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Edward John Eyre - Vol 1 - Ch 13

Future Plans — Reduce the Number of the Party — Send the Cutter to Adelaide — Report to the Governor — Monotonous Life at Camp — Remove to Another Locality — Geological Character of the Country — Flint Found — Again Attempt to Reach the Head of the Bight — Reach the Sand Hills, and Bury Flour — Friendly Natives — Exhausted State of the Horses — Get The Dray to the Plain — Bury Water — Send Back Dray — Proceed with Pack-Horse — Oppressive Heat — Send Back Pack-HORSE— Reach the Head of the Bight — Surprise Some Natives — Their Kind Behaviour — Yeer-Kumban Kauee — Their Account of the Interior.

December 17

December 17. — HAVING now maturely considered the serious position I was in, the difficult nature of the country, the reduced condition and diminished number of my horses, and the very unfavourable season of the year, I decided upon taking advantage of a considerate clause in the Governor’s letter, authorizing me “to send back the Waterwitch to Adelaide for assistance, if required.”

From the experience I had already had, and from the knowledge I had thus acquired of the character of the country to the westward and to the north, it was evident that I could never hope to take my whole party, small as it was, with me in either direction. I had already lost three horses in an attempt to get round the head of the Bight, and I had also found that my three best horses now remaining, when strong and fresh after a long period of rest at the depot, had with difficulty been able to move along with an empty dray in the heavy sandy country to the north-west; how could I expect, then, to take drays when loaded with provisions and other stores? Hitherto we had enjoyed the assistance of the cutter in passing up the coast — by putting all our heavy baggage on board of her, the drays were comparatively empty, and we had got on tolerably well. We could no longer, however, avail ourselves of this valuable aid, for we were now past all harbours. Fowler’s Bay being the last place of refuge where a vessel could take shelter for many hundred miles, whilst the fearful nature of the coast and the strong current setting into the Bight, made it very dangerous for a vessel to approach the land at all. Upon leaving Fowler’s Bay, therefore, it was evident that we must be dependent entirely upon our own resources; and it became necessary for me to weigh well and maturely how I might best arrange my plans so as to meet the necessity of the case. It appeared to me that if I sent two of my men back to Adelaide in the Waterwitch , a single dray would carry every necessary for the reduced party remaining, and that by obtaining a supply of oats and bran for the horses, and giving them a long rest, they might so far recover strength and spirits as to afford me reasonable grounds of hope that we might succeed in forcing a passage through the country to the westward, bad as it evidently was. Acting upon the opinion I had arrived at, I sent for the master of the cutter and requested him to get ready at once for sea, and then communicated my decision to the two men who were to leave us, Corporal Coles, R.S. and M. and John Houston, requesting them to get ready to embark to-morrow. They did not appear to experience much surprise, and were I think on the whole rather pleased than otherwise at the prospect of a return to Adelaide. Both these men had conducted themselves remarkably well during the whole time they were in the party, and one of them, John Houston, had been with me in my late disastrous expedition, during which his obedience and good conduct had been beyond all praise. We had, however, now been absent for six months, had traversed a great extent of country, and undergone many hardships; the country we had met with had unfortunately always been of the most barren and disheartening character, and that which was yet before us appeared to be if possible still worse, so that I could not wonder that my men should appear gratified in the prospect of a termination to their labours. With so little to cheer and encourage, they might well perhaps doubt of our final success.

December 18

December 18. — Having once decided upon my plans, I lost no time in putting them in execution. A dray, three sets of horses’ harness, and some other things were sent on board the Waterwitch , together with half a sheep and sixty pounds of biscuit for the crew, who were now running short of provisions. Several casks were brought on shore for us to bury stores in, and the boat I had purchased at Port Lincoln was left, at Mr. Scott’s request, for him to fish in during the absence of the cutter. After I had settled with the two men for their services, both of whom had large sums to receive, they took leave of us, and went on board.

My own time had been fully occupied for the last two days, in writing letters and preparing despatches; by great exertions I got all ready this evening, and upon Mr. Germain’s coming up at night, I delivered them to him, and directed him to sail as soon as possible. The following copy of my despatch to his Excellency the Governor, will convey a brief summary of the result of the expedition; from the time of our leaving Port Lincoln up to the sailing of the Waterwitch from Fowler’s Bay, and of the future plans I intended to adopt, to carry out the object of the undertaking.

“POINT FOWLER, 17TH DECEMBER, 1840.

“SIR, — By the return of the Waterwitch , I have the honour to furnish you, for the information of His Excellency the Governor, with a brief account of our proceedings up to the present date.

“Upon the return of Mr. Scott from Adelaide to Port Lincoln, I left the latter place on the 24th October, following my former line of route along the coast to Streaky Bay, and rejoining my party there on the 3rd November.

“The Waterwitch had already arrived with the stores sent for the use of the expedition, and I have since detained her to co-operate with my party, in accordance with the kind permission of his Excellency the Governor.

“From previous experience, I was aware, that after leaving Streaky Bay, we should have obstacles of no ordinary kind to contend with; and as I advanced, I found the difficulties of the undertaking even greater than I had anticipated; the heavy sandy nature of the country, its arid character, the scarcity of grass, and the very dense brushes through which we had frequently to clear a road with our axes, formed impediments of no trifling description, and such as, when combined with the very unfavourable season of the year, we could hardly have overcome without the assistance of the Waterwitch . By putting on board the cutter the greater part of our dead weight, we relieved our jaded horses from loads they could no longer draw; and by obtaining from her occasional supplies of water at such points of the coast as we could procure none on shore, we were enabled to reach Fowler’s Bay on the 22nd November.

“From this point I could no longer avail myself of the valuable services of the cutter, the wild unprotected character of the coast extending around the Great Australian Bight, rendering it too dangerous for a vessel to attempt to approach so fearful a shore, and where there is no harbour or shelter of any kind to make for in case of need.

“Under these circumstances, I left my party in camp behind Point Fowler, whilst I proceeded myself, accompanied by a native boy, to examine the country a-head, and I now only detained the Waterwitch , in the hopes that by penetrating on horseback beyond the head of the Great Bight, I might be able to give his Excellency some idea of our future prospects.

“For the last twenty-four days I have been engaged in attempting to round the head of the Bight; but so difficult is the country, that I have not as yet been able to accomplish it. In my first essay I was driven back by the want of water and obliged to abandon one of my horses. This animal I subsequently recovered.

“In my second attempt, I went, accompanied by one of my native boys, and a man driving a dray loaded solely with water and our provisions; but such was the dreadful nature of the country, that after penetrating to within twelve miles of the head of the Bight, I was again obliged to abandon three of our horses, a dray, and our provisions. The poor horses were so exhausted by previous fatigue and privation, that they could not return, and I was most reluctantly obliged to leave them to obtain relief for ourselves, and the two remaining horses we had with us. After reaching the nearest water, we made every effort to save the unfortunate animals we had left behind; and for seven days, myself, the man, and a boy, were incessantly and laboriously engaged almost day and night in carrying water backwards and forwards to them — feeding them with bread, gruel, etc. I regret to say that all our efforts were in vain, and that the expedition has sustained a fatal and irreparable injury in the loss of three of its best draught horses. The dray and the provisions I subsequently recovered, and on the evening of the 15th December, I rejoined my party behind Point Fowler, to prepare despatches for the Waterwitch , since the weak and unserviceable condition of nearly the whole of our remaining horses rendered any further attempt to penetrate so inhospitable a region quite impracticable for the present. In traversing the country along the coast from Streaky Bay to the limits of our present exploration, within twelve miles of the head of the Great Bight, we have found the country of a very uniform description — low flat lands, or a succession of sandy ridges, densely covered with a brush of EUCALYPTUS DUMOSA, salt water tea-tree, and other shrubs — whilst here and there appear a few isolated patches of open grassy plains, scattered at intervals among the scrub. The surface rock is invariably an oolitic limestone, mixed with an imperfect freestone, and in some places exhibits fossil banks, which bear evident marks of being of a very recent formation.

“The whole of this extent of country is totally destitute of surface water — we have never met with a watercourse, or pool of any description, and all the water we have obtained since we left Streaky Bay has been by digging, generally in the large drifts of pure white sand close to the coast. This is a work frequently of much time and labour, as from the depth we have had to sink, and the looseness of the sand, the hole has often filled nearly as fast as we could clear it out; the water too thus obtained has almost always been brackish, occasionally salt. Latterly even this resource has failed us; after digging a few feet we have been impeded by rock, which gradually approaching nearer the surface towards the head of the Great Bight, at last occupies its whole extent, unless where partially concealed by sand-drifts, or low sandy ridges covered with brush. We have seen no trees or timber of any kind of larger growth than the scrub, nor have we met with the Casuarinae since we left Streaky Bay.

“The natives along this coast are not very numerous; those we have met with have been timid, but friendly, and in some instances have rendered us important assistance in guiding us through the brush, and shewing us where to dig for water — their language appears to be a good deal similar to that at King George’s Sound. When questioned about the interior towards the north, they invariably assert that there is no fresh water inland; nor could we discover that they are acquainted with the existence of a large body of water of any kind in that direction.

“Hitherto the reduced condition of my horses, the nature of the country, and the season of the year, have effectually prevented my examining the interior beyond a very few miles from the coast. When we have once rounded the Bight (and I confidently hope to accomplish this), the country may perhaps alter its character so far as to enable me to prosecute the main object of the expedition, that of examining the Northern Interior. Should such unfortunately not be the case, I shall endeavour to examine the line of coast as far as practicable towards King George’s Sound, occasionally radiating inland whenever circumstances may admit of it.

“The very severe loss the expedition has sustained in the death of four of its best horses since leaving Adelaide in June last, added to the unfavourable season of the year, and the embarrassing nature of the country, have rendered it impossible for me to carry provisions for the whole party for a length of time sufficient to enable me to prosecute the undertaking I am engaged in with any prospect of success; whilst the wild and fearful nature of this breaker-beaten coast wholly precludes me from making use of the assistance and co-operation of the Waterwitch . I have consequently been under the necessity of reducing the strength of my already small party, and have sent two men back in the cutter; retaining only my overseer and one man, exclusive of Mr. Scott and two native boys. Upon leaving the depot at Fowler’s Bay, it is my intention to proceed with only a single dray to carry our provisions, instead of (as formerly) with two drays and a cart.

“From the reduced state of our horses, it will be absolutely necessary for us to remain in depot five or six weeks to rest them. Such, however, is the dry and withered state of the little grass we have, and so destitute is it of all nutritive qualities, that I much fear that even at the expiration of this long respite from their labours, our horses will not have improved much in strength or condition. I have therefore unhesitatingly taken advantage of the very kind permission of his Excellency the Governor, to request that a supply of oats and bran may be sent to us, should his Excellency not require the services of the Waterwitch for more important employment. For ourselves we require no additional provisions, the most liberal and abundant supply we formerly received being fully sufficient to last us for six months longer.

“I have much pleasure in recording the continued steadiness and good conduct of my men, and I regret extremely the necessity which has compelled me to dispense with the services of two of them before the termination of the expedition, and after they have taken so considerable a share in its labours.

“I have the honor to be, Sir, “Your very obedient servant, “EDW. JOHN EYRE.

“TO GEO. HALL, ESQ., PRIVATE SECRETARY, ETC.”

After the departure of the cutter, our mode of life was for some time very monotonous, and our camp bore a gloomy and melancholy aspect; the loss of two men from our little band, made a sad alteration in its former cheerful character. Mr. Scott usually employed himself in shooting or fishing; one of the native boys was always out shepherding the sheep, and the only remaining man I had was occupied in attending to the horses, so that there were generally left only myself, the overseer, and one native boy at the camp, which was desolate and gloomy, as a deserted village. The overseer was pretty well employed, in making boots for the party, in shoeing the horses, repairing the harness, and in doing other little odd jobs of a similar kind; the black boys took their turns in shepherding the sheep; but I was without active employment, and felt more strongly than any of them that relaxation of body and depression of spirits, which inactivity ever produces.

For a time indeed, the writing up of my journals, the filling up my charts, and superintending the arranging, packing, and burying of our surplus stores, amused and occupied me, but as these were soon over, I began to repine and fret at the life of indolence and inactivity. I was doomed to suffer. Frequently required at the camp, to give directions about, or to assist in the daily routine of duty, I did not like to absent myself long away at once; there were no objects of interest near me, within the limits of a day’s excursion on foot, and the weak state of the horses, prevented me from making any examinations of the country at a greater distance on horseback; I felt like a prisoner condemned to drag out a dull and useless existence through a given number of days or weeks, and like him too, I sighed for freedom, and looked forward with impatience, to the time when I might again enter upon more active and congenial pursuits. Fatigue, privation, disappointment, disasters, and all the various vicissitudes, incidental to a life of active exploration had occasionally, it is true, been the source of great anxiety or annoyance, but all were preferable to that oppressive feeling of listless apathy, of discontent and dissatisfaction, which resulted from the life I was now obliged to lead.

December 25

Christmas day came, and made a slight though temporary break in the daily monotony of our life. The kindness of our friends had supplied us with many luxuries; and we were enabled even in the wilds, to participate in the fare of the season: whilst the season itself, and the circumstances under which it was ushered in to us, called forth feelings and associations connected with other scenes and with friends, who were far away; awakening, for a time at least, a train of happier thoughts and kindlier feelings than we had for a long time experienced.

December 26

On the 26th, I found that our horses and sheep were falling off so much in condition, from the scarcity of grass, and its dry and sapless quality, that it became absolutely necessary for us to remove elsewhere; I had already had all our surplus stores and baggage headed up in casks, or packed in cases, and carefully buried (previously covered over with a tarpaulin and with bushes to keep them from damp), near the sand-hills, and to-day I moved on the party for five miles to the well in the plains; the grass here was very abundant, but still dry, and without much nourishment; the water was plentiful, but brackish and awkward to get at, being through a hole in a solid sheet of limestone, similar to that behind Point Brown. Upon cleaning it out and deepening it a little, it tasted even worse than before, but still we were thankful for it.

The geological character of the country was exactly similar to that we had been in so long, entirely of fossil formation, with a calcareous oolitic limestone forming the upper crusts, and though this was occasionally concealed by sand on the surface, we always were stopped by it in digging; it was seemingly a very recent deposit, full of marine shells, in every stage of petrifaction. Granite we had not seen for some time, though I have no doubt that it occasionally protrudes; a small piece, found near an encampment of the natives, and evidently brought there by them, clearly proved the existence of this rock at no very great distance, probably small elevations of granite may occasionally be found among the scrubs, similar to those we had so frequently met with in the same character of country. Another substance found at one of the native encampments, and more interesting to us, not having been before met with, was a piece of pure flint, of exactly the same character as the best gun flint. This probably had been brought from the neighbourhood of the Great Bight, in the cliffs of which Captain Flinders imagined he saw chalk, and where I hoped that some change in the geological formation of the country would lead to an improvement in its general appearance and character.

The weather had been (with the exception of one or two hot days) unusually cold and favourable for the time of year. Our horses had enjoyed a long rest, and though the dry state of the grass had prevented them from recovering their condition, I hoped they were stronger and in better spirits, and determined to make one more effort to get round the head of the Bight; — if unsuccessful this time, I knew it would be final, as I should no longer have the means of making any future trial, for I fully made up my mind to take all our best and strongest animals, and either succeed in the attempt or lose all.

December 29

On the 29th, I commenced making preparations, and on the following day left the camp, the sheep, and four horses in charge of Mr. Scott and the youngest of the native boys, whilst I proceeded myself, accompanied by the overseer and eldest native boy on horseback, and a man driving a dray with three horses, to cross once more through the scrub to the westward. We took with us three bags of flour, a number of empty casks and kegs, and two pack-saddles, besides spades and buckets, and such other minor articles as were likely to be required. It was late in the day when we arrived at the plains under the sand hills; and though we had brought our six best and strongest horses, they were greatly fagged with their day’s work. We had still to take them some distance to the water, and back again to the grass. At the water we found traces of a great many natives who appeared to have left only in the morning, and who could not be very far away; none were however seen.