Advance Australia! Chapter 7

Plagues and Pleasures of the Bush

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Emus, snakes, redback spiders, flies, bushfires, duck-shooting, crocodiles, wild pigs.

Emus. (I am sceptical of the statement about the effects of emu oil on bones, however; emu oil is sold nowadays without any warnings about such adverse effects):

Emus are still plentiful in the downs country, and occasionally we used to come across a straggler that had wandered on to the timbered country of our run. Quite a young one appeared once, in a little open plain on the opposite side of the lagoon from the house. With the help of several blacks, after a tremendous chase, we ran it down, and brought it home intending to tame it.

It was only about two feet high, and could not have been more than six weeks old; but the way it ran before we caught it made us think it must be tired, so we shut it up in a stable about twenty feet square. The instant that we put it down it began to run round and round the stable as hard as it could go. My brother suggested that this might be nervousness, and that perhaps it did not like strangers looking at it. So we left it for an hour quite alone. When we came back it was running round harder than ever, with its mouth open and its wings hanging down. Frank declared that young emus always acted like that when they were having a good time, but its appearance was anything but joyful. Three hours after it was still running round, and it never stopped til it fell down dead four hours and a half after we first shut it up, during which time I am certain it must have travelled over forty miles.

The speed and the endurance possessed by a full-grown emu are perfectly incredible to anyone who has not tried the experiment of running one down. The only way is to make a dash at them, and try and come up with them in the first spurt, for if they once get their second wind, very few horses will ever catch them. They straggle along in the most ungainly fashion, looking all the time as if they were dead-beat, and were going to drop with exhaustion, but the way in which they get over the ground is quite astonishing. I once rode a very good horse five miles on end across the downs after an emu as hard as we could go, but no efforts could diminish the distance between us. The bird kept about ten hards in front of me the whole way, and finally escaped into a patch of scrub.The bones contain the celebrated oil very much in favour among the blacks for curing swollen joints and sprained sinews. None but full-grown men, whose frames are thoroughly set, ever use it, for they declare that it has the effect of softening anyone's bones who has not arrived at maturity. The penetrating qualities of the oil are certainly very remarkable, for if it is placed in a glass bottle a portion of it will always sweat through the glass and escape.

The birds themselves are easily tamed if they are caught quite young. In their wild state they are mischievous where there is much fencing about, as they seem to take a delight in breaking down the wires.


In some localities, as, for instance, the canefields of Mackay, or the reedbeds on the Murray River, snakes are so plentiful that it is necessary to be extremely cautious. But generally, all over the Bush, especially in Queensland, it is curious how seldom one stumbles upon one. In Queensland there are five deadly kinds, the black snake, the brown snake, the tiger snake, the diamond snake, and the death adder. Of these the black and the brown are the commonest; the latter sometimes reaching a length of eight or nine feet. The bite of any of these varieties is sufficient to cause death within a few hours, unless the proper remedies are applied at once, but by far the worst is the death-adder. It has this peculiarity, that, unlike all other snakes, it does not attempt to move out of anyone's way, but lies quite still until it is touched, when it fastens with a spring upon its victim. Its bite is by far the most deadly of all Australian snakes, and, with the exception of Underwood's celebrated performance, I never knew a well-authenticated instance of recovery from it.

Deaths from snake-bite are not uncommon, especially among the Kanakas who work in the canefields. The best known remedies are injection of ammonia, and large quantities of brandy taken internally.

Undoubtedly the man Underwood, above alluded to, was the possessor of a perfectly efficacious antidote to the bite of any Australian snake. He gave a series of performances, in which he used to allow the most deadly snakes to bite him, afterwards applying some remedy, the nature of which was known only to himself. There can be no sort of doubt that the reptiles which he employed were perfectly healthy, and in full possession of their poisonous faculties.

The second bite of any snake is always less poisonous than the first, as some time is required to secrete a full supply of the venom which has been partially exhausted in the first bite. But dogs and rabbits which were bitten immediately after Underwood by the same snakes died very shortly, which conclusively proves the genuine nature of his experiments. Indeed, the most convincing proof of all was the death of the unfortunate man himself. Having one day allowed a snake to bite him, while he was himself under the influence of liquor, he forgot where to find his own antidote, and died from the effects of the bite. He demanded £10,000 from the Victorian Government as the price of his discovery, which they refused to pay, so his secret perished with him.

Redback spiders:

Redback spider
Redback spider

Almost as deadly in its effects as any snake, and far more dangerous in its habits, is a small black spider, about the size of a large pea, with a brilliant crimson mark on its back. It lives mostly in old timber, but frequently it takes up its abode in an inhabited house, and, far from having any fear of man, it does not wait to be provoked before attacking him. Its bite, unlike that of a snake, causes the most intense agony, and the after effects are very bad. Death is by no means an uncommon result, but more frequently the victim becomes hopelessly insane, or paralysed. I killed several of them at odd times in my room, and once, while on the diggings, I was unfortunate enough to get a bite from one. I was camped in front of the fire, and, just as it got light, I sat up and kicked the blanket off. As I did so I felt a sharp pain in the calf of my leg, and looking down I saw one of these little black devils on it. I killed it instantly, and reaching out my hand for a knife, I took up the piece of my leg where the bite was, between the finger and thumb of my left hand, and cut it clean out. I had always some ammonia with me, and I rubbed a quantity of that in. Certainly not more than ten seconds elapsed between the time I was bitten and when I cut the piece out. But my leg got very bad. The pain for days afterwards was intense, and after that, the whole leg swelled and became soft like dough. The place itself turned into a running sore, about an inch deep, which did not heal for four months afterwards.


The real pests of the Bush are flies. Mosquitoes and sandflies are bad enough, but after a time one gets used to them, and, after all, they do not come out much except at night, and are very local annoyances, some places being almost entirely free from them. But I defy the most philosophical of men to get used to flies. On the coast they are only troublesome for a few months in the year, during the autumn. But in the interior they are always bad, and really sometimes they make life intolerable. In the western country no one ever rides about in fly-time without wearing a veil. ... Far from being a plague to which one grows accustomed, the annoyance of flies is one which gets worse and worse the longer that one has to endure it. It is a kind of cumulative irritant, which has the effect of making a man feel more entirely wicked than anything else in the world.


About the end of July, on the coast, Bush-fires begin, and go on all August and September. The grass grows very rank and long in many places, and is much improved by being burnt off every year. It is a great object to get the whole of one's run burnt every year, but it is also very important to avoid getting the whole of it swept at the same time. In order to guard against this, the parts of it that will burn first are set fire to as soon as they are ready. Directly the first shower falls these parts are immediately covered with beautiful young grass, "burnt feed" as it is called, which grows with wonderful rapidity. ...

I never saw a Bush-fire, even when backed up by a strong wind, that one could not walk away from, with the greatest ease; and even when the grass was three or four feet long, I never saw one that one could not, with equal ease, walk straight through on to the blackened country beyond. In Victoria and New South Wales the danger of a Bush-fire is much increased by the fact that the tops of the trees burn as well as the grass, and the flames are carried away from one to the other with considerable rapidity, if there is a high wind blowing at the time. But unless deprived of his senses by terror, no one but the most stupid man could contrive to be killed by a Bush-fire.


In the dry weather, as the small lagoons and water-holes scattered all over the country get low and dried up, large numbers of every kind of wild ducks congregate on the big lagoon in front of Mount Spencer station. In the evenings we used to have some very good flight-shooting, one of us standing on each side of the lagoon, at a point in the middle where it narrowed down to a neck only about a hundred yards wide, opening out again beyond into a second large lagoon, or rather a swamp, between which and the main water the ducks used to fly backwards and forwards just about sundown. But by far the best duck-shooting, and indeed the best shooting of any kind that I ever saw in Australia, was down on the Pioneer River, which literally swarmed with ducks from October to January.

One day, towards the end of November, eight of us set off, with a gun apiece, and several niggers to drive, a spring-cart keeping in our tracks to bring along the ducks which we bagged. There are about ten duck-drives on the river, each from a mile to a mile and a half in length, and it takes two days to work it all properly.

... I know nothing pleasanter, on a broiling hot day, than to stand up to one's knees in the cool clear running water, or sit down on a shady rock, with a pipe of nigger-head in full swing, knocking over the ducks as they come overhead. ... There is no lack of variety in the shooting on the Pioneer, and the bag at the end of the day is certain to contain at least five different kinds of ducks.

How many ducks eight good shots would bag in the two days it is very difficult to say. My brother was not with us on this occasion, and I can confidently declare that I never saw seven worse shots. My own was by no means a satisfactory performance, and I do not think I got more shots than anyone else, but out of 117 ducks, which we killed in one day, I myself shot sixty-three, and ought to have shot a great many more. Of course, numbers are lost. In the middle of a drive one cannot stop to pick them up; and besides the winged ones which escape, many which fall into the stream are carried out into the deep pools, where it is most unsafe to follow them, on account of the numerous alligators which haunt the river.


In crossing the Fitzroy River at Yaamba I once had a narrow escape of being "scruffed" by an alligator. There was a fresh in the river at the time, and the water was very muddy and thick. The crossing was about a hundred yards wide, and the water just up to the saddle-flaps. When I got within about ten yards of the opposite bank, my horse made a roll and a plunge forward, sending his head right under water. I thought, of course, that he had stumbled over a log; but a moment after the head of an enormous alligator appeared close to my leg. His jaws were open, and he made a snap which took effect on my horse's belly, the two upper teeth of the brute leaving two clean deep cuts about four inches long. This had the effect of considerably hastening my horse's exit from the water, but it had exactly the opposite effect on the animal that a man was riding some twenty yards behind me. Evidently it had caught sight of the alligator, for it remained rooted to the spot, shaking and snorting with terror, and absolutely refusing to move one way or the other. The apprehensions of its rider were, if anything, even more acute, and his appearance was a perfect study, as he knelt upon the highest point of his saddle, tucking his feet under him, and trying to make himself as small as possible. He had no whip, and would have died sooner than put one of his feet down to use his spurs; so he did nothing but shout and swear at his horse, which had the effect of terrifying it more than ever. Every moment I expected, and so did he, to see the alligator's head alongside of him; but, strange to say, though it was at least five minutes before his horse would move, it never appeared again until just as he was safe ashore.

... Why they are called alligators no one knows, for the formation of their jaws and the shape of their head distinctly prove them to be crocodiles. They have a great fancy for dogs in the way of food when they can get them; but their diet extends over a varied range, from a full-grown cow to a paving stone. ...

With regard to the paving-stones, no one knows whether they are taken in for ballast, or to assist digestion, or to fill a vacuum caused by hunger; but it is a very common thing to find half-a-dozen stones, each double the size of a man's fist, in the stomach of an alligator.

Wild pigs:

Down at the end of the run, at a place called Blue Mountain, about fourteen miles from Mount Spencer, there were a quantity of wild pigs, and we had long been meditating a pig-sticking excursion. ...

My brother had written home to me that he thought there was some healthy fun to be got out of the pigs on Blue Mountain flats, so I brought out three of Thornhill's spears with me, and on my way through Singapore I collected some bamboos for shafts. Armed with a spear apiece, Rice and my brother and I set out one day, towards the end of August, to try our luck. ...

We had not long to look for our game. Sneaking quietly across a small creek, as we emerged on the opposite bank, we came right upon a mob of eleven pigs, and amongst them two enormous boars. The instant they saw us they tried to make for the bank of the creek, but with a wild yell we charged at them, and succeeded in cutting them off from the creek and turning them back on to the flat. Away we went after them, and, neglecting the small fry, my brother and I singled out one of the boars, and Rice pursued the other. For about half a mile the pace was excellent, and the fallen timber made it very lively.

My brother and I were rapidly coming up with our pig, when suddenly he disappeared into a gully. He was out the other side and away again in a moment; but we had to make a slight round to cross the gully, which gave him a bit of a start again. The country was pretty open the other side, so we could hit out like anything, and once more we were close on to the boar, who was getting about played out, when in crossing a patch of long grass my horse went head over heels over a fallen tree, and sent me flying over his head. Neither of us were hurt, but, of course, my horse cleared out for home, with his tail in the air, as every Australian horse does the instant it parts with its rider; so I picked up my spear, and set off after my brother as hard as I could to see the fun. A few hundred yards farther on he came alongside the boar and speared him in the neck. The brute turned sharp round and rushed between his horse's legs, almost upsetting it. My brother pulled up, and the boar promptly charged again; whereupon his horse, which had never been at close quarters with a pig in its life, began to buck like mad. My brother hung on like wax, the natural disinclination of anyone to be slung from his horse being considerably enhanced in his case by the infuriated animal waiting to get a chance at him on the ground. But the blood was pouring in torrents from the wound in its neck; and before I got up, it had lain down to die. We finished it off, and then examined my brother's horse, to see if it was damaged. Fortunately it had escaped with only a slight cut on the fetlock, which was lucky, as the old boar's tusks were over six inches long, and as sharp as knives.

A cooee from the ridges away to the right, about a quarter of a mile off, informed us of the whereabouts of Rice. We set off, and when we came up we found him standing with a broken spear in his hand, examining the carcase of a still more enormous boar than the one which my brother had killed. He had run him for about three quarters of a mile, and in trying to spear him he had broken his spear, leaving only about five feet of a shaft. A little farther on the boar "bailed up," on the top of a ridge, and stood with his legs wide apart, and the foam dropping from his huge tusks, and looking altogether such a discouraging sight, that nothing would induce Rice's horse to go anywhere near him. Whereupon he coolly got off, and, grasping the remains of his spear, walked straight at the boar, without, as he said afterwards, the slightest notion of what either he or the animal was going to do. Of course the boar charged, and as the brute came at him, Rice slung the spear at him with all his force, and with infinite precision. It entered the animal's chest, and he ran right on to it, driving it into his heart, and falling dead on the spot. It was a most miraculous escape for Rice; for if he had not killed the boar, it is pretty certain the boar would have killed him.

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