The Darling River
The Darling — which is either a muddy gutter or a second Mississippi — is about six times as long as the distance, in a straight line, from its head to its mouth. The state of the river is vaguely but generally understood to depend on some distant and foreign phenomena to which bushmen refer in an off-hand tone of voice as “the Queenslan’ rains”, which seem to be held responsible, in a general way, for most of the out-back trouble.
It takes less than a year to go up stream by boat to Walgett or Bourke in a dry season; but after the first three months the passengers generally go ashore and walk. They get sick of being stuck in the same sort of place, in the same old way; they grow weary of seeing the same old “whaler” drop his swag on the bank opposite whenever the boat ties up for wood; they get tired of lending him tobacco, and listening to his ideas, which are limited in number and narrow in conception.
It shortens the journey to get out and walk; but then you will have to wait so long for your luggage — unless you hump it with you.
We heard of a man who determined to stick to a Darling boat and travel the whole length of the river. He was a newspaper man. He started on his voyage of discovery one Easter in flood-time, and a month later the captain got bushed between the Darling and South Australian border. The waters went away before he could find the river again, and left his boat in a scrub. They had a cargo of rations, and the crew stuck to the craft while the tucker lasted; when it gave out they rolled up their swags and went to look for a station, but didn’t find one. The captain would study his watch and the sun, rig up dials and make out courses, and follow them without success. They ran short of water, and didn’t smell any for weeks; they suffered terrible privations, and lost three of their number, not including the newspaper liar. There are even dark hints considering the drawing of lots in connection with something too terrible to mention. They crossed a thirty-mile plain at last, and sighted a black gin. She led them to a boundary rider’s hut, where they were taken in and provided with rations and rum.
Later on a syndicate was formed to explore the country and recover the boat; but they found her thirty miles from the river and about eighteen from the nearest waterhole deep enough to float her, so they left her there. She’s there still, or else the man that told us about it is the greatest liar Out Back.
* * * *
Imagine the hull of a North Shore ferry boat, blunted a little at the ends and cut off about a foot below the water-line, and parallel to it, then you will have something shaped somewhat like the hull of a Darling mud-rooter. But the river boat is much stronger. The boat we were on was built and repaired above deck after the different ideas of many bush carpenters, of whom the last seemed by his work to have regarded the original plan with a contempt only equalled by his disgust at the work of the last carpenter but one. The wheel was boxed in, mostly with round sapling-sticks fastened to the frame with bunches of nails and spikes of all shapes and sizes, most of them bent. The general result was decidedly picturesque in its irregularity, but dangerous to the mental welfare of any passenger who was foolish enough to try to comprehend the design; for it seemed as though every carpenter had taken the opportunity to work in a little abstract idea of his own.
The way they “dock” a Darling River boat is beautiful for its simplicity. They choose a place where there are two stout trees about the boat’s length apart, and standing on a line parallel to the river. They fix pulley-blocks to the trees, lay sliding planks down into the water, fasten a rope to one end of the steamer, and take the other end through the block attached to the tree and thence back aboard a second steamer; then they carry a rope similarly from the other end through the block on the second tree, and aboard a third boat. At a given signal one boat leaves for Wentworth, and the other starts for the Queensland border. The consequence is that craft number one climbs the bank amid the cheers of the local loafers, who congregate and watch the proceedings with great interest and approval. The crew pitch tents, and set to work on the hull, which looks like a big, rough shallow box.
* * * *
We once travelled on the Darling for a hundred miles or so on a boat called the Mud Turtle — at least, that’s what we called her. She might reasonably have haunted the Mississippi fifty years ago. She didn’t seem particular where she went, or whether she started again or stopped for good after getting stuck. Her machinery sounded like a chapter of accidents and was always out of order, but she got along all the same, provided the steersman kept her off the bank.
Her skipper was a young man, who looked more like a drover than a sailor, and the crew bore a greater resemblance to the unemployed than to any other body we know of, except that they looked a little more independent. They seemed clannish, too, with an unemployed or free-labour sort of isolation. We have an idea that they regarded our personal appearance with contempt.
* * * *
Above Louth we picked up a “whaler,” who came aboard for the sake of society and tobacco. Not that he hoped to shorten his journey; he had no destination. He told us many reckless and unprincipled lies, and gave us a few ornamental facts. One of them took our fancy, and impressed us — with its beautiful simplicity, I suppose. He said: “Some miles above where the Darlin’ and the Warrygo runs inter each other, there’s a billygong runnin’ right across between the two rivers and makin’ a sort of tryhangular hyland; ’n’ I can tel’yer a funny thing about it.” Here he paused to light his pipe. “Now,” he continued, impressively, jerking the match overboard, “when the Darlin’s up, and the Warrygo’s low, the billygong runs from the Darlin’ into the Warrygo; and, when the Warrygo’s up ’n’ the Darlin’s down, the waters runs from the Warrygo ’n’ inter the Darlin’.”
What could be more simple?
The steamer was engaged to go up a billabong for a load of shearers from a shed which was cutting out; and first it was necessary to tie up in the river and discharge the greater portion of the cargo in order that the boat might safely negotiate the shallow waters. A local fisherman, who volunteered to act as pilot, was taken aboard, and after he was outside about a pint of whisky he seemed to have the greatest confidence in his ability to take us to hell, or anywhere else — at least, he said so. A man was sent ashore with blankets and tucker to mind the wool, and we crossed the river, butted into the anabranch, and started out back. Only the Lord and the pilot know how we got there. We travelled over the bush, through its branches sometimes, and sometimes through grass and mud, and every now and then we struck something that felt and sounded like a collision. The boat slid down one hill, and “fetched” a stump at the bottom with a force that made every mother’s son bite his tongue or break a tooth.
The shearers came aboard next morning, with their swags and two cartloads of boiled mutton, bread, “brownie,” and tea and sugar. They numbered about fifty, including the rouseabouts. This load of sin sank the steamer deeper into the mud; but the passengers crowded over to port, by request of the captain, and the crew poked the bank away with long poles. When we began to move the shearers gave a howl like the yell of a legion of lost souls escaping from down below. They gave three cheers for the rouseabouts’ cook, who stayed behind; then they cursed the station with a mighty curse. They cleared a space on deck, had a jig, and afterwards a fight between the shearers’ cook and his assistant. They gave a mighty bush whoop for the Darling when the boat swung into that grand old gutter, and in the evening they had a general all-round time. We got back, and the crew had to reload the wool without assistance, for it bore the accursed brand of a “freedom-of-contract” shed.
We slept, or tried to sleep, that night on the ridge of two wool bales laid with the narrow sides up, having first been obliged to get ashore and fight six rounds with a shearer for the privilege of roosting there. The live cinders from the firebox went up the chimney all night, and fell in showers on deck. Every now and again a spark would burn through the “Wagga rug” of a sleeping shearer, and he’d wake suddenly and get up and curse. It was no use shifting round, for the wind was all ways, and the boat steered north, south, east, and west to humour the river. Occasionally a low branch would root three or four passengers off their wool bales, and they’d get up and curse in chorus. The boat started two snags; and towards daylight struck a stump. The accent was on the stump. A wool bale went overboard, and took a swag and a dog with it; then the owner of the swag and dog and the crew of the boat had a swearing match between them. The swagman won.
About daylight we stretched our cramped limbs, extricated one leg from between the wool bales, and found that the steamer was just crayfishing away from a mud island, where she had tied up for more wool. Some of the chaps had been ashore and boiled four or five buckets of tea and coffee. Shortly after the boat had settled down to work again an incident came along. A rouseabout rose late, and, while the others were at breakfast, got an idea into his head that a good “sloosh” would freshen him up; so he mooched round until he found a big wooden bucket with a rope to it. He carried the bucket aft of the wheel. The boat was butting up stream for all she was worth, and the stream was running the other way, of course, and about a hundred times as fast as a train. The jackeroo gave the line a turn round his wrist; before anyone could see him in time to suppress him, he lifted the bucket, swung it to and fro, and dropped it cleverly into the water.
This delayed us for nearly an hour. A couple of men jumped into the row boat immediately and cast her adrift. They picked up the jackeroo about a mile down the river, clinging to a snag, and when we hauled him aboard he looked like something the cat had dragged in, only bigger. We revived him with rum and got him on his feet; and then, when the captain and crew had done cursing him, he rubbed his head, went forward, and had a look at the paddle; then he rubbed his head again, thought, and remarked to his mates:
“Wasn’t it lucky I didn’t dip that bucket for’ard the wheel?”
This remark struck us forcibly. We agreed that it was lucky — for him; but the captain remarked that it was damned unlucky for the world, which, he explained, was over-populated with fools already.
Getting on towards afternoon we found a barge loaded with wool and tied up to a tree in the wilderness. There was no sign of a man to be seen, nor any sign, except the barge, that a human being had ever been there. The captain took the craft in tow, towed it about ten miles up the stream, and left it in a less likely place than where it was before.
Floating bottles began to be more frequent, and we knew by that same token that we were nearing “Here’s Luck!” — Bourke, we mean. And this reminds us.
When the Brewarrina people observe a more than ordinary number of bottles floating down the river, they guess that Walgett is on the spree; when the Louth chaps see an unbroken procession of dead marines for three or four days they know that Bourke’s drunk. The poor, God-abandoned “whaler” sits in his hungry camp at sunset and watches the empty symbols of Hope go by, and feels more God-forgotten than ever — and thirstier, if possible — and gets a great, wide, thirsty, quaking, empty longing to be up where those bottles come from. If the townspeople knew how much misery they caused by their thoughtlessness they would drown their dead marines, or bury them, but on no account allow them to go drifting down the river, and stirring up hells in the bosoms of less fortunate fellow-creatures.
There came a man from Adelaide to Bourke once, and he collected all the empty bottles in town, stacked them by the river, and waited for a boat. What he wanted them for the legend sayeth not, but the people reckoned he had a “private still,” or something of that sort, somewhere down the river, and were satisfied. What he came from Adelaide for, or whether he really did come from there, we do not know. All the Darling bunyips are supposed to come from Adelaide. Anyway, the man collected all the empty bottles he could lay his hands on, and piled them on the bank, where they made a good show. He waited for a boat to take his cargo, and, while waiting, he got drunk. That excited no comment. He stayed drunk for three weeks, but the townspeople saw nothing unusual in that. In order to become an object of interest in their eyes, and in that line, he would have had to stay drunk for a year and fight three times a day — oftener, if possible — and lie in the road in the broiling heat between whiles, and be walked on by camels and Afghans and free-labourers, and be locked up every time he got sober enough to smash a policeman, and try to hang himself naked, and be finally squashed by a loaded wool team.
But while he drank the Darling rose, for reasons best known to itself, and floated those bottles off. They strung out and started for the Antarctic Ocean, with a big old wicker-worked demijohn in the lead.
For the first week the down-river men took no notice; but after the bottles had been drifting past with scarcely a break for a fortnight or so, they began to get interested. Several whalers watched the procession until they got the jimjams by force of imagination, and when their bodies began to float down with the bottles, the down-river people got anxious.
At last the Mayor of Wilcannia wired Bourke to know whether Dibbs or Parkes was dead, or democracy triumphant, or if not, wherefore the jubilation? Many telegrams of a like nature were received during that week, and the true explanation was sent in reply to each. But it wasn’t believed, and to this day Bourke has the name of being the most drunken town on the river.
After dinner a humorous old hard case mysteriously took us aside and said he had a good yarn which we might be able to work up. We asked him how, but he winked a mighty cunning wink and said that he knew all about us. Then he asked us to listen. He said:
“There was an old feller down the Murrumbidgee named Kelly. He was a bit gone here. One day Kelly was out lookin’ for some sheep, when he got lost. It was gettin’ dark. Bymeby there came an old crow in a tree overhead.
“‘Kel-ley, you’re lo-o-st! Kel-ley, you’re lo-o-st!’ sez the crow.
“‘I know I am,’ sez Kelly.
“‘Fol-ler me, fol-ler me,’ sez the crow.
“‘Right y’are,’ sez Kelly, with a jerk of his arm. ‘Go ahead.’
“So the crow went on, and Kelly follered, an’ bymeby he found he was on the right track.
“Sometime after Kelly was washin’ sheep (this was when we useter wash the sheep instead of the wool). Kelly was standin’ on the platform with a crutch in his hand landin’ the sheep, when there came a old crow in the tree overhead.
“‘Kelly, I’m hun-gry! Kel-ley, I’m hun-ger-ry!’ sez the crow.
“‘Alright,’ sez Kelly; ‘be up at the hut about dinner time ’n’ I’ll sling you out something.’
“‘Drown — a — sheep! Drown — a — sheep, Kel-ley,’ sez the crow.
“‘Blanked if I do,’ sez Kelly. ‘If I drown a sheep I’ll have to pay for it, be-God!’
“‘Then I won’t find yer when yer lost agin,’ sez the crow.
“‘I’m damned if yer will,’ says Kelly. ‘I’ll take blanky good care I won’t get lost again, to be found by a gory ole crow.’”
* * * *
There are a good many fishermen on the Darling. They camp along the banks in all sorts of tents, and move about in little box boats that will only float one man. The fisherman is never heavy. He is mostly a withered little old madman, with black claws, dirty rags (which he never changes), unkempt hair and beard, and a “ratty” expression. We cannot say that we ever saw him catch a fish, or even get a bite, and we certainly never saw him offer any for sale.
He gets a dozen or so lines out into the stream, with the shore end fastened to pegs or roots on the bank, and passed over sticks about four feet high, stuck in the mud; on the top of these sticks he hangs bullock bells, or substitutes — jam tins with stones fastened inside to bits of string. Then he sits down and waits. If the cod pulls the line the bell rings.
The fisherman is a great authority on the river and fish, but has usually forgotten everything else, including his name. He chops firewood for the boats sometimes, but it isn’t his profession — he’s a fisherman. He is only sane on points concerning the river, though he has all the fisherman’s eccentricities. Of course he is a liar.
When he gets his camp fixed on one bank it strikes him he ought to be over on the other, or at a place up round the bend, so he shifts. Then he reckons he was a fool for not stopping where he was before. He never dies. He never gets older, or drier, or more withered looking, or dirtier, or loonier — because he can’t. We cannot imagine him as ever having been a boy, or even a youth. We cannot even try to imagine him as a baby. He is an animated mummy, who used to fish on the Nile three thousand years ago, and catch nothing.
* * * *
We forgot to mention that there are wonderfully few wrecks on the Darling. The river boats seldom go down — their hulls are not built that way — and if one did go down it wouldn’t sink far. But, once down, a boat is scarcely ever raised again; because, you see, the mud silts up round it and over it, and glues it, as it were, to the bottom of the river. Then the forty-foot alligators — which come down with the “Queenslan’ rains,” we suppose — root in the mud and fill their bellies with sodden flour and drowned deck-hands.
They tried once to blow up a wreck with dynamite because it (the wreck) obstructed navigation; but they blew the bottom out of the river instead, and all the water went through. The Government have been boring for it ever since. I saw some of the bores myself — there is one at Coonamble.
There is a yarn along the Darling about a cute Yankee who was invited up to Bourke to report on a proposed scheme for locking the river. He arrived towards the end of a long and severe drought, and was met at the railway station by a deputation of representative bushmen, who invited him, in the first place, to accompany them to the principal pub — which he did. He had been observed to study the scenery a good deal while coming up in the train, but kept his conclusions to himself. On the way to the pub he had a look at the town, and it was noticed that he tilted his hat forward very often, and scratched the back of his head a good deal, and pondered a lot; but he refrained from expressing an opinion — even when invited to do so. He guessed that his opinions wouldn’t do much good, anyway, and he calculated that they would keep till he got back “over our way” — by which it was reckoned he meant the States.
When they asked him what he’d have, he said to Watty the publican:
“Wal, I reckon you can build me your national drink. I guess I’ll try it.”
A long colonial was drawn for him, and he tried it. He seemed rather startled at first, then he looked curiously at the half-empty glass, set it down very softly on the bar, and leaned against the same and fell into a reverie; from which he roused himself after a while, with a sorrowful jerk of his head.
“Ah, well,” he said. “Show me this river of yourn.”
They led him to the Darling, and he had a look at it.
“Is this your river?” he asked.
“Yes,” they replied, apprehensively.
He tilted his hat forward till the brim nearly touched his nose, scratched the back of his long neck, shut one eye, and looked at the river with the other. Then, after spitting half a pint of tobacco juice into the stream, he turned sadly on his heel and led the way back to the pub. He invited the boys to “pisen themselves;” after they were served he ordered out the longest tumbler on the premises, poured a drop into it from nearly every bottle on the shelf, added a lump of ice, and drank slowly and steadily.
Then he took pity on the impatient and anxious population, opened his mouth, and spake.
“Look here, fellows,” he drawled, jerking his arm in the direction of the river, “I’ll tell you what I’ll dew. I’ll bottle that damned river of yourn in twenty-four hours!”
Later on he mellowed a bit, under the influence of several drinks which were carefully and conscientiously “built” from plans and specifications supplied by himself, and then, among other things, he said:
“If that there river rises as high as you say it dew — and if this was the States — why, we’d have had the Great Eastern up here twenty years ago” —— or words to that effect.
Then he added, reflectively:
“When I come over here I calculated that I was going to make things hum, but now I guess I’ll have to change my prospectus. There’s a lot of loose energy laying round over our way, but I guess that if I wanted to make things move in your country I’d have to bring over the entire American nation — also his wife and dawg. You’ve got the makings of a glorious nation over here, but you don’t get up early enough!”
* * * *
The only national work performed by the blacks is on the Darling. They threw a dam of rocks across the river — near Brewarrina, we think — to make a fish trap. It’s there yet. But God only knows where they got the stones from, or how they carried them, for there isn’t a pebble within forty miles.
Henry Lawson, Over the Sliprails, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1900, pages 57-71
blank = substitution for a swear word; “blank” was often used as a way to infer a swear word, without actually swearing; commonly used as a replacement for words such as “damn” or “bastard”
blanky = substitution for a swear word (such as “bloody”)
bushed = lost (especially lost in the bush); not able to find the right direction (may also refer to being confused; also, exhausted or very tired)
cute = clever, cunning, shrewd, especially in a self-serving or underhanded manner (derived from “acute”) (distinct from the modern meaning of “cute” as good-looking)
cutting out = departing, leaving (e.g. a shearing shed of shearing workers, who had finished up the season’s work, and hence leaving the property, could be said to be “cutting out”)
dead marine = an empty bottle, especially one which previously contained beer or alcoholic spirits
demijohn = a large bulbous-shaped bottle with a short, narrow neck (commonly made with small handles positioned at the neck; typically encased in wickerwork)
Dibbs = Sir George Dibbs (1834-1904), a politician who was Premier of New South Wales three times (1885, 1889, 1891-1894)
freedom-of-contract = non-union (i.e. workers in a “freedom of contract” workplace are employed according to individual arrangements, or contracts, rather than operating under a union award)
free-labour = non-union workers
free-labourer = non-union worker
gin = an Aboriginal woman
gone = (as in the phrase “a bit gone” or similar) crazy, mad, mentally unhinged
jackeroo = (also spelt “jackaroo”) in modern times, the term refers to an apprentice station hand (female station hands are known as “Jillaroos”); however, in The Old Bush Songs (1905), Banjo Paterson explains the term thus: “A “Jackaroo” is a young man who comes to a station to get experience. He occupies a position much like that of an apprentice on a ship, and has to work with the men, though supposed to be above them in social status. Hence these sneers at the Jackaroo” [see: Jimmy Sago, Jackaroo]
out-back = remote rural areas; sparsely-inhabited back country; often given as one word and capitalized, “Outback” (variations: out back, outback, out-back, Out Back, Outback)
Parkes = Sir Henry Parkes, who was the owner and editor of The Empire (Sydney) newspaper, and Premier of New South Wales for five separate terms (1872-1875, 1877, 1878-1883, 1887-1889, 1889-1891)
ratty = (slang) mad, crazy, insane (may also refer to being bad-tempered, irritable, or nasty; or dilapidated, ramshackle, shabby, or in a wretched condition)
rouseabout = an unskilled worker, especially used regarding someone working in a shearing shed
something too terrible to mention = (in the context of marooned people) cannibalism
States = in the context of America, “the States” refers to the United States of America
tucker = food
whaler = a swagman who survives without working (may also refer to a whaling ship, or someone who works on a whaling ship)
Yankee = someone from America (the United States of America), i.e. an American, or something from America; in the context of the American Civil War (the War Between the States), or in the context of the US North-South divide, it refers to someone, or something, from the northern states of the USA
Vernacular spelling in the original text:
be-God (by God)
bymeby (by and by)
dawg (dog) [American]
dew (do) [American]
tel’yer (tell you)
useter (used to)
y’are (you are)
yourn (yours) [American]