SQUATTER'S CASTLE - The saga of a pastoral dynasty


The men who cut cedar were, in their own crude fashion, the true pioneers of all these northern rivers. Wherever they took their crosscut saws and splitting irons, others followed. They were a brawling, drunken, dissipated class of men who, according to The Sydney Gazette, practised 'vice of the most abominable kinds'. These were centered about the rum keg and lubras. The Monitor claimed that these 'drunken sawyers' travelled the rivers well armed, provoked the Aborigines to reprisals and shot them when the situation became out of hand.

The Big River Chapter 8

The first man came from the land where the sun rises, and was called Uli-tarra ... In the beginning was no sea or water, except a deep well on a mountain which Uli-tarra made. This was where the eagles drank . . . Uli-tarra led his tribe across the mountains to fight the tribe occupying that land. They painted themselves with red ochre and white ochre ... Having conquered their enemies, they returned rejoicing, but found the ocean had covered up what was dry land before. They crossed safely with a long rope made of the entrails of the wild bear

Those who related the Big River's mythology to A. C. McDougall endowed it with an Old Testament air. According to the Kumbainggiri people, 'the earth was once covered with water, except at Bellira Mira, a very high mountain which was formed by many mountains or hills being piled one upon another. To this those of them who could, fled, and were saved from drowning . . . This tribe believed that the earth was once consumed by fire before it was peopled. They point to the black or fire-burnt rocks and burnt black soil. Then the water was divided into seas, rivers, lakes and creeks as they are at present.'

The Big River, which they called Booryimba, had been truthfully conceived with volcanic fire, laid down in lava and ashes, flooded by great storms and down pourings from high mountain ridges that carved abrupt canyons, gorges, valleys and narrow, rock-choked creek beds its genesis was in the eruption of a vanished volcano whose diminished remains is the leaning triangle of Mount Warning, dominating the Tweed River valley further north. There was also the universal legend of a great flood. This was no fiction, even in recent times. The coming of man here was of fairly recent occurrence. Perhaps twenty or thirty thousand years ago. This made the presence of Europeans at its southern approaches a matter of quite ludicrous brevity. Tribal occupation of these mountain valleys, whose semi-tropical vegetation was of astonishing lushness,and density, gave them no minor claim to ownership. Not surprisingly they were willing to defend them.

When the first runaway convicts entered this great bowl of ravines, rain forests, fast mountain streams, flood plains and winding, 250-mile river it had an estimated sixty thousand people. There were three major tribal groups here, with similar languages and material culture, each having its own sharply defined hunting and ceremonial grounds. Had he been a more intelligent man, Richard Craig might have brought back information of immense value, for he had been reliving the prehistory of mankind. Instead he spoke only-of commercial matters, prompting cedar traders to begin the destruction of both forests and native culture.

Most important were the Bandjelang, north of the river, and the Kumbainggiri, to the south and west. They were complete masters of their environment.

Building low gunyahs of bark and boughs, mostly in dense scrub, they moved on every month or so as food supplies dwindled, clothed themselves in rugs, aprons and waist girdles of possum skin, teased and spun the fur into yarn, used kangaroo tail sinews as thread, made carrying bags of grass and string twisted from hibiscus bark, and dried and hardened wooden implements by passing them through fire. ' The man's duty,' Ellen Ogilvie wrote later, 'was simply to hunt and fight. Each man carried his weapons; a club (or nulla nulla), a couple of spears and three or four boomerangs, while the stone tomahawk was thrust through the twist of cane around his waist. Preparing and cooking the food, carrying all the implements, such as possum rugs, wooden bowls, water vessels, string and grass bags, with generally a baby on the top, fell to the woman's lot.'

Family groups shifting camp filed silently through the tall, close-set trees and jungle-scrubs. The males went first, their long hair tied on top of the head, a great protection in fighting, and necklaces of dog's teeth, cane or shells ground to an oval design, their hunting weapons thrust into cane belts; the women following with their possessions suspended from headbands of plaited dingo tails and, unlike the menfolk, devoid of ornaments, their hair cut short and naked but for an apron of possum skm. The piccaninnies came last, usually without clothes of any kind.

The men hunted in the mornings, though seldom stirring before the sun was well up, tracked wallabies, pademelon, kangaroos with their special eyesight, sometimes following them at a run for hours, wearing them down, cornering them at last in some thickets to hurl waddles with incredible force, and rarely missing even at a dIstance of fifty yards.

'At certain seasons,' Ellen wrote, 'they drove the kangaroos to some place where they had fastened nets to trees and added wings of brushwood in some narrow valley. The whole tribe took part In these drives, young men being posted along the drive to take up the running. They get flying foxes by going to their camps when raInIng heavily, for then they will not fly. They hang by the hundreds on a tree, and by hundreds of thousands in a big camp. In very wet weather the blacks cut down a tree and return with as many as they can carry.'

Thomas Bawden described how they also caught these bat-like creatures by posting men at the base of a tree with boomerangs and waddies then sent another climbing to -scare-them off while the men below, waiting for the lowest point of flight, hurled their weapons unerringly.

They climbed trees also to rob bees nests, to dlslodge possums from hiding places inside . hollows and boughs, and to seIze by hand the sluggish, succulent koalas, whose needle sharp claws were no mean defence. The way these men climbed trees, whose first branches may have been sixty or so feet above the forest floor, as miraculous. First man to describe these feats was Charles Tindal. At Merton,' he wrote, 'the blacks cut notches in the bark for their toes; but here Charlie merely throws a vine, the thickness of a small rope, round the opposite side of the tree, and holding the ends, one In each hand, he places his feet against the trunk and runs up it faster than a man can walk on level ground. I have seen him run up a tree sIxty feet high, quite perpendicular, the bark perfectly smooth with the greatest apparent ease. If he wants to use his hands on the way up, he twIsts one end of the vine round his leg and holds It between his toes.

Other luxuries were carpet snake, ,whose white meat, when roasted, tasted like fish; flying squirrels, the spiny lumbering goannas, echidnas which were rolled in clay before roasting. The brimming channels of the Big River, the swamps and lagoons all carried wildfowl in immense quantities.: magpie geese, wild duck, teal, shags, cranes, ibis, brolgas, all of which were cunningly panicked into flight towards some prearranged ambush among reeds and shrubs. Ground birds like quail and curlew were easily knocked out with wad dies as they rose in flight the superb scrub turkey was an even easier prey on the mound incubating its eggs. huge piles of mussel, clam and oyster shells along river banks left their records of great feasts, while swamp eels were grilled on sticks over a slow fire, and crayfish, crabs and fish of many kinds were caught either by hand or pronged spears.

They also made a kind of bread of beans stripped from the Moreton Bay Chestnut and roots of the arum species known as congevoi. Both beans and roots when raw were poisonous, but they roasted them, then broke them into grass bags, leaving them in running water until the slime came out, finally pounding them into paste to make flat cakes cooked over a fire.

These people could have set the Europeans an example in matters of conservation. As D. Macfarlane put it, 'Seldom would the blacks kill any living creature they did not eat ... It was one of their customs not entirely to destroy tree life, and this principle was observed in respect to animal vitality. The Aborigine refrained from killing except what was needed for ]:lis subsistence, even venomous reptiles were immune from his weapons.

Their genius in tracking ground life was almost instinctive. More than a matter of keen eyesight, it was an ability to infer movement and direction from a displaced stone, a bent blade of grass, a broken twig or fragments of feather, fur or even saliva left on some object in passing. They cut no paths through heavy forest, or the jungles fashioned by multIple loops of lawyer Vine, strangler fig and liana, yet their sense of direction never failed in this tangled, exhausting terrain through which it was often impossible to see more than a few yards. Even in times of flood they crossed rivers and creeks in fragile canoes made from a single sheet of tree bark, moving at speed by paddling with tree limbs or blunt segments of wood. Every weapon and utensil they used had to be fashioned, often with considerable labour, from whatever natural materials they could find.

'If this primitive people has any special quality or virtue,' wrote R. L. Dawson, 'I should put it down as patience. With such insufficient implements as stone tomahawks, flint knives, shell scrapers and pointed sticks, imagine the infinite patience required to cut most of their living out of hardwood trees and logs, to strip bark for their shelters, and to shape and fashion their weapons of war and the chase. Indeed the manufacture of a stone tomahawk itself, from grinding to a sharp edge to the fixing of an adequate handle, must have been a task needing no end of patience and perseverance.'

What they revealed also was that stone age man did not live by material values alone. Uti-tarra, like the Christian god, was a dweller among the stars. Their Son of Man was a great doctor named Uloorie, 'who protected their hunting grounds, cured the sick, healed the wounded in battle and decided all questions affecting the welfare of the tribe'. So wrote J. F. Small, nephew of the Kissing Point shipbuilder, who described this ancestral figure as 'a great medicine man, high priest and judge combined. This office was always held by the oldest man of the tribe. When he dies his eligible successor leaves the tribe and goes away alone to the mountains, where the spirit of his predecessor endows him with supernatural powers, and enables him to cause death without a wound or mark of any kind, this death being inflicted on anyone offending him or refusing to obey his commands.

'Next to him,' he added 'and under his .control was a chief whose duty was to train the young men in war and hunting, and act as general on the day of battle. The chiefs are polygamous, being allowed a number of wives, but all the other men of the tribe must be content with one.' Among these nomadic people all were equal, except the doctors, or as A. P. Elkin has expressed it, 'the men of high degree'. Each tribe and sub-tribe or horde, had its own time-sanctioned areas of land whIch none other could enter without permission; each family had its totems which, in the form of animals or plants, defined its marrying and genetic code.

It was an essentially moral society, disciplined as Europeans have seldom known the term, with strong taboos against incest, and harsh punishments for theft, adultery or promiscuous behaviour by youths before their final initiation, which usually occurred about twenty. There was a traditional emphasis on the sharing of food: half to the man who caught it, the other portion divided among the clan.

Initiation ceremonies were designed, above all, to perpetuate ethical standards among the tribes, to enable them to live in harmony with nature and their fellows. These were barbaric, rich in drama and ceremonial power. Aliens like Richard Craig would never have been allowed to watch them; just as the women and children were not. They were as sacred as any mass; the secrets as well kept as an high order of masons.

The great tribal event was the Murrawin ceremony, the initiation of young men at puberty. After rItual preparations on the sacred bora ground, much chanting and thrumming of bullroarers each initiate was taken from the women's camp by ochre-painted head men, and left within a cIrcle of older men amid the flourish of firesticks and clapping boomerangs. Men rushed at him with firesticks, pointing thorn close to hIS face as If to poke his eyes out He had to endure various physical ordeals through the night; shocks, enacted threats of violence, fearful noises, magical apparitions like a man apparently dancing in mId-aIr and the display of mystically carved stones and wood said to be the work of Dharroogan, a malevolent spirit.

In thIs atmosphere of religious awe and violence to the senses th novices were given insight into the eternal cycle of birth, maturing life: death and the hereafter. These people were not primitives in the modern, debased sense of the term. In the years to come it was the invading whitefellows that appeared savage and callow.

So long asa belief in Uli-tarra persisted, so did the morale of these inner-disciplined and hardy tribes.

Their first glimpse of modern technology must have alarmed them Hitherto they had seen .only small cutters, visibly driven by wind. Now came thIs astonishing King William, with a thin stem amidships smoking like a burnt tree, paddlewheels threshing on either side so that the thin appeared to crawl against the tide.

For the gentlemen of Sydney on board, they might have been cruising up another Amazon. Dense screens of vegetation walled in the broad, sluggish river, Tall trees were matted with creepers and strangler figs. Tangled lawyer vines reduced visibility to yards. Strident bird calls brought the Jungle alive. The still air was unbearably humid. Sweat dampened their faces and clothes from the early hours. The vessel remained at anchor for several days in the two-mile-wide estuary where, according to Captain Perry's report, the passengers had an interchange of civilities with the blacks, who were in a sort of temporary village. He was much impressed with the craftsmanship of their canoes. He found them greatly superior to 'those in the neighbourhood of Port Macquarie and other places visited, their fishing nets baskets, water vessels and utensils being constructed with peculiar care. These people were delighted with being presented with some fish hooks.'

So far so good.

But the surveyor added, 'They were terrified at the first appearance of firearms. Like most savages, they were addicted to thieving. The propensity has unfortunately led to outrages on the part of the whites, the affects of which will be difficult to avert.'

They steamed sixty miles or so upriver, ran aground once, honoured Queen Victoria's birthday with a twenty-one gun salute that must have panicked both wildfowl and watchful tribesmen, they drank Our Gracious Sovereign's health in brandy, went ashore several times, examined the native pastures, had an ochre-painted group aboard to perform a corroboree, noted several sawyer's camps, including one where Phillips and Cole had set themselves up on a grand three-quarter mile bend-that had an improvised slipway building a brig from local timbers. Returning downriver they lost two seamen ashore, gave up the search after eight days and, just as the engineer was getting up steam to depart, sighted them on the headland of Yamba. They were surrounded by Aborigines. The watchers on deck feared trouble.

A whaleboat was sent towards the beach. Suddenly, with much yakkai-ing and laughter, two blacks began to carry the seamen out to the boat on their shoulders.

The men said that the blacks had been very friendly from the start. As Thomas Bawden, son of the steamer's engineer, later reported it, 'They gave them kangaroo and fish, and made a gunyah for them to sleep in, while all they seemed to covet was their pocket 'knives.'  King William's passengers coveted rather more. Back in Sydney they applied immediately for a large part of the Badjelang's tribal lands. Legally, of course, they were entitled to do so. Had not a British naval captain named Phillip long ago claimed the entire continent, sight unseen for King George, having then walked on only a few square yards of it?

Within weeks the best of these potential grazing lands were gone.

Thomas Small and a brother already had Woodford Island, where their sawyers were at work. Girard's overseer, Williams, claimed a bank of the South Arm that Perry had not even sighted. Girard him- . self made plans to backload cattle to his cedar concession at Waterview, opposite Susan Island, where Phillips and Cole had their depot and slip. Next came the well-grassed flat country granted to the Mylnes on the north side of the river. Then Dr Dobie's Ramornie on the southern side, from Mistake Creek to the Orara River junction. Finally, J ames Hickey Grose's land at Smith's Flat, the head of navigation.

Grose at once made a shrewd move. He had bought eight thousand sheep at Lake George, much reduced in price because of drought, and sent them overland to the Macleay River. To take them on to the Big River he engaged the one man who knew the country. This was Craig The ex-convict contracted to take them through the ranges for 50 pound and expenses, promising delivery in no more than two weeks. Dobie Was quick to follow this up. His sheep were in a bad way at Cassilis. He arranged with Craig to pick them up in New England for the final hazardous journey. The Mylnes, too, bid for Craig's services, arranging for him to take delivery of their cattle.

A major expedition was beginning to take shape.

In October Gipps responded to Captain Perry's recommendations that a town site be selected for future use, preferably on that great bend opposite Waterview. A private surveyor, W. C. B. Wilson, was at once commissioned to travel north. A month later, since no one had bothered' to mention Boorymiba, the governor rediscovered Captain Rous' report, naming the river after a man who had never seen it, the Duke of Clarence.

The Ogilvies must have been aware of Dobie's plans. After all, Merton was on the only road to Cassilis. The portly doctor, after his return, would have passed through at least once, probably staying the night. Besides the entire back country was discussing the newly found Clarence River, and the planned movement of stock north. Many Hunter men had already moved into the New England Ranges in recent years.

In essence this was an extension of a migration that had been going on for some years. H. C. Semphill began it back in 1832, taking sheep from Belltrees to Nundle. E. C. Cory cut a shorter route over the steep Moonbi Ranges to form Gostwyck. William Dumaresq followed, and bought it off him. Peter McIntyre drove his sheep four thousand feet up to Guyra. Then Alexander Campbell and the Macdougalls, retreating from the Liverpool Plains, tracked the Namoi to its high source with cattle herds. By 1839 at least fifty Scots alone had stations as far north as Stonehenge, near the present Glen Innes, Thomas George Hewitt having founded the station for Archibald Boyd. They wrote into the rough survey maps names such as Dundee, Ben Lomond, the Vale of Glencoe. There was even talk of changing the region's name to New Caledonia.

All these squatters had been baulked by New England's eastern escarpment. Many had reined in their horses on some exposed bluff or basalt outcrop, staring down into sheer ravines and gorges, at precIpItous drops of a thousand feet and more, at glimpses of ram forest and ripe green valleys that must have been the headwaters of coastal rivers. The grasslands up here were fertile enough; there were rushing mountaIn streams and good rainfall; but it was cold as Scotland In wInter, much given to frosts, sometimes even to snow; and they longed for the lush, sub-tropical savannah lands below.

The problem was how to get there. It seemed as if there was no way down. This steep and fractured escarpment was country for goats not sheep and bullock drays. One of the few that had attempted It ,;as Archibald Boyd; probably with the aid of that shrewd bushman Hewitt. They had succeeded, with horses only, in making a laboured descent as far as the upper reaches of the Mann, later recognised to be a tributary of the Clarence. The surveyor Heneage Finch, according to his unpublished maps, had also in 1838 cut his way up to the Dorrigo Plateau, then down again through even wIlder ranges to the BIg River.

Richard Craig assured his sponsors that, from his experience of the region ten years earlier, he could find a safe route for thelr stock. But first he had to take Grose's sheep from the Macleay. He had spoken of two weeks. It was to take him thirteen. Finding two thousand of those sheep to be scabby, he travelled up the headwaters of the Macleay with the other six thousand, struggled over the Dorrigo Range and promptly lost direction. It seems likely that he had travelled close to Finch's track, perhaps even using the surveyor's blazed trees as a guide. Running short of food, he left drovers and sheep among friendly Aborigines, then continued alone, on foot, In search of the Clarence. There he located the Phillips and Cole depot, bought ratlons and a pack bullock to carry them, returning for the sheep. This time he would have had his own marked trees-or possibly Finch's-to keep hIm on course through trackless scrubs and ravines.

On New Year's Day, 1840, he was back at the great river bend, where he borrowed a raft used by cedar-cutters to ferry his sheep across. The rest of the journey to Smith's Flat was reasonably easy. Meantime Dobie had set out on 5 January for what was to be a five-month journey.

Arranging for his head stockman, Ben Sellars, to drive his sheep from Cassilis through Pandora Pass to the Peel River, he returned to MaItland where he had assembled a large mob of cattle. With this second party, he rode across the Liverpool Range, using the steeply winding Cedar Brush Track to a now well-known overlander's camp named Doughboy Hollow. The two parties made their rendezvous at Goonoo Goonoo.

Only eventful occurrence en route was the bailing up of those sheep drovers in the ranges by the Jew Boy Gang. It was almost their last exploit before Edward Denny Day captured them.

Reaching Falconer's Plains, they had a long wait for Craig. They had plenty of company. Overlanders and men looking for northern lands were constantly arriving. Among these were Patrick Leslie, Gregory Blaxland Junior and his uncle, William Forster. Of these three men, Leslie alone had stock. He was travelling in a grand manner, with twenty-two convicts, five thousand sheep and three drays, which he left on McIntyre's run while he rode north with his brother to investigate the Darling Downs, hitherto explored only by Allan Cunningham. Six weeks and four hundred miles later he returned with an exuberant report of saddle-high grasses, big lagoons and rich chocolate soils. He had named his huge selection Canning Downs. 'Tried hard to induce Dobie to follow me,' he noted in his diary on 4 April. 'He remained wedded to the Clarence.'

When Craig at last arrived, he rode into Falconer's with the Mylne brothers and their two cattle herds, as well as Grose's last two thousand sheep. It had been an exhausting journey already. It was nothing to the succession of ranges they had yet to cross, even though he had cut some kind of track through the more overgrown sections and set frequent axe marks on trees.

The heroic journey was later described by Thomas Bawden, whose ship's engineer father was now in charge of Dobie's two-wheeled bullock drays. Young Bawden-he was then a boy of nine-had ridden with his mother on a horse-drawn cart right through from Maitland. 'After leaving Falconer,' he recalled, 'our cattle led, the stockman in charge being Ben Sellars. Then followed the Mylne brothers' cattle, next came our sheep, then the various teams, our cart bringing up the rear. Immediately behind came Grose's sheep. These had to be kept back to avoid our sheep being infected. Many became too weak to travel, and they were at once tomahawked.'

Later he described how the men's boots began to wear out. 'Shampoos' made of raw hide drawn over the feet were used as substitutes for boots. In order to clear the way for the drays the grass had frequently to be burnt. This made it very unpleasant for walking when almost barefooted and I suffered intensely when, my riding horse having been taken for some special and urgent duty I was compelled to tramp It. 

Frank Stevens has estimated that the party consisted of at least thirty shepherds and stockmen, probably many more.

Fifty miles out they made camp on the Guy Fawkes River, beneath the 5,250 foot mass of Mount Ebor. It was a magnificent setting. On one side was open forest; on the other a fast-flowing river, which swirled abruptly over a broad apron of rocks to plunge into a smoke- blue ravine below. Here they rested their horses and stock for a day or two. The most hazardous part of the journey was yet to come. For generations this as yet uncleared trck was to be known as Craig's Line. It is fitting that it should still carry his name, even if he could by no means have been called its discoverer.

What Craig actually did was to capitalise on his earlier expenence among the coastal Aborigines. Each year, as winter ended, they were in the habit of migrating to the mountain plateau. The route that Cralg selected was precisely that taken by generation after generatlon of Badjelang tribesmen for thousands of years.

Once again, without the original owners of the land, these Inexperienced Europeans could never have found their way.