A visit to Irrawang Vineyard
by Friedrich Gerstäcker
Narrative of a Voyage Around the World
From 1849 to 1852 Friedrich Gerstäcker travelled around the world, visiting North and South America, Polynesia and Australia. He experienced the California gold rush, crossed the South Pacific on a whaler, and wandered through Australia where he experienced another "gold rush".
From Sydney he travelled up the coast to Newcastle and then caught the steamer up the river where he visited James King at Irrawang............
By Friedrich Gerstäcker - published in 1853..........
Though I had been several weeks in Sydney I knew nothing as yet of the country Botany Bay excepted and hearing the neighborhood of Hunter's River some distance farther to the north praised very much I determined on going there as it was stated to be a very good spot for agriculture and emigration.
There seemed to be only a very indifferent land route to this place and passengers always preferred going by water as a steamer leaves every evening Sunday excepted for Hunter's River. There are three steamers for that river two iron ones the Rose and the Thistle and one old wooden boat. As the iron steamers are in every respect preferable passengers generally wait for these and with them the voyage out to sea again and up the coast to the northward is usually made in about twelve hours if there are no heavy head winds.
I started in the Rose a beautiful boat and after a passage of eleven hours reached the port of Neweastle at the mouth of Hunter's River The scenery was monotonous enough and Newcastle itself looked like a little town whose streets had been filled up by a sand storm which left the houses just emerging from it It must be a dreadful place to live in and I am sure only the rich coal mines in the neighborhood caused people to build even a hut.
From there we went up Hunter's River in perfectly smooth water; but even here the banks of the river did not display a single spot which the eye could rest upon with pleasure—low bushes and thickets, sometimes enlivened by a noisy swarm of white cockatoos or some gulls, skimming over the surface, or dashing from above upon their prey. But farther up there was a change for the better. Here and there on the banks little cultivated spots became visible; on the right bank there was even a really romantic cottage, half hidden in groves of orange-trees and Norfolk pines, through which the broad leaves of the tropical bananas were seen. The banana grows in some sheltered nooks, but does not often bear fruit. The farther up we went, the more the land was cultivated; and the open fields with dry trees left standing in them; the dark woods behind, and the low hills, made the country look very much like the banks of the Mississippi—at least, in some places; and with the one exception in particular, that Hunter's River never can be compared with the " Father of the waters."
Even the fields, with their fences, bore some resemblance to the American, as they grow here a great deal of Indian corn, not for bread, as in the western parts of the States, but merely for the use of cattle and pigs, the farmers here preferring wheat-bread to corn, which they may easily do, as they do not eat so much fat meat, bacon, and pork, as the backwoodsmen, for which corn-bread is always preferable. It being autumn in Australia, Indian corn was standing in the fields, but the land destined for grain was under the plow. I saw several plows, with four and six oxen before them, a certain sign of heavy land. Every inch of ground along the riverbank seemed under cultivation, these bottoms forming, as I heard afterward, one of the best ranges in New South Wales, for agriculture.
The boat stopped at a little village called Raymond's Terrace; and here I got out, as I intended visiting the farm of an English gentleman, Mr. James King, to whom I had some letters of introduction from Sydney. Mr. King lived about three miles from the river-bank upon a spot called Irrawang, an Indian name: and I crossed an Australian "bush," as they call it here always, where for the first time the Australian gum-tree met my eye, and I hurried on as quickly as I could to get out of sight of the houses, and fully enjoy all the new impressions such a moment ever imparts to man— or at least to myself; for I never yet entered the wilderness of another part of the world, unsullied by the hand of human beings, without feeling a hardly describable delight. And how much more here, when for years before so many wonderful things about the Australian bush had reached my ears, though I felt rather astonished at having yet met nothing extraordinary, after I had traveled in the bush at least five hundred yards. But to tell the truth, I had expected more of the Australian bush. I had not the least doubt that there were larger forests, for the hills here looked rather barren, and could raise no large growth of trees; but what I saw did not at all come up to my expectations.
The trees were slender and smooth, and looked well, but far too uniform to make a good impression; if the bark seemed to differ lightly, the leaves showed no variety, or, if any, very little. The tops look really all alike, and also belong mostly to the same species; the leaves are hard and dry, lancet-formed, with a strange oily taste, and the pendant bark of the white smooth trunks, which swings in large strips sometimes to the ground, or backward and forward in the breeze, tells the wanderer he is in the land where the wrong side is always uppermost. I felt particularly interested in the stringy bark-trees, from various descriptions, but I could not find a single good one here, the settlers always peeling these trees to cover their huts, with the bark, and for other purposes; the trees, of course, dying off as soon as they are stripped in such a way. Those trees look most singular which shed their bark voluntarily; and, like poor beggars in the old country, they stand with their ragged coats hanging in tatters around them, among their more decent relations—the stringy-barks, and the black-buts.
A differently-looking tree, also indigenous to Australia, is the casuarina, with its pointed and needle-like leaves, belonging, at the same time, to the oak species (it is called the she-oak in Australia.) In some parts, but only in parts, a cedar grows, with light wood; but the wood of all these gum-trees, and that of the casuarinas as well, is very heavy, and even small chips of the gums sink like lead in the water; nearly all the large trees, at the same time, are—some more, some less—hollow inside.
Toward mid-day I reached Mr. King's farm, and though he was not at home just then, I was received by his lady in a most kind and friendly manner. Mr. King came home toward, evening, and we had a long talk about colonization in Australia; and few could have given me a better account of it than such an old settler as himself, for he had been stock-keeping and farming many a long year in the bush of this country. At present he seems to have turned his attention principally to the culture of the vine; and what I saw here, and afterward in Adelaide of this, convinced me that Australia would some day become an extraordinary country for wine, New South Wales being no great country for agriculture, for, with the exception of a few valleys, the soil is very indifferent, and good crops can not be expected from it; but the grape does not want a better bottom, and the climate is excellent. I tasted, at Mr. King's house, a white wine, four years in bottle, which was equal to our German Hochheimer, or hock, as the English commonly call all the Rhine wines, and a red wine I thought also equal to our Asmannshauser. Mr. King intends to send samples of this wine to Europe; but though they may retain their body, I fear very much that they will lose a great deal of their flavor, as I have tried the experiment myself.
Next day, we took a ride together over his property. The soil is in parts tolerably good—very good, in fact, for pasture, though less so for agriculture—at least, the bulk of it, though one valley, in particular, produces beautiful crops; but the river-bottoms, of Hunter's and William's Rivers, which are exposed to the yearly floods, are much superior, though they are very small. Landowners in Australia follow a very good and sure course in letting their lands to poor emigrants. The conditions are equally advantageous for owner and tenant, for the latter have the land for the two first years perfectly rent-free, the improvements they make upon the soil being a good equivalent for the use of the ground, and afterward pay a moderate rent. These men, who would have made hardly more than their living by hiring themselves out as common laborers, are enabled to lay by some money, and have the chance of becoming, at some time, landholders themselves. There is only one disadvantage here in comparison with the United States of America. The government has fixed the price of land at one guinea per acre—and it is not even sold at that offhand; but as soon as there is an application for a certain section, the land is brought into market, and offered by auction for a guinea. If the land is of any value, the man who has hunted it up and thought of buying it, may be sure of not getting it for that price—it will rise to two, three, four, and more guineas an acre—while, if he gets it for that amount, he may be certain it is hardly worth having. In the United States, on the contrary, a poor man has more chances against capitalists, as he may squat upon any part of Uncle Sam's ground, provided the place is not already taken up by somebody else, while he can pay the Congress price, one and a quarter dollars, for the acre of ground right down to government, without going to auction first, and running the chance of being driven to a treble or quadruple price.
But on the other hand, Australia had, at this time at least— for I do not know what difference the gold discovery may make in after times in this respect—an advantage over the States for laborers. Hands are not wanted in the States so much as they are here, and, in consequence, not paid so well. In America, whither perfect crowds of emigrants are always flocking, farmers could get as many laborers as they pleased, and had the pick of them at a very moderate price: while the settlers, sheep-farmers, and stock-keepers of Australia did not really know what to do with their ground and fast increasing flocks, for want of hands to take care of things. Families are principally wanted, and the farmers had already gone to the expense of importing them from Germany and England. But I did not dare to judge yet about emigration to Australia till I had seen more of the country; and there was a good prospect of this soon taking place, for being rather tired of salt-water, I intended to go to Adelaide by land— a long, and, as I was told, a tedious journey of two or three months on horseback. I found two German families on Mr. King's farm. Their passage to Australia had been paid for them; and as they had been now two years on this farm, they had nearly worked it off. They did not like the quiet life in the bush very much, hearing and seeing nothing of the world around them; but they thought Australia a good country, especially for poor people who had not been able to make more than their living in the old country. The farmers of New South Wales are better off for laborers than those of Moreton Bay—a colony farther north. As there
There are no ships direct to the latter place, emigrants have to land first in New South Wales, or one of the southern colonies; and if they show only the least inclination of taking a trip to the north, they are directly told such dreadful stories about blacks and their cruelties, that they nearly always give up such ideas as perfect madness, and stay where they are. The Moreton Bay farmers were, therefore, all in favor of transportation, as they had no fanchance against the other colonies. Australian farmers have tried to import workmen from China; and I heard the delegates from Van Dieman's Land and Melbourne to the anti-transportation meeting, who were stopping in the Royal Hotel, argue about these Chinese, but they all seemed dissatisfied with them, and said any one that made the experiment would not take any more. Some do very well, but the majority seem not to have answered.
The settlers in Irrawang, and the neighborhood, were just on the point of establishing a national school, Raymond's Terrace being too far to send children, and they were collecting subscriptions for the purpose.
The Australian government is very liberal in all matters concerning education, always giving two-thirds of the costs toward the erection of a school-house—provided not less than thirty scholars are really proved to be in want of such a new school, so that only one-third has to be paid by the parents, and government at the same time gives a salary of £40 for a teacher.
The settlers of Irrawang are proud of possessing, before many others, a national-school—that is, a school not ruled by the clergy, but leaving the preachers to teach religion only on Sundays, or when the children are at home. Brave Cobden's enthusiasm for the reformation of schools—and the Lord knows they need it all through the old country as well as through the new—has found a fertile soil here, and Heaven grant England may untie the hands of the teachers, though I do not believe it possible yet. The Church has, as Gothe says, a good stomach; and what the clergy once gets hold of can not so easily be got out of their hands, much less a power over the education of the young, for they know best that through it they would lose, in the course of time, their power over the old as well.
I staid several days under Mr. King's hospitable roof; and I shall always remember this gentleman and his amiable lady with respect and admiration. I intended to go still farther up the river, and was provided, by Mr. King's kindness, with another letter of introduction to some gentleman near Maitland, but I missed the steamer that morning, the "Thistle," having had a fair wind, and arriving three quarters of an hour before her usual time. To go to Maitland now, I should have been obliged to wait a day longer, and then take passage in the old slow wooden steamer—therefore, not wanting to risk that (and as it turned out I was very glad I did not, for we had afterward a very strong southerly wind) I determined on going down the river with the "Rose" which arrived half an hour later from Maitland, instead of up; and that same evening, about ten o'clock, after a rather rough passage, I was again in Sydney, this being the third time I passed the heads, or the entrance of Jackson harbor, in the dark.