Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron
William Randell had enjoyed a challenge since the day of his birth. He was thirteen years old when his parents left their hometown of Kenton in Devonshire, and boarded the Hartley for a sea journey across ten thousand miles of ocean to Australia. Life on board a three-masted sailing ship was tough, and the Hartley was just ninety feet long with a beam of twenty-three.
After five long months of storm seas, stagnant calms, hunger and disease, the Randell family stepped ashore at Port Adelaide, South Australia, the latter being an institution that was younger than William. It was, however, a place of opportunity – the first Australian settlement to be gazetted as a province rather than a colony.
After years of hard work, with the Randell family both contributing mightily and at the same time benefiting from the brisk pace of settlement, William was quietly furious that the government had turned their back on he and his brothers. He was also missing Bessie, and her mother’s warning not to pursue the relationship was flying in the face of a stubborn desire to spend every possible moment with her for the rest of his days.
In that first week of steaming up the Murray there were too many incidents to allow William to fixate excessively on love and anger. The main problem was boiler leakage, caused partly by poor design, and partly the departure of Elliott at their father’s orders. The younger brother had learned to gentle the boiler along, knew just how much heat it would stand; when to rake or spread the fire and when to blow off steam.
The new ‘engineer’ had no such skills. He was a blunt, unimaginative kind of fellow, a hard worker, yet unable to anticipate just how much heat “one or two more” red gum logs would produce. The bullock chains they had wrapped around the shell were holding, though frequent stops were required to remove blackened and weakened wooden wedges, then create new ones to drive in and tighten the chains further.
‘That cursed boiler,’ came the shout, over and over, when it hissed and steamed, and the paddlewheels lost impetus. The sound of a sledgehammer pounding against a new wedge would follow and finally the stoker or deckie would shout that power had been restored. All in all, these were days of frustration, made worse by a following breeze from the south that captured emissions from the stack and shrouded the Mary Ann with smoke, unpleasant to breathe and stinging the eyes.
On a positive note, the Reverend John Lloyd Davies had turned out to be great company. He was a schoolmaster as well as a man of religion, and he had an interest in, and some knowledge of, almost everything. No cod or callop would be caught without him dissecting its innards, exclaiming at the shape of the heart, or evidence of its diet that he extracted from slimy strings of gut.
Davies also loved to sing, and his tenor voice boomed out across the waters at odd moments, competing with the racket of the steam engine, occasionally joined by Tom. He made notes and sketches and threw himself into the adventure of that journey with great spirit. Groups of Meru on the banks or navigating their bark watercraft were of special interest. He called to them as the Mary Ann passed, and carried on a barter when he could.
Finally, working on a strict protocol of steaming only during the day and tying up to a tree branch overnight, they navigated the Big Bend for the second time. By Saturday of the first week, they had limped their way ten miles above Moorundie, a busy depot town in those days. There William decreed that they would spend the Sabbath in a state of rest. He was pleased at having a minister aboard to deliver the service.
‘We shall,’ he proclaimed, in a theatrical manner, ‘awaken the echoes of this river’s primeval solitudes by the voice of prayer and the song of praise.’
The Reverend John Davies conducted the service very early the following morning, while steam rose from the water. It was a beautiful moment, with the sun rising over the trees that crowded the banks, giving both the verge grasses and the river waters a yellow glow, while a cold wind stirred from the north-west.
When it was over William requested one last prayer.
‘And what would that be?’ asked Davies.
‘Could we pray that God will ‘elp us reach the Darling Junction before that devil Captain Cadell?’
‘Of course,’ said Davies with a malicious grin, and again they bowed their heads.
The following day the Mary Ann finally steamed to within sight of the spot where they’d been defeated, back in March, by shallow water and mud-bars.
‘It’s just ahead Will,’ cried Tom.
‘That shallow place where we turned back last time.’
William’s hand whitened on the helm. His nervousness, however, was unfounded. Deploying a lead line, they consistently sounded between twenty and thirty feet of water depth, and there were smiles all round. At least the river was now on their side, and they were learning to live with the boiler.
‘Full ahead,’ he shouted, ‘nothing will stop us now.’ Inside William’s head, however, he intoned one more prayer – this time asking for Heavenly assistance in ensuring that the worst of the boiler problems were behind them.
©2021 Greg Barron
Image: Murray River, Moorundie. Lithograph by Eugene von Guérard. State Library of South Australia