chapter Five: YOUNG LADY AUGUSTA

Governor Gawler had built a fine residence for the Representative of the Crown, and had been well rapped over the knuckles for his extravagance. But in his time there had only been the most formal of dinner parties, for he and his wife were strict Evangelicals much given to prayer and the delivery of religious tracts, and frowning on all frivolities such as music and dancing, so that the colony got little fun for its money!

As for Governor Grey and his lady, sadness hung over Government House while they were in residence for their only child, a baby boy five months old, died there.  They were not a happy couple and they separated soon after leaving Adelaide.  Governor Robe was unmarried, so it was a great joy to South Australians to welcome their first civilian Governor, the handsome, likeable Sir Henry Fox Young, and especially his charming bride, who was young and gay and very lovely, and enjoyed music and dancing and pretty clothes.  Altogether, Lady Fox Young was a most satisfactory Governor’s lady, much beloved.  She was known to everyone as the Lady Augusta. She had no right to this title, being the daughter of a commoner, one Charles Marryat, brother of the famous writer.  But Lady Fox Young seemed too formal a title for such a young girl, and soon everyone called her by her Christian name except on formal occasions. Her name will be remembered as long as the history of the River Murray, for it was given to the first steamer to trade upon its waters.  (X Mary ANN was the first)

It was a warm, sunny morning, with a clear blue sky and a gentle gum scented breeze, very welcome after a week of incessant rain and bitter winds that blew sharply across the Adelaide plains.

Sir Henry and his wife stood together looking out from Government House over the green parklands. The twisting Torrens was looking quite a splendid river, bordered by lush green banks and fattened by the winter rains, instead of the miserable, untidy little creek it became in summer. Adelaide had grown into a fine city in twelve years, thanks mainly to the efforts of poor Governor Gawler, who had used the ever-increasing number of emigrants pouring out to the colony under Wakefield’s scheme, on an extensive building project.   They could not work on the land as they were supposed to, because the land had still not been surveyed, and rather than have them destitute and without work, he used government funds to employ them on very necessary public buildings.  The buildings were altogether too imposing for such a young, impoverished colony, and the unfortunate governor’s bills were repudiated; he was recalled in disgrace, and replaced by Governor Grey, who came with strict instructions to retrench and economise in every possible way.   But the buildings remained, and by the time Sir Henry Young arrived the colony was solvent once again. The city looked particularly lovely that morning as it lay, sunlit and prosperous, between the blue hills and the Sparkling sea.  Lady Augusta turned excitedly to her husband.

“Exploring, Sir Henry? Oh, yes, indeed I shall love it.  I was only thinking as I rode across the parklands, how glorious the spring is here — not soft and sweet as at home, but strong and challenging, with the wind and the sharp smell of the gums, and the kookaburras laughing and the sunlight…  But, Harry, what about Aretas? Can I bring him with me?

You know I can’t possibly leave him behind, I shall still be feeding him for at least three months yet. Besides, there is no—one I would care to leave him with.”

“I see no reason why he should not accompany us, my love. The change will benefit us all I’m sure, and he is so contented. He will lie in his little basket – far less trouble than if he were running around.”

“How shall we go?” asked his wife. “Shall we go all the way by boat, or across to the river on horseback? Harry, don’t put me in a carriage. You know I’d far sooner sit on a horse.  Aretas can travel in the carriage, I will stay close to him.  Will there be any other ladies?  Mrs. Freeling would love to come, I’m sure, if he is to accompany you.  She would stay in the carriage with Aretas,  she hates riding over rough country.   I’d far sooner sit on a horse than travel any other way – ” Sir Henry burst out laughing.

“You, sit on a horse!  You talk as if you sat on a horse as you sit on a chair! You mean, go careering through the bush at a mad gallop, light as a feather on that great Pasha of yours! No, my love, a carriage and then a bullock-cart for you.”

It was a charming sight to see Lady Augusta riding across the Parklands on her morning visit to Kensington to see her uncle, Bishop Short. She looked beautiful in her well-cut habit, her hair bound back in a snood, mechlin lace pinned in soft folds at her heck instead of the severity of a stock, her cheeks glowing with health and happiness.  All the young men were in love with her.  It was an experience to go riding with her.  Her husband had brought out two splendid hacks for her, fine jumpers, and well accustomed to the side-saddle. It was hard to keep up with her when she set her horse at a gallop and sailed across creeks, over fallen trees, up banks and down gullies, the reins held firmly in her strong little hands, seated as easily and lightly on her horse’s back as if she were perched on an armchair.  Sir Henry knew his wife only too well, and he knew there would be no peace, and possible disaster, if he let her loose on horseback in bush country.

“I propose'” Said Sir Henry: “to go up as far as the Rufus, with Mr Freeling and Mr Torrens. I hope we can persuade their ladies to accompany you by carriage. If it seems suitable, you can embark on the whaleboats with us when we reach the Rufus. I intend to have two boats sent along with us; we shall go up on horseback, examining the river and the country as we go along.  From the Rufus I wish to attempt the passage of the river as far as the junction of the Darling by boat, returning all the way to Goolwa by water. I particularly want to come through Lake Alexandrina. I believe the waters of the lake can prove very treacherous, and this will be a factor in the decision to make Goolwa a port. But I will not let you come through the Lake unless the weather is exceptionally calm.”

“Oh, Harry, it will be fun!  This country fascinates me, and it will be a great experience to travel along the course of the river. I remember with what interest I read Captain Sturt’s account of his voyage when I was about fifteen.   I little thought then that I would see it all with my own eyes!

“I remember, my uncle Marryat gave it to me. He said it was far more exciting than anything he had ever written, all the more so because it was all true! I must see to the provisions. When do you intend we shall go?”

“Well, my dear, as you know, we are offering a bonus of £4000 for the first two steamboats to go up the river as far as the Darling, and the bonus is now being advertised here and in London. I am anxious to go as soon as possible, to get some idea of general conditions, and of what can be done.  It will be much easier to carry out negotiations” if I have first hand knowledge.  Augusta, I’m longing to see steamers on the river! The whole country needs them. They would be a boon to everyone in New South Wales and the country south of the Murray as well as to South Australia, and they would bring much wealth to this colony. I shall never rest till I see goods carried freely to and from the river and the sea.  The Murray should be South Australia’s richest asset – indeed the greatest source of wealth to this whole country if used aright. Gold indeed!  If I were a young man here to make my fortune I would sooner own two good boats on the river with access to a good seaport, than dig gold out of the ground.  I wonder if that young Scot, Cadell, will try his hand at winning the £2000. He seemed interested, but I think he’s a great talker!”

So they went, a merry party: the Governor and his lady, their infant son, Mr. and Mrs. Freeling, Mr. and Mrs. Torrens, and Mr. Hutton, on the tenth of September, 1850, when the young shoots were springing like flames from the newest branches of the eucalypts, and a golden cloud of wattle dappled the scrub and scented the air.

The strange Australian spring, a grey-green spring tipped with red, with wildflowers in blossom, and filled with a pristine, secret beauty of its own.  Shy wallabies and other little bush creatures with mournful eyes, watching them anxiously from the shadows; kangaroos thumping towards the billabongs to drink in the evenings, startled at the strange creatures invading their territory; magpies singing at sunrise, pouring out the most ecstatic of all bird songs; kookaburras laughing above their heads, their raucous mockery echoing and re-echoing across the bush; and suddenly a sense of silent, human watch, of deep—set eyes hidden under huge, over-hanging orbital ridges: blackfellers appearirg as if from nowhere, their women and children in clusters behind them, to gaze upon the first white women they had ever seen.  Across the ranges they went, along the drovers well-beaten tracks to the river country, to the Murray with its twists and turns and high red cliffs, rising first on the one bank and then on the other, and its own red-gums, standing deep in the flooding waters – waters from the Indi above Mount Kosciusko and the Great Dividing Range over the Queensland border from the Namoi and the Barwon, from the ancient bed of the Darling, from the Campaspe and the Goulburn and the Ovens and the Avoca, from the anabranches and the unnamed creeks, from billabongs which had rejoined the river after years of separation – all identity lost in the greater waters of the Murray as it wound its slow, majestic way to the lakes, to Goolwa, to the Mouth, and the Bar, and the Southern Ocean.  It was a fascinating world, full of challenge.

“It is a great privilege, and a great responsibility I have been given,” said the Governor, as the party rode along through the scrub under the feathery shade of the river gums.  “This surely is the most wonderful of all lands.”

At night before they slept, they saw the sky and the stars and the silver path of the waning moon on the water, and the twinkling lights from the blackfellers’ fires all the way along the winding river banks.  “Like the lights all along the Embankment!” said Lady Augusta, amazed at their number.  They heard the crickets and the frogs and the silly willy-wagtails who never know when to go to bed.  They heard the rhythmic beat of swans‘ wings as they flew low overhead, calling as they went, the ‘mo-poke‘ of the boo-book owl, one of the strangest of all bush sounds at night, the ringing note of the bull-frog, and the slither and plop of snakes and other unknowns all along the reedy margins of the river.  The sights were unforgettable.  Blackfellers, still so numerous along the river, with their thin canoes cut from the bark of the biggest of the river gums, and patiently shaped in hollows dug in the sand. In the centre of their canoes they carried their little fires, as they went from one encampment to another. Some were friendly, and catching ten and twenty-pound Murray cod, they would bring them wriggling on the prongs of their spears to lay at the feet of the Governor.  Sometimes they would cook them first, native way, in a bed of hot ashes.

But others vanished. Silently they disappeared up the mouths and tunnels of a thousand little creeks.  “I feel as if they’re Watching us all the time,” said Lady Augusta, with a shudder. “How silent they are! I feel as if they hate us for coming into their country…” The dawns and the sunsets, and the birds; unforgettable sights. But more than the sights, it was the sounds of the river that she never forgot, especially in the silence of the night. There is a Murray curlew that wails like a banshee

after dark, and a nightjar who works all night along the bank collecting food, strangely noisy in his operations.  Duck fly at night and cry as they go.  Water birds are restless, nocturnal creatures, mostly they fly and seek their food after dark, unlike birds who nest in trees and regulate their life by the sun. There are owls along the river bank who shriek and moan like tormented souls, and the lap and suck of water lends an eery, haunting quality to the music of the bush after sundown, with its accompanying chorus of frogs.  Lady Augusta, as they camped each night, could hear all these strange sounds and, like many another wife in a strange place, she turned over and, touching the solid warmth of her husband, crept gratefully into the comfort of his arms, while young Aretas slept as tranquilly in his basket as if he were in his nursery at Government House.

They travelled by horse and carriage through Gawler to the police station at Murrundie, where Mr Scott the Protector of Aborigines joined them. The men rode on to the Rufus, where Scott had two whaleboats manned by aborigines to row them to the junction of the Darling, which they reached on the 28th of September. Then they returned to rejoin the ladies at Murrundie. The whole party then embarked in three boats, an extra one having been sent overland from Port Adelaide, and they reached Goolwa on the 17th of October.  They had progressed at a leisurely pace down the river, taking soundings as they went. Here they found submerged rocks, there a wide sandbar stretching right across the river.  Ugly snags in the shape of dead trees stuck unyielding arms out into the main channel and the river twisted and wound about.  Sometimes they would find themselves looping back a hundred yards to a place they had left a couple of hours before.

 

“It’s hard to visualise now,” said Sir Henry, “after such a wet, cold winter, with every creek overflowing, what it will be like at the end of a hot, dry summer. We are in shallow boats and the river grows wider and deeper every day – in fact every hour. But they will need to be boats of very shallow draft, and then I wonder how they will fare fully loaded. The settlers will not be happy to use the river for their produce if they find the boats getting stuck half way down!” “It might be quite dangerous, I imagine,” said Lady Augusta, “if the waters came down suddenly. Even in the short time we have been on the river the water’s risen rapidly, some of the creeks are veritable torrents.”

“Aye, there’ll be danger. It will need a lot of skill and sound judgment and courage to navigate this river. But it only needs the skill and daring of one or two and the rest will follow.”

The skill and daring of one or two… of Francis Cadell, and of another, strangely interesting character, a young man who knew nothing of boats or rivers, yet without help or advice or encouragement from anyone, put his Steamboat on the river first,  Young William Randell.   And as the Governor prophesied, following the lead of these two, came the rest , the Cockenzie boys and all the others,  brave men working out fresh problems circumventing fresh dangers every day, for the waterways were never the same. Each day, each season, each year they changed.  But three years were to elapse after the Governor’s memorable trip before the first two paddle-steamers thumped and thrashed their way up the river.

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