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Early Impressions of Australia-Start for the Interior—Mode of Travelling
- Receding Civilization-Scenery-A Way-side Inn-Bush Innkeepers -Alarming Reports—Passing the boundaries of the Colony-Definition of “the Bush "— Arrival at the Station.
I WELL remember how vague and confused, and in many points how unlike the truth, were my early ideas of Australia, of which as yet I had only heard, and to see which I was about to cross some sixteen thousand weary miles of ocean. I had read of some of the most remarkable peculiarities which distinguish its animal and vegetable productions, and I longed more and more to see the country of black swans and bronze pigeons,—of trees that shed their bark instead of their leaves,-cherries that produce their stones on the outside of the fruit, -of cuckoos that, in the same spirit of contradiction, are heard only by night,--and, finally, of that strange anomaly, the ornithorhynchus paradoxus, which, from its peculiar attributes, seems to realize the showman's description of the animal that “ could not live on land, and died in the water."
In everything, as well as in its geographical position, Australia seemed to my fancy to be the direct opposite—the antipodes of England. I became more and more perplexed by every attempt to picture to my mind my future residence, “the Bush ;" and I anxiously wondered whether it would prove to be a tangled mass of brushwood, or a barren and desolate heath, or, again, a dense forest, where the axe alone could clear away a spot for the destined abode of the white man.
It was with great satisfaction, therefore, that, some six months subsequently to these speculations, I found myself on the point of having my curiosity satisfied, and without regret I left farther and farther behind me at every step the less interesting civilization of Sydney, as with a well-equipped party we proceeded on our journey towards a station many hundred miles in the interior.
The most usual, and certainly the most agreeable, mode of
travelling in Australia is on horseback: there are coaches which run to a great distance from the capital, but they are of so inferior a description, that, like their now neglected brethren of the present day in England, they are filled only by those who cannot avoid them : for the first stage or two out of the capital they are tolerable enough, but at each change of carriage they gradually dwindle
away from good to indifferent, and from indifferent to grotesque, until at last the traveller finds himself seated in a vehicle to which the name of coach can be applied only by courtesy or by metaphor. But on horseback he is thoroughly independent: the valise, strapped on neatly in front of the saddle, contains his whole wardrobe; and, being master of his own time, he can dispose of it to the best advantage. When the weather is hot he can indulge in a few hours' rest at noon, while his horse crops the herbage around him ; to make for which delay, he will push on during the cool of the evening; and, if he is not wholly destitute of the “organ of locality,” he can make many a short cut, which will sensibly diminish the dreary length of his journey.
At first he has some power of choice in fixing on a restingplace for the night; but, as he gradually leaves behind him the
big smoke” (as the aborigines picturesquely call the town), the accommodations become more and more scanty, until at length a night in the open air is the sole alternative, if he fails to reach the solitary wayside inn. As he proceeds farther and farther into the interior, it is curious to remark the gradual descent in the scale of civilization, until scarcely a remnant of it is left. As the royal Sydney mail subsides into a vehicle little better than a market-cart, so the stone or brick hotel gives place to the weatherboard cottage, and this in due time dwindles down to the slab hut beyond the boundaries of the colony, where the traveller's entertainment is confined to the “ old thing,” as it is contemptuously called, that is to say, beef and "damper”-a sort of cake with which we shall be more familiar as we proceed and that of his horse to a pair of hobbles, and injunctions from his master to be within sight at daybreak.
From his first few days' journey in the interior the traveller would be apt to form a very unfavourable opinion of Australian scenery. Shortly after leaving the capital he plunges into a vast mass of forest, through which the route is very uninviting: the trees, which are nearly all of the eucalyptus or gum species (among the least picturesque of the forest tribes), present little or no variety, either in trunk or foliage, except where the bark, hanging in tattered festoons from the branches, reminds him that he is in the land of contrarieties; the sun shines with a ceaseless glare, and, gaining its full power soon after its rise, abates not a jot in its vigour, until, with seeming reluctance and an evident promise of another warm visit on the morrow, it sinks below the horizon. Not a bird is to be seen, not a note enlivens the ear; the awful silence is broken only by the dreary cry of the locust, which from somewhere or other (for, as we are told of deceased postboys and donkeys, nobody ever sees one) keeps up the same sing-song chirp, which rings in one's ears long after the sound itself has died away.
Yet Australia has many beauties; and though its wood-scenery is monotonous, its plains and “ open
forest can boast a delightful variety. Many spots are to be met with wirich are truly picturesque, and these, like oases in the desert, are doubly agreeable, from the contrast.
There is nothing more pleasant during a journey “ up the country” than, after a long ride through the forest, to emerge, towards evening, upon some clear and verdant space, surroundled by woods, not terminating abruptly, but shelving down, and opening gradually, as if placed there by the hand of nature as a picturesque fringe to the plain. Here there is a brief but delightful change of sight and sound; the chirp of the locust ceases, and the murmur of bleating flocks and lowing herds soothes the ear, while the eye dwells refreshed upon a variety of water and pasture, and marks the distant white smoke, which, curling upwards against a dark mass of wooded hills, points out the habitation of man ; the "coach-whip," with his peculiar jerking cry, excites the curiosity of the stranger ; and the bell-bird, never found but in the vicinity of water, adds its musical note. But soon, as the traveller journeys onward, the forest once more closes behind him, and shuts out from view the favoured spot.
After one of these passing glimpses of civilization, it is not without some slight misgivings that the stranger in the colony continues his route, until a casual meeting with a flock of sheep, or drove of half-wild cattle or horses, hurrying down to market, or with the slow and ponderous wool-dray, again cheers his spirits, as it tells of abitable regions still farther in the interior. Again the forest opens, and discovers the running fence"
of a paddock, leading to a wayside inn, at the erection of which Nature seems to have lent her aid ; and, as if to spare the labours of the axe, to have purposely created a gap just spacious enough for its site, beyond which the gum-trees are once more seen, as dense and monotonous as ever.
The arrival of a party of travellers at bush-inn in Australia creates little of that eagerness to “ give satisfaction ” and anticipate the strangers' wants, that is to be met with at most decent country-inns in a land of competition. The owner of the house is usually civil, but the tone of his reception is very unlike what we are used to in the mother-country; and, while he sets forth his accommodations for the benefit of his guests, he does so with the air of a man who is thoroughly aware of the fact that between his own house and the nearest in any direction lie not less than perhaps twenty good miles. Upon the whole, when the traveller rides away on the following morning, he has no reason to
“Sigh to think he still has found
His warmest welcome at an Inn;" for at many of the settlers' houses, where he gives for his entertainment no other equivalent than his company, his reception will generally be far more cordial.
The fact is, that the chief source of profit to a bush-innkeeper is the custom of the labouring classes. The tap-room is his first consideration, not the parlour; and he more gladly hails the arrival of a party of stock-keepers, bullock-drivers, and men of that stamp, who he knows will drink deep and give little trouble, than that of a better class of travellers, who will require more attendance without a proportionate expenditure.
The larder is necessarily kept on a most limited scale, owing to that pest of the colony, the blow-fly. Eggs and bacon form a standing dish at all country-inns in Australia, as being quickly prepared, and generally preferred to salt-beef, which it is a point of etiquette not to set before the traveller towards the interior, where he must necessarily get too much of it. If a dainty stranger should attempt to improve his fare by ordering poultry, he must be contented to feast upon the same bird which narrowly escaped his horse's heels as he rode up to the inn, and which he has probably encountered a second time since his arrival, as it came rushing into the house, all legs and wings, screaming dismally, and hotly pursued by the cook.
In less steady climates country-innkeepers are said to avail themselves of their weather-wisdom to detain a hesitating guest by prognostications of bad weather. The dry atmosphere and cloudless skies of Australia drive the cunning host to a different resource, but one still more efficacious with new-comers to the colony-the prevalence of bushrangers, who, somehow or other, always happen to infest the road which the traveller is destined to take at the time. These stories are occasionally only too true, but so many are fabrications, that perhaps the best way is to turn a deaf ear to them altogether. However, the stranger who listens to them will find them “ full of incident," and very alarming, especially if he should arrive at an inn at that time of day which renders it doubtful whether he ought to proceed or make himself at home for the night. He will be informed how Mr. Longbow, the member of council, was stopped “ only yesterday, and robbed of his horse, valise, and all the et-ceteras' of his style,” by the well-known “croppies”. _ Black Joe” or “ Irish Jem,” one of whom afterwards relented, and in a very handsome manner gave him back his inexpressibles. There will be an account of the disasters which befell Mr. Woolpack, the rich Bathurst settler, who, being suspected of tyrannizing over his men, was tied up to a gum-tree, and only saved from a strong infliction of the stirrupleather by a false alarm of the approach of the police, upon which the bushrangers decamped, leaving him in a state of bondage, where at nightfall he would infallibly have been eaten alive by native dogs, had he not been fortunately rescued by some “gentle shepherd."
There is one advantage to be derived from these exciting stories: the thought that they may for once prove true often serves to keep the traveller on his mettle when his energies are beginning to flag, and his body to weary, with the deep solitude and the length of the road.
Such is the usual routine of a journey on horseback from