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AUSTRALIA OF TO-DAY
The diggings — The Government at Melbourne — The sheep-runs — The rabbits — The delights of Sydney.
If, by good luck, you were to have a trip to Australia now, you would find, probably, the sea voyage, which takes up five weeks as a rule, a little irksome. But fancy that over, and imagine yourself safely into Australia of to-day. Fremantle will be the first place of call. It is the port of Perth, which is the capital of West Australia. That great State occupies nearly a quarter of the continent; but its population is as yet the least important of the continental States, and not very much ahead of the little island of Tasmania. Still, West Australia is advancing very quickly. On the north it has great pearl fisheries; inland it has goldfields, which take second rank in the world’s list, and it is fast developing its agricultural and pastoral riches.
Very soon it will be possible to leave the steamer at Fremantle and go by train right across the continent to the Eastern cities. Now you must travel by steamer to Port Adelaide, for Adelaide, the capital of South Australia. It is a charming city, surrounded by vineyards, orange orchards, and almond and olive groves. In the season you may get for a penny all the grapes that you could possibly eat, and oranges and other fruit are just as cheap.
Adelaide has the reputation of being a very “good” city. It was founded largely by high-minded colonists from Britain, whose main idea was to seek in the new world a place where poverty and its evils would not exist. To a very large extent they succeeded. There are no slums in Adelaide and no starving children. Everywhere is an air of quiet comfort.
The garden streets of Adelaide.
From Adelaide you may take the train to complete your trip, the end of which is, say, Brisbane. Leaving Adelaide, you climb in the train the pretty Mount Lofty Mountains and then sweep down on to the plains and cross the Murray River near its mouth. The Murray is the greatest of Australian rivers. It rises in the Australian Alps, and gathers on its way to the sea the Murrumbidgee and the Darling tributaries. There is a curious floating life on these rivers. Nomad men follow along their banks, making a living by fishing and doing odd jobs on the stations they pass. They are called “whalers,” and follow the life, mainly, I think, because of a gipsy instinct for roving, since it is not either a comfortable or profitable existence. On the rivers, too, are all sorts of curious little colonies, living in barges, and floating down from town to town. You may find thus floating, little theatres, cinematograph shows, and even circuses.
The fisheries of these rivers are somewhat important, the chief fish caught being the Murray cod. It grows sometimes to a vast size, to the size almost of a shark; but when the cod is so big its flesh is always rank and uneatable by Europeans.
Fishing for a cod is not an occupation calling for very much industry. The fisherman baits his line, ties it to a stake fixed on the river bank, and on the stake hangs a bell. Then the fisherman gets under the shadow of a gum-tree and enjoys a quiet life, reading or just lazing. If a cod takes the bait the bell will ring, and he will go and collect his fish, which obligingly catches itself, and does not need any play to bring it to land.
A cruel practice is followed to keep these fish fresh until a boat or train to the city markets is due: a line is passed through the cod’s lip, and it is tethered to a stake in the water near the bank. Thus it can swim about and keep alive for some time; but the cruelty is great, and efforts are now being made to stop this tethering of codfish.
These Australian inland rivers are slow and sluggish, and fish, such as trout, accustomed to clear running waters, will not live in them. But in the smaller mountain streams, which feed the big inland rivers, trout thrive, and as they have been introduced from England and America they provide good sport to anglers.
The plain-country through which the big rivers flow is very flat, and is therefore liable to great floods. Australia has the reputation of being a very dry country; as a matter of fact, the rainfall over one-third of its area is greater than that of England. In most places the rainfall is, however, badly distributed. After long spells of very dry weather there will come fierce storms, during which the rain sometimes falls at the rate of an inch an hour. This fact, and the curious physical formation of the continent, about which you already know, makes it very liable to floods.
Great floods of the past have been at Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, destroying a section of the city; at Bourke (N.S.W.), and at Gundagai (N.S.W.). In the latter a town was destroyed and many lives lost. Another flood on the Hunter River (N.S.W.) was marked by the drowning of the Speaker of the local Parliament. But great loss of human life is rare; sacrifice of stock is sometimes, however, enormous. Cattle fare better than sheep, for they will make some wise effort to reach a point of safety, whilst sheep will, as likely as not, huddle together in a hollow, not having the sense even to seek the little elevations which are called “hills,” though only raised a few feet above the general level.
I recall well a flood in the Narrabri (N.S.W.) district some seventeen years ago, and its moving perils. The hillocks on which cattle, sheep, and in some cases human beings, had taken refuge were crowded, too, with kangaroos, emus, brolgas (a kind of crane), koalas (known as the native bear), rabbits, and snakes. Mutual hostilities were for a time suspended by the common danger, though the snakes and the rabbits were rarely given the advantages of the truce if there were human beings present. An incident of that flood was that the little township of Terry-hie-hie (these aboriginal names are strange!) was almost wiped out by starvation. Beleaguered by the waters, it was cut off from all communication with the railway and with food-supplies. When the waters fell, the mud left on these black-soil plains was just as formidable a barrier. Attempt after attempt to send flour through by horse and bullock teams failed. It was impossible for thirty horses to get through with one ton of flour! The siege was only raised when the population of the little town was on the very verge of starvation.
After crossing the Murray the train passes through what is known as “the desert” — a stretch of country covered with mallee scrub (the mallee is a kind of small gum-tree); but nowadays they are finding out that this mallee scrub is not hopeless country at all. The scrub is beaten down by having great rollers drawn over it by horses; that in time kills it. Then the roots are dug up for firewood, and the land is sown with wheat. Quite good crops are now being got from the mallee when the rains are favourable, but in dry seasons the wheat scorches off, and the farmer’s labour is wasted. It is proposed now to carry irrigation channels through this and similar country. When that is done there will be no more talk of desert in most parts of Australia. It will be conquered for the use of man just as the American alkali desert is being conquered.
Leaving the mallee, the train comes in time to Ballarat, which used to be the great centre of the gold-mining industry. Round here gold was discovered in great lumps lying on the ground or just below the roots of the grass. People rushed from all parts of the world to pick up fortunes when this was heard of. The road from Melbourne was covered with waggons, with horsemen, with diggers on foot. Most of them knew nothing at all about digging, and also lacked the knowledge of how to get along comfortably under “camping-out” conditions, when every man has to be his own cook, his own washer-up, his own laundryman, as well as his own mining labourer. But the best of the men learned quickly how to look after themselves, to pitch a tent, to cook a meal, to drive a shaft, and to do without food for long spells when on the search for new goldfields. Thus they became resourceful and adventurous, and were of great value afterwards in the community. There is nowadays rather a tendency in civilized countries to bring children up too softly, to guard them too much against the little roughnesses of life. Such experiences as those of the Australian goldfields show how good it is for men to be taught how to look after themselves under primitive conditions.
Life on the Australian goldfields, though wild, was not unruly. There was never any lynch law, never any “free shooting,” as on the American goldfields. Public order was generally respected, though there were at first no police. The miners, however, kept up Vigilance Committees, the main purpose of which was to check thefts. Anyone proved guilty of theft, or even seriously suspected of pilfering, was simply ordered out of the camp.
The Chinese were very early in getting to know of the goldfields in Australia, and rushed there in great numbers. They were not welcomed, and there was an exception to the general rule of good order in the Anti-Chinese riots on the goldfields. The result of these was that Chinese were prevented by the Government from coming into the country, except in very small numbers, and on payment of a heavy poll-tax. When this was done the excitement calmed down, and the Chinese already in the country were treated fairly enough. They mostly settled down to growing vegetables or doing laundry-work, though a few still work as miners.
The objection that the Australians have to the Chinamen and to other coloured races is that they do not wish to have in the country any people with whom the white race cannot intermarry, and they wish all people in Australia to be equal in the eyes of the law and in social consideration. As you travel through Australia, you will probably learn to recognize the wisdom of this, and you will get to like the Australian social idea, which is to carry right through all relations of life the same discipline as governs a good school, giving respect to those who are most worthy of it, by conduct and by capacity, and not by riches or birth.
We have stayed long enough at Ballarat. Let us move on to Melbourne — “marvellous Melbourne,” as its citizens like to hear it called. Melbourne is built on the shores of the Yarra, where it empties into Hudson Bay, and its sea suburbs stretch along the beautiful sandy shores of that bay. Few European or American children can enjoy such sea beaches as are scattered all over the Australian coast. They are beautiful white or creamy stretches of firm sand, curving round bays, sometimes just a mile in length, sometimes of huge extent, as the Ninety Miles Beach in Victoria. The water on the Australian coast is usually of a brilliant blue, and it breaks into white foam as it rolls on to the shelving sand. Around Carram, Aspendale, Mentone and Brighton, near Melbourne; at Narrabeen, Manly, Cronulla, Coogee, near Sydney; and at a hundred other places on the Australian coast, are beautiful beaches. You may see on holidays hundreds of thousands of people — men, women, and children — surf-bathing or paddling on the sands. It is quite safe fun, too, if you take care not to go out too far and so get caught in the undertow. Sharks are common on the Australian coast, but they will not venture into the broken water of surf beaches. But you must not bathe, except in enclosed baths in the harbours, or you run a serious risk of providing a meal for a voracious shark.
Sharks are quite the most dangerous foes of man in Australia. There have been some heroic incidents arising from attacks by sharks on human beings. An instance: On a New South Wales beach two brothers were bathing, and they had gone outside of the broken surf water. One was attacked by a shark. The other went to his rescue, and actually beat the great fish off, though he lost his arm in doing so. As a rule, however, the shark kills with one bite, attacking the trunk of its victim, which it can sever in two with one great snap of its jaws.
Children on the Australian coast are very fond of the water. They learn to swim almost as soon as they can walk. Through exposure to the sun whilst bathing their skin gets a coppery colour, and except for their Anglo-Saxon eyes you would imagine many Australian youngsters to be Arabs.
The beaches of Melbourne are not its only attractions. The city itself is a very handsome one, and its great parks are planted with fine English trees. You will see as good oaks and elms and beeches in Fitzroy Gardens, Melbourne, as in any of the parks of old England. Melbourne, too, at present, is the political capital of Australia, and here meet the Australian Parliament.
Every young citizen of the Empire should know something of the Commonwealth of Australia and its political institutions, because, as the idea of Empire grows, it is recognized that all people of British race, whether Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, or South Africans, or residents of the Mother Country, should know the whole Empire.
After Australia began to prosper it was found that the continent was too big to be governed by one Parliament in Sydney, so it split up into States, each with a constitution and government of its own. These States were New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, West Australia, and Tasmania. It was soon seen that a mistake had been made in splitting up altogether. The States were like children of one family, all engaged as partners in one business, who, growing up, decided to set up housekeeping each for himself, but neglected to arrange for some means by which they could meet together now and again and decide on matters which were of common interest to all of them. The separated States of Australia were, all alike, interested in making Australia great and prosperous, and keeping her safe; but in their hurry to set up independent housekeeping they forgot to provide for the safeguarding of that common interest.Collins Street, Melbourne.
So soon as this was recognized, patriotic men set themselves to put things right, and the result was a Federation of the States, which is called the Commonwealth of Australia. The different States are left to manage for themselves their local affairs, but the big Australian affairs are managed by the Commonwealth Parliament, which at present meets in Melbourne, but one day will meet in a new Federal capital to be built somewhere out in the Bush — that is to say, the wild, empty country. Some people sneer at the idea of a “Bush capital,” but I think, and perhaps you will think with me, that there is something very pleasant and very promising of profit in the idea of the country’s rulers meeting somewhere in the pure air of a quiet little city surrounded by the great Australian forest. And as things are now, the population of Australia is too much centralized in the big cities, and it will be a good thing to have another centre of population.
In this railway trip across the continent you are being introduced to all the main features of Australian life, so that you will have some solid knowledge of the conditions of the country, and can, later on, in chapters which will follow, learn of the Bush, the natives, the birds and beasts and flowers, the games of Australia.
Leaving Melbourne, a fast and luxurious train takes you through the farming districts of Victoria, past many smiling towns, growing rich from the industry of men who graze cattle, grow wheat and oats and barley, make butter, or pasture sheep. At Albany the train crosses to Murray again, this time near to its source, and New South Wales is entered.
For many, many miles now the train will run through flat, grassed country, on which great flocks of sheep graze. This is the Riverina district, the most notable sheep land in the world. From here, and from similar plains running all along the western and northern borders of New South Wales, comes the fine merino wool, which is necessary for first-class cloth-making. The story of merino wool is one of the romances of modern industry. Before the days of Australia, Spain was looked upon as the only country in the world which could produce fine wool. Spain was not willing that British looms should have any advantage of her production, and the British woollen manufacturing industry, confined to the use of coarser staples, languished. Now Australia, and Australia practically alone, produces the fine wool of the world. Australia merino wool is finer, more elastic, longer in staple, than any wool ever dreamed of a century ago, and its use alone makes possible some of the very fine cloths of to-day.
This merino wool is purely a product of Australian cleverness in sheep-breeding. The sheep imported have been improved upon again and again, quality and quantity of coat being both considered, until to-day the Australian sheep is the greatest triumph of modern science as applied to the culture of animals, more wonderful and more useful than the thoroughbred race-horse. It is only on the hot plains that the merino sheep flourishes to perfection. If he is brought to cold hill-country in Australia his coat at once begins to coarsen, and his wool is therefore not so good.
As you pass the sheep-runs in the train you will probably notice that they are divided into paddocks by fine-mesh wire-netting. That is to keep the rabbits out. The rabbit is accounted rather a desirable little creature in Great Britain. A rabbit-warren on an estate is a source of good sport and good food, and the complaint is sometimes of too few rabbits rather than too many. A boy may keep rabbits as pets with some enjoyment and some profit.
In Australia rabbits were first introduced by an emigrant from England, who wished to give to his farm a home-like air. They spread over the country with such marvellous rapidity as to become soon a serious nuisance, then a national danger. Millions of pounds have been spent in different parts of Australia fighting the rabbit plague; millions more will yet have to be spent, for though the rabbits are now being kept in check, constant vigilance is needed to see that they do not get the upper hand again. The rabbit in Australia increases its numbers very quickly: the doe will have up to eighty or ninety young in a year. There is no natural check to this; no winter spell of bitter cold to kill off the young and feeble. The only limit to the rabbit life is the food-supply, and that does not fail until the pasturage intended for the sheep is eaten bare. Not only is the grass eaten, but also the roots of the grass, and the rabbit is a further nuisance because sheep dislike to eat grass at which bunny has been nibbling.
The campaign against the rabbit in Australia has had all the excitement and much of the misery of a great war. The march inland of the rabbit was like that of a devastating army. Smiling prosperity was turned into black ruin. Where there had been green pastures and bleating sheep there was a bare and dusty plain and starving stock.
At first wholesale poisoning was tried as a remedy for the rabbit plague. It inflicted a check, but had the evil of killing off many of the native birds and animals. There was an idea once of trying to spread a disease among the rabbits, so as to kill them off quickly, but that was abandoned. Now the method is to enclose the pasture-lands within wire-netting, which is rabbit-proof, and within this enclosure to destroy all logs and the like which provide shelters for the rabbits, to dig up all their burrows, and to hunt down the rabbit with dogs. The best of the lands are being thus quite cleared of rabbits. The worst lands are for the present left to bunny, who has become a source of income, being trapped and his carcase sent frozen to England, and his fur utilized for hat-felt. But be sure that if you bring to Australia your rabbit pets with you from England they will be destroyed before you land, and you may reckon on having to face serious trouble with the law for trying to bring them into the country.
Whilst you have been hearing all this about the rabbit the train has climbed up from the plains to the Blue Mountains and is rushing down the coast slope towards Sydney, the capital of New South Wales, the chief commercial city of Australia, and one of the great ports of the Empire. Sydney is, I do really think, the pleasantest place in the world for a child to live in, though two hot, muggy months of the year are to be avoided for health’s sake.
On the Blue Mountains, as you crossed in the train, you will have seen wild “gullies,” as they are called in Australia — ravines in the hills which rise abruptly all around, sometimes in wild cliffs and sometimes in steep wooded slopes. These gullies interlace with one another, one leading into another, and stretching out little arms in all directions. Turn into one and try to follow it up, and you never know where it will end. Well, once upon a time there was a particularly wild one of these gully systems on the coast hills where Sydney now is. Something sunk the level of the land suddenly, and the gullies were depressed below sea-level. The Pacific Ocean heard of this, broke a way through a great cliff-gate, and that made Sydney Harbour. Entering Sydney by sea, you come, as the ocean does, through a narrow gate between two lovely cliffs. Turn sharply to the left, and you are in a maze of blue waters, fringed with steep hills. On these hills is built Sydney. You may follow the harbour in all directions, up Iron Cove a couple of miles to Leichhardt suburb; along the Parramatta River (which is not a river at all, but one of the long arms of the ocean-filled gully system) ten miles to the orange orchard country; along the Lane Cove, through wooded hills, to another orchard tract; or, going in another direction, you may travel for scores of miles along what is called Middle Harbour, and then have North Harbour still to explore. In spite of the nearness of the big city, and the presence here and there of lovely suburbs on the waterside, the area of Sydney Harbour is so vast, its windings are so amazing, that you can get in a boat to the wildest and most lovely scenery in an hour or two. The rocky shores abound in caves, where you can camp out in dryness and comfort. The Bush at every season of the year flaunts wildflowers. There are fish to be had everywhere; in many places oysters; in some places rabbits, hares, and wallabies to be hunted. Does it not sound like a children’s paradise — all this within reach of a vast city?
But let us tear ourselves away from Sydney, and go on to Brisbane, passing on the way through Kurringai Chase, one of the great National Parks of New South Wales; along the fertile Hawkesbury and Hunter valleys, which grow Indian corn and lucerne, and oranges and melons, and men who are mostly over six feet high; up the New England Mountains, through a country which owes its name to the fact that the high elevation gives it a climate somewhat like that of England; then into Queensland along the rich Darling Down studded with wheat-farms, dairy-farms, and cattle-ranches; and finally to Brisbane, a prospering semi-tropical town which is the capital of the Northern State of Queensland. At Brisbane you will be able to buy fine pineapples for a penny each, and that alone should endear it to your heart.
Thus you will have seen a good deal of the Australia of to-day. You might have followed other routes. Coming via Canada, you would reach Brisbane first. Taking a “British India” boat you would have come down the north coast of Queensland and seen something of its wonderful tropical vegetation, its sugar-fields, banana and coffee plantations, and the meat works which ship abroad the products of the great cattle stations.
The Town Hall, Sydney.
This tropical part of Australia really calls for a long book of its own. But as it is hardly the Australia of to-day, though it may be the Australia of the future, we must hurry through its great forests and its rich plains. There are wild buffalo to be found on these plains, and in the rivers that flow through them crocodiles lurk. The crocodile is a very cunning creature. It rests near the surface of the water like a half-submerged log waiting for a horse or an ox or a man to come into the water. Then a rush and a meal.
If, instead of coming along the north, you had travelled via South Africa you might have landed first at Hobart and seen the charms of dear little Tasmania, a land of apple-orchards and hop-gardens, looking like the best parts of Kent. But you have been introduced to a good deal of Australia and heard much of its industries and its history. It is time now to talk of savages, and birds, and beasts, and games, and the like.