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It is recorded that one man struck it so rich, and prospered so greatly, that he actually had a blacksmith fashion shoes for his horse from bars of gold from another goldfield called the Hodgkinson! The author has spent a great part of his life living in tropical North Queensland and has had gold prospecting experience including on the famous Palmer goldfields.
He has also been to all the towns and early-settled areas mentioned in this narrative, taking some 18 months of research into the writing of this book. This third edition has been completely rewritten and with much new material, thanks to a number of suggestions from readers including those from a television producer who read the first edition. Men jostled each other to grab a drink at the rough-hewn bar, the air filled with rank tobacco smoke and the strong smell of men whose bodies had not had a good encounter with soap and water for more days than one would care to remember.
John Webb downed his raw rum and banged his tin mug onto the grimy bar top, gesticulating as he did so to the bald and sweating barman for a refill. He paid the sixpence demanded for it and turning, eyed the man standing next to him. A little over six feet, John was heavily built and his neighbour was of like stature, sporting an extremely bushy beard generously sprinkled with grey. The man returned his glance, wiping his mouth on a shirtsleeve.
The large Irish miner grasped his hand with a big, rough callused paw. I heard about the Palmer find while I was down in Brisbane. Best yer git yerself a Snider rifle afore ye head out. The wind was freshening as John trudged along a track crowded with miners, experienced as well as new chums, together with scores of Chinese wearing huge brimmed hats, their worldly possessions balanced on long poles. The dust from hundreds of pairs of feet blew to the side, to settle in a grey cloud on the vegetation alongside the track.
From time to time John passed other men returning from the diggings looking exhausted and he was surprised at the number of old white-haired men, many of whom had boots coming apart at the seams. Large numbers of the Chinese were even bare-footed. Soon John noticed the smoke from dozens of campfires as men boiled their billies and prepared their evening meal. Selecting a likely spot near a group of miners who were obviously returning from the goldfields, he set up his camp and it was not long before he too had made his tea and prepared an evening meal.
Men of all kinds and description continued to file past, heading inland towards the fields, interspersed with packhorses and teams of bullocks and horses drawing wagons and drays, all piled high with stores and provisions. As the sun dipped low in the western sky, it was accompanied by a sharp drop in the temperature and the wind that had gusted constantly all day and which had taken the heat out of the August sun, suddenly died away.
Clouds of brightly coloured rainbow lorikeets flashed noisily above, heading towards their evening roosts. A small flock of pink and grey galahs, a parrot found almost everywhere in the Australian outback, alighted in a tree overhead, squawking loudly as though in protest at the newcomers.
Having filled his pipe, John lit the tobacco and, leaning back on his swag against a nearby tree, idly watched a heavily-laden horse-drawn wagon rumbling and creaking over the rocks and ruts, enveloped in a heavy cloud of dust. As John sipped his tea between puffs of his pipe, one of the men sitting around the fire nearby stood up and wandered over slowly, dusting his hands as he did so. The miner reached across and gratefully accepted the tobacco.
Leaning forward, he extricated a burning twig from the edge of the embers with which to light his pipe. He sucked on the stem a number of times taking several deep puffs before he removed the pipe from his mouth, inspected it, and presumably satisfied the tobacco was burning satisfactorily, pointed the stem at John. The miner studied him for a minute, as though digesting this information. Meanwhile the evening shadows had started to lengthen while some noisy black crows squabbled over some tid-bit stolen from a campsite. Mebbe yer can give us some news of the outside world.
He picked up his mug and emptied the dregs onto the fire. The embers hissed momentarily, giving off a small puff of steam. He scraped the edges of the coals inwards towards the centre of the fire with a scuffed elastic-sided boot. Quickly he reached down into his swag and deposited something into the back pocket of his moleskins. Joining up with his newfound friend who swept his arm casually in the direction of four other men, John was introduced. Not a tooth was to be seen when he spoke.
The other men acknowledged him by nodding or lifting a hand in greeting. John Webb nodded and took the blackened billycan off the hook which hung over the coals.
Pouring himself a mugful of the strong black tea, he questioningly held the billy up as he glanced around at the others. The man introduced as Tom nodded and held out a filthy and battered enamelled mug. He was a big man, almost as tall as John and sported also a bushy black beard. His hair beneath a sweat stained hat was long enough to cover his collar. Leaning on one elbow, his feet towards the fire, he studied the visitor.
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His attitude was neither friendly nor aggressive. Charlie, on the other hand, seemed eager to make friends, as he leant across the others to shake hands.
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He was a comparatively small man and what he lacked in stature he appeared to make up with quick and witty comments. Paddy glanced at Charlie shaking his head sadly as he did so. With the ice having been well and truly broken in a manner of speaking, John reached into the back pocket of his trousers, producing as he did so, a flask of rum. The reaction was instantaneous. Suddenly every man seemed to take a keener interest in this new chum.
Even the quiet Tom nodded approvingly. Baldy, a quiet and reserved man whose bald brown pate reflected the glow of the campfire also appeared to come alive, a quiet grin on his face, his eyes gleaming with anticipation. Obviously it was the prospect of a slug of rum in his tea.
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With a generous tot of the fiery brown liquid served all round, the talk soon turned to gold. John suddenly found himself the popular centre of attention. The laughter and the stories increased proportionately as the level in the flask decreased. It soon became obvious to John Webb that his new-found friends had surely struck it rich on the diggings and the warming liquor loosened their tongues to no little degree. Judging by the way Mick handled it, the bag was no light weight. Opening it, he displayed on an outstretched palm of his hand a number of large golden nuggets that glittered with a deep rich colour in the flickering light of the flames.
It was immediately obvious that the bag held considerable wealth.
I stocked up on ammunition too! The five others looked at him in surprise. John climbed to his feet; he seemed to tower over the recumbent men. He looked older than his twenty four years. John looked down at the little miner sitting cross-legged on his swag.
Sleeping with Cannibals | Travel | Smithsonian
With that he bade the others goodnight and headed towards his bedroll beside the dying embers of what remained of his own campfire. Each succeeding day was much the same as the first, with hundreds of would-be miners jostling each other on the track in their haste to get to the goldfields on the Palmer. John passed a number returning to Cooktown to purchase fresh supplies. Here they could hire a packer equipped with fresh horses and a wagon to carry their supplies back. The sides of the track, John noticed, were dotted with hastily dug graves of the less fortunate — some from unknown causes and many from Aboriginal spears.
Many graves carried no inscription other than perhaps a battered billycan and or a tattered felt hat but most were left unmarked and forgotten. Safety was ensured by groups of men staying together with the Chinese tending to keep to themselves. John heard a great many tales of attacks by the Aborigines who were inclined to ambush the unwary.
Although preferring, it was said by many, the unfortunate Chinese — since they were better eating! Already John had noticed many abandoned baskets with the remains of their contents, mainly rice and tea, scattered about and trodden into the dusty track. A few days later, John came to what seemed like an oasis. It was a valley with a river called the Laura which wandered through it, bordered on each side in many places with grass.
Here were the camps of literally hundreds of men, most of them heading inland. Bullockies and their teams took advantage of the lush grazing, the fresh water and the opportunities affording a well earned rest. Many were the stories of men, leather bags filled with gold from the gullies of the Palmer, returning to Cooktown to buy fresh supplies — only to be relieved of their newly acquired wealth by unscrupulous publicans and the many card sharps, pimps and prostitutes that also poured into the raw new town of Cooktown. This trail was not available to the teamsters and bullockies who were forced to endure a much longer track to the gold fields, but although dangerous for those on foot this new route proved a great deal shorter.