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A GLANCE AT THE EXTENT, FORM, SOIL, CLIMATE, RIVERS, AND PRODUCTIONS
USTRALIA is the largest island in the world, so large that it is A more correctly described as an island-continent, situated between the 10th and 45th degrees of south latitude, and the 112th and 154th degrees of longitude east from Greenwich. It may be said to be nearly three thousand miles from west to east, and two thousand miles from north to south, of a nearly square form, were it not for the deep indentation formed by the great Gulf of Carpenteria. But this superficial extent, which is sometimes compared with that of other continents, affords no true index to the area really available, or ever likely to be available, for colonization. A great portion of the interior is more hopelessly barren and impassable than the deserts of Africa, being in dry weather a hollow basin of sand, in rainy seasons a vast shallow inland sea, alternately and rapidly swelled by tropical torrents, and dried up by the tropical sun.
Comparisons are frequently instituted between the relative areas and populations of Europe and Australia ; but nothing can be more fallacious or dishonest.
The resources of Australia have been as yet barely discovered ; a century of active colonization can scarcely develop them to their fullest extent. Even without the appliances of science and combined labour a vast population may be subsisted in comfort ; but, without some change more extensive and material than it is possible to foresee, there can be no such dense multitudes concentrated in Australia as are found in the more civilized states of Europe, and as may be found at some future period in North America. The absence of great rivers and the means of forming inland water communication, and the quality of a great proportion of the soil, settle this point.
The surface of this island is depressed in the centre, bounded by an almost continuous range of hills and plateaux, which, varying in height from one to six thousand feet above the level of the sea, in some places approach the coast and present lofty, inaccessible cliffs to the ocean,-as, for instance, the heads of Port Jackson, and in others tend toward the interior of the country, at a distance of from twenty to eighty miles ; but, these elevations being all of an undulating, not a precipitous, character, no part of the country can be considered strictly alpine.
The features of the country on the exterior and interior of this range differ so much as present the results of climates usually found much further apart, especially on the eastern coast, where between the mountains and the sea, as, for instance, at Illawarra, Port Macquarie, and Moreton Bay, the vegetation partakes to a great extent of a tropical character ; and on the rich débris washed down from the hills we find forests of towering palms and various species of gum-trees (Eucalypti), the surface of the ground beneath clothed with dense and impervious underwood, composed of dwarf trees, shrubs, and treeferns, festooned with creepers and parasitic plants, from the size of a convolvulus and vine to the cable of a man-of-war. These dense forests, through which exploring travellers have been obliged to cut their way inland at the rate of not more than a mile or two a day, are interspersed with open glades or meadow reaches, admirably adapted for pasturing cattle, to which the colonists have given the name of appletree flats, from the fancied resemblance between the apple-trees of Europe and those (Angophoræe) with which these glades are thinly dotted.
Within the ranges, on the other hand, are found immense open downs and grassy plains, divided by rocky and round-backed ranges of hills, and interspersed by open forest without undergrowth and detached belts of gum trees (Eucalypti acaciæ), presenting a park-like appearance, which, advancing towards the interior, are succeeded either by marshes, or sandy and stony deserts, perfectly sterile and uninhabitable, except by a few reptiles and birds which prey upon them.
The rivers of Australia are few in number, and insignificant in a navigable point of view. The one series, rising from the seaside of the mountain range, flow deviously until they reach the coast, seldom affording a navigable stream more than twenty miles inland, usually rushing down with such rapidity during the rainy season as to fill up their seamouths with a bar which excludes all except boats of slight draught of water. The other series, falling toward the interior, are lost in quicksands, marshes, or shallow lakes ; after a course varying from a score to many hundred miles of zigzag current, now flowing with a full, deep stream, and then suddenly diminishing to a depth of a few inches, or even totally and suddenly disappearing.
The Dutch colonists in South Africa have terms by which they express the exact value of flowing water, whether perpetual or intermittent, whether a mere rivulet or a deep stream; but there are no
words invented in the English language which convey a correct idea of Australian waters. The two terms most in use are creek and river, the former being an arm or branch of the latter. But an Australian river, even when marked by an imposing coloured line on a map, giving according to proportion an idea of a Rhine, a Danube, or a Thames, is generally a chain of pools, varying in dimension from a few yards to a league in diameter, which are, with a few grand exceptions, according to their respective depth and proximity to mountains, reduced to an absolute or comparative state of mud in dry seasons, or united into a deep, still stream, or roaring torrent, after a few hours of tropical rain.
The brother of the writer rode down, on an exploring expedition during a season of drought, with a fellow-squatter, in search of fresh pastures, and discovered the River Barwen, flowing bank high, as broad as the Thames at Richmond, winding along plains which, as far as the eye could reach, were covered with rich grass higher than the necks of their horses. As they rode along, ground pigeons, grass parroquets, and quails rose up in thousands; and from time to time flocks of emus thundered past, while kangaroos bounded swiftly away, and from the river rose clouds of waterfowl. There seemed game enough to feed an army, and grass enough for tens of thousands of live stock. Yet he lived to see within a few years the grassy plain burned to a sandy desert, and the great river shrink to a chain of shallow pools, in which it was difficult to find water enough for a hundred oxen.
The deep pools, called colonially “waterholes," and the winding course pursued by all the Australian rivers, economize the supply during the long droughts, and at the same time distribute it over a considerable part of the country. Thus the Hawkesbury, one of the earliest rivers navigated by the settlers, is not more than thirty-five miles in a direct line from Windsor, where it is navigable to Broken Bay, and where it flows into the sea ; but its tortuous route is one hundred and forty miles, and higher up its windings are still more remarkably circuitous; while the Murray, the greatest river of Australia, rising on the western flank of the Australian alps, after a much longer course, in which it receives the waters of the Ovens, the Darling, and the Murrumbidgee, by which name it is known for part of its course, ends in the broad shallow lake of Alexandrina, in South Australia.
Until the later explorations of Mitchell and Leuchardt hopes were confidently entertained of discovering an inland sea, and a great navigable river, flowing to the northward ; but these hopes are now exploded, and it is certain that on land conveyance the chief Australian communications must depend.
A great diversity of climate prevails in Australia, varying with the latitude and the height from the sea. Van Diemen's Land, with its more isolated and more southern position, enjoys more rain and the irrigation of many streams. In certain districts of Australia, especially between the 25th and 35th degree of latitude, the thermometer frequently rises to 110°, 120°, and even 130° in the shade, while hot winds sweep over the country from the sterile, burning plains of the interior. This great heat is unaccompanied by night-dews; and droughts of many months' duration occur at uncertain intervals, and are of uncertain extent, during which rivers and waterholes are dried up. The settlers who have not yet imitated the costly construction of tanks and aqueducts, or even the more simple and successful contrivances adopted in peninsular India and in Asia Minor for collecting and husbanding rain and spring water, suffer dreadful straits. The pastures become parched deserts—the sheep eat the grass to the roots—the waterholes are poisoned by the bodies of cattle suffocated in sloughs when struggling for drink, and thousands of stock of all kinds perish either before moving or while on the road to districts which the drought has not affected. It is during these droughts that almost all the great discoveries of new pastures have been made by enterprising stockowners and their servants.
But after a time, which no man, white or native, can calculate, rains fall in torrents, grass springs up abundantly, “and the plains, on which but lately not a blade of herbage was to be seen, and over which the stillness of desolation reigned, become green with luxuriant vegetation.” The rivers and creeks fill with marvellous rapidity; a roaring flood rushes down the lately dry bed of a stream, overflows the banks, and carries all that impedes its progress in white foam before it. On such occasions the Hawkesbury has risen ninety-five feet in a few hours; and in 1851, in the Maneroo district, the sites of townships recently laid out for sale by the government surveyor were converted into deep lakes, and a whole camp of aborigines were drowned.
The ravages of the drought and flood are quickly replaced in a climate so favourable to the increase of live stock, and in a very short time the losses and the dangers are forgotten. These afflictions were of a more serious character in the early years of the first colony, when but a comparatively limited part had been explored. At present plenty in one colony or one district counterbalances the droughts or floods of another.
At a height of two or three thousand feet above the level of the sea a temperate, and even cold, region is to be found, where the
vegetables, fruits, and grain of Northern Europe flourish, and the settler or traveller finds the necessity of warm clothing, and the comfort of blazing fires.
But in all the varieties of temperature found in Australia the climate is, with the exception of the burning plains of the interior, congenial to Europeans : even the tropical regions of the coast are free from those fevers which decimate white men visiting the Indian seas and the African coast.
The soil of Australia varies even more than its climate. Of the whole extent a very large proportion is hopelessly barren, but still enough remains capable of supporting a very numerous, and in some districts a dense, population. There are no data for calculating with such a degree of accuracy as would be useful the proportions of available land in the occupied districts. It will be safe to assume that two-thirds of the land worth occupying is only, and will only be, fit for pastoral purposes, and can no more be profitably cultivated than the limestone hills and moors of Wales, Derbyshire, Yorkshire, and Gloucestershire, or the Highlands of Scotland.
Of land fit for agricultural purposes, and sufficiently clear of trees to be put under plough at a reasonable expenditure of labour, there is enough to support a population to be counted by millions, but continually intersected by barren ranges and forests of scrub, which can never be of any value except for firewood.
On the coast to the northward, between Port Macquarie and Moreton Bay, are vast tracts of well-watered land, on which the soil is excellently adapted for various crops, but so covered with heavy timber that nothing less than the old system of convict-clearing gangs, or of free grants to clearing parties, will bring them into cultivation in this generation, although well placed for water conveyance to the seaport towns. On the other hand, in Port Phillip there are plains on which the plough might be driven for one hundred miles in a straight line, turning up a furrow of rich mould along the whole tract; and the other two colonies can present similar instances, although not to the same extent, or so near the seacoast.
The soil of Australia presents as many anomalies as its configuration and its animal and vegetable productions.
In other parts of the world the most fertile tracts are generally found near the mouths of rivers ; in Australia the greatest fertility usually commences where the navigation ceases. In Europe the valleys will generally be found full of rich soil; in Australia some of the richest mould is to be found on the tops of hills. The low hills formed