Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron
The failed launches of the last few days are an embarrassment and disappointment to me, but now, as we pull away from the Goolwa jetty with the Eureka lashed alongside, I am satisfied that my reputation is intact. The empty space in my bed where Miss Williams, until recently, has slept, is a lack I feel keenly. On the other hand, her presence on board and in my cabin would have been a scandal and she is not the kind of woman easily hidden. Her departure, on balance, is for the best, and when I ask Mr Davidson to make one-quarter revolutions on both engines, heading upstream in the Goolwa Channel of the Murray River, she is the last thing from my mind.
Rather, my thoughts concern only the river herself and the safe navigation in the dark of this glassy evening. My boat, the Lady Augusta, so homely and box-like from a distance becomes beautiful to those on board. She has luxury berths for twelve gentlemen forward, and four ladies aft, as well as my own cabin, sleeping accommodation for lesser guests and my officers, as well as hammocks for the crew below decks. She is fully 105 feet in length, her upper works of New Zealand pine, as are those of the Eureka, with a hull of blue-gum planks. She smells of tar and wood, fresh from the adze. Lanterns burn both aft and on the hurricane deck, and her masts stab towards the sky where the glow of stars make such a brilliant array that the dignitaries arrayed on our decks point and exclaim at their beauty.
A huge fire is burning on the bank, a column of sparks rising in a line upwards into the firmament. All day the Ngarrindjeri people – those dark-skinned fishers of the river lands – have been gathering in numbers, piling up firewood. They were given two sheep which they suspended above the flames and have now cut down to eat. I see their figures in the firelight, dancing with bloody chunks of mutton-flesh in their hands. I hear the tapping of sticks and the drone of otherworldly instruments that fade with the increasing revolutions of the engines.
The jetties and the fire are soon past, and our little quarterdeck relaxes somewhat, able to fixate on the route, and I tell my captains and lieutenants that they best get used to travelling by night, for I will not allow the Randell boys in their home-made paddle steamer to reach the Darling Junction before me.
Yet I feel strangely breathless and alone. I realise that I am afraid. Yes, I have faced Chinese guns, and the very worst Atlantic Ocean storms, where a ship becomes a helpless lump of flotsam. I am not afraid of the river waters. I am afraid that the Lady Augusta will strike a snag missed by the lookouts and sink with loss of life. That one of the foolish lubbers cavorting on the deck will fall overboard and drown themselves. There are so many ways in which my plans can go awry, and I must control my fear that they will come to pass.
Yet, that first evening is like a dream – passengers climbing the ladder to thank me for bringing them on this journey. All are in excellent moods with the assistance of French champagne. They can see now that the Lady Augusta and her barge are well suited to this river work, and the Russell and Company engines are truly excellent – of the latest compound horizontal type, smooth and quiet, and the chuff of steam with each cycle is comforting, the boilers holding their pressure at a consumption of just four hundred pounds of wood per hour.
In three hours of night-steaming we run fifteen solid miles, almost to Lake Victoria, and there in a broad segment of the channel we set a single anchor, and with a watch officer charged with keeping look-out and maintaining coals in the fireboxes, we go to our beds.
At four o’clock in the morning, after a light but refreshing sleep, I wake and accept hot shaving water from Jeray, a native of China who serves as both second steward, assistant to John McAulay, and my own personal batman. Dressed and presentable, I rap on the door of William Davidson, nominally the master of the Lady Augusta, but overshadowed, I know, by my presence on board. William Webb the Chief Officer and Napier the engineer share a cabin and I knock until I hear a reply.
‘I want full steam by quarter-to-five, men,’ I say, and I hear the groans, but they do not dare complain.
By half past four I am topsides, while Tom Nevin and Henry Petrie the Able Seamen prepare to raise the anchor. Firebox doors clang as the stokers Rob Robson, Evan Thomas, William Cruise Teague and Lewis Chandler bring up more three-foot lengths of red gum and bring the fireboxes up to heat. By ten to five the anchor and hawser are stowed, and we are travelling at half revolutions up the channel, the gentle splashing of the paddlewheels bringing the scent of the river, not unpleasantly, to our nostrils.
As breakfast is served the vista of Mount Barker near the mouth provides a talking point for the guests. Water birds in vast numbers, tens of thousands perhaps, take to flight and blank out the sky with their wings. I see swans, ducks, signets, spoonbills and pelicans in uncountable numbers and I can only guess at the resources of small fish that must exist to sustain them.
As we prepare to round Point Sturt into Lake Victoria, an expanse of water some thirty-five miles by fifteen in size, Mr Davidson warns me that according to the port-side watch the south-westerly is blowing Force Six and I can feel how the wind works against the blunt sides of the Lady Augusta’s cabins.
‘Should we lay up here for the day and hope it blows itself out?’ asks Davidson from his place beside me.
‘No, we go on,’ I say. ‘But the crossing must be swift. Three quarter speed ahead now.’ And under a blue sky buffeted by cold and inclement winds, we enter the broad expanse of Lake Victoria, and I can see how the breeze has whipped its surface into a frenzy, foam flecked on the surface and catching the sun.
The journey that has theretofore been smooth and pleasant, changes into a rampaging ride of troughs and crests as the shallow water and the wind increases to Force Seven, a near gale. Within an hour most of the guests are sick, and it is a terrible sight to see Mrs Younghusband bent over the rail. Again my fear returns. I need the goodwill of these people for my plans to come to fruition, and seasickness does not make for a kindly disposition. I pray that none of the gentlemen or women aboard demands to be returned to shore.
It is strange, but Anne Finniss, the wife of the Colonial Secretary, seems to be affected not at all. I watch her assist the other women, and her carriage remains upright and her colour strong. She is an exceedingly handsome woman, as the best of Irishwomen can be. I know about her humble but honest beginnings and admire her already. I am also fond of her son Travers.
Seeing the way that she weathers that lake crossing, I admire her a little more.
Continued next week …
©2021 Greg Barron
Image is by James Hazel Adamson. View of Goolwa with the Lady Augusta approaching the jetty. Courtesy State Library of South Australia.