Category: Edward John Eyre - Vol 1 - Ch 12
Written by Edward John Eyre
December 5. — Upon getting up early, I thought the horses looked so much refreshed, that we might attempt to take back the dray, and had some of the strongest of them yoked up. We proceeded well for two miles and a half to our encampment of the 30th November; and as there was then a well defined track, I left the man to proceed alone, whilst I myself went once more to the coast to make a last effort to procure water among some of the sand-drifts. In this I was unsuccessful. There were not the slightest indications of water existing any where. In returning to rejoin the dray, I struck into our outward track, about three miles below, where I had left it, and was surprised to find that the dray had not yet passed, though I had been three hours absent. Hastily riding up the track, I found the man not half a mile from where I had left him, and surrounded by natives. They had come up shortly after my departure; and the man, getting alarmed, was not able to manage his team properly, but by harassing them had quite knocked up all the horses; the sun was getting hot, and I saw at once it would be useless to try and take the dray any further.
Having turned out the horses to rest a little, I went to the natives to try to find out, if possible, where they procured water, but in vain. They insisted that there was none near us, and pointed in the direction of the head of the Bight to the north-west, and of the sand hills to the south-east, as being the only places where it could be procured; when I considered, however, that I had seen these same natives on the 30th November, and that I found them within half a mile of the same place, five days afterwards, I could not help thinking that there must be water not very far away. It is true, the natives require but little water generally, but they cannot do without it altogether. If there was a small hole any where near us, why they should refuse to point it out, I could not imagine. I had never before found the least unwillingness on their part to give us information of this kind; but on the contrary, they were ever anxious and ready to conduct us to the waters that they were acquainted with. I could only conclude, therefore, that what they stated was true — that there was no water near us, and that they had probably come out upon a hunting excursion, and carried their own supplies with them in skins, occasionally, perhaps, renewing this from the small quantities found in the hollows of the gum scrub, and which is deposited there by the rains, or procuring a drink, as they required it, from the long lateral roots of the same tree. [Note 26: Vide Chapter XVI., towards the close.] I have myself seen water obtained in both these ways. The principal inducement to the natives to frequent the small plains where we were encamped, appeared to be, to get the fruit of the Mesembryanthemum, which grew there in immense quantities, and was now just ripe; whilst the scrub, by which these plains were surrounded, seemed to be alive with wallabie, adding variety to abundance in the article of food.
We were now on the horns of a very serious dilemma: our horses were completely fagged out, and could take the dray no further. We were surrounded by natives, and could not leave it, and the things upon it, whilst they were present (for many of these things we could not afford to lose); and on the other hand, we were twenty-two miles from any water, and our horses were suffering so much from the want of it, that unless we got them there shortly, we could not hope to save the lives of any one of them.
Had the natives been away, we could have buried the baggage, and left the dray; but as it was, we had only to wait patiently, hoping they would soon depart. Such, however, was not their intention; there they sat coolly and calmly, facing and watching us, as if determined to sit us out. It was most provoking to see the careless indifference with which they did this, sheltering themselves under the shade of a few shrubs, or lounging about the slopes near us, to gather the berries of the Mesembryanthemum. I was vexed and irritated beyond measure, as hour after hour passed away, and our unconscious tormentors still remained. Every moment, as it flew, lessened the chance of saving the lives of our horses; and yet I could not bring myself to abandon so many things that we could not do without, and which we could not in any way replace. What made the circumstances, too, so much worse, was, that we had last night given to our horses every drop of water, except the small quantity put apart for our breakfasts.
We had now none, and were suffering greatly from the heat, and from thirst, the day being calm and clear, and intolerably hot. When we had first unyoked the horses, I made the man and native boy lay down in the shade, to sleep, whilst I attended to the animals, and kept an eye on the natives. About noon I called them up again, and we all made our dinner off a little bread, and some of the fruit that grew around us, the moisture of which alone enabled us to eat at all, our mouths were so thoroughly dry and parched.
A movement was now observed among the natives; and gathering up their spears, they all went off. Having placed the native boy upon an eminence to watch them, the man and I at once set to work to carry our baggage to the top of a sand-hill, that it might be buried at some distance from the dray. We had hardly commenced our labours, however, before the boy called out that the natives were returning, and in a little time they all occupied their former position; either they had only gone as a ruse to see what we intended to do, or they had been noticing us, and had seen us removing our baggage, or else they had observed the boy watching them, and wished to disappoint him. Whatever the inducement was, there they were again, and we had as little prospect of being able to accomplish our object as ever. If any thing could have palliated aggressive measures towards the aborigines, it would surely be such circumstances as we were now in; our own safety, and the lives of our horses, depended entirely upon our getting rid of them. Yet with the full power to compel them (for we were all armed), I could not admit the necessity of the case as any excuse for our acting offensively towards those who had been friendly to us, and who knew not the embarrassment and danger which their presence caused us.
Strongly as our patience had been exercised in the morning, it was still more severely tested in the afternoon — for eight long hours had those natives sat opposite to us watching. From eight in the morning until four in the afternoon, we had been doomed to disappointment. About this time, however, a general movement again took place; once more they collected their spears, shouldered their wallets, and moved off rapidly and steadily towards the south-east. It was evident they had many miles to go to their encampment, and I now knew we should be troubled with them no more. Leaving the boy to keep guard again upon the hill, the man and I dug a large hole, and buried all our provisions, harness, pack-saddles, water-casks, etc. leaving the dray alone exposed in the plains. After smoothing the surface of the ground, we made a large fire over the place where the things were concealed, and no trace remained of the earth having been disturbed.
We had now no time to lose, and moving away slowly, drove the horses before us towards the water. The delay, however, had been fatal; the strength of the poor animals was too far exhausted, and before we had gone seven miles, one of them could not proceed, and we were obliged to leave him; at three miles further two more were unable to go on, and they, too, were abandoned, though within twelve miles of the water. We had still two left, just able to crawl along, and these, by dint of great perseverance and care, we at last got to the water about four o’clock in the morning of the 6th. They were completely exhausted, and it was quite impossible they could go back the same day, to take water to those we had left behind. The man, myself, and the boy were in but little better plight; the anxiety we had gone through, the great heat of the weather, and the harassing task of travelling over the heavy sandy hills, covered with scrub, in the dark, and driving jaded animals before us, added to the want of water we were suffering under, had made us exceedingly weak, and rendered us almost incapable of further exertion. In the evening I sent the man, who had been resting all day, to try and bring the two horses nearest to us a few miles on the road, whilst I was to meet him with water in the morning. Native fires were seen to the north-east of us at night, but the people did not seem to have been at the water at the sand-hills for their supply, no traces of their having recently visited it being found.