Edward John Eyre - Vol 1 - Ch 18

Go Back with a Native — Spear Sting-Rays — Recover the Baggage — Cold Weather — Overseer Reconnoitres the Cliffs — Unfavourable Report — Difference of Opinion As to Best Plans for the Future — Kill a Horse for Food — Injurious Effects From Meat Diet — Native Boys Become Disaffected — They Steal Provisions — Native Boys Desert the Party — They Return Almost Starved — Party Proceed Onwards to the Westward — Cliffs of the Bight — Country Behind Them — Threatening Weather — Murder of the Overseer.

April 25

April 25. — During the night dense clouds, accompanied by gusts of wind and forked lightning, passed rapidly to the south-west, and this morning the wind changed to that quarter. Heavy storms gathered to seawards with much thunder and lightning, but no rain fell near us; the sea appearing to attract all the showers. The overseer shot a very large eagle to-day and made a stew of it, which was excellent. I sent the boy out to try and shoot a wallabie, but he returned without one.

In the evening, a little before dark, and just as we had finished our tea, to my great astonishment our two runaway natives made their appearance, the King George’s Sound native being first. He came frankly up, and said that they were both sorry for what they had done, and were anxious to be received again, as they found they could get nothing to eat for themselves. The other boy sat silently and sullenly at the fire, apparently more chagrined at being compelled by necessity to come back to us than sorry for having gone away. Having given them a lecture, for they both now admitted having stolen meat, not only on the night they were detected but previously, I gave each some tea and some bread and meat, and told them if they behaved well they would be treated in every respect as before, and share with us our little stock of provisions as long as it lasted.

I now learnt that they had fared in the bush but little better than I should have done myself. They had been absent four days, and had come home nearly starved. For the first two days they got only two small bandicoots and found no water; they then turned back, and obtaining a little water in a hollow of the cliffs, left by the shower which had passed over, they halted under them to fish, and speared a sting-ray; this they had feasted on yesterday, and to-day came from the cliffs to look for us without any thing to eat at all.

During the night some heavy clouds passed over our heads, and once a drop or two of rain fell. The 26th broke wild and stormy to the east and west, and I determined to remain one day longer in camp, in the hope of rain falling, but principally to rest the two natives a little after the long walk from which they had returned. Breakfast being over, I sent the overseer and one native to the beach, to try to get a sting-ray, and to the other I gave my gun to shoot wallabie: no fish was procured, but one wallabie was got, half of which I gave to the native who killed it, for his dinner.

Being determined to break up camp on the 27th, I sent the King George’s Sound native on a-head, as soon as he had breakfasted, that, by preceding the party, he might have time to spear a sting-ray against we overtook him. The day was dull, cloudy, and warm, and still looking likely for rain, with the wind at north-east. At eleven we were ready, and moved away from a place where we had experienced so much relief in our extremity, and at which our necessities had compelled us to remain so long. For twenty-eight days we had been encamped at the sand-drifts, or at the first water we had found, five miles from them. Daily, almost hourly, had the sky threatened rain, and yet none fell. We had now entered upon the last fearful push, which was to decide our fate. This one stretch of bad country crossed, I felt a conviction we should be safe. That we had at least 150 miles to go to the next water I was fully assured of; I was equally satisfied that our horses were by no means in a condition to encounter the hardships and privations they must meet with in such a journey; for though they had had a long rest, and in some degree recovered from their former tired-out condition, they had not picked up in flesh or regained their spirits; the sapless, withered state of the grass and the severe cold of the nights had prevented them from deriving the advantage that they ought to have done from so long a respite from labour. Still I hoped we might be successful. We had lingered day by day, until it would have been folly to have waited longer; the rubicon was, however, now passed, and we had nothing to rely upon but our own exertions and perseverance, humbly trusting that the great and merciful God who had hitherto guarded and guidedus in safety would not desert us now.

Upon leaving the camp we left behind one carbine, a spade, some horse hobbles, and a few small articles, to diminish as much as possible the weight we had to carry. For eight miles we traced round the beach to the most north-westerly angle of the Bight, and for two miles down its south-west shore, but were then compelled by the rocks to travel to the back, through heavy scrubby ridges for four miles; after which we again got in to the beach, and at one mile along its shore, or fifteen miles from our camp, we halted for the night, at a patch of old grass. The afternoon had been hot, but the night set in cold and clear, and all appearance of rain was gone. The native I had sent on before had not succeeded in getting a fish, though he had broken one or two spears in his attempts.

April 28

April 28. — After travelling along the beach for two miles we ascended behind the cliffs, which now came in bluff to the sea, and then keeping along their summits, nearly parallel with the coast, and passing through much scrub, low brushwood, and dwarf tea-tree growing upon the rocky surface, we made a stage of twenty miles; both ourselves and the horses greatly tired with walking through the matted scrub of tea-tree every where covering the ground. The cliffs did not appear so high as those we had formerly passed along, and probably did not exceed from two to three hundred feet in elevation. They appeared to be of the same geological formation; the upper crust an oolitic limestone, with many shells embedded, below that a coarse, hard, grey limestone, and then alternate streaks of white and yellow in horizontal strata, but which the steepness of the cliffs prevented my going down to examine.

Back from the sea, the country was rugged and stony, and every where covered with scrub or dwarf tea-tree. There was very little grass for the horses, and that old and withered. In the morning one of the natives shot a large wallabie, and this evening the three had it amongst them for supper; after which they took charge of the horses for the night, this being the first time they had ever watched them on the journey, myself and the overseer having exclusively performed this duty heretofore; but, as I was now expecting a longer and almost more arduous push than any we had yet made, and in order that we might be able to discharge efficiently the duties devolving upon us, and make those exertions which our exigences might require, I deemed it only right that we should sometimes be assisted by the two elder boys, in a task which we had before always found to be the most disagreeable and fagging of any, that of watching the horses at night, after a long and tiring day’s journey.

April 29

On the morning of the 29th we moved away very early, passing over a rocky level country, covered with low brush, and very fatiguing to both ourselves and our horses. The morning was gloomy and close, and the day turned out intensely hot. After travelling only fifteen miles we were compelled to halt until the greatest heat was passed. Our stock of water and provisions only admitted of our making two meals in the day, breakfast and supper; but as I intended this evening to travel great part of the night, we each made our meal now instead of later in the day, that we might not be delayed when the cool of the evening set in. We had been travelling along the summit of the cliffs parallel with the coast line, and had found the country level and uniform in its character; the cliffs still being from two to three hundred feet in elevation, and of the same formation as I noticed before. There were patches of grass scattered among the scrub at intervals, but all were old and withered.

At four in the afternoon we again proceeded on our journey, but had not gone far before the sky unexpectedly became overcast with clouds, and the whole heavens assumed a menacing and threatening appearance. To the east and to the west, thunderclouds gathered heavily around, every indication of sudden and violent rain was present to cheer us as we advanced, and all were rejoicing in the prospects of a speedy termination to our difficulties. The wind had in the morning been north-east, gradually veering round to north and north-west, at which point it was stationary when the clouds began to gather. Towards sunset a heavy storm passed over our heads, with the rapidity almost of lightning; the wind suddenly shifted from north-west to south-west, blowing a perfect hurricane, and rendering it almost impossible for us to advance against it. A few moments before we had confidently expected a heavy fall of rain; the dark and lowering sky had gradually gathered and concentrated above and around us, until the very heavens seemed overweighted and ready every instant to burst. A briefer interval of time, accompanied by the sudden and violent change of wind, had dashed our hopes to the ground, and the prospect of rain was now over, although a few heavy clouds still hung around us.

Three miles from where we had halted during the heat of the day, we passed some tolerable grass, though dry, scattered at intervals among the scrub, which grew here in dense belts, but with occasional openings between. The character of the ground was very rocky, of an oolitic limestone, and having many hollows on its surface. Although we had only travelled eighteen miles during the day, the overseer requested I would stop here, as he said he thought the clouds would again gather, and that rain might fall to-night; that here we had large sheets of rock, and many hollows in which the rain-water could be collected; but that if we proceeded onwards we might again advance into a sandy country, and be unable to derive any advantage from the rain, even should it fall. I intended to have travelled nearly the whole of this night to make up for the time we had lost in the heat of the day, and I was the more inclined to do this, now that the violence of the storm had in some measure abated, and the appearance of rain had almost disappeared. The overseer was so earnest, however, and so anxious for me to stop for the night, that greatly against my own wishes, and in opposition to my better judgment, I gave way to him and yielded. The native boys too had made the same request, seconding the overseer’s application, and stating, that the violence of the wind made it difficult for them to walk against it.

The horses having been all hobbled and turned out to feed, the whole party proceeded to make break-winds of boughs to form a shelter from the wind, preparatory to laying down for the night. We had taken a meal in the middle of the day, which ought to have been deferred until night, and our circumstances did not admit of our having another now, so that there remained only to arrange the watching of the horses, before going to sleep. The native boys had watched them last night, and this duty of course fell to myself and the overseer this evening. The first watch was from six o’clock P. M. to eleven, the second from eleven until four A. M., at which hour the whole party usually arose and made preparations for moving on with the first streak of daylight.

To-night the overseer asked me which of the watches I would keep, and as I was not sleepy, though tired, I chose the first. At a quarter before six, I went to take charge of the horses, having previously seen the overseer and the natives lay down to sleep, at their respective break-winds, ten or twelve yards apart from one another. The arms and provisions, as was our custom, were piled up under an oilskin, between my break-wind and that of the overseer, with the exception of one gun, which I always kept at my own sleeping place. I have been thus minute in detailing the position and arrangement of our encampment this evening, because of the fearful consequences that followed, and to shew the very slight circumstances upon which the destinies of life sometimes hinge. Trifling as the arrangement of the watches might seem, and unimportant as I thought it at the time, whether I undertook the first or the second, yet was my choice, in this respect, the means under God’s providence of my life being saved, and the cause of the loss of that of my overseer.

The night was cold, and the wind blowing hard from the south-west, whilst scud and nimbus were passing very rapidly by the moon. The horses fed tolerably well, but rambled a good deal, threading in and out among the many belts of scrub which intersected the grassy openings, until at last I hardly knew exactly where our camp was, the fires having apparently expired some time ago. It was now half past ten, and I headed the horses back, in the direction in which I thought the camp lay, that I might be ready to call the overseer to relieve me at eleven. Whilst thus engaged, and looking steadfastly around among the scrub, to see if I could anywhere detect the embers of our fires, I was startled by a sudden flash, followed by the report of a gun, not a quarter of a mile away from me. Imagining that the overseer had mistaken the hour of the night, and not being able to find me or the horses, had taken that method to attract my attention, I immediately called out, but as no answer was returned, I got alarmed, and leaving the horses, hurried up towards the camp as rapidly as I could. About a hundred yards from it, I met the King George’s Sound native (Wylie), running towards me, and in great alarm, crying out, “Oh Massa, oh Massa, come here,” — but could gain no information from him, as to what had occurred. Upon reaching the encampment, which I did in about five minutes after the shot was fired, I was horror-struck to find my poor overseer lying on the ground, weltering in his blood, and in the last agonies of death.