Edward John Eyre - Vol 1 - Ch 16

Go Back to Meet the Overseer — Party Arrive at the Water — Long Encampment — Geological Formation of the Cliffs — Move on Again — Dig for Water — Traces of Natives — Send Back for Water — Parrots Seen — Cool Winds From North-East — Overseer Returns — Continue the Journey — Abandon Baggage — Dense Scrubs — Driven to the Beach — Meet Natives — Mode of Procuring Water From Roots.

March 12. — The first streak of daylight found us on our way to meet the party, carrying with us three gallons of water upon one of the horses, the other was ridden by the boy. Upon passing the sandy valley, where I had been in such a state of suspense and doubt at seeing the sand-hills behind me, I determined to descend and examine them; but before doing so, I wrote a note for the overseer (in case he should pass whilst I was in the valley,) and hoisted a red handkerchief to attract his attention to it.

I was unsuccessful in my search for water; but whilst among the sand-hills, I saw the party slowly filing along the cliffs above the valley, and leaving the boy to look about a little longer, I struck across to meet them. Both horses and people I found greatly fatigued, but upon the whole, they had got through the difficulty better than I had anticipated; after leaving a great part of the loads of the pack-horses about seventeen miles back, according to the written instructions I had left. The sheep, it seemed, had broken out of the yard and travelled backwards, and were picked up by the overseer, twelve miles away from where we had left them; as they had got very tired and were delaying the horses, he left one of the natives, this morning, to follow slowly with them, whilst he pushed on with the pack-horses as rapidly as they could go. After giving him the pleasing intelligence that his toil was nearly over for the present, and leaving some few directions, I pushed on again with the boy, who had not found the least sign of water in the valley, to meet the native with the sheep. In about three miles we saw him coming on alone without them, he said they were a mile further back, and so tired they could not travel. Halting our horses, I sent him to bring them on, and during his absence, had some tea made and dinner prepared for him. When the sheep came up they were in sad condition, but by giving them water and a few hours rest, they recovered sufficiently to travel on in the evening to the water.

At night, the whole party were, by God’s blessing, once more together, and in safety, after having passed over one hundred and thirty-five miles of desert country, without a drop of water in its whole extent, and at a season of the year the most unfavourable for such an undertaking. In accomplishing this distance, the sheep had been six and the horses five days without water, and both had been almost wholly without food for the greater part of the time. The little grass we found was so dry and withered, that the parched and thirsty animals could not eat it after the second day. The day following our arrival at the water was one of intense heat, and had we experienced such on our journey, neither men nor horses could ever have accomplished it; most grateful did we feel, therefore, to that merciful Being who had shrouded us from a semi-tropical sun, at a time when our exposure to it would have ensured our destruction.

From the 12th to the 18th we remained at the sand-drifts, during which time we were engaged in attending to the horses, in sending back to recover the stores that had been left by the overseer, and in examining the country around. The natives had told me that there were two watering places at the termination of the cliffs to the eastward, and that these were situated in a somewhat similar manner to those at the head of the Great Bight. We were encamped at one, and I made several ineffectual attempts to find the other during the time the horses were recruiting. The traces of natives near us were numerous, and once we saw their fires, but they did not shew themselves at all. The line of cliffs which had so suddenly turned away from the sea, receded inland from eight to ten miles, but still running parallel with the coast; between it and the sea the country was low and scrubby, with many beds of dried up salt lakes; but neither timber nor grass, except the little patch we were encamped at. Above the cliffs the appearance of the country was the same as we had previously found upon their summits, with, perhaps, rather more scrub; pigeons were numerous at the sand-hills, and several flocks of red-crested and red-winged cockatoos were hovering about, watching for an opportunity to feast upon the red berries I have before spoken of, and which were here found in very great abundance, and of an excellent quality. The sand, as usual at our encampments, was a most dreadful annoyance, and from which we had rarely any respite. The large flies were also very numerous, troublesome and irritating tormentors. They literally assailed us by hundreds at a time, biting through our clothes, and causing us constant employment in endeavouring to keep them off. I have counted twenty-three of these blood-suckers at one time upon a patch of my trousers eight inches square.

Being now at a part of the cliffs where they receded from the sea, and where they had a last become accessible, I devoted some time to an examination of their geological character. The part that I selected was high, steep, and bluff towards the sea, which washed its base; presenting the appearance described by Captain Flinders, as noted before. By crawling and scrambling among the crags, I managed, at some risk, to get at these singular cliffs. The brown or upper portion consisted of an exceedingly hard, coarse grey limestone, among which some few shells were embedded, but which, from the hard nature of the rock, I could not break out; the lower or white part consisted of a gritty chalk, full of broken shells and marine productions, and having a somewhat saline taste: parts of it exactly resembled the formation that I had found up to the north, among the fragments of table-land; the chalk was soft and friable at the surface, and easily cut out with a tomahawk, it was traversed horizontally by strata of flint, ranging in depth from six to eighteen inches, and having varying thicknesses of chalk between the several strata. The chalk had worn away from beneath the harder rock above, leaving the latter most frightfully overhanging and threatening instant annihilation to the intruder. Huge mis-shapen masses were lying with their rugged pinnacles above the water, in every direction at the foot of the cliffs, plainly indicated the frequency of a falling crag, and I felt quite a relief when my examination was completed, and I got away from so dangerous a post.

I have remarked that the natives at the head of the Great Bight had intimated to us, that there were two places where water might be found in this neighbourhood, not far apart, and as with all our efforts we had only succeeded in discovering one, I concluded that the other must be a little further along the coast to the westward; in this supposition I was strengthened, by observing that all the native tracks we had met with apparently took this direction. Under this impression I determined to move slowly along the coast until we came to it, and in order that our horses might carry no unnecessary loads, to take but a few quarts of water in our kegs.

On the 18th we moved on, making a short stage of fourteen miles, through a heavy, sandy, and scrubby country. At first I tried the beach, but finding the sand very loose and unsuitable for travelling, I was again compelled to enter the scrub behind the sea-shore ridge, travelling through a succession of low scrubby undulations, with here and there the beds of dried up lakes The traces of natives were now more recent and numerous, but found principally near the bushes bearing the red berries, and which grew behind the front ridge of the coast in the greatest abundance. From this circumstance, and from our having now travelled a considerable distance beyond the first water, I began to fear that the second which had been spoken of by the natives must, if it existed at all, be behind us instead of in advance, and that in reality the fruit we saw, and not water, was the object for which the natives, whose tracks were around us, were travelling to the westward. The day was cloudy, and likely for rain, but after a few drops had fallen, the clouds passed away. In the afternoon the overseer dug behind the sand-ridge, and at six feet came to water, but perfectly salt.

March 19. — To-day we travelled onwards for twenty-six miles, through a country exactly similar to that we had passed through yesterday. At three in the afternoon we halted at an opening when there was abundance of grass, though dry and withered. The indications of natives having recently passed still continued, and confirmed me in my impression, that they were on a journey to the westward, and from one distant water to another, and principally for the purpose of gathering the fruit. We were now forty miles from the last water, and I became assured that we had very far to go to the next; I had for some time given over any hope of finding the second water spoken of by the natives at the head of the Bight, and considered that we must have passed it if it existed, long ago, perhaps even in that very valley, or among those very sandhills where we had searched so unsuccessfully on the 12th. There was now the prospect of a long journey before us without water, as we had brought only a little with us for ourselves, and which was nearly exhausted, whilst our horses had been quite without, and were already suffering from thirst. Consulting with the overseer, I resolved to leave our baggage where we were, whilst the horses were sent back to the water (forty miles) to rest and recruit for three or four days; by this means I expected they would gather strength, and as they would have but little weight to carry until they reached our present position, when they returned we should be better able to force a passage through the waste before us, at the same time that we should be able to procure a fresh and larger stock of water for ourselves. At midnight I sent the whole party back to the last water, but remained myself to take care of the baggage and sheep. I retained an allowance of a pint of water per day for six days, this being the contemplated period of the overseer’s absence. My situation was not at all enviable, but circumstances rendered it unavoidable.

From the departure of my party, until their return, I spent a miserable time, being unable to leave the camp at all. Shortly after the party left, the sheep broke out of the yard, and missing the horses with which they had been accustomed to travel and to feed, set off as rapidly as they could after them; I succeeded in getting them back, but they were exceedingly troublesome and restless, attempting to start off, or to get down to the sea whenever my eye was off them for an instant, and never feeding quietly for ten minutes together; finding at last that they would be quite unmanageable, I made a very strong and high yard, and putting them in, kept them generally shut up, letting them out only to feed for two or three hours at once. This gave me a little time to examine my maps, and to reflect upon my position and prospects, which involved the welfare of others, as well as my own. We had still 600 miles of country to traverse, measured in straight lines across the chart; but taking into account the inequalities of the ground, and the circuit we were frequently obliged to make, we could not hope to accomplish this in less than 800 miles of distance. With every thing in our favour we could not expect to accomplish this in less than eight weeks; but with all the impediment and embarrassments we were likely to meet with, it would probably take us twelve. Our sheep were reduced to three in number, and our sole stock of flour now amounted to 142 pounds, to be shared out amongst five persons, added to which the aspect of the country before us was disheartening in the extreme; the places at which there was any likelihood of finding water were probably few and far apart, and the strength of our horses was already greatly reduced by the hardships they had undergone. Ever since we had left Fowler’s Bay, the whole party, excepting the youngest boys, had been obliged chiefly to walk, and yet every care and precaution we could adopt were unable to counteract the evil effects of a barren country, and an unfavourable season of the year. The task before us was indeed a fearful one, but I firmly hoped by patience and perseverance, safely and successfully to accomplish it at last.

During nearly the whole time that my party were away the weather was cool and cloudy. Occasionally there was a great deal of thunder and lightning, accompanied by a few drops of rain, but it always cleared away without heavy showers. The storms came up from seawards, and generally passed inland to the north-east; which struck me as being somewhat singular, especially when taken in conjunction with the fact that on one or two occasions, when the wind was from the north-east, it was comparatively cool, and so unlike any of those scorching blasts we had experienced from the same quarter when on the western side of the Great Bight. There was another thing connected with my present position which equally surprised me, and was quite as inexplicable: whilst engaged one morning rambling about the encampment as far as I could venture away, I met with several flights of a very large description of parrot, quite unknown to me, coming apparently from the north-east, and settling among the shrubs and bushes around. They had evidently come to eat the fruit growing behind the sand-hills, but being scared by my following them about, to try and shoot one, they took wing and went off again in the direction they had come from.

Several days had now elapsed since the departure of the overseer with the horses, and as the time for their return drew nigh I became anxious and restless. The little stock of water left me was quite exhausted. It had originally been very limited, but was reduced still further by the necessity I was under of keeping it in a wooden keg, where it evaporated, and once or twice by my spilling some. At last, on the 25th, I was gratified by seeing my party approach. They had successfully accomplished their mission, and brought a good supply of water for ourselves, but the horses looked weary and weak, although they had only travelled fourteen miles that day. After they had rested a few hours I broke up the encampment, and travelling for fourteen miles further over a scrubby country, came to a patch of grass, at which we halted early. From the nature of the country, and the consequent embarrassment it entailed upon us, it was impossible for any of the party to have any longer even the slight advantage formerly enjoyed of occasionally riding for a few miles in turn; all were now obliged to walk, except the two youngest boys, who were still permitted to ride at intervals. The weather was cloudy, and showers were passing to the north-east.

March 26. — Upon moving on this morning we passed through the same wretched kind of country for eighteen miles, to an opening in the scrub where was a little grass, and at which we halted to rest. There was so much scrub, and the sandy ridges were so heavy and harassing to the horses, that I began to doubt almost if we should get them along at all. We were now seventy-two miles from the water, and had, in all probability, as much further to go before we came to any more, and I saw that unless something was done to lighten the loads of the pack-animals (trifling as were the burdens they carried) we never could hope to get them on. Leaving the natives to enjoy a sleep, the overseer and I opened and re-sorted all our baggage, throwing away every thing that we could at all dispense with; our great coats, jackets, and other articles of dress were thrown away; a single spare shirt and pair of boots and socks being all that were kept for each, besides our blankets and the things we stood in, and which consisted only of trowsers, shirt, and shoes. Most of our pack-saddles, all our horse-shoes, most of our kegs for holding water, all our buckets but one, our medicines, some of our fire-arms, a quantity of ammunition, and a variety of other things, were here abandoned. Among the many things that we were compelled to leave behind there was none that I regretted parting with more than a copy of Captain Sturt’s Expeditions, which had been sent to me by the author to Fowler’s Bay to amuse and cheer me on the solitary task I had engaged in; it was the last kind offering of friendship from a highly esteemed friend, and nothing but necessity would have induced me to part with it. Could the donor, however, have seen the miserable plight we were reduced to, he would have pitied and forgiven an act that circumstances alone compelled me to.

After all our arrangements were made, and every thing rejected that we could do without, I found that the loads of the horses were reduced in the aggregate about two hundred pounds; but this being divided among ten, relieved each only a little. Myself, the overseer, and the King George’s Sound native invariably walked the whole way, but the two younger natives were still permitted to ride alternately upon one of the strongest horses. As our allowance of flour was very small, and the fatigue and exertion we were all obliged to undergo very great, I ordered a sheep to be killed before we moved on again. We had been upon short allowance for some time, and were getting weak and hardly able to go through the toils that devolved upon us. Now, I knew that our safety depended upon that of our horses, and that their lives again were contingent upon the amount of fatigue we were ourselves able to endure, and the degree of exertion we were capable of making to relieve them in extremity. I did not therefore hesitate to make use of one of our three remaining sheep to strengthen us for coming trials, instead of retaining them until perhaps they might be of little use to us. The whole party had a hearty meal, and then, watching the horses until midnight, we moved on when the moon rose.

During the morning we had passed along an extensive dried-up salt swamp behind the coast ridge, which was soft for the horses in some places, but free from that high brush which fatigued them so much, and which now appeared to come close in to the sea, forming upon the high sandy ridges a dense scrub. The level bank of the higher ground, or continuation of the cliffs of the Bight, which had heretofore been distinctly visible at a distance of ten or twelve miles inland, could no longer be seen: it had either merged in the scrubby and sandy elevations around us, or was hid by them from our view.