Footsteps of the Jardines
Dateline: Cape York - August 1989
Top Pic: Crossing the Archer River.
125 years since the original 1864 Jardine expedition to Cape York (led by a young Frank Jardine), we followed their footsteps in what turned out to be one of the most challenging and exciting expeditions we've ever been on. For more on Frank Jardine and his incredible heritage on Cape York see, The Jardine Legacy, at the end of this yarn.
With us on this expedition was Grahame Jardine-Vidgen, the great grandson of Frank Jardine, a film crew and presenter from Channel 7's Morning Show, a mapping expert from Australian National Mapping (now Geoscience Australia) and a few of the staff from 4x4 Australia magazine.
Sponsors included, not only 4x4 Australia magazine, but Toyota Australia, Suzuki Australia, Mobil fuels and Zodiac boats. The story was to spread over three issues of the magazine, while more than a dozen crosses to the Morning Show and Ch7 evening news took place when we could get a connection - before there was great mobile satellite feeds!
Our small band of adventurers had gathered at The Lynd Junction (northwest of Townsville) where the pub is still reportedly the smallest in Australia. Anyway, as my diary testifies, it had cold beer.
Next day we headed to Carpentaria Downs station where we received directions to the original homestead, which at the time of the Jardine expedition was the outermost settlement of European habitation. Little remained back in 1989 - probably even less now!
From here, with the Suzuki DR200's scouting the way, we followed the Einasleigh River north-west. At one stage, while skirting a swamp we pushed through a band of dead reeds that towered over the vehicles where visibility was cut to just the end of the bonnet - it was driving blind in the real sense of the word. Stopping for a late lunch that day saw us on the edge of Jardine's Lagoon - the original expeditions Camp 111. That evening we camped close to another one of their camps, which is adjacent to the now well visited, Tallaroo Hot Springs.
North of present day Vanrook station we turned in a more northerly direction, paralleling the coast on these flat dusty plains. We passed through Macaroni, Dorunda and Inkerman properties and crossed so many sheer sided creeks and channels we lost count. Most of these crossings though were either dry or shallow, while it was the steep banks that gave us some impressive challenges.
Our procedure formulated into a pretty effective and fixed plan where the bikes would scout each side of the convoy looking for the best place to cross any stream or obstacle; We'd then modify the access to the creek if required and then we would send the lightest vehicles, a Hilux and a wagon across, (all vehicles had winches), while the heavily loaded Troopy with trailer and the ute with a trailer, would be the last across.
Still I remember when we got to the Nassau River crossing Grahame walked back to us saying, "Well, you might as well turn around - you'll never get across that!" That was like a red rag to a bull and hour later we had every vehicle on the northern bank. Still, it was nothing compared to what we were to encounter later.
North of Rutland Plains we entered the Kowanyama Aboriginal Lands and community where we met up with a team of local Land & Sea Rangers. We camped that evening at one of the best camping spots you'll find anywhere - at Shelfo Crossing on the Mitchell River. It was so good we camped here for a couple of days - modern travellers can camp here as well - once they have a permit from the community.
It was on the Mitchell River that Jardine and his men had their biggest and most dangerous confrontation and where some 30 or so Aboriginal people were killed in the subsequent battle and fire fight. With the help of our guides and some elders from the community we were taken to a remote spot that was said to be where a 'big mob' of their people had been buried. Whether it was those who were killed during the Battle of the Mitchell River, as Jardine called it, we couldn't find out and they couldn't ... or wouldn't ... tell us.
On remote tracks we found our way north to the isolated Kendall River station and again armed with local info we headed for the crossing of the Archer River and a route that took us north through a wedge of land between the Aboriginal land to the west and the national park land to our east and staying pretty close to the Jardine expedition's track. In fact, we had received permission to cross a short section of park land further north but we were to stay away from Merluna station, which was then owned by one of the real fiery characters of the Cape. Today the property has opened its doors to travellers.
Once at the Archer we knew we were going to be in for a torrid time. We first sent the bikes out again and once they had found the best spot to cross we set up lunch while others in the party started to get vehicles ready for the crossing. Again the lightly loaded Hilux was thrown into the fray, busting through the muddy banks of the creek and launching itself up the sheer bank on the north side. The Cruiser wagon followed with just a bit of winching required to get him up the bank and now with two winch vehicles on the north side of the stream and on top of the seven metre high bank, we could get the heavily loaded vehicles and trailers across. That took the rest of the afternoon with some pretty impressive winching set-ups and double line and triple line pulls.
The north bank though didn't make the best campsite being completely covered with tall spear grass with deep gullies cut into the soft earth. We parked vehicles here and there, cleared an area for the kitchen and the cooking crew, while everyone threw swags down wherever they could, being mindful that there were crocs around in this very remote area of Cape York. I'd hazard a guess and say nobody has been to this spot since! Still the thought of crocs didn't stop one of the Zodiacs being launched and a few people going fishing while others threw lures from the bank; there were some nice barra brought ashore for a sumptuous dinner that evening.
Next day our departure was forestalled when one of our crew ended up with a triple hook lure embedded in the back of his hand. The dramatic and painful operation to get four big hooks out of tendon, muscle and flesh was completely successful but not without a certain amount of angst at the time. Still, we had a couple of more nice barra to put in the Engel fridge.
While the hand operation was being carried out the bikes and one of the lightly loaded Troopy's were out blazing a way north (which they had started the evening before), but it wasn't easy as we were now in the middle of a vast wet swamp crowded with small spindly trees and cut by shallow fast flowing streams and boggy ground. Pushing through here we staked a tyre on the wagon (our 6th tyre for the trip so far) and changing that wasn't easy in the tall, grassy and wet muddy ground. Then we got to a creek where we all got bogged. Once we winched the first vehicle through we could snatch the other lighter vehicles, but the heavy rigs had to be winched. Again it took a few hours and it looked as if we'd be spending the night in the middle of the swamp.
It was with relief we came across an unmapped shotline and followed that north. Sadly though, and rather unexpectantly (GPS was in its early days back in'89 and we could only get a fix when we were stopped and only once or twice a day at that) it took us right past the Merluna HS. To say the owner was unhappy was an understatement and when he walked out with a rifle I sent everyone scurrying on while I wandered up to this fuming man, rather hesitantly I must admit, and attempted to placate him. Looking back I was either bloody crazy or full of baseless and unjustified bravado.
From here it was an easy run to Weipa and on to Stones Crossing on the Wenlock River where we had permission to enter one of Frank Jardine’s old stations, Bertiehaugh, and had access to the original homestead site complete with well and old garden arrangements.
After the challenges of the river and creek crossings further south the OTL line was a bit of a doddle, even dropping the rigs and trailers through Gunshot, my diary just noting it. We camped on the south bank of the Jardine River at the old vehicle ford. Once again the Zodiacs came out and for the next two days we explored the river that the original expedition had followed along its banks to the sea.
North of present day Bamaga and Jardine's Lockerbie we skirted the lakes of Sapaginya, Wicheura and Bronto, there fresh waters tempting on what was a hot windless day, but on closer inspection along the white sandy beaches of these 'perched' lakes, we decided they looked way to crocodiley!
At Vallack Point over looking a breeze ruffled sea our party pulled to a halt where the original expedition had also halted with their cattle. From here it's is a short run across grassy and tree-lined headlands and sandy beaches to Somerset, where Frank Jardine later made his home and headquarters for his cattle and pearling empire.
For Grahame Jardine-Vidgen, it was an emotional return to his birthplace (the last White person to be born at Somerset, as WW2 intervened and the family was evacuated, never to return) and we took a few pics standing at the old cannons that now grace the entrance to where the homestead once stood.
Down on the beach Frank Jardine and his wife's grave can be seen and with further exploration much more can be found. Again, it's a top spot to camp and we pulled up on the shores of Albany Passage and celebrated our achievements. It had been one hell of a trip!
The Jardine Legacy
Somerset, close to the northern-tip of Cape York, was founded in 1864 as a government outpost, a supply station for the passing shipping trade, a place of refuge and as a garrison town. Many saw and described it, including the Queensland governor of the day, as a new ‘Singapore of the south’.
John Jardine, a Police magistrate, was sent with a small detachment of marines and other government officials to establish the settlement while town plans were drawn up and blocks of land were put up for sale. At the same time John Jardine commissioned his two sons, Frank and Alec, then just 22 and 20 respectively, to bring a mob of cattle up from their family property near Rockhampton to the planned settlement, which would certainly be in need of the fresh meat.
Cape York at that time was a wild, trackless place with every report by visiting mariners, from the very first landfall in 1606 by William Janszoon, detailing conflicts with the local Aboriginal people. And only two land expeditions had penetrated this vastness: the 1844 Leichhardt expedition and the 1848 Kennedy fiasco. Both were attacked by Aborigines and had members killed, with Kennedy meeting that fate in the Escape River region of far northern Cape York.
The Jardine party, led by the young Frank, consisted of his brother Alec, a government surveyor, Archie Richardson, three White stockmen, four Aboriginal stockmen, nearly 50 horses and over 250 cattle.
There are good records of this journey as at that time Frank Jardine started a daily diary that was to continue for the rest of his life. As well, Richardson's diary of the trip survives. Jardine's version of the trek though was made into a published manuscript in 1867, ('Journal of the Jardine Brothers on the Overland Expedition from Rockhampton to Somerset, Cape York', edited by FJ Byerley), while in 1947 Ion Idriess wrote a book, 'The Great Trek', sourced once again from the Jardine diaries, that Idriess had access to around the 1920s.
The Jardine party left Carpentaria Downs, then the most northerly cattle station and European outpost in Queensland on the 11th October 1864. They followed the sweep of the Einasleigh River north and west, before picking up the Statten River and followed that almost to its mouth before striking north. As they approached the mighty Mitchell River Aborigines harassed them and on the 18th December a major fight took place that was later to become known as, 'The battle of the Mitchell'. By Jardine's own account about 30 Aborigines were killed.
By the end of January 1865 the now dishevelled party with only 12 horses remaining but still with 210 cattle were 'lost', like Kennedy before them, in the maze of continuous swamps that make up the headwaters of the Jardine and Escape Rivers. In the end they followed the Jardine River (called by them the Deception River) to its mouth before striking north and arriving at the tiny outpost of Somerset on the 13th March.
Reports of the day applauded the 'gallant trip' for the Jardines' had not only succeeded in getting through with the cattle, but had also done so without loss or injury of anyone in the party. Today, many are not so kind. Tim Flannery, author and noted professor, described the book and the battle in politically correct tones as, 'shameful reading'. But whatever your point of view, this was only the beginning of the story and the legend!
While Frank left Somerset soon afterwards, he returned by the end of the year to run the cattle station, which had been established and left in the hands of his younger brother, John. Three years later Frank was made Inspector of Police, the marine detachment having been formerly replaced by a 10-man police force. By June of 1868 he was made Police Magistrate, essentially the senior government post for the area and in this role he served, apart from a short time away, until 1873.
During those early turbulent years there was little peace on this remote frontier. A number of ships were wrecked in the Torres Strait with reports of survivors being killed by the natives, while Frank himself had a few close calls when camped out on his cattle property. Retribution was often swift and firm and there's no doubt that a number of natives were killed in these raids, but how many is a good question.
And from those times legends abound. One such story concerns a so-called white renegade, 'Wini', told in the Idriess' book, 'The Wild Whiteman of Badu'. He was reportedly shot dead from a police boat under the command of Frank Jardine sometime in the early 1870s. Still by the late 1870s there seem to be no further government reports of any massacres or killings in the Torres Straits or around the nearby mainland coast – some say due to Jardine's firm hand!
A courteous and congenial host though, Frank Jardine was visited by numerous ships captains, scientists, explorers, government officials and missionaries. And the Government Residency on top of the hill at Somerset was always a favoured stopping off point for any important personage passing through the Straits.
In late 1872 a missionary boat arrived at Somerset heading for New Guinea and on board was Sania Solia, a strikingly beautiful Samoan princess who had been trained as a missionary teacher. The 45 or so missionaries stayed some time at Somerset, partaking in the hospitality and sanctuary of the outpost, but Frank had quickly become besotted by Sania. If you believe the story as told in the book, 'Too Many Spears' by Peter Pinney and Estelle Runcie, when the mission boat suddenly left, Jardine chased them in his cutter, forcing the boat to heave to with a few accurate shots from his Terry carbine, before asking Sania to come back to Somerset with him. Whatever the case, they were married in October 1873 against the wishes of the missionaries and probably Frank's father as well.
At that same time Frank was dismissed under a cloud as Police Magistrate (he was later fully exonerated) but with a new Magistrate in charge, Jardine resigned from Government office and with his new wife sailed to Nahgi Island (Mt Ernest Is) to commence a pearling operation there. Pearl shell had been discovered in the Straits a couple of years previously and with an influx of boats and a number of unsavoury types the border of Queensland had been pushed north 100km from Cape York in August 1872, so some Government control could be implemented over this wide, wild area.
In 1877, the government moved its operation to Thursday Island, selling Somerset to Frank Jardine who returned there so he could run his expanding cattle and pearling enterprises. The first of four children, Alice, was born in 1878. She was followed by Cholmondeley ('Chum') in 1881, Bertie in 1884 and Elizabeth ('Jaki') in 1895.
In 1879, Robert Logan Jack, a government geologist, and his exploration party were attacked by natives at Captain Billy Landing, about 80km south of Somerset. Jack was speared through the neck but somehow managed to live and on arriving at Somerset was welcomed and nurtured back to good health – like many before him (as detailed in RL Jack's book 'Northernmost Australia'). In fact, at one stage Jardine had over 90 people from three different shipwrecks staying at Somerset. And yet the greatest tragedy was still to come.
In the meantime, in 1885-86, the telegraph line was pushed north to Cape York and Thursday Island and it was Frank Jardine who was in charge of supplying the northern construction crew with supplies. At that time he explored and named the Ducie River, establishing his furthest flung cattle station, 'Bertiehaugh', on its southern banks. By now he had a number of properties, which included 'Somerset', 'Lockerbie' (18km south of Somerset and a favourite) and 'Galloway', and with the growing European population in the Straits and on Thursday Island a market for his beef seemed assured.
On the night of the 28th February 1890 the worst single shipping disaster in Queensland history took place when the SS Quetta hit an uncharted rock off the tip of Cape York. The first survivors, including the Captain of the ship, reached Somerset next morning and immediately Jardine sent one of his men to the telegraph station, 30km away, to get a message to Thursday Island. Some of his other men were ordered south in boats to search the coast and islands for survivors, while land parties were also dispatched south. A ship passing through Albany Pass was waved down and also brought into the rescue operation.
In all, on that dreadful night and following day, 133 people died but 158 survived, with many of the survivors owing their lives to the prompt actions of Frank Jardine. For many years ships passing through Albany Pass would raise their flag or fire a salute in tribute to Jardine and his family's action on saving so many people.
In 1891, one of Jardine's pearling boats working the pearl beds far to the north, or so the legend goes, was washed across a reef into shallow water where the crew found the wreck of a Spanish treasure ship. They recovered, or so the story attests, over 700kg of silver from it. Part of a silver cutlery service (from the melted down silver?) still remains in the family's hands.
In the late 1890s another Cape York pioneer, Herbert Vidgen, arrived in the Straits and began working in the pearl boats. In 1899 he was on the mother ship Olive when the majority of the pearling fleet were caught by a cyclone at Princess Charlotte Bay and over 50 boats were wrecked and 300 men killed. Having survived that disaster, less than a year later he married Alice Jardine.
Still, in 1913 Frank Jardine was a tough spritely 73 year old, often riding a horse more than 50km a day and acting as the government's stock inspector for the region. That year he met 'Ginger Dick' Holland and soon after, offered him a partnership in his beloved Lockerbie homestead. Dick and his family were to stay there until the 1960s ('The Holland Family-Lockerbie-Cape York' by AM Hall).
In 1918 Frank had one of his last wishes come true when his son Bertie returned safely from WW1. It was as if he was waiting for him to return. Frank died less than a year later, in March 1919, and his beloved wife, Sania followed in 1923. Both are buried above the high tide mark on the beach at Somerset, their graves marked by a castle-like tombstone and shaded by whispering palms. So ended the life of one of the great legendary figures of northern Australia.
Copyright Ron & Viv Moon