Edward John Eyre - Vol 1 - Ch 17

Horses Begin to Knock Up — Compelled to Follow Round the Beach — Tinor Pony Unable to Proceed — Gloomy Prospects — Overseer Begins to Despond — Two More Horses Left Behind — Fragments of Wrecks — Water All Consumed — Collect Dew — Change in Character of Country — Dig a Well — Procure Water — Native and Family Visit Us — Overseer Goes Back for Baggage — Disastrous Termination of His Journey — Situation and Prospects of the Party.

March 28. — AT daylight we moved on, every one walking, even the youngest boy could not ride now, as the horses were so weak and jaded. Soon after leaving the camp, one of them laid down, although the weight upon his back was very light; we were consequently obliged to distribute the few things he carried among the others, and let him follow loose. Our route lay along the beach, as the dense scrub inland prevented us from following any other course; we had, therefore, to go far out of our way, tracing round every point, and following along every bay, whilst the sea-weed frequently obstructed our path, and drove us again to the loose sands, above high water mark, causing extra fatigue to our unfortunate horses. At other times we were forced to go between these banks of sea-weed and the sea, into the sea itself, on which occasions it required our utmost vigilance to prevent the wretched horses from drinking the salt water, which would inevitably have destroyed them. In order to prevent this we were obliged to walk ourselves in the water, on the sea-side of them, one of the party being in advance, leading one horse, another being behind to keep up the rear, and the other three being at intervals along the outside of the line, to keep them from stopping for an instant until the danger was past.

We had scarcely advanced six miles from our last night’s camp when the little Timor pony I had purchased at Port Lincoln broke down completely; for some time it had been weak, and we were obliged to drive it loose, but it was now unable to proceed further, and we were compelled to abandon it to a miserable and certain death, that by pushing on, we might use every exertion in our power to relieve the others, though scarcely daring to hope that we could save even one of them. It was, indeed, a fearful and heart-rending scene to behold the noble animals which had served us so long and so faithfully, suffering the extremity of thirst and hunger, without having it in our power to relieve them. Five days of misery had passed over their heads since the last water had been left, and one hundred and twelve miles of country had been traversed without the possibility of procuring food for them, other than the dry and sapless remains of last year’s grass, and this but rarely to be met with. No rains had fallen to refresh them, and they were reduced to a most pitiable condition, still they travelled onwards, with a spirit and endurance truly surprising. Whenever we halted, they followed us about like dogs wherever we went, appearing to look to us only for aid, and exhibiting that confidence in us which I trust we all reposed in the Almighty, for most truly did we feel, that in His mercy and protection alone our safety could now ever be hoped for.

About ten o’clock the tide became too high for us to keep the beach, and we were compelled to halt for some hours. Our horses were nearly all exhausted, and I dreaded that when we next moved on many of them would be unable to proceed far, and that, one by one, they would all perish, overcome by sufferings which those, who have not witnessed such scenes, can have no conception of. We should then have been entirely dependent upon our own strength and exertions, nearly midway between Adelaide and King George’s Sound, with a fearful country on either side of us, with a very small supply of provisions, and without water.

The position we were in, frequently forced sad forebodings with respect to the future, and though I by no means contemplated with apathy the probable fate that might await us, yet I was never for a moment undecided as to the plan it would be necessary to adopt, in such a desperate extremity — at all hazards, I was determined to proceed onwards.

The country we had already passed through, precluded all hope of our recrossing it without the horses to carry water for us, and without provisions to enable us to endure the dreadful fatigue of forced marches, across the desert. The country before us was, it is true, quite unknown, but it could hardly be worse than that we had traversed, and the chance was that it might be better. We were now pushing on for some sand-hills, marked down in Captain Flinders’ chart at about 126 1/2 degrees of east longitude; I did not expect to procure water until we reached these, but I felt sure we should obtain it on our arrival there. After this point was passed, there appeared to be one more long push without any likelihood of procuring water, as the cliffs again became the boundary of the ocean; but beyond Cape Arid, the change in the character and appearance of the country, as described by Flinders, indicated the existence of a better and more practicable line of country than we had yet fallen in with.

My overseer, however, was now unfortunately beginning to take up an opposite opinion, and though he still went through the duty devolving upon him with assiduity and cheerfulness, it was evident that his mind was ill at ease, and that he had many gloomy anticipations of the future. He fancied there were no sand-hills ahead, that we should never reach any water in that direction, and that there was little hope of saving any of the horses. In this latter idea I rather encouraged him than otherwise, deeming it advisable to contemplate the darker side of the picture, and by accustoming ourselves to look forward to being left entirely dependent upon our own strength and efforts, in some measure to prepare ourselves for such an event, should it unfortunately befal us. In conversing with him upon our prospects, and the position we should be in if we lost all our horses, I regretted extremely to find that his mind was continually occupied with thoughts of returning, and that he seemed to think the only chance of saving our lives, would be to push on to the water ourselves, and then endeavour again to return to Fowler’s Bay, where we had buried a large quantity of provisions. Still it was a gratification to find that the only European with me, did not altogether give way to despondency, and could even calmly contemplate the prospect before us, considering and reasoning upon the plan it might be best to adopt, in the event of our worst forebodings being realized. In discussing these subjects, I carefully avoiding irritating or alarming him, by a declaration of my own opinions and resolutions, rather agreeing with him than otherwise, at the same time, that I pointed out the certain risk that would attend any attempt to go back to Fowler’s Bay, and the probability there was of much less danger attending the effort to advance to King George’s Sound. With respect to the native boys, they appeared to think or care but little about the future; they were not sensible of their danger, and having something still to eat and drink, they played and laughed and joked with each other as much as ever.

Whilst waiting for the tide to fall, to enable us to proceed, the overseer dug a hole, and we buried nearly every thing we had with us, saddles, fire-arms, ammunition, provisions; all things were here abandoned except two guns, the keg with the little water we had left, and a very little flour, tea and sugar. I determined to relieve our horses altogether from every weight (trifling as was the weight of all we had), and by pushing, if possible, on to the water, endeavour to save their lives; after which we could return for the things we had abandoned. Our arrangements being completed, we all bathed in the sea, ate a scanty meal, and again moved onwards at half past two o’clock.

The poor horses started better than could have been expected, but it was soon evident that all were fast failing, and many already quite exhausted. At six miles my favourite mare could no longer keep up with the rest, and we were obliged to let her drop behind. Her foal, now six months old, we got away with some difficulty from her, and kept it with the other horses; at four miles further another of the horses failed, and I had him tied up, in the hope that if we reached water during the evening, I might send back and recover him.

Towards dark we all imagined we saw a long point stretching to the S. W. and backed by high sandy looking cones. We hoped that these might be the sand-hills we were pushing for, and our hearts beat high with hope once more. It, however, soon become too dark to discern anything, and at fourteen miles from where we had halted in the morning, we were again obliged by the tide to encamp for the night, as the country behind the shore was densely scrubby, and quite impracticable as a line of route. It was nine o’clock when we halted, and we were all very tired, and our feet somewhat inflamed, from getting so frequently wet with the salt water, whilst endeavouring to keep the horses from it; there was no grass but the coarse wiry kind that bound the sand together, of this the poor animals cropped a little, as a very heavy dew fell, and served to moisten it. As usual, the overseer and myself kept watch upon the horses at night, whilst the natives enjoyed their undisturbed repose. Two of the boys were young, and none of the three had their frame and muscles sufficiently developed to enable them to undergo the fatigue of walking during the day if deprived of their rest at night; still the duty became very hard upon two persons, where it was of constant occurrence, and superadded to the ordinary day’s labour.

March 29. — After calling up the party, I ascended the highest sand-hill near me, from which the prospect was cheerless and gloomy, and the point and sandy cones we imagined we had seen last night had vanished. Indeed, upon examining the chart, and considering that as yet we had advanced only one hundred and twenty-six miles from the last water, I felt convinced that we had still very far to go before we could expect to reach the sand-drifts. The supply of water we had brought for ourselves was nearly exhausted, and we could afford none for breakfast to-day; the night, however, had been cool, and we did not feel the want of it so much. Upon moving, I sent one of the natives back to the horse I had tied up, about four miles from our camp to try to bring him on to where we should halt in the middle of the day.

For ten miles we continued along the beach until we came to a bluff rocky ridge, running close into the sea; here we rested until the tide fell, and to give the native boy an opportunity of rejoining us, which he did soon after, but without the horse; the poor animal had travelled about eight miles with him from the place where we had left him, but had then been unable to come any further, and he abandoned him.

Whilst the party were in camp, I sent the overseer to a distant point of land to try and get a view of the coast beyond; but upon his return, after a long walk, he told me his view to the west was obstructed by a point similar to the one I had sent him to. During the day, we had passed a rather recent native encampment, where were left some vessels of bark for holding water, or for collecting it from the roots of trees, or the grass. Near where we halted in the middle of the day, the foot-prints of the natives were quite fresh, and shewed that they were travelling the same way as ourselves.

For the last two or three days, we had passed many pieces of wreck upon the beach, oars, thwarts of boats, fragments of masts, spars, etc. strewed about in every direction; none of them, however, appeared to have been recently deposited there, and many of the oars, and lighter spars, were stuck up on their ends in the sand above high water mark, probably so placed by the natives, but with what object I know not. One oar was stuck up upon a high sand ridge, some distance from the shore, and I spent some time in examining the place, in the vain hope that it might be an indication of our vicinity to water.

In the afternoon we all had a little tea; and after a bathe in the sea, again moved onwards; fortunately the beach was firm and hard, and the evening cool; the horses advanced slowly and steadily, and in a way that quite surprised me. After travelling for thirteen miles, we encamped under the coast ridge late in the evening, all very much exhausted, having made several ineffectual searches for water, among the sandy ridges, as we passed along.

In our route along the shore, we had seen immense numbers of fish in the shallow waters, and among the reefs lying off the coast; several dead ones had been picked up, and of these the boys made a feast at night. Our last drop of water was consumed this evening, and we then all lay down to rest, after turning the horses behind the first ridge of the coast, as we could find no grass; and neither the overseer nor I were able to watch them, being both too much worn out with the labours of the day, and our exertions, in searching for water.

March 30. — Getting up as soon as the day dawned, I found that some of the horses had crossed the sand ridge to the beach, and rambled some distance backwards. I found, too, that in the dark, we had missed a patch of tolerable grass among the scrub, not far from our camp. I regretted this the more, as during the night a very heavy dew had fallen, and the horses might perhaps have fed a little.

Leaving the overseer to search for those that had strayed, I took a sponge, and went to try to collect some of the dew which was hanging in spangles upon the grass and shrubs; brushing these with the sponge, I squeezed it, when saturated, into a quart pot, which, in an hour’s time, I filled with water. The native boys were occupied in the same way; and by using a handful of fine grass, instead of a sponge, they collected about a quart among them. Having taken the water to the camp, and made it into tea, we divided it amongst the party, and never was a meal more truly relished, although we all ate the last morsel of bread we had with us, and none knew when we might again enjoy either a drink of water, or a mouthful of bread. We had now demonstrated the practicability of collecting water from the dew. I had often heard from the natives that they were in the habit of practising this plan, but had never before actually witnessed its adoption. It was, however, very cold work, and completely wet me through from head to foot, a greater quantity of water by far having been shaken over me, from the bushes, than I was able to collect with my sponge. The natives make use of a large oblong vessel of bark, which they hold under the branches, whilst they brush them with a little grass, as I did with the sponge; the water thus falls into the trough held for it, and which, in consequence of the surface being so much larger than the orifice of a quart pot, is proportionably sooner filled. After the sun once rises, the spangles fall from the boughs, and no more water can be collected; it is therefore necessary to be at work very early, if success is an object of importance.

The morning was very hazy, and at first nothing could be seen of the country before us; but as the mist gradually cleared away a long point was seen to the south-west, but so very distant that I felt certain our horses never would get there if it lay between us and the water. To our astonishment they kept moving steadily along the beach, which was tolerably firm near the sea, in which were many reefs and shelves of rocks, covered with muscles below low water mark. As we progressed, it was evident that the country was undergoing a considerable change; the sea shore dunes and the ridges immediately behind them were now of a pure white sand, and steep, whilst those further back were very high and covered with low bushes. Upon ascending one of the latter I had a good view around, and to my inexpressible pleasure and relief saw the high drifts of sand we were looking for so anxiously, in the corner between us and the more distant point of land first seen. The height of the intervening ridges and the sand-drifts being in the angle prevented us from noticing them sooner.

We had now travelled ten miles, and the sand-hills were about five miles further. The horses were, however, becoming exhausted, and the day was so hot that I was compelled to halt, and even now, in sight of our long-expected goal, I feared we might be too late to save them. Leaving the boys to attend to the animals, I took the overseer up one of the ridges to reconnoitre the country for the purpose of ascertaining whether there was no place near us where water might be procured by digging. After a careful examination a hollow was selected between the two front ridges of white sand, where the overseer thought it likely we might be successful. The boys were called up to assist in digging, and the work was anxiously commenced; our suspense increasing every moment as the well was deepened. At about five feet the sand was observed to be quite moist, and upon its being tasted was pronounced quite free from any saline qualities. This was joyous news, but too good to be implicitly believed, and though we all tasted it over and over again, we could scarcely believe that such really was the case. By sinking another foot the question was put beyond all doubt, and to our great relief fresh water was obtained at a depth of six feet from the surface, on the seventh day of our distress, and after we had travelled one hundred and sixty miles since we had left the last water. Words would be inadequate to express the joy and thankfulness of my little party at once more finding ourselves in safety, and with abundance of water near us. A few hours before hope itself seemed almost extinguished, and those only who have been subjeet to a similar extremity of distress can have any just idea of the relief we experienced. The mind seemed to have been weighed down by intense anxiety and over-wrought feelings. At first the gloomy restlessness of disappointment or the feverish impatience of hope had operated upon our minds alternately, but these had long since given way to that calm settled determination of purpose, and cool steady vigour of action which desperate circumstances can alone inspire. Day by day our prospects of success had gradually diminished; our horses had become reduced to so dreadful a state that many had died, and all were likely to do so soon; we ourselves were weak and exhausted by fatigue, and it appeared impossible that either could have gone many miles further. In this last extremity we had been relieved. That gracious God, without whose assistance all hope of safety had been in vain, had heard our earnest prayers for his aid, and I trust that in our deliverance we recognized and acknowledged with sincerity and thankfulness his guiding and protecting hand. It is in circumstances only such as we had lately been placed in that the utter hopelessness of all human efforts is truly felt, and it is when relieved from such a situation that the hand of a directing and beneficent Being appears most plainly discernible, fulfilling those gracious promises which he has made, to hear them that call upon him in the day of trouble.

[Note 27: “When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the Lord will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them.”

“I will open rivers in high places, and fountains in the midst of the valleys: I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.” — Isa. xli. 17, 18.

“I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.” — Isa. xliii. 19.]

As soon as each had satisfied his thirst the pots were filled and boiled for tea, and some bread was baked, whilst the overseer and natives were still increasing the size of the well to enable us to water the horses. We then got a hasty meal that we might the better go through the fatigue of attending to the suffering animals. Our utmost caution now became necessary in their management; they had been seven days without a drop of water, and almost without food also, and had suffered so much that with abundance of water near us, and whilst they were suffering agonies from the want of it, we dared not give it to them freely. Having tied them up to some low bushes, we gave each in turn about four gallons, and then driving them away for half a mile to where there was a little withered grass, we watched them until the evening, and again gave each about four gallons more of water.

Whilst thus engaged, a very fine looking native with his wife and family, passed us and halted for a few moments to observe us, and procure a drink from the well we had made. This man did not seem at all alarmed, and made signs that he was going to sleep, a little further along the coast, where there was also water, pointing to the white sandhills about five miles from us. The language he spoke seemed to be the same as that of the other natives we had met with along the Great Bight, nor did the King George’s Sound native understand him a bit better than he had done the others.

At night one of our two remaining sheep was killed, and the overseer and myself proceeded to watch the horses for the night. The poor creatures were scarcely able to crawl, yet were restless and uneasy, and fed but little, they had tasted water and they were almost mad for it, so that it was a severe task to both myself and the overseer to keep them from returning to the well. The single sheep now left had also given us a good deal of trouble, it was frightened at being alone, and frustrated all our efforts to yard it, preferring to accompany and remain with the horses, — an arrangement we were obliged to acquiesce in.

March 31. — The morning broke wild and lowering, and the sand blew fearfully about from the drifts among which the water was. Our well had tumbled in during the night, and we had to undergo considerable labour before we could water the horses. After clearing it out, we gave each of them seven gallons, and again sent them away to the grass, letting the native boys watch them during the day, whilst we rested for a few hours, shifted our camp to a more sheltered place, weighed out a week’s allowance of flour at half a pound each per day, and made sundry other necessary arrangements.

Fearful of losing our only remaining sheep, if left to wander about, we made a strong yard to put it into at nights, for a long time, however, we could not get it to go near the yard, and only succeeded at last by leading in a horse first, behind which it walked quite orderly.

April 1. — The last night had been bitterly cold and frosty, and as we were badly clad, and without the means of making a large or permanent fire, we all felt acutely the severity of the weather. After breakfast, I left the overseer and natives to clear out the well, which had again fallen in, and water the horses, whilst I walked five miles along the beach to the westward, and then turned inland to examine the sand-drifts there and search for grass. Behind the drifts I found some open sandy plains, with a coarse kind of dry grass upon them, and as they were not far from where the natives had dug wells for water, I thought the place might suit us to encamp at for a time when we left our present position. In returning to the camp, through the scrub behind the coast, I shot a fine wallabie, and saw several others; but having only cartridges with me, I did not like to cut up the balls for ammunition.