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.

April 7

April 7. — Another sleepless night from the intense cold. Upon getting up I put a mark upon the beach to guide the overseer to our camp on his return, then weighed out flour and baked bread for the party, as I found it lasted much better when used stale than fresh. I tried to shoot some pigeons with small gravel, having plenty of powder but no shot. My efforts were, however, in vain, for though I several times knocked them over, and tore feathers out, I killed none. The day being very clear, I ascended the highest sand-hill to obtain a view of what had appeared to us to be a long point of land, stretching to the south-west. It was now clearly recognisable as the high level line of cliffs forming the western boundary of the Great Bight, and I at once knew, that when we left our present position, we could hope for no water for at least 140 or 150 miles beyond.

April 8-9

The weather on the 8th and 9th suddenly became mild and soft, with the appearance of rain, but none fell. I was becoming anxious about the return of my overseer and native boy, who had been absent nine tides, when they ought to have returned in eight, and I could not help fearing some mischance had befallen them, and frequently went back wards and forwards to the beach, to look for them. The tenth tide found me anxiously at my post on the look out, and after watching for a long time I thought I discerned some dark objects in the distance, slowly advancing; gradually I made out a single horse, driven by two people, and at once descended to meet them. Their dismal tale was soon told. After leaving us on the 5th, they reached their destination on the 7th; but in returning one of the horses became blind, and was too weak to advance further, when they had barely advanced thirteen miles; they were consequently obliged to abandon him, and leave behind the things he had been carrying. With the other two horses they got to within five miles of the place we first procured water at on the 30th March. Here a second horse had become unable to proceed, and the things he had carried were also obliged to be left behind. They then got both horses to the first well at the sand-hills and watered them, and after resting a couple of hours came on to join me. Short as this distance was, the jaded horse could not travel it, and was left behind a mile and a half back. Having shewn the overseer and boy the camp, I sent the other two natives to fetch up the tired horse, whilst I attended to the other, and put the solitary sheep in for the night. By a little after dark all was arranged, and the horse that had been left behind once more with the others.

From the overseer I learnt, that during the fifty miles he had retraced our route to obtain the provisions we had left, he had five times dug for water: four times he had found salt water, and once he had been stopped by rock. The last effort of this kind he had made not far from where we found water on the 30th of March, and I could not but be struck with the singular and providential circumstance of our first halting and attempting to dig for water on that day in all our distress, at the very first place, and at the only place, within the 160 miles we had traversed, where water could have been procured. It will be remembered, that in our advance, we had travelled a great part of the latter portion of this distance by night, and that thus there was a probability of our having passed unknowingly some place where water might have been procured. The overseer had now travelled over the same ground in daylight, with renovated strength, and in a condition comparatively strong, and fresh for exertion. He had dug wherever he thought there was a chance of procuring water, but without success in any one single instance.

After learning all the particulars of the late unlucky journey, I found that a great part of the things I had sent for were still thirty-eight miles back, having only been brought twelve miles from where they had originally been left; the rest of the things were ten miles away, and as nearly all our provisions, and many other indispensable articles were among them, it became absolutely necessary that they should be recovered in some way or other, but how that was to be accomplished was a question which we could not so easily determine. Our horses were quite unfit for service of any kind, and the late unfortunate attempt had but added to the difficulties by which we were surrounded, and inflicted upon us the additional loss of another valuable animal. Many and anxious were the hours I spent in contemplating the circumstances we were in, and in revolving in my mind the best means at our command to extricate ourselves from so perilous a situation. We were still 650 miles from King George’s Sound, with an entirely unknown country before us. Our provisions, when again recovered, would be barely sufficient to last us for three weeks and a half, at a very reduced rate of allowance. Our horses were jaded and miserable beyond all conception; they could literally scarcely crawl, and it was evident they would be unable to move on again at all without many days’ rest where we were. On the other hand we had still the prospect of another of those fearful pushes without water to encounter, as soon as we left our present encampment, and had first to recover the provisions and other things yet so far away. Nothing could be more disheartening than our situation, and it was also one in which it was difficult to decide what was best to be done. Aware that a single false step would now be fatal to us all, I saw that our circumstances required promptness and decision. With every thing depending upon my sole judgment, and the determination I arrived at, I felt deeply and anxiously the over-whelming responsibility that devolved upon me.

We were now about half way between Fowler’s Bay and King George’s Sound, located among barren sand-drifts, and without a drop of water beyond us on either side, within a less distance than 150 miles. Our provisions were rapidly decreasing, whilst we were lying idle and inactive in camp; and yet it would be absolutely necessary for us thus to remain for some time longer, or at once abandon the horses, and endeavour to make our way without them. To the latter, however, there were many objections, one of which was, that I well knew from the experience we had already had, that if we abandoned the horses, and had those fearful long distances to travel without water, we never could accomplish them on foot, if compelled at the same time to live upon a very low diet, to carry our arms, ammunition, and provisions, and in addition to these, a stock of water, sufficient to last six or seven days. The only thing that had enabled us to get through so far on our journey in safety, had been the having the horses with us, for though weak and jaded, they had yet carried the few things, which were indispensable to us, and which we never could have carried ourselves under the circumstances.

There was another inducement to continue with the horses, which had considerable weight with me, and however revolting the idea might be at first, it was a resource which I foresaw the desperate circumstances we were in must soon compel us to adopt. It was certainly horrible to contemplate the destruction of the noble animals that had accompanied us so far, but ere long I well knew that such would be the only chance of saving our own lives, and I hoped that by accustoming the mind to dwell upon the subject beforehand, when the evil hour did arrive, the horror and disgust would be in some degree lessened. Upon consulting the overseer, I was glad to find that he agreed with me fully in the expediency of not abandoning the horses until it became unavoidable, and that he had himself already contemplated the probability of our being very shortly reduced to the alternative of using them for food.

It remained now only to decide, which way we would go when we agan moved on, whether to prosecute our journey to the Sound, or try to retrace our steps to Fowler’s Bay. On this point my own opinion never wavered for an instant. My conviction of the utter impossibility of our ever being able to recross the fearful country we had passed through with such difficulty, under circumstances so much more favourable than we were now in, was so strong that I never for a moment entertained the idea myself. I knew the many and frightful pushes without water we should have to make in any such attempt, and though the country before us was unknown, it could not well be worse than that we had passed through, whilst the probability was, that after the first long stage was accomplished, and which would take us beyond the western boundary of the Great Bight, we should experience a change in the character of the country, and be able to advance with comparative ease and facility. Unhappily my overseer differed from me in opinion upon this point.

The last desperate march we had made, had produced so strong an impression upon his mind, that he could not divest himself of the idea that the further we went to the westward the more arid the country would be found, and that eventually we should all perish from want of water; on the other hand, the very reduced allowance of food we were compelled to limit ourselves to, made his thoughts always turn to the depot at Fowler’s Bay, where we had buried a large supply of provisions of all kinds. In vain I pointed out to him the certain difficulties we must encounter in any attempt to return, the little probability there was of a single horse surviving even the first of those dreadful stages we should have to make, and the utter impossibility of our getting successfully through without the horses; and, on the other hand, the very cheering prospect there was of all our most serious difficulties being terminated as soon as we had turned the western extremity of the Bight (to accomplish which, would not occupy more than six or seven days at the furthest when we moved on,) and the strong hopes that we might then reasonably entertain of falling in with some vessel, sealing or whaling upon the coast, and from which we might obtain a fresh supply of provisions. All my arguments were fruitless. With the characteristic obedience and fidelity with which he had ever served me, he readily acquiesced in any plan I might decide upon adopting; but I perceived, with pain, that I could not convince him that the view I took was the proper one, and that the plan I intended to follow was the only one which held out to us even the remotest hopes of eventual safety and success.

Finding that I made little progress in removing his doubts on the question of our advance, I resolved to pursue the subject no further, until the time for decision came, hoping that in the interim, his opinions and feelings might in some degree be modified, and that he might then accompany me cheerfully. The important and pressing duty of recovering at once the stores we had left behind, now claimed my attention. The overseer, with his usual anxiety to save me from any extra labour, kindly offered to attempt this object again; but as he had just returned from a severe, though unfortunately unsuccessful journey for the same purpose, I decided upon doing it myself, and at once made my preparations for leaving the camp.