The Darling River
by Henry Lawson
An Extract from,
Over the Sliprails
The Darling — which is either a muddy gutter or a second
Mississippi — is about six times as long as the distance, in a
straight line, from its head to its mouth. The state of the river is
vaguely but generally understood to depend on some distant and foreign
phenomena to which bushmen refer in an off-hand tone of voice as "the
Queenslan' rains", which seem to be held responsible, in a general
way, for most of the out-back trouble.
It takes less than a year to go up stream by boat to Walgett or
Bourke in a dry season; but after the first three months the
passengers generally go ashore and walk. They get sick of being stuck
in the same sort of place, in the same old way; they grow weary of
seeing the same old "whaler" drop his swag on the bank opposite
whenever the boat ties up for wood; they get tired of lending him
tobacco, and listening to his ideas, which are limited in number and
narrow in conception.
It shortens the journey to get out and walk; but then you will have
to wait so long for your luggage — unless you hump it with you.
We heard of a man who determined to stick to a Darling boat and
travel the whole length of the river. He was a newspaper man. He
started on his voyage of discovery one Easter in flood-time, and a
month later the captain got bushed between the Darling and South
Australian border. The waters went away before he could find the river
again, and left his boat in a scrub. They had a cargo of rations,
and the crew stuck to the craft while the tucker lasted; when it gave
out they rolled up their swags and went to look for a station, but
didn't find one. The captain would study his watch and the sun, rig
up dials and make out courses, and follow them without success. They
ran short of water, and didn't smell any for weeks; they suffered
terrible privations, and lost three of their number, NOT including the
newspaper liar. There are even dark hints considering the drawing of
lots in connection with something too terrible to mention. They
crossed a thirty-mile plain at last, and sighted a black gin. She led
them to a boundary rider's hut, where they were taken in and provided
with rations and rum.
Later on a syndicate was formed to explore the country and recover
the boat; but they found her thirty miles from the river and about
eighteen from the nearest waterhole deep enough to float her, so they
left her there. She's there still, or else the man that told us about
it is the greatest liar Out Back.
Imagine the hull of a North Shore ferry boat, blunted a little at
the ends and cut off about a foot below the water-line, and parallel
to it, then you will have something shaped somewhat like the hull of
a Darling mud-rooter. But the river boat is much stronger. The boat
we were on was built and repaired above deck after the different ideas
of many bush carpenters, of whom the last seemed by his work to have
regarded the original plan with a contempt only equalled by his
disgust at the work of the last carpenter but one. The wheel was boxed
in, mostly with round sapling-sticks fastened to the frame with
bunches of nails and spikes of all shapes and sizes, most of them bent.
The general result was decidedly picturesque in its irregularity, but
dangerous to the mental welfare of any passenger who was foolish enough
to try to comprehend the design; for it seemed as though every
carpenter had taken the opportunity to work in a little abstract idea
of his own.
The way they "dock" a Darling River boat is beautiful for its
simplicity. They choose a place where there are two stout trees about
the boat's length apart, and standing on a line parallel to the river.
They fix pulley-blocks to the trees, lay sliding planks down into the
water, fasten a rope to one end of the steamer, and take the other end
through the block attached to the tree and thence back aboard a second
steamer; then they carry a rope similarly from the other end through
the block on the second tree, and aboard a third boat. At a given
signal one boat leaves for Wentworth, and the other starts for the
Queensland border. The consequence is that craft number one climbs the
bank amid the cheers of the local loafers, who congregate and watch
the proceedings with great interest and approval. The crew pitch
tents, and set to work on the hull, which looks like a big, rough
We once travelled on the Darling for a hundred miles or so on a
boat called the `Mud Turtle' — at least, that's what WE called her.
She might reasonably have haunted the Mississippi fifty years ago.
She didn't seem particular where she went, or whether she started
again or stopped for good after getting stuck. Her machinery sounded
like a chapter of accidents and was always out of order, but she got
along all the same, provided the steersman kept her off the bank.
Her skipper was a young man, who looked more like a drover than a
sailor, and the crew bore a greater resemblance to the unemployed
than to any other body we know of, except that they looked a little
more independent. They seemed clannish, too, with an unemployed or
free-labour sort of isolation. We have an idea that they regarded our
personal appearance with contempt.
Above Louth we picked up a "whaler", who came aboard for the sake
of society and tobacco. Not that he hoped to shorten his journey; he
had no destination. He told us many reckless and unprincipled lies,
and gave us a few ornamental facts. One of them took our fancy, and
impressed us — with its beautiful simplicity, I suppose. He said:
"Some miles above where the Darlin' and the Warrygo runs inter each
other, there's a billygong runnin' right across between the two rivers
and makin' a sort of tryhangular hyland; 'n' I can tel'yer a funny
thing about it." Here he paused to light his pipe. "Now," he
continued, impressively, jerking the match overboard, "when the
Darlin's up, and the Warrygo's LOW, the billygong runs from the
Darlin' into the WARRYGO; AND, when the Warrygo's up 'n' the Darlin's
down, the waters runs FROM the Warrygo 'n' inter the Darlin'."
What could be more simple?
The steamer was engaged to go up a billabong for a load of shearers
from a shed which was cutting out; and first it was necessary to tie
up in the river and discharge the greater portion of the cargo in
order that the boat might safely negotiate the shallow waters. A local
fisherman, who volunteered to act as pilot, was taken aboard, and
after he was outside about a pint of whisky he seemed to have the
greatest confidence in his ability to take us to hell, or anywhere else
— at least, he said so. A man was sent ashore with blankets and
tucker to mind the wool, and we crossed the river, butted into the
anabranch, and started out back. Only the Lord and the pilot know how
we got there. We travelled over the bush, through its branches
sometimes, and sometimes through grass and mud, and every now and then
we struck something that felt and sounded like a collision. The boat
slid down one hill, and "fetched" a stump at the bottom with a force
that made every mother's son bite his tongue or break a tooth.
The shearers came aboard next morning, with their swags and two
cartloads of boiled mutton, bread, "brownie", and tea and sugar. They
numbered about fifty, including the rouseabouts. This load of sin sank
the steamer deeper into the mud; but the passengers crowded over to
port, by request of the captain, and the crew poked the bank away with
long poles. When we began to move the shearers gave a howl like the
yell of a legion of lost souls escaping from down below. They gave
three cheers for the rouseabouts' cook, who stayed behind; then they
cursed the station with a mighty curse. They cleared a space on deck,
had a jig, and afterwards a fight between the shearers' cook and his
assistant. They gave a mighty bush whoop for the Darling when the
boat swung into that grand old gutter, and in the evening they had a
general all-round time. We got back, and the crew had to reload the
wool without assistance, for it bore the accursed brand of a
We slept, or tried to sleep, that night on the ridge of two wool
bales laid with the narrow sides up, having first been obliged to get
ashore and fight six rounds with a shearer for the privilege of
roosting there. The live cinders from the firebox went up the chimney
all night, and fell in showers on deck. Every now and again a spark
would burn through the "Wagga rug" of a sleeping shearer, and he'd
wake suddenly and get up and curse. It was no use shifting round, for
the wind was all ways, and the boat steered north, south, east, and
west to humour the river. Occasionally a low branch would root three
or four passengers off their wool bales, and they'd get up and curse
in chorus. The boat started two snags; and towards daylight struck a
stump. The accent was on the stump. A wool bale went overboard, and
took a swag and a dog with it; then the owner of the swag and dog and
the crew of the boat had a swearing match between them. The swagman
About daylight we stretched our cramped limbs, extricated one leg
from between the wool bales, and found that the steamer was just
crayfishing away from a mud island, where she had tied up for more
wool. Some of the chaps had been ashore and boiled four or five
buckets of tea and coffee. Shortly after the boat had settled down to
work again an incident came along. A rouseabout rose late, and, while
the others were at breakfast, got an idea into his head that a good
"sloosh" would freshen him up; so he mooched round until he found a
big wooden bucket with a rope to it. He carried the bucket aft of the
wheel. The boat was butting up stream for all she was worth, and the
stream was running the other way, of course, and about a hundred times
as fast as a train. The jackeroo gave the line a turn round his
wrist; before anyone could see him in time to suppress him, he lifted
the bucket, swung it to and fro, and dropped it cleverly into the
This delayed us for nearly an hour. A couple of men jumped into
the row boat immediately and cast her adrift. They picked up the
jackeroo about a mile down the river, clinging to a snag, and when we
hauled him aboard he looked like something the cat had dragged in,
only bigger. We revived him with rum and got him on his feet; and
then, when the captain and crew had done cursing him, he rubbed his
head, went forward, and had a look at the paddle; then he rubbed his
head again, thought, and remarked to his mates:
"Wasn't it lucky I didn't dip that bucket FOR'ARD the wheel?"
This remark struck us forcibly. We agreed that it was lucky — for
him; but the captain remarked that it was damned unlucky for the
world, which, he explained, was over-populated with fools already.
Getting on towards afternoon we found a barge loaded with wool and
tied up to a tree in the wilderness. There was no sign of a man to be
seen, nor any sign, except the barge, that a human being had ever been
there. The captain took the craft in tow, towed it about ten miles up
the stream, and left it in a less likely place than where it was
Floating bottles began to be more frequent, and we knew by that
same token that we were nearing "Here's Luck!" — Bourke, we mean.
And this reminds us.
When the Brewarrina people observe a more than ordinary number of
bottles floating down the river, they guess that Walgett is on the
spree; when the Louth chaps see an unbroken procession of dead marines
for three or four days they know that Bourke's drunk. The poor,
God-abandoned "whaler" sits in his hungry camp at sunset and watches
the empty symbols of Hope go by, and feels more God-forgotten than
ever — and thirstier, if possible — and gets a great, wide, thirsty,
quaking, empty longing to be up where those bottles come from. If the
townspeople knew how much misery they caused by their thoughtlessness
they would drown their dead marines, or bury them, but on no account
allow them to go drifting down the river, and stirring up hells in
the bosoms of less fortunate fellow-creatures.
There came a man from Adelaide to Bourke once, and he collected
all the empty bottles in town, stacked them by the river, and waited
for a boat. What he wanted them for the legend sayeth not, but the
people reckoned he had a "private still", or something of that sort,
somewhere down the river, and were satisfied. What he came from
Adelaide for, or whether he really did come from there, we do not
know. All the Darling bunyips are supposed to come from Adelaide.
Anyway, the man collected all the empty bottles he could lay his hands
on, and piled them on the bank, where they made a good show. He
waited for a boat to take his cargo, and, while waiting, he got drunk.
That excited no comment. He stayed drunk for three weeks, but the
townspeople saw nothing unusual in that. In order to become an object
of interest in their eyes, and in that line, he would have had to stay
drunk for a year and fight three times a day — oftener, if possible
— and lie in the road in the broiling heat between whiles, and be
walked on by camels and Afghans and free-labourers, and be locked up
every time he got sober enough to smash a policeman, and try to hang
himself naked, and be finally squashed by a loaded wool team.
But while he drank the Darling rose, for reasons best known to
itself, and floated those bottles off. They strung out and started
for the Antarctic Ocean, with a big old wicker-worked demijohn in the
For the first week the down-river men took no notice; but after the
bottles had been drifting past with scarcely a break for a fortnight
or so, they began to get interested. Several whalers watched the
procession until they got the jimjams by force of imagination, and
when their bodies began to float down with the bottles, the down-river
people got anxious.
At last the Mayor of Wilcannia wired Bourke to know whether Dibbs
or Parkes was dead, or democracy triumphant, or if not, wherefore the
jubilation? Many telegrams of a like nature were received during that
week, and the true explanation was sent in reply to each. But it
wasn't believed, and to this day Bourke has the name of being the most
drunken town on the river.
After dinner a humorous old hard case mysteriously took us aside
and said he had a good yarn which we might be able to work up. We
asked him how, but he winked a mighty cunning wink and said that he
knew all about us. Then he asked us to listen. He said:
"There was an old feller down the Murrumbidgee named Kelly. He was
a bit gone here. One day Kelly was out lookin' for some sheep, when
he got lost. It was gettin' dark. Bymeby there came an old crow in a
"`Kel-ley, you're lo-o-st! Kel-ley, you're lo-o-st!' sez the crow.
"`I know I am,' sez Kelly.
"`Fol-ler me, fol-ler me,' sez the crow.
"`Right y'are,' sez Kelly, with a jerk of his arm. `Go ahead.'
"So the crow went on, and Kelly follered, an' bymeby he found he
was on the right track.
"Sometime after Kelly was washin' sheep (this was when we useter
wash the sheep instead of the wool). Kelly was standin' on the
platform with a crutch in his hand landin' the sheep, when there came
a old crow in the tree overhead.
"`Kelly, I'm hun-gry! Kel-ley, I'm hun-ger-ry!' sez the crow.
"`Alright,' sez Kelly; `be up at the hut about dinner time 'n'
I'll sling you out something.'
"`Drown — a — sheep! Drown — a — sheep, Kel-ley,' sez the
"`Blanked if I do,' sez Kelly. `If I drown a sheep I'll have to
pay for it, be-God!'
"`Then I won't find yer when yer lost agin,' sez the crow.
"`I'm damned if yer will,' says Kelly. `I'll take blanky good care
I won't get lost again, to be found by a gory ole crow.'"
There are a good many fishermen on the Darling. They camp along
the banks in all sorts of tents, and move about in little box boats
that will only float one man. The fisherman is never heavy. He is
mostly a withered little old madman, with black claws, dirty rags
(which he never changes), unkempt hair and beard, and a "ratty"
expression. We cannot say that we ever saw him catch a fish, or even
get a bite, and we certainly never saw him offer any for sale.
He gets a dozen or so lines out into the stream, with the shore end
fastened to pegs or roots on the bank, and passed over sticks about
four feet high, stuck in the mud; on the top of these sticks he hangs
bullock bells, or substitutes — jam tins with stones fastened inside
to bits of string. Then he sits down and waits. If the cod pulls the
line the bell rings.
The fisherman is a great authority on the river and fish, but has
usually forgotten everything else, including his name. He chops
firewood for the boats sometimes, but it isn't his profession — he's
a fisherman. He is only sane on points concerning the river, though
he has all the fisherman's eccentricities. Of course he is a liar.
When he gets his camp fixed on one bank it strikes him he ought to
be over on the other, or at a place up round the bend, so he shifts.
Then he reckons he was a fool for not stopping where he was before.
He never dies. He never gets older, or drier, or more withered
looking, or dirtier, or loonier — because he can't. We cannot
imagine him as ever having been a boy, or even a youth. We cannot
even try to imagine him as a baby. He is an animated mummy, who used
to fish on the Nile three thousand years ago, and catch nothing.
We forgot to mention that there are wonderfully few wrecks on the
Darling. The river boats seldom go down — their hulls are not built
that way — and if one did go down it wouldn't sink far. But, once
down, a boat is scarcely ever raised again; because, you see, the mud
silts up round it and over it, and glues it, as it were, to the bottom
of the river. Then the forty-foot alligators — which come down with
the "Queenslan' rains", we suppose — root in the mud and fill their
bellies with sodden flour and drowned deck-hands.
They tried once to blow up a wreck with dynamite because it (the
wreck) obstructed navigation; but they blew the bottom out of the
river instead, and all the water went through. The Government have
been boring for it ever since. I saw some of the bores myself —
there is one at Coonamble.
There is a yarn along the Darling about a cute Yankee who was
invited up to Bourke to report on a proposed scheme for locking the
river. He arrived towards the end of a long and severe drought, and
was met at the railway station by a deputation of representative
bushmen, who invited him, in the first place, to accompany them to the
principal pub — which he did. He had been observed to study the
scenery a good deal while coming up in the train, but kept his
conclusions to himself. On the way to the pub he had a look at the
town, and it was noticed that he tilted his hat forward very often,
and scratched the back of his head a good deal, and pondered a lot;
but he refrained from expressing an opinion — even when invited to do
so. He guessed that his opinions wouldn't do much good, anyway, and
he calculated that they would keep till he got back "over our way" —
by which it was reckoned he meant the States.
When they asked him what he'd have, he said to Watty the publican:
"Wal, I reckon you can build me your national drink. I guess I'll
A long colonial was drawn for him, and he tried it. He seemed
rather startled at first, then he looked curiously at the half-empty
glass, set it down very softly on the bar, and leaned against the same
and fell into a reverie; from which he roused himself after a while,
with a sorrowful jerk of his head.
"Ah, well," he said. "Show me this river of yourn."
They led him to the Darling, and he had a look at it.
"Is this your river?" he asked.
"Yes," they replied, apprehensively.
He tilted his hat forward till the brim nearly touched his nose,
scratched the back of his long neck, shut one eye, and looked at the
river with the other. Then, after spitting half a pint of tobacco
juice into the stream, he turned sadly on his heel and led the way
back to the pub. He invited the boys to "pisen themselves"; after they
were served he ordered out the longest tumbler on the premises, poured
a drop into it from nearly every bottle on the shelf, added a lump of
ice, and drank slowly and steadily.
Then he took pity on the impatient and anxious population, opened
his mouth, and spake.
"Look here, fellows," he drawled, jerking his arm in the direction
of the river, "I'll tell you what I'll dew. I'll bottle that damned
river of yourn in twenty-four hours!"
Later on he mellowed a bit, under the influence of several drinks
which were carefully and conscientiously "built" from plans and
specifications supplied by himself, and then, among other things, he
"If that there river rises as high as you say it dew — and if this
was the States — why, we'd have had the Great Eastern up here twenty
years ago" —— or words to that effect.
Then he added, reflectively:
"When I come over here I calculated that I was going to make
things hum, but now I guess I'll have to change my prospectus. There's
a lot of loose energy laying round over our way, but I guess that if I
wanted to make things move in your country I'd have to bring over the
entire American nation — also his wife and dawg. You've got the
makings of a glorious nation over here, but you don't get up early
The only national work performed by the blacks is on the Darling.
They threw a dam of rocks across the river — near Brewarrina, we
think — to make a fish trap. It's there yet. But God only knows
where they got the stones from, or how they carried them, for there
isn't a pebble within forty miles.