SIX HUNDRED MILES FROM ROCKHAMPTON
TO THE FAR NORTH-WEST OF QUEENSLAND
By an old Goulburn townsman
Arriving at Rockhampton a few months back by one of the A.S.N. Company's boats, I sallied forth to make the necessary purchases for a trip inland, and after a little trouble succeeded in getting hold of a likely-looking horse, and at the first dawn of day might be seen crossing the Fitzroy River on board the steam punt that was to land me on the road to the north. Having now turned my back on Rockhampton I hurried on through the fresh morning air, and being once more on horseback felt as free as the wallaby that hopped across the road. After the close streets and the smoky air of Sydney, the coast road from Rockhampton to St. Lawrence is anything but an unpleasant road to travel. There is nearly always abundance of grass, and though it is not of the very best description, it is always green. The creek from the hills continually runs streams clear as crystal, and the waterholes are covered with the dark green leaves of the lotus lily with their pink and purple buds showing here and there; and the large full-blown cup-shaped flower on the light green stalk a few inches above the surface of the water lends her aid to beautify the grassy-banked watercourses. After crossing the numerous lily streams, the green hills of Princhester come in view, which are covered with dwarf-wattle and at certain seasons of the year are one bed of yellow blossoms. The formation of this part of the country is very strange, different to any I have seen. For about ten miles the hills are composed of dark green substance resembling malachite, which I believe is commonly called soap-stone. There are numerous copper-lodes in this locality, but none at work.
Close to Princhester Station there are several mounds about eight or nine feet high, with a sort of hollow or basin on the top. In these hollows are tons of white stone resembling lumps of snow. I have spoken to many about it, but none could give me any information until last time I was in Goulburn I saw Mr. Ed. Hill of Sydney. Knowing he had travelled that road, I asked him if he ever came across them, which he did, and informed me they were beds of porcelain clay of the best description, which no doubt by-and-by will be of great value to the colony. After passing these porcelain mounds about twelve miles, Marlborough is reached, a very picturesque little village, surrounded by high ranges. In front of the town is a high blue mountain in the distance, with the tall pines waving on the top.
Not far from Marlborough there is a bridle-track leading down to the ford on the River Styx about twenty-five miles from the turn-off; and if you are fortunate to get there when the tide is out you have safe crossing, as a bar of rock extends right across the river; but should you happen to get there when the tide is on the flood it necessitates eight or nine hours' waiting. At high water there is about ten or twelve feet on the bar. The influence of the tide extends many miles up the river. Some two years ago I spent nearly a whole day waiting for the ebb-tide, and as I sat upon the bank saw an old alligator show his ugly head above the surface of the water just beneath me and draw it back without disturbing or causing a ripple on the stream, not even so much as a small bird would cause when drinking. There are more of these hideous brutes in this river than any other I know of on the east coast of Queensland. Since there has been so much steam traffic on the other rivers and creeks, the alligators have flocked to this isolated muddy water, and as you ride along its banks every few hundred yards you disturb the amphibious monster from his sandy bed. Five was the greatest number seen by me on one mud bank at a time, their length varying from five to eighteen feet. They are very destructive to cattle, and many fall a prey during the year.
After leaving the River Styx and travelling nine miles, Wellango (Wilangi?) station is reached - a very pretty place on the banks of a large lagoon covered with lilies and abounding in all kinds of water-fowl, from the pigmy goose to the large Cape goose, the latter in great numbers. I have seen them on this lagoon in flocks that darken the sky when they first start on the wing. Thirteen miles from Willango (Wilangi?) is St. Lawrence, the once busy seaport for the Peak Downs mines and the stations in its vicinity. Within the last few years it has dwindled down to almost nothing in the business world; occasionally a steamer calls in, but even they must soon forsake it. It is not many years since it represented something like 20,000 pounds a year in the customs book. The railway pushing on to the interior has tapped the support it was depending on; the fine stores, wharves, and warehouses are idle and empty, and are likely to remain so until their end. There are a few selectors on the pretty creeks that wind their way out of the high mountains that surround the St; Lawrence Valley. They must soon shift or be content to hang out a mere existence. Such is the fate of this once busy and flourishing town!
Fourteen miles from St. Lawrence is the Connor's Range, two thousand feet high; and as the traveller winds his way up the serpentine track, he is struck with amazement and looks back at the valley below and up at the steep ascent and wonders how the heavily-laden teams get up. It is a pretty sight to see the well-trained bullocks drudging up with their load, taking it at each pull about six feet, until the whole distance is completed. It takes nearly a whole day to get a wagon up; seldom can it be got up with less than forty bullocks. Half-way up this mountain is a spring, cool and clear. What a blessing it has been to many a thirsty traveller! It is easily noticed just off the road; a tall evergreen fig tree grows over it, casting a thick shade all round. It is a peculiar kind of fig, growing high and bushy. At the top the figs, instead of growing amongst the leaves, ripen all over the trunk, and are as large as small pears. Many a worn-out swagman has sat on the stone under the shade of this grand old tree and cast his eyes first on the swag, then up at the steep track, cut another pipe of tobacco, and lingered a little longer, then with an oath shouldered his swag, and trudged and trudged away, taking many a spell before reaching the summit, which when it is reached well repays one, for the grandest scenery I ever saw opens out to view. Standing on the mountain top you look down on the vast valley below, through which the many streams flow onward to the sea, looking like veins of silver through the dark green carpet of foliage that covers the valley. The black eagle floats out from the rocky gorges, and you follow his flight to the ranges on the other side that stretch away range after range, making it look like a great amphitheatre. Reader, if you have any love for scenery, and could but stand where I have stood many a time on that mountain, you would be struck with amazement at the grandeur and vastness of the scenery. Leaving this you have thirty miles of stony ridges to travel up and down, then along a narrow spur, then upon a high point, and so on until you get to the last spur that takes you down. It is called the Rocky, and is the highest point of the tableland, and from it you can see the Sugarloaf Mountains on the Peak Downs, nearly a hundred miles away, quite distinctly. After getting down the Rocky you are on the level country. The timber is different; everything has changed; the scented gum has disappeared here, and iron-bark forests take the place of stony ridges. Lotus Creek is then crossed - a wide stream fifty yards across - named after the lotus lily that adorns the ever-flowing stream. Twelve miles further the road crosses the Connor's River, another noble stream, along whose banks the tall oaks mount up high above the giant tea-trees.
Leaving the fertile flats that border the river, Lake Scrub is entered, and for five or six miles one cannot reach the flood-mark on the trees. It was in this scrub in 1874-5 several families were in trees for five or six days. The teams that were camped in the scrub then were entirely covered and all their cattle drowned. When through the scrub you cross the Isaacs River, a broad channel with steep banks, eighteen or twenty feet to the bed. Excepting in flood-times this is a subterfluent river, and at times one can ride for miles along its sandy bed without seeing water; and a stranger might perish with water within a few inches of him. Almost anywhere if you make a hole in the sand twelve or eighteen inches deep you find clear cold water. A person who is used to this sort of country has no difficulty in obtaining water for the wild dogs and kangaroos scratch holes for water, and if you try for it where they have been at work you are sure to be successful.
Leaving the Isaacs River you are on Leichhardt Downs, which was once like most of the Peak Downs country - magnificently grassed; but of late years spear-grass has destroyed all the finer grasses; the sheep have been taken off, and it is now stocked with cattle.
Journeying on you pass through the perished country that was once the garden of Queensland, but overstocking with sheep and the marsupial have made a desert of it. For miles you can travel and not see a blade of grass.
Clermont, the once-flourishing city of the Peak Downs, has dwindled into insignificance since the Peak Down mines have ceased to be remunerative. How long it will remain so it is hard to say; but some future day not far distant it will no doubt be a flourishing agricultural town. Wheat and other grain grow well in the district, but as yet it has never been grown in great quantities. Some men have strange fancies. Two well-known squatters not many miles from Clermont are about to do what your New South Welshmen would call madness, and which bids fair to be a curse greater even that the marsupial, that is the planting of Scotch thistle. So far they are unknown on the Peak Downs; but once they get the upper hand on the fertile plains they will spread with such rapidity it will be impossible to check them. It would be well for these gentlemen to take a trip along the Murrumbidgee before taking such a foolish step, and I'm sure on their return to the Peak Downs we should hear no more of the emblem of their native land, and an evil that is to be feared would be checked. There are some that will try to persuade you that thistles will grow in a drought. My experience of them is to the contrary. They do well no doubt when there is plenty of rain and heavy dews; but who has seen dews in heavy droughts? It is a well-known fact that the ground will get thistle-sick after a few years, and will not grow anything but a hard, wild burr that is even worse than the thistle itself.
Leaving Clermont, taking the road to the west through the Drummond Ranges, or the auriferous country that bounds Clermont on the west, on either side of the road every five miles you will see the fossicker. Some do well, but most are contented with the free life, and are satisfied if they get sufficient gold to provide necessaries and an occasional spree. Most of the road through the ranges is along a pebble-bottomed creek, which is crossed twenty times in a few miles. All the way from Clermont to the Belyando River is worthless sour grass country, timbered with box, ironbark, and sandalwood. After crossing the river you pass through a few miles of sandy pine forests. Surbiton Plains is the only really good piece of land, nine miles across, between Clermont and the desert which is entered on crossing the plain. This great western desert, which has been so much dreaded by the stock-owners, is a barren, sandy waste covered with spinifex and poison. It is about ninety miles across. Until the government made dams and sunk wells it was almost impossible to get through with stock. Even now there is much to be feared in the way of poison. Stock are often driven hundreds of miles to avoid this wretched waterless country. In some places the poison-bush is so thick on each side as to make an avenue of the road. In one place called the Monkey Monkey Grave are fifteen hundred skeletons of sheep - the whole of one flock that succumbed to the destructive poison-bush. In another place there are fourteen bullocks' heads lying close to each other, being fourteen that were poisoned out of one team. This is the most deadly of all or any poison-plant known. Two small leaves will kill a sheep and a small handful a bullock. Barren and wretched as this sandy desert is, there is one thing to be admired, and that is the beautiful flowers that grow by the road-side. There is the queen of all flowers - the fringe-violet - showing her lovely face among the spinifex. Side by side with the poison-bush are some of the finest growing shrubs, which would be an ornament to any garden. Indeed it would be a dreary ride if there was not something to break the monotony. Leaving the desert you are at once on some of the finest country that ever the world possessed - a perfect contrast to the sandy waste you have been travelling for days. Richly-grassed country meets your eye on every side, abounding in all sorts of herbs - will carrots eighteen inches high, beans and melons. The pretty little township of Aramac is situated not far from the commencement of the great western plains, the timber used in the building of which was carted over a hundred miles. The town of Aramac is about four hundred miles west of Rockhampton. Leaving it there is nothing but a plain on all sides. You can see the road miles ahead making a dark straight line across the plains. There is nothing to cause you to deviate from the straight road either to the right or left.
About twenty miles from Aramac you enter at Mount Cornish bullock-paddock gate. On passing I was informed that there were seventeen thousand bullocks in it. The distance from gate to gate is seventeen miles. Mount Cornish is one of the finest stations in Queensland, if not the best.
The Landsborough and the Thompson are now crossed within a few hundred yards of each other. Muttaburra, the township of the Thompson, is built on the west bank of the river. The timber of which it is built was carted over two hundred miles. Leaving Muttaburra you are still on the treeless country. Day after day is the same; not a tree except a few stunted Coolabah along the watercourses and here and there a gidgee-bush. It is a dreary road. There is nothing to break the monotony - not a hill or a stone. There is the smooth line of the horizon, without a speck; and as the sun sets you would fancy it was the sea; and as each night closes on you, the country is so much alike you fancy you are in the same camp you had a few nights before. For three hundred miles, or as far as I have travelled without a break, the soil is the richest I ever trod, covered with herbs and the natural grasses of the colony, that can never be eclipsed by anything that will ever be introduced. It seems a great pity such fine soil should be lying idle, but it cannot remain in that state long. Can I go so far as to predict that before many years the steam ploughs will be turning over this rich soil, and farms be as extensive almost as they are in America? Why not? There are no trees to be felled, no stones to be removed. There is the land; sow and reap. You talk about the mean patches of fertile soil on the banks of the Wollondilly, the Murray and the Murrumbidgee; but go to the western plains of Queensland, or as it is called, the Never-Never Country, and then you will behold nature's grandest fields only waiting agriculture. There are no kangaroos out west, but rats have possession of everything. They are in droves, and will charge your camp like a lot of wolves. At the last two camps I had to keep a stick in my hand all the time I was having supper, besides being up nearly all night keeping them from destroying my pack.
I arrive at Winton, where my journey ends. This is the last township on the frontier of Queensland, six hundred miles north-west of Rockhampton. It is a flourishing little place that has sprung up within the last year, and is better known as the City of the Plains. The timber for the buildings with the exception of the ground-plates came from Townsville, five hundred miles, at 20 pound per ton. That will give the reader an idea of the vastness of the treeless tract of country in the far west of Queensland. The climate is pretty warm, but nothing out of the way; the average for November and December in the shade was about 114, one or two weeks went as high as 120. It is a dreadful place for wind, which never ceases blowing. Were it not for the wind I don't think people would be able to live for the heat and flies. There is very little stock on the country, and the stations are very large, varying from 500 to 4000 miles with only a few head of stock, just enough to hold the country. Water is the greatest want of the squatter. The evaporation is great - something like fifteen inches a month. The banks of the waterholes are soft and act the same as a wick does to the oil in a lamp. As soon as the banks get hard it will make a great difference. Most of the squatters have been going in for extensive improvements in the way of dams; and they are answering first-rate those that are made on the overshot principle. It is a pretty sight to see the millions and millions of pigeons coming in flocks to the dams for water. One evening I sat upon my horse and saw one flock without a break. I should say it was nine miles long; I am sure it was nothing less. It extended or formed almost a complete circle about three miles in diameter, and the line was so thick as to make a dark cloud or streak in the air. How many thousands of thousands formed that grand circle it would be hard to say; and I dare say there are many of your readers that will peruse this and say it is untrue. Nevertheless what is written is the truth. There are a few that have seen the far west and can substantiate it.
The City of the Plains, or Winton as it is called, possesses three public-houses, three stores, and two butchers' shops. Business is brisk; but one seldom sees any money, that is notes or gold. It is carried on by cheques, shanty-keepers' notes, and I.O.U.'s. The shanty-keepers' notes eclipse anything I ever heard of for a legitimate swindle. They are printed, and are something like a bank-note, being about the same size; but instead of being on good paper they are on the very worst description that it is possible to get. The shanty-keeper then wets them and afterwards bakes them in a camp-oven. So, it is said, they look first-rate; and poor sunburnt Bill from near the boundary-lines brings in his cheque and gets these instead, which he folds up and puts in his pocket. If the day is hot, they come out of his pocket in pieces; and in this way a great many are destroyed and never reach the bank, so the drawer makes a good thing in the end. Some of the squatters too don't mind doing a little on the cross - call for champagne at 25/- per bottle and pay their men with valueless cheques. This is quite a common thing. One or two of the squatters holding large runs out here have also worked it pretty well - had their stations managed for next to nothing; and it is quite time a stop was put to it. They have a manager; he contracts a lot of debts in the way of supplies for the station; draws cheques in settlement; the owner stops payment and sends another manager up; the cheques of course are returned 'refer to drawer'. By this time the manager and owner are in Sydney, New South Wales, two thousand miles away. This has been done by some of your richest squatters and holding good positions in the south. To go to law would be too costly and too much for the western storekeepers and their neighbours, so they have to put up with the contemptible swindle practiced upon them. Such is the state of things in the far far west, Never-Never or Sundown Country as it is called. Here I stop. My pen is getting lame like the old bay cob that carried me to Winton looking for a job.
Excerpt from a newspaper, "A description of T.L. Fox's travels from Rockhampton to Winton in 1879".