Not being able to find a suitable craft to row down the Murray he made his own canoe in Albury out of the one tree he disliked the most; a gum tree! He finally set off, with a temporary companion down the Hume River on 5 April. Eventually the canoe was wrecked, most of his belongings lost, but he continued barefoot and alone walking the remaining distance to Adelaide. In his diaries he made notes of the hospitality of the bush people, which according to him could not be observed more conscientiously by an Arab.
He gave excellent descriptions of the Australian vegetation and its uses. Aborigines, often called blacks, savages, Indians or worse were also noted, particularly their customs and weapons. On 17 June he left the Murray, its Aborigines, wild life and food resources and headed for the Adelaide Hills and a change of clothes. When a finally reached them at Angas Park, he found that the land had been exclusively leased to Germans. He soon felt as though he was at home except for ‘those damned gum trees’.
Most of the Germans had leased the land for 14 years with the option to purchase at £4 per acre. (well above the average rate charged by other landowners or the government). Angas added 15% interest on the outstanding money and was not shy in confiscating property when payments had fallen in arrears. No wonder Mr GF Angas, the great benefactor, did exceedingly well for himself.
Wherever Gerstäcker looked he saw German wagons, German harnesses, German farm houses, German grandmothers, German hymn books, German dung-forks and even German door handles. His impressions of Tanunda were also faithfully recorded. From here he took the mail coach via Gawler, rattling over break-neck and nutcracker roads, to Adelaide.
There is also another account of a trip from Adelaide to Tanunda. This time it was on a mail coach owned by Chambers. It reveals a completely different Chambers from the one we have been reading about so far. Gerstäcker concludes his account with ‘Chambers naturally amasses a pile of money in this way and is therefore one of the most respected citizens of Adelaide…The Devil takes such scoundrels!’
Tanunda he reported as above all a little farming community with good land and hardworking people. Hundreds of the Lutheran farmers came out with next to nothing but already had small properties and had repaid Angas their ship debts, including the interest. From Tanunda he wandered to Buchfelde where the Schomburg brothers had settled and named it after Leopold von Buch. On his way back he was able to see Port Adelaide which he thought was one of the most miserable ports he had seen anywhere in the world.
His portrayal of South Australia’s capital is well worth reading, as is that of the Burra and Glen Osmond mines. The Government support for schools and churches he found most unusual but interesting. The Aboriginal School was also inspected and commented on. Having met Kavel and Lutherans he includes a discourse on religion. His weeks spent in the Barossa Valley proved to be the climax of his Australian tour. The knowledge gained here and in other parts of Australia would be of great interest to many Germans thinking about migrating to South Australia.
After his return to Sydney the gold rushes were in full swing and he was somewhat confused by the new language he now heard everywhere. Words like nuggets, cradles, licences, claims or expressions such as ‘a bloody fine day or a bloody bad road’ were used in every conversation. Gold mining was the only thing talked about. Once again he risked his life and booked a ‘seat’ on the Australian Royal Mail Coach for a trip to the fields and see it all for himself. This time his reporting was much more serious and he made several comparisons between California and Australia.
After a few days it was back to Sydney where he now had to wait a few weeks before his ship could leave for Indonesia via Torres Strait as most of the crew had bolted for the goldfields. During his enforced stay in Sydney Gerstäcker was able to enjoy himself but also used his time to sort his notes and start writing. On 4 October he reached Java and from there eventually returned to Germany.
Back home he continued his writing and had both articles and books published. As he wrote for a living he not only had to inform and educate his readers, he also had to entertain them. In 1860 he was off again for South America, followed in 1862 by a trip to Egypt. In 1867 he again visited America. From there he continued to Mexico, the West Indies and Venezuela. Being now in his mid-fifties he still travelled, but closer to home. His travel stories kept coming and were devoured by a legion of devoted readers, making Gerstäcker a household name for many years. He died in 1872 of a heart attack while organising his next trip.
As Peter Monteath points out; Gerstäcker's Australien offers drama, humour, suspense, excitement and a heightened sense of the exotic. Yet amid the exotic-and perhaps this feature lay at the core of Gerstäcker's genius-there was also and always the reassuringly familiar. Whether he was describing the Australian bush or the jungle of Brazil, a small piece of Germany was never far away. No other author united the familiar and the exotic as successfully as Gerstäcker did.
Review by Nic Klaassen
Australia by Peter Monteath, PB 306 pp, with index and end notes is available at $34.95, from Wakefield Press
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