The Diggings, the Bush, and Melbourne or, Reminiscences of Three Years' Wanderings in Victoria
THE DIGGINGS, THE BUSH,
REMINISCENCES OF THREE YEARS’ WANDERINGS
G. D. MACKELLAR, 18 Renfield Street.
The following short narrative was written specially for a small circle of intimateacquaintances, who varied the dulness of village life by meeting once a week toread manuscript essays and selections from favourite authors. The time allowedfor reading being limited, and the audience being partly composed of young people,I confined myself mainly to personal experience. As many of the company hadpreviously heard me relate in an off-hand way, the leading incidents, detectionwould have been sure to follow any attempt at spicing my story with fiction.
The incidents are selections merely from three years’ recollections of the Colony.Some who have never been further from home than in their annual visit to awatering place, have been pleased to call them adventures. The term may appeartoo strong to those who like the writer have reclined by a bush fire, listeningto the stories of old hands, but as there may be much serious living withoutbroken bones, I submit this brief history to those who think so.
Gateshead, April, 1864.
THREE YEARS IN VICTORIA.
MARCH TO BENDIGO.
Early in the month of September, 1852, I landed at Cole’s Wharf in Melbourne,one of four hundred passengers newly arrived from Liverpool by the“Lady Head” sailing ship. While yet at sea I had agreed to join a partyof young men who intended starting for the diggings without delay. Wefound the lodging-houses overcrowded, with table-tops, chests, and chairsin use for bedsteads, and we were made acquainted with a considerable portionof the town before we found accommodation. Our capital being smallwe grudged the price asked, but were disposed to be thankful on witnessingnext morning the shifts that numbers of our shipmates had been put to ingetting shelter for the night. Some were lying among the barrels and balesof goods that lay lumbering the wharf. Some two dozen had made freewith some piles of planks and built off-hand houses for themselves, but thenight had been rainy, the roofs had leaked, and they looked anything butrefreshed. Among these latter I observed a mother with a family of youngchildren. A shawl hung across the opening that faced the road, but it wastoo scanty to screen her as she sat with a looking-glass before her settingher hair in order. The husband was absent, and the children sat withcomfortless wonder in their young eyes, gazing at the rude throng that wasbeginning the bustle of the day.
I heard my name called, and turning to look, I recognised a late mess-mateperched on the top of an old waggon-shaped boiler, that stood, as itwere, stabled, amidst the piles of wood. At first I thought he was but takinga birds-eye view of the situation, until another well-known figure struggledup from within, through the man-hole by his side, then a third, a fourth, afifth, a sixth, and a seventh, and all so brown with rust from the hair to theboots that it was evident they were not far from where they had been sleeping.Awakened by the rumbling din they make in clambering out, an eighthfigure is added to the group, but he comes from beneath, and is in a moresingular condition than the others, for the lowness of the fire arch notallowing him to lie otherwise than on his back, his face has got sooted, andthe handkerchief with which he wipes it spreads the marks all over, in variousshades of black. They tried to console themselves with the thought that allthis was but right and proper training for the diggings, but he who had lainin the chill fire-hole seemed to have some doubt upon the matter by the hastehe made to a hot-coffee-stand that stood close by. One who had lain withinproposed that they should further inure themselves to roughing it, by retainingpossession of the boiler for the few days they would be in town, butthe suggestion fell to the ground for want of support. The ground aboutwas littered with the wet chests and the softer baggage of the houseless, andbefore we returned to town the first of the new day’s arrivals from the Bay,by lighter and by steamer, had begun to add to the confusion and the mud,to the evident distress of the wives and others who had been left in chargemeantime.
Our preparations for the road were soon made. Dressed in blouses blue andred, with the creases of the shop folds bearing witness to the newness of ourpurchase, and in bright new leather leggings, and each carrying a couple ofblankets and a change of clothes, with a quantity of bread and other necessariesin a pack slung across his shoulder, and each provided with a tomahawkstuck in his belt, and a tin pot, we joined company with a large partyabout to start from Flag-Staff Hill in the afternoon, having been advisedto do so on account of the unsafeness of the roads. We were about forty innumber at starting, but the packs, or as we were taught to call them,“swags,” began to sit heavy on many of our unaccustomed shoulders,obliging us to halt so often for re-adjustment, that I found myself at sundownone of six far in the rear.
On reaching Keilor plains, about ten miles from Melbourne, it began torain, and as it was now useless to think of overtaking the main party welooked about for some place to camp in for the night. Much previous rainhad drenched the ground, but we found a spot, with a dwarfish tree standingin the middle, and with perhaps a little less water than elsewherestanding about the grass roots. With difficulty we got a fire lit. Wetook no thought of those who would be coming after us, but carried anddragged from far and near the old mouldering wood that lay thinly scatteredin our neighbourhood, and piled log upon log, until we raised a blazethat reddened the clouds overhead. We were drenched to the skin, ourblankets were wet, and our bread and tea in a miserable condition. Fixingour loaves on long forked sticks, we would have toasted them, but the rainkept pouring down, and only made them softer, until the crust could bedistinguished only by its colour. The steam from our fire-heated clothesenveloped us like smoke; we began to feel drowsy, and yet unwilling tolie down, for where were we to lie? Our feet had swollen in our rain-soakedboots, but for fear we might not be able to get them on again iftaken off, the boots were allowed to go with us to bed. Breaking somebranches from the tree above us, we made a rain shed of them, and spreadinga few upon the floor, crept underneath the dripping bower, leaving oneon guard to see to the fire and our general security while we slumbered.One of the company, when the fire had begun to throw out heat, hadcalled the situation “jolly,” and in the exuberance of his delight, hadcommenced to sing,
and sacrificing both poetry and music to his desire to bring the thing hometo our hearts, he improvised, and made the diggings and bags of gold theburden of his lay; but finding he was having the singing all to do himself,he soon gave over, and now here he was lying next to me, closehuddled up, and shivering I thought even worse than myself.
In the middle of the night, those lying down had almost succeeded infalling asleep, when splashing footsteps were heard approaching. Thewatch called out, and we scrambled to our feet, our wits all flying loose invain attempt to gather what the calling was about, or even where wewere; and before we were thoroughly aware, a man with his face streakedwith blood, and his clothes muddy and torn, ran in amongst us. Gazingon us for a moment, with eyes swollen and red, he inquired whereaboutsthe nearest police station lay. Truly we were sorry we did not know, forthe question made us suddenly apprehensive that the knowledge might beuseful to ourselves before morning; and not knowing but that this apparentdistress of his was merely a device to throw us off our guard, while hespied our quality and means of defence, we felt glad when the owner of theonly gun in our possession came forward with it in his hand. Willinghowever to propitiate the powers of evil, we spoke him softly, in ourignorance of how many confederates he might have close by to come up athis signal. Making known to him that we were strangers, he looked roundon us, and in a tone that was anything but complimentary, and thatsounded strangely from one seeking help, he answered. “Ha, I might ha’seen’t afore.—A lot o’ new chums, d⸺ ’em.” An awkward pause followed,in which we were beginning to regard him with increased suspicion,and to connect him with numberless shadows that we had not noticed tillnow outlying in the gloom, and to which the unsteady flame of our firegave the appearance of motion. After sitting a few moments with hishead between his knees, he abruptly rose, and started off in the directionof a light that appeared away on the border of the plain, and we saw himno more, though we thought we did several times, which led us, when thefire burnt low, to be content with a seat closer to it rather than ventureout for more fuel.
At daybreak we tried to dry our blankets and spare clothes, but growingimpatient to reach the bush, we rolled them up as they were, and started.The sun rose, and by mid-day we were making good progress. Findingthe dray track wound much about, we decided upon guiding ourselves withthe aid of a pocket compass, and the occasional sights we got of MountMacedon, close by the foot of which the road to the Bendigo diggings lay,and setting out, we made what we thought were short cuts through thebush, but as we frequently lost ourselves, these were often the occasion ofwarm discussion and a change of leaders. The creeks were swollen bymany days’ rain, and we had several times to strip in fording them. Thescenery improved as we advanced. In the morning we might be crossinglightly wooded ranges, and at mid-day winding our way through whatseemed ancient forest, in which at intervals stood groups of huge blackenedtrunks, the relics of bush-fires long before the white man had appearedupon the scene, the ground around being strewn with the old charredlimbs, half-buried by the mould of byegone vegetation, and the rankluxuriance of the present. On the evening of the same day we have comeupon wide-spreading grazing ground, and at times on scenes where nature,simple and unhelped, surpassed in beauty the finest parks we had ever seenin the old country, the indented margin of the forest that surrounded them,being as positively marked as if the hand of man had been there to clearaway, and strike the lines with fence and ditch; while fancifully shapedclumps, with rich green underwood, relieved the lawn-like surface with somuch appearance of art and method in the general arrangement, that oureyes have involuntarily looked about for signs of human habitation.Again, our way lay sometimes alongside of what at this season of the yearwere full watered creeks—great trees overshadowing the pools, and thebanks on either hand spreading away with easy undulation, and looking sopleasant, with the sun shining on their soft carpeting of grass, waved gentlyby a fresh-smelling summer breeze, as to beguile completely the wearinessof the way. One of our small company, becoming thoughtful as he lookedabroad one morning on such a scene, said that if he had not been going toget gold he might have been tempted to remain and try what he could doat kitchen gardening; but recollecting that we had seen neither man norhabitation in the last