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- The Confessions of a Beachcomber - 3/57 -
dead-and-alive duty of sitting, to the tiny sun-bird of yellow and purple, which flits all day among scarlet hibiscus blooms, sips nectar from the flame-tree, and rifles the dull red studs of the umbrella tree of their sweetness.
The stalled ox is not here, nor the fatted calf, nor any of the mere advantages of the table; but there is the varied harvest of the sea, and all the freshness of an isle clean and green. The heat, the clatter, the stuffy odours, the toilsomeness, the fatigue of town life are abandoned; the careless quiet, the calm, the refreshment of the whole air, the tonic of the wide sea are gained. From the moment the sun illumines our hills and isles with glowing yellow until it drops in fiery splendour suddenly out of sight leaving a band of gleaming red above the purple western range, and a rippling red path across to Australia, the whole realm of nature seems ours to command.
Dunk Island was not selected haphazard as an abiding place. By camping-out expeditions and the cautious gleaning of facts from those who had the repute of knowing the country, useful information had been acquired unobtrusively. We were determined to have the best obtainable isle. More than one locality was favourably considered ere good fortune decided to send us hither to spy out the land. A camp-out on the shore of then unnamed Brammo Bay--a holiday-making party--and the result of the first day's exploration decided a revolutionary change in the lives of two seriously-minded persons. A year after, a lease of the best portion of the island having been obtained in the meanwhile, we came for good.
Wholly uninhabited, entirely free from traces of the mauling paws of humanity, lovely in its mantle of varied foliage, what better sphere for the exercise of benign autocracy could be desired? Here was virgin country, 20 miles from the nearest port--sad and neglected Cardwell cut off from the mainland by more than 2 miles of estranging ocean, and yet lying in the track of small coastal steamers--here all our pet theories might serenely develop.
But it was an inauspicious landing. With September begin the north-east winds, and we had an average experience that afternoon. Was it not a farce--a great deal more than a farce: a saucy, flippant imposition on the tender mercies of Providence--for an individual who could not endure a few hours of tossing on the bosom of the ocean without becoming deadly sick, to imagine that he possessed the hardihood to establish a home even in this lovely wilderness? We had tents and equipment and a boat of our own, a workman to help us at the start, and two faithful black servants.
The year before, we had made the acquaintance of one of the few survivors of the native population of the island--stalwart Tom. Although our project and preparations had been kept fairly secret, he had overheard a casual reference to them; had made a canoe, and paddling from island to island with his gin, an infant and mother-in-law, had preceded our advent by a week. His duties began with the discharging of the first boatload of portable property. He comes and goes now after the lapse of years.
They spread out tents and rugs for the weak mortal who had greatly dared, but who, thus early, was ready to faint from weariness and sickness. They made comforting and soothing drinks, and spoke of cheery things in cheery tones; but the sick man refused to be comforted. He wished himself back, a participator in the conflicts of civilisation, and was fain to cover his face--there was no wall to which to turn--and fancy that the most dismal sound in the universe was the surly monotone the north-easter harped on the beach. We reposed that night among the camp equipment, the sick man caring for naught in his physical collapse and disconsolation.
But the first morning of the new life! A perfect combination of invigorating elements. The cloudless sky, the clear air, the shining sea, the green folded slopes of Tam o' Shanter Point opposite, the cleanliness of the sand, the sweet odours from the eucalypts and the dew-laden grass, the luminous purple of the islands to the south-east; the range of mountains to the west and north-west, and our own fair tract-awaiting and inviting, and all the mystery of petted illusions about to be solved! Physic was never so eagerly swallowed nor wrought a speedier or surer cure.
Feebleness and dismay vanished with the first plunge into the still sleepy sea, and alertness and vigour returned, as the incense of the first morning's sacrifice went straight as a column to the sky.
Over half a century before, Edmund B. Kennedy, the explorer, landed on the opposite shore, on his ill-fated expedition up Cape York, to find the country inland from Tam o' Shanter Point altogether different from any previously-examined part of Australia. We gave no thought to the gallant explorer, near as we were to the scenes of his desperate struggle in the entanglements of the jungle.
The island was all before us, where to choose our place of rest, and the bustle of the transport of goods and chattels to the site in the thick forest invisible from the sea began at once. Before sunset, tents were pitched among the trees, and a few yards of bush surrounding then cleared, and we were at home.
Prior to departing from civilisation we had arranged for the construction of a hut of cedar, so contrived with nicely adjusting parts and bolts, and all its members numbered, that a mere amateur could put it together. If at the end of six months' trial the life was found to be unendurable, or serious objection not dreamt of in our salad philosophy became apparent, then our dwelling could be packed up again. All would not be lost.
The clearing of a sufficient space for the accommodation of the hut was no light task for unaccustomed hands, for the bloodwood trees were mighty and tough, and the dubious work of burning up the trunks and branches while yet green, in our eagerness for free air and tidiness, was undertaken. It was also accomplished.
For several weeks there was little done save to build a kitchen and shed and widen the clearing in the forest. Inspection of the details of our domain was reserved as a sort of reward for present task and toil. According to the formula neatly printed in official journals, the building of a slab hut is absurdly easy--quite a pastime for the settler eager to get a roof of bark or thatch over his head. The frame, of course, goes up without assistance, and then the principal item is the slabs for walls. When you have fallen your tree and sawn off a block of the required length, you have only to split off the slab. Ah! but suppose the timber does not split freely, and your heavy maul does; and the wedges instead of entering have the habit of bouncing out as if they were fitted with internal springs, and your maul wants renewal several times, until you find that the timber prescribed is of no account for such tools; and at best your slabs run off to nothing at half length, and several trees have to be cut down before you get a single decent slab, and everybody is peevish with weariness and disappointment, the rudest house in the bush will be a long time in the building. "Experience is a hard mistress, yet she teacheth as none other." We came to be more indebted to the hard mistress--she gave us blistering palms and aching muscles--than to all the directions and prescriptions of men who claim to have climbed to the top of the tree in the profession of the "bush." A "bush" carpenter is a very admirable person, when he is not also a bush lawyer. Mere amateurs would be wise if they held their enthusiasm in check when they read the recipe--pat as the recipe for the making of a rice-pudding--for the construction of even a bark hut. It is so very easy to write it all down; but if you have had no actual experience in bark-cutting, and your trees are not in the right condition, you will put your elation to a shockingly severe test, harden the epidermis of your hands, and the whole of your heart, and go to bed many nights sadly ere you get one decent sheet for your roof.
We do not all belong to the ancient and honourable family of the Swiss Robinsons, who performed a series of unassuming miracles on their island. There was no practical dispensation of providential favours on our behalf. Trees that had the reputation of providing splendid splitting timber defiantly slandered themselves, and others that should have almost flayed themselves at the first tap of the tomahawk had not the slightest regard for the reputation vouched for in serious publications.
But why "burden our remembrance with a heaviness that's gone?" Why recall the memory of those acheful days, when all the pleasant and restful features of the island are uncatalogued? Before the rains began we had comfortable if circumscribed shelter. Does not that suffice? Our dwelling consisted of one room and a kitchen. Perforce the greater part of our time was spent out of doors. Isolation kept us moderately free from visitors. Those who did violate our seclusion had to put up with the consequences. We had purchased liberty. Large liberties are the birthright of the English. We had acquired most of the small liberties, and the ransom paid was the abandonment of many things hitherto deemed to form an integral part of existence.
Had we not cast aside all traditions, revolting from the uniformity of life, from the rules of the bush as well as from the conventionalities of society? Here we were to indulge our caprices, work out our own salvation, live in accordance with our own primitive notions, and, if possible, find pleasure in haunts which it is not popularly supposed to frequent.
Others may point to higher ideals and tell of exciting experiences, of success achieved, and glory and honour won. Ours not to envy superior qualifications and victories which call for strife and struggle, but to submit ourselves joyfully to the charms of the "simple life."
"Awake, O North Wind, and come, thou South, Blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out."
Our Island! What was it when we came into possession? From the sea, merely a range displaying the varied leafage of jungle and forest. A steep headland springing from a ledge of rock on the north, and a broad, embayed-based flat converging into an obtruding sand-spit to the west, enclose a bay scarcely half a mile from one horn to the other, the sheet of water almost a perfect crescent, with the rocky islet of Purtaboi, plumed with trees, to indicate the circumference of a circle. Trees come to the water's edge from the abutment of the bold eminence. Dome-shaped shrubs of glossy green (native cabbage--SCAEVOLA KOENIGII), with groups of pandanus palms bearing massive orange-coloured fruits; and here and there graceful umbrella trees, with deep-red decorations, hibiscus bushes hung with yellow funnells, and a thin line of ever-sighing beech oaks (CASUARINA) fringe the clean untrodden sand. Behind is the vistaless forest of the flat.
Run the boat on the sand at high-water, and the first step is planted in primitive bush--fragrant, clean and undefiled. An empty jam tin or a broken bottle, spoors of the rude hoofs of civilisation, you might search for in vain. As difficult would it be to find either as a fellow to the nugget of gold which legend tells was used by a naked black as a sinker when he fished with hook of pearl shell out there on the edge of the coral reef,
One superficial feature of our domain is distinct and peculiar, giving to it an admirable character. From the landing-place--rather more up towards the north-east cusp than the exact middle of the crescent bay--extends a flat of black sand on which grows a dense bush of wattles, cockatoo
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