A Haunt of the Jinkarras.
A Story of Central AustraliaIn May, 1889, the dead body of a man was found on one of the tributaries of the Finke River, in the extreme North of South Australia. The body, by all appearances, had been lying there for months and was accidentally discovered by some surveyors making a flying survey with camels. Amongst the few effects was a diary containing the following narrative, which, although in many places almost illegible and much weather-stained, has been since, with some trouble, deciphered and transcribed by the surveyor in charge of the party.
March 10, 1888. -- Started out this morning with Jackson, who is the only survivor of a party of three who lost their horses on a dry stage when looking for country; he was found and cared for by the blacks, and finally made his way into the telegraph-line, where I picked him up when out with a repairing-party. Since then I got him a job at the station, and in return he has told me about the ruby-field of which we are now in search; thanks to the late thunder-storms we have as yet met with no obstacles to our progress. I have great faith in him as a bushman, but being a man without any education and naturally taciturn, he is not very lively company, and I find myself thrown on to the resource of a diary for amusement.
Transcribed from the Dead Man's Diary.
March 17. -- Seven days since we left Charlotte Waters, and we are now approaching the country familiar to Jackson during his sojourn with the natives two years ago. He is confident that we shall gain the gorge in the M'Donnell Ranges to-morrow, early.
March 18. -- Amongst the ranges, plenty of water, and Jackson has recognized several peaks in the near neighbourhood of the gorge, where he saw the rubies.
March 19. -- Camped in Ruby Gorge, as I have named this pass, for we have come straight to the place and found the rubies without any hindrance at all. I have about twenty magnificent stones and hundreds of small ones; one of the stones in particular is almost living fire, and must be of great value. Jackson has no idea of the value of the find, except that it may be worth a few pounds, with which he will be quite satisfied. As there is good feed and water, and we have plenty of rations, will camp here for a day or two and spell the horses before returning.
March 20. -- Been inspecting some caves in the ranges, One of them seems to penetrate a great distance -- will go to-morrow with Jackson and take candles and examine it.
March 25. -- Had a terrible experience the last four days. Why did I not return at once with the rubies? Now I may never get back. Jackson and I began to explore the cave early in the morning. We found nothing extraordinary about it for some time. As usual there were numbers of bats, and here and there were marks of fire on the rocks, as though the natives had camped in it at times. After some search, Jackson discovered a passage which we followed down a steep incline for a long distance. As we got on we encountered a strong draught of air and had to be careful with our candles. Suddenly the passage opened and we found ourselves in a low chamber in which we could scarcely stand upright. I looked hastily around, and saw a dark figure like a large monkey suddenly spring from a rock and disappear with what sounded like a splash. "What on earth was that?" I said to Jackson. "A jinkarra," he replied, in his slow, stolid way. "I heard about them from the blacks; they live underground." "What are they?" I asked. "I couldn't make out," he replied; "the blacks talked about jinkarras, and made signs that they were underground, so I suppose that was one."
We went over to the place where I had seen the figure and, as the air was now comparatively still and fresh, our candles burnt well and we could see plainly. The splash was no illusion, for an underground stream of some size ran through the chamber, and, on looking closer, in the sand on the floor of the cavern we could see tracks like those of human feet.
We sat down and had something to eat. The water was beautifully fresh and icily cold, and I tried to extract from Jackson all he knew about the jinkarras. It was very little beyond what he had already told me. The natives spoke of them as something, animals or men, he could not make out which, living in the ranges under ground. They used to frighten the children by crying out "jinkarra" to them at night.
The stream that flowed through the cavern was very sluggish and apparently not deep, as I could see the white sand at a distance under the rays of the candle; it disappeared beneath a rocky arch about two feet above its surface. Strange to say, when near this place I could detect a peculiar smell as of something burning, and this odour appeared to come through the arch. I drew Jackson's attention to it, and proposed wading down the channel of the stream if not too deep, but he suggested going back to camp first and getting more rations, which being very reasonable, I agreed to.
It took us too long returning to camp to think of starting that day, but next morning we got away early and were soon beside the subterranean stream. The water was bitterly cold but not very deep, and we had provided ourselves with stout saplings as poles and had our revolvers and some rations strapped to our shoulders. It was a nasty wade through the chilly water, our heads nearly touching the slimy top of the arch, our candles throwing a faint, flickering gleam on the surface of the stream. Fortunately the bottom was splendid -- hard, smooth sand -- and, after wading for about twenty minutes, we suddenly emerged into another cavern, but its extent we could not discern at first, for our attention was taken up with other matters.
The air was laden with pungent smoke, the place illuminated with a score of smouldering fires, and tenanted by a crowd of the most hideous beings I ever saw. They espied us in an instant, and flew wildly about, jabbering frantically, until we were nearly deafened. Recovering ourselves, we waded out of the water, and tried to approach some of these creatures; but they hid away in the dark corners, and we could not lay hands on any of them. As well as we could make out in the murky light, they were human beings, but savages of the most degraded type, far below that of the common Australian blackfellow. They had long arms, shaggy heads of hair, small twinkling eyes, and were very low of stature. They kept up a confused jabber, half whistling, half chattering, and were utterly without clothes, paint, or any ornaments. I approached one of the fires, and found it to consist of a kind of peat or turf; some small bones of vermin were lying around, and a rude club or two. While gazing at these things I suddenly heard a piercing shriek, and, looking up, found that Jackson, by a sudden spring, had succeeded in capturing one of these creatures, who was struggling and uttering terrible yells. I went to his assistance, and together we succeeded in holding him still while we examined him by the light of our candles. The others, meanwhile, ceased their clamour and watched us curiously.
Never had I seen so repulsive a wretch as our prisoner. Apparently he was a young man about two or three and twenty, hardly five feet high at the outside, lean, and with thin legs and long arms. He was trembling all over, and the perspiration dripped from him. He had scarcely any forehead, and a shaggy mass of hair crowned his head, and grew a long way down his spine. His eyes were small, red and bloodshot; I have often experienced the strong odour emitted by aborigines when heated or excited, but never did I meet with anything so offensive as the rank smell emanating from this being. Suddenly Jackson exclaimed: "Look! look! he's got a tail!" I looked and nearly relaxed my grasp of the brute in surprise. There was no doubt about it, this strange being had about three inches of a monkey- like tail.
"Let's catch another," I said to Jackson after the first emotion of surprise had passed. We looked around after sticking our candles upright in the sand. "There's one in the corner," muttered Jackson to me, and as soon as I saw the one he meant we released our prisoner and made a simultaneous rush at the cowering form. We were successful, and when we dragged our captive to the light we found it to be a woman. Our curiosity was soon satisfied --- the tail was the badge of the whole tribe, and we let our second captive go.
My first impulse was to go and rinse my hands in the stream, the contact had been so repulsive to me. It was the same with Jackson. I pondered what I should do. I had a great desire to take one of these singular beings back with me, and I thought with pride of the reputation I should gain as their discoverer. Then I reflected that I could always find them again, and it would be better to come back with a larger party after safely disposing of the rubies and securing the ground.
"There's no way out of this place," I said to Jackson.
"Think not?" he replied.
"No," I said, "or those things would have cleared out; they must know every nook and cranny."
"Umph!" he said, as though satisfied; "shall we go back now?"
I was on the point of saying "yes," and had I done so all would have been well, but, unfortunately, some motive of infernal curiosity prompted me to say -- "No! let us have a look around first." Lighting another candle each, so that we had plenty of light, we wandered round the cave, which was of considerable extent, the unclean inhabitants flitting before us with beast-like cries. Presently we had made a half-circuit of the cave and were approaching the stream, for we could hear a rushing sound as though it plunged over a fall. The noise grew louder, and now I noticed that all the natives had disappeared and it struck me that they had retreated through the passage we had penetrated, which was now unguarded. Suddenly, Jackson, who was ahead, exclaimed that there was a large opening. As he spoke he turned to enter it; I called out to him to be careful, but my voice was lost in a cry of alarm as he slipped, stumbled, and with a shriek of horror disappeared from my view. So sudden was the shock, and so awful my surroundings, that I sank down utterly unnerved, comprehending but one thing: that I was alone in the gruesome cavern inhabited by strange, unnatural creations.
After awhile I braced myself up, and began to look about. Holding my candle aloft I crawled on my stomach to the spot whence my companion had disappeared. My hand touched a slippery decline; peering cautiously ahead I saw that the rocks sloped abruptly downwards, and were covered with slime, as though under water at times. One step on the treacherous surface and a man's doom was sealed -- headlong into the unknown abyss he was bound to go, and this had been the fate of the unhappy Jackson. As I lay trembling on the edge of this fatal chasm, listening for the faintest sound from below, I struck me that the noise of the rushing water was both louder and nearer. I lay and listened. There was no doubt about it -- the waters were rising. With a thrill of deadly horror it flashed across me that if the stream rose it would prevent my return, as I could not thread the subterranean passage under water. Rising hastily I hurried back to the upper end of the cavern, following the edge of the water. A glance assured me I was a prisoner -- the flood was up to the top of the arch, and the stream much broader than when we entered. The rations and candles we had left carelessly on the sand had disappeared, covered by the rising water. I was alone, with nothing but about a candle and a half between me and darkness and death.
I blew out the candle, threw myself on the sand and tried to think calmly. I brought all my courage to bear on the prospect before me, so as not to let it daunt me. First, the natives had evidently retreated before the water rose too high, their fires were all out, and a dead silence reigned. I had the cavern to myself, which was better than their horrid company. Next, the rising was periodical, and evidently caused the sliminess of the rock, which had robbed me of my only companion. I remembered instances in the interior where lagoons rose and fell at certain times without any visible cause. Then came the thought -- for how long would the overflow continue? I had fresh air and plenty of water, and so I could live for days; probably the flood only lasted twelve or twenty-four hours. But a deadly fear seized on me. Could I maintain my reason in this worse that Egyptian darkness -- a darkness so thick, definite and palpable as to be indescribable, truly a darkness that could be felt? I had heard of men who could not endure twenty-four hours in a dark cell, but had clamoured to be taken out. Supposing my reason deserted me, and during some delirious interlude the stream rose and fell again!
These thoughts were too agonising. I rose and paced a step or two on the sand. I made a resolution during that short walk, I had matches -- fortunately, with a bushman's instinct, I had put a box in my pouch when we started to investigate the cavern. I had a candle and a half, and, thank Heaven! my watch. I would calculate four hours as nearly as possible, and every four hours I would strike a match and enjoy the luxury of a little light. I pursued this plan, and by doing so left the devilish pit with my reason. It was sixty hours before the stream fell, and what I suffered during that time no tongue can tell, no brain imagine.
That awful darkness was at times peopled with forms which, for hideousness, no nightmare could surpass. Invisible, but still present, they surrounded and sought to drive me down the chasm wherein my companion had fallen. The loathsome inhabitants of that cavern came back in fancy and gibbered and whistled around me. I could smell them -- feel their sickening touch. If I slept I awoke from, perhaps a pleasant dream to the stern fact that I was alone in darkness in the depth of the earth. When first I found that the water was receding was perhaps the hardest time of all, for my anxiety to leave the chamber tenanted by such phantoms was overpowering. But I resisted. I held to my will until I knew I could safely venture, and then waded slowly and determinedly up the stream; up the sloping passage, through the outer cave, and emerged in the light of day -- the blessed, glorious light, with a wild shout of joy.
I must have fainted: when I came to myself I was still at the mouth of the cave, but now it was night, the bright, starlit, lonely, silent night of the Australian desert. I felt no hunger nor fear for the future; one delicious sense of rest and relief thrilled my whole being. I lay there watching the dearly- loved Austral constellations in simple, peaceful ecstasy. And then I slept, slept till the sun aroused me, and I took my way to our deserted camp. A few crows arose and cawed defiantly at me, and the leather straps bore the marks of a dingo's teeth, otherwise the camp was untouched. I lit a fire, cooked a meal, ate, and rested once more. The reaction had set in after the intense strain I had endured, and I felt myself incapable of thinking or purposing anything. This state lasted for four-and-twenty hours -- then I awoke to the fact that I had to find the horses, and make my way home alone -- for alas, as I bitterly thought, I was now, through my curiosity, alone, and worst of all had been the cause of my companion's death. Had I come away when he proposed, he would be alive, and I should have escaped the terrible experience I have endured.
I have written this down while it is fresh in my memory; to-morrow I start to look for the horses. If I reach the telegraph-line safely I will come back and follow up the clue. I have plotted out the course from Charlotte Waters here by dead- reckoning.
March 26th. -- No sign of the horses. They have evidently made back. I will make up a light pack and follow them. If I do not overtake them I may be able to get on to the line on foot. The stages between the water-holes on our way out were not very long, and I ought to manage it safely.
End of the Diary
Note. --- The surveyor, who is well-known in South Australia, adds the following postscript:—
"The unfortunate man was identified as an operator on the overland line. He had been in the service a long time, and was very much liked. The facts about picking up Jackson when out with a repairing party have also been verified. The dead man had obtained six months' leave of absence, and it was supposed he had gone down to Adelaide. The tradition of jinkarras is common among the natives of the McDonnell Range. I have often heard it. No rubies or anything of value were found on the body.
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