Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron
W.B. Randell, the family patriarch, and the founder of Gumeracha, was not convinced that the paddle steamer ‘scheme’ would ever turn a profit. ‘This boat idea is attractive to you, I can see that,’ he told the chief conspirators, William, Tom and Elliot. ‘But treat it as a hobby while we go about the business of managing our family’s affairs. That’s the main game and please don’t forget it.’
Still, he allowed the brothers leeway to complete their duties while also following this new passion. The next stage of the operation – hauling all the prefabricated boat parts down to the Murray River had to be undertaken as a normal part of the routine – usually while also droving small mobs of cattle to fatten on the kangaroo grasses and fodder-trees along the banks.
From Gumeracha to the family’s property at Noa No was some thirty miles. First a rough trail that followed the River Torrens as far as Narcoonah, then a sharp turn on a south-easterly heading down a road that already bore the family name. This track reached the river at Mannum before detouring northwards along the Murray to Noa No.
After more than a dozen such trips, the dray loaded down with heavy timber sections and planking, chasing strayed bullocks and horses breaking hobbles and heading for home, enduring broken wheels, bogs and all the other inconveniences of the road, the makings of a paddle steamer lay beside the river in carefully laid out piles. This makeshift boat yard stood on an isthmus of hard ground between two flood-plain lagoons. From this slight rise the brothers had views up and down the always changing river: at mist rising off the surface in the early morning, sunlight dazzling the eyes at noon, and every ripple hiding a moonbeam after dusk.
Each section of the boat was numbered and labelled, but the wood was still green and had, in many cases, swelled or warped. Forcing pieces to fit often required the use of steam, along with persuasive jigs and iron jacks. No stage of the building went smoothly, but slowly the keel and a series of ribs took shape – the gentle and practical lines of a shallow-drafted riverboat. When the brothers tired of home-butchered beef or mutton they ate fat murray cod or callop from the set fishing lines Elliot checked morning and night.
One day William and his brothers were fitting planks into the frame when an unusual-looking skiff with a spritsail rig appeared from upstream. At first it appeared as if it would sail on past.
‘What the hell is that?’ breathed Tom. He was the second-eldest son, and had traditionally been William’s partner in all the schemes and adventures the pair could dream up. They knew most of the boats in the area, and this one was out of the ordinary.
‘No idea at all,’ said William, pausing from his labours to watch the boat, and take a pinch of snuff.
The strange craft looked at first as if it would carry on downstream. Suddenly, however, it tacked and doubled back into the current. Just offshore from the Randell brothers’ little boat yard, the crew lowered the sail and sculled into the bank.
This unusual vessel was roughly eighteen-feet in length, constructed of what appeared to be tallow-infused canvas stretched over a timber frame. It was crewed by as filthy a mob of desperados as William had seen. Three of the four, he guessed correctly, looked more like out-of-luck miners than seamen.
Flanked by Elliot and Tom, William walked to meet the skiff as the crew made her fast to the bank. The man who stepped from the boat and approached the skeleton of the new paddle steamer was tall and broad-shouldered, with a jaw like a wooden strut and a moustache more advanced than the unshaven stubble on the rest of his face.
‘Who, may I ask, are you?’ the new arrival inquired, removing his cap to reveal a tousled head of hair.
William was aware that he was on home ground; that this man was the interloper. ‘Well sir, I might just as easily ask the same question. Who are you?’
‘I’m Captain Francis Cadell of Leith, Scotland, sea captain and explorer.’
So this is the famous Francis Cadell, William thought. He bowed from the shoulder, eyes twinkling. ‘And I’m William Randell, of Gumeracha, herd boy and errand-runner.’
Ignoring the joke, Cadell’s eyes roved the site with deliberate slowness, as if taking in every detail. ‘What, may I ask, are you constructing here?’
William Randell was not stupid. The other man’s reputation had preceded him. If there was anyone in South Australia likely to get a paddle steamer on the river and collect the government reward money ahead of him, it was Captain Cadell. ‘Oh, this? Just a barge, sir.’
Captain Cadell raised one hairy eyebrow. ‘A barge? Well what’s that?’ he said, pointing to a sheet-metal object up on blocks on the other side of the clearing. ‘It looks like a strange little boiler.’
William folded his arms across his chest. ‘Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t.’ To distract Cadell, he approached the skiff, with its crew now stretching their legs on the bank. ‘Speaking of strange – I don’t think I’ve yet seen a vessel like this one,’ he said, ‘I’ll hazard a guess and say that it’s some kind of transportable boat?’
‘You’d be right,’ said Cadell.
William went on, ‘And you’ve come from far upstream?’
‘Thirteen-hundred miles, all the way downriver from Tyntynder Station, in Victoria,’ said Cadell, puffing out his chest. ‘We carried the frame on a wagon from Melbourne and up through Bendigo. She’s proved to be a stout little vessel, but I’ll be happy to be voyaging on the Murray in a more solid craft soon enough.’
‘Oh,’ said William, ‘so you’re building something more substantial then?’
‘I am. My Lady Augusta is on the slips at Chowne’s shipyard in Sydney as we speak. Waterline length of a hundred feet – twin engines – forty horsepower all up. A fitting vessel to first navigate the river with steam and collect two thousand pounds from the Government of South Australia.’
William forced a smile. ‘Well best of luck then; I’d best get back to work.’
Cadell inclined his head. ‘No doubt we shall meet again.’
‘No doubt,’ said William, watching the crew pile in, with Cadell giving the transom a final shove before clambering aboard and touching his forehead with three extended fingers in mock salute.
When the strange craft had been rowed out into the stream, and the sail unfurled, filling with the dry South Australian breeze, William turned to his brothers; ‘From now on we’ll work night and day. We can’t let that Scottish prig beat us.’
© 2021 Greg Barron
Continued next week!