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Chapter NumberII
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Full Date1894-12-08
Page Number31
Word Count3591
Last Corrected2018-05-07
Newspaper TitleLeader (Melbourne, Vic. : 1862 - 1918)
Trove TitleOld Time Reminiscences. A True Record of Early Adventures
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By James Kirby, a Colonist of 1840.

Chatter II— Pioneer Experiences.

Shortly after the events related in the last chapter I returned to Fausely (from the visit to my sister previously mentioned), and in the year 1845 or '46 my father arranged with a neighbor (Mr. Beveridge) to allow two of his

sons to join my brother Edmund and myself in starting out to look for new country suitable for grazing stock. It was arranged that Mr. Beveridge was to give his two sons 350 head of cattle, and we were to have a like number, making 700 in all. We got two bullock teams and drays, and loaded them with 12 months' supply of rations, slop goods, tools, cooking utensils, guns, pistols, etc. In addition we had two bullock drivers, two rough carpenters— for building huts etc. — and a man cook. We also engaged a Mr. Robert M'Dougall to "pilot" us, he having an idea where good country was to be found, although he had never seen it. When all things were got together and in readiness we started with our cattle, sufficient horses and two buliock drays from Fausely, and "steered " for where Kilmore now stands, from there towards Mount Alexander, looked at country in the vicinity of the Campaspe River, then on to Serpentine Creek, finally on to the Loddon and Avoca. In our route we crossed the country where Bendigo now stands. Gold in those days was never spoken of, or, indeed, thought of. Had we any notion that gold existed in these parts I have no doubt we should have " tried our luok " at that instead of new country. We had ample time for searching, for we did not travel more than about 10 miles per day. From the Loddon River we steered for Lake Boga, passing the Reedy Lake. On arrival there we found it taken up by a Mr. Curlewls, who had placed a person in charge named Skene. On arrival at Lake Boga we found that also taken up by the same gentleman, Mr. John Baker in charge. We then got on to the tracks made by the bullock teams of Major Mitchell, the explorer.; these tracks brought us to Swan Hill on the Murray, or Hume River, as it was called in those days. Here we stopped for a few days, swam our horses over the river and explored the country in that vicinity, but did not approve of it, so we made another start and went down the river for 10 or 15 miles, and camped where Tintindyre Station now is, and which station we took up. We considered we were getting out of the settled parts when on the Serpentine Creek. Messr. Booth and Argyle had formed a cattle station there, somewhere, I think, about where Durham Ox now is; the wife of the person in charge, Mr. Milner, was the last white woman we saw. We were three months travelling before we got to our destination. During that time not one of us ever slept under a roof, driving the cattle all day and watching them by night. It was a long and tedious journey, and we had to "rough It " in every sense of the word, It was not so bad when we were near water, but it was awful when we could not get a wash after the dust during the day, and watching the cattle at night and this frequently occurred. We con- sidered we were lucky if we could get a wash once in three days, and now and then a swim. Not until leaving the Serpentine was there any danger from blacks, but after that we all had to carry firearms; the blacks were rather bad around the Reedy Lake country, but they did not attack our party. The few white people we came in contact with before reaching the Loddon River tried to persuade us to turn back, because they said if we went down the Murray the blacks would surely kill us all. "They are bad enough here," said they, "but we have open country and have a show off keeping clear of them; but the Murray is different, owing to the reed beds and mallee scrub." We were in great danger of losing our men. We thought they would bolt and leave us from the stories they were told, but fortunately none of them did so except the man cook. When daylight came, two days before we reached Reedy Lake, our cook was gone; , it made things a bit awkward, but we got on as well as we could without him. The fear of our men becoming frightened was our chief dread, for if they had left us and followed our dray tracks back to the settled parts we should have been short handed, and it would not have been at all safe to proceed, and we would have reluctantly had to turn back; but very fortunately they did not bolt, but stuck to us manfully. On our arrival at Swan Hill we noticed where Major Mitchell's party had camped and saw the ashes where the major had caused his billies to be boiled, and as this was the first and only sign of white men having been here we boiled our billies on the same spot, and there was something of a fellow feeling in this act that I cannot describe but felt it all the same, and so did all the rest of us. I thought it was the finest sight I ever beheld when I looked around early on the first morning at Swan Hill. There was not the slightest Indi- cation of any work by human beings, nor was there even a track of a bullock or sheep or horse to be seen. In consequence of this everything was just in its natural state. In the

distance, where the blacks had not burnt the reeds, it looked like large fields of ripe wheat, and nearer where they had burnt them, it looked like a splendid crop just before it comes into ear. There was not an animal of any description to trample or break down the beautiful reeds, which in most instances grew up to 10 feet high, extending on average from a half a mile to a mile on either side of the river. It was a pretty sight with the fine river running through and everything as silent as the dead. Not a sound except the howl of the wild dingo and they were numerous; but the majority of them looked half starved, puny things - no mutton there. I suppose that was the cause of their looking so badly. The first indications of blacks that we saw were footpaths which had been made going up and down the river, and the second was here and there, about a mile apart, large mounds of earth thrown up. On examining the mounds we found steam coming out of them, and on looking into them found that they were ovens for cooking the "compung" (the root of the bulrush which grows in the reed beds. These roots are dug up by the lubras (women) with their yam sticks. They are long and in shape like carrots, there are fibres running the whole length of the root, and between these is a substance which is not unlike the meal of a potato when cooked. This and the fine fish the blacks caught in the river formed very good food for them, and I attribute their being such strong, well built fellows to this fact. They were far and away finer looking men than any I have seen in other parts of ths colony, but strange to say the women were just the opposite, being puny, ugly, and disgustingly dirty. Well now ! by this time we had arrived at a place which we considered worth taking up, so we took the tarpaulins off the drays and made two tents of them, one for the men and one for ourselves, and with an extra one we had with us we covered our goods, Sam and Martin then got orders to out stuff to build a hut. The first day was spent in looking for some trees that would do for splitting slabs, but they were not to be had, so they had to cut down small pine trees and then square them with an adze. These were used for the walls, placed upright, and were about 4 inches square. Whan the walls were built they cut reeds to thatch it with; we could not get any suitable bark for that purpose. In about six weeks the hut was so far completed that we could sleep in it. We put up some sleeping bunks, made a few stools and a table. During this time we had not seen a blackfellow, but one afternoon we heard a "Coo-ee" from across the river. We saw a number of blaoks there. We went to the bank of the river and spoke to them, but found they could not understand one word we said; after a while they went away. We were beginning to think (as we had not up until now seen any blacks) that there were very few of them, and that the dangers we had been told of were nothing but imagination on the part of the people who had tried to frighten us. Our hut was now finished, and we set about putting up a stock yard, which was finished in due course, and we were what we called oom- fortable ; the cattle were taking well to the run and giving us very little trouble, and we were not tired of talking this evening about the blacks we had seen on the other side of the river, because from their manner we concluded they meant to be peaceable with us. On the following day a lot more blacks came and coo-ee-ed from the other side of the river, and we were glad to see them, for we wanted to be on friendly terms with them, and with this view we took to the bank of the river with us several pieces of "damper" (bread baked in the ashes) out in squares of about one and a half inches long by an inch wide, but before starting out we each of us put a brace of pistols in our belts and put on our jumpers, which hid the pistols from view. Besides these pistols we each carried a rifle or double barrelled gun. The bank of the river was not more than about 300 yards from our hut; the blacks stood silently in the reeds on the opposite side, and on our approach they began to talk and "yabber yabber" at a great rate. One of them stepped forward and held up a fish, we in turn held up some pieoes of damper and called and beckoned to him to swim across to us, but he would not. After a short consultation they made signs to us by walking up the river a short distance, and made motions to us to do likewise. The blacks, before starting to walk up the river, put their spears and other weapons together and walked away from them. We comprehended what they meant when they made motions to us to walk up the river, and we did so, but we took our guns with us. After walking a few hundred yards they made signs to us to leave our guns. This we did not under stand for a while. At last the blacks walked back to where they had left their spears, and made signs to us to put down our guns, like they had their spears. We now understood what they meant, and put our guns together and walked away from them up the river. We saw no risk in doing this because we still had our pistols in our belts, which the blacks could not see. After we had walked about a quarter of a mile, the blacks walking opposite to us on the other side, they stopped, and we did the same ; they then had another big "yabber yabber," and finally persuaded one of the tribe to swim across with a fish in his hand ; the poor fellow lost courage when nearing our bank, dropped his fish, and swam back again to his friends ; we tried all we knew to entice him to oome over to us, but it was no use, he was too frightened. We ate some damper to show it was good to eat, and showed them some fishing hooks. At this there was another big "yabber yabber," and another fellow was induced to swim over to us. This one managed to reach our bank, and at arm's length out of the water handed us a fish ; in return we gave him a piece of damper; he did not come out of the water and was trembling with fear. As soon as he had snatched the piece of damper he made back with all speed to his friends, when there was a tremendous commotion and another big "yabber yabber;" they applied a piece of damper to their noses and handed it from one to another for that purpose, but they did not eat any of it whilst we saw them. We were very stupid in not understand ing at once what they meant by leaving their spears and weapons; they simply wanted us to do the same with our arms, and thus meet on equal footing, both sides unarmed, which, to say the least of it, was only fair. They came again next day, and the next, and brought us a fish each time, and we in return gave them some damper and a couple of fish hooks ; they seemed highly pleased at getting the latter, and the next day a great number of them came, but did not venture to swim across to us. Many of them had green boughs in their hands, and after a "yabber yabber" they began swinging the boughs over and round their heads and shouting " Cum-a-thunga, cum-a-thunga," and those who had no boughs took up hands full of sand and earth and threw it over their heads, and like the others, kept shouting "Cum-a-thunga." We of course did not know what their meaning was by these antics, but we guessed that they meant by it that we were welcome to their land, and we made them understand that we were pleased with their antics and equally delighted with their words. When they saw we were pleased three or four of them jumped into the water and swam across, and gave us a lot more " Cum-a-thunga, so

much so that they almost made themselves hoarse with shouting it. By degrees the blacks got more confidence, and in the course of a few weeks ventured up to our hut. We made a point of being kind to them, at the same time did not make too free with them. We never received any fish from them without giving them "damper" in return, and we never allowed them to come into the hut; they seemed very peaceably inclined, and everything was going on famously, the cattle were quiet and contented, and the blacks were ditto. Peter Beveridge and I were told off to look after the cattle, and we used to go out on horseback every day, starting when we had breakfast and returning about sundown. The cattle being contented, we found time to go into the mallee now and again in the hope of finding some open country, but only found here and there small patches, some of them not more than a oouple of acres in extent, aud none over 10. Peter and I were learning to smoke, and one day, while exploring the mallee, we came on to a little plain of about five acres ; there was a log on it, and we sat on this log and lit our pipes. (I shall say more about this log later on, suffice it just now that it proved a most fortunate log for me some months afterwards.) The blacks used to come to our hut every day now and we were beginning to make ourselves better understood ; we picked up a few words of their talk, as they also did with ours, and this, coupled with signs and gestures, enabled us, to a certain extent, to understand each other. Very few of these blacks had seen a white man- we found that some of them had seen the white men belonging to Major Mitchell's party, but the majority had not seen any till they saw us. The blacks used to catch fish in the river with line and hook, but in the lagoon they used to spear them. Their hooks were made of two kangaroo teeth tied together in the form of the letter V, one tooth somewhat longer than the other. Where the teeth were joined they tied them with string of their own manufacture, and glued or gummed them over the strlng with a hard substance they got out of the box trees; something like gum. These hooks did not answer very well for often the fish would slip off before they could land them. The lines were made from the fibres of the bulrush, or "compung," as the blacks called it. I have mentioned how they cooked and eat this compung, and that it had meal between the fibres, not unlike the meal of a potato. They used, when this compung was cooked, to roll a long root of it up so as they oould put it into the mouth, chew it until they got all the nourishment out, and then take the fibres from the mouth in a sort of ball, of which they would take great care of, and when they had sufficient for making a fishing line or net, they would begin operations by holding a ball in one hand, pull some fibres partly from it for a start, and with the other twist it by rubbing it between tbe palm of the hand and the thigh. They were quite adept at this work, and in a surprisingly short time would make a string long and strong enough for a fishing line. With this kind of string they also made fishing nets, and smaller ones, which the lubras used to sling behind the shoulders for the purpose of carrying their babies and other things in. ln the lagoons, as I said before, they speared the fish, because the flags, etc., growing in then would entangle the line. The canoes they used in the lagoon to spear from were made from the bark of the gum tree, and any gum tree that had a bend in its trunk of the proper shape for making a canoe was highly prized, and they would punish by death any of the tribe who injured that tree in any way. The majority of these canoes, would only carry two or three persons, but I have been in one that would carry eight persons aoross the Murray. The spears used for spearing fish were unlike those used for war or hunting, inasmuch as they had three prongs, very sharp and strong, and about 4 inches long. When fishing the black would stand erect in the canoe and propel it very slowly through the flags whioh float on top of the water, and although the black cannot see the fish, he knows from experience where to job his spear, because these flags grow from the bottom of the lagoon, and their leaves, or flags as they are called, float on the top. Whenever the blacks see those flags move he knows it is a fish causing it, and he jobs his spear down in the water and seldom makes a mistake. He never lets the spear out of his hand and is nearly sure to get a fish every time, and very nice fish they were, a kind of perch. Those caught in the river were chiefly codfish. For river fishing they had another mode. On either side of the river there was an embankment but how, and by whom made, no one knows; We thought they were formed by the blacks many years ago. In our time they were 2 feet or 3 feet high, and at intervals there were channels cut through them about 3 feet or 4 feet wide; and when the river overflowed the water came through these channels on to the reed beds and remained there for weeks, the fish coming through also. When the water began receding into the river, the blacks used to make a fence across these channels with thin sticks stuck up- right and close enough to prevent the fish going through, leaving, however, a small opening at one side. When the fish found they could not get through the fence they naturally made for this opening, by which a black would be sitting. Behind him would be a tough stick about 10 feet long, stuck in the ground with the thick end down. To the thinner end was attached a fish ing line with a noose at the other end. Under the water at the opening in the fence a wooden peg was inserted, to which the noose was fastened and when the fish made a dart to get through tbe opening it was caught by the gills, its force undid the loop from the peg and the spring of the stick threw the fish over the black's head. He would then, in a most lazy manner, reach back his hand, undo the fish and set the loop again. I had often heard of the indolence of the blaoks, and I soon came to the conclusion—after watching this method— that what I had heard was perfectly true. (To Be Continued.)