47["The Nor'-West Ports", The West Australian, Tuesday 28 June 1910, page 5]
The Nor'-West Ports.
If one would make a trip to the North West--that vast tropical and semi-Oriental privince which appeals so much to one's imagination--no better time could be chosen than the months of May, June, and July. Perhaps one might miss the acqaintance of the Nor'-West heat and the tropical cyclone, willy-willy or "cock-eyed bob," as the occasional summer storms are called, but the miss is one that need not be too seriously regretted. For, in the place of the heat and hurricane one would enjoy calm waters, continuous but comfortable sunshine, and the pleasure of seeing the country when it is decidedly more of a paradise than an inferno. Those months, too, are the "homing season"--the period of the year when the squatters go north again. The squatter who deals in the golden fleece, migrates with the seasons as regularly as the swallow. In November and December, when the ardour of the sun begins to get oppressive he comes southward, and here he remains till the summer's heat is past. Then, when Nature is throwing a mantle of green over the plains, when the flies have gone into retirement and the mosquitoes are at rest, when the north is said by northerners to be the mildest and balmiest in the world, when the flocks are being mustered and the garnering of the wool commences, the wealthy squatter goes north again to the land that pays him well. On the boat the genus "Norwester" is easily identifiable. He is bronzed and bluff and unconventional, and as he passes along the promenade deck passengers confidingly whisper how many figures he can sign his name to. Also, he is forever talking sheep. Wheresoever two or three squatters are gathered together there will the conversation be forever of sheep, and rain, and grass, and windmills. And the young Englishman sitting in the smokeroom looks up in the midst of an intricate bridge problem and says vehemently: "Damn these squatters and the incessant talk of sheep; the very rafters echo with sheep, sheep, sheep." Perhaps also, he makes bitter comment on the ease with which some people get their incomes, and then someone answers: "Yes, the squatter is envied and abused nowadays; it seems almost convenient to forget that he lived 20 strenuous years in this heat-blistered country before he was worth while being worried about by the tax collector."
If one has travelled on this long and unpicturesque coast before, he gets his first inkling of the progress of the North-West from the vastly improved steamer service. What an advance upon the old style of boats which plied along the coast only a few years ago are the Royal mail steamer Koombana, in which the Colonial Secretary travelled recently, and the Minderoo and the Gorgon. And then again, how business has increased! The ship carries a full complement of passengers, and her holds are full. At every port she has tons of cargo to discharge, and one ignorant of the vast hinterland behind some of the insignificant little towns on the coast ownders whither such piles of stores can be going.
The Nor'-West life is something distinct in itself. At Geraldton the souther civilisation ceases, and thence northward commences a gradual merging into tropical life and tropical conditions. Thirty hours afterwards the ship rounds the long Dirk Hartog Island--one of the many reminders along the coast that the Dutchmen and the French were the first to stumble across the western side of the continent--and glides through the sheltered waters of Denham Sound to an anchorage a few miles off the small town of the same name. Already the Nor'-West phase of life is opening up. The genial warmth of the sun, the white-roofed houses on the shore, the browned faces and white or khaki clothes of the settlers, the pearling luggers with their coloured crews, the sense of release from the small conventions of society, are the things that bespeak the North-West.
The town of Denham has no pretentions to size or beauty, but it enjoys some importance by reason of being the southern base of the pearling industry. The Shark's Bay oyster is inferior to that obtained further north, but the grounds profitably employ a fair population, whilst the proximity of some good sheep runs also helps to support the settlement. The most picturesque feature of Denham is the "pogey pots," in which the oysters from the pearl-shell are decomposed and rendered so that the very small pearls are recovered in the sediment. You always approach a pogey pot from the windward side; to leeward "the smell can be heard in the distance."
Though the larger boats round Dirk Hartog Island to enter or leave Shark's Bay, there is a most picturesque exit through the South Passage, a narrow channel of water separating the island from a peninsula of the mainland. Inside the water is so calm and banks on either side so near that one might imagine the boat to be making its way up a wide but sluggish river to the interior. But the South Passage is something to be attempted only in daylight. Though the water seems wide enough the channel is narrow and tortuous. Crossing he inner bar the course is steered according to the appearance of the water; the skipper keeping a sharp lookout for light patches of water, which indicate sand-spits and darker splashes which reveal heavy banks of seaweed. Turning now to starboard and now to port the boat creeps through the maze of submerged dangers, the sea-bed being with its adornments of weed and shell and sharks and fishes, being easily discernible on either side of the ship. Then comes a cautious approach to the outer bar. Inside, the water is still calm and the ship motionless. In the foreground is a small rock, and on either side of it a line of foaming breakers. Beyond is a bold headland, known as Steep Point, and the open sea with a big swell running. We get two beacons into line and then dart full speed ahead for an aperture in the line of breakers. In a couple of minutes we pass from the calm of South Passage, over the bar with towering, furious breakers, on either side not five fathoms away, and into the swelling and tossing of the open sea. It seems like shooting the rapids.
A few hours' steaming in Shark Bay brings us to the prosperous and growing port of Carnarvon, the centre of the Gascoyne pastoral interests, and metaphorically, a town built upon a rock. Carnarvon is sound because the interests which sustain it are solid and permanent. It is expanding in prosperity, thanks to the benefits of Artesian bores and the fuller improvement and stocking of the stations. The Gascoyne Valley is a magnificent grazing territory, and happy is the man who has fenced off a few miles of the earth in that district. Its port business is expanding so rapidly that the town is clamouring for extended jetty accommodation and larger goods sheds, whilst the little locomotive, which has replaced the former horse traction and the earlier custom of sailing the trucks up into the town, is already groaning under the burden of overwork. But Carnarvon has a perennial trouble--a festering sore which has defied all efforts at healing. The trouble all comes from the fact that the founders of Carnarvon loved the Gascoyne River so well that they placed the town on its bank. They didn't know how much the river loved them, else they would not now be worrying year after year for a means of repelling the advances of the water. Each year the swollen river comes rushing down to the sea, and in the ardour of its affections attempts to creep all over the town. The consequence is that annually Olivia-terrace is reduced by about 50 per cent., and at times the river shows half a mind to take the whole town in its arms and hurry away to sea. Fortunes have been spent in trying to keep the river at a distance, and once again the Government is to be asked to assist the residents in staving off the too impetuous wooer. Olivia-terrace is to don sheathpiling armour, and then perhaps Carnarvonites will be able to meet Ministers of the Crown without bringing up that eternal bogey, "the foreshore."
Carnarvon is like the majority of towns along the coast. It seems now as if the early settlers' first consideration was to find a creek into which to run their boats. Having found a landing they proceeded inland till they got over the tidal marshes and there they started a store and a hotel--the nucleus of every settlement. In course of time they wanted their landing place made into a port, and a paternal Government, greatly daring, came along and started to build a jetty. They built chain after chain of piles and planking till at the end of half a mile or so they had reached deep water. Of course the jetties could not remain isolated, and the building of tramways over the marshes at heavy cost was inevitable. This one imagines to have been the history of all these ports. The consequence is that when a boat puts into that port, be it Carnarvon, or Onslow, or Point Sampson, or Broome, or Derby, all that greets the passenger is a high gaunt structure of heavy timber projecting from the low uninhabited sandhills far into the sea. One has to undertake a tram journey of some miles to discover the port itself, or the town to which the jetty belongs. Add to this fact the delay and inconvenience of working tidal ports--the sneaking up to a jetty when the tide is not looking, and the getting kicked out again when the tide wakes up, or, alternatively, an enforced delay of 12 hours--the manifold dangers of navigating a coast where islands have been tossed about in reckless profusion, where the reefs that just peep above the water are only less dangerous than the more numerous reefs and sandbanks that keep awash or just below the water, and you know why the Nor'-West coast is superficially uninteresting and boresome. The coast is mostly low-lying and bare, the islands are sordid lumps of rock and sand, sometimes scrub-covered, and nowhere is there a vestige of physical beauty that would give inspiration to painter or poet. It is the little retiring towns that are worth pursuing to their hiding places behind the sandhills.
Having left Carnarvon one soon crosses the tropic of Capricorn, and some hours later the hull and spars of the wrecked Mildura come into view opposite the North-West Cape. The Cape is a sort of sartorial changing station. We are now in the tropics beyond all doubt, and the regular traveller as soon as he sees the North-West Cape on the horizon hurries off to his cabin and reappears in white linen or khaki. We are in the calmest of calm oceans, the sun shows delightfully "the myriad ripples of the laughing sea," and turtles which have their nests on the neighbouring islands, inquisitively raise their heads above water and disappear again. Long yellowish snakes writhe along the surface of the water, and perhaps a whale spouting in the distance adds to the interest and enjoyment of travel. We are now in the land of incessant sunshine, of warmth and colour, and glorious sunsets. Dusk comes on and the sun has sunk below the level surface of the sea. On the horizon the blue ocean is wedded to a sky of saffron and pink. Night closes in, and in the gathering gloom the dark islands arise out of the calm bed of the sea, and after being silhouetted for a while against the sky, drift by into the darkness. The steamer's smoke hangs indolently in the air, and all creation seems placidly lazy and careless.
It is in the beginning of this region that the steamer drops anchor opposite a jetty, which is the outward and visible sign of adjacency of Onslow. Here at the mouth of the Ashburton River a little town has been founded. To the visitor it seems to comprise three stores and two hotels, and an altogether inadequate population to keep the five institutions going.
In less than a day's steaming from Onslow the steamer is alongside the huge pile of woodwork know as the Point Sampson Jetty. In the foreground is Jarman Island, with a lighthouse thereon, and behind the jetty an imposing range of black ironstone hills. It is typical Pilbarra country. On the reefs at low tide it is fashionable to hunt for the dainty operculum, which having had to pay the penalty of being fashionable, is not longer as easily gathered as it used to be. Round the corner on the bank of a creek is Cossack, and twelve miles inland is Roebourne, at one time the acknowledged capital of the North-West. Prior to Point Sampson jetty beting built, all cargo was lightered from the steamers to Cossack, which, as the base of the pearling fleets in the old days, was of no little account. Even when the main body of the pearling fleets shifted further north and Broome became the pearling headquarters, Cossack was still in a prosperous way as the port for the flourishing town of Roebourne, adn all that stretch of mineral and grazing country in West Pilbarra. Unfortunately Cossack was physically incapable of becoming a harbour for large steamers, and the consequence was the building of the Port Sampson Jetty at an enormous cost. For years people were equally divided as to the future of the jetty; some said it would be washed away in the first hurricane, others equally as stoutly maintained that the structure would last until the second hurricane smote it. It is still standing. But the mistake which the Government made was to build a jetty and to leave it completely isolated. The only tramway was from Cossack to Roebourne; to Point Sampson there was only an indifferent road, which people preferred not to utilise except for stock. The jetty did not, indeed could not, pay. Cossack realised the inevitable and prepared for death. The government were induced to build a tramline over the marshes separating Roebourne from Point Samson, and as the line is now working and is equipped with a cheeky little locomotive, Cossack is become a superfluity. At point Samson, a little township is in course of erection, and such buildings at Cossack as are removable are being transferred to the younger settlement. Cossack is now almost deserted; in time it will be completely so. Two publicans still hold fast to their licenses, but they only await a transfer, after which the inviting glimmer of their bar lights will be seen at Point Samson, and Cossack will know them no more. But the unfortunate thing is that Cossack must have been in hight favouriwth the Government in days gone by, for publich money was simply lavished on the town. The consequence is that the passing of Cossack will throw into desuetude costly Government buildings, a stone-built post office, a stone-built Court-house, a Stone-built Customs-house, goods sheds of concrete and iron, and a wharf of solid masonry, besides other appointments. It is a tremendous and lamentable loss of money, but it is apparently inevitable for Point Sampson had to come and Cossack had to go. As for the old capital, Roebourne is solid but not so actively prosperous as it used to be. It too has fine Government building and a model gaol, scrupulously kept, and it pins implicit faith to a resuscitation of mining. West Pilbarra used to produce gold, and may do so again, while the country on all sides of Roebourne is studded with small copper shows, which, say the people, need only capital to develop them into big things. But pending the time when the magic hand of capital shall touch the mineral deposits, Roebourne may lean very firmly on its extensive pastoral industry. Rightly or wrongly, Roebourne has never recovered from the fact of the Pilbarra railway being started from Port Hedland, and its people can scarcely possess themselves in patience until the failure of the Hedland route shall prove that Roebourne was the only possible starting point for the iron horse when it goes forth to conquer and transform the desert.
Port Hedland, of course, thinks differently. Unlike the other northern ports, Port Hedland has pitched itself on the very edge of the water, and thus exposed seems to invite criticism of its bareness. Not a tree nor a shrub graces its streets, and deep though the harbour is at hight tide, the receding of the waters discloses a most unimpressive stretch of sand and mangrove mud. The harbour may be good, but it is bare honesty to say that Port Hedland never reveals to the visitor those charms which the residents in their enthusiasm profess to see. Government expenditure however, is doing something to "make" the port, which is at present abnormally busy. The wharf accommodation has been doubled in recent years, and the cargoes of steamers calling there are swelled with rails and fastenings for the Marble Bar line. Hedland's expectations from that line are boundless, and it is to be hoped that they may prove to be well founded. In any case there is a hasty intolerance shown toward the doubter and the person who doesn't see Hedland through Hedland's spectacles. As a forwarding port for the inland settlements, of which Marble Bar is the commercial and official centre, Hedland is at times kept busy, and the large pastoral properties behind it help to keep the people supplied with that, the love of which is pronounced as the root of all evil. If the building of the Pilbarraline is followed by that mining development which is hoped for, then Hedland must become the Fremantle of the North-West. But be it never so prosperous in the years to come, it can never become a place which would captivate the heart and mind of the casual visitor.
On a sea continuously calm, the ship glides on northward, passing Bedout Island, on which the new lighthouse shows prominently, and 24 hours after leaving Hedland has slipped into Roebuck Bay, while the tide is favourable, and tied up to a typical Nor'-West jetty. The ship, drawing 18ft. of water, is riding buoyantly as the discharge of cargo commences, yet six hours later passengers are walking round the boat and snapshotting her as she squats on the firm sand of the ocean bed. Every resident who comes down to meet the ship is in spotless white suit, and behyond in the bay coloured men are sitting on the decks of luggers and eating their midday meal. We are now at the show-place of the North-West, and the trip has been a breach of confidence if the stay of the boat does not allow of a run into town by the inevitable tramway, and an inspection of the semi-oriental settlement. But of Broome and its pearls more anon. Suffice it that at this point we are within three or four days of Java, and that the intervening sea scarcely shuts out the atmosphere and colour of the purpling East.
Northward once again and the steamer, picking her way along the passage between the mainland and the Lacepede Islands, makes haste to enter King Sound before nightfall. It is worth while being on deck at this stage of the voyage. At each port aong the coast the rise and fall of the tide has been increasing, and we are now in a latitude where we encounter one of the biggest tides in the world. And if we would pass through Sunday Straits, we must have this tremendous tide with us; to steam against it is impossible. The negotiation of Sunday Straits seems to be a puzzle of navigation. Across the entrance to the Sound is a chain of picturesque islands, and between the islands are little knobs of rock, small pinnacles of reef half hidden in the sea, and what combinations of rocks and reefs that are not revealed one can only imagine. There is no more thrilling and picturesque passage on the coast. The ship is entering on a flowing tide, which at "high springs" rises and falls a maximum of 40ft., and the sea is like a vast mountain torrent as it rushes and swirls throught the islands and over the reefs. You may see it on the weather side of a rock 3ft. higher than on the lee side, and it is a giddy sight to watch the boiling of the waters on all directions, as the immense volume of the tide rushes over the submerged obstacles. Such is the upheaval of the waters when the tide is strongest that one imagines the ship to be riding on an immense natural cauldron, the waters of which are kept on the boil by fierce submarine fires. Yet the vagaries of the place are so well known that the ship glides through Escape Pass, seeming to brush shoulders at every foot of her passage. In the earlier days all hands were piped on deck as the vessel neared either Escape or Meda Pass, the leadsman was perched ready for soundings, the skipper was on the bridge, and the first mate stood by the anchor. Nowadays navigators dodge into the Sound with somewhat more composure, and the recent survey by H.M.S. Fantome will allow of the entrance being more closely charted.
Later in the quiet waters of the Sound, anchor is dropped as evening closes in, and the passenger finds himself watching the sun set over the mainland in gorgeous splendour, the whole horizon aflame and each cloud shot with gold, and pink and red, with other tints creeping in. When again the tide is on the flow the ship pushes further down the Sound, and in a few hours is squatting squarely in the mud which supports Derby Jetty. When the steamer tied up the jetty was almost awash, but now the eye rests upon as ugly a picture of mud and mangrove as the imagination ever conceived. A few miles further to the south the Fizroy empties itself into the Sound, whilst in the nearer perspective the mirage is painting hallucinatory pictures of sea and mountain. Over a mile of causeway across the marsh connects the jetty with the town, and surely Derby, when ultimately reached, exceeds expectations. The jetty and the marsh lead one to expect the worst, but instead here is a pretty little settlement whose one long street is filled with native trees. Trees and vegetation are on all sides, and in the private gardens one sees such exotics as cocoanut and date palms. But the most interesting of all vegetable adornments is the stately baobab tree, with its umbrageous branches, and butt of immense girth, tapering into a narrow neck until it bears resemblance to a giant ale bottle. The large nuts which the tree bears are fancifully carved by the natives, and sought after by curio-hunters. Truly there are worse places on the coast than Derby, the capital of West Kimberley. The gold rush to the Kimberleys in the eighties gave Derby its first lift, but now its dependence is on grazing, solely. Magnificent cattle stations are in the back country which the port serves, and thousands of head of stock are shipped here annually. The town has best domestic water supply on the coast, and the soil, it is generally agreed, will grow anything with water and the approval of His Majesty The White Ant. The country at the back grow cattle faster than the consumer wants them, and the pastoralists are now considering a proposal to establish canning works at Derby to treat the surplus stock. The town is also the headquarters of the West Kimberley police. The visitor might generally admire Derby if it were not for the mosquitoes, malarial fever, and the presence of alligators in the creek. They are three very unromantic qualifications of Derby's better parts.
This is practically the terminal point of the regular steamship service, but if one has the good fortune to go on to Wyndham he passes even more numerous islands, sees bolder scenery, and in parts might cast a stone from the ship's deck to the passing shore, finds the tides since leaving Derby are decreasing, and then in the extremity of Cambridge Gulf comes upon the last town on Western Australia's northern coast, and as some say, the last place the Almighty created. If again in returning southward one can spend time on some of the thousand and one islands which rise out of the sea, one can enhance the enjoyment and multiply the interests of the north-west coast by good fishing, oyster gathering, and turtle catching. But the opportunities of thus departing from the beaten track are not many, and even then they must be taken in proper season.