Thursday, April 24, 2014

A family's remarkable journey overland from Nhill to Mildura in 1901

The amazing story below was found while I was scouring through newspapers on Trove, researching the Geyer brothers (my Great Grand Uncles) for an Anzac Day blog.  The character recognition listed the author as M. Ocyer rather than M. Geyer, which is why it had not been discovered previously.  You can imagine my reaction when I started to read it, as I immediately recognised it as the story of my Great Great Grandmother, Edith Geyer, and her children.  This is only part of Edith's story of adversity and courage, which can be read here.

The article was written by my Great Grand Uncle, Melville Geyer, who would have been 6 (closer to 7) years of age at the time of the journey.

Source:  (click here to view article)
The Horsham Times, Tuesday 1st September 1931, page 6

Waggon Trip from Nhill 30 Years Ago
(By M. Geyer.)

The following is a description of a trip by waggon to Mildura from Nhill: It was in November, 1901, that Mrs. Smith (Edith Geyer), a widow with a young family of seven children - four boys and three girls - the eldest 13 (my Great Grandmother, Mabel) and the youngest two (Lily), decided to seek a living in Mildura, having heard that any child how ever small who could pick fruit off a tree, could earn 4/ or 5/ a day. 

Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 - 1954), Saturday 24 June 1899, page 26

Being in very poor circumstances she looked about for means of cheap transportation and heard of a Mr. Brown going to Mildura with his 5-horse team and waggon to look for work on the Mildura railway line. He agreed to take Mrs. Smith and family and her delicate brother (Abel Bound, who was later declared insane) up for the sum of £5. The route we were to travel was marked out for us by a friend, who had gone a few weeks previously. We left Nhill on (Saturday) November 16 and made for Jeparit, Lake Hindmarsh and Hopetoun. Then Mr. Brown decided to slip the line to Mildura instead of the other way. We crossed from Hopetoun to Minapin, now Lascelles, at that time a wine shanty and tents. A beautiful lot of pines grew where we camped overnight, but we did not have much sleep because of the noise of the drunks and the yelling of the woman who kept the shanty. 

We never took provisions or horse feed for long trips, as we were told there was plenty on the way we should have gone. We started up the line next morning; there was no road, just a stretch of white drift sand, and we toiled on all day, finding no water and having only our water bags full, which were soon empty.  We camped at Woomelang, where there were no houses, only another shanty and drunks. Mother went to the woman at the hotel to buy a drink of water for the baby, who was crying for a drink and she said, "No. I won't give you or sell you water. I pay to get it carted here. I'll sell you wine." But that was no good to baby. Next morning we moved on again,  but we were still without water and it was beginning to tell on the horses. 

The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), Thursday 5 December 1901, page 6

In the evening it was a joy to behold a large dam that had over flowed its banks. Just as we drew in and the men went to fill the water bags, 300 railway workers, with horses and drays, pulled in on the other side. They would not allow the men to fill the water-bags. Our driver and uncle told them they were going up the line to look for work, carting provisions from one camp to another or any other work they could find, but the men told them there was no room for them on the line. They told our driver there was a large tank about two and a half miles further on and grass up to the horses' knees. Mother and the children never showed themselves out of the waggon while at the dam. So off we went without water, expecting to find it at the next tank. Mother and uncle walked, one each side of the track so as not to miss the tank. The children by this time had cried themselves to sleep for the want of a drink. 

Although it was bright moonlight, there was no sign of any tank or water. Towards morning, however, a tank was sighted, and oh what a sigh of relief came from us. There was a wild rush to it, but what a disapointment when it was reached, for it only held about a cupful. The driver had first dip: then my uncle pushed him aside and dipped up what he could with a tea spoon and gave the children a few precious drops each; mother and he going without. (Perhaps it was just as well it was not full or we would have suffered from over drinking.) 

Then we pushed on again, travelling all day without water. Men may have their fancies for pets, but give me a dog, for men have not half the sense of a dog when it comes to finding water. Our dog, Bruce, used to jump up in the waggon and look up into our faces, as much as to say, "Please do give me a drink," but when he was told there was no water, he would just jump down. One evening he was missing from behind the waggon. We had just started off again in the morning, when he came and jumped into the waggon, the first time he ever did it while we were on the move. Uncle said, "Look out, he's gone mad." But he was sopping wet; he jumped down again, ran back to the edge of the scrub and started to bark. The men grabbed the water-bags and followed him. The dog led them to the tank we were looking for. Then we took the horses out and gave them a well-needed and earned drink and a bit of a feed. We boiled the billy and had a longed-for cup of tea, thanks to Bruce. Had it not been for the dog finding the water, we could not have lasted the day out, nor could have the horses. 

1901 Journey Route (approx 300kms over a week)
Less than 4 hours today.
Source:  Google maps

By this time we had reached the drift sand; the horses were knee deep in it. (Could this have been what is now known as Wyperfeld National Park, which is renowned for pines and sand drifts?)  The journey was telling on the horses, which were on short rations, as there was no place where we could buy feed of any sort for them. Our water-bag was the only thing we had to carry water in. Uncle by now could see how things were going, so he used to hide the bag and serve it out with a tablespoon. On we went, mother and uncle walking and keeping on the look-out for tanks; empty ones greeted us every 30 miles. I will never forget our approach to the Seven Sister Hills (the dread to motorists to-day). There was a fire raging on both sides of us; the heat and smoke were some thing unbearable. However those poor horses lived through it, God only knows. All the wild animals of the bush were fleeing along the track: dingoes, kangaroos, rabbits and even snakes going for their lives. 

Day was closing in on us, but still we toiled on. There was no water for the horses which were up to their girth in drift sand, swaying and moaning as they hauled their load, with their tongues hanging out; it was pitiful to hear them. Mother put the children to bed and continued to walk, although her feet were sore and blistered. As we were going over the third hill the waggon struck a root and all but capsized. Then the king bolt struck a stump and held fast. The driver wanted to hook the horses on behind the waggon and pull it back but mother and uncle hung on to the horses heads and would not allow him to move them another step that night. The animals were unyoked, and all the feed the five horses had that night was a small dish of chaff and 25 [lb] of flour. 

The men decided to walk on and see if there was any other track over the hills. Mother sat in the waggon ringing a bullock bell so as they would not wander away and get lost. Back they came towards morning. There was no other road. The men snatched a hasty meal and a few hours sleep. Then we were up at daylight. with hills in front of us and we stuck fast on a stump. The eldest boy (Arthur) had to crawl under and chop the stump off so as we could clear the axle of the waggon: this done, we tried cutting a fresh track around the hill, but this was impossible. There was only one thing left, go straight over the top. To do this everything had to be unloaded and carried up to the top of the sand-hill, then loaded in after the team reached the top. Then down to the bottom, unload again and carry up to the top: this was done till the hills were crossed. It was as much as the horses could do to pull the empty waggon over the sand-hills. 

An unlabelled photo from a family album is reminiscent of the Geyer's journey; the landscape, wagon,  billy and  the dog.
The Geyer's dog, Bruce, located water and saved the family's life.
Edith and the children, hid in their wagon whenever they neared groups of men (primarily railway workers).

Up till now we had been following along the track where the railway line was going to be put through. Mother and uncle decided not to follow this track any further. We met a man on horseback and he said, "If you see the[last]sign of a track leading off this one, follow it, but if you miss it, goodnight, because you will die of thirst." Mother walked one side of the track and uncle on the other. Mother noticed the track (only just a faint wheel-mark) so she waved to uncle and he rushed over, grabbed the leaders' heads and turned the outfit into it. Once in there was no hope of getting out for it was impossible to turn the team in the dense scrub. The driver swore and cursed, and threatened not to move another step. Mother and Uncle hurried on, leaving the driver to have his swear out. 

On the way mother climbed a leaning tree and on looking out above the other trees she could see horses and the bank of a lake. She was so overcome with joy that she just slid down, lay on the ground and cried as if her heart would break. Uncle tried to comfort her, told her to try and keep up and not to give in just yet as we may find water any hour now. She couldn't speak, only pointed up the tree. He climbed up and saw the lake and ran back to the driver yelling, "Thank God we are saved. There is water ahead. We're saved. We're saved." We hurried on, or rather what we thought was hurrying, as the poor horses had no hurry left in them by now. We reached the lake. which we found was Lake Hattah. When we were nearing it we could see hundreds of men and horses camped on the bank. Our men took the water-bags to get them filled, mother and the kiddies hiding in the waggon. The men were met with the head ganger (and if this man is still alive to-day, or any of the other men that were there, they can bear me out as to the condition we and the horses were in). Mother's and uncle's tongues were swollen to the roof of their mouths. The ganger said the man who passed us before had called in and told him that we were on the way and that we should be at the lake about 10 o'clock in the morning. If we were not there by that time, we would have missed the turn off and perhaps be dead by night. The ganger had just formed a search party to go out for us. We reached the lake about 5 o'clock. The ganger ordered the men away with the command not to touch the water. It was agony to see the lake full of water and not allowed to have a drink. The ganger had ordered the cook to boil the billy and make us a drink of tea. We had to shift our camp about half a mile away from the water. Later he brought over the tea and only gave us each half a cupful and it was over an hour before we got another half cup: then another half hour and so on till we had quenched our thirst. 

Edith's "delicate brother"
Abel Bound, who was
instrumental in saving
 the family.
The horses were looked after by some of the other men of the camp. The poor beasts, they only got a quarter of a bucket of water at a time until their kidneys worked. The horses did not get any food for some time. Afterwards they received a well-earned feed of chaff, bran and oats. 

He told us to camp for the night, but uncle told him he would rather push ahead on account of his sister and the kiddies. The ganger said. "Leave that to me. You can sleep in safety." He sat on a stump with a loaded revolver and said he would shoot to kill if any man moved towards the waggon. He sat there all night and kept guard. He told us that had we missed the turn-off and if we could have lasted out, we would have had to go through to Mildura before we got water. 

 We were on the move again at sun rise and we will never forget the beautiful sight we saw. There were thousands of birds of all colors feeding on the seeds under the pine trees. We went from Lake Hattah across to Culcairn Station and camped for the night on the river bank. There was nearly a drowning fatality there. My young brother (Ernest) walked in for a paddle, and only took one step, when down he went into the river; the peg-mark showed 16 feet above summer level. My sister (believe this was Mabel as I seem to remember this story being told by my grandmother) had the presence of mind to lay on the bank and grab him by the hair and hold on till my uncle and the driver came over and pulled him out. 

Kulkyne Station c 1900
Reg No: MM002690
I believe that Melville was referring to Kulkyne Station (written as Culcairn Station), near Hattah.

We called at the manager's house and inquired the way. He told us not to attempt to cross the billabong near the station, but to go two miles further down stream, as there was a safer crossing. He and his daughter had been into Mildura the week before and the water was running through the bottom of the gig. Our driver was pig headed: he would not go back. The manager told him to take out a horse and ride across and try the stream, but, no, he could drive over all right. 

Just before we came to the river, the whip came off; it was a God-send that it did. Uncle fixed the whip and got out on the shafts of the waggon to drive the leaders, so that the driver could keep the back pair up. In they went, with the water rushing over their backs. How those poor horses swam and pulled the load behind them will always remain a mystery. The water filled the waggon, everything getting sopping wet, also mother and us children. Uncle had his work cut out keeping the leaders going and balancing himself on the shafts. All you could see of the horses by the time we reached the middle of the stream were their heads. If anything had have happened we would have been all drowned in the swift-flowing stream. We got across safely and decided to camp there that day and dry our bedding, clothing, etc. as we could not make Mildura that day. When we came to have a look round, all our pots, pans, buckets and other things we had stored under the waggon were gone in the river. 

My Great Grandmother, Mabel Geyer (the eldest child of Edith Geyer), picking olives at Mildura
circa 1902-1903 - aged 14 or 15

We spent the day roaming round watching the goannas, and they were there by the hundreds in all sizes from infants in arms to ones up to six feet in length. We started out next morning (Sunday) for Mildura, the land where milk and honey were supposed to be flowing. We arrived there in the afternoon in time for tea. 

The heat and flies were something terrible all the way up; flies are bad in Egypt, but nothing like they were going up that track. When we left Nhill they told us that there were tanks every 30 miles apart; no doubt the tanks were there all right, but they were sunk down in the ground. The kangaroos, dingoes, rabbits and other animals, driven by the fire, plunged in to these and were drowned, so you can guess what the smell was like. 

We saw Mildura at its worst. First came the heat wave and scorched every thing; then the year following came the locust plague which stripped every thing. Things were bad and we were advised to leave, and we did. They told us Mildura was going broke, so we took the train back to Lascelles, then on by a covered van and three horses on a much better track. 

We have the pleasure of stating we were the first white family to travel over land from Nhill to Mildura.

They made it!
Edith Geyer with her children and first grandchild - 1911
Back: Arthur, Melville, Lloyd and Ernest
Front: Sophie, Edith Geyer (nee Bound), Lily and Mabel holding Eva Pilgrim (my grandmother)
It is more than 100 years since that remarkable journey. I am very thankful that my Great Grand Uncle,  Melville Geyer, returned from the war and told the story for future generations to applaude and recognise their struggle and courage.  I am in awe!

You can read more about Edith and her ANZACs by clicking on their names;


  1. WOW ! I must say, "they don't make them like they used to", most people nowadays complain it's all too hard if they turn on the tap (in the comfort of their own home) and nothing comes out for a couple of hours, they are on the phone complaining, or threatening some poor receptionist as though it is their fault. These people know what it is to have a will to survive. Thank The Lord for Bruce (the dog) early on in the trip, pays to have a four legged friend with a keen nose on a trip like that.

    My hat goes off to those pioneering people of days gone bye.

    Good find, and Great post Sharon.

  2. What an amazing journey! It is lucky anyone survived.

  3. Oh My Goodness. We take so much for granted. What a history. Thank you man's best friend.

  4. Sharon what a fantastic find! I was enthralled.
    Oh how easy we have it now, I'll never complain again!
    An amazing story and how lucky you are to have this account of their journey.
    Thanks for sharing it.

  5. What an amazing story. That's a terrible journey to have made. I'm glad they all made it. It's a wonder they didn't all go mad.

  6. An adventure story like this is a fantastic discovery. Your photos were a great addition too.

  7. I have such admiration for the strength of our ancestors We are so lucky. That was a heart-rending story.

  8. I can only echo everyone else's sentiments about this exciting discovery that was there all along, just indexed incorrectly.

  9. Thanks, this was the most amazing story I've read on Sepia Saturday...and it certainly gives a great account of a very strong family.

  10. What a journey, and how lucky you are to have found that newspaper account.