The following morning, the Finch-Hattons set out for their property at Mt. Spencer. First impressions, arrival, carpet snake, the station layout, buck-jumping.
Next morning, my brother and I saddled up early, and started off through the Bush for Mount Spencer, directly after breakfast. There is something very bewildering about one's first introduction to the bush, especially in the coast country of Queensland, which is one vast stupendous forest of different sorts of trees. Mile after mile, day after day, you ride on through the forest, with a tree on an average every ten yards. If you keep in the valleys you see nothing but trees, and if you climb up a mountain you see nothing but more trees. Here and there you come upon a small open plain, a few hundred yards in extent; but until you get used to it the monotony of the endless timber is appalling, and it is easy to realise the terrible madness that so often comes over those who get lost in the Bush. The only change is from white gum-trees on the flats, to black iron-barks on the ridges, and one ridge and one flat is so like another, to an inexperienced eye, it seems incredible that anyone can ever find their way about, or know exactly where they are. Some people never can, and I have known natives of the country, who have lived for twenty years in the Bush, and who have still been helpless to get from one place to another without a guide, in country that they had ridden over for years.
... The first thing that strikes one is the lifeless solitude of the Bush. The fierce searching light of a vertical sun prevents it from being gloomy, and, indeed, the trees in the open timbered country give a very scanty shade, but everywhere there is a weird solemn stillness that is most impressive. In the middle of the day, birds and beasts retire to the cool shade of the scrubs on the banks of the creeks, and there is not a sound to be heard, nor a living thing to be seen. The accumulated silence of a thousand years seems to brood over some of the mountains and valleys of this vast land, where, perhaps, the sound of man's voice has never yet been heard.
Arrival at Mt. Spencer:
Somehow or other, in Australia, no matter how long or how short one's journey is, one nearly always gets to the end of it about sundown, which seems to be the orthodox hour, especially for strangers, to arrive at a station. As we emerged from the timber in the paddock into the large open space in which the station lay, it struck me as one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. As a rule, on the coast country the timber is so thick that the look-out is necessarily very limited, and although here and there there are very pretty spots, it is very seldom that there is a panorama of any extent worth looking at. Of course on the downs you can see as far as the horizon in every direction, but the monotony of the rolling plains of grass is almost as bad as the Atlantic. The view, however, from Mount Spencer is magnificent, and certainly beats anything I ever saw in Australia. The station stands on a low broad ridge, which was originally timbered like the surrounding Bush; but the trees have all been cleared away, the stumps burned out, and the holes filled in, so that the ground is now a smooth expanse of short green turf, sloping gently down to the edge of a large lagoon, about 300 yards away. The lagoon itself is a mile and a half long, and about a mile across, the centre covered with water-lilies, and the edges fringed with a thick wide belt of rushes. On the far side from the station a forest of huge gum-trees follows the winding shores of the lagoon, its outline broken by one or two little promontories running out into the water; and above the forest, like an amphitheatre, rise the mountains of the coast, running in broken rocky spurs to Blue Mountain, a vast densely-wooded range 3000 feet high and fourteen miles away.
Finch-Hatton finds an unwelcome visitor in his bed:
I was rather tired, and not sorry for the prospect of a camp; but when I dragged back the blankets to turn in, I discovered an enormous carpet-snake, about eleven feet long, comfortably coiled up in my bunk. It raised its head lazily, and after looking at me for a second or two with a want of interest that I was far from feeling myself, it coiled itself up again, and prepared for another sleep. My brother had just gone, but I shouted to him to bring a stick or something and help me kill it. He came back in and looked in.
"What's the matter? Snake? Oh, don't kill that one. That's a tame one, that belongs to Rice. He wouldn't have it killed for anything, and, besides, its only a carpet-snake, and they are perfectly harmless."
"H'm, it's all very well to say it's harmless," I observed; "I suppose you mean it's not poisonous. From the look of its head, it could bite a piece out of you about the size of a tea-cup, and anyhow it's not going to sleep in my bed."
"Oh no," said my brother, "it has no business here. It lives in a tub. Here, I'll take it away and put it to bed, and seizing it by the neck, he dragged it off, and dropped it into a barrel outside the store, about fifty yards away, from which I devoutly hoped that it would not be able to get out again that night.
The layout of the station:
The station itself was quite a small village of houses. The big house stood a little way apart, in a garden with a paling-fence round it, about eighty yards square. Unfortunately it was right on the top of a quartz ridge, where there was very little soil, so that it was difficult to get trees of any size to grow; but all sorts of creepers throve wonderfully. In front of the house were one or two Poincianas, and a very pretty bunya, a sort of fir-tree; and round every pile of the house grew masses of scarlet geraniums, which are supposed to possess the virtue of keeping away snakes. At the back there was a rockwork covered with beautiful ferns, and beyond that a small pond with dwarf bamboos round it, where the tame wild-ducks lived.
The house itself was a very comfortable building, two stories high, about sixty feet long and thirty-five feet wide, built upon round piles seven feet high, with an eight-foot verandah all round. Down below was the dining-room, with a huge brick fireplace, the pantry, a small store, an office and a bathroom. Over the dining-room was the sitting-room, also with a large fireplace, and with "French-lights" opening on to the verandah, and, on the same floor, four very comfortable bedrooms. The house, with the exception of the chimney, was build entirely of wood, the walls being made of iron-bark slabs, dressed very smooth, and laid horizontally; and the roof covered with shingles, which are small pieces of wood, eighteen inches long and about four inches wide, split out of iron-bark or stringy-bark wood. If properly laid on, with sufficient pitch, shingles make about the best roof possible for a hot climate; they are perfectly water tight, keep out the heat, and last for many years. But there is a good deal of art in laying them on, and unless it is done scientifically, they let the water through like a sieve. The sitting-room was very well furnished, with any amount of tables, pictures, book-shelves, armchairs, and above all an excellent piano. Rice and my brother had been there for some years, and had made the place very comfortable, and altogether hardly what one would expect to find in the Bush.
Near the house stood the kitchen, with a cook's room adjoining, and a little covered way all overgrown with creepers, leading from it to the house.
About a hundred yards away were the rest of the station buildings, consisting of two stockmen's houses, a store, a meathouse, the spare hut in which I camped, the men's kitchen, the blacksmith's forge, and the black boys' hut, all slab buildings with shingle roofs; also a large dovecot and a row of fowlhouses, surrounded by wire-netting yards, and beyond these again the milking-yards, killing-yard, calf-pens, and horseyards.
The performance of buck-jumping is a most extraordinary one to watch, and still more extraordinary to feel underneath one. When seated on a bucking horse the rider sees nothing whatever in front of him but the pommel of the saddle, and feels rather as if he was assisting at an earthquake or a railway accident. The performance is quite peculiar to Australian horses, and no one who has not seen them at it would believe the rapid contortions of which they are capable. In bucking, a horse tucks his head right between his forelegs, sometimes striking his jaw with his hind feet. The back, meantime, is arched like a boiled prawn's; and in this position the animal makes a series of tremendous bounds, sometimes forwards, sometimes sideways and backwards, keeping it up for several minutes with intervals of a few seconds, and occasionally falling flat down and rolling over his rider if he fails to get rid of him in any other way. Of course a "new chum" succumbs at once to the movements of a buck-jumper, but, after a little practice, anyone who keeps his nerve and sits back can easily learn to stick on in a colonial saddle with big knee-pads to help him. With practice some men become extraordinary hands at sitting rough horses, and a favourite piece of "flashness" is to stick half-a-crown between each thigh and the saddle, and keep it there while the horse is bucking.
(1) My thanks to Raymond Hoser for the picture of the carpet snake.
(2) Picture of Mt. Spencer homestead comes from "Shamrocks among the Gum Trees", by Carmel McDonald; her source for it was the John Oxley Library.
Jim Foley || Email me