Journey to Horseshoe Bend
by TGH Strehlow
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Previous: October 14th

Sunday, the fifteenth day of October, 1922.

BREAKFAST was served soon after sunrise on the following morning; and Allan Breaden, Jessie, Heinrich, Johnson, and Theo sat down to the breakfast table in the log-house, which served both as station kitchen and dining-room. Since he had never eaten out before, Theo was perturbed when no one said grace before the meal: even on the two previous days Titus and he had said grace in Aranda before touching their food outdoors. Finally he said grace for himself, and in a firm voice, too, despite the horrified protests of Heinrich who had already fallen with relish to his meal with the three others. Allan Breaden paused for a moment and looked up from his plate at Theo with his usual placid and benevolent gaze, but said nothing. Heinrich, on the other hand, was thrown into complete and confused agitation. After breakfast he took Theo aside and told him in pressing and anxious tones never to do such a silly thing again in case it deeply offended his hosts. Full of indignation at Heinrich's sharp rebuke, Theo went over to the other log cabin and reported the incident to his mother. He had always been told by her never to disguise or hide his Christian beliefs before outsiders, since such an action would amount to a denial of his Saviour; and he confidently expected her sympathy and approval. But she merely replied, "When you are eating at the table of people who don't believe in religion, you must say grace silently to yourself"; and she refused to pass any comments on Heinrich's rebuke. Theo turned away, bitterly offended. Her advice seemed sound and reasonable enough. But why had he never been given this advice before by his mother or by anyone else? Instead he had always been taught the all-overriding importance of saying grace before a meal. He had been assured that it was a sin to touch food without a prayer of thanksgiving to God; and this prayer had to be said audibly and with deep conviction. And now it was suddenly being explained to him that he had merely made a fool of himself.

If this was the case, why had not his religious training taken into account the sober realities of life? He felt that religious instruction should not merely serve to make people fit for living in their own homes but for conducting themselves appropriately in the outside world as well. Deeply humiliated, Theo made no reply to his mother. He left her in silence, but decided to be more circumspect in future in accepting religious advice from anyone, and to keep his most deeply felt convictions strictly to himself.

Mrs Strehlow had scarcely been able to spare the time for listening to Theo's story, for she was a very busy and worried woman. As soon as he had walked away, she rushed hack into the log cabin to attend to her husband. The latter was clearly approaching the end of his physical strength. On leaving Henbury he had still been hopeful of reaching at least the Overland Telegraph Line at Horseshoe Bend. But the fifty-five-mile journey from Henbury to Idracowra had shattered even his iron will. Travelling through the Britannia Sandhills had been for him one long nightmare. The horses had had to be flogged to the top of every dune, and the team in harness had to be changed frequently. The loud bursts of shouting at the horses by Heinrich and Hesekiel sitting in the front seat, and the continual crack of the lashing coach-whip either to the side of the sweating team or on their trembling rumps, had deafened, and at times almost maddened, his ears. Nor had things become easier for him during the final twelve miles' drive into Idracowra. The heat of the sun had proved almost too much for the strength of a man who was beginning to sense that he might be embarked on his death journey; and he knew that he could not face the road any longer by day in these blazing heat-wave conditions.

Travelling by night, in the absence of proper waggon tracks and buggy lamps, seemed completely out of the question; and, finally, his physical condition was worsening much more rapidly than he had anticipated. In spite of the streams of sweat that had been pouring out from his body during these excessively hot travelling days, his limbs had swollen very considerably since his departure from Hermannsburg. He had had to sit upright in a chair, day and night, for almost a fortnight already; and he could no longer even lean back in his chair, since he would then feel immediately the pressure of the internal fluids against his lungs, - an excruciating pressure which produced agonizing jabs of pain and threatened to stop him from breathing at all. In order to rest or to sleep he had to lean forward and cup his chin in his hands, supporting his weary arms on his shapelessly swollen knees. A certain amount of pain was ever present now. It left him completely only when he had been drugged by his nightcap of laudanum.

Strehlow's low physical condition was matched by his intense spiritual despondency. Excruciating bouts of physical pain, a depressing sense that he had been disloyally deserted by his southern colleagues, and an agonizing awareness of the continuing and complete silence of God to his incessant prayers - these were the heavy afflictions that kept on tormenting his mind during all his waking hours. Till the morning of his departure from Henbury Strehlow had always experienced a new upsurge of hope and faith after praying, either alone or together with his wife, to that God of his fathers, in Whose almighty power he had put all his trust throughout his life. He had always considered himself to be a staunch Lutheran. This fact accounted for his strong sense of sin in himself, in others, and in the whole world around him; and many people who had come only into superficial contact with him might have felt that he had almost an obsession about the danger of sin lurking in every corner, even in things that most people considered as being harmless in themselves. Indeed, probably the majority of non-Lutherans would have regarded most staunch Lutherans as suffering in some degree from an obsession of this nature. But such a view would have given only one part of the picture. It would, in fact, have been a most misleading assumption to make that thoughtful Lutherans were interested in the existence and presence of sin more than in anything else. For this Lutheran sense of sin was, in men like Strehlow at any rate, a perhaps natural corollary of their belief that they and all other people were expected to be God's human instruments, whose actions, even the most insignificant, were always before the sharp scrutiny of the Almighty. Hence all of God's servants who earnestly tried to carry out the work for which He had brought them into the world were always standing in His special care and protection till they had performed the whole of their tasks. To Lutherans of Strehlow's type perhaps the most significant aspect of their religion was the complete sense of confidence in God that their faith had kindled in them. It was not for nothing that the favourite hymns in the Strehlow home had been those composed by Luther and by Paul Gerhardt. A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, Commit Whatever Grieves Thee, If God Himself Be For Me, and others of this kind, were hymns giving perfect expression of Strehlow's own complete faith and trust in God. The last-named hymn set forth in jubilant poetic language the sentiments so powerfully stated by St Paul in the eighth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans: "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to His purpose . . . If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things…Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." In his song Paul Gerhardt - in contrast to Luther who in his hymns had always clung to the plural pronouns that befitted a whole singing congregation - had changed St Paul's first person plural pronouns to the singular, in order to give the apostle's message a stronger individualistic force. Similarly, Strehlow had always expressed his faith in God in strongly personal terms.

But as Strehlow was sitting in his log cabin at Idracowra on the Sunday morning after his arrival from Henbury, his extreme physical weakness and his constant pangs of pain made him wonder whether the Bible did not contain some other, and rather darker, messages that might be more relevant to his present condition. A strong, healthy man who had had little personal acquaintance with sickness until three months ago, he had led till now a far too active life ever to have given much thought to the problems of pain, of suffering, and of calamities in a world governed by an omnipotent God of Love. He had, it was true, always been impressed by the grandeur, the depth of thought, and the magnificent poetry of the Book of Job, the finest exposition of human pain and suffering, and of the calamities afflicting even the innocent and the God-fearing, that was to be found in the pages of the Old Testament. But he had always been rather more interested in the verses which expressed the trustful resignation or the strong faith of the afflicted than in those passionate passages in which the ancient writer had grappled with life's deepest problems and with catastrophes which had defied all attempts at satisfactory explanations. Strehlow had always been moved during the Hermannsburg funeral services by the resigned piety of the verse "The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord"; and Job's profession of deathless hope that had been so beautifully expressed in the verse beginning "I know that my redeemer liveth" had been so dear to him in its old formulation that he had regarded the modern translations which substituted "without my flesh" for the older version "yet in my flesh shall I see God" almost as sacrilegious corruptions.

But he had never had much leisure to ponder deeply over the arguments raised by Job and his friends with such passionate poetical fervour on page after page of this magnificent book.

But now that he himself was experiencing the crushing hand of God in his own afflictions, he was beginning to understand fully the deep tragedy in Job's call of anguish to God, "Why hast Thou set me as a mark against Thee, so that I am a burden to myself?"; and he readily comprehended from his own agony the dark depth of meaning in Job's wild cry of despair beginning with the words, "Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived". Job's heavy plight and his bottomless despair suddenly began to assume a new and deeply personal significance for him. It was precisely the man who had trusted implicitly in God, who had anxiously striven to please the Almighty, and who had patiently accepted the early calamities blow by blow, who had been crushed and humbled till he could bear his afflictions no longer, but had left his house and sat among the ashes for seven days and nights without opening his mouth. And when Job had finally given expression to his anguish and to his utter inability to understand the ways of the Lord, the three friends who had come to share his sorrow had suddenly turned on him. Like most priests, ministers, and pious church folk who visit persons who have been crushed by illnesses, accidents, or calamities, Job's friends had felt obliged to defend the Almighty and the justice of His ways against Job's cries of bitter anguish; and, in rebuking him sternly, they had increased his misery till his trustful resignation had threatened to turn into a bitter mood of resentment and revolt, in which he could find relief only in hurling accusations against God. The writer of the Book of Job had made no attempt to solve the final mysteries of pain and calamity: only God could fathom the ways of God. The Almighty, when replying to Job in the closing chapters of the book, had merely confronted the exhausted sufferer with a long series of counter-questions which no man could answer, thereby clearly demonstrating that no creature was able to call to account its own Creator. Job had, in reply, hastened to declare his complete and unquestioning submission to the will and the judgments of a God Whose ways human wisdom could not understand. God had thereupon severely reprimanded Job's three friends for having dared to defend the ways of the Almighty in petty human terms which had brought discredit to God. Only Job's prayers for his officious and conceited friends had finally appeased the anger of the Almighty against their presumption. The Book of Job had thus concluded with a severe Old Testament lesson on the punishment awaiting all self-righteous men who misused God's calamities as opportunities for increasing the miseries of the victims by proclaiming that the Lord had resorted to special disciplinary measures against them. After Job had prayed for his friends, God had blessed him, restored to him his health, doubled his possessions, and enabled him to have a second family.

However, on that Sunday morning hope itself seemed to have died. Strehlow could obtain no message of comfort from the conclusion of the Book of Job. He could appreciate as never before the anguished cries of a tormented soul that had felt itself crushed by a long series of calamities and suffering, rarely sent down singly on a single human being. But his physical condition gave him no ground for hope that God would restore him to health and bless him once more with the joys of this world. He could only strive to endure his agony manfully, and he felt that his physical strength was rapidly reaching its breaking point. Yet whatever the future might hold for him, he would try to cling to his faith steadfastly, even, if necessary, blindly: it was the only thing left for him to grasp, now that the last glimmerings of hope had almost completely vanished from his heart. He would spend the day pondering over the next steps that he and his party should take. At least it was comforting to know that he had safely arrived at a station before reaching this point of almost complete mental and physical collapse.

Theo spent the morning wandering over the station area with his friend Johnson Breaden, the three-quarter white son of Allan Breaden. He had first met Johnson Breaden at Hermannsburg on one of Bob Buck's Christmas visits. Johnson Breaden and his mother Jessie had both wanted to take a holiday away from Idracowra, and Bob Buck had included them in his Henbury party. One of Jessie's three-quarter aboriginal daughters had been staying at Hermannsburg permanently and attending the mission school. Like many other half-caste women in the Centre, Jessie had always been in a difficult marital position. Being a half-white woman, she had always been expected to live with any white station man who might take a fancy to her. Generally the man who had the first right to her would have been the station owner or manager himself, or else the white head stockman. But none of these men, who enjoyed supreme authority over the station and its inhabitants, would ever have dreamed of legally marrying her. Nor would they have given much care to any three-quarter white sons which she might have borne to them. All of her three-quarter white daughters, on the other hand, would normally have been sent down south to a home for children - or, very much more rarely, to white relatives of their father - so as to save them from being brought up "among the niggers" and treated by other white men as their mother had been by their father. When the white owner or manager or stockman left the station, his half-caste spouse and her children would in most cases be left behind to fend for themselves as best they could. Often it would be a dark man who now came to their rescue. He would invariably be proud of his "white" wife, and he would become a perfect foster-father to her children, always looking after them as though they were his very own. For in the Aranda-speaking areas of the Centre (and probably in most of the adjoining tribal areas as well) any man who lived with a woman was looked on as her properly married husband; and he was expected to regard and to treat every one of his wife's children irrespective of their actual parentage, as his own progeny). This was an attitude that the "civilized" white folk who came into the country found impossible to understand. For a man to treat all the children of his wife, irrespective of their parentage, as his own, was held to be a sign of the supreme stupidity of the dark race. Even some of the missionaries had been perturbed to find that no stigma was ever attached to "illegitimate children". The very term "illegitimate children" had no meaning in the Aranda-speaking community, and could not, in fact, have been translated into Aranda.

When Strehlow, while translating the New Testament, needed an Aranda equivalent for the expression "illegitimate child", he had to be content with the word "wolurkuna": this term, however, merely meant a "deserted child", - that is, a child whose father had abandoned it and its mother by going to live in a different local group or tribal area. Jessie, too, had had her share of the vicissitudes of life. Her mother Rounja had been an elder sister of Njitiaka. Jessie's white father was generally accepted as having been Walter Parke, the younger of the two Parke brothers who had founded Henbury Station, though there were one or two dissident voices which claimed that the real father had been a man called George Elliot, who had been the station cook during the time of the Parke brothers. Jessie had sometimes been the proud half-caste mistress of the station, and sometimes the spouse of a dark stockman in the native camp on the same property. Her eldest child had been Baden Bloomfield, the three-quarter white son of Louis Bloomfield. Louis Bloomfield had been a prominent man among the Finke River pioneers and cattlemen at Henbury, before acquiring Love's Creek Station. After this son by a white man came the three-quarter black half-siblings, William, Eileen, and Elvida. The father of these three children had been her full-blood husband Ungwanaka. But she had also had a second three-quarter white son, who came between William and Eileen.

This was Johnson Breaden, and his father was Allan Breaden. Jessie had been living at Idracowra Station for some time now; and she was keeping house for Allan Breaden and her son Johnson. Throughout her difficult life Jessie had managed to preserve to the full her great natural charm. Nor had she lost her impressive air of quiet womanly dignity in any of her difficult marital situations. An air of almost aristocratic aloofness often seemed to surround her.

Jessie had, however, been fortunate in being able to keep all her children; for the two children which she had borne to white men had both been boys. In this regard she had been more fortunate than the other half-caste woman, Leisha, who had, like herself, experienced the favours of both Allan Breaden and Louis Bloomfield. Leisha's two daughters Sarah and Susie, whose fathers had been Breaden and Bloomfield respectively, had been sent south as small girls; and she had never again set eyes on them. She had, however, had the consolation of four other, three-quarter dark, children by two full-blood fathers.

On Johnson's first visit to Hermannsburg Theo had immediately struck up a friendship with the pleasant and cheerful near-white boy, and he thoroughly enjoyed his walk with Johnson over Idracowra Station that morning. Johnson was, like his father, rather shortsighted, and his thick and somewhat pouchy eyelids, which he had likewise inherited from his father, gave him a slightly sleepy though particularly good-natured facial expression.

The buildings at Idracowra Station were of the same rough and ready gum log construction as those of Henbury.

There was, first of all, the simple one-room blockhouse, roofed with galvanized iron, which served as Allan Breaden's residence, and which was at present being occupied by Theo's parents. Two bush beds, with bullock hide "mattresses", stood in this room, their legs let in through a floor paved with stone slabs. The door of this blockhouse had been made of packing-case boards, and the walls were covered inside with illustrations from The Chronicle and cartoons from The Bulletin. The second log-house was the one in which Theo had already eaten two of his meals. This building also was roofed with galvanized iron. It was a kitchen/dining-room unit with a mud-mortar chimney and a stone floor, and it was protected by a verandah. Its furnishings were of the utmost simplicity - two home-made tables, a somewhat rickety wooden food-safe, and a cockatoo perch on which a white cockatoo screamed and talked during the hottest daylight hours. A three-legged cast-iron camp-oven stood on the ground in one corner. A rain gauge had been placed on a low post between these two main station buildings. It had to be cleaned out whenever rain was expected: normally it was full of sand from the sandstorms that enveloped Idracowra on all days when strong winds blew from the north or the west. There were two further structures - the meat-house and the harness-room. In front of the thatched meat-house stood a meat bench with a top layer of heavy logs on which the carcass of the slaughtered bullock was cut up before the meat was taken inside. During the winter months certain parts of the carcass were hung up on hooks inside the meat-house, where the cool air of the day and the icy draughts of the night kept the meat in prime condition for a week, and even longer, without any need for artificial refrigeration. The tender steaks cut from such a naturally chilled carcass had a rich flavour which far surpassed that of any meat which was to be taken out by subsequent generations of station folk from refrigerators introduced in later years. However, much of the beef in winter, and most of it in summer, was dry-salted, bagged in empty 150-pound flour-bags, and stored in these containers in the meat-house during the day. It was then spread out in a coarse wire-netting trough, suspended from a frame set on posts fixed in the ground inside the meat-house, so that the large chunks of salt meat could air during the night. The fourth building was the rough and simple harness-room or saddle-shed (also constructed of logs), with its rails and pegs for holding the saddles, bridles, packbags, and all items of donkey waggon harness. All greenhide ropes, when not in use, were also hung on pegs in this saddle-shed.

A couple of chains of linked new greenhide hobble-straps stretched down from other wall pegs. Close to the harness-room stood a row of posts from whose top rails hung suspended the hides of the bullocks killed at the station. The cattle-yard of Idracowra had been erected as close to these station buildings as had the cattle-yard at Henbury; and Idracowra, like Henbury, possessed also a goat-yard crammed full of well-fed goats, which supplied the station with milk, cream, and butter.

Two particularly high sandhills raised their red foreheads not very far from the station. They were important enough to have names - Tnakatuma and Ntonurknga. Because of the rapid destruction of the vegetation around the station buildings by horses, cattle, donkeys, and goats, Idracowra had been notorious for the severity of its dust-storms ever since its establishment. There had been an earlier station settlement a couple of miles downstream at Iwutitnama. The present site - Mbontuma - had been selected by the owners because the sandy northern Finke bank at this point was raised slightly above the level of the highest floods. At the same time, the saltbush flats which covered the southern bank of the Finke spread out as far as the edge of the high sandhills rising over a mile south of the main river bed. This wide belt of saltbush was several miles long; and a couple of miles east of Idracowra this plain was inundated from time to time by the brown floodwaters brought down by the Kringka, - a lazy box gum channel which wound its snakelike course towards the Finke from the clay-pans and clay-flats situated on high-level country more than a hundred miles away to the south-west of Idracowra. This Kringka rarely ran in flood over the full distance of its course. Normally it consisted of a series of large, but very shallow, clay-pans, which were linked by channels only when the rains had been sufficiently heavy to make the water rise high enough to flow over and tear breaches in the low sandbars that used to spread across many parts of the Kringka during lengthy drought periods.

But the very sluggishness of the floodwaters, and the many sandbars that normally blocked their course, helped to keep most of the water brought down by local rains in the country where it had fallen. Hence the Kringka channel, and the many broad box gum flats in it, carried a long belt of saltbush, and in good seasons of rich herbage, through the Erldunda and Idracowra station runs; and nowhere was this belt wider or more fertile than from the point where the Kringka channel joined the southern box gum flats of the Finke to the place of its entry into the bed of the Finke at Knguljambalataka. At the latter site stood a post carrying a locked letter-box, in which the camel postman could leave the mail intended for Erldunda Station. For Idracowra Station was often left unmanned during mustering periods; and the Erldunda folk could then pick up their mail at The Letter Box. The name Idracowra was a corruption of Itirkawara, the Aranda name for Chambers Pillar, a striking sandstone formation rising high above the red dunes some eleven miles north of the station. But in spite of its corruption by the whites, the initial "I" of Idracowra was still correctly sounded like the initial "I" in Itirkawara - that is, like the vowel in the English word "it". Occasionally this initial vowel was sounded long, like the "I" in "machine". Chambers Pillar marked the final resting place of the fierce mythical gecko ancestor called Itirkawara, who had set out as a young man on a long journey north-eastward from Tjina which took him across the border into Queensland. During his travels he had grown into a huge and powerfully built man of superhuman strength and extreme violence of temper. On his way home to his birthplace he had challenged and cut in halves with his stone knife a number of other unfortunate totemic ancestors in various Aranda-speaking areas. Flushed by the ease of his successes, he had disregarded the rules of the strict marriage code whose provisions were to become obligatory for the Aranda folk of later days. He had, in fact, deliberately committed the flagrant moral crime of having marital relations only with girls who belonged to that kin-group class from which not his wife but only his mother-in-law should have come. In the later human days men who committed this most abhorred "incestuous" act were invariably punished by death. The presumptuous gecko ancestor, however, had defied even the anger of his own kinsfolk at Tjina by improperly bringing such a girl to their camp as his wife. His enraged relatives had promptly banished him and the girl from their midst, and told the ostracized pair to make their home out in the sandhills, far from the waters of the Finke.

Itirkawara, though raging with fury, had been powerless to defy the edict of his own gecko kinsfolk. He had retreated north into the sandhills, taking the shrinking girl with him.

Among the dunes the pair had suddenly grown weary and turned into prominent rocky formations. Itirkawara had changed into a stone pillar standing on a high base and raising its crest some hundred and fifty feet into the air. The unhappy girl had turned into a low hill, situated about a quarter of a mile from the Pillar; and, just as the girl had at the very end crouched down on the ground, averting her face from her seducer in deep shame, so the rocky crest of this low hill turned its face away from Chambers Pillar.

The old Mbontuma waterhole had become silted up by the Finke floods soon after the establishment of the second Idracowra Station; and a well had been sunk on the northern bank, several chains upstream from the buildings, to provide water for the many hundreds of cattle that browsed in the rich saltbush and herbage flats on the southern side of the main channel. This well was of the normal two-bucket type found everywhere in Central Australia at the time; but Theo had never seen one before, since Hermannsburg and the two adjoining station properties of Henbury and Glen Helen had been so copiously supplied with open waterholes by the Finke River. He therefore accompanied Johnson and some of the dark station women when they took the donkeys down to operate the double draught system of the well. With one bucket coming up full to the surface whenever the other one went down into the well, it did not take very many hours to fill the big black-iron stock tank that supplied the long stocktroughs. Hesekiel, Titus, and Jakobus were already down at the well, looking critically at the Hermannsburg horses. The tired animals were standing around in dull listlessness. They would have stood there completely motionless if it had not been for the fiendish persistence of the tormenting flies, which forced them from time to time to toss their heads wearily and to give occasional savage swishes with their tails.

Dark streaks and weals on their rumps still bore witness to the cruel cuts they had received from whips on the previous day. All their rearing pride of only five days ago had gone out of them. Their bodies still looked reasonably rounded and strong; but there was no longer any fire left in their sad, tired, pleading eyes. Their spirit had been utterly defeated by the hard journey; and it was clear that many days would have to elapse before they would be fit for any further duty.

"They are knocked-up altogether," Hesekiel remarked; "we'll have to get fresh horses from this station before we can go on to Horseshoe Bend." "Donkeys are better than horses in this country," put in Jakobus; there are too many sandhills down here." Theo agreed heartily with the latter remark. As draught animals in sandy country, the local donkeys had no equals. With their ability to eat and digest anything, from grass, herbage, and acacia foliage down to rags and paper, these sturdy animals never lost their condition in the alarmingly quick manner of horses. In addition, women and even children could harness them and work them; and if the donkeys were slow, they were also completely reliable. It seemed ironical that these sturdy animals should ever have been termed "asses" in a derogatory sense: this term of abuse could well have been reserved for their unthinking two-legged detractors.

The day again turned out to be a scorcher. Men and animals were grateful for the long midday break, which most of them spent resting or sleeping in the shade of the big river gums. It was a relief when evening came and the long, hot day ended. And for Theo it had been his first Sunday without hymns, prayers, or church services.

Next: October 16th