171. MacBAIN'S SPRINGS.       

"There was a quantity of different kinds of water, some tasting of ammonia, some saltish, and some putrid".
Ernest Giles. Australia Twice Traversed. Chap. 2.9 .

In early March 1874, Ernest Giles and his expedition were more or less stranded at Sladen Waters. Several failed forays to the west, one of them a near run thing, convinced Giles that he could make no further progress towards the west coast of the continent unless there was a change in the weather, "and I had hopes of rain at the approaching equinox". Meanwhile he and his most reliable companion to date, Henry Tietkens, would take a trip of opportunity to the east, they left Sladen Waters on the 10th of March and the following evening camped at Gordon Springs. They were not welcomed by the Aboriginals who set fire to the surrounding highly inflammable spinifex and their departure from Gordon Springs on the morning of the 12th got off to a dramatic start, "some aborigines made their appearance, and vented their delight at our appearance here by the emission of several howls, yells, gesticulations, and indecent actions, and, to hem us in with a circle of fire, to frighten us out, or roast us to death, they set fire to the triodia all round. We rode through the flames, and away." 

Later that morning Giles and Tietkens arrived at the gap in the Petermann Ranges where the Docker river flows north, they named the gap Livingstone Pass and continued upstream taking the more easterly of the two main streams coming from the south, this dry watercourse meandered in the direction of an unusual rock formation that Giles named the Ruined Rampart, "When nearly abreast, south, of this pinnacle, we found some water in the creek-bed, which was now very stony. The water was impregnated with ammonia from the excreta of emus, dogs, birds, beasts, and fishes, but the horses drank it with avidity. There was an overhanging ledge and cave, which gave us a good shade while we remained here, the morning being very hot. I called these MacBain's Springs."  Later the explorers continued east around the headwaters of the Docker and into the Hull river catchment, camping without water that night  in the vicinity of Mount Curdie, having travelled some 25 miles from the Ruined Rampart.

As far as Giles was concerned MacBain's Springs were notable for their unusual waters and magnificent scenery but would play no part in his grander plan of reaching the west coast. His directions to the water, nearly abreast and south of the pinnacle on the Ruined Rampart, were understandably casual and sufficient for his journal. But later explorers and prospectors had some difficulties with MacBain's Springs, not the least being its precise location, Giles had already warned that the natives in the vicinity were hostile by his fiery departure from camp on the 12th. In December 1905 the South Australian 'Government Prospecting Expedition' was travelling west from Mount Curdie, and nearing the Ruined Rampart, "and at one mile south of the Ruined Rampart struck a gum creek and met the prospectors, who reported plenty of water in two rockholes about one mile down creek, but difficult of access". F. R George, the leader of the expedition, concluded these were Giles MacBain's Springs and set up camp No. 41 on the 3rd of December.

The following day was make and mend and the usual camp duties with a near disastrous start to the morning when watering the camels, two of the beasts sliding on the smooth rock and into the waterholes but without injury, five feet of water breaking their fall. The 5th of December was spent in minor exploration in the Docker River catchment and that afternoon camp No. 42 was set up at the western end of the Ruined Rampart, from the summit George attempted a round of  bearings in difficult light, "Waited on top until nearly sundown in hopes of better light. Saw an unarmed native who came up without fear ~ He is a fine big man, about 50 years of age, but looks a dangerous character". Just after dark two, "fully armed", aboriginals were sighted about 50 yards from the camp and were warned off by Punch, the expeditions Aboriginal guide and interpreter. At 10.30 that evening the camp was attacked by three Aboriginals, from the attackers point of view it was a very successful raid, at no cost to themselves they had critically injured two members of the expedition. "Hall received a spear in the eye, which penetrated to below the barb to a depth of about 3 1/2in. the point going downward towards back of neck. Fabian was wounded in the chest just below the breastbone, the spear entering one and a half inches".

In a remarkable act of bush surgery and with considerable fortitude on the part of his patients, George successfully removed the spears and tended his seriously wounded men, but the expedition was immobilised at the western end of the Ruined Rampart until Hall and Fabian were fit to move. Five days later the fitness of the water at camp 42 prompted George send, "some of the party to see if they can locate McBain's Springs as the water here appears to be too close to the range to agree with Giles' position of the spring". George does not record any alternative being found although many other springs, soaks and rockholes were located through the headwaters of the Docker river over the following days. Fabian and Hall were well enough to travel on the 21st and that night the expedition camped near Mount Deering. Perhaps as a portent of events to come one of the expeditions camels died that morning.

In his foreword to Lasseter's Last Ride, Herbert Basedow alludes to an unfortunate end for F. R. George, and uses a later incident in his expedition as a dramatic example of the dangers of exploring and prospecting in central Australia, "Through placing to much reliance on positions and waters marked on the maps he carried, the late F. R. George, while leading a Government Expedition in 1905, suffered much hardship and narrowly escaped losing all his men and beasts of burden". The vicissitudes of his expedition so weakened Frank Rees George that he died of dysentery in Alice Springs early the following year. MacBain's Springs where his expedition suffered a major reverse is not mentioned in very early editions of Lasseter's Last Ride, although Ion Idriess infers prior knowledge that the place was on Lasseter's itinerary when he mentions Philip Taylor's letter of instruction to Bob Buck, "Mr. E. H. Bailey, the Secretary of the Company, asked me to withhold it pending the result of the second expedition".  The second C.A.G.E. expedition arrived at MacBain's Springs on the 18th of October 1931, the expeditions mining engineer, H. W. B. Talbot, noted, "we camped on a waterhole on a branch of the Docker only a mile from the western end of the 'Ruined Rampart'. According to George, whose journal we have, the water is McBain's Spring of Giles, but it is not a spring".

Talbot's possession of a copy of the journal of the 1905 Government Prospecting Expedition may have been an awkward surprise for the Baileys and certainly Buck and Frank Green, they seemed unaware of the journals existence when concocting Lasseter's itinerary using Ernest Giles maps as a tour guide. Talbot and his equally astute colleague, Torrington Blatchford, the Western Australian government geologist, would not have missed the fact that the 1905 expedition was forced to remain in the vicinity of MacBain's Springs for over a fortnight waiting for the wounded to recover and in that time the Docker river basin was thoroughly and expertly prospected for water and gold. By the 15th of December 1905 George was disappointed to write, All the surrounding country has been examined, and there is nothing worth prospecting, Twenty five years later Talbot agreed, in a low key fashion, "The country passed over did not strike one as likely to be auriferous". Talbot has done a service to history by ignoring the terms of his contract with the Bailey's and keeping his diary of the second C.A.G.E. expedition, he confirms the ineptitude of Buck, the suspicious manoeuvres of Frank Green and the calculated confusion and rumour spread by the Bailey's. The second C.A.G.E. expedition was a sham and a shambles.


R.Ross. 1999-2006

Giles, Ernest. Australia Twice Traversed. Chapter 2.9. Idriess, Ion. Lasseter's Last Ride. viii & ix, 242,243. National Archives Australia. Title, Aboriginal Reserve-Establishment of in Central Australia. Series No. A659. C/S 1942/1/265. folios 506-518 part report of the South Australian, Government Prospecting Expedition. Talbot, H. W. B. Diary, 1931 Expedition to the Petermann and Rawlinson Ranges. pgs 10&11.