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The Confessions of a Beachcomber by E J Banfield




"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he
hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears."
THOREAU


To the Honourable Robert Philp, M.L.A.
"Exact in his life,
Extensive in his charity,
Exemplary in everything he does,"
THIS BOOK IS RESPECTFULLY DEDICATED BY ONE WHO OWES
TO HIM MUCH OF HIS LOVE FOR TROPICAL QUEENSLAND.




CONTENTS



PART I


INTRODUCTION

CHAPTER I

THE BEACHCOMBER'S DOMAIN
OFFICIAL LANDING
OUR ISLAND
EARLY HISTORY
SATELLITES AND NEIGHBOURS
PLANS AND PERFORMANCES

CHAPTER II

BEACHCOMBING
TROPICAL INDUSTRIES
SOME DIFFRENCES
ISLAND FAUNA

CHAPTER III

BIRDS AND THEIR RIGHTS
A CENSUS
THE DAYBREAK FUGUE
THE MEGAPODE
SWAMP PHEASANT
"GO-BIDGER-ROO"
BULLY, SWAGGERER, SWASHBUCKLER
EYES AFLAME
THE NESTFUL TREE
"STATELY FACE AND MAGNANIMOUS MINDE"
WHITE NUTMEG PIGEON
FRUIT EATERS
AUSTRALIA'S HUMMING BIRD
"MOOR-GOODY"
THE FLAME-TREE'S VISITORS
RED LETTER BIRDS
CASUAL AND UNPRECISE

CHAPTER IV

GARDEN OF CORAL
QUEER FISH
THE WARTY GHOUL
"BURRA-REE"
FOUR THOUSAND LIKE ONE
THE BAILER SHELL
A RIVAL TO THE OYSTER
SHARKS AND SKIPPERS
GORGEOUS AND CURIOUS
TURTLE GENERALLY
THE MERMAID OF TO-DAY
BECHE-DE-MER

CHAPTER V

THE TYRANNY OF CLOTHES
SINGLE-HANDEDNESS
A BUTTERFLY REVERIE
THE SERPENT BEGUILED
ADVENTURE WITH A CROCODILE
THE ARAB'S PRECEPT

CHAPTER VI

IN PRAISE OF THE PAPAW
THE CONQUERING TREE
THE UMBRELLA-TREE
THE GENUINE UPAS-TREE
THE CREEPING PALM
MAUVE, GREEN AND GREY
STEALTHY MURDERERS
TREE GROG

CHAPTER VII

"THE LORD AND MASTER OF FLIES"
A TRAGEDY IN YELLOW
COLOUR EFFECTS
MUSICAL FROGS
ACTS WELL ITS PART
GREEN ANT CORDIAL
WOOING WITH WINGS
THE GREED OF THE SNAKE
A SWALLOWING FEAT


PART II

STONE AGE FOLKS

CHAPTER I

PASSING AWAY
TURTLE AND SUCKERS
A "KUMMAORIE"
WEATHER DISTURBERS
A DINNER-PARTY
BLACK ART
A POISONOUS FOOD
MESSAGE STICKS
HOOKS OF PEARL
"WILD" DYNAMITE
A CAVERN AND ITS LEGEND
A SOULFUL DANCE
A SONG WITHOUT WORDS
ORIGIN OF THE SOUTHERN CROSS
CROCODILE CATCHING
SUICIDE BY CROCODILE
DISAPPEARANCE OF BLACKS

CHAPTER II

GRORGE: A MIXED CHARACTER
YAB-OO-RAGOO: OTHERWISE "MICKIE"
TOM: HIS WIVES: HIS BATTLES
"LITTLE JINNY": IN LIFE AND IN DEATH
THE LANGUAGE TEST
LAST OF THE LINE

CHAPTER III

ATTRIBUTES AND ANECDOTES
COMMON AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS
THE "DEBIL-DEBIL"
CLOTHING SUPERFLUOUS
BROTHER AND SISTER
THE RAINBOW
SWIMMING FEATS
SMOKE SIGNALS
THUNDER FACTORY
THE ORACLE
A REAL LETTER
A BLACK DEGENERATE
JUMPED AT A CONCLUSION
PRIDE OF RACE
"YANKEE CHARLEY"
MYALL'S BAKING
EVERYTHING FOR A NAME
THE KNIGHTLY GROWTH
HONOUR AND GLORY
FIRE JUMP UP
SLOP TEETH
A FASCINATED BOY
AWKWARD CROSS-EXAMINATION
THE ONLY ROCK
SAW THE JOKE
ZEBRA'S VANITY
LAURA'S TRAITS
ROYAL BLANKETS
HIS DAILY BREAD
HUMAN NATURE
AN APT RETORT
MISSIS'S TROUSERS
DULL-WITTED
STRATEGY
LITERAL TRUTH
MAGIC THAT DID NOT WORK
ANTI-CLIMAX
LITTLE FELLA CREEK SAILOR
A FATEFUL BARGAIN
EXCUSABLE BIAS
THE TRIAL SCENE
A REFLECTION ON THE HORSE
TRIUMPH OF MATTER OVER MIND
THE RUSE THAT FAILED
THE BIG WORD
MICKIE'S VERSION
HONOURABLE JOHNNY
THE TRANSFORMATION
MONEY-MAKING TRICK
HONOURABLE CHASTISEMENT
"AND YOU TOO"
PARADISE

CHAPTER IV

AND THIS OUR LIFE

* * * * *





PART I




THE CONFESSIONS OF A BEACHCOMBER



INTRODUCTION


Does the fact that a weak mortal sought an unprofaned sanctuary - an
island removed from the haunts of men - and there dwelt in tranquillity,
happiness and security, represent any just occasion for the relation of
his experiences - experiences necessarily out of the common? To this
proposition it will be for these pages to find answer.

Few men of their own free will seek seclusion, for does not man belong to
the social vertebrates, and do not the instincts of the many rule? And
when an individual is fain to acknowledge himself a variant from the
type, and his characteristics or idiosyncrasies (as you will) to be so
marked as to impel him to deem them sound and reasonable; when, after
sedate and temperate ponderings upon all the aspects of voluntary exile
as affecting his lifetime partner as well as himself, he deliberately
puts himself out of communion with his fellows, does the experiment
constitute him a messenger? Can there be aught of entertainment or
instruction in the message he may fancy himself called upon to deliver?
or, is the fancy merely another phase of the tyranny of temperament?

We cannot always trust in ourselves and in the boldest of our illusions.
There must be trial. Then, if success be achieved and the illusion
becomes real and transcendental, and other things and conditions merely
"innutritious phantoms," were it not wise, indeed essential, to tell of
it all, so that mayhap the illusions of others may be put to the test?

Not that it is good or becoming that many should attempt the part of the
Beachcomber. All cannot play it who would. Few can be indifferent to that
which men commonly prize. All are not free to test touchy problems with
the acid of experience. Besides, there are not enough thoughtful islands
to go round. Only for the few are there ideal or even convenient scenes
for those who, while perceiving some of the charms of solitude, are at
the same time compelled by circumstances ever and anon to administer to
their favourite theories resounding smacks, making them jump to the
practical necessities of the case.

Here then I come to a point at which frankness is necessary. In these
pages there will be an endeavour to refrain from egotism, and yet how may
one who lives a lonesome life on an island and who presumes to write its
history evade that duty? My chief desire is to set down in plain language
the sobrieties of everyday occurrences - the unpretentious homilies of an
unpretentious man - one whose mental bent enabled him to take but a
superficial view of most of the large, heavy and important aspects of
life, but who has found light in things and subjects homely, slight and
casual; who perhaps has queer views on the pursuit of happiness, and who
above all has an inordinate passion for freedom and fresh air.

Moreover, these chronicles really have to do with the lives of two
people - not youthful enthusiasts, but beings who had arrived at an age
when many of the minor romances are of the past. Whosoever looks for the
relation of sensational adventures, exciting situations, or even humorous
predicaments, will assuredly be disappointed. Possibly there may be
something to interest those who wish to learn a few of the details of the
foundation of a home in tropical Australia; and to understand the
conditions of life here, not as they affect the man of independence who
seeks to enlarge his fortune, nor the settler who in the sweat of his
face has to eat bread, but as they affect one to whom has been given
neither poverty nor riches, and who has proved (to his own satisfaction
at least) the wisdom of the sage who wrote - "If you wish to increase a
man's happiness seek not to increase his possessions, but to decrease his
desires." Success will have been achieved if these pages reveal candour
and truthfulness, and if thereby proof is given that in North Queensland
one "can draw nearer to nature, and though the advantages of civilisation
remain unforfeited, to the happy condition of the simple, uncomplicated
man!"

In furtherance of the desire that light may shine upon certain phases of
the character of the Australian aboriginal, space is allotted in this
book to selected anecdotes. Some are original; a few have been previously
honoured by print. Others have wandered, unlettered vagrants, so far and
wide as to have lost all record of legitimacy. To these houseless
strangers I gladly offer hospitality, and acknowledge with thankfulness
their cheerful presence.

Grateful acknowledgments are due to Mr F. Manson Bailey, F.L.S., the
official botanist of Queensland, for the scientific nomenclature of trees
and plants referred to in a general way.

E. J. BANFIELD.
BRAMMO BAY, DUNK ISLAND,
November, 1906.




CHAPTER I



THE BEACHCOMBER'S DOMAIN


Two and a half miles off the north-eastern coast of Australia - midway,
roughly speaking, between the southern and the northern limits of the
Great Barrier Reef, that low rampart of coral which is one of the wonders
of the world - is an island bearing the old English name of Dunk.

Other islands and islets are in close proximity, a dozen or so within a
radius of as many miles, but this Dunk Island is the chief of its group,
the largest in area, the highest in altitude, the nearest the mainland,
the fairest, the best. It possesses a well-sheltered haven (herein to be
known as Brammo Bay), and three perennially running creeks mark a further
splendid distinction. It has a superficial area of over three square
miles. Its topography is diversified - hill and valley, forest and jungle,
grassy combes and bare rocky shoulders, gloomy pockets and hollows,
cliffs and precipices, bold promontories and bluffs, sandy beaches, quiet
coves and mangrove flats. A long V-shaped valley opens to the south-east
between steep spurs of a double-peaked range. Four satellites stand in
attendance, enhancing charms superior to their own.

This island is our home. He who would see the most picturesque portions
of the whole of the 2000 miles of the east coast of Australia must pass
within a few yards of our domain.

In years gone by, Dunk Island, "Coonanglebah" of the blacks, had an evil
repute. Fertile and fruitful, set in the shining sea abounding with
dugong, turtle and all manner of fish; girt with rocks rough-cast with
oysters; teeming with bird life, and but little more than half an hour's
canoe trip from the mainland, the dusky denizens were fat, proud,
high-spirited, resentful and treacherous, far from friendly or polite to
strangers. One sea-captain was maimed for life in our quiet little bay
during a misunderstanding with a hasty black possessed of a new bright
tomahawk, a rare prize in those days. This was the most trivial of the
many incidents by which the natives expressed their character.
Inhospitable acts were common when the white folks first began to pay the
island visits, for they found the blacks hostile and daring. Why invoke
those long-silent spectres, white as well as black, when all active
boorishness is of the past? Civilisation has almost fulfilled its
inexorable law; but four out of a considerable population remain, and
they remember naught of the bad old times when the humanising processes,
or rather the results of them, began to be felt. They must have been a
fine race, fine for Australian aboriginals at least, judging by the stamp
of two of those who survive; and perhaps that is why they resented
interference, and consequently soon began to give way before the
irresistible pressure of the whites. Possibly, had they been more docile
and placid, the remnants would have been more numerous though less
flattering representatives of the race. You shall judge of the type by
what is related of some of the habits and customs of the semi-civilised
survivors.

Dunk Island is well within the tropical zone, its true bearings being 146
deg. 11 min. 20 sec. E. long., and 17 deg. 55 min. 25 sec. S. lat. It is
but 30 miles south of the port of Geraldton, the wettest place in
Australia, as well as the centre of the chief sugar-producing district of
the State of Queensland. There the rainfall averages about 140 inches per
annum. Geraldton has in its immediate background two of the highest
mountains in Australia (5,400 feet), and on these the monsoons buffet and
break their moisture-laden clouds, affording the district much
meteorological fame. Again, 20 miles to the south lies Hinchinbrook
Island, 28 miles long, 12 miles broad, and mountainous from end to end:
there also the rain-clouds revel. The long and picturesque channel which
divides Hinchinbrook from the mainland, and the complicated ranges of
mountains away to the west, participate in phenomenal rain.

Opposite Dunk Island the coastal range recedes and is of much lower
elevation, and to these facts perhaps is to be attributed our modified
rainfall compared with the plethora of the immediate North; but we get
our share, and when people deplore the droughts which devastate
Australia, let it be remembered that Australia is huge, and the most
rigorous of Australian droughts merely partial. This country has never
known drought. During the partial drought which ended with 1905, and
which occasioned great losses throughout the pastoral tracts of
Queensland, grass and herbage here were perennially green and
succulent - the creeks never ceased running.

Within the tropics heat is inevitable, but our island enjoys several
climatic advantages. The temperature is equable. Blow the wind
whithersoever it listeth, and it comes to us cooled by contact with the
sea. Here may we drink oft and deep at the never-failing font of pure,
soft, beneficent air. We have all the advantages which residence at the
happy mean from the Equator bestows, and few of the drawbacks. By its
fruits ye shall know the fertility of the soil.

Birds are numerous, from the "scrub fowl" which dwells in the dim jungle
and constructs of decaying leaves and wood and light loam the most
trustworthy of incubators, and wastes no valuable time in the
dead-and-alive duty of sitting, to the tiny sun-bird of yellow and
purple, which flits all day among scarlet hibiscus blooms, sips nectar
from the flame-tree, and rifles the dull red studs of the umbrella tree
of their sweetness.

The stalled ox is not here, nor the fatted calf, nor any of the mere
advantages of the table; but there is the varied harvest of the sea, and
all the freshness of an isle clean and green. The heat, the clatter, the
stuffy odours, the toilsomeness, the fatigue of town life are abandoned;
the careless quiet, the calm, the refreshment of the whole air, the tonic
of the wide sea are gained. From the moment the sun illumines our hills
and isles with glowing yellow until it drops in fiery splendour suddenly
out of sight leaving a band of gleaming red above the purple western
range, and a rippling red path across to Australia, the whole realm of
nature seems ours to command.

OFFICIAL LANDING

Dunk Island was not selected haphazard as an abiding place. By
camping-out expeditions and the cautious gleaning of facts from those who
had the repute of knowing the country, useful information had been
acquired unobtrusively. We were determined to have the best obtainable
isle. More than one locality was favourably considered ere good fortune
decided to send us hither to spy out the land. A camp-out on the shore of
then unnamed Brammo Bay - a holiday-making party - and the result of the
first day's exploration decided a revolutionary change in the lives of two
seriously-minded persons. A year after, a lease of the best portion of
the island having been obtained in the meanwhile, we came for good.

Wholly uninhabited, entirely free from traces of the mauling paws of
humanity, lovely in its mantle of varied foliage, what better sphere for
the exercise of benign autocracy could be desired? Here was virgin
country, 20 miles from the nearest port - sad and neglected Cardwell cut
off from the mainland by more than 2 miles of estranging ocean, and yet
lying in the track of small coastal steamers - here all our pet theories
might serenely develop.

But it was an inauspicious landing. With September begin the north-east
winds, and we had an average experience that afternoon. Was it not a
farce - a great deal more than a farce: a saucy, flippant imposition on the
tender mercies of Providence - for an individual who could not endure a few
hours of tossing on the bosom of the ocean without becoming deadly sick,
to imagine that he possessed the hardihood to establish a home even in
this lovely wilderness? We had tents and equipment and a boat of our own,
a workman to help us at the start, and two faithful black servants.

The year before, we had made the acquaintance of one of the few survivors
of the native population of the island - stalwart Tom. Although our project
and preparations had been kept fairly secret, he had overheard a casual
reference to them; had made a canoe, and paddling from island to island
with his gin, an infant and mother-in-law, had preceded our advent by a
week. His duties began with the discharging of the first boatload of
portable property. He comes and goes now after the lapse of years.

They spread out tents and rugs for the weak mortal who had greatly dared,
but who, thus early, was ready to faint from weariness and sickness. They
made comforting and soothing drinks, and spoke of cheery things in cheery
tones; but the sick man refused to be comforted. He wished himself back,
a participator in the conflicts of civilisation, and was fain to cover
his face - there was no wall to which to turn - and fancy that the most
dismal sound in the universe was the surly monotone the north-easter
harped on the beach. We reposed that night among the camp equipment, the
sick man caring for naught in his physical collapse and disconsolation.

But the first morning of the new life! A perfect combination of
invigorating elements. The cloudless sky, the clear air, the shining sea,
the green folded slopes of Tam o' Shanter Point opposite, the
cleanliness of the sand, the sweet odours from the eucalypts and the
dew-laden grass, the luminous purple of the islands to the south-east;
the range of mountains to the west and north-west, and our own fair
tract-awaiting and inviting, and all the mystery of petted illusions
about to be solved! Physic was never so eagerly swallowed nor wrought a
speedier or surer cure.

Feebleness and dismay vanished with the first plunge into the still
sleepy sea, and alertness and vigour returned, as the incense of the
first morning's sacrifice went straight as a column to the sky.

Over half a century before, Edmund B. Kennedy, the explorer, landed on
the opposite shore, on his ill-fated expedition up Cape York, to find the
country inland from Tam o' Shanter Point altogether different from any
previously-examined part of Australia. We gave no thought to the gallant
explorer, near as we were to the scenes of his desperate struggle in the
entanglements of the jungle.

The island was all before us, where to choose our place of rest, and the
bustle of the transport of goods and chattels to the site in the thick
forest invisible from the sea began at once. Before sunset, tents were
pitched among the trees, and a few yards of bush surrounding then
cleared, and we were at home.

Prior to departing from civilisation we had arranged for the construction
of a hut of cedar, so contrived with nicely adjusting parts and bolts,
and all its members numbered, that a mere amateur could put it together.
If at the end of six months' trial the life was found to be unendurable,
or serious objection not dreamt of in our salad philosophy became
apparent, then our dwelling could be packed up again. All would not be
lost.

The clearing of a sufficient space for the accommodation of the hut was
no light task for unaccustomed hands, for the bloodwood trees were mighty
and tough, and the dubious work of burning up the trunks and branches
while yet green, in our eagerness for free air and tidiness, was
undertaken. It was also accomplished.

For several weeks there was little done save to build a kitchen and shed
and widen the clearing in the forest. Inspection of the details of our
domain was reserved as a sort of reward for present task and toil.
According to the formula neatly printed in official journals, the
building of a slab hut is absurdly easy - quite a pastime for the settler
eager to get a roof of bark or thatch over his head. The frame, of
course, goes up without assistance, and then the principal item is the
slabs for walls. When you have fallen your tree and sawn off a block of
the required length, you have only to split off the slab. Ah! but suppose
the timber does not split freely, and your heavy maul does; and the
wedges instead of entering have the habit of bouncing out as if they were
fitted with internal springs, and your maul wants renewal several times,
until you find that the timber prescribed is of no account for such
tools; and at best your slabs run off to nothing at half length, and
several trees have to be cut down before you get a single decent slab,
and everybody is peevish with weariness and disappointment, the rudest
house in the bush will be a long time in the building. "Experience is a
hard mistress, yet she teacheth as none other." We came to be more
indebted to the hard mistress - she gave us blistering palms and aching
muscles - than to all the directions and prescriptions of men who claim to
have climbed to the top of the tree in the profession of the "bush." A
"bush" carpenter is a very admirable person, when he is not also a bush
lawyer. Mere amateurs would be wise if they held their enthusiasm in
check when they read the recipe - pat as the recipe for the making of a
rice-pudding - for the construction of even a bark hut. It is so very easy
to write it all down; but if you have had no actual experience in
bark-cutting, and your trees are not in the right condition, you will put
your elation to a shockingly severe test, harden the epidermis of your
hands, and the whole of your heart, and go to bed many nights sadly ere
you get one decent sheet for your roof.

We do not all belong to the ancient and honourable family of the Swiss
Robinsons, who performed a series of unassuming miracles on their island.
There was no practical dispensation of providential favours on our
behalf. Trees that had the reputation of providing splendid splitting
timber defiantly slandered themselves, and others that should have almost
flayed themselves at the first tap of the tomahawk had not the slightest
regard for the reputation vouched for in serious publications.

But why "burden our remembrance with a heaviness that's gone?" Why recall
the memory of those acheful days, when all the pleasant and restful
features of the island are uncatalogued? Before the rains began we had
comfortable if circumscribed shelter. Does not that suffice? Our dwelling
consisted of one room and a kitchen. Perforce the greater part of our
time was spent out of doors. Isolation kept us moderately free from
visitors. Those who did violate our seclusion had to put up with the
consequences. We had purchased liberty. Large liberties are the
birthright of the English. We had acquired most of the small liberties,
and the ransom paid was the abandonment of many things hitherto deemed to
form an integral part of existence.

Had we not cast aside all traditions, revolting from the uniformity of
life, from the rules of the bush as well as from the conventionalities of
society? Here we were to indulge our caprices, work out our own
salvation, live in accordance with our own primitive notions, and, if
possible, find pleasure in haunts which it is not popularly supposed to
frequent.

Others may point to higher ideals and tell of exciting experiences, of
success achieved, and glory and honour won. Ours not to envy superior
qualifications and victories which call for strife and struggle, but to
submit ourselves joyfully to the charms of the "simple life."

OUR ISLAND

"Awake, O North Wind, and come, thou South,
Blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out."

Our Island! What was it when we came into possession? From the sea,
merely a range displaying the varied leafage of jungle and forest. A
steep headland springing from a ledge of rock on the north, and a broad,
embayed-based flat converging into an obtruding sand-spit to the west,
enclose a bay scarcely half a mile from one horn to the other, the sheet
of water almost a perfect crescent, with the rocky islet of Purtaboi,



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