This is a story of the start of South Australian colonisation of the Northern Territory. It is a story of greed, courage, exploration, murder, wasted efforts, life and death struggles, insubordination, incredible seamanship, and extraordinary bushmanship, amid government bungling and Aboriginal resistance. Escape Cliffs was an attempt by South Australia to become the premier state of the country. It would open up a trading route across the country to Asia, and exploit the agricultural and mining opportunities of the interior. It would be at no cost to the state, as the land was sold, unsurveyed and unseen, to investors prior to the First Northern Territory Expedition even setting out. But then, as the saying goes, the fight really started…
The settlement at Escape Cliffs was the fourth attempt to settle the north by Europeans. The first three, at Fort Dundas, Fort Wellington, and Port Essington, were military settlements designed to preclude other European nations from claiming a part of the north coast of Australia for their own colonies, and as a contact point for trade with the four hundred or so Macassan Prahus. Escape Cliffs was different to the British military settlements, in that it was a part of an attempt by an Australian Colony, South Australia, to become the premier state of the country. The South Australian government, in competition with Queensland, had taken over the land to the north, calling it the Northern Territory of South Australia, in 1863. Events then moved remarkably quickly. The South Australians wanted to open a trading route across the country to Asia and exploit any agricultural and mining opportunities they could from the interior. They hoped to do this at no cost to themselves, and therefore sold the land, unseen and unsurveyed, prior to the First Northern Territory Expedition even setting out. A part of the plan, which linked South Australia to the rest of the world with an overland telegraph line, would mean that the point of entry of news and business, for the whole of Australia, would be through Adelaide. Thus the colony had national significance, and was of great interest to the big states of New South Wales and Victoria, particularly. There was much work to do, and no time was wasted. Within a few months, the forty members of the First Northern Territory Expedition were recruited and sent, in three ships, to survey and establish a city on the north coast. Led by a retired politician and ex-soldier, Colonel Boyle Finniss, and including a mostly poorly selected group of officers and men, it was funded by investors from Adelaide and London, and farewelled with optimism, but it was doomed to fail from the outset. Arguments between powerful personalities begun even before the ships were loaded, and they continued, more and more bitterly, even after reinforcements were sent later the same year. The city was to be called ‘Palmerston’, as was its successor. Although it is now called, since 1911, Darwin. Darwin’s modern satellite city, some 20 kilometres south, is the third settlement to carry the name Palmerston. The early military settlements along the north coast existed too early to be photographed, and in the 1860s photography was still in its infancy, particularly in remote areas. There were few cameras anywhere but, incredibly, two found their way to Escape Cliffs. The few surviving photographs from these cameras are remarkable because they were taken in the Northern Territory within a very few months of its declaration and takeover by South Australia. There is, therefore a photographic record of the Northern Territory’s entire colonial existence, and all the known photographs of the Escape Cliffs years are reproduced in this book. Escape Cliffs, at the mouth of the huge Adelaide River, is remote and unreachable without a boat or a helicopter, so it’s not on any tourist itinerary, and few visitors climb up to the brick and metal remains of the first Northern Territory capital. As a result, its story is one that is rarely told, but those who wonder at the origin of the names of the Finniss, King and Howard Rivers, Litchfield National Park, Manton Dam, Fred’s Pass, Lake Bennett, and dozens of Darwin’s streets will find the answers here. They were named after real people, with aspirations and hopes for the future, who lived in extraordinary times. This book is about them and those times.
Derek Pugh 2017
CHAPTER 12. AND NOW…?
For fourteen months after the settlement was abandoned the only visitors to Escape Cliffs were the local Wulna. Manton’s friend, Mira, appears to have spent most of his time there, and may have ensured the buildings were safe from bush-fires, because they were still standing three years later. When the Eagle had taken the last settlers away, in December 1866, the settlers had to leave nearly everything behind. Even most of their personal souvenirs were abandoned, as the punt that was transporting them to the ship gently sank below the smooth seas of Adam Bay. Captain Francis Cadell, who was exploring the Liverpool River Region using the Eagle, visited the settlement in early 1868. He spent four days examining everything that remained, exploring the site, and “listening to the pantomimic eloquence of Mira” (1). Mira seems to have taken on a self-appointed care-taker role in the hope that his white friends would return. All the Wulna Cadell met were welcoming, and they guided him around happily. The Julia was still there, now sunken where the tide had held her under some logs. Cadell had her raised and found she was still in good condition, without worms or rot. The punt, Cautious Tommy, was still at anchor where Manton had left her, and Mira showed Cadell the survey pegs which were still in place around the town acres. Cadell tried to imagine the city as Finniss had planned it, and, as the Register reported: “With very creditable consideration for a fallen rival he admits that it would have been difficult to find a better site in the locality. In his opinion Mr. Finniss could not have done better than he did in this respect without ampler means for exploring the coast. However, that is a mere matter of history now” (1). The next visitors came in March, 1870. Mira was by then a constant visitor to the new Palmerston at Port Darwin. Robert Burton[*] led a salvage party from Palmerston to Escape Cliffs, and found the huts mostly still serviceable, although blackened by fire. The party managed to collect a lot of equipment useful to the new settlement at Port Darwin, such as horseshoes, a complete bullock dray, an anchor and chain, yokes and bows, some barrels of nails, and a pile of iron bits and pieces. Paul Foelsche was among the salvagers. Later to become a notorious and brutal police inspector, Foelsche is also known for his photography of early Northern Territory scenes. The Government Resident of the new Palmerston, Charles Dashwood, accompanied by Alfred Searcy, a customs officer and well-known book author, visited the site about 1897, and he wrote of it in his book, In Australia’s Tropics (2). Searcy found cannon-balls and ‘bombshells’ at the site and being a self-confessed ‘curio fiend’, took a number of souvenirs. Souvenir hunting has been a predictable problem over the years. The site was unprotected by law for more than a hundred and thirty years, and visitors, although rare, are unsupervised. The Historical Society of the Northern Territory visited in October 1968, and camped overnight. The members made good use of their time, discovering and photographing a number of artefacts, and Peter Spillett’s article about their finds appeared in Viewpoint Magazine (3). In those days, there was a corrugated iron beacon on the cliff edge, visible from the sea, and nine water tanks (only five of which remained by 1995). Spillet wrote of a pathway marked by inverted bottles buried in the ground, a large amount of broken pottery, and a water purification urn. All of these have now gone, pilfered or tumbled into the sea, or are so well hidden that they are safe. Members of the society pushed through the bush and found the well, long dry, that still looked serviceable if someone dug out the sediment. Their camp was all the more memorable as, that evening, the Apollo 7 rocket ship and its spent fuel stage, passed brightly overhead. The site was visited by the Heritage Advisory Council in 1995 (Mitchell), and January 1998 (4). Their reports record and describe the condition of the artefacts at the time, and suggest much of what Spillett and his friends found had already gone. Holes in the ground, which they suspected were made by bottle hunters, were common. Heritage Status was awarded, in 2000, as a recognition of the site’s value to our history (NT Gazette NT Portion 5799(A)). Anything still lying around is now legally protected. Access to the site is not easy, and there are very few ways to reach Escape Cliffs. There are still no roads on Cape Hotham. A fishing charter company has a helicopter landing site near the small tidal creek to its north, although the fishermen would have to swim the creek to be on the right side for the settlement. Occasionally, yachts moor in the quiet waters of Adam Bay, and fishermen and crabbers from Darwin often pass by in aluminium ‘tinnies’, although many of them may be unaware of the history of the cliffs. There is a road from Darwin that fishermen with tinnies use to access the river. It passes through Koolpinyah Station, and ends at a government boat ramp in Salt Arm. This tidal water body is not long enough to be called a river, but nevertheless holds a substantial volume that opens up on the Adelaide River mouth. Finding myself without a helicopter and yacht-free, I needed a boat to visit the site. An old mate, Chris Baldwin, agreed to take me and my sons, Harry and Roy, to Adam Bay in June 2017. The boys were thrilled; they got off school for two days, plus had a chance to go fishing. Chris had been to the cliffs before and, a keen fisherman, knows these waters well. After launching his boat, we powered through the Salt Arm tributary that holds the boat ramp, and entered the ‘Arm’ proper. It is huge, and at first I thought it was the river, but we quickly travelled further into the even wider expanse of Adam Bay, the Adelaide River mouth. The Narrows was clearly visible to the south; a narrow gap in the riverbank showed between dark strips of vegetation. “The Narrows” is clearly an apt name, I thought, but it was several kilometres south and would have to wait for a visit from us. Already I began to have a sense of how easy it was to miss river mouths in this nearly featureless landscape, and why Stow and his mates had missed the mouth of the Daly River in Anson Bay, despite staying in the bay for a week. My first impression was one of size. In a small boat Adam Bay is huge, and many kilometres of churning water lie between its flat coasts. I knew the cliffs we were seeking are only nine or ten metres high, but I was still hoping for something spectacular and obvious, at least as outstanding as Dripstone Cliffs in Darwin, or Talc Head, further west. However, these days, from a distance, Escape Cliffs are just about invisible. In 1865, they glowed golden in the sun above a white beach, a beacon for passing ships, but these days, a thick belt of ten metre tall mangroves has veiled them completely. However, the land behind the cliffs boasts a tall Eucalyptus forest which stands above the mangroves, as you approach from the sea. The cliffs you see at first are therefore vegetative. We crossed the bay and entered the small creek that cuts into Hotham Peninsula, north of the cliffs. It is protected by a gravel bar and is only accessible near the top of the tide. This creek, Chris told me, has a good reputation for fishing and mud crab collecting, and this is where the helicopter tourists come. Already a tinny, holding three large brightly-shirted fishermen, was moored in its waters. They were flicking lures into likely spots, seeking any lurking barramundi. We heard a shout of success a few minutes later, and hopes were raised that we too would soon be pulling in a big one. We unloaded our camping gear on the southern side of the creek, and set it up a hundred metres or so into the bush. This gave us a buffer against sand-flies or mosquitoes waiting for us in the mangroves, and more importantly, any crocodiles looking for a meaty meal. Chris knows of at least one large crocodile who calls this creek home, although we never saw it during our stay. We set some crab traps out along the creek, and fished for our lunch, pulling in a few small fish on baited hooks, but no barramundi showed any interest in our lures. Insects were peculiarly absent too; the settlers and visitors alike have written about sand-flies, mosquitoes and march-flies descending in dark clouds upon them, since first arriving in 1864; our timing, four days after the full moon, must have been perfect. After the heat of the day, I set off alone to the Cliffs, leaving the boys with Chris to check the crab pots. According to the GPS, our camp was 900 metres from the site of the settlement. The easiest approach was by walking along the sand that lies between the mangrove forest and the belt of thick monsoon vine forest that almost wraps around the site. In fact, the latter is very difficult to pass through; although there are small clearings among the trees, with so many vines and shrubs to push through, travel is slow, and the vines have a strength that is surprising. Even horses have difficulty in pushing through them. In 1864, Pearson may have been pulled from his saddle by vines as he tried to escape the Wulna attack, and the warriors had then had an opportunity to spear him. One of the vines of this forest, an eight metre lawyer vine called “wait-a-while” (Smilax sp) is hard to spot, but when its hooks have dug into your skin and clothing, you have no option other than to wait a while, as you slowly and carefully extricate yourself from them. I wondered what young Alaric Ward, the shepherd who guarded his flock nearby in 1865, thought of them. His sheep would have been caught up as easily as a moth in a spider’s web. I climbed the cliffs at their northern end, and was as well to do so. Within a very short distance they become a vertical wall that contrasts markedly with the flat land at the top. They are impossible to scale without equipment; Fitzmaurice and Keys had been quite safe from the angry Wulna tribesmen, once they were out of range of their spears in 1839; it is a five or ten-minute run from where they were taking their measurements on the beach to an easy place to climb up or down. The bush along the edge is open, and no problem to pass through – Eucalyptus, Grevillea and Acacia trees dominate (5). The cliff is clearly eroding quickly, and the trees are doomed. One by one, they topple over the cliff. Huge sections of the cliff lie as boulders on the beach below, dissolving and breaking up further with every high tide. A number of trees are already clinging grimly to the precipice, with only a few last roots embedded in the cliff-side. The first sign of the settlement, as I entered from the north, was the brick floor of Government House. The neatly laid strip of bricks was probably Finniss’s veranda, as it’s not wide enough for a room. Nowadays the bricks are only five metres from the edge of the cliff, which means that about fifteen metres of the site has fallen into the sea in the last 150 years. That’s a metre lost each decade since Finniss lived here, so at that rate the government house floor will fall into the sea sometime before 2070 and the last of the water tanks soon after. Robin Gregory estimated the bricks would be washed into the sea by 2008, based on the amount of erosion that had occurred since Mitchell was there, three years earlier, so I was grateful for the extra time (4). Colonel Finniss used to enjoy sitting on a chair on the edge of the cliff in the evening, sipping a glass of porter, watching the sunset across Adam Bay. Favoured expeditioners, like his son Frederick, Auld, and a very few others, would sometimes join him. For Finniss, the view across the beach had been clear, but I looked out across the tops of the mangroves at my own sunset, and had to imagine the view without them. A thin strip of land along the horizon marked the western bank of the river mouth at Glyde Point, and two long dark smudges to the right revealed the Vernon Islands. From this distance they look more like reefs than islands. Somewhere out there in the haze also lay Melville Island. In 1866, Manton and the remaining settlers watched, incredulously, from here, as McKinlay’s horse-hide punt, named optimistically, the Pioneer, was rowed around the corner, and sixteen exhausted men tumbled from its odorous, rotting hull, on the very brink of collapse. The settlers climbed down their wooden steps, long gone now, to meet the returning explorers, and helped them up to the settlement for their tot of port. Near the old Government House site is a trig point left by the navy. Sailors from HMASMoresby visited the cliffs in 1934, on a survey mission. They built a temporary tower, and chopped down a number of trees for better line-of-sight measurements. It was probably them that left the corrugated iron beacon the Historical Society found years later. The naval surveyors left a plaque in the ground a few metres south of Government House. Its only words are “MORESBY 1934”. Today it is marked by two rusty star pickets, so is easy to find, and tied to one of the pickets is a small metal tag that says “HERITAGE SITE”. A second tag lies on the ground nearby. These two tags are the only signage I found in the settlement. Nearby, a rusty ship’s water tank, which once contained at least a cubic metre of water, sits neglected in the bush. There are five of these in a rough line stretching along the cliff. The one closest to Government House must have belonged to Finniss. In 1865, George Warland stole some water from it, and was dobbed in by Samual Baker, giving Baker no end of stress and enmity from Stow, Goldsmith and others. In the last of the water tanks, I discovered an ammunition box. It was left there in 2010 by a visitor as a ‘geo-cache’[†] to replace a partially melted plastic box that had already been there for years. Within its contents are trinkets left by the few visitors to the site. These include a Richmond Football club pin, an Irish badge, a ‘rolly’ cigarette, half a muesli bar, a few toys, and other bits and pieces. A notebook listing visitors’ names shows that few come this way; the last entry was three years before mine. I left my name card and a ten cent coin. I visited here a second time the next day with Chris and the boys, and Chris found the note he had written in 2012. It was his son who had left the rolly. My own sons, Roy, aged seven and Harry, ten, may be the site’s youngest visitors. Roy drew a fine picture to leave in the cache, and took great mischievous delight in writing my phone number on it. Considering how few people visit I don’t expect any calls soon. The only other ‘ruin’ of interest is a pile of rocks and bricks that were the settlement’s bakery ovens. This is a little further inland, beside one of the water tanks. It is a collapsed pile of rubble and it is hard to determine how it was orientated and arranged. In 1968, Spillet wrote that the arch of the oven was easily seen, but it is no longer. On the water tank, someone has placed a number of pieces of heavy glass; the bases of wine bottles, and weathered slivers of black glass. Broken glass is spread far and wide across the site, and there is much lying on the sand below, having fallen with the cliff as it recedes. There are still a few pits dug here and there, which I suspect may be evidence of souvenir hunters, long gone, who may have been searching for old bottles and other bits and pieces. For casual visitors like us, there is little else to see here. The week before, I was in Ireland and climbing the thousand year old circular stone tower in Kildare. The Irish sure knew how to build things that lasted, and it was an interesting personal juxtaposition for me. The Escape Cliffs settlers had lived in tents, and built wooden pre-fabricated houses, which were a delight to the ubiquitous termites. Nearly everything they left is long gone; they needed some Irish stone masons, I thought. I made a brief attempt to search for the well, but the vegetation closed in as I left the cliff edge and, with increasing effort needed to get through it, I gave up quickly. I realised the value of visiting lies in knowing the story, and entering the environment within which it is told. My major impression of Escape Cliffs was that yes, the site is elevated, but the topography around it is so low and flat. With huge expanses of shallow water between the shores, the elevation is a mere blip in the landscape. Great imagination is needed to picture a city here. Finniss and a very few people with him were the only ones with such an imagination. At dawn the next morning, on a rising tide, Chris loaded us in his boat and then powered the six point one nautical miles northwards to The Narrows. The water of Adam Bay was calm, with occasionally standing waves indicating the current, but when we entered The Narrows it was wild and churning. Huge volumes of water push both ways through the gap with each tide or river flood. Whirl pools, and great swellings of upwardly thrust water, buffeted the boat and a strip of white water with standing waves reminiscent of Hokusai’s painting of a Japanese tsunami, marked the deepest part of the channel. Chris measured it with his sounder at thirty one metres deep. These are dangerous waters; several of the settlers met their end here, but it was across this gap which McKinlay had swum his forty five horses at the beginning of his expedition. He had, of course, waited for the still water of the change of tide, but even so, the time to swim across must have been short. Each bank of The Narrows is a two metre cliff, even at high tide, so where and how the men got their horses in, then forced them to swim across more than two hundred metres of muddy water, before allowing them to climb out, is difficult to tell. McKinlay’s horses, most of which were destined to be jerked and eaten, or skinned to make the hull of the Pioneer, were at that stage in good condition, but getting them across at all is a testament to fine horsemanship. The land on the eastern bank was surveyed as part of the planned South Palmerston. Even from the boat, we could see tidal flood plains and mangroves, and the benefit of hindsight certainly added to the feeling that Finniss erred in his assessment of the country. Finniss liked the cliffs for their elevated health benefits, and he wanted the huge Adelaide River to act as a highway into the interior for the great access it would give to any future agricultural industry, perhaps even mining. He had no motor boats, so to sail upriver sixty kilometres to his next planned settlement took time, and involved working with the incoming tide and waiting, anchored, during the outgoing tide. In 1865, Manton’s team had taken three months rations with them to the river depot, because travel between the camps was a major undertaking. As we passed the western corner of The Narrows, which the GPS showed had been named Ayers Point, I had some feeling for what those first settlers had discovered back in 1864. I was already siding with Stow and the other detractors of those times; this was no place for a capital city, Finniss was wrong. I also needed to see the country Manton had surveyed upriver, so after two nights camping near the cliffs, feasting on mud-crabs and fresh trevally, we returned up Salt Arm and to Darwin. In 1865, Captain Howard mapped the upper Adelaide River (6). He had taken the Beatrice as far as the survey camp, and then travelled in smaller boats further upstream to well above the reach of the tide. The river here was “ten yards wide, 2 feet deep” and entered a thick bamboo forest. Struggling through this by foot, he mapped another couple of hundred metres, until the river was “5 yards wide, a thin stream running over a stony bed” (see map 5). I bought a copy of Howard’s map from the Australian National Library, and poured over it eagerly, as Colonel Finniss had clearly done a hundred and fifty years before. I know this, because the library’s map is annotated by the man himself, with notes about his observations of the country. He also marked the survey lines made by Manton’s party during 1864 and 1865. Finniss’s annotations are not dated, but there is a clue to the time he wrote them. He must have been sitting at home in Adelaide, the Commission of Inquiry behind him, sometime in late 1866 or 1867. If all the annotations are made at the same time, as seems likely, as they’re all made with the same brown ink, then his comment that the country to the East was “where McKinlay failed” means he had made them after June or July, 1866. On the left side of the map, Howard drew an unbroken range, but Finniss overdrew it and marked Fred’s Pass and Auld’s Lagoon and labelled the area to their west as “adapted to the survey of Mr Howard”. His placement of the pass was inaccurate, on a modern map it’s at least two kilometres further south. By this time, Finniss had already been declared guilty of the charges brought against him, and he was in the process of objecting and appealing to clear his name. However, he was even then promoting Escape Cliffs as the superior site for a settlement. On the map, near Fred’s Pass, he identified an area for a “city of 1500 allotments” but: “I don’t think this as healthy as Escape Cliffs or to easily approachable by vessels at present that is until steam tugs are used which is why I prefer Escape Cliffs for the chief town. BTF” (6) Using Google Earth, I explored the Adelaide River from the comfort of my home. I could see mangroves growing along the river bank where Finniss had marked the location for the survey camp. Fred’s Pass seemed to include a swamp, but tracks through it, to Auld’s Lagoon were clearly visible. I could use them to explore the country by car. I visited the Department of Lands and Planning to purchase the best modern maps of the area they had, and prepared my erudite neighbour, Peter Whelan, a naturalist and consultant entomologist, to explore with me. His knowledge of the bush would round out any explorations we could do using the maps I had collected. It was July, in the middle of the dry season. Peter waxed lyrical about the ‘excellent wet season’ that had finished three months earlier. For a Top-Ender, an excellent wet season means big rains, huge floods, and incredible growth of plants. It also means that some of the country could still be swampy, and it was likely that we’d be grateful for Peter’s four wheel drive along some of the tracks we would need to follow. Driving south from a leafy beachside suburb, we passed Fred’s Pass Reserve, now a virtual suburb of the city. The reserve is named after Fred’s Pass Road, which was surveyed but never made. If it had been, we would have been able to drive directly there through the ranges, and our adventure would be over by morning tea time. We followed the Stuart Highway south, through what Finniss called “beautiful undulating country all the way to Port Darwin”. On our left the low rising Daly Ranges drew nearer, and after less than fifty kilometres, we could turn due east towards them on Acacia Gap Road. Fred’s Pass goes through the Daly Ranges, but getting to it is easier said than done. We passed through a modern subdivision with gun-barrel-straight roads dividing the land into plantations of mango trees. Hundreds of hectares are growing here in a huge agricultural investment. Finniss would be proud, I thought. However, reaching the range meant the end of the good roads. We were soon in four-wheel-drive on tracks that are marked by logs and rocks that stick out from dried mud furrows, where the foolhardy were bogged during wet season journeys into the bush. We needed to skirt round the south of the range, and avoid a long billabong known as Acacia Gap Lagoon. It’s unlikely the explorers ever came through here, as it is several kilometres south of Fred’s Pass, which became their favoured route through the hills. Acacia Gap Lagoon has more than two kilometres of uninterrupted deep water, with huge blue waterlilies adorning its shallows. Massive Melaleuca paperback trees lean over the edges and I climbed up for a photograph. The deep, clear water below me looked inviting. “Crocodiles can jump,” I remembered as I climbed back down. I slapped a march-fly trying to feed on me, and Peter, the entomologist, was thrilled. “I think these are the type that can give people anaphylactic shocks!” he said in glee, as he took out a sample bottle to collect a few. Back in the car, we found a crossing, and made it over to the base of the hill easily enough. These ranges are rocky slopes, favoured by agile wallabies and antelopine wallaroos. We saw a number of them bounding off through the scrub. The track is clearly rarely used, and we decided that ours was the first vehicle through for a long time. We were lucky in that there were no fallen trees to block the path. Strangely, in a lonely little patch of the bush, we came across the red painted barrel of a cement truck, standing on its end. It had been used as a water tank and was on a cement base marked by the bloke who put it there, J.H.R., on October 17, 1990. Whoever J.H.R. is, he probably lived here, as within a few metres we discovered an old concrete slab, a burned out metal shed, piles of rusting cans and old bottles, a car door, broken basins, and a myriad of metal items, which had been burned by annual bushfires, and are now falling to bits with rust. What he was doing there we could only guess at. Perhaps he was prospecting in the hills, or running a fishing camp for the nearby Acacia Gap Lagoon. He was certainly long gone by the time we were there, but a few idiots with guns had solved the age-old question, and proved that bullets will pass through the metal of a cement truck barrel. Moving on, the track became better, crossing through more open country. From the map, we knew to turn left, where it forked, and traverse around the edge of a large swamp marked by huge Melaleuca paperbark trees. The swamp had dried out, and the flat ground between the trees was churned up by the snouts of feral pigs. Large wallows, the size of an average spa-pool, had been scooped out during the wet season by buffaloes, who then basked in their black mud in an attempt to armour themselves against the biting flies that plague them. From the large number of dried tracks we could see, this area is buffalo heaven in the wet. From the map I knew we were already in Fred’s Pass. We were surprised how wide it is; a hill to our north seemed the only rise. Peter, who was driving, wasn’t convinced. He needed more evidence. When we came to an old fence line, we parked and climbed up the hill to the north. Blue-winged kookaburras scattered silently as we entered the Melaleuca forest on foot. White cockatoos told the entire world where we were. We passed a rainbow bee-eater, busy hunting from his perch at the edge of the swamp, and we started to climb. Peter was in his element; every tree was of interest and he could name them all, the insects that crawled over them, and their survival tactics in an ecosystem used to regular burning. The forests here are not monocultures, but complex ecosystems of plants. Peter kept listing them: thirty or more species of trees, including numerous Eucalyptus, of course, but there was a “crocodile-barked” eucalypt species I had never heard of. There was also a range of Grevilleas, a Gardenia, Terminalias, Livistona and cycad palms, the ubiquitous purple Callitrix turkey bush, yellow flowering kapok, and the red flowering Brachychiton paradoxum. My head swam with the botanical names, and most went in one ear and out the other, until he mentioned horses dying… “What’s that?” I asked. “These baby ironwoods here,” he said, showing me a small sapling with small lush green leaves, only thirty centimetres tall, hidden among the grass. “A single leaf of this will kill a goat. Even horses.” John McKinlay had lost a number of horses, and sheep, to poisoning, on his disastrous trip through the floodplains just east of here. A few of the Escape Cliffs stock had also died after eating poisonous plants. “What else around here kills horses?” I asked. “There’s strychnine trees too, Strychnos lucida,” he answered. Those at least sound poisonous, I thought, and a while later he pointed some out. They are small trees that grow in patches of monsoon forest or vine thickets. “Aboriginal people extract strychnine from them to kill fish. They also get poison from the bark of those freshwater mangroves, Barringtonia, near the water ways, for fishing.” Barringtonia poison won’t hurt horses, but ironwood leaves would certainly have been accessible to hobbled horses, night-foraging near the explorers’ camps. Ironwood trees grow here and are reasonably common, so it’s a wonder any horses survive here at all. The grass on the hill was knee deep, and hid the baseball sized rocks that at any step might mean a rolled ankle, or an ignominious tumble down the slope. However, numerous wallabies use the hill often, and we quickly found pathways made by them, and followed the flattened grass. The climb was short, but we were far above the height of the trees below when we sat at the highest point to take in the view. The range across the pass was about a kilometre from where we were sitting. The land between the ranges was flat, with alluvial soil, and the paperbark swamp along its watercourse. When the seas were higher, thousands of years ago, this area had been under the sea. Aboriginal people of those times must have hunted along rocky beaches that wrapped the base of our hill, as the tide ebbed and flowed. Looking out, we thought we could identify the land Finniss had pointed out to Litchfield as a possible site for a city, about “2 miles” from the Adelaide River, near Fred’s Pass. It: “…was a rise open on the west side, and on the east it was thickly timbered in places; it was good firm ground and there was plenty of stone; there was a flat between it and the River” (SAC 3012 (7)). There is certainly plenty of stone. Quartzite rocks and boulders, of all sizes, cover the hills. Some are the perfect size and angular shape to use in a building, and all a settler needed to do was cart them down the hill to the flat! On the eastern side of the hill, we looked out across the Adelaide River to a vast stretch of floodplain that feeds the Adelaide and Mary Rivers during the wet season. These are the Marrakai Plains, and they were famous in the last century, during the halcyon days of buffalo catching, because thousands of them were run down and caught here, using specially converted Toyotas. For the last few decades, however, they have been choked by Mimosa pigra, which is a nasty, spiky, dominating weed, that grows in thick, impenetrable forests three or four metres high. They were also the plains on which McKinlay and his party found themselves stranded on. They waited on Providence Hill for months for the waters to recede, and their horses and sheep could again move across dry land. The line of the Adelaide River was easy to spot, because the mangroves that follow it have a distinct, dark green colour. On a curve, we could see sweeping away to the north, lies the spot where Manton and his survey party camped for months in 1865. All the country to our north had been pegged for sale to Adelaide or London-based land investors. What extraordinary optimism, or greed, had encouraged them to buy land like this, thousands of kilometres away, sight unseen? “They were bloody fools,” Peter and I agreed. Hidden by low rises below us, according to the map, was the long, Y-shaped, Auld’s Lagoon. I was keen to see it. This is where the explorers headed for water, and fish, on their way to Fred’s Pass. So Peter and I chose a new path back down the hill to the car, and then drove out of Fred’s Pass to a track, that was marked on our map as leading to the lagoon. Auld’s Lagoon is hidden by thick vegetation along its banks. Freshwater mangroves, thick clumps of bamboo, Melaleuca trees, Pandanus, and a score of other species crowd the banks. On foot, and pushing through the bamboo, we found a spot on a small headland from which we could look up and down the billabong. It is a beautiful stretch of water, brimming with fish. We could see a metre or more down into clear water. There were schools of mullet, an archer fish and briefly, I saw the tail of a large barramundi gliding away in the clear water. Bony bream jumped, slapping themselves against the surface. Cormorants nested in large numbers in the trees down one side, a nankeen night heron flew past, and egrets observed us from their perches across the water. Several jabiru storks and Burdekin ducks were visible in the distance. Peter and I had the impression that it had been a long while since people last visited. I had wondered about how easy it would be to walk from the lagoon to Manton’s campsite on the Adelaide River. We were cut off from the floodplain by a creek that flows from the lagoon, and was impassable to our vehicle. The camp lay more than three kilometres from Auld’s Lagoon, through clumps of bamboo and patches of monsoon vine forest, but, although much of the country looked open, in the end we decided against the six kilometre return journey. It was midday already, but the decider was the increasing infestation of Mimosa pigra. Getting caught in thickets of this weed is a most unpleasant experience. So, using another track, which crossed the Manton River downstream of Acacia Gap, we wound our way through the bush, back through the agricultural areas, to the highway. Daydreaming, as we drove along, I wondered about how we Territorians celebrate our heritage. At Fort Dundas, the site of the first British ‘settlement’ north of Port Macquarie, the Genealogical Society have placed a plaque commemorating the dead (8). The ruins of the Fort though, are not even ‘heritage listed’. The other early attempts are hardly any better off. Fort Wellington, in Raffles Bay, has little recognition and no access, and Victoria Settlement, in Port Essington, at least has old stone ruins, gravestones, some interpretive signage, and a tourism business, to which visitors can pay to get there by boat. Escape Cliffs, the fourth unsuccessful attempt to settle on the north coast, has a small aluminium tag lying on the ground which says “Heritage Site”. It will soon fall into the sea. I wondered at their treatment. Their stories are little known, not taught in schools, and very few people visit them. How do other states and countries compare in the value they place on their historical sites? Perhaps ours are just victims of the ‘tyranny of distance’, and they are, as was the case when the settlers first arrived, just too difficult to get to, with no one really wanting to. In this, it seems, nothing has changed.
Bibliography 1. Register. Captain Cadell's Return. South Australian Register. Feb 14, 1868. 2. Searcy, A.In Australia's Tropics. s.l. : George Robertson and Co, England, 1909. 3. Spillett, PG.Search for an Abandoned Territory Settlement. s.l. : Viewpoint Magazine, December 1968., 1968. 4. Gregory, R.Report on a Site Visit to Escape Cliffs 30 September 1998. s.l. : unpublished report by the Heritage Advisory Council, 1998. 5. Brock, J.Native Plants of Northern Australia. Sydney : Reed, 1993. 6. Howard, F. Upper Part of Adelaide River, As explored and sounded by boats of HM Surveying Schooner Beatrice, May 1865. With notes of survey added by BTF : Map, 1865. 7. O'Halloran, W, Goode, C and Bright, H.Report of Commission To Inquire into the Management of the Northern Territory Expedition Together with Minutes of and Appendix of Evidence. Adelaide : https://aiatsis.gov.au/sites/default/files/catalogue_resources/92463.pdf, 1866. 8. Pugh, DP.The British in North Australia 1824-29: Fort Dundas. Darwin : s.n., 2017.
[*] Robert Charles Burton was an overseer with Goyder’s survey party, more well known for his discovery of gold near Tumbling Waters, just south of Darwin
[†] For those who travel the world seeking geo-caches, this one is at S 1208.168, E 131 15.085.