The Great Victoria Secret – Part 1
`TALK about this end of the desert! How would you like to have been with me here?’ Bob Stewart ran his finger over a blank space on the map near the South Australian—West Australian border.
`Boy, is that wild country.’
Bob stared reflectively at the map of his spiritual dominions. We were sitting in his house in Cundeelee Mission. Bob Stewart is an American, Superintendent of the Australian Evangelical Mission at Cundeelee, who came from his studio rent New York, some two hundred miles to the east of the gold-mining town of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. His mission is on the western edge of the Great Victoria Desert, north of Zanthus. A few miles to the north-east is Queen Victoria’s Spring. From there the sand-hills roll to the South Australian border over three hundred miles away. As we looked at the map that hot summer afternoon with the shrill voices of the native children playing outside as a background to our thoughts, Bob went on: ‘Would you like to come with me next time?’ So this desert expedition was born.
First a background of history.
In 1875 Ernest Giles, one of the most competent and daring of Australian explorers, set out on a journey from Boundary Dam on the border of South Australia to explore the country. For 323 waterless miles his party trudged westwards. On the night of September 25 the group settled `in a most abominable encampment’. That day the member of the party who had charge of navigation had bungled the matter. Giles reprimanded him and he retorted: ‘Perhaps you’ll steer then if you don’t think I can.’ Giles took over and turned more to the south. He commented: ‘The fate of empires has hung upon a thread, and our fate now hung upon my action.’
Next morning Tommy, one of the natives, went with a riding-camel to scout for water. Soon he came hurrying back, full gallop.
`Water, water. Plenty here. Come on, come on. This way. This way. Come on, Mr Giles. Mine been find them plenty water.’
Further enquiry as to whether this water was a mere native well or a big expanse brought this exultant reply: ‘No fear shovel. That fellow water sit down meself along ground. Camel he drink ‘em meself.’
Giles hurried to the spot and in his journal wrote: ‘It is the most singularly placed water I have ever seen, lying in a small hollow in the centre of a little grassy flat’ and surrounded by clumps of ‘funereal pines’.
Giles in his enthusiasm called the desert the Great Victoria Desert and the water Queen Victoria’s Spring. Some eighty years later my wife planted seeds of these funereal pines on Giles’s grave in the cemetery of the mining town of Coolgardie.
Other explorers made this water-hole in the desert a stopping-place for further journeying. So harsh was the Great Victoria Desert country that, once tentatively explored, it was left alone. The Trans-Australian Railway skirted this desert’s southern edge and travellers, after the treeless plains of the Nullarbor, stared with some relief to see it clothed in trees, shrubs and, after good rains, masses of wild flowers. It was left to the native peoples undisturbed. Then came the mission at Cundeelee.
A party of naturalists visited Queen Victoria’s Spring. Their report sent others exploring, and it was in the summer of 1956 that I had my first experience of the Spring and of the Great Victoria Desert as a member of a university expedition led by Dr A. R. Main, a leading Australian ecologist.
We had driven fast over the sand-hills to avoid being bogged and it was almost sunset when we reached the Spring. The track wound through blackboy trees, standing like heraldic spearsmen guarding the water beyond. Then we mounted the crest and the hollow lay before us.
The ground was covered with everlastings and it lay like a cloth of gold in the setting sun. The clay-pan was empty but the soak had a few gallons of water. We explored the country around the soak. I captured a large cockroach which I named Archy, after the famous member of its race, who wrote vers Libre. The green desert cockroach rejoices in the name of Poly zosteria mitchelli. Archy swaggered around the Triodia clumps and refused to take refuge in their prickly ramparts. With head held high he defied me. Safely bottled, he returned with me to civilization and lived for many weeks.
I set up a hide near the soak and turned in. A Boobook Owl called just before I drifted into sleep in my central London apartment. At 5 a.m. I was up. As the sun rose higher small groups of budgerigars began to circle the Spring. Dozens became hundreds, hundreds became thousands, until a huge black mass swung overhead, as though in orbit, held by the attractive forces of the Spring. High above, a falcon circled, then stooped through the mass of birds. It seemed incredible that the hawk could miss, yet miss it did. As though plucked by an invisible hand, the falcon rose above the green mass. Once more it plunged and missed again. Here was a case of safety in numbers. The distracting effect of a large flock seemed to confuse the falcon and it withdrew. Later I saw it beating over my head with an unfortunate honey-eater tucked under its body. Still the budgerigars circled above me. In the desert country there is abundant food in the form of dry seeds. Seed-eating animals need the water lacking in their diet. Galahs, bronze-wing pigeons, cockatiels, finches, budgerigars—all these are good indicators of water in arid country.