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Gold and mud

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Monday 11 May 1857, The Sydney Morning Herald


No. 6.


At the Oban there was neither commissioner nor constable, clergyman nor schoolmaster, and yet the little community seemed to get along quietly and steadily enough. Some few disputes had arisen relative to the working of the different claims — a thing that was to be expected, the more particularly from the nature of the work ; but these were readily settled by an appeal to the Armidale Commissioner, Mr. Moriarty, who, on one occasion, came out to the spot, the better to judge and decide on the matter. It struck me as a matter of gratulation that so many men should have been for so long a time assembled in such an out-of-the-way place and that they should have been free from those acts of violence and unlawfulness that too often disgrace larger and better protected communities. Something of this may be owing to the circumstance that the men are doing well ; and something, again, to the fact that they look upon themselves as settled on the spot, at all events for some considerable period. The very comfortable huts show that they have this feeling, begotten, no doubt, by the nature of the work in which they are engaged, necessitating a more lengthy sojourn in one spot than would the surfacing or shallow sinking of other localities. At the same time, there is some considerable jealousy amongst many of the men of any further advent of miners to the spot. They consider they have a snug spot to work in, and are anxious to keep it as much as possible to themselves. One iron-faced individual whom I met at the inn, where for four days previously he had been balancing himself between the states of semi and total intoxication, informed me with tears in his eyes, first, that he was the most miserable of men, and next that these were the most miserable diggings he had ever been on. I, of course, condoled with him on the circumstance of his having voluntarily banished himself to such a spot and inquired how long his fortitude had been taxed to bear such a load of woe. His answer was, that he had been seven months on the ground, and I then expressed my surprise at his having stopped so long in that miserable locality. He was rather taken aback at this, and confessed that for his own part he had had no reason to grumble at his success. He had made about 10s. a day clear of all expenses since he had been there, but that wasn’t the thing — those creeks wouldn’t let a man work and make a pile —and— he was a most miserable wretch. I learnt afterwards that the man was in the habit of drinking for about five days out of every fourteen, and was not, of course, astonished at everything appearing so miserable to him when seen through the medium of a five days’ drinking bout. I must, however, do the great body of the diggers here the justice to say that this feeling of exclusiveness is not general; many of them have assured me of their firm belief in the presence of gold in large quantifies “somewhere about,” and of their conviction that with a large population only would there be any chance of “dropping on it.”

The day before my arrival, a large tribe of blacks, numbering some 70 or 80, had camped on the creek. They were making themselves very useful to the diggers, the men in cutting wood, stripping bark, or doing some of the lighter work of the mines, and the women in cooking, washing, &c. In fact, I saw with pleasure a slight improvement on the old aboriginal character of laziness, though even now it is only in very few cases that the men can be got to work steadily and continuously. Still there is much more disposition to labour than there was some years back, and the men will follow a particular pursuit for a longer period than they would formerly. I have seen many of them employed as bullock drivers on the road, and if once they engage to take a team down they generally keep to their agreement pretty honestly. Mr. Coventry had one man working on his farm reaping when I was there, and he gave him the character of being the best man on his place. Many are hired regularly in different parts as shepherds; the women also have been frequently thus employed, and fulfil their duties more steadily and continuously than the men. When travelling in the tribe, however, as they were when I saw them at Oban, very little beyond light work can be got out of them, as they are off the moment the tribe is on the move.

I left Oban on Easter Monday about the middle of the day, returning by way of Falconer Plains, the road to which, after leaving Coventry’s, leads over the same kind of dreary sloppy plains that I had crossed a few days previously by the other route. About midway between Falconer and Coventry’s I passed over what was palpably another point of the great coast or dividing range. A vast swampy plain, so level as scarcely to indicate a fall of water, either way, suddenly terminated towards the west by a steep descent, so suddenly indeed as to strike the traveler with surprise, and induce him to look back upon the country he has passed over. The road winds sidling down this hill of spongy red and black clay, intermingled with half decomposed debris of whinstone rock, here and there cut through by deep gullies, worn by the waters that in time of rain rush furiously down its sides. These waters run into the Falconer Creek, and thence into the Gwydir, whilst from the plain above the fall is towards the coast. The Falconer is a broken rocky creek, with low banks on either side, and winds through the plains of the same name, but more worthy, at the time of my crossing them, of the designation of a swamp. They are only limited in extent, with undulations so slight as to render their natural drainage a work of some time, especially as their soil is the black and red clay that I had throughout found so very tenacious of water, sucking it in and retaining it, with all the qualities of a sponge. The greater part of the plain is fenced in, and there are two or three farms established here, the greater portion of the land having been sold. There is also a store, and, what is of more consequence to the traveller, an inn ; these two, with a miserable half-ruined hut, in which dwells a woe-begone saddler, who complained bitterly of the nothing he had to do, constituted the township, which is not likely to rise into much importance, seeing that nearly all the town lots sold have been purchased by one individual, thus shutting out a population from locating itself, and seeing that the only recommendation it has is being on the high road to Beardy Plains, and the spot where the mail to that locality changes horses.

From Falconer, I followed the mail track which led over the ranges, thus avoiding the swampy flats by which I had travelled to Oban. Still, even by this route, part of the plain of the Gwydir has to be crossed, and, cut up as it is by dray tracks, it is certainly no improvement upon the road I had gone. After leaving this flat, however, the track traverses a fine open forest country composed of long sweeping ridges of granite or whinstone, the latter predominating, until it reaches the Devil’s Pinch range. A long descending road, fully three miles in length, with occasional “pinches” or descents rather steeper than usual, some of them at an angle of fully 30 degrees, leads down to a narrow gully, through which a bright stream runs brawling and battling its course down towards the larger waters. This gully gradually widens out into a fine broad flat, whilst the little stream also assumes by degrees more imposing dimensions until it becomes a creek. Winding along, now on the flat, and now along and over low ridges, the road passes between the ranges of the Devil’s Pinch on the left and those of the Jaques Duval Mountain on the right, through a country sufficiently pretty and romantic, if only unaccompanied by that disagreeable moisture and sponginess of the soil which rendered travelling so difficult and so tedious. Three miles of this kind of travelling brought me once more to Tilbuster Creek, considerably higher up, in its course, than the station by which I had passed on my upwards route. The creek was much swollen by the rains, and had been still more so, as it appeared from the vast gaps in the banks washed down by the current. I kept rather too low down the stream, and did not fancy the crossing-place that offered itself at the spot where I reached it. Going still further down, for nearly a mile, I could see no place that offered a reasonable chance of crossing, the banks being steep, or where they shelved, showing only long deltas of mud. At last I reached a spot that I thought would exactly suit. Two long points, of what apparently were fine firm shingle or pebbles, almost reached each other, leaving not more than three feet of water to pass over. I spurred my mare down the bank, very much against her inclination, and the first step on what I thought shingle sank the poor animal up to her knees in mud. However, it was getting late, and on I spurred. We crossed the water, and reached the opposite point of deceptive beach. With a heavy plunge she tried to mount it, but sunk up to her shoulder in front, and there nearly to the point of the shoulder in front, and there struck fast. I knew my weight must settle her down all the deeper, and preclude every chance of extrication, so without a moment’s hesitation I mounted on top of the saddle, à la Ducrow, and took a jump as far towards the bank as I could. My leap so far favoured me as to bring me nearer to the bank, but the additional impetus given to my weight in the descent, sent me over the knees into the mud. I tried to scramble out. It was no go. I was held fast by the legs, and bade fair to become a martyr in the public service. I still held the bridle of the mare, and looking round on her to see how she got on, the thought suddenly flashed across me that I was directly in the line between her and the bank, and that if she, in her struggles to get out, should reach me, she might possibly knock me over in the slough and provide me with anything but an eligible grave at the same time as she settled me. This thought had no sooner entered my mind than, by a kind of galvanic action of the muscular power, I found myself on the river bank clear of the difficulty ; showing thereby the wonderful effect that a little wholesome looking things fairly in the face will have upon nervous gentlemen. When, safely landed I gave a few encouraging chirrups to the mare, who again took heart of grace, and as I could now help her with the bridle, a few stout struggles landed her also safely on the bank, though so weak, as scarcely to be able to stand. I myself was in a pretty plight. Smothered in mud from nearly the waist downwards, whilst large gouts of the same odoriferous deposit spotted the rest of my person, being the more remarkable about my face, I presented anything but the imposing appearance of a Special Commissioner. Leaving my mare to recover herself a little, I walked down to where the banks were lowest, and, bailing up some water in my hat, literally washed myself down. It now wanted scarcely an hour to sundown, my mare dead beat, myself wet through, five miles to ride with a certainty of some of it having to be done through the evening frost ; and, to mend matters, a heavy thunderstorm looming between Jaques Duval and the Devil’s Pinch, as if uncertain upon which to bestow its favours. I took my mare by the bridle, led her for about a mile, until she had somewhat recovered the use of her legs, and then, mounting her, pushed her on as fast as I could persuade her to go, for Armidale. Luckily, the storm decided in favour of the Devil’s Pinch, instead of its brother Jacques, and I thus escaped some of the favours that otherwise I should have shared. I, however, got the full benefit of the frost before I reached the town, and when I descended from my horse I had some difficulty in standing or walking, from the utter uncertainty I was in as to whether I really possessed such things as feet and legs or not. However, a good fire, a glass of something stronger and warmer than the liquid in which I had previously taken a bath, and a good dinner, sent the blood once more running healthily through the benumbed limbs, whilst a night’s rest set me completely to rights.

Giving my mare a day’s spell to recover herself, I, on the second day following, left Armidale for the Rocky River. I had entered the town on my first arrival at its eastern extremity ; and I now went out of it at almost its western end, and yet both roads have the same termination. Between Armidale and the Rocky River the road presents no very striking features, running principally through fine open forest land, with occasional swampy plains. Turning off from the main road, however, at about fourteen miles distant from Armidale, the track begins to assume something like distinctive features. First, a heavy stringy bark forest is passed, its finest timber thinned out by the sawyers, some four or five pairs of whom are camped and at work at its entrance, and the remaining trees of any size being stripped of their bark to furnish roofs for the many inns and stores whose owners could afford to transport it such a distance. Then deep gullies follow, surmounted by vast overhanging ranges, from which the granite crops out in the form of a natural pavement, or is upheaved in huge boulders that lie about in wild negligence and massive grandeur. Then the hills gradually obtain a longer sweep, and, surmounting one of these, a rude fence, a tent, a bark hut, and a rough stockyard meets the eye, and then I come fully in sight of Mount Jones, having reached the crown of the ridge directly opposite to it, whilst in front of me, to the right and to the left, I see spread before me the panorama of the Rocky River Diggings.

Written by macalba

April 14, 2010 at 8:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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