I. The wilderness [biography of Philip Durham Lorimer]

[Editor: This is part 1 of the biography of Philip Durham Lorimer, written by Edward Augustus Petherick, which was published in Songs and Verses by Philip Durham Lorimer: An Australian Bush Poet, 1901.]

I. The wilderness

Crossing the border into Queensland, he proceeded to another station near Warwick and engaged himself with a party of twelve overlanders who were taking 5000 sheep and 1000 head of cattle to the Flinders River district on the Gulf of Carpentaria, where they intended to take up new country.

“This,” says his brother Peter, “was in 1863. Philip wrote to me on his journey and I made up my mind to join him. After a ride of six hundred miles, I overtook the expedition about twenty miles from Roma, and signed an agreement for a period of two and a half years. We travelled as the water stages would permit, eight, ten, or fifteen miles a day as far as the Aramac Creek, Thomson River. Beyond this lay a desert of fifty miles to Cornish Creek, and another of ninety miles to the Flinders. We had to camp on Cornish Creek and divided the sheep in mobs of 2000, and with the cattle occupied four camps about four miles apart ;— each of the men taking in turn the four-hour watch at night. We spent eight months here ; the sheep were shorn and the wool was sent by bullock teams to Bowen, Port Denison, a distance of 450 miles under the charge of Philip who also was to bring back our supplies.

“During the absence of the teams, the rainy season set in and we at once struck camp and made a start over the ninety miles of spinifex desert, as delay meant the growth of a poisonous herb called the ‘Darling pea’ which sheep eat and shortly after die in agony. This herb grows so fast that ere we got over this patch of country, we must have lost fully fifty sheep. We kept by the banks of the Flinders, then a bed of sand with occasional water holes which supplied our stock, until we reached the Cloncurry. Here our privations commenced : we had no flour, tea, or sugar ; we lived on salt beef and baked or fried mutton and drank muddy water for three months, by which time Philip and the drivers returned with the bullock drays. You can imagine the scramble there was for clothing, boots, and the means for making a good damper (a cake baked in the ashes) a good bucket of tea, and to enjoy a good smoke.”

The climate of North Queensland was trying to both young men, for, in the Gulf country after the rainy season (about Christmas) ague and fever are sometimes rife. The Gulf fever, as it is called, is of a very malignant character ; the patient is attacked by shivering fits, and this gives place to a burning heat, headache, and delirious sensations, which when they do not prove fatal, leave him weak and sometimes with impaired faculties. “The worst,” said one poor wretch, “ is when people don’t die of it!” Philip was unfortunately attacked early in 1866, and obliged to travel down again by easy stages to Port Denison to get medical advice. He made the journey of 600 miles with the last loads of wool for that season. Writing from Port Denison 24th May to his sister in England, he says —

“I am just recovering from an attack of fever ague — a very severe one : you may notice my handwriting is changed, for I am still very weak and not able to walk any distance. . . . My own belief is that sheep firming will never do in Northern Queensland ; the climate is too hot ; white men cannot stand it, but we will stay in the Flinders country until our time expires in September. By then we hope that something will be done for us ; but, for one thing, we will not enter into squatting in Queensland : we will make for New South Wales. I have now devoted myself to sheep for five years, and am competent to take charge of a station. I have been in Port a month and have been fortunate in getting well so soon. My system nevertheless has received a great shock, and, had I not been of temperate habits, I should now have been in my grave. . . . Now I must say ‘good bye’ for a time. My next letter will be written in September if I am spared ; in the meanwhile, I shall have a journey to the Flinders country and back of just 1200 miles.”

Philip’s next letter was not written in September as he anticipated, nor for many months after. On returning to the Cloncurry he found his brother down with the fever. The Leichhardt Search Expedition equipped and sent out by the Ladies of Australia, under command of M‘Intyre, passing that way, the Doctor gave Peter some medicine which greatly relieved him, and they were able to break-up camp and make tracks towards Burketown, to which place, Philip had arranged for their supplies to be brought round by sea.

Burketown was a new settlement on the Albert River, named after the explorer, who first crossed the continent and from its vicinity had sight of the sea, and then returned to die of starvation in the interior.

The squatters soon followed up the explorer, and in Burketown there had already gathered a mixed community, “drinking and horse-racing being the main business of life there,” as one visitor noted. Hither also station hands came hundreds of miles to “shout” away their wages in drink!

When loading up the camels at Burketown, M‘Intyre, who is still remembered as a grand specimen of an Australian bushman — contracted the fever and died not long afterwards. Slowman, second in command, returning to Burketown some months later, died in camp there, as also did Walker the leader of another exploring expedition. In fact, the whole of the inhabitants of the settlement were down that season with fever, and two thirds of them were carried off.

“One of our own party,” says Peter, “ died on the Albert, and another in Burketown. We pressed on, taking up country on the Barkly table lands, or ‘Plains of Promise,’ and remained in the Gulf country till our terms of agreement were up. We then resolved to return to civilization. Between the Albert and the Thomson Rivers was a journey of 1000 or 1200 miles to be performed mostly on horseback. . . . The monsoon had set in and the Gulf country was a network of billibongs (blind water courses) creeks and rivers. One river we came to I shall never forget ; ill as I was, to attempt my weight on the horse, meant certain destruction by bogging ; up to our knees in mud, and to our necks in muddy water, we got safely over. Drying ourselves, off we started only to get wet again with the heavy passing showers, of which we had sometimes to encounter five or six a day. Our clothes dried on our backs and we camped dry at night. We had something like 500 miles of this country to get over, and there was besides the risk of being murdered by the blacks who infested the whole district ; there were alligators too, in some of the rivers which we had to cross. We camped as the water holes lay, our longest day’s journey being forty-seven miles. Many a time I have laid myself on the bare ground and never expected to see the sun rise again, — with what splendour it does rise in Queensland ! To make a long story short, we got back safely to Cornish Creek, on the high lands of Bowen Downs, in about three months. The hardships I had gone through taxed my constitution to the utmost and I made up my mind to return to New South Wales.”

A letter from Philip to his father and mother describing his adventures and experiences is lost, but one written to his sister has fortunately been preserved. It is dated from Bowen Downs, Thomson River, 11th February, 1867. In it he says —

“I have just finished writing a long letter to father and mother, and I will now give you the remainder of my news. I dare say you have been wondering why you have received no letter from us : no doubt, you have all been anxious about our welfare, and I can assure you that we have been as anxious about you and all our relatives. The last letter you received from me bore date Port Denison May 1866. . . . Since then I have been to the Gulf of Carpentaria and am now once more within the bounds of civilization. If I could relate here, as I should like to do, the full details of our journey from the head of the Flinders River to the Gulf township — Burketown, it would be only relating. a sad tale. The scene has passed before me like a dream ; I hope never to see suck again. Around us death was taking away the finest and noblest youths as fast as they could be buried — out of 105 inhabitants, there were seventy deaths. From that town to the head of the Flinders the fever raged, generally ending fatally. Since then the fever has never entirely left the district, now and then breaking out with renewed vigour. Peter was taken ill on the 17th September and from that date to this, has had the fever on him ; he cannot get rid of it and is now exceedingly weak. We were obliged to leave the station and having obtained good testimonials, we now find ourselves in a healthy climate. Peter is quite unable to do anything for himself and had not the manager of this station who has welcomed us here, given me a job, we should have been in an awkward position. The Gulf district is unsuited for stock and it is the general opinion here that it will eventually be deserted. I am disgusted with Northern Queensland.”

Writing again from Bowen Downs to his sister three months later, 5th May, 1867, Philip says:—

“You will learn with deep regret that Peter’s health continued so bad up here that he was forced to leave and is now on his way to Sydney for proper medical advice. He was unable to travel on horseback and we sent him down to Port Denison by a team driven by a married man whose wife will look after Peter during the journey of nearly 400 miles, of which almost 200 are across a desert. . . . I hope to be in New South Wales before Christmas. I will not spend another summer in Queensland. Even now at ten a.m. I can scarcely see to write this ; sore eyes and flies being so troublesome, not unlike your description of Cairo !

“This separation is very painful to me, and as bush life is out of the question for Peter, it leaves me to make my way alone. . . . It is now more than six years since I left Scotland, and I am looking forward to the day when I shall be my own master. I can show sufficient proof of ability to manage sheep and stations. A sheep farmer’s life is full of anxiety and care. With my present charge of 10,000 sheep I feel a very great responsibility. I am at times very busy and seldom idle.”

“This station,” he continues, “ is the largest in North Queensland, holding 60,000 sheep and 30,000 cattle. I believe that two thirds of it is one hundred miles square and it extends in one direction alone 300 miles. You can easily imagine the amount of riding an overseer has ; a canter of 25 miles before breakfast, or after dinner, is an everyday occurrence. The head manager of the station is exceedingly kind to us. . . . When I leave, I may have to travel a long distance. I have known instances of men having to travel 700 miles before obtaining a job. You can imagine it requires a little money to travel with and how wretched and miserable it is to be without any. Our journey here cost us nearly all our savings.”

And then in a desponding tone he adds what, indeed, must have been no uncommon experience:—

“Peter and I know what it is to be on the last shilling, and to go hungry from some stations, for they had nothing to give us. One squatter sent us 120 miles with only two pounds of flour to sustain us during the time we should take to travel it. . . . Since I parted from you I have been over a vast territory. I have met men of all nations and creeds. I have been where death was treated with levity on account of its frequency ; where we would awake in the morning to inquire how many had died during the night, and to see the corpses uncoffined and in many instances unknown, hurled into their shallow graves. Circumstances have also thrown me unwillingly into all sorts of company. The old proverbs that ‘honesty is the best policy’ and ‘virtue its own reward,’ are perhaps more exemplified in a civilized community. At the Gulf it seemed to me that the greatest rogues succeeded best. The survivors pillaged the dead as soon as death came. Two public houses principally constituted the famous Burketown. Men will face death for a drink ; where drink is, the more careless they are of death, but I do not like to dwell on the subject. . . .”

Here are some lines which Philip wrote and recited at the station about this time —

Queensland ! thou art a land of pest :
From flies and fleas we ne’er can rest,
E’en now mosquitoes round me revel ;
In fact they are the very devil.
Sand flies and hornets just as bad,
They nearly drive a fellow mad.
The scorpion and the centipede,
And stinging ants of every breed,
Iguanas, lizards, and poisonous snakes,
Deadly fever with the shakes,
Bandicoots and thieving rats,
Bears, opossums, and native cats,
Wallabies and kangaroos,
Native dogs and cockatoos,
Barcoo spew, rot, and sandy blight.
Dingoes howling all the night,
As well as hosts of croaking frogs,
Curlews, quails and yelling dogs.
Carpentaria alligators and crocodile
Cause one to fear, dispel a smile :
Kanakas, Chinese, and murderous Blacks,
Frightful roads and outlandish tracks,
Spinifex and desert sandy,
Horrid rum and wretched brandy,
Bad tobacco and ad valorem,
These troubles — who could e’er get o’er ’em ?”

The brothers Lorimer had indeed been hitherto most unfortunate in their bush experiences. But they were not the only sufferers who complained. Many others wrote in similar strain. Another “University Man” parodied a well-known song, in order to express his feelings.

“To the Gulf, to the Gulf, to Australia’s fag-end,
Where all kinds of misery walk hand in hand ;
Where a man is soon done, if he’s willing to broil,
And the strongest soon finds himself under the soil ;
Where the squatters are rapidly going to pot,
And the men are all dying like sheep of the rot.
When I’m tired of existence, my footsteps I’ll bend
To that fair ‘Land of Promise,’ Australia’s fag-end.

“To the Gulf, to the Gulf, to that blissful retreat,
Where roguery stalks coolly abroad in the heat ;
Where a cheque is a cheque, if you live till it’s got,
But the chance is a hundred to one that you’ll not ;
For unless you can live in a swamp like a frog,
You may reckon on dying the death of a dog ;
Then, if you are foolish, your steps you will bend
To that fair ‘Land of Promise,’ Australia’s fag-end.

“To the Gulf, to the Gulf, to the land of the flies,
Where each insect tormentor for mastery tries
Which shall plague you the most in the terrible heat ;
The Gulf is most truly a blissful retreat.
Carpentaria ! high wages have no charms for me,
In an atmosphere pregnant with death ‘on the spree,’
When I’ve no other refuge, my steps I will bend
To that Gulf full of horrors, Australia’s fag-end.”

By the following season the fever had abated ; no cases were reported in the Gulf country. If we may believe a newspaper correspondent, “the climate in August was delightful ; grass and water were abundant in the country on the Flinders and its tributaries ; the sheep were doing well, and the cattle ‘rolling fat.’ ” It is an old story and peculiarly Australian : periods of flood and plenty alternating with those of drought and famine. The country where Philip and Peter suffered so terribly was abandoned but has been retaken; is now more or less fenced in; roads, bridges and even railways bring much of it to-day within easy reach of the more settled districts.

Philip continued in Queensland nearly three years longer at stations on the Thomson River and further south, at Wallumbilla on the famous Darling Downs, busily occupied, yet finding time to write love songs.

E. A. Petherick (editor). Songs and Verses by Philip Durham Lorimer: An Australian Bush Poet, William Clowes and Sons, London, 1901, pages 12-22

Editor’s notes:
ad valorem = (Latin) “according to the value”; commonly used for a tax imposed on property or goods as a percentage of the value of the item

fag-end = a poor, useless, worn-out, or inferior end (or remnant) of something; may also be applied to the last or extreme end of something (e.g. the fag end of a rope, the fag end of a civilisation)

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