Dollypot, Greenhide and Spindrift:

a journal of bush history

Vol 1. No. 10

David Wynford Carnegie. A letter from Halls Creek.

The following is a previously unknown letter from Carnegie written at the end of the first stage of his historic expedition and before his overland return to the goldfields.
The bold numbers in [ ] indicate the start of pages in the ms letter.
My dear Sir John Forrest                                                                           Hall’s Creek.
                                                                                                                Kimberley Gfd.
Thank you for your kind telegram. You will well understand the sorrow one feels at the loss of a mate with whom one has been in such close companionship for many months. It seems hard that after all the troubles of the journey safely got over that poor Stansmore should have come by his death only three days from this settlement, but so it was fated and one can only feel thankful that his death was painless and instantaneous, he slipped while climbing down a rock, the gun striking the ground with the hammer; the charge entered just below the heart.
I am sending you by this mail my field books (wh. you will notice went near to being devoured by white ants), and a sketch map of our route. This will I think give you a better idea of the class of country than any written description. I had had hopes of finding that the Kimberley Auriferous Belt continued in a broken line probably to the Southwards, and had thought that there might be a connection between that belt and the Warburton Ranges (where I believe there does exist a small patch of auriferous country. Such hopes can no longer be entertained for we saw not a sign of gold-country between the Neckersgat Range and Xmas creek (W.of M. Dockrell) – and indeed little hilly country of any sort, excepting sand hills! We entered the Desert (part of the Queen Victoria D. I suppose). Some 110 miles from Cutmore’s Well in a NE x E direction. This desert of sandridges spinifex and desert gum continued to within a few miles of M. Worsnop – its monotony being varied by occasional low cliffs from whc. small creeks run out into the sand hills – on the banks of wh., and in the beds too when near the end, very good feed exists. Rockholes must be fairly numerous thro’ this country in a favorable season we would not have been badly off. As it was every rock hole we found was quite dry, even nigger tracks usually so certain a sign of what led us to more than one dry hole. We fortunately captured a buck who took us to a soak by no means unwelcome as the camels had been 13 days without water.
We visited Alexander Sp. Finding it quite dry and at that time looking like a shallow gravelly soak in the bed of a small rocky channel. We saw marks of Hübbes camels here, otherwise I [2] should have doubted whether or no we had found the right place. If I remember right you do not describe it as being a very strong spring and possibly it runs after a good rain. The Trig. erected by Hübbe on Mt Allott (to replace yours wh. the blacks had destroyed) had not been touched. From Alexander Sp. to Lat 22º 40'-0" the ridges give place to long and gently slopeing undulations of hard sand covered with very dense and high spinifex and a light ironstone gravel. In the valleys belts of bloodwood occur very much resembling a gum timbered creek in the distance. Between the Alfred and Marie Ra. and Alex. Spring a few hills and ranges are to be seen. Some (especially the “Browne Range”) shewing up well prominently in the distance, but on nearer approach their apparent height decreases and  tho’ visible for perhaps 30 miles from one point are lost to sight within a few miles from the opposite side. These hills are apparently dry and certainly barren and devoid of all vegetation barring spinifex. A few creeks of no size or duration run from the ranges emptying onto Bloodwood flats. I fancy   water could be got at no great [3]depth on such flats and in two instances we found small & shallow native wells so situated, one dry & the other having a fair supply. “Parakeelia” grows about this latitude, altho’ only in occasional patches proved of great service to the camels.
Between the A and M Range and Lat 22º 40' the same undulations continue, interrupted occasionally by high banks of stones and gravel – mulga-clad on top. The bloodwood flats are less frequent, hills or ravines ceasing to exist.
Surface water, even in the form of rockholes was not met with and native wells had to be depended on and these can only be found by following tracks or catching a native. Many we found quite dry and the best only yielded 200 gallons.
In Latitude 22º 40' we again encountered desert sand ridges and these continued (running more or less E and W) without interruption to within some 20 miles of Col. Warburtons route – from this point – to Lat 19. 20. (i.e. just within the boundary of the Kimberley Goldfield) their continuity is broken by occasional detached Tablelands and flat topped hills of Sandstone,  from which small watercourses run into the sand, at the head of these in deep and rocky ravines we found some very fine rockholes usually under a small waterfall. The largest when full would  [3a] hold some 40,000 gallons.
All through this sandridge country we carried out the one plan for finding water, which was as follows. For hunting purposes the natives burn large patches of spinifex; the smoke from these fires can be seen for some considerable distance and frequently I have counted as many as five in a day. Choosing a smoke, if possible on our general course, we would steer for it and when it died down, as it would in the course of a few hours, continue in the same direction until the burnt ground was reached, we would then spread out, pick up tracks and if possible catch a native, this we were usually fortunate enough to manage though only at the expense of great patience and much labour. Often as many as four days would elapse between the time of our sighting the smoke and catching a black.
We found them (the blacks) quite friendly chiefly owing to their small numbers (there never being more than 8 in a camp all told), though inclined to be cheeky when they had only one of us to deal with. Some would lead us to water at once while others would take a day or so to make up their minds [4] while only one misled us by taking us to a dry hole. They depend entirely on shallow wells and as we had no other supply from Lat 25º 15' to 20º 50' but what we got from such wells, we had good opportunity to study them. I think they are merely rockholes (probably in the bed of what have been watercourses) which have been covered in and over with sand. They all occur on the flats between the ridges when these are far apart and in the trough of the ridges when they are close together. The sand is of no great depth in their vicinity, and usually a small surface outcrop of the bed rock (i.e. the rock immediately beneath the sand) is to be seen not far off. The native well is scooped out, just of a size to enable a black to crawl up and down, in the sand enclosed in the rockhole, ranging in depth from 10 to 20 feet. The dry sand is fairly firm but once the water is reached the sand becomes loose and of the nature of quicksand, so that one shovelful removed only leaves room for a corresponding amount to slide in from all sides and without certain makeshift appliances we would have been unable to get any supply at all.
By means of the lids of two concertina-made [5] iron boxes screwed together we formed a small caisson 2 ft deep x 18in x 12 in across which very successfully kept the sand back on the outside while we dug out that from the inside, bailing the water as it soaking in and forcing the boxes down as the water level became lowered. In this way we got almost every drop of water held in the well. Owing to irregularities in the bottom of the hole such as projecting pieces of rock, holes and crevices the last of the water had to be bailed up with a small saucepan.  We completely dug out the contents of over half of such a hole, timber holding back the sand of the other half, and by means of our boxes drained it of every drop of water with the magnificent result of 140 gallons!  after working night and day from the morning of Sept 8th to the morning to Sept 11th. This was the deepest hole we found being nearly 30 ft. from the surface to the rock bottom. From the appearance of the sides of the native wells on whc. one can see distinct epochs of mud plastered thereon and from the fact of the depth the natives have been forced to go for water and from the fact that the wells are so situated that any decent rain would fill them in, I conclude that no rain can have fallen in this desert for some numbers of years. In some cases the natives [6] had dug down to rock bottom following the water down by degrees and plastering the sides with mud as they got lower and got every drop there was to be had. There is absolutely no guide to these wells: green or fresh vegetation which would be found round them were they or springs being entirely absent, there is no change in the character of the country as one approaches them and consequently with out making use of the natives or their smokes one would very possibly travel the whole length of the desert (were such a thing practicable) without knowing of their existence. Some at even so short a distance of 10 or 12 paces are completely hid by the spinifex. In one instance we followed tracks round around a well for a whole morning and on finding the hole eventually discovered the tracks of our camels within a few feet (about 25 if I remember right) of the well. We seldom got enough out of one well to fill both camels & our water casks. But in a good season there would be little difficulty in travelling this country so far as water is concerned, and though for its present scarcity we suffered considerably, yet I question whether that or the absence of feed in the worst evil. Night after night the camels would have [7] practically nothing to eat, small patches of a thistle like weed grows on the ridges being their only standby. Had I attempted to push on straight ahead, neglecting to pay attention to the native smokes, this absence of feed combined with the want of water would have inevitably lead to fearful disaster. The fact of our taking so long to get the water even after a well had been found was in reality greatly in the camels favor, as they of course were resting during the time we were engaged digging and bailing, we managed to get all the camels thro’ the worst part of the desert, tho several went near to collapsing and it was not until within a hundred odd miles from the Hall’s Creek that we lost three, 2 from poison plant and one from general weakness, one other was poisoned and luckily the symptoms shewed up when he was close to camp and we were able to save his life.
You will see that I mark several tablelands on our route where it crosses that of Warburton, on whose plan no such hills are marked at that point. I put this down to the fact that he travelling west would be in the trough of the ridges and so prevented from seeing either N or S unless he happened to cross a ridge.
At a well I have named Jew’s well we found [8] a fair number of blacks, 9 or 10 men, all of very large proportions and having a most pronounced Jewish caste of countenance.  do you know if this peculiar feature has been remarked in any other part?
On arrival at Hall’s Creek we heard of Well’s misfortunes with the deepest concern. I at once telegraphed to him and W. Magary in Adelaide saying that my camels were at their disposal but Mr. Wells apparently thought that enough men were in the field to do all that was necessary, for which I am by no means sorry for the camels were not in much condition to tackle the sand again so soon, and we have owing to the extreme kindness and hospitality of Mr. Cummins, the Warden and indeed of everyone up here been enabled to enjoy a most welcome rest.
I had intended going to Derby from here and then Southwards as at that time no stores were to be had here. Lately however the teams have arrived and so we shall be able to load up here. If nothing further is heard of Wells before I leave and my services are not required I shall make down nearly along the border with the hopes of finding some good country[9] about Lake MacDonald, or across the Border. As my notes may be in places hard to follow for the draughtsman, tho’ quite intelligible to me, I should be obliged if the printing of my route is left until I am in Perth and able to correct any errors.
Please give my kindest regards to Lady Forrest and with wishes for a Happy New Year to you both.
I remain
Yrs very sincerely
David W. Carnegie