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Edward John Eyre - Vol 1 - Ch 5

Break up the encampment--Arrive at depot pool--Geological character of the country--Barometers out of order--Advance to reconnoitre--Ascend Termination Hill--Surprise native women--They abandon their children--Ineffectual search for water--Return towards Mount Deception--Broken character of the country--Find water--The Scott--Rejoin the party--Water all used at the depot--Embarrassing circumstances--Remove to the Scott--Reconnoitre in advance--Barren country--Table-topped elevations--Indications of the violent action of water--Meet natives--Reach Lake Torrens--The water salt--Obliged to return--Arrival at depot--Hostile demonstrations of the natives.

August 13

August 13.—Continuing our course to the N. W. I took on the cart for 13 miles to a large dry channel, coming from the hills, upon which we halted for an hour or two to rest and feed the horses, as there were some sprinklings of grass around. We had now a change in the appearance of the country; the ironstone ranges seemed to decrease rapidly in elevation to the north, and the region around appeared more level, with many very singular looking table–topped elevations from 50 to 300 feet in height and with steep precipitous sides which were red, with the ironstone above, and white, with a substance like chalk, below. The country was covered with salsolae, and we passed the beds of many dried up salt lakes. Ascending the highest ridge near us, I found Lake Torrens was no longer visible, being shut out by the sandy ridges to the westward, whilst the low ironstone hills impeded our view to the north, and to the east. Having given our horses water, we buried twelve gallons against our return, and sending back the man with the cart, and extra horses, the native boy and I still pushed on to the N. W., taking a pack–horse to carry our provisions and a few quarts of water for ourselves.

As we proceeded, the country changed to extensive plains and undulations of stones and gravel, washed perfectly level by water, and with the stones as even in size and as regularly laid as if they had been picked out and laid by a paviour. At intervals were interspersed many of the fragments of table land I have alluded to before, only perhaps a little less elevated than they had previously been; we passed also the beds of several small dry watercourses, and encamped upon one of the largest, long after dark, having travelled twenty–five miles since we left the cart, and having made in the whole a day’s journey of thirty–seven miles. There was tolerable food in the bed of the watercourse, but the horses were thirsty and eat but little. Unfortunately, in crossing the stony ground, one of them cast a shoe, and began to go a little lame.

August 14

August 14.—Moving away very early we travelled sixteen miles due north, through a very similar country, only that the stones and gravel in the plains had become much finer and a good deal mixed with sand; the fragments of table land still continued in every direction at intervals, and their elevations still varied from 50 to 300 feet. In the upper part these elevations appeared red from the red sandy soil, gravel, or iron–stone grit which were generally found upon their summits. They had all steep precipitous sides, which looked very white in the distance, and were composed of a chalky substance, traversed by veins of very beautiful gypsum. There were neither trees nor shrubs, nor grass, nor vegetation of any kind except salsolaceous plants, and these every where abounded.

In the midst of these barren miserable plains I met with four natives, as impoverished and wretched looking as the country they inhabited. As soon as they saw us they took to their heels, apparently in great alarm, but as I was anxious to find out from them if there was any water near, I galloped after two of them, and upon coming up with them was very nearly speared for my indiscretion; for the eldest of the two men, who had in his hand a long, rude kind of spear with which he had been digging roots or grubs out of the ground (although I could not see the least sign of anything edible) finding that he was rather close pressed, suddenly halted and faced me, raising his spear to throw.

The rapid pace at which I had been pursuing prevented my reining in my horse, but by suddenly spurring him when within but a few yards of the native, I wheeled on one side before the weapon had time to leave his grasp, and then pulling up I tried to bring my friend to a parley at a less dangerous distance.

Finding that I did not attempt to injure him, the native stood his ground, though tremblingly, and kept incessantly vociferating, and waving me away; to all my signs and inquiries, he was provokingly insensible, and would not hear of anything but my immediate departure. Sometimes he pointed to the north, motioning me to go in that direction, but the poor wretch was in such a state of alarm and trepidation that I could make nothing of him and left him. He remained very quietly until I had gone nearly a quarter of a mile, and then thinking that he had a fair start, he again took to his heels, and ran away as fast as he could in the direction opposite to that I had taken.

Continuing our course northerly I steered for what appeared to be a small lake not far away to the N. W. and crossed over some heavy ridges of white sand; upon reaching the object of my search it proved to be a winding arm of the main lake (Torrens) at first somewhat narrow, but gradually enlarging as we traced it downwards. The bed of this arm was coated over, as had been the dry part of the bed of the main lake, with a very pungent salt, with mud and sand and water intermixed beneath the upper crust.

Following the arm downwards I came to a long reach of water in its channel, about two feet deep, perfectly clear, and as salt as the sea, and I even fancied that it had that peculiar green tinge which sea–water when shallow usually exhibits.

This water, however, was not continuous; a little further on, the channel again became dry, as it increased in width in its approach to the main lake, the bed of which, near its shores, was also dry. From a high bank which I ascended, I had a full view of the lake stretching away to the north–east, as far as the eye could reach, apparently about thirty miles broad, and still seeming to be bounded on its western shores by a low ridge, or table land, beyond which nothing could be seen. No hills were visible any where, nor was there the least vegetation of any kind.

I was now upwards of 100 miles away from my party in a desert, without grass or water, nor could I expect to obtain either until my return to the creek, where I had left the twelve gallons, and this was about fifty miles away. The main basin of Lake Torrens was still four or five miles distant, and I could not expect to gain any thing by going down to its shores; as on previous occasions, I had ascertained that to attempt to cross it, or even to reach the water a few miles from its outer edge, was quite impossible, from the boggy nature of its bed. From my present elevation, the lake was seen bending round to the N. E., and I became aware that it would be a barrier to all efforts to the north. My horses were suffering, too, from want of water and food; and I had, therefore, no alternative but to turn back from so inhospitable and impracticable a country.

With a heavy heart, and many misgivings as to the future, I retreated from the dismal scene, and measured back my steps as rapidly as possible towards the creek where our stock of water was buried. From the state in which our horses were, I knew, that to save their lives, it was necessary to get them to water without loss of time, and I therefore continued our homeward course during the whole night, and arrived early in the morning at the place where I had parted from the cart.

August 15

August 15.—It was now necessary to use great caution in the management of our jaded animals. During the last two days we had ridden them fully 100 miles over a heavy country, without food or water; and for the last twenty–four hours they had never had a moment’s rest; and now we had only twelve gallons of water for three horses and ourselves, and were still fifty miles away from the depot, without the possibility of getting a further supply until our arrival there.

Having hobbled the horses out for an hour, we watched them until they had rested a little, and got cool. I then gave them half of our supply of water; and leaving them to feed under the superintendence of the native boy, took my gun, and walked seven or eight miles up the creek, under a scorching sun, to look for water, examining every gorge and nook, with an eagerness and anxiety, which those only can know who have been similarly circumstanced; but my search was in vain, and I returned to the encampment tired and disappointed. Out of what was left of our water, the boy and myself now made each a little tea, and then gave the remainder to the horses; after which we laid down for an hour whilst they were feeding. About four in the afternoon, we again saddled them, and moved homewards, riding, as before, the whole night, with the exception of about an hour, when we halted to feed the horses, upon meeting with a rich bed of the succulent geranium, of which they were so fond.

August 16

August 16.—Travelling on steadily, we began early in the afternoon to draw near to the depot; and when within a mile and half of it, I was surprised, upon looking back, to see two natives trying to steal upon us with spears, who, as soon as they perceived they were observed, rose up, and made violent gestures of defiance, but at once desisted from following us. A little further on, upon a rise not far from the depot, I was still more astonished to see at least thirty of these savages; and I hurried forwards as quickly as possible to ascertain what it could mean, not without some anxiety for the safety of my party.