continued my march northward to my old home in the Cambridge Gulf district, because by this time I had quite made up my mind that, by living there quietly, I stood a better chance of escape to civilisation by means of some vessel than I did by attempting to traverse the entire continent. This latter idea was now rendered impossible, on account of the poor, helpless creature I had with me. Indeed, so great an anxiety was he to me and Yamba, that we decided we could go nowhere, either north or south, until he had become more robust in health. Needless to say, I never intrusted him with a weapon.

I had found a sheath-knife belonging to him, but I afterwards gave it away to a friendly chief, who was immensely proud of it.

In making for the shores of the big lagoon we had to traverse some extremely difficult country. In the first place, we encountered a series of very broken ridges, which in parts proved so hard to travel over that I almost gave up in despair. At times there was nothing for it but to carry on my back the poor, feeble creature who, I felt, was now intrusted to my charge and keeping. I remember that native chiefs frequently suggested that I should leave him, but I never listened to this advice for a moment. Perhaps I was not altogether disinterested, because already my demented companion was looked upon as a kind of minor deity by the natives. I may here remark that I only knew two idiots during the whole of my sojourn. One of these had fallen from a tree through a branch breaking, and he was actually maintained at the expense of the tribe, revered by all, if not actually worshipped.

But the journey I was just describing was a fearful trial. Sometimes we had to traverse a wilderness of rocks which stood straight up and projected at sharp angles, presenting at a distance the appearance of a series of stony terraces which were all but impassable. For a long time our charge wore both shirt and trousers, but eventually we had to discard the latter–or perhaps it would be more correct to say, that the garment was literally torn to shreds by the spinifex. At one time I had it in my mind to make him go naked like myself, but on consideration I thought it advisable to allow him to retain his shirt, at any rate for a time, as his skin was not so inured to the burning sun as my own.

We had to provide him with food, which he accepted, of course, without gratitude. Then Yamba had always to build him a shelter wherever we camped, so that far from being an invaluable assistance and a companion he was a burden–so great that, in moments of depression, I regretted not having left him to die. As it was, he would often have gone to his death in the great deserts were it not for the ever-vigilant Bruno. Still, I always thought that some day I would be able to take the man back to civilisation, and there find out who he was and whence he had come. And I hoped that people would think I had been kind to him. At first I thought the unfortunate man was suffering from sunstroke, and that in course of time he would regain his reason. I knew I could do very little towards his recovery except by feeding him well. Fortunately the natives never called upon him to demonstrate before them the extraordinary powers which I attributed to him. Indeed his strange gestures, antics, and babblings were sufficient in themselves to convince the blacks that he was a creature to be reverenced. The remarkable thing about him was that he never seemed to take notice of any one, whether it were myself, Yamba, or a native chief. As a rule, his glance would “go past me,” so to speak, and he was for ever wandering aimlessly about, chattering and gesticulating.

We placed no restrictions upon him, and supplied all his wants, giving him Bruno as a guide and protector. I must say that Yamba did not like the stranger, but for my sake she was wonderfully patient with him.

It was whilst living on the shores of this lagoon that I received a very extraordinary commission from a neighbouring tribe. Not long after my arrival I heard a curious legend, to the effect that away on the other side of the lagoon there was an “evil spirit” infesting the waters, which terrified the women when they went down to fill their skins. Well, naturally enough, the fame of the white man and his doings soon got abroad in that country, and I was one day invited by the tribe in question to go and rid them of the evil spirit. Accordingly, accompanied by Yamba, and leaving Bruno to look after our helpless companion, we set off in response to the invitation, and in a few days reached the camp of the blacks who had sent for me. The lagoon was here surrounded by a finely-wooded country, slightly mountainous. Perhaps I ought to have stated that I had already gleaned from the mail-men, or runners, who had been sent with the message, that the waters of the lagoon in the vicinity of the camp had long been disturbed by some huge fish or monster, whose vagaries were a constant source of terror. The dreaded creature would come quite close inshore, and then endeavour to “spear” the women with what was described as a long weapon carried in its mouth. This, then, was the evil spirit of the lagoon, and I confess it puzzled me greatly. I thought it probable that it was merely a large fish which had descended in a rain-cloud among countless millions of others of smaller species. I looked upon the commission, however, as a good opportunity for displaying my powers and impressing the natives in that country–I always had the utmost confidence in myself. Before setting out I had spent some little time in completing my preparations for the capture of the strange monster.

The very afternoon I arrived I went down to the shores of the lagoon with all the natives, and had not long to wait before I beheld what was apparently a huge fish careering wildly and erratically hither and thither in the water. On seeing it the natives appeared tremendously excited, and they danced and yelled, hoping thereby to drive the creature away. My first move was in the nature of an experiment–merely with the object of getting a better view of the monster. I endeavoured to angle for it with a hook made out of a large piece of sharpened bone. I then produced large nets made out of strips of green hide and stringy-bark rope. Placing these on the shores of the lagoon, I directed Yamba to build a little bark canoe just big enough to hold her and me.

At length we embarked and paddled out a few hundred yards, when we threw the net overboard. It had previously been weighted, and now floated so that it promptly expanded to its utmost capacity. No sooner had we done this than the invisible monster charged down upon us, making a tremendous commotion in the water. Neither Yamba nor I waited for the coming impact, but threw ourselves overboard just as the creature’s white sawlike weapon showed itself close to the surface only a few yards away. We heard a crash, and then, looking backward as we swam, saw that the long snout of the fish had actually pierced both sides of the canoe, whilst his body was evidently entangled in the meshes of the net. So desperate had been the charge that our little craft was now actually a serious encumbrance to the monster. It struggled madly to free itself, leaping almost clear of the water and lashing the placid lagoon into a perfect maelstrom.

Several times the canoe was lifted high out of the water; and then the fish would try to drag it underneath, but was prevented by its great buoyancy. In the meantime Yamba and I swam safely ashore, and watched the struggles of the “evil spirit” from the shore, among a crowd of frantic natives.

We waited until the efforts of the fish grew feebler, and then put off in another bark canoe (the celerity with which Yamba made one was something amazing), when I easily despatched the now weakened creature with my tomahawk. I might here mention that this was actually the first time that these inland savages had seen a canoe or boat of any description, so that naturally the two I launched occasioned endless amazement.

Afterwards, by the way, I tried to describe to them what the sea was like, but had to give it up, because it only confused them, and was quite beyond their comprehension. When we dragged the monster ashore, with its elongated snout still embedded in the little canoe, I saw at a glance that the long-dreaded evil spirit of the lagoon was a huge sawfish, fully fourteen feet long, its formidable saw alone measuring nearly five feet. This interesting weapon I claimed as a trophy, and when I got back to where Bruno and his human charge were, I exhibited it to crowds of admiring blacks, who had long heard of the evil spirit. The great fish itself was cooked and eaten at one of the biggest corroborees I had ever seen. The blacks had no theory of their own (save the superstitious one), as to how it got into the lagoon; and the only supposition I can offer is, that it must have been brought thither, when very small and young, either by a rain-cloud or at some unusually big flood time.

So delighted were the blacks at the service I had done them, that they paid me the greatest compliment in their power by offering me a chieftainship, and inviting me to stay with them for ever. I refused the flattering offer, however, as I was quite bent on getting back to Cambridge Gulf.

On returning to my friends on the other side of the lagoon I learned for the first time that there was a half-caste girl living among them; and subsequent inquiries went to prove that her father was a white man who had penetrated into these regions and lived for some little time at least among the blacks–much as I myself was doing. My interest in the matter was first of all roused by the accidental discovery of a cairn five feet or six feet high, made of loose flat stones. My experience was such by this time that I saw at a glance this cairn was not the work of a native. Drawings and figures, and a variety of curious characters, were faintly discernible on some of the stones, but were not distinct enough to be legible.

On one, however, I distinctly traced the initials “L. L.,” which had withstood the ravages of time because the stone containing them was in a protected place.

Naturally the existence of this structure set me inquiring among the older natives as to whether they ever remembered seeing a white man before; and then I learned that perhaps twenty years previously a man like myself HAD made his appearance in those regions, and had died a few months afterwards, before the wife who, according to custom, was allotted to him had given birth to the half-caste baby girl, who was now a woman before me. They never knew the white stranger’s name, nor where he had come from. The girl, by the way, was by no means good-looking, and her skin was decidedly more black than white; I could tell by her hand, however, that she was a half- caste.

On the strength of our supposed affinity, she was offered to me as a wife, and I accepted her, more as a help for Yamba than anything else; she was called Luigi. Yamba, by the way, was anxious that I should possess at least half-a-dozen wives, partly because this circumstance would be more in keeping with my rank; but I did not fall in with the idea. I had quite enough to do already to maintain my authority among the tribe at large, and did not care to have to rule in addition half-a-dozen women in my own establishment. This tribe always lingers in my memory, on account of the half-caste girl, whom I now believe to have been the daughter of Ludwig Leichhardt, the lost Australian explorer. Mr. Giles says: “Ludwig Leichhardt was a surgeon and botanist, who successfully conducted an expedition from Moreton Bay to Port Essington, on the northern coast. A military and penal settlement had been established at Port Essington by the Government of New South Wales, to which colony the whole territory then belonged. At this settlement–the only point of relief after eighteen months’ travel–Leichhardt and his exhausted party arrived.

“Of Leichhardt’s sad fate, in the interior of Australia, no certain tidings have ever been heard. I, who have wandered into and returned alive from the curious regions he attempted and died to explore, have unfortunately never come across a single record, nor any remains or traces of the party.”

Leichhardt started on his last sad venture with a party of eight, including one or two native black-boys. They had with them about twenty head of bullocks broken in to carry pack loads. “My first and second expeditions,” says Giles, “were conducted entirely with horses, but in all subsequent journeys I was accompanied by camels.” His object, like that of Leichhardt, was to force his way across the thousand miles of country that lay untrodden and unknown between the Australian telegraph line and the settlements upon the Swan River. And Giles remarks that the exploration of 1000 miles in Australia is equal to at least 10,000 miles on any other part of the earth’s surface–always excepting the Poles.

I continued residing on the shores of the lagoon in the hope that my patient would eventually get better, when I proposed continuing my journey north. I was still quite unable to understand his babblings, although he was for ever mentioning the names of persons and places unknown to me; and he constantly spoke about some exploring party. He never asked me questions, nor did he get into serious trouble with the natives, being privileged. He never developed any dangerous vices, but was simply childlike and imbecile.

Gradually I had noticed that, instead of becoming stronger, he was fading away. He was constantly troubled with a most distressing complaint, and in addition to this he would be seized with fits of depression, when he would remain in his hut for days at a time without venturing out. I always knew what was the matter with him when he was not to be seen. Sometimes I would go in to try and cheer him up, but usually it was a hopeless effort on my part.

Of course he had a wife given him, and this young person seemed to consider him quite an ordinary specimen of the white man. Indeed, she was vastly flattered, rather than otherwise, by the attentions lavished upon her husband by her people. One reason for this treatment was that she was considered a privileged person to be related in any way to one whom the natives regarded as almost a demi-god. She looked after him too, and kept his hut as clean as possible. One morning something happened. The girl came running for me to go to her hut, and there lay the mysterious stranger apparently stretched out for dead. I soon realised that he was in a fit of some kind.

I now approach the momentous time when this unfortunate man recovered his senses. When he regained consciousness after the fit Yamba and I were with him, and so was his wife. I had not seen him for some days, and was much shocked at the change that had taken place. He was ghastly pale and very much emaciated. I knew that death was at hand. Just as he regained consciousness–I can see the picture now; yes, we were all around his fragrant couch of eucalyptus leaves, waiting for him to open his eyes–he gazed at me in a way that thrilled me strangely, and I KNEW I WAS LOOKING AT A SANE WHITE MAN. His first questions were “Where am I? Who are you?” Eager and trembling I knelt down beside him and told him the long and strange story of how I had found him, and how he had now been living with me nearly two years. I pointed out to him our faithful Bruno, who had often taken him for long walks and brought him back safely, and who had so frequently driven away from him deadly snakes, and warned him when it was time to turn back. I told him he was in the centre of Australia; and then I told in brief my own extraordinary story. I sent Yamba to our shelter for the letter I had found in his tracks, and read it aloud to him. He never told me who the writer of it was. He listened to all I had to tell him with an expression of amazement, which soon gave place to one of weariness–the weariness of utter weakness. He asked me to carry him outside into the sun, and I did so, afterwards squatting down beside him and opening up another conversation. HE THEN TOLD ME HIS NAME WAS GIBSON, AND THAT HE HAD BEEN A MEMBER OF THE GILES EXPEDITION OF 1874. From that moment I never left him night or day. He told me much about that expedition which I can never reveal, for I do not know whether he was lying or raving. Poor, vulgar, Cockney Gibson! He seemed to know full well that he was dying, and the thought seemed to please him rather than otherwise. He appeared to me to be too tired, too weary to live– that was the predominant symptom.

I introduced Yamba to him, and we did everything we possibly could to cheer him, but he gradually sank lower and lower. I would say, “Cheer up, Gibson. Why, when you are able to walk we will make tracks straightway for civilisation. I am sure you know the way, for now you are as right as I am.” But nothing interested the dying man. Shortly before the end his eyes assumed a strained look, and I could see he was rapidly going. The thought of his approaching end was to me a relief; it would be untrue if I were to say otherwise. For weeks past I had seen that the man could not live, and considering that every day brought its battle for life, you will readily understand that this poor helpless creature was a terrible burden to me. He had such a tender skin that at all times I was obliged to keep him clothed. For some little time his old shirt and trousers did duty, but at length I was compelled to make him a suit of skins. Of course, we had no soap with which to wash his garments, but we used to clean them after a fashion by dumping them down into a kind of greasy mud and then trampling on them, afterwards rinsing them out in water. Moreover, his feet were so tender that I always had to keep him shod with skin sandals.

His deathbed was a dramatic scene–especially under the circumstances. Poor Gibson! To think that he should have escaped death after those fearful waterless days and nights in the desert, to live for two years with a white protector, and yet then die of a wasting and distressing disease!

He spent the whole day in the open air, for he was very much better when in the sun. At night I carried him back into his hut, and laid him in the hammock which I had long ago slung for him. Yamba knew he was dying even before I did, but she could do nothing.

We tried the effect of the curious herb called “pitchori,” but it did not revive him. “Pitchori,” by the way, is a kind of leaf which the natives chew in moments of depression; it has an exhilarating effect upon them.

On the last day I once more made up a bed of eucalyptus leaves and rugs on the floor of Gibson’s hut. Surrounding him at the last were his wife–a very good and faithful girl–Yamba, myself, and Bruno–who, by the way, knew perfectly well that his friend was dying. He kept licking poor Gibson’s hand and chest, and then finding no response would nestle up close to him for half-an-hour at a time. Then the affectionate creature would retire outside and set up a series of low, melancholy howls, only to run in again with hope renewed.

Poor Gibson! The women-folk were particularly attached to him because he never went out with the men, or with me, on my various excursions, but remained behind in their charge. Sometimes, however, he would follow at our heels as faithfully and instinctively as Bruno himself. For the past two years Bruno and Gibson had been inseparable, sleeping together at night, and never parting for a moment the whole day long. Indeed, I am sure Bruno became more attached to Gibson than he was to me. And so Gibson did not, as I at one time feared he would, pass away into the Great Beyond, carrying with him the secret of his identity. Looking at him as he lay back among the eucalyptus leaves, pale and emaciated, I knew the end was now very near.

I knelt beside him holding his hand, and at length, with a great effort, he turned towards me and said feebly, “Can you hear anything?” I listened intently, and at last was compelled to reply that I did not. “Well,” he said, “I hear some one talking. I think the voices of my friends are calling me.” I fancied that the poor fellow was wandering in his mind again, but still his eyes did not seem to have that vacant gaze I had previously noticed in them. He was looking steadily at me, and seemed to divine my thoughts, for he smiled sadly and said, “No, I know what I am saying. I can hear them singing, and they are calling me away. They have come for me at last!” His thin face brightened up with a slow, sad smile, which soon faded away, and then, giving my hand a slight pressure, he whispered almost in my ear, as I bent over him, “Good- bye, comrade, I’m off. You will come too, some day.” A slight shiver, and Gibson passed peacefully away.


Lost in the desert–Gibson’s dying advice–Giles meets Gibson–A fountain in the desert–A terrible fix–Giles regains his camp– Gibson’s effects–Mysterious tracks–A treasured possession–A perfect paradise–Grape vines a failure–A trained cockatoo–An extraordinary festival–My theory of the “ghosts.”

After the funeral his wife followed out the usual native conventions. She covered herself with pipeclay for about one month. She also mourned and howled for the prescribed three days, and gashed her head with stone knives, until the blood poured down her face. Gibson’s body was not buried in the earth, but embalmed with clay and leaves, and laid on a rock-shelf in a cave.

The general belief was that Gibson had merely gone back to the Spirit Land from whence he had come, and that, as he was a great and good man, he would return to earth in the form of a bird– perhaps an ibis, which was very high indeed. I must say I never attached very much importance to what he said, even in his sane moments, because he was obviously a man of low intelligence and no culture. If I remember rightly, he told me that the expedition to which he was attached left Adelaide with the object of going overland to Fremantle. It was thoroughly well equipped, and for a long time everything went well with the party. One day, whilst some of them were off exploring on their own account, he lost himself.

He rather thought that the sun must have affected his brain even then, because he didn’t try to find his companions that night, but went to sleep quite contentedly under a tree. He realised the horror of his position keenly enough the next morning, however, and rode mile after mile without halting for food or water, in the hope of quickly regaining his friends at the chief camp. But night stole down upon him once more, and he was still a lonely wanderer, half delirious with thirst; the supply he had carried with him had long since given out.

Next morning, when he roused himself, he found that his horse had wandered away and got lost. After this he had only a vague recollection of what happened. Prompted by some strange, unaccountable impulse, he set out on a hopeless search for water, and went walking on and on until all recollection faded away, and he remembered no more. How long he had been lost when I found him he could not say, because he knew absolutely nothing whatever about his rescue. So far as I remember, he was a typical specimen of the Australian pioneer–a man of fine physique, with a full beard and a frank, but unintelligent, countenance. He was perhaps five feet nine inches in height, and about thirty years of age. When I told him the story of my adventures he was full of earnest sympathy for me, and told me that if ever I intended leaving those regions for civilisation again, my best plan would be to steer more south-east, as it was in that direction that Adelaide lay.

He also informed me that the great trans-Continental telegraph wire was being constructed from north to south. This he advised me to strike and follow to civilisation.

I may be permitted a little digression here to give a few extracts from Giles’s book, “Australia Twice Traversed” (Sampson Low & Company), for this contains the version of the leader of the expedition himself as to the circumstances under which Gibson was lost. In all, it seems, Giles made five exploring expeditions into and through Central South Australia and Western Australia from 1872 to 1876. Speaking of his second expedition, Mr. Giles says: “I had informed my friend, Baron Von Mueller, by wire from the Charlotte Waters Telegraph station, of the failure and break-up of my first expedition, and he set to work and obtained new funds for me to continue my labours. I reached Adelaide late in January 1873, and got my party together. We left early in March of 1873, and journeyed leisurely up-country to Beltana, then past the Finnis Springs to the Gregory. We then journeyed up to the Peake, where we were welcomed by Messrs. Bagot at the Cattle Station, and Mr. Blood of the Telegraph Department. Here we fixed up all our packs, sold Bagot the waggon, and bought horses and other things. We now had twenty pack-horses and four riding-horses.”

We next come to the introduction of Gibson. “Here a short young man accosted me, and asked me if I didn’t remember him. He said he was ‘Alf.’ I thought I knew his face, but I thought it was at the Peake that I had seen him; but he said, ‘Oh, no! Don’t you remember Alf, with Bagot’s sheep at the north-west bend of the Murray? My name’s Alf Gibson, and I want to go out with you.’ I said, ‘Well, can you shoe? Can you ride? Can you starve? Can you go without water? And how would you like to be speared by the blacks?’ He said he could do everything I had mentioned, and he wasn’t afraid of the blacks. He was not a man I would have picked out of a mob, but men were scarce, and he seemed so anxious to come, so I agreed to take him.

“Thus, the expedition consisted of four persons–myself (Ernest Giles), Mr. William Henry Tietkins, Alf Gibson, and James Andrews; with twenty-four horses and two little dogs. On Monday, 4th August, we finally left the encampment.”

Now here is the passage in which Mr. Giles describes his dramatic parting with Gibson. It will be found in the chapter marked “20th April to 21st May 1874”: “Gibson and I departed for the West. I rode the ‘Fair Maid of Perth.’ I gave Gibson the big ambling horse, ‘Badger,’ and we packed the big cob with a pair of water- bags that contained twenty gallons. As we rode away, I was telling Gibson about various exploring expeditions and their fate, and he said, ‘How is it that, in all these exploring expeditions, a lot of people go and die?’ He said, ‘I shouldn’t like to die in this part of the country, anyhow.’

“We presently had a meal of smoked horse. It was late when we encamped, and the horses were much in want of water,–especially the big cob, who kept coming up to the camp all night and trying to get at our water-bags. We had one small water-bag hung in a tree.

“I didn’t think of that until my mare came straight up to it and took it in her teeth, forcing out the cork, and sending the water up, which we were both dying to drink, in a beautiful jet. Gibson was now very sorry he had exchanged ‘Badger’ for the cob, as he found the latter very dull and heavy to get along. There had been a hot wind from the north all day, and the following morning (the 23rd of April), there was a most strange dampness in the air, and I had a vague feeling, such as must have been felt by augurs and seers of old, who trembled as they told events to come; FOR THIS WAS THE LAST DAY ON WHICH I EVER SAW GIBSON.

“As Gibson came along after me, he called out that his horse was going to die. The hills to the west were twenty-five to thirty miles away, and I had to give up trying to reach them. How I longed for a camel! Gibson’s horse was now so bad as to place both of us in a great dilemma. We turned back in our tracks, when the cob refused to carry his rider any farther, and tried to lie down. We drove him another mile on foot, and down he fell to die. My mare, the ‘Fair Maid of Perth,’ was only too willing to return, but she had now to carry Gibson’s saddle and things, and away we went, walking and riding in turns of one half-hour each.

“When we got back to about thirty miles from a place which I had named ‘The Kegs,’ I shouted to Gibson, who was riding, to stop until I walked up to him. By this time we had hardly a pint of water left between us.

“We here finished the supply, and I then said, as I could not speak before, ‘Look here, Gibson, you see we are in a most terrible fix, with only one horse. Only one can ride, and one must remain behind. I shall remain; and now listen to me. If the mare does not get water soon, she will die; therefore, ride right on; get to the Kegs, if possible, to-night, and give her water. Now that the cob is dead, there’ll be all the more water for her. Early to- morrow you will sight the Rawlinson, at twenty-five miles from the Kegs. Stick to the tracks and never leave them. Leave as much water in one keg for me as you can afford, after watering the mare and filling up your own bags; and, remember, I depend upon you to bring me relief.’

“Gibson said if he had a compass he thought he could go better by night. I knew he didn’t understand anything about compasses, as I had often tried to explain them to him. The one I had was a Gregory’s Patent, of a totally different construction from ordinary instruments of the kind, and I was loth to part with it, as it was the only one I had. However, as he was so anxious for it, I gave it to him, and away he went. I sent one final shout after him to stick to the tracks, and he said, ‘All right’ and the mare carried him out of sight almost instantly.

“Gibson had left me with a little over two gallons of water, which I could have drunk in half-an-hour. All the food I had was eleven sticks of dirty, sandy, smoked horse, averaging about an ounce and a half each.

“On the first of May, as I afterwards found out, at one o’clock in the morning, I staggered into the camp, and awoke Mr. Tietkins at daylight. He glared at me as if I had been one risen from the dead. I asked him if he had seen Gibson. It was nine days since I last saw him. The next thing was to find Gibson’s remains. It was the 6th of May when we got back to where he had left the right line. As long as he had remained on the other horses’ tracks it was practicable enough to follow him, but the wretched man had left them and gone away in a far more southerly direction, having the most difficult sand-hills to cross at right angles. We found he had burnt a patch of spinifex where he had left the other horses’ tracks.

“Whether he had made any mistake in steering by the compass or not it is impossible to say; but instead of going east, as he should have done, he actually went south, or very near it.

“I was sorry to think that the unfortunate man’s last sensible moments must have been embittered by the thought that, as he had lost himself in the capacity of messenger for my relief, I, too, must necessarily fall a victim to his mishap.

“I called this terrible region, lying between the Rawlinson Range and the next permanent water that may eventually be found to the north, ‘Gibson’s Desert,’–after this first white victim to its horrors.

“In looking over Gibson’s few effects, Mr. Tietkins and I found an old pocket-book, a drinking-song, and a certificate of his marriage. He had never told us he was married.”

And now to resume my own narrative. You will remember that I had settled down for a considerable time on the shores of the lagoon, where I had made everything around me as comfortable as possible. Yamba had no difficulty whatever in keeping us well supplied with roots and vegetables; and as kangaroos, opossums, snakes, and rats abounded, we had an ample supply of meat, and the lagoon could always be relied upon to provide us with excellent fish. The country itself was beautiful in the extreme, with stately mountains, broad, fertile valleys, extensive forests,–and, above all, plenty of water. The general mode of living among the natives was much the same as that prevailing among the blacks in my own home at Cambridge Gulf,–although these latter were a vastly