Edward John Eyre - Vol 1 - Ch 14

Proceed to the Westward — Cliffs of the Great Bight — Level Nature of the Interior — Flints Abound — Return to Yeer-Kumban-Kauwe — Natives Come to the Camp — Their Generous Conduct — Meet the Overseer — Return to Depot — Bad Water — Move Back to Fowler’s Bay — Arrival of the Gutter Hero — Joined by the King George’s Sound Native — Instructions Relative to the Hero — Difficulty of Fixing Upon Any Future Plan — Break Up the Expedition and Divide The Party — Mr. Scott Embarks — Final Report — The Hero Sails — Overseer and Natives Remain — Excursion to the North — A Native Joins Us — Sudden Illness in the Party — Final Preparations for Leaving the Depot.

January 25

Time passed gradually away until the evening of the 25th, when a party of natives once more came up, and took up their abode near us — three were of those who had accompanied us all the way from Denial Bay, and some others had also been with us before. On the 26th, I went down myself to Fowler’s Bay to look out for the cutter, which we now daily expected. Just as I arrived at the beach she came rounding into the bay, and Mr. Scott and myself got into our little boat, and pulled off to her, though with great difficulty, the wind blowing very fresh and dead against us, with the sea running high. We had three miles to go, and for a long time it was very doubtful whether we should succeed in reaching the vessel; our utmost efforts appearing barely to enable us to keep our ground. I was myself, at the best, not very skilful in using an oar, and neither of us had had much practice in pulling in a heavy sea. However, we got on board after a good deal of fatigue, and were rewarded by receiving many letters, both English and Colonial. I found that in returning to Adelaide the Water-witch had proved so leaky as to be deemed unsafe for further service on so wild a coast, and that the Governor had, in consequence, with the promptness and consideration which so eminently distinguished him, chartered the “Hero ,” a fine cutter, a little larger than the Waterwitch , and placing her under the command of Mr. Germain, had sent him to our assistance. On board the Hero I was pleased to find the native from King George’s Sound, named Wylie, whom I had sent for, and who was almost wild with delight at meeting us, having been much disappointed at being out of the way when I sent for him from Port Lincoln.

Wylie (J. Neil)

After receiving our despatches, and taking Wylie with us, we set sail for the shore, and then walked up in the evening to our depot; my other two native boys were greatly rejoiced to find their old friend once more with them; they had much to tell to, and much to hear from each other, and all sat up to a late hour. For myself, the many letters I had received, gave me ample enjoyment and occupation for the night, whilst the large pile of newspapers from Adelaide, Swan River, and Sydney, promised a fund of interest for some time to come. Nothing could exceed the kindness and attention of our friends in Adelaide, who had literally inundated us with presents of every kind, each appearing to vie with the other in their endeavours to console us under our disappointments, to cheer us in our future efforts, and if possible, to make us almost forget that we were in the wilds. Among other presents I received a fine and valuable kangaroo-dog from my friend, Captain Sturt, and which had fortunately arrived safely, and in excellent condition.

The bran and oats which I had applied for had been most liberally provided, so that by remaining in depot for a few weeks longer, we might again hope to get our horses into good condition. From his Excellency the Governor I received a kind and friendly letter, acquainting me that the Hero was entirely at my disposal within the limits of South Australia, but that being under charter I could not take her to Cape Arid, or beyond the boundaries of the province, and requesting, that if I desired further aid, or to be met any where, at a future time, that I would communicate with the Government to that effect by the Hero ’S return. The whole tenor of his Excellency’s letter evinced a degree of consideration and kindness that I could hardly have expected amidst the many anxious duties and onerous responsibilities devolving upon him at this time; and if any thing could have added to the feelings of gratitude and respect I entertained towards him, it would be the knowledge, that with the disinterested generosity of a noble mind, he was giving up a portion of his valuable time and attention to our plans, our wants, and our safety, at a time when the circumstances of the colony over which he presided had beset his own path with many difficulties, and when every day but added to the annoyances and embarrassments which a sudden reaction in the progress and prospects of the province necessarily produced.

In the instructions I received relative to the cutter, I have mentioned that I was restricted to employing her within the limits of the colony of South Australia, and thus, the plan I had formed of sending our drays and heavy stores in her to Cape Arid, whilst we proceeded overland ourselves with pack-horses, was completely overturned, and it became now a matter of very serious consideration to decide what I should do under the circumstances. It was impossible for me to take my whole party and the drays overland through the dreadful country verging upon the Great Bight; whilst if I took the party, and left the drays, it was equally hopeless that I could carry upon pack-horses a sufficiency of provisions to last us to King George’s Sound. There remained, then, but two alternatives, either to break through the instructions I had received with regard to the Hero , or to reduce my party still further, and attempt to force a passage almost alone. The first I did not, for many reasons, think myself justified in doing — the second, therefore, became my DERNIER ReSORT, and I reluctantly decided upon adopting it.

It now became my duty to determine without delay who were to be my companions in the perilous attempt before me. The first and most painful necessity impressed upon me by the step I contemplated, was that of parting with my young friend, Mr. Scott, who had been with me from the commencement of the undertaking, and who had always been zealous and active in promoting its interests as far as lay in his power. I knew that, on an occasion like this, the spirit and enterprise of his character would prompt in him a wish to remain and share the difficulties and dangers to which I might be exposed: but I felt that I ought not to allow him to do so; I had no right to lead a young enthusiastic friend into a peril from which escape seemed to be all but hopeless; and painful as it would be to us both to separate under such circumstances, there was now no other alternative; the path of duty was plain and imperative, and I was bound to follow it.

January 28

On the 28th, I took the opportunity, whilst walking down to the beach with Mr. Scott, of explaining the circumstances in which I was placed, and the decision to which I had been forced. He was much affected at the intelligence, and would fain have remained to share with me the result of the expedition, whatever that might be; but I dared not consent to it.

The only man left, belonging to the party, was the one who had accompanied me towards the head of the Great Bight, and suffered so much from the heat on the 6th January. His experience on that occasion of the nature of the country, and the climate we were advancing into, had, in a great measure, damped his ardour for exploring; so that when told that the expedition, as far as he was concerned, had terminated, and that he would have to go back to Adelaide with Mr. Scott, he did not express any regret. I had ever found him a useful and obedient man, and with the exception of his losing courage under the heat, upon the occasion alluded to, he had been a hardy and industrious man, and capable of enduring much fatigue.

The native boys I intended to accompany me in my journey, as they would be better able to put up with the fatigues and privations we should have to go through, than Europeans; whilst their quickness of sight, habit of observation, and skill in tracking, might occasionally be of essential service to me. The native who had lately joined me from Adelaide, and whose country was around King George’s Sound, would, I hoped, be able to interpret to any tribes we might meet with, as it appeared to me that some of the words we had heard in use among the natives of this part of the coast were very similar to some I had heard among the natives of King George’s Sound. Three natives, however, were more than I required, and I would gladly have sent the youngest of them back to Adelaide, but he had been with me several years, and I did not like to send him away whilst he was willing to remain; besides, he was so young and so light in weight, that if we were able to get on at all, his presence could cause but little extra difficulty. I therefore decided upon taking him also.

There remained now only the overseer; a man who had been in my service for many years, and whose energy, activity, and many useful qualities, had made him an invaluable servant to me at all times; whilst his courage, prudence, good conduct, and fidelity, made me very desirous to have him with me in this last effort to cross to the westward. Having sent for him, I explained to him most fully the circumstances in which I was placed, the utter impossibility of taking on the whole party through so inhospitable a region as that before us, my own firm determination never to return unsuccessful, but either to accomplish the object I had in view, or perish in the attempt. I pointed out to him that there were still eight hundred and fifty miles of an unknown country yet to be traversed and explored; that, in all probability, this would consist principally, if not wholly, of an all but impracticable desert. I reminded him of the fatigues, difficulties, and losses we had already experienced in attempting to reconnoitre the country only as far as the head of the Great Bight; and stated to him my own conviction, that from the knowledge and experience we had already acquired of the nature of the country; the journey before us must of necessity be a long and harassing one — one of unceasing toil, privation, and anxiety, whilst, from the smallness of our party, the probable want of water, and other causes, it would be one, also, of more than ordinary risk and danger. I then left him to determine whether he would return to Adelaide, in the cutter, or remain and accompany me. His reply was, that although he had become tired of remaining so long away in the wilds, and should be glad when the expedition had terminated, yet he would willingly remain with me to the last; and would accompany me to the westward at every hazard.

Our future movements being now arranged, and the division of the party decided upon, it remained only for me to put my plans into execution. The prospect of the approaching separation, had cast a gloom over the whole party, and now that all was finally determined, I felt that the sooner it was over the better. I lost no time, therefore, in getting up all the bran and oats from the cutter, and in putting on board of her our drays, and such stores as we did not require, directing the master to hold himself in readiness to return to Adelaide immediately.

January 31

By the 31st January, every thing was ready; my farewell letters were written to the kind friends in Adelaide, to whom I owed so much; and my final report to the Chairman of the Committee, for promoting the expedition — that expedition being now brought to a close, and its members disbanded.

In the evening the man and Mr. Scott went on board the cutter, taking with them our three kangaroo dogs, which the arid nature of the country rendered it impossible for me to keep. I regretted exceedingly being compelled to part with the dogs, but it would have been certain destruction to them to have attempted to take them with me.

The following is a copy of my final report to the Chairman of the Northern Expedition Committee: —

“Fowler’s Bay, 30th Jan., 1841.

“Sir, — By the return of the Hero from Fowler’s Bay, I have the honour to acquaint you, for the information of his Excellency the Governor, and the colonists interested, with the unsuccessful termination of the expedition placed under my command, for the purpose of exploring the northern interior. Since my last report to his Excellency the Governor, containing an account of two most disastrous attempts to head the Great Australian Bight, I have, accompanied by one of my native boys, made a third and more successful one. On this occasion, I with some difficulty advanced about fifty miles beyond the head of the Great Bight, along the line of high cliffs described by Flinders, and which have hitherto been supposed to be composed principally of chalk. I found the country between the head of Fowler’s Bay and the head of the Great Bight to consist of a succession of sandy ridges, all of which were more or less covered by a low scrub, and without either grass or water for the last sixty miles. This tract is of so uneven and heavy a nature that it would be quite impossible for me to take a loaded dray across it at this very unfavourable season of the year, and with horses so spiritless and jaded as ours have become, from the incessant and laborious work they have gone through during the last seven months. Upon rounding the head of the Bight, I met with a few friendly natives, who shewed me where both grass and water was to be procured, at the same time assuring me that there was no more along the coast for ten of their days’ journeys, (probably 100 miles) or where the first break takes place in the long and continuous line of cliffs which extend so far to the westward of the head of the Great Bight. Upon reaching these cliffs I felt much disappointed, as I had long looked forward to some considerable and important change in the character of the country. There was, however, nothing very remarkable in their appearance, nor did the features of the country around undergo any material change. The cliffs themselves struck me as merely exhibiting the precipitous banks of an almost level country of moderate elevation (three or four hundred feet) which the violent lash of the whole of the Southern Ocean was always acting upon and undermining. Their rock formation consisted of various strata, the upper crust or surface being an oolitic limestone; below this is an indented concrete mixture of sand, soil, small pebbles, and shells; beneath this appear immense masses of a coarse greyish limestone, of which by far the greater portion of the cliffs are composed; and immediately below these again is a narrow stripe of a whitish, or rather a cream-coloured substance, lying in horizontal strata, but which the impracticable nature of the cliffs did not permit me to examine. After riding for forty-five miles along their summits, I was in no instance able to descend; their brinks were perfectly steep and overhanging, and in many places enormous masses appeared severed by deep cracks from the main land, and requiring but a slight touch to plunge them into the abyss below. As far as I have yet been along these cliffs, I have seen nothing in their appearance to lead me to suppose that any portion of them is composed of chalk. Immediately along their summits, and for a few hundred yards back, very numerous pieces of pure flint are lying loosely scattered upon the surface of the limestone. How they obtained so elevated a position, or whence they are from, may admit, perhaps, of some speculation. Back from the sea, and as far as the eye could reach, the country was level and generally open, with some low prickly bushes and salsolaceous plants growing upon it; here and there patches of the gum scrub shewed themselves, and among which a few small grassy openings were interspersed. The whole of this tract was thickly covered by small land shells, about the size of snail shells — and some of them somewhat resembling those in shape. There were no sudden depressions or abrupt elevations anywhere; neither hills, trees, or water were to be observed; nor was there the least indication of improvement or change in the general character of this desolate and forbidding region. The natives we met with at the head of the Bight were very friendly, and readily afforded us every information we required — as far as we could make them comprehend our wishes.

“We most distinctly understood from them, that there was no water along the coast, westerly, for ten of their days’ journeys; and that inland, there was neither fresh nor salt water, hills or timber, as far as they had ever been; an account which but too well agreed with the opinion I had myself formed, upon ascertaining that the same dreary, barren region I had been traversing so long, still continued at a point where I had ever looked forward to some great and important change taking place in the features of the country, and from which I had hoped I might eventually have accomplished the object for which the expedition was fitted out. Such, however, was not the case; there was not any improvement in the appearance of the country, or the least indication that there might be a change for the better, within any practicable distance. I had already examined the tract of country from the longitude of Adelaide, to the parallel of almost 130 degrees E. longitude; an extent comprising nearly 8 1/2 degrees of longitude; without my having found a single point from which it was possible to penetrate for into the interior; and I now find myself in circumstances of so embarrassing and hopeless a character, that I have most reluctantly been compelled to give up all further idea of contending with obstacles which there is no reasonable hope of ever overcoming. I have now, therefore, with much regret completely broken up my small but devoted party. Two of my men returned to Adelaide in the Waterwitch , five weeks ago.

“Mr. Scott and another of my men proceed on Monday in the Hero ; whilst myself, my native boys, and the overseer (who has chosen to accompany me) proceed hence overland to King George’s Sound, as soon as our horses are a little recruited by the abundant supply of forage we received by the Hero .

“In this undertaking, my young friend Mr. Scott — with his usual spirit and perseverance — was most anxious to have joined me; but painful as it has been to refuse, I have felt it my duty, from the nature of the service, not to comply with his request. It now only remains for me to return my most sincere thanks to the many friends to whose kindness I have been so much indebted during the continuance of this long and anxious undertaking. To his Excellency the Governor I feel that I can never be sufficiently grateful for the very kind, prompt, and liberal support and encouragement which I have invariably experienced, and to which I have been mainly indebted for the means of accomplishing even the little I have done. To yourself, as chairman, the committee, and the colonists, by whom the expedition was fitted out, I return my most sincere acknowledgments for the very great honour done me in appointing me to the command of an undertaking at once so interesting and important — for the liberal and kind way in which I have been supported, and my wishes complied with; and, above all, for the flattering and encouraging confidence expressed in my abilities and perseverance. To a conviction of the existence of this confidence in the minds of those by whom I was appointed, I feel that I owe much of the stimulus that has sustained and encouraged me under difficulties and disappointments of no ordinary kind. Deeply as I lament the unsuccessful and unsatisfactory result of an undertaking from which so much was expected, I have the cheering consciousness of having endeavoured faithfully to discharge the trust confided to me; and although from a concurrence of most unfortunate circumstances which no human prudence could foresee or guard against, and which the most untiring perseverance has been unable to surmount, I have not succeeded in effecting the great objects for which this expedition was fitted out, I would fain hope that our labours have not been altogether in vain, but that hereafter, some future and more fortunate traveller, judging from the considerable extent of country we have examined, and the features it has developed, may, by knowing where the interior is not practicable, be directed to where it is.

“In concluding my report of our endeavours to penetrate the northern interior, I beg to express to all who have been connected with the expedition, my sincere thanks for their zeal and good conduct. In my young friend, Mr. Scott, I have had a cheerful companion and useful assistant; whilst in my overseer and men, I have met with a most praiseworthy readiness and steadiness of conduct, under circumstances and disappointments that have at once been trying and disheartening.

“I have the honour to be, Sir, your most obedient servant,


“The Chairman of the Committee for promoting the Northern Expedition.”

We were now alone, myself, my overseer, and three native boys, with a fearful task before us, the bridge was broken down behind us, and we must succeed in reaching King George’s Sound, or perish; no middle course remained. It was impossible for us to be insensible to the isolated and hazardous position we were in; but this very feeling only nerved and stimulated us the more in our exertions, to accomplish the duty we had engaged in; the result we humbly left to that Almighty Being who had guided and guarded us hitherto, amidst all our difficulties, and in all our wanderings, and who, whatever he might ordain, would undoubtedly order every thing for the best.

Our time was now entirely taken up, in the daily routine of the camp, attending to the sheep and horses, and in making preparations for our journey. We had a large supply of corn and bran sent for our horses, and as long as any of this remained, I determined to continue in depot.

In the mean time, the overseer was thoroughly occupied in preparing pack-saddles, (all of which we had to make) extra bridles, new hobbles, and in shoeing all the horses. I undertook the duty of new stuffing and repairing the various saddles, making what extra clothes were required for myself and the native boys for our journey; weighing out and packing in small linen bags, all the rations of tea, sugar, etc. which would be required weekly, preparing strong canvas saddle-bags, making light oilskins to protect our things from the wet, etc. etc. These many necessary and important preparations kept us all very busy, and the time passed rapidly away. On one occasion, I attempted with one of my native boys, to explore the country due north of Fowler’s Bay, but the weather turned out unfavourable, the wind being from the north-east, and scorchingly hot; I succeeded, however, in penetrating fully twenty miles in the direction I had taken, the first ten of which was through a dense heavy scrub, of the Eucalyptus dumosa, or the tea-tree. Emerging from this, we entered an open pretty looking country, consisting of grassy plains of great extent, divided by belts of shrubs and bush; as we advanced the shrubs became less numerous, the country more open, and salsolaceous plants began to occupy the place of the grass. Had we been able to continue our exploration for another day’s journey, I have no doubt, from the change which appeared gradually to be taking place as we advanced north, that the whole country around would have been one vast level open waste, without bush or shrub of any kind, and covered by salsolae. I felt strongly convinced, we were gradually approaching a similar kind of country to that I had been in between Lake Torrens and Flinders range; the only difference was that as far as we had yet gone from Fowler’s Bay, the elevation of the country did not appear to have been diminished; its average height above the level of the sea, I judged to be about 300 feet, and forming doubtless a continuation of the table land, I had found existing at the head of the Great Bight. The weather, however, was as unfavourable as the country, for such researches, at this season of the year, and the horses I had taken out with me suffered a good deal, even in the short space of two days, during which I was engaged in this attempt.

On some occasions the thermometer was 113 degrees in the shade, and whenever the wind was from the north-east, it was hot and oppressive beyond all conception. The natives, though occasionally seen, generally kept away from us during the time we were in depot. One old man alone (called Mumma) came up to our camp, and remained with us for several days; he was one of the few who had accompanied us so far from the neighbourhood of Denial Bay, and seemed to have taken a great fancy to us. We now endeavoured to reward him for his former services, by giving him a red shirt, a blanket, and a tomahawk, and whenever we got our meals he joined us, eating and drinking readily any thing we gave him — tea, broth, pease soup, mutton, salt pork, rice, damper, sugar, dried fruits, were all alike to him, nothing came amiss, and he appeared to grow better in condition every day.

At last he too got tired of remaining so long in one place; the novelty had worn away, and packing up his things he left us. During the time this man had been with us, I took the opportunity of ascertaining whether the King George’s Sound native, Wylie, could understand him, but I found he could not. There were one or two words common to both, but the general character, meaning, and sound of the two languages were so very different upon comparison, that I could myself understand the old man much better than Wylie could.

Whilst remaining in depot, the whole party were one day suddenly seized with a severe attack of illness, accompanied with vomiting and violent pain in the stomach, and I began to fear that we had unknowingly taken some deleterious ingredient in our food, as all were seized in the same way; this attack continued for several days, without our being able to discover the cause of it, but at last by changing the sugar we were using, we again got well. It appeared that a new bag of sugar had been broached about the time we were first attacked, and upon inspecting it, we found the bag quite wet — something or other of a deleterious character having been spilled over it, and which had doubtless caused us the inconvenience we experienced. Fortunately we had other sugar that had not been so injured, and the loss of the damaged bag was not of great consequence to us.

February 23

By the 23rd of February our preparations for entering upon our journey were nearly all completed, the horses had eaten up all their bran and corn, and were now in good condition; all our pack-saddles, saddles, and harness were ready, our provisions were all packed, and every thing in order for commencing the undertaking; there remained but to bury our surplus stores, and for this the hole was already dug. On the afternoon of the 24th I intended finally to evacuate the depot, and on the evening of the 23rd, to amuse my natives, I had all the rockets and blue-lights we had, fired off, since we could not take them with us, our pack-horses being barely able to carry for us the mere necessaries of life.