One of the pioneers of the Goulburn district lived near Taralga. He was an old Scot and he knew the aborigines. He was a lover of flowers and a man who learned to respect the blacks. He wrote nothing; he said but little. Very few of his friends knew that he had such knowledge of the bush and its people.
Some of the stories in this book came from him. His son Alex. got them, and even Alex. kept them to himself for a long time. No one in the Burragorang Valley knew more than Alex. of the stories of the natives, and few were better able to control the remnant of the once powerful tribes when they had learnt vice and cunning from the whites and became troublesome. The vice of the white and his cunning when added to the cunning of the black made a vicious compound, and for many years that compound is all that has been seen of the nature of our autocthonous predecessors.
Beneath it is still the gentleness and the softness of heart of these black people. These beautiful attributes were always below the surface, but if a white has the gift of sympathy and the spirit of understanding they rise to the top and the black is seen in another light.
Alex. sat on wild, wet, cold, winter nights before the fire with his mother. His father was still away somewhere on the rugged run with his cattle and with his black friends. Sometimes his staying away lasted for more than weeks, but never were Alex. and the mother unduly anxious for they knew that the blacks would lose their own lives if necessary to save that of their white friend. Then when the father returned he would sit at the fire too, and he would tell of what he had seen and what he had done, and always in the stories would be the mention of his companions-the blacks. Their legends as told were retold. Their beliefs, as they could be gauged, were recounted. But Alex. did not know their importance and he did not write them nor did he remember all of them.
This is one of a bush fire.
There was a time when the Australian bush was different from what it is to-day. Trees were bigger and their wood softer. There were more and bigger and brighter flowers. And the land-especially the mountains-was far more densely clothed with verdure.
But some change came, and it was not good for the land. Seeds failed to germinate, and where fertile tracts had been now desert appeared.
Somewhere away in the south, perhaps away over in Victoria, there lived a great king. His people were very numerous, for he had imposed his will upon other tribes than that which was his when he was first made ruler, and he had succeeded in welding them all together into one harmonious group. They revered him and all sorts of presents were laid by them at his feet.
Yet he never shirked work, and he took a place amongst the hunters just the same as if he were not a king. He must have come as far north as the Burragorang--if, indeed, he had not come further--for the Hunter River people have a story just like this.
Living in a valley between two mountains was a very small tribe-an unusually docile people. They were an offshoot of that tribe who owned the country at the head of Cox's River. The Powerful chief heard of them, and he determined to find out what they were like and add them to his subjects. So he set out by stealth.
Wrapping himself about with a wombat skin he came to the hiding-place. He was a very big man and he could not well conceal himself in so small a skin as that of a wombat-even the biggest of them. Therefore when he was within sight of the camp he hid behind a rock. He saw that the tribe were very busy just at the time cooking game by heating stones and placing them one after another around and upon the carcases. The handling of the stones was made easy by the wrapping of waratah stems about the fingers.
This wrapping of waratah stems to make a person immune from burns was so believed in by the blacks that they came to the first blacksmiths that they saw and offered them the twigs, indicating that if they would wear them no flying sparks could injure them.
Now amongst the people was one maiden of exceptional beauty. Some say that the reason for these blacks ostracising themselves was that many years before a beautiful woman wished her pretty baby to be called Krubi, and the other Krubi was not yet old. So the mother gathered her children about her and went away, and the family increased and increased, and always there were those quite beautiful enough to be called by the coveted name of Krubi.
But again it might have been because of the social system as explained in another legend that any portion of a tribe went further afleld and formed another and distinct group.
Anyhow, when the king saw this maiden he lost all his cunning, so entrancing was she, and jumping up without reserve he ran towards the people. They started up in fear and scattered in many directions. The king called to them not to fear him, but she did not understand his speech. The beautiful maiden soon found that the stranger pursued her, and her alone. She was very fleet of foot and very cunning, and by dodging and crouching she eluded him. Sometimes she was so close and so still, standing beside a tree, that he ran past her, and only by not hearing her crashing through the bushes and stamping on the twigs and leaves did he know that he bad gone too far. No sooner did he turn than she bounded off again.
There was a stream clattering down a gully and falling over boulders and ledges into pure cold pools, and towards that stream the girl now ran. She knew of some footholds close to a waterfall, and, indeed, sometimes even behind it, that led to a very large and deep pool, and outstripping the now panting king she reached it. Never hesitating she clambered and swung herself down, and reaching the bottom she swung over the last ledge and slipped into the water.
The king reached the top of the fall, and believing that his quarry could not have gone down there he retraced his steps. He went right back to the camping place and found it, of course, silent and deserted. So he returned to the people he had left and told nothing of where he had been and what he had seen.
As often as he could he went back, and though sometimes he saw some of the people, never did he catch sight of the girl. He went so often that the others grew not to fear him. They guessed his desire, and they aided the girl at all times to hide from him.
One day he overlooked the people who were unaware of the fact that from a neighbouring eminence the king could see them. They had grown so careless that they did not think of pitching their mia-mias where no one could see them from a distance.
And he caught a sight of the maiden of his desires. But she saw him and once more she had to run as if for her life. He did not hurry after her. Instead he got two dry sticks, and sharpening one on a stone he placed the flatter of the two on the earth before him, and putting the point of the other on it he rubbed and twisted it round and back between his palms until he had caused a fire to glow. He had dry ferns and grass ready, and placing them on the glowing spot he gently blew until the flame burst out. He added more fuel until he had a big blaze. The wind blew in the direction of the little tribe, and soon a great roaring fire was leaping and leaping and shooting out curling masses of consuming flame.
The girl saw it coming. The tribe saw it also. Away they all ran, bounding and crashing, but the fire came faster. It overtook some of them and they perished. On the blackened cleared ground the now wicked king followed. But he could not go fast. The smouldering sticks and rubbish were still hot. There were no waratahs growing just here for the waratah does not grow as profusely as, say, the gums, but in patches far apart. Hot as he was and suffering burns as he was still, he examined every body he came across, but they were none of them the one he sought. A last he came to two little heaps of clay. What was this? These heaps told to him a story. They were fresh. They were composed of the clay that the tribal doctor used to make the mystic markings, and the tribal priest used for the same purpose when he wished to invoke the aid of a Great Spirit. Who had used it? Not once had he seen anyone who looked like one who had been initiated into the doubly-hidden mysteries of the rite that gave power to invoke the Spirit. Surely the girl had not seen that corroboree. If she had, then not only could he never capture her, but he was himself lost.
And lost he surely was. For on looking behind him he found that almost as the fallen seeds of the trees were being consumed by fast or slow smouldering, they were bursting with new life, and plants were springing up in such profusion as to block his view.
In what direction had he come? Which way would he turn to go back? The smoke was so dense that he could not see the sun. The trees that lay over from the prevailing winds and gave some idea of direction were burning, and their small branches were gone.
Surely, he thought, this is the work of the maiden and she knew more than any woman was allowed to know.
He wandered on and on, the bush growing denser. He stayed sometimes to pick up something to eat, for burned and roasted game lay in his path, and succulent roots were cooked. He wandered for many days quite lost.
The girl had visited at night the tribe from which her family was an offshoot, and had come across the corroboree that taught her how to paint herself, and this she had done, and the charm was hers.
A new camping place was chosen by the few who escaped that terrible fire, and the year rolled away. The young plants flowered and their seeds fell, but the next year no new plants came up. This was noticed and talked about by all the people. Even on the river where a few of her people were now living no seeds sent out the little plumule nor their little radicle, and no new plants grew to grace the world with fresh flowers, nor to produce the roots nor fruits for food.
Again the maiden thought of beseeching the spirit. She went back to the old ground all alone and she found the clay. She painted herself and awaited results. She heard the spirit and she talked with it. Then she noticed that just before her a little smoke wreath curled up into the air. Then a flame burst, and in a very little while a fierce bush fire was raging.
The girl was satisfied that a fire was what was needed and she sent word to the river to say that all would soon be well with the world. That the seeds would germinate and new plants would grow up and flower and all would be gay as before.
Since that time bush fires do not need any mystic markings nor special communings by special people. Limbs of trees rub themselves hot on dry days and make flame. The hot sun shining on the mica in the rocks set fire to the tiny mosses that are dried there. And so without human agency the fires come that are necessary to make our Australian seeds burst into the life of a new and growing plant.
The black people knew this, and they were well aware that the seeds must be burnt and so this knowledge gave rise to the legend written here.