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Wrecked on a Reef

Chapter VII — Building of the Framework and Chimney of our hut - Visit to the west Channel, and to the Monument Island

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Chapter VII
Building of the Framework and Chimney of our hut - Visit to the west Channel, and to the Monument Island.

Having collected the materials necessary for the construction of our edifice, the next thing was to turn them to good advantage. On this point I was not without experience, and so I found myself in a position to be useful. During the last years of my residence in Australia, when it was likely I should remain any length of time in one place I was accustomed to replace the tent which I had at first erected by a more solid edifice. I used to build a hut with the trunks of trees, the bark of which served for the roof. To this I sometimes added a chimney of pebbles and baked earth.

While I was still too weak to engage in any manual labour, my companions, novices at this kind of work, and fearing sometimes lest they should spoil a piece of wood, sometimes lest they should not make the best possible use of it, came frequently to consult me. But after a few days I was able to join them and lend my assistance — I was at one and the same time architect and mason. In a week we erected the framework of our little house, after the following fashion:

At the four corners of a rectangle, which was twenty-four feet long by sixteen feet wide, four strong posts, shaped out of the schooner's masts, were planted in the ground to the depth of about forty inches. To prevent them sinking further into the peat, we laid a large stone as a foundation for each; then, with the view of steadying and strengthening them, we filled in the holes with very small stones, closely pressed together. Each post rose about seven feet out of the ground, and was notched at the upper end. These notches were intended to receive four horizontal beams, made out of the top-masts and lightest yards of the Grafton, and bound solidly together, as well as to the top of the posts, with stout cordage.

In the middle of the two narrower sides, and directly opposite one page 70another, we fixed two additional posts, stronger and longer than those at the angles. For this purpose we employed the mainyard of the schooner, cut into two equal lengths; the two posts being seven feet higher than the height of the beams. The bowsprit rested horizontally on their extremities to support the apex of the roof. It traversed the rectangle in the middle, throughout its entire length, at a height of fourteen feet.

In couples, and at equal intervals — about twenty inches — and fastened at one end to the bowsprit, twenty-eight rafters (fourteen on each side) leaned obliquely on the two long lateral beams, to which they were fixed at the other end by means of strong cordage. We had no nails, and made use instead of the rigging and shrouds of the schooner.

These rafters were supplied by the small mountain-pines of which I have already spoken. We had lost a great deal of time in seeking out those which were straight, in a country where all the trees, even the pines, are twisted.

This was not all. In the middle of the longer side of the hut — the side which fronted inland — two strong posts, planted a yard apart, while assisting to support the beam, served as a framework for our door. We made our entrance on this side, that it might not be exposed to the sea-winds. On the other side — turned towards the shore — were two similar posts: these were the framework of the chimney, whose construction occupied us the whole of the week following.

I confess that we were not expeditious, and that our work made slow progress: but consider how many obstacles we had to overcome. To the bad weather which incessantly impeded us; to the difficulty we experienced in obtaining materials, and afterwards in making proper use of them through our want of good tools; was added the necessity of hunting seals — which we made our principal food, in order to spare our small remaining stock of provisions — and all those indispensable domestic arrangements which fell upon us.

The construction of our chimney, moreover, was a troublesome business. The spot we intended for the hearth we dug out to some depth, and then filled up the cavity with stones, so as to prevent the peaty soil from catching fire. The outer angles of the body of it were made with posts bound to one another, and also to the rest of the framework, by crossbeams. We could not line the interior with wood; evidently stone and masonry were required. Therefore we picked out, among the rocky fragments with which the shore was strewn, the flattest and smoothest; and after removing them, not without difficulty, to our hillock, we built up the side-walls and fireplace. The former were stayed externally by a row of wooden pegs sunk into the ground.

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As we could not find any clay to serve instead of plaster, and cement the stones together, we found it requisite to invent a new kind of mortar. Equipped with the bags which had formerly been used to hold our salt, we wandered, therefore, along the sea-shore, and collected a great quantity of shells of every kind. These we calcined during the night, and next day found ourselves provided with a supply of lime. This lime, mixed with the fine gravel we found under the rocks of the beach, made a capital mortar for our mason's-work. But when the latter was finished, though I had used a palette of wood as a substitute for a trowel, I found the tips of my fingers, and nearly all my right hand, burned to the quick. The lime had destroyed the epidermis.

I was much pleased with the compliments I received from Musgrave, who showed great admiration of my work; but they could not make me forget the intense pain I suffered. However, constant application of fresh water, and a few dressings with seal-oil, soon cured my wounds.

The next business was the building of the chimney-pot. Four perches, twelve feet long, raised vertically, yet with a slight inclination towards one another, so as to form a kind of truncated pyramid at the summit, were fastened to the walls. They were held together by numerous cross-pieces, disposed like the steps of a ladder; and upon these we nailed, in the inside first, and afterwards on the outside, a double lining of sheets of copper.

This copper our two sailors, Alick and George, had stripped from the sides of the Grafton; a task not less troublesome than dangerous. Profiting by the very low tides which took place at the time of full moon, they reached the wreck, and, plunging into the water up to their waists, removed the sheets of copper with which the ship was sheathed. For this work they made use of an iron pincer, which I had fashioned out of one of the tringles of the four shrouds: I had flattened it, then split it up for a little way, and curved the end. While one of them, with this impromptu pincer, lifted off the sheets, the other carefully collected all the small nails which had fastened them. Of these nails we made use to fix the copper on the framework of our chimney.

Though they could not work above two hours at a time, in three tides George and Alick had stripped off enough copper to enable us to finish our chimney-pot.

"Sunday, January 17. Wind blowing from the north; sky cloudy and threatening; the barometer sinking."

For the last two days the temperature had been mild, but we had paid dearly for this short burst of summer. The shore had been infested by legions of tiny page 72
"In Three Tides George and Alick had Stripped off Enough Copper."

"In Three Tides George and Alick had Stripped off Enough Copper."

page 73black flies, hatched by the heat, and unfortunately they found the way to our hillock.

The sting of these insects was nearly as painful as that of a gnat or mosquito. Our faces and our hands were terribly swollen. They pursued us with so much eagerness as to insinuate themselves even under our clothes; and when once they had settled on our skin, nothing could make them loosen their hold. We might shake our arms to and fro, or blow upon them with all the strength of our lungs, they would not stir. They flattened themselves down, closed their wings in around their body, so as to take up the least possible space, and continued to bite us and to suck our blood with greedy violence. All we could do was to crush them when they settled; so we literally passed our time in slapping ourselves about the face and hands.

We had all the appearance of maniacs or epileptics. Every moment one or the other of us, tormented by the intolerable bites and stings and pricks, would leave off his work, throw his tool on the ground, and rub himself strenuously against the nearest post. Frequently the others would burst out laughing, and the patient also, though not without a grimace.

I observed that the flies deposited their larvae in a prodigious quantity on the refuse of the marine plants which the tide washed ashore. When we halted near one of these plants, or if we brushed against them in passing, clouds of flies instantly arose, and forced us to save ourselves in flight.

"Monday, 18. We have all been busy in the forest, selecting, cutting, and transporting to our hillock the straightest pieces of wood, to build up the walls of the hut. As these did not require to be so long as the rafters of the roof, we have had less difficulty in finding them.

"Tuesday, 19. This morning, the weather being somewhat more favourable, and the barometer rising, we took advantage of a light easterly breeze to make an excursion on the waters of the bay and visit the West Channel."

After breakfast, we launched our canoe, which we had furnished with mast, sail, and oars, as well as with our cudgels and my gun. Each took his sheath-knife and provided with a sounding-line, a compass, and a small memorandum-book, in which to record our observations, we went on board.

Opposite Musgrave Peninsula, at the mouth of the West Channel, lies a little island, or rather an enormous rock, whose summit is coated with thick vegetation. This islet is shaped like a wedge, whose loftiest side faces the bay. We called it Mask Island, because it is separated from the land only by a narrow passage, whose entrance, on the north side, is formed by reefs page 74nearly level with the water, and completely exposed at low-water. At the other extremity of the passage the sea is two fathoms deep. It is a spot sufficiently sheltered — open only to the south wind, which, however, when it does blow, blows with great violence. Under any other condition, a ship would find here a tolerably secure shelter. The bed is composed of sand and fragments of shells, mixed with mud: an anchor holds in it perfectly.

The compass here experienced a remarkable deviation, evidently caused by the huge black masses of conglomerate of iron pyrites which abound on the island and on the adjacent coast.

Having made these observations, we pursued our course to the westward.

The sheet of water taking that direction is from a mile and a half to three miles in width, according to the sinuosities of the shore, and about ten in length. On either shore, as well as in the water, we fell in with numerous herds of seals. Having reached the further end, we were roused to admiration by the wild and majestic beauty of the picture presented to our eyes. It was a scene worthy of Salvator Rosa's pencil.

Let the reader figure to himself a kind of ravine, about five hundred yards wide and three thousand long, pent up between two cliffs as perpendicular as walls, and from eight hundred to twelve hundred feet in height. The base of these immense rocks was hollowed with numerous caverns, into whose depths the waves plunged with hoarse wild murmurs, which, repeated in all directions, prolonged themselves indefinitely. This narrow channel is, in fact, a mountain-crevasse, and we may reasonably suppose that its existence is due to the same volcanic phenomenon which, while upheaving the group of the Aucklands from the ocean-bed, separated Adam Island from the mainland. The west wind dashes violently into it, and finally breaks upon a little isle, which, situated at the extremity of the already contracted inlet, divides it again into two small and very dangerous creeks. The northern one is extremely shallow; in the southern, which is about one hundred yards broad, the water, on the other hand, is very deep: but the current there, owing to the ebb and flow, is so strong, that the passage is impracticable for a sailing vessel. Only a steamer could attempt it with any chance of success.*

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To the little isle of which I have just spoken we gave the name of Monument Island, on account of its remarkable configuration. Upon a square base, it rises, by a succession of steps, like a pyramid, terminating in an enormous block, which is also square. It might be likened to a colossal mausoleum.

The sea-lions here are exceedingly numerous. As soon as they caught sight of the canoe, those swimming in the bay came forward to examine us. Almost in a moment a very considerable troop of these animals had surrounded our little boat. They were on this occasion much more audacious than on the day of our arrival in Carnley Harbour. Some of the larger, passing rapidly by us, attempted to seize with their jaws the end of our oars, of which, for some minutes, we were compelled to make dexterous use. One of them was audacious enough to spring out of the water and fix his claws in the bow of the boat, nearly capsizing it. A blow with the boat-hook, opportunely dealt by Alick, made him let go, and, uttering a furious roar, he disappeared beneath the waves. The indentations of his jaws were plainly visible in the gunwale of the boat. A few strokes of our oars, right and left, induced his companions to keep at a more respectful distance.

Finding a convenient landing-place at a certain point of the shore, we disembarked, and after hauling the canoe ashore, made our preparations for a noonday meal.

At no great distance from us, on a rocky projection, slightly elevated above the water, and extending into the bay in front of the creek, an enormous sea-lion, resting on his fore-paws, his head on high, the remainder of his body in the attitude of a crouching dog, followed, with an attentive but impassible eye, our every movement. His pose was truly majestic. His mane was bristling, and inclined forwards, and bore the traces of a recent encounter.

Our repast ended, we mounted to the summit of a gentle ascent, close beside the mouth of the creek, to enjoy more thoroughly the magnificent spectacle.

On descending to the shore again, we killed two seals, which lay asleep under the trunk of a tree. They were young — in fact, new-born — and weighing about ninety pounds each. We carried them on board the boat. Next day we cooked them, and found their flesh much superior to that of the young who, having given over suckling, have begun to feed on fish.

On our return, as the wind was contrary, we could not use our sail, and were forced to row a distance of ten to eleven miles. We reached our camp in the evening, overcome with fatigue.

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"It Might be Likened to a Colossal Mausoleum."

"It Might be Likened to a Colossal Mausoleum."

* The colonial steam-corvette Victoria is the only ship which has navigated this channel. It incurred great peril in doing so, and owed its safety to the power of its machinery. Yet, though urging its engines to their utmost maximum, it was barely able to stem the rapidity of the current, and made the passage with great slowness.