John Stewart’s Diary – Ravenswood May 1884 to visit Thomas Murray and Jane Stewart [courtesy of gsmithpros on ancestry.com]
...About 8 at night we got to Townsville harbour, having been 4 days and 3 nights on the way. We were taken on a tug to the port. To my great pleasure, my brother-in-law (Thomas Murray) was at the quay to meet me. I need hardly say that we were glad to see each other after such a long separation. We went to a Hotel, but we had so much to talk about, that it was well on in the morning before we fell asleep.
Next day about 1 o’clock, we took the train for Ravenswood Junction. The railway gauge is very narrow and the plant light. This holds good all over the colony. It suits the country very well just now, but will be awkward bye and bye, when their gauges are different. This evil will always increase the more railways that are made. I think they could have a uniform gauge and have light plant all the same. Their lines are only temporary made as they go up and down over the heights and hollows, as much as they can, to save cutting and embanking. The distance to the Junction was about 70 miles. We had to cross what they call the range. These are mountains that run nearly all the length of the colony. We stopped at the Junction all night, and next day, I was provided with a horse to make the journey to Ravenswood, a distance of 30 miles.
I had not been on horseback since I was a boy. The roads were not very good and the getting down the side of the creeks and up the other was very trying to my horsemanship. However, I made the journey alright, but very tired, and met my sister (Jean Stewart) and her family, nearly all of whom had been born in the colony. While here, I saw the gold mining and quartz crushing, cattle branding etc. The land here is mostly very poor. This is the case in nearly all gold districts.
It may be interesting to some to hear about the native dance or corroboree. The government gives them blankets once a year, so all in the district gathered here to get them. There would be about 300 men and as many gins, besides the usual compleplement of juveniles and any amount of dogs and mangy cuss they were. The ceremony was held at night about a mile or so out of the town. They had fires kindled which gave a good light. The men had all the same dress or uniform, which consisted of a handkerchief and I was told that if they had not been near a settlement they would have dispensed with the handkerchief altogether. They had their bodies painted with red, white, blue and yellow stripes and patterns – some of them had themselves like a rude sort of tartan. A number stood to the side and beat time with their spears or nilly-nillies and boomerangs, and as they are made of very hard wood, they give out a sharp, almost metallic sound. The gins were squatted on their hams, and had their blankets folded, which they held between their knees leaving a part of it up which they kept clapping with their two hands. This gave out a soft hollow sound. Then the warriors came out and chanted or recited a great story or something (which as, I don’t think any of you will understand the language, I will not trouble myself writing down). They at the same time, kept stamping the ground with the right foot, keeping time to the exquisite music made by the nilly-nillies and the blankets. After a time, this band retired and others took their place. During some parts of the performance some old men put some branches of a kind of gum tree on the fires, which illuminated all round and gave the ceremony a very weird look.
I can assure you if I had come on this party myself, without having heard anything about them, I would have given them a very wide berth. I made a bargain with one of them for a shield or woomera. He wanted 2/- for it. I offered him 1/-. He said, “bal gammen me king” meaning that he was a king, and was fair dealing. He took the bob, never the less. I was told there was a queen also, and as I expressed a desire to see her, I was told that shshe had retired to her royal apartment. However she very graciously rose and came to where I was, with only her robe de chambre on, which I was told constituted her entire wardrobe. As I have mentioned the boomerang, I will now describe it. It is shaped nearly like a reaping hook, but not so much bent. It is made of hard wood. They can throw it about a hundred yards. It ges whirling and gradually turns and comes back, almost to their feet.
The roads are very bad. Only the weather is dry, it would be almost impossible to haul and, as there are no bridges over the creeks, they have to go down and up the steep sides of them. There are generally 10 or 12 horses in a team, and from 16t6to 24 bullocks. The bullocks can only make about 6 or 8 miles in a day, as they go very slow. It takes some time in the morning to gather them in and yoke them and in the afternoon about 4, they have to be let loose, so that they can feed beforefore it gets dark. I had a trip with a bullock team to the great Burdekin River for timber. It was about 16 miles to it. At night we slept under the wagon. We had some fishing – we caught eels, one about 3 ft long and the first I ever tasted anand I cannot say I am very fond of it. Also a fish called the jewfish which was very good, also brim (bream). I enjoyed the shooting better. I got hold of a double barrel shotgun. I shot cockatoos. They are considered a pest here, and other game. Also a large bird called a fish hawk but I am inclined to think it was an eagle, as it would measure 6 feet to the tips of its wings.
But my best game was a pig about 2 cwt. That day we roused an old sow and two half-grown pigs. The young ones took to the water like ducks. We chased the old one for about a mile, with a dog, but as we had no ponies with us (as they were left a at the wagons) so we lost it. I went back to the river and kept searching along the bank, and was rewarded by coming suddenly almost on top of a big fellow. I fired at his shoulders trying to lame him. He started off and I saw that he limped and stumbled. I let him go along as he was going in the direction that my friends were fishing. I kept close up to hi, with the intention of keeping him from taking the water, but he suddenly turned round and faced me, and as he had very large tusks and being alone, I was a little alarmed, so I fired the other barrel in his face, so he turned, and my friends coming up, we soon dispatched him, and splendid eating he was, and a contrast to the corned beef we had been getting there.
There were kangaroos, emus, plain turkeys, almost 18 pounds and still I was told this was a very poor place for game. I went into what they call the scrub here. It is a sort of jungle. I saw here the nests of the scrub turkey. This bird is not sso big as the plain turkey. They have a large mound as big as 3 or 4 cart loads of dirt, sticks etc. They lay their eggs in this, and cover them up. A great many go to the same nest. I also saw the bower bird nest, or rather, pleasure house. They had it all decked with shells. It was one that was used, as there were some plums in it quite fresh. There is a large lizard called iguana. It is harmless and said to be good eating. There is also said to be alligators in large rivers.
The creeks during my visit were nearly all dry - some there is a little water in, and it will run some parts, then disappear. Afterwards, and it will come out again from under the sand, sweet and cool. I saw no snakes during my trip, as this was the winter. I will, before leaving this locality, tell you about the termites or white ants, as they are a great plague here. They build a sort of cone 6 or 7 feet high. It is of mud and they put some stuff in it, that makes it almost as hard as stone. On breaking it, it is all honey- combed inside , and alive with thousands of these busy insects. They eat out the inside of trees, posts, etc. leaving only a shell on the outside, and they fill all the cavity up with mud. The whole ground is moving with them. They are very destructive on wood houses and they can’t get any cure for them, unless they build stone ones. There are several other kinds of ants, from t the most tiny ones to about an inch in length. There are great numbers of small lizards, very agile and quite harmless. The scorpion is to be met with and an ugly little fellow he is. He looks like a small toad but when he stretches himself out, he is shaped like a lobster. Centipedes are to be met with, 6 or 7 inches long and as thick as my finger. They are just a big mug merry feet (these words are hard to discern in the diary).
All kinds of locusts, grass hoppers ad butterflies – some very pretty ones. I must tell you about the grass seeds. At sometimes of the year and notably during the time I was there, these sees are very annoying. The grass is long and coarse. And has bristles like barley. The seed has a barb as the end, the same as the point of a fish hook. Your clothes get stuck full until on resembles a pin-cushion, but they even go further than the clothes. I am told sheep are killed by them, as they go into the very flesh. I saw mutton with the seeds in it. Moleskins are the best for this part, and are generally worn.
As this district is in the tropics, about 200 South, the sun passes over their heads about a month before Christmas, and comes back over about a month after. I saw the plough i.e. the seven stars that are seen along with the North Star while here.
I got mounted on Burdie (so called because he was foaled near the Burdekin River) and take a farewell look, where I passed a few very pleasant days. I got back to my sister’s and get loaded with presents for my little ones at home. I don’t ride to the Junction. I take Cobb and Coy’s coach. Well, it was very rough at times getting over the creeks. I got to Townsville that day but had to wait till Monday for a boat. This is a thriving and quite new town, but the site is very hilly. There are a lot of labourers here. They are making a harbour or pier here, but it is a very rough one. There are a lot of Chinamen here. I saw an escort coming with some gold, from Charters Towers. The escort was about 6 mounted police, and about 12 native police, also mounted.
I was 4 weeks away from Brisbane. After getting back I had a trial of bush life. I was about 6 weeks under canvas. We were wakened always at sunrise with the laughing jackass. This fellow is all over the colonies, and makes a deuce of a noise. I It is a little larger than a Mavis. It has a long bill, and is said to kill snakes and other vermin and there is a fine for killing them. Great flocks of parrots are flying about, even in the city; Some very small ones and some very pretty oneses. They are reckoned a nuisance, so also is the home sparrow which they brought out, but they are mostly in towns. It will be rather tedious to name all the different trees that I know but the iron bark is widely used here, and a very strong and durable wood it is. Most of all the trees are a kind of gum and burns very well, even when green...