“Lovely luck! Here I am aboard, at the moment when I had no desire to embark! That’s fine, life is safe … but where are we going on this unknown ship? …..”
Such was my monologue, hiding me as close as possible to the grove into which I had entered.
“Rest us first! … What a cataclysm! my God!…”
And I caught my breath listening with all my ears the sounds of the ship. I seemed to hear voices speaking French: it would have been too lucky! I listened again, but all the noise stopped: the hold was silent; so I fell asleep …
Suddenly a frightful creaking made me flinch; I open my eyes; it’s the cable, my neighbor, through which I went up there, who squeaks by the way … What do we do? … we go back, anchor with … so, we sail? …
Alas! Where are we going?…
Who knows? … An hour later, we were at sea, to the grace of God. That’s all I knew.
It was a long and difficult journey of almost three months: I did not even see my companions again. Were they killed? or did they miss the food they could find? I do not know. We were on a steamboat; So I lived day and night in the midst of the clatter of machines, the smell of oil and smoke. It was not pleasant for an ant. The only consolation I appreciated was the pleasure of enjoying a warm and excellent temperature, similar to our best sunny days in the spring. I feasted without saying anything by hiding myself, making myself very small, first to save my skin, then to find out where I was going. I could only learn it by chance and because they would not wary of me. I had to wait for chance and my address …
As for life, I found everywhere to eat: it takes so little to satisfy an ant!
Finally, because everything ends in this world! We come, of course, to a port, since I hear an anchor, stop and come to the wharf … Ah! ah! it’s time to open the ear …..
Customs officers, sanitary inspectors arrive on board …..
O unhappy destiny! Everyone is speaking English !!! … Alas, we neglected to teach myself this idiom in my Pora moor! How to do?…
“Lieutenant! a letter for you! …”
“Ah! ah! here is the French … Listen! …”
A tall man dressed as a postman, a leather bag on the side, a kind of boiled leather pot on his head, a leather belt and a leather case on his side appeared on the deck.
I arrived as soon as he did.
“Sir, a letter from the consulate.”
“Well! Give me.”
“I’ll wait for the answer, if your honour allows it…”
“Stay for a moment.”
“Devil! Devil! but it’s not French at all! Patience! Alas!…”
Soon the lieutenant went up.
“Give that to the consul…”
“That will be done, sir.”
“And you must say I am to go down to Melbourne tomorrow.”
And the man with the leather disappeared …
“Melbourne … It must be a city name! We are in Melbourne? … Melbourne? … But, it seems to me that I know this name … Pardieu, yes! we are in Australia !!! … Oh! It’s too strong! … and how to return to France, now that we are at the other end of the world! … Let’s see what this city is like … It’s in the province of Victoria, a new land of gold … south-east of Sydney … an old port of convicts coming from England … yes, yes, convicts!! …
Not flattered by these memories, I climbed one of the masts of the steamboat to see the city from above and try to guess what should be done on this sad occasion. I was in a very bad mood and when I reached the little hut that promised me a safe observation post, I raised my head … and I could not hold back a cry of admiration!
How! it’s Melbourne! a city born yesterday; she is not forty years old !!!
I found before my eyes an immense city, spread out in a beautiful plain, cut off from the sumptuous streets and revealing the domes of its buildings, its churches, its railways and, in the middle of all this, an admirable river, the Yarra in which we were and which, navigable in large ships, forms a basin of at least 12 kilometers wide. What a magnificent panorama! … At the inner end of this basin, the terrain changes and the banks of the river, raised but a few meters away, still form natural docks at the foot of green hills ready to welcome a new city.
We are near the golden field of Bendigo! I heard two French sailors talking about the placers and fortunes that were being made there … at the right time!
As for the coast I was glimpsing – at this moment, and, admiring the bay of Port Philippe, which we had entered, which is a hundred miles long and more than 60 feet deep, – the wooded coast reminded me the mountains of Provence, covered with olive trees and holm oaks. They were the same colors, the same monotony in which the eye rests on colors so sweet and so easy to grasp, that they seem invented for the pleasure of the spectator.
I did not tire of admiring myself, nor did I think of going down from my observatory, so that I spent the night there. Now that I had seen this great coast, admired this beautiful country, I tell myself that it would be very little intelligence to sulk against the curiosity, and not enjoy a counter-time already accepted by force, to continue the observations. There is no doubt that Australia contains interesting specimens, for me, of the great ant nation!
As long as it contains them! … because the settlement of its countryside is so different from the rest of the world!
Another question that comes to my mind: – How to cross this huge city to win the fields, the bush, as they say? … what ploy to invent? … Bah! let’s be on the lookout for opportunities! …
And, coming down from my observatory, I took my quarters on the bridge, among grapples and iron chains where no one was going to find animals that I could recognize on board: I had noticed all that!
The next morning one of our passengers – a Frenchman! – boarded the bridge, and soon his brother, a squatter from the colony, came to hug him. Immediately, I resolved to leave with him! I noticed among his luggage a little leather bag which he probably had to suspend from his shoulders by a strap; I took advantage of a moment when he placed it near me on the deck, to throw me into an open pocket on the underside. I found myself there in the company of his gloves and bread crumbs, of which I made my profit.
Everything was fine until then. I had to fear the contact of any hard body that could hurt me by the shocks or jolts that threatened me.
That’s how I left the edge!
Hardly on the ground, my companion mounted a beautiful and good horse that his brother had brought, and we left, not without jolts, through the streets of Melbourne. We traveled for an hour through the barriers that serve as a fence for newly sold land around the city, and it was only after 12 kilometers that we entered the bush, that is to say, the real campaign.
I had straddled the gloves, which filled almost the whole pocket in which I was, and from there, clutching well, I could see everything outside. The road we followed was only a trace made by the coming and going, a broad strip of land laid bare by the passage of horses, cattle, and the furrows of cars. Nothing more primitive!
We had walked well four hours: I could not take it anymore, because my companion often interrupted by galloping time the monotony of the road, when we arrived on the top of a hill where the brother of my host stopped the horses for show his companion the plantation where we were going. At our feet lay a little marshy plain; it was crossed by a brook, a clearing of which, in the midst of the great woods, signaled the course, and which was about to be lost in a much larger plain. This plain extended to our left, bordered by the Yarra, which flowed at the foot of wooded hills behind which stood out, higher and more vigorous of tones, the undulating chain of the Australian Alps.
It was a splendid panorama.
Nearby, the stream formed the boundary of the plantation, and we made our way to a small bridge that was used to cross it. Half an hour later we went down to the verandah of the house; I jumped to the ground and hid in the grass.
I had not gone a hundred paces in the meadow, which I stopped, amazed, before a singular caricature. Imagine an ant who, when walking, raises his abdomen so high in the air, that it bends and covers his back, above the chest! … It’s insane, simply! an abdomen has never been made to serve as umbrella !!
Finally, this is Australia; the land of singularities, almost impossibilities!
I recognized the ant that the scientists have named: the Crematogaster læviceps, which means: Belly hanging on a little head !! … I wanted to start a conversation with her; but she spoke incomprehensible gibberish, and seemed to me not very sociable towards strangers, while being very much opposed to her fellow-men; for my first care was to follow her to find out how her anthill was built. It is a real masterpiece! I saw them quite numerous on neighboring accacias, hanging from their low branches, in the form of balls as big as the head of a man, absolutely like the Negro’s head of Brazil.
That of Brazil, in fact, builds its ball so singularly that, all covered, outside, with small appendages, it recalls, to be mistaken, the frizzy hair of the children of Africa.
From below, the nest of my Crematogaster is very similar to the wasp’s nest of certain species: but I simply go up to the accacia to look more closely and I see that it is much more complicated. It is made up of a multitude of curved ramifications, mingled and coiled, all leading to the rooms and to the outer galleries.
I knew, on my return to France – for I returned there – that we still knew other species that used to keep their abdomen straightened; it is the ant Kerby (Myrmica Kirbii) and the extended ant (Formica lata). The first builds its nest on the branches of trees, like the Læviceps, but it consists of cow dung and it is used to give these materials the form of tiles that it ranges as on the roofs of human houses. This is not enough to reassure them against the weather: they know how to place, above their aerial anthill, a dome, or separate roof that projects all around in front of the circumference of the nest.
The second species which I mentioned attaches its nest to the largest branches of the trees; she also builds it in cow dung, but she mixes leaves.
Alas! I was not at the end of my astonishment and today, having returned to a deep tranquility, I go back in my mind all that I saw, I am obliged to note that nowhere does not exist anything of as extraordinary as New Holland. If we examine the trees, we perceive that they give no shade, although adorned with large and broad leaves, because these leaves, instead of presenting themselves horizontally, as with us, stand vertical or on the branch . This is why the thickest, most splendid forests, like trees of a prodigious height, are clear as in the field and show a soil filled with tall grass like a meadow. In Europe, under the trees of a high forest, it does not grow: the soil is bare, the day is dark, the air is fresh. There, the sun roasts you in the middle of the thickest forest, like in the middle of a Sahara!
Another oddity for us ants: all the trees that do not hold their vertical foliage bear leaves so cut up, so overcut, that they also provide no shade. All these plants have an extremely strong odor, some of them are very pleasant, but most of them smell of camphor or turpentine.
Moreover, all the plants and trees of Australia are evergreen: most bear long, slender leaves that hang like weeping willows and descend from gracefully curved branches. As for their color, it depends on the season, the soil and also the age of the trees. I found in the forests ferns in trees, formed of large parasols of inimitable richness. The shades of the green are of a richness, of a sharpness of which we have no idea: clearer than our trees. But add a limpid blue sky above, place beneath the warm yellow grounds strewn with bright yellow grasses that the dew hatches, illuminate all this with a splendid sun, and you will understand why I admire all day long !
The birds do not sing as in France; – there are much less dangerous for us – instead of the trills of the nightingale and the warbler, one hears only particular cries; but in number, there is a great sweetness, a plaintive and charming expression. What dazed me was the prodigious number of birds; no, never had the heath of Pora shown me such a spectacle! … They were everywhere, in squads, on the trees, pursuing each other noisily, adorned with their red, green, yellow feathers, etc. I was dazzled!
Now, will I say the weird animals I met in those campaigns where I spent more than a year trotting left and right before I could find the opportunity to return home? The first time I saw passing kangaroos, I thought I had in front of me a being having only two legs clean jump and a powerful tail.
One day, in the marsh, at the edge of a river, I find myself face to face with a still more singular being: it was a kind of big mole with short legs, the head ending with a bill of duck! I approach and I see that his legs, especially those in front, are webbed, like those of a water bird. He had a beaver tail … Soon he fled into a huge burrow dug behind him, and I see him come out, near the water, by two exits, but at a considerable distance!
What is this? A friend, since my return to France, has named me Ornithorhynchus paradoxus … Either! … Quadruped with bird beak would have seemed better in the language of red ants …..
I was not yet at the end of my surprises. I flattered myself that the anteater, our terrible American enemy, would never reappear in my eyes; not at all! an animal exists there that replaces it! …
One day, I was in an open place: I had climbed – I liked it a lot – on a long blade of dry reed, when children came screaming and holding an animal, the body rolled into a ball, reminds me of a hedgehog as big as a little dog.
“Nicobejan! Nicobejan!” shouted a boy.
“Jannocumbines!” … was singing another …
“Cojera! cojera !! well, beun!” said a young, curly negro.
What was this wretched animal, a toy of these pitiless children?
It was a spiny Echidna, our enemy, as dangerous as the anteater! Like that, his head ends in a kind of beak from which emanates a tongue as long, as well coated with glue as in the other. This head is attached to a porcupine body. The animal flees, in an open place, with such extreme speed, that nothing is more difficult than capturing it, especially since it is a burrower of such power that it enters the earth. as easily as if it were liquid.
“Don’t let it go! … We’ll lose it …”
“Bah! He would not sink so fast!”
“No? … try! The other day, my boss locked one in a paved courtyard: in ten minutes he removed the pavement and sank into the ground as in water …”
“He removed the cobblestones? …”
“Like feathers!” The master said that they had been ten times, twenty times heavier, he would have torn them all the same, because he passed between them the tip of his big nails.”
“You took it back?”
“Ah! wish! … How easy it is! … an animal that curls up and has only sharp spines like needles and that tear your hands! With that, when we want to take it, he rush on the behind legs to tear everything with his claws!”
“The ugly beast! Let’s kill it … !!!”
“No, fool! Do not kill it! Let’s sell it, we’ll get a good price from two or three curiosity merchants I know.”
“How to take it? …”
“Damn! … I do not know …”
“Let’s drag him on his quills.”
“You will kill him … and he will be worth ten times less.”
“Find a car … Will it pay? …”
“No doubt and well beyond …
“I go. Wait a minute!”
The child left on the side for the farm that was seen in the distance.
“As long,” continued the other, “that he does not like the one that the boss had put the other day in the box of his cab!”
“What did he do?”
“My dear, when he arrived, we could not, by any effort, stir him up. He was tied to the planks like a limpet on a rock, his head and muzzle hidden beneath his quills. At the end, the boss remembered that when we want to remove limpets we pass under a knife blade; he sent for a spade, passed it under the animal, and lifted it up. He began to bray in the box and we had a hard time taking him by one of the hind legs.”
“Without a doubt. This is the only place from where we can hold it! also, you can see that this is where I attached ours …”
The car came, the kids climbed the unfortunate echidna with the rope that held it and went to the farm.
I had had time to notice that both of them – he and the platypus I had seen – were males, because both had, at the foot of the back, a strong spur pierced to spread a liquor in the wound. The gland that provides it is even visible in both.
However, one and the other never use this spur and are absolutely harmless!
For what purpose do they wear it?