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Our Australian Cousins
Chapter XX

A trip to Lake Macquarrie—Beauty of the forest—First view of the lake—Boating and fishing—Our Charon—Destructive fishing— Pot-shooting—Want of a close season—Musk ducks—Black swans—The heads at the lake—Chinaman colonists—Scenery— Oysters—Their excellence and abundance—Present system of oyster culture crude and wasteful—Importance of' the industry— Plans in vogue elsewhere—What might be done in Australia— Present apathy and neglect.

As Sydney is possessed of a pet lion in her glorious harbour, so Newcastle possesses a masterpiece of nature's handiwork in the lovely Lake Macquarrie. The incessant query at Sydney—"Have you seen the harbour?" "What do you think of our harbour?"— gives place in Newcastle to the question, "Well, have you been out to the lake yet?" It is called the lake par excellence, and it is certainly a lovely spot. As a Newcastle man, I of course pinned my faith to the Lake, and had not been long in the coaly city before I took occasion to form an estimate of its superlative beauties from actual inspection. Speaking, then, as a Newcastle man, let me ask the reader to accompany me on a trip to Lake Macquarrie.

Leaving the dusty, dull, deadly city, therefore, to its petty squabbles and jealousies, its sins and its smells, we plunge into the bush, rattle through Adams-town, getting a glimpse of fine thriving breeds of white-haired children and curly-tailed pigs, as' we stop for an instant to inquire our road. On we go now through a winding labyrinth of prostrate trees and dense scrub, intermingled with patches of luxuriant fern and lovely arcades of evergreen creepers, festooning the forest verdure, till we breast the steep hill, and find ourselves in Charlestown.

Here we halt and refresh our thirsty souls with shandy-gaff, then on again we go, past trial shafts, a steep tramway, and all the busy evidences of mineral wealth and mining skill, and now the bush becomes truly sylvan, and speaks to every sense with a thousand-tongued voice of wondrous harmony and beauty.

Here are great waving clumps of flax-like leaves, at whose feet nestle delicate woodland flowers of most fragile loveliness of form and fairy extravagance of' hue—white blossoms nod at you from tiny pedestals. Blue-eyed violets and pink sprays peep at you from beneath a feathery fern. Straggling clusters of blue, yellow, and lilac wreathe the heathery-tufted tangle below, and the white aromatic bloom rests on the tops of the tea-trees like fleecy flakes of snow. In the dell to the right is a cluster of cabbage-palms and enormous ferns, and on the bole of an ancient tree a stag-horn fern has found a footing and flaunts his banner to the passer-by.

Every yard of the way discloses fresh woodland beauties, and were there only a decent road, the drive would be perfect; even as it is, it is most delightful. As we proceed, we see far to the left the glint of flashing wave, and hear the murmur and never-ending refrain of the throbbing sea, as it dashes against the base of Bedhead Point. As we top the last rise, we see a silvery shimmering sheen, flooding our eyes with a dazzling light-through the rays that dart athwart the trunks of the forest. It is a calm, placid scene of still beauty and utter rest, and with a sigh of pleasure you exclaim, "There lies the lake!"

It is not till you emerge, however, from the trees that the full beauty of the landscape unfolds itself. Right at your feet lies a magnificent reach of water; scarce a ripple disturbs its glassy stillness. The water is pellucid as a crystal spring, and you fancy the eye can detect the smallest weed in the cool grottoes and emerald haunts far below. A belt of the loveliest most delicate green—like corn-leaves when the first shoot emerges from the humid soil—circles the shore. This is streaked with bars of amber and gold, and patches of darker green, showing where the yellow sands invite one to ' try a cooling plunge, and the fantastic forms of the seaweed give cover to innumerable shoals of the frisking finny tribe. Further out lies the deep water of the lake, reflecting back from its bosom of deepest cobalt blue the rays of the fierce November sun, as from a polished disc of metal. The deep dark blue is beautiful. It harmonizes so well and yet contrasts so splendidly and abruptly with the pale green and golden belt, that it forms, in my opinion, one of the finest studies of colour about the whole place. Far to the left stretches the magnificent blue expanse. Bold bluffs and swelling undulations, clothed with the dark green uniform of the sombre bush, come down to the water's edge or rise abruptly from the strand; distant coves and creeks and inlets, and broad sheltered bays are fringed with the same border of forest green, and over distant hill and valley lies a bluish-purple haze; while a few fleecy clouds gently chasing each other to the southward, and an 'all-prevailing subdued summer hum from countless tiny " wood-notes wild," give a finish to one of the most perfect visions of quiet sequestered beauty it has ever been my lot to witness. Every ingredient of a landscape is here in perfection—bush, beach, rock, water, cloud. A sail is not even wanting to perfect the beauty of the picture, and the little ketch looks perfectly lovely as she slowly floats along, making for the Heads, beyond Pelican Island.

"We descend at Williamson's. Everything is trim, neat, clean, and cosy. The grape-vines look flourishing in the vineyards below, the paddock contains some sleek-looking cows and skittish calves, and down on the beach we see several handy, well-found boats, suggesting pleasant ideas of piscatorial sport. It is truly an arcadia of beauty, and a residence ab the lake is the finest tonic that the jaded and fagged city victim could take, to give a fillip to his system, and restore the faded vigour of mind and body.

Our horses are soon put up. An old acquaintance hurries up to greet us. Mutual inquiries and compliments pass.

"The boat is all ready below, sir."

"All right."

"Never mind lines; there are plenty in the boat."

"Ah, well, I must take my gun."

"Yes; you may get some ducks or swan, and I saw pelican this morning, but they're too shy now. There's too much shootin', ye see, sir, now-a-days, and they won't let ye get near them." .

By this time we are seated in the smart, clean boat.

"Do many sportsmen visit the lake, then?"

"Oh, you see, sir, there are so many new townships started round about lately, and every pot-walloper now can beg, borrow, or buy a blazing old gun; and, of course, work is sometimes slack, so the miners make up a "party, five or six on 'em together. They can get a boat—lots o' boats about Cockle Creek, and it's only three miles from Wallsend; so down they come, ye see, sir, an' they blazes away at everything they see— it don't matter to them whether they are within range or not."

"Well, but you can't stop men from following sport if they can get it!"

"Oh, no, sir; I wouldn't stop sportsmen, but I don't call them 'ere sportsmen. Why, bless ye, there's some on 'em as couldn't hit a haystack; an' then they never thinks o' shootin' fair. Now I think there ought to be some protection to birds when they are sitting, and the young 'uns ought to get fair play. Why, sir, the birds are goin' right away from the place altogether. I remember down by the Shoalhaven there, and the Illawarra Lakes, ay, sir, and on this very lake,, too, when you could go out of a mornin' and you could not see the water, it was that black with ducks. A few years ago a man could go out on this very water, and bring back his two or three dozen in an hour."

"Could he, really?"

"Yes, sir; and now he might go out for days and not kill a bird. They won't come to breed if they get no rest. Why, sometimes you'll hear them blazin' guns going night and day. In some parts to the south, when a saw-mill is started, a dozen hands or so gets about the place. They have never, maybe, seen a gun in their lives, so they buy some jumped-up thing off of an old pawnbroker, and there they are, set up as big as bull beef. Every minnit they ain't workin' they are blazin' at them onlucky birds, and they are skeerin' them right away from the country."

"That's very bad," I remark.

"Bad, sir? Lor' bless ye, that's nothin'; I've seen them get an old junk gun with a mouth like a cannon, and blaze right away among the ducks till the water was covered with 'em. More'n half was only wounded, and them they would kill with flails; and hundreds would get away, an' pine till the hawks boned 'em."

I probably looked astonished and a little incredulous, as I certainly was.

"It's gospel truth, sir!" said my comrade, who was getting rather excited, "and it's the same with the fish."

"How so? " I inquired.

"Why, sir, there ain't no fish now to what there was. There's no big schnapper in the lake now, sir, and where ye could take yer three and four dozen an hour a few years ago, ye may think verself lucky if ye catch a couple of little 'uns now."

"Well, how do you account for that?"

"Them Chinamen, sir. You see there's no one to stop them. Gentlemen like you won't be bothered to go to court and witness agin 'em. Then, even if they are caught, the fine ain't much. Well, sir, they're cunnin'; they watch an old fisherman, sir, till they where he gets most fish; then some fine night off they goes with their nets—an' such nets, sir! not a thing can escape them! They are small in the mesh, and forty or fifty feet in the bunt. They sweep everything before them, and I say it's unfair, and an infernal shame."

I have made inquiries, and I find every word my informant uttered .is true. Our wild fowl are disappearing fast, and the deterioration to our fisheries has already reached alarming bounds.

What is the remedy? Is it in vain to ask our murderous owners of guns to desist from their indiscriminate unsportsmanlike slaughter? We much fear vanity and ignorance are too much for the wild fowl, and humane motives are sneered at. Might not sportsmen's societies be formed as in other parts of the world, whose object it would be to secure a close season, and fair rules for both shooting and. fishing? [Since writing the above an Animals Protection Bill has been passed.] Experience and self-interest, no less than humanity, fair play, and loyal sport,— all call aloud for the observance of a close season. And if sportsmen themselves cannot secure it, then a gun-tax should be levied, and shooting out of season be made penal. Every true sportsman will agree with me; and as for those Cockney "gunnists" whose aim is only to burn powder, make a loud report, and frighten, if they can't kill, harmless kingfishers, woodpeckers, and others of the tiny feathered warblers of our bush, they ought to be put down vi et armis, and be scouted by every honest, loyal, good fellow, who has the atom of a sportsman's soul within him.

So with our fish. There should be more stringent rules and stricter supervision. This exhaustion of our fish supply is a very imminent and weighty peril. By a careless apathetic disregard of a plain duty; a reckless abandonment of an onerous responsibility; and a callous, careless indifference to great future interests Government are allowing our fine fishing capabilities to be ruthlessly destroyed, and are casting away a grand food supply, and certain source of a great future revenue and a splendid industry,—from want of the most common and simple precautionary measures.

To come back, however, to our cruise. We were now near the centre of the lake, Anderson's Point directly abeam, when my attention was directed to some large black objects on ahead. I was told they were musk ducks, and we steered for them at once. These musk ducks are rather large animals, with a brownish black plumage, and a shining, glossy black head. They are unable to fly, but dive and swim with great celerity. The only way to get a fair shot at them is to run them down if possible. If they get up under the bow of the boat, they seemingly forget their presence of mind, and, in their flurry, try to escape by scuttling along the water at a prodigious rate. They are then easily shot. We were lucky enough to secure one. We found it to be a male. These have a large glandular receptacle, not unlike a dewlap in oxen, which contains a quantity of very pungent musk. One pouch contains over several ounces occasionally.

Keeping free, we now bore down to a point where several of our Newcastle friends had established a camp. We were not fortunate enough to find them at home, but sundry empty bottles, battered tins, candle ends, and other debris, showed us that our friends carried a few of the more marked appliances of civilization with them. The camp presented a solitary appearance. Close by in the- hollow was a well where some pioneer had many a time slaked his thirst. It was quite close to the beach, and though the water within was sweet and wholesome, it yet rises and falls with the water of the lake, showing the hidden influences at work below the surface. Here we came on a clump of wild raspberries, which, so far as flavour went, proved to be Dead Sea fruit. Why is it that Australia's.wild fruits are all but tasteless? her wild birds all but songless? her wild flowers all but scentless? It is a strange problem.

A remark of mine, about leaving so many valuables exposed to the cupidity of any chance passer-by, elicited a strange outburst from our comrade.

"Ah, sir," said he, "them diggin's has done a deal o' harm. I remember when never a hut in the back country had lock on door. Everything was open, and, if anything was stole, Lor' bless ye! the whole back country would unite to hunt down the thief, and, if they caught him, they would crucify him.

"Ah, now, ye see, sir, when a diggin's breaks out. There's too many comes, do ye see, and all sorts too. . A man can't afford to feed whole crowds, and then he sometimes gets little thanks, and so it comes about that he had to stop keepin' open house, but it's the loafers does it. The right sort are always civil and honest, an' willing to pay for even a crust o' bread, but among such a crowd there's bound to be some bad uns, and they get the whole lot a bad name."

Our friend was unconsciously describing the inevitable advance from a primitive to a highly complex form of society. We could moralize on his pithy sentences, but we are on pleasure bent.

"Would you like to see the Heads, sir?" asks our friend.

"The very thing," we exclaim.

Re-embarking and leaving the lonely camp, we stretch across a glorious reach of lovely water. Hounding Pelican Island, we descried a flock of black swan stretched out en echelon, and all on the alert.

"Can't we get a shot?"

"No, sir, they're too wary; they will not let you come within range."

We have our old trusty tiger rifle in the boat, and determine to make a trial shot.

I took a long careful aim. The range was over 200 yards. Getting in line with a black clump, I fired into the centre of the swans, and had the satisfaction of seeing two floundering helplessly in the water.

"Well done!" cries my friend.

"Look-out!" shouts the boatman, fairly excited. "They'll come round the corner of the bluff, and you will get another shot."

My friend was ready with his gun, and, as the alarmed flock of swans came round with a graceful sweep, his piece went bang! bang!! and another long-necked one flopped helplessly into the water. We had then some long-range firing at pelican. The old rifle was very near a hit several times, but failed to score.

The sail down the channel to the Heads is lovely in the extreme. It is narrow, and shoals rapidly on either side. Chinamen's huts meet the eye half-way down the beach, with all the evidences of a busy fishing industry round the place. "An ancient and fishlike smell" pervades the atmosphere for yards around. Over the door are quaint Chinese figures and inscriptions, while inside an oil lamp burns before the joss or fane, and Chinese lanterns, curious carvings, tawdry spangled slips of pith and paper, are mixed in a jumbled-up heterogeneous manner with Brummagem clocks, tinware, steel forks, wooden spoons, and patent candles. It is a strange jumble. Outside was a trim garden, well stocked with vegetables, -and a host of cackling hens, looking plump enough to satisfy the greediest glutton.

Down by the heads the current sweeps over the bar, swift and clear, the surf thunders incessantly on the outlying rocks, and the sea birds, red bills, cormorants, gulls, and others, wheel and circle overhead in eddying, circling flight.

On our way back we were caught in a tremendous squall—the water hissed up under our gunwale as we careered madly along; and at one time we thought we should never reach the shore. We were bows under, and the boat half full. We were ably handed, however; and, barring a little wet, we were none the worse for our perilous experience.

But how shall I describe further the charming mornings, the calm delightful days, the magnificent evenings? Everything was lovely and still; and every moment free from care, unless when thoughts of printer's "copy" intruded themselves. Some of the sunsets were gorgeous—when the sun was sinking in his crimson bed, dipping his chariot of fire behind the blue and hazy ridge far to the west; the lake seemed then a carmine sea of blood streaked with bars of amber and deepest purple; while in shore the dark masses of the woods lay reflected in black, and cerulean blue, and hazy depths of grey. The colours chased each other from pearly opaline silvery tints, merging into gold, amber, and crimson, till the old sun would sink to rest, and the whole lake would lie buried in gloomy leaden hue beneath us.

To see the tempest king, too, gather up his forces, and riding on his cloud of storm, dart his lightnings athwart the gloomy lowering sky, while the wind hissed over the bosom of the lake, driving its waters into clouds of foam, was a no less magnificent spectacle. We were fortunate in seeing both phases in their extremes. There is no tameness, or sameness, or monotony here. The landscape varies as a woman's -moods, but an air of beauty ever hovers over all.

Like all the inlets, bays, estuaries, and shoal waters on the coast, Lake Macquarie produces very fine oysters. These delicious bivalves are no rarity in Australia. You can buy a sackful of them for a few shillings, but here again slip-shod legislation and shortsighted greed are doing their best to exhaust the native supplies of natives, and little has been done to supplement the natural beds by artificial "claires" or any system of oyster culture whatever. The Hon. Thomas Holt has indeed experimented long and enthusiastically in the George's River, and at Cook's River, near Sydney. His success has been such as to warrant the belief that this might yet under wise administration, practical skill, and experienced management, become an immense industry, equally profitable to the grower as to the owner of the sea-boards, be they private gentlemen or governmental board. At present a few men alone possess the right of oyster fishing. There are only the natural beds, and.these are worked at the will of the lessee, without regard to certain deterioration and eventual cessation of an oyster supply altogether. The toiling,'moiling fishermen to whom they sub-let their contracts, only get from three to four shillings per bag from the contractors. A bag contains about three bushels, or on a rough average about eighty dozen oysters. The wholesale buyers purchase a bag at an average rate of one pound sterling per bag. The average retail price is, we will say, one shilling per dozen, often much more, so that the public have to pay some three hundred per cent, more than a reasonable price for this wholesome and very favourite comestible.

There is perhaps no industry in the world capable of such quick development and speedy return in hard solid profit. Our natural advantages are second to none, but it is a well-known fact that our oyster supply is deteriorating fast, and stands in danger of failing altogether, and this simply from pure neglect and -mismanagement. In 1877, a Commission, of which Mr. Farnell, the late Premier, was a member, collected a mass of valuable information, from which the desirrability of passing a comprehensive Oyster Fishery •Act is clearly demonstrable. The first and most important step would be to have a close season for oysters. At home, by the Fisheries (Oyster, Crab, and Lobster) Act, 1877, a close time for Deep Sea Oysters is fixed from loth June to 4th August; and for all other kinds of oysters from 14th May to 4th August. This Act applies to England and Scotland, but not to Ireland. By the Sea Fisheries Act, 1868, fishing for oysters is prohibited from the 16th June to the 31st August inclusive, in that part of the English Channel comprised between a line drawn from the North Foreland Light to Dunkirk, and a line drawn from the Land's End to Ushant—the territorial seas of England and France alone being excepted. This close time, however, cannot be enforced till the convention between England and France, included in the Act, is ratified; and till that is done, the convention concluded in 1839, which prohibits oyster-fishing in these limits from 1st May to 31st August, is to remain in force so far as French fishermen are concerned. In Ireland, the Act 5 and G Vict. cap. 10G prescribes that no oysters may be caught between 1st May and 1st September, though this close season may be varied by the Inspectors of Fisheries. Some interested, and therefore prejudiced parties here in New South Wales seem to be bitterly opposed to the adoption of some such close season as the above for our oyster beds. The only reason—a very puerile and ridiculous one—being that they say the Australian oysters are different to those of any other part of the world.

Besides being absurd, this contention is simply incorrect. The same skill, intelligence, expenditure and care, which have established such splendidly profitable fisheries elsewhere, could do the same in Australia. At Baltimore, for instance, the oyster trade is so lucrative and important, that our resident consul there, in a statement furnished to Lord Clarendon in 1868 or 1870, tells us that even at that time the trade in oysters from that one port amounted to 2,500,000/. sterling; and further, the export of fresh oysters to northern ports from Chesapeake Bay was little short of an additional 1,000,000Z. It is the universal custom in Europe, and in America, from the Rio Grande y to the St. Lawrence, to have a close season of five months. Were it not for that, the beds, as our- beds are rapidly showing, would have been destroyed long ago. The capabilities of the Hunter River and other localities on the Australian coasts under a proper system are practically unlimited. At New York and Rhode Island, some time since, the beds were getting exhausted, so that lately new beds had to be made by putting down dry shell and forming artificial beds. This material we have here in any quantity, and it is the best for the purpose. Soft ground, such as prevails in the Hunter, forms beds of astounding produetiveness. Moderate yet reliable calculations show that in a very few years' time the Hunter River Oyster Fishery alone, conducted on the European or American scale arid model, would produce, in fresh and tinned oysters, an annual income of 300,000/., and afford employment to many hands.

The demand is constantly on the increase, not only in the neighbouring colonies, but all over the world. The quantities of preserved oysters that find their way into New Zealand, Tasmania, Victoria, Sydney, Queensland, and South Australia, are enormous, and represent thousands of pounds that might be realized by native industry. With a close season, a stipulation and gauge as to size, so as to exclude immature oysters, with proper supervision and careful management, this industry might become one of the most profitable in the colony. Inspectors for all natural beds should be appointed, and surreptitious fishing on artificial beds should, as in England, be declared a larceny. Wise regulations might be framed to grant leases, the present leases and monopoly to terminate. Fishermen might be made to pay a royalty to Government on each bag, and every encouragement should be given for the formation of artificial beds, by leasing foreshores and similar desirable sites on easy terms. The whole subject merits the deepest and most careful consideration.

There are, too, several kinds of migratory fishes that visit the coasts in the spawning season, of which little or no use is made. Of these, perhaps the sea mullet is the most important. The oil, spawn, and flesh of this fish may be estimated as at the present market value fetching 10/. per ton; and yet I have seen thousands rotting on the beach at Botany Bay, because the fishermen did not wish to cheapen the price in Sydney by an abundant supply, and were too ignorant, or indolent, to utilize the surplus quantity. This fish is perhaps the most valuable in the world, weight for weight, not excepting even the salmon, sturgeon, or sperm whale; and further, from it, under proper manipulation, good caviare is capable of being made. Now no use is made of this splendid natural source of wealth. It is capable of rivalling the Wick herring fishery, which, started at the end of last century, by the enterprise of Sir John Sinclair, has gone on increasing in importance until it now averages 800,000/., during a space of from eight to fourteen weeks per annum. In the Hunter River, Shoalhaven, Lake Macquarie and other places along the coast of New South Wales, there are abundant resources for the formation of a trade equal to that of Wick in the future. A Fishery Act is one of the crying wants of our industrial progress. I hope it will be taken up in earnest, and our whole fish supply, and more especially oyster culture be put on a basis in accordance with the lessons of experience, the teachings of science,, the requirements of the age, and a due appreciation of our wonderful natural resources, and the development of which they are capable.

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