One of the most wonderful of Australian flowers is the New South Wales variety of Gymea or Gigantic Lily (Doryanthes excelsa). This huge red bloom of ours is, as its variety name implies, the most gorgeous of the Doryanthes genus in this country.
The legend the natives have about it is as follows:-
One still, hot day in a summer of ages and ages ago, a tribe of aborigines found sustenance in a river-bed that lay at the bottom of a wooded ravine. The whole season had been droughty, and the water was hardly running at all. Yet there were holes, and great wide holes too, wherein the water was so deep that no one knew of any tree that would reach down to the bottom. Stones thrown in fell with a heavy, full-sounding splash and were sucked down and down. In those murky depths were huge eels and giant fish, and occasionally one or other came to the surface and fell a victim to the spears of the black men. The great towering, rock-girt side of the river gave many hours’ shelter from the burning, blazing sun. That side with the easterly aspect was clothed with many myrtles and much Macrozamia and Chorizema and bracken fern. Quite a number of the dainty, feathery Christmas Bushes (Ceratopetalum gummiferum) shone gorgeous and red amid the myrtaceae, and rearing high above all the undergrowth were the giant eucalypti-the Eucalyptus Smithii with its long, narrow leaf, E. Saligna or Sydney Blue Gum, the Eucalyptus australiana or peppermint, and others-while wild clematis and Wonga wonga vine climbed from shrub to shrub.
[1. Macrozamia-burrawang. 2. Chorizema-a yellow-flowered shrub.]
That day the heat was intense.
Nothing of the vegetation stirred, excepting during the silent wandering of a truant zephyr that came floating up the river-gully like the long, balanced, weightless gossamer that sways when the web is broken in the early morning.
The tribe lay about under the clematis and creeper and amongst the ferns. Only the hardiest of the hunting men stood, silent and perspiring, with poised spear, waiting for a fish to sail up to the top. Now and then a little chewed burley from the seed of the burrawang was softly dropped to the water.
Otherwise all was still.
Even the dogs lay stretched and asleep. They were too languid when awake to move with the shadows.
The fishing had been good. A number of splendid carp lay in a cool watered crack between the great flat rocks. When one of these fish appeared amongst the burley the thrust of spear was lightning-like. It made hardly a ripple, yet it pierced the water deep. It was so smartly withdrawn that the fish had scarcely time to cause even a bubble. By a dexterous heave it was landed, and it lay to kick its life away in that crack between the rocks.
Suddenly from away in the south-west a great billowing cloud hove into view above the cliff and above the gum-tops. Then the wandering zephyr became fierce. It swept on its way and brought down a shower of rustling leaves.
[1. Wonga-Teooma australis.]
A haze, deep and sombre, crowded the scene. It was changed.
The fishermen glanced upwards, and then at one another.
Up the gully came a boisterous gust. The placid water became a mass of dense ripples in a moment. They dashed their little wavelets in spiteful spray against the rocks. It was useless to fish any more. Besides, an eerie feeling was abroad. The dogs whimpered and huddled near some black or other-man, woman, or child., The old white-haired chief stalked out into the sand patch that lay athwart the dwindled stream, and cast a thoughtful glance at the heavens. The children cowered. The whole camp became astir, and yet no one seemed to know just where to go nor just what to do. Women shivered and drew their ‘possum rugs closer over their shoulders, and children’s teeth chattered. They were susceptible and apprehensive.
Suddenly, too, the air was darkened, for the huge woolly mass of cloud had encompassed the whole firmament, and blotted out the sun. Gusts roared louder and louder. The myrtles seethed and rustled and quivered and bent before it. Huge tree-tops swayed and shook, and their interlaced branches tore and fought. A solitary bird high above essayed to cross the gully, but was swept from its course and whirled out of sight down stream. Now a great branch twirled and was snapped, and came crashing through the undergrowth and lobbed on the ground with a dull thud.
All the fishermen but one retreated. The one stood still. He was a mighty man and the son of a chief–
Then came the thunder. It pealed amongst the timber and amongst the people. With it came the blinding flash and the driven rain.
The chief led the way. The whole tribe rushed to a cave they knew of. It was formed by the rolling, some long years before, of three huge boulders against one another in such a way that an entrance was left, and inside was room for several hundred people. The last to enter was the chief’s son. As he came another terrific crash of thunder and a fearful flash of lightning tore the world. Women put their hands to their eyes and ears, and children screamed. Men were struck dumb with terror. Peal on peal, flash on flash came, and then a deluge poured down outside, whilst the wanton gale swung the timber and felled the great gums. Then came the most awful flash of all.
In a lull in the downpour something happened. Flame and sound came at the same second. The clustering boulders were struck. A gum was splintered and shattered, and the whole earth, it seemed to the frightened tribe, was smitten, and it groaned and was hurled into space. The great masses of rock shifted, and the entrance was closed. Utter darkness fell in there. It was a thing that had never happened to their world before.
The chief’s son now felt that he had to do something to prove that he was fit to rule when his old father passed away. The white-haired, wrinkled man was too spent with his years to do anything. Somewhere in the dark amongst his people he sat, and spoke not a word.
But the young man moved. He crawled cautiously inwards, his hands always scouting before him. If he touched a wall he turned and tried another direction.
He came to a passage so narrow and jagged that he cut his knees and his forehead. But he kept on. Once he had to pull away a stone or two in order to go further. At last he espied a thin streak of daylight. It came down from the top. It was very wispy, but up there somewhere was the light of day.
There was no sound of thunder and no feel of rain. The giant storm had passed on down the gully more rapidly than it came. Outside a faint rumbling might then have been heard, but it was already far away. The appalling bursts of wind had passed on, too, and all was still again. Out of a clear, clean, blue sky the sun poured its westering beams across, and thick columns of swaying mists rose up into that space from which, as rain, they had come. Nature was smiling now, and the world was better for the storm. A mass of broken green and leafy twigs lay on the ground or were caught in the vines, and many floated, water-logged, on the pools. But down underground a whole tribe lay imprisoned and afraid to move.
All but the chief’s son. He was now sensing the beauties of a clarified day outside because of the tiny streak of light that was with him.
A little more pushing and he came to the bottom of a shaft. He could move a little dêbris and wrack, and he found that in the shaft he could stand upright. He could see the blue sky above. He stooped and coo-eed.
He was answered.
Then he lost his head, and he flung up his arms and commenced to climb. Like a rock wallaby he squeezed himself up and up. Pressing first one side and then the other, he forced his way towards the top. He loosened stones and rubbish, and they fell to the bottom. But he kept going on up. Near the entrance one boulder was poised. He placed his weight upon it and it was loosened. It crashed to the bottom, and that stopped any other person from following the chief’s son. He nearly went down with it. A handy branch was his salvation. He grasped it, and with a mighty heave he was out of the pit.
He was saved.
And what of the rest? He leaned over and shouted. He heard the answer faint below. But the loosened sides were still falling. He tried all around and about, but there was no chance of getting between those enormous rocks. The marks of the lightning were upon them. A wonderful pattern of a tree was indelibly burnt into the stone, and is there till this day.
We have heard it said that the place is in George’s River, somewhere behind Glenfield or Minto.
The sun sank as he does at the close of every day, and night fell quickly down in the river. Up on the boulders the chief’s son slumbered.
Down below his people cried themselves to sleep. In the morning hunger took possession. Everyone must eat. The great fish still lay down near the water-holes. The escaped man sped there. He gathered up the fish, as many as he could carry, and took them up to the mouth of the shaft. Then he got some sarsaparilla vine, and with it and some rush he made a rope. Then he raced back, and began to climb the rock again.
Oh, agony! He was falling down, down. Crash! He rolled, and in rolling a jagged limb tore him badly.
He was pierced and his abdomen was cut badly.
But his thought for his people conquered the pain.
He got up again.
For days he fed them thus.
He grew weaker and weaker, but he fished and he fed the people. None could get out to him. He could simply lower as much food as possible. Some would live while others would die. This continued for many days. Those who told the tale to white men said that it lasted for a whole year.
Yet down in the prison the people were dying.
Then the tribe from Kurnell penetrated to behind Glenfield or Minto. They had found no opposition and no sign of the George’s River blacks in any of their excursions for this whole year, so they became more and more emboldened, and the fishing and hunting were good. By the time they reached the place of the tragedy the chief’s son was very ill indeed. His wound had never healed. He kept it open by his climbing up and his getting down. And the day came when the Kurnell blacks were very near.
He heard them.
He lay down under the shade of some Christmas Bush and Waratahs. The blooms were out and they shone red. He loved the waratah. He knew its story, and he had many times sucked the sweet nectar from its flowers. Beside him grew a little plant. He knew no use for it. But it was destined to be of great use to him.
Now up the stream he knew of a trickling spring. Another gully wound down its twisted way from above and opened into the bed of the river. It was very narrow, and in wet weather a little torrent splashed down from the flatter country above, and by means of a leaping waterfall it joined the more swollen river. Its sides were far more dense than the steep sides of the river. The Leptospermum flourished there, and waratahs were in crimson splendour. Out from a rock wall at the side gushed the spring. In dry times It simply was swallowed up in peaty ground beneath the tea-tree and Leptospermum and Ceratopetalums, but in rainy times it o’erbore them and joined the river.
A spirit often came out from that glen. It was speckled with glowing fires that flashed and were covered, and flashed and were covered, over and over again. The spirit was light and ethereal, for it could never be seen in its entirety and it could never be heard. All the tribe knew of it, and all held it in awe. All but the medicine man, and he, sometimes, when he had donned the mystic pipe-clay bands, went right up to the spring and talked with it there. When he came back he bore with him beautiful bunches of ferns of many kinds-Hymenophyllum and Asplenium, portions of the fronds of the Dicksonia, the Adiantum, the Alsophila, excelsa, the Umbrella fern, the Acrostichurn and others.
It must have been the spirit that came to the hero of this legend, for as he lay exhausted someone took his hand and placed it on the little amaryllis that seemed to him to be of no use. Immediately it moved and grew. The leaves stretched up and up and became broader and broader. It was a wonderful happening. Many leaves came, each one long and broad and supple, and out from the central part came a long firm stalk. It grew up and up until at several feet a flower formed.
The young man’s wound was more painful now than ever before. He pressed his hand to it and he found it to be bleeding. Then he swung his hand over to that wonderful plant again and it became red with his blood.
And it was warm.
It is always warm.
The young black slept. How long he slept no one knows. Whether it was for hours, or days, or years, has never been told, but when he awoke he was being well cared for. About his body was drawn one of the leaves of the doryanthes excelsa. Out from his mia-mia he saw many of these plants. They had come while he slept. All had leaves like bandages, and many had stalks with great red buds to crown them. They would be burst soon, and a flower as red as the waratah would be there.
Women came and peeped at him. Children saw that he was awake, and they laughed for joy.
Then a woman bent over him and deftly she wove another leaf bandage around him. The old fern-root poultices, dried up, lay around about. Then he knew who had tended him when he slept. And he felt strong enough to get up.
Close by were the fallen rocks. There was still no way in or out.
So the first Gymea or Gigantic Lily came into being, and not long ago men dug under the boulders and found a great heap of aboriginal bones.