Frederic C. (Frederic Chambers) Spurr.

Five years under the Southern Cross; experiences and impressions online

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enough to give away their shares, or to sell them at
ridiculous prices, rather than pay the continual
"calls" made upon them. One man, whose name to-
day is intimately associated with Bendigo, found a

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Five Years under the Southern Cross

fortune in this way. He was entreated by a disap-
pointed shareholder to buy shares at sixpence each.
It seemed like throwing money away to buy even at
that price, for the mine was exhausted. Yet he
bought them, and then, in a moment, the tide turned
and gold was discovered in the exhausted mine, and
the almost penniless man who had bought shares for
which he could scarcely pay, became a semi-million-
aire. Such are the fortunes of the gold-field. The
mine we descended was 2,100 feet deep. The shaft,
top gear and cage resembled those of a coal mine,
save that the wheels over the shaft were less than
half the size of tfiose of an English coal-pit. And,
of course, there was an absence of the grime asso-
ciated with a coal mine. We had to divest ourselves
of all our ordinary garments and to don a costume
which for the time gave us rank amongst tramps.
Armed with a candle, we entered the cage, and de-
scended. The journey seemed interminable. For
more than two minutes we were slowly dropping
through the shaft, enveloped in a profound darkness,
and subjected to a perpetual baptism of water which
rained upon us. There are times when seconds seem
like minutes, and minutes like hours. And the two
minutes and a half we were in that cage, suspended
by a slender steel rope, seemed a small eternity.

The temperature at the bottom was nearly 80 deg.
Fahrenheit, and we were compelled to remove all
clothing, save our trousers. In a few minutes we had
entered upon the experience of a Turkish bath;
streams of perspiration ran down our bodies. When-

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The Golden Cities

ever we lighted upon a group of miners we saw that
they also were living in a perpetual bath. Nearly
stripped, great beads of perspiration stood out on
their flesh. "We are used to it, sir," said one of
them cheerfully, but I learned that for some of them
this " use " meant disease and death largely through
want of care when they brought their overheated
bodies to the surface. Along well-built corridors we
tramped, holding our lighted candles ahead of us.
No danger in the gold mine of that terrible fire-
damp which is so fatal to coal miners. But in the
gold mine there is another danger like that which
threatens colliers; that of falling masses of mineral.
We came to one place where on the previous day,
without warning, a hundred tons of rock and quartz
had fallen. Happily, no man was injured; but it is
not always so. When our turn came to crawl along
on hands and knees, surrounded by angry-looking
rock possessing sinister-looking gaps, the perspira-
tion did not decrease in volume. It seemed as if a
single touch would suffice to bring down a hundred
tons weight upon our fragile backs. The danger is
always present despite every precaution taken to en-
sure safety. Blasting continually goes on, and then
the danger is at its height.

Let me confess to a feeling of disappointment. In
a coal mine the black diamonds glisten under one's
eyes. There is no faith required to believe in the
presence of coal. The seams are there, and all that is
necessary is to dislodge the coal, load it in trucks and
convey it to the surface. It is otherwise in the gold

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Five Years under the Southern Cross

mine. In my simplicity I was looking out for
nuggets, as men used to do on the surface. Alas!
we saw not so much as the ghost of a nugget. To
our untrained eyes there was not the suspicion of gold
anywhere. Everywhere we caught the glitter of a
yellow substance, which at first we mistook for gold,
but which is in reality worthless. The gold is hidden
in these vast seams of quartz, which have to be dis-
lodged, brought to the surface, sent to the battery,
crushed and washed. And then at last, when the
water has ceased flowing over the pulverised mass of
sand, the gold is discovered. It is all faith at first.
These men justify their business by faith, and then,
in the final analysis, justify it by verification. The
layman would pass by all this quartz as so much
rock or stone. The expert knows that hidden within
it is the most desired of all metals. Yet they never
know what may be found below. Hence, every man
is searched when he reaches the surface. A year or
two ago there was a scandal at Bendigo over gold-
stealing, and there were found many defenders of the
men. Formerly the most ingenious devices were em-
ployed by the miners to conceal any gold they had
abstracted in the mine. One of the favourite methods
was to swallow the metal and to take means later to
disgorge it.

It is easy to moralise in a gold mine. Perspira-
tion, discomfort, danger, deprivation of the light of
day, an invitation held out to pneumonia, and all for
a bit of yellow metal which men have accepted as the
basis of exchange ! And to-morrow, if a fresh Ben-

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The Golden Cities

digo were discovered, there would be the same rush
and the same risks taken. It is civilisation. And is
the world very much happier than when men ex-
changed one useful article for another and when gold
was unknown ?

After science, Nature once more. Those desolate
surfaces at White Hills, plundered of their golden
treasure and bequeathed as an eyesore, have been
converted. For years they lay despised of all men.
The soil was said to be unfruitful. Men resigned
themselves to the spectacle of a wilderness. And
then came one or two Spaniards who saw visions of
gardens in that belated spot. They planted tomatoes,
and, lo ! the love apple flourished where the desert had
reigned. And more, led by the foreigner, whose in-
trusion was at first resented, the inhabitants of the
district are cultivating tomatoes, which grow beauti-
fully on the alluvial soil. Thus the gash made upon
the face of Nature by man's spade and pick is slowly
healing, and a red growth is obliterating the ugly
work of fifty years ago. And so it is ever : the arti-
ficial thing goes ever deeper into the darkness, while
the beauty of Nature remains a perpetual enchant-
ment. The gashes disappear under our mother's
healing touch.



'73



CHAPTER XX

THE MIRACLE OF THE MALLEE

LET no man declare anything to be impossible until
he has seen the Mallee ; he will then be in a position
to affirm the reality of natural miracle wrought with
the co-operation of man; he will know that a desert
can blossom as the rose, and that the place where
jackals lay can become a glorious human habitation.
I have just beheld this miracle and now hasten to
declare it.

The Mallee is an immense territory embracing
about one-quarter of the State of Victoria that is to
say, twelve millions of acres. Until recent years it
was regarded as a hopeless wilderness. In the early
'eighties a Royal Commission was appointed to inquire
into the possibilities of this dreaded country. Their
report was dismal to the last degree. The wise and
learned men declared that the aspect of the country
was that of a wilderness in the strictest sense of the
word ! sand, scrub and mallee below, the scorching
sun and blue sky above, and not a sound of life to
break the solemn silence. In a journey of 100 miles
from north to south the Commission did not encounter
a solitary bird or a single living creature. The only
evidence of animal life was the barked stems of

'74



The Miracle of the Mallee

stunted scrub and bushes where the rabbit had once
fed, and the dead carcases of a few dingoes which
the trappers had snared or poisoned. As for water,
all that could be discovered over an area of a few
thousands of square miles was a few native wells, a
small lagoon or two and one or two muddy water-
holes. Throughout the entire region there was no
grass.

Such a country was pronounced to be hopeless,
and more than once the question was asked in Parlia-
ment : " Is the Mallee worth saving ? "

It is a little difficult to convey to an English
reader what is meant by "scrub." It must be seen to
be understood. But some idea of it may be gained
if the reader can imagine an interminable country as
big as four or five of the largest English counties
put together, and this country covered with a dense
undergrowth through which no man unaided could
possibly force his way. A country absolutely flat,
with not so much as a ghost of a hill to serve as a
landmark. Not a track ever made by human feet.
Scrub so thick that a man passing into it even for a
short distance would need the device of a piece of
string fastened to a tree at the place of entrance and
by means of which alone he could find his way out
again. That was the Mallee of forty years ago.
More than one man set himself the task of conquering
this wilderness. In every case he had to retire beaten.
If he succeeded in clearing a space of ground and
planting upon it wheat or vegetables, or raising a few
head of sheep or cattle, down came the dingo and the



Five Years under the Southern Cross

rabbit from afar to kill his lambs and consume his
green crop, or, if he successfully armed himself
against these intruders, the heavens became his foe
and refused to shower down the kindly rain. Wild
animals, vermin and drought the settler could not
withstand them.

Then came a day when the Government erected a
fence of wire netting around an enclosed area of two
hundred miles. That was to keep out the dingo and
the rabbit, and to give the new settlers a chance of
cultivating the ground. Then followed the discovery
of water in the heart of the country. Already sixty-
three bores have been put down which tap water in
an area of 500,000 acres. Later a supply of water
has been drawn from the Grampian Hills, eighty
miles away, and this is conveyed by means of
channels to various settlements in the Mallee.
Periodically the huge receptacles at the bottoms of the
fields are filled up by this supply. Then the farmers
draw it upon their land. The discovery of water in
the interior, and the new supply from the Grampians,
have helped to solve the problem of the Mallee. The
country could not possibly exist upon its rainfall,
which averages at the best only fifteen inches per
annum. Enclosure and water, then, were the two
primary elements in the transformation of this desert.
The final element was found in scientific farming.
One grand secret lies in frequent fallowing. The soil
is so treated that it retains its moisture. "Dry"
farming is practised by many, and the results of this
process are remarkable. Senator McColl, who has

176



The Miracle of the Mallee

made a special study of this particular branch of agri-
culture, predicts that by means of "dry" farming
most of the difficulties of the Mallee will yet be over-
come. Barely twenty years have passed since the
problem of the Mallee was seriously attacked, and
already a miracle has been accomplished. This
former desert now produces one-fifth of the entire
wheat crop of the State of Victoria, and it is claimed
that Mallee wheat is the best in the world. .Where
twenty years ago or less a hundred acres of land
would support only one sheep, to-day five sheep are
supplied by two acres. Land that was not worth
giving away is now valued at ^5 per acre, and prices
are rising. The Mallee promises to be the Beulah
Land of Victoria. Indeed, the people have become
prophets in naming one of their chief townships
"Beulah." At the first, the place was named in faith,
and when the great drought came " Beulah " seemed
to be a ghastly caricature of the actual situation. One
poor settler, crushed to the dust by misfortune, yet
retained enough waggishness to parody a well-known
revival hymn thus :

"We've reached the land of drought and heat
Where nothing grows for us to eat ;
For winds that blow with scorching heat
This Beulah land is hard to beat.

O Beulah land, hot Beulah land,

As on the burning soil we stand

We look away across the plains

And wonder why it never rains ! "
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Five Years under the Southern Cross

That year of drought was terrible. Men were
reduced to living on the very minimum of rations.
It was only a decade ago, but the recovery has been
phenomenal. As the years pass, science will lay for
ever the spectre of drought.

It was through this wonderfully fertile country
that I had the privilege of motoring in December,
1913. The experience was unique in every way.
The hospitality of the people was unbounded. In
the small towns there were banquets and receptions
given in honour of the "distinguished visitor."
Churches and halls were crowded for the sermons and
lectures. Farmers drove in by carriage and motor
from every point of the compass. An angel from
heaven could not have been treated more royally than
was a preacher from Melbourne. To my amazement
I found in little far-away Beulah the electric light
installed in every house. The churches are beautiful
little buildings. The streets of the "town " are wide.
The shops are modern. The houses are commodious
and comfortable. A year ago there was not a garden
in the township : to-day every house has a garden.
A grass lawn springs up as by magic when once water
is laid on.

My tour consisted of an eighty-mile drive through
one vast wheat field. As far as the eye could reach
in every direction the fields were filled with ripen-
ing or ripened wheat. Fields ! I said. And what
fields ! Several of them extended for over half a
mile in one direction alone. Farming here is farm-
ing. Land is measured by miles rather than by acres.

178



The Miracle of the Mallee

The whole process of reaping is modern. The "com-
plete harvester " is in general use over these immense
fields. It is a wonderful piece of machinery, com-
pletely superseding the old methods of reaping, bind-
ing, stacking, etc. The "harvester " does everything.
It cuts the wheat, winnows it, fills up one bag with
chaff and another with wheat, while the driver moves
across the vast space. Automatically, the bags filled
with grain are deposited at certain intervals upon the
field. When the "harvester " has been over the crop
there is nothing more to be done ; the wheat is ready
for exportation. The perfect climate permits this
complete process to be undertaken at a stroke. The
wheat is cut when quite ripe and quite dry. It never
lies in the fields to be sodden and spoiled by
capricious rain, as is often the case in England.

At this harvest season in the Mallee we tasted all
the charms of a perfect Australian summer climate.
The eucalyptus was putting forth its new, delicate tips
of gold and brown a perfect blend of bush colour.
The sky was a deep blue, unrelieved by a fleck of
cloud. The air, dry and hot, encompassed us like
the breath of a generous oven in which all manner of
savoury things were yielding up their odours. This
blend of bush perfumes, liberated by the heat of the
sun, has a character all its own. The charm is com-
pleted by the extreme clearness of the atmosphere,
which creates many a sweet illusion of the landscape.
On these broad spaces the mirage is frequently seen.
At least half a dozen times we were tricked into be-
lieving that ahead of us lay a glorious stretch of

'79



Five Years under the Southern Cross

water, when all that awaited us was a particularly dry
part of the plain.

Despite the partition of the country amongst
farmers, there is an air of solitude in the Mallee that
is at times depressing. During our eighty miles run
we encountered upon the highway only four living
beings, while on the morrow, we encountered not a
single human being. Life is confined to the farm-
steads, which are scattered. Neighbours are separated
by several miles from each other. But these farm-
houses were the surprise of our journey. Not one of
them is twenty-five years old, yet we found in each
the telephone installed. One farmer, at whose
generous table we lunched, has his own plant of air
gas, and his house is brilliantly illuminated at night.
In every house we visited we found a valuable piano :
in one case it was a German instrument worth over
;ioo. These are the Mallee farmers who in twenty
years or less have compelled this wilderness to blos-
som as the rose, and who, as the result, have furnished
their houses in modern fashion, and with many
luxuries. I could not help contrasting many of the
farms I know well "at home" with these abodes of
comparative luxury in the once desert of Australia.

In some cases the primitive houses and the modern
abodes stand side by side. The former, built of rude
pine blocks and covered with corrugated iron, repre-
sent the struggle and the simplicity of the pioneer
days : the latter represent success and comfort. Most
of these farmers are deeply religious men. They
have not allowed their motor-cars to cheat them out

180



The Miracle of the Mallee

of the old-fashioned Sunday. The churches are
crowded on Sundays, and it is quite a common sight
to behold the chapel yard filled with motors, buggies,
cycles, and other means of locomotion. Worshippers
come for twenty miles to their central churches. And
these Mallee men have not allowed their prosperity
to kill their native generous sentiments. They are
most generous towards their churches. One small
congregation raised ^80 last year for foreign mission
work. A modification of the tithe system is in opera-
tion amongst these good people. They give in
"kind" as well as in money. So many bags per
hundred of wheat and oats are set aside for sale on
behalf of Christian work. It is a primitive but very
effective method of giving.

There is another side to the picture. Away on the
back blocks are men and women who are more
heathen than any persons in Fiji or Samoa. A
clergyman in the Mallee told me that he had visited
people in distant places of the Mallee who had not
even seen a church for more than eighteen years.
These families grow up in complete ignorance of
religion. One child of twelve years of age was
brought in to the "town " to become a mother : later
her sister, a child of fourteen, followed her for the
same purpose. My friend discovered that these chil-
dren, brought up amongst the animals, scarcely ^cnew
the name of God. Their moral sense was unawak-
ened. There are therefore drawbacks to a garden
which has sprung out of the desert.



181



CHAPTER XXI

THE ANNUAL SHOWS

ONCE a year, at least, each Australian State gives
demonstrable evidence, in the most attractive manner,
of its natural wealth. Every State has its annual
Agricultural "Show" to which all loyal people pay
homage, for a display of the stock and the produce of
a country is more than a pastime, it is a revelation of
power and possibilities. Here is an immense tract of
country, covering thousands of square miles. Less
than a century ago it was a wild "bush" covered
with the gum tree and every variety of undergrowth.
Less than fifty years ago only a mere fraction of the
space was "cleared" for agricultural purposes. Slowly
the work of preparing the soil has advanced. So far
as the great outside world is concerned the cultivation
of the country has proceeded in silence. No person
without special knowledge of the march of events
could have dreamed that progress has been so marked
as the issue has revealed it to be. Only when the
total results are massed together in a great " Show "
is it possible to understand how marvellous has been
the rate of progress. Canada has long called, with
alluring voice, to the Old Country to come and aid
its progress and share its wealth. Australia has now

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The Annual Shows

called to the old world. These vast spaces must be
filled, not with fools in search of an easy berth, but
with strong, earnest men and women who will co-
operate with Nature in fructifying the earth.

It was that I might behold with my own eyes what
the Commonwealth had already done in conquering
the soil, and that I might also help to make the old
Mother at home open her eyes to the facts, that I
attended five of Australia's "Shows."

They were impressive, great, revealing. From
every part of the States machinery and produce had
been sent. It was a veritable panorama of a young
country's life and effort. Wheels, still and in motion
the work of man. Life, still and in motion
the work of God. It was quite a serious show.
There were few amusements in it. People who at-
tended it in thousands went to pay homage to the
manhood of the country. It was the life of a young
nation, under this attractive guise, that received the
universal salutation. All this work was Australia's
own. The vast mass of machinery and implements
were fabricated in Australia's workshops. True the
Old Country had a share in the exhibits, but not a
great share. There were imports, but not many.
America, too, always ready to capture Poles, or
equators, or anything else, was represented amongst
the machines. But the significant thing was that the
greater part of the machinery and implements were
made by Australians. The child has grown up, and
got to work, and the old Mother hardly realises what
he is doing so far away.

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Five Years under the Southern Cross

To take the machinery first. Here were engines,
threshing-machines, mowers, ploughs, harrows,
planters, seed-sowers, rollers, hoes, pumps, forges,
grinders, separators, tanks, stoves, fire-fighters, and
hundreds of other agricultural implements "too
numerous to mention," as the consecrated phrase
runs, such as one would find in any English agricul-
tural show. But there were others peculiar to Aus-
tralia. For example, fly-proof tents, window fly-
screens, rabbit poisoners, poison carts, all suggestive
of Australian conditions. Of the rabbit poisoners I
know next to nothing, save that the farmers are com-
pelled to resort to strong measures in order to exter-
minate these pests of the land. But of the flies I am
beginning to learn, by experience, a little. How
grateful these fly-proof screens and tents appeared !
Flies are already appearing in alarming numbers,
and we are bidden to prepare for the annual invasion,
when nothing is sacred from their inquisitive and
poisonous tentacles. Still amongst the machinery, we
observe "forest devils" and stump-pullers. These,
again, are peculiarly Australian, called into existence
by the exigencies of agricultural life. The country
abounds with the stumps of trees. The giants have
been levelled to the ground, but the stumps remain,
firmly rooted in the soil. Now certain portable
"forest devils " have been invented by means of which
one man can, with the aid of a lever and a wheel-gear,
draw from the ground the most stubborn stump of a
tree. Agricultural dentistry that is what it is !
Again, there are several varieties of steel windmills

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The Annual Shows

and other machinery for raising and distributing
water. Irrigation is one of the problems of this
growing country, and engineering science is doing
its best to solve that problem. They have even the
milking machine, that last contrivance to compel
steel and rubber to do what hitherto the human hand
alone has been able to accomplish. Farther on are
carriages and buggies, eminently suited for this land.
But one needs to know them. To a new-comer they
present the appearance of supreme uncomfortableness.
Persons who try them speak in different terms of
them. Certain types of English carriages do not ap-
pear to have found their way here. But while
machinery has a peculiar fascination, it is wholly
eclipsed by the live stock and produce of the country.
I am no judge of cattle, but the professional judges
who awarded prizes had much to say about the quality
of the horses and oxen and sheep and swine. And
everybody seemed pleased, so I cheerfully add my
"Amen," without reason, save that unreasonable
reason that "everybody says so." And "everybody"
in this connection must be right. But I do know
wool when I see it. Australia is proud of its wool,
and it has reason to be. Many of the prize sheep
seemed to have more wool than flesh upon them.
Again and again I buried my hand, and wrist, and
even beyond that, in the wool of the sheep. It hung
upon them in layers; a burden to the poor animals,
a little gold mine to the wool-growers. Of poultry,
also, I am no judge, being severely limited in experi-
ence to a few hens who do not lay nearly so many

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Five Years under the Southern Cross

eggs per day as they should, considering what is
spent upon them. But in the show they had hens
which had laid an average of 240-250 eggs in the


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Online LibraryFrederic C. (Frederic Chambers) SpurrFive years under the Southern Cross; experiences and impressions → online text (page 11 of 18)