Edward John Eyre - Vol 1 - Ch 6

Cause of hostility of the natives—Well sunk unsuccessfully—Overseer sent to the east—The Scott examined—Rock wallabie—Overseer’s return—Another visit to lake torrens—Boggy character of its bed—Extraordinary effects of mirage and refraction—Return to the camp—Supply of water exhausted—Leave the depot—The Mundy—The Burr—Mount Serle—Lake Torrens to the east—Melancholy prospects.

August 21

August 21.—Not having seen the natives for the last two days, I thought I might venture to explore the watercourse we were encamped upon, and set off on horseback immediately after breakfast, accompanied by Mr. Scott.

We traced up its stony and rugged bed for about seven miles among the hills, to a point where the scenery was peculiarly grand and sublime. The cliffs rose perpendicularly from the channel of the watercourse to a height of from six to eight hundred feet, towering above us in awful and imposing prominencies. At their base was a large pool of clear though brackish water; and a little beyond a clump of rushes, indicating the existence of a spring. In the centre of these rushes the natives had dug a small well, but the water was no better than that in the larger pool.

The natives generally resort to such places as these when the rain water is dried up in the plains or among the hills immediately skirting them. Far among the fastnesses of the interior ranges, these children of the wilds find resources which always sustain them when their ordinary supplies are cut off; but they are not of corresponding advantage to the explorer, because they are difficult of access, not easily found, and seldom contain any food for his horses, so that he can barely call at them and pass on. Such was the wretched and impracticable character of the country in which we were now placed.

Having tied up our horses, Mr. Scott and I ascended to the top of the high cliff by winding along the ridges at the back of it. From its summit we had an extensive view, and I was enabled to take several angles. One of the high peaks in the Mount Deception range bearing S. 35 degrees W. about five miles off I named Mount Scott. To the east were seen high ranges, to which I had sent my overseer. Descending the hill we examined the course of the watercourse a few miles further, and ascertaining that there was no more water in it, retraced our steps towards the depot, somewhat fatigued with clambering up rocky ranges under the oppressive heat of an almost tropical sun.

In the course of the morning Mr. Scott shot a rock wallabie of rather a large species, and many more were seen about the high perpendicular cliff under which we had found the water. These singular animals appeared to have a wonderful facility for scaling precipices, for they leapt and clambered up among the steep sides of the cliffs in a manner quite incredible, and where it was perfectly impossible for any human being to follow them.

In the evening the overseer and native boy returned, they had traced up the watercourse I turned back from on the 5th of August, and had found water in it about eight miles beyond where I gave up the search. They had also visited the native camp where the two little children had been left deserted, they were now gone, and the whole plain around had been strewed with green boughs. The handkerchief I had tied round the eldest child had been taken off and left at the camp, the natives probably dreading to have anything to do with property belonging to such fearful enchanters as they doubtless suspected us to be.

Our party being once more all together, it became necessary to decide upon our future movements, the water in the hole at the depot being nearly all used, and what was left being very muddy and unpalatable. Before I abandoned our present position, however, I was anxious to make a journey to the shores of Lake Torrens to the westward; I had already visited its basin at points fully 150 miles apart, viz. in about 29 degrees 10 minutes S. latitude, and in 31 degrees 30 minutes S. I had also traced its course from various heights in Flinders range, from which it was distinctly visible, and in my mind, had not the slightest doubt that it was one continuous and connected basin. Still, from the hills of our present depot, it was not visible to the north of west, and I should not have felt myself justified in going away to the eastward, without positively ascertaining its connection with the basin I was at to the north–west; accordingly, as soon as the overseer returned I got ready for another harassing and uninteresting journey to the westward.

August 22

August 22.—Setting off early this morning, accompanied by a native boy, I steered W.N.W. For the first four miles, I took my overseer along with me, to shew him the direction I intended to take, so that if I did not return in two days, he might send a pack–horse with water to meet me along the tracks.

After he had left I pushed steadily on for thirty–five miles, principally over heavy sandy ridges, which were very fatiguing to the horses, and at dark reached the outer dunes of the lake, where I was obliged to tie the horses up to some small bushes, as there was neither water nor grass for them. The bed of the lake where I struck it, seemed dry for some distance from the shore, but towards the middle there appeared to be a large body of water. From our camp Mount Deception bore E. 26 degrees S. and Termination Hill, E. 35 degrees N.

August 23

August 23.—Starting early, I traced the course of the lake north–westerly for ten miles, and was then able to satisfy myself that it was a part of the same vast basin I had seen so much further to the north, it inclined here considerably to the westward, and this circumstance added to the high sandy ridges intervening between it and Flinders range fully explained the cause of our not having observed its course to the north of west from the hills near our depot. Crossing the sandy ridge bounding the basin of the lake, I was surprised to see its bed apparently much contracted, and the opposite shore distinctly visible, high, rocky and bluff to the edge of the water, seemingly only seven or eight miles distant, and with several small islands or rocks scattered over its surface. This was however only deceptive, and caused by the very refractive state of the atmosphere at the time, for upon dismounting and leading the horses into the bed of the lake, the opposite shore appeared to recede, and the rocks or islands turned out to be only very small lumps of dirt or clay lying in the bed of the lake, and increased in magnitude by refraction.

I penetrated into the basin of the lake for about six miles, and found it so far without surface water. On entering at first, the horses sunk a little in a stiff mud, after breaking through a white crust of salt, which everywhere coated the surface and was about one eighth of an inch in thickness, as we advanced the mud became much softer and greatly mixed with salt water below the surface, until at last we found it impossible to advance a step further, as the horses had already sunk up to their bellies in the bog, and I was afraid we should never be able to extricate them, and get them safely back to the shore. Could we have gone on for some distance, I have no doubt that we should have found the bed of the lake occupied by water, as there was every appearance of a large body of it at a few miles to the west. As we advanced a great alteration had taken place, in the aspect of the western shores. The bluff rocky banks were no longer visible, but a low level country appeared to the view at seemingly about fifteen or twenty miles distance. From the extraordinary and deceptive appearances, caused by mirage and refraction, however, it was impossible to tell what to make of sensible objects, or what to believe on the evidence of vision, for upon turning back to retrace our steps to the eastward, a vast sheet of water appeared to intervene between us and the shore, whilst the Mount Deception ranges, which I knew to be at least thirty–five miles distant, seemed to rise out of the bed of the lake itself, the mock waters of which were laving their base, and reflecting the inverted outline of their rugged summits. The whole scene partook more of enchantment than reality, and as the eye wandered over the smooth and unbroken crust of pure white salt which glazed the basin of the lake, and which was lit up by the dazzling rays of a noonday sun, the effect was glittering, and brilliant beyond conception.

[Very similar appearances seem to have been observed by Monsieur Peron, on the S. W. coast near Geographe Bay. “A cette epoque nous eprouvions les effets les plus singuliers du mirage; tantot les terres les plus uniformes et les plus basses nous paroissoient portees au dessus des eaux, et profondement dechirrees dans toutes leurs parties; tantot leurs cretes superieures sembloient renversees, et reposer ainsi sur les vagues; a chaque instant on croyoit voir au large de longues chaines de recifs, et de brisans qui sembloient se reculer a mesure qu’on s’en approchoit davantage.”—VOYAGE DE DECOUVERTES AUX TERRES AUSTRALES REDIGE PAR PERON.]

Upon regaining the eastern shore, I found that all I had been able to effect was to determine that the lake still continued its course to the N.W. that it was still guided as before, by a ridge like a sea shore, that its area was undiminished, that its bed was dry on the surface for at least six miles from the outer margin, and that from the increasing softness of the mud, occasioned by its admixture with water, as I proceeded there was every probability that still further west, water would be found upon the surface. Beyond these few facts, all was uncertainty and conjecture in this region of magic. Turning away from the lake, I retraced my steps towards the depot, and halted at dark after a stage of nearly forty miles. Here was neither grass nor water, and again I was obliged to tie up the unfortunate horses, jaded, hungry and thirsty.

During the night, I released one of the poor animals for an hour or two, thinking he would not stray from his companion, and might, perhaps, crop a few of the little shrubs growing on the sand ridges, but on searching for him in the morning he was gone, and I had to walk twelve miles over the heavy sand tracking him, the boy following along our outward track with the other horse, for fear of missing the man who was to meet us with water.

The stray horse had fortunately kept near the line we had followed in going to the lake, and I came upon him in a very weak and miserable condition, soon after the arrival of the man who had been sent to meet us with water. By care and slow travelling, we reached the depot safely in the afternoon, having crossed in going and returning, upwards of 100 miles of desert country, during the last three days, in which the horses had got nothing either to eat or drink. It is painful in the extreme, to be obliged to subject them to such hardships, but alas, in such a country, what else can be done.

In the evening, I directed the overseer to have every thing got ready for breaking up our encampment on the morrow, as the party had been fifteen days in depot, and little else than mud remained in the hole which had supplied them with water.

August 25

August 25.—Slight showers during the night, and the day dark and cloudy, with rather an oppressive atmosphere. The horses had strayed during the night, so that it was nine o’clock before we got away.

We had scarcely left the place of encampment, when shoutings were heard, and signal fires lit up in every direction by the natives, to give warning I imagine of our being abroad, and to call stragglers to their camp. These people had still remained in our immediate vicinity, and were now assembled in very considerable numbers on the brow of one of the front ridges, to watch us pass by. They would not approach us, but as the drays moved on kept running in a line with them, at some distance, and occasionally shouting and gesticulating in an unintelligible manner.

In our first and only intercourse with these natives, we had unfortunately given them just cause of offence, and I was most anxious, if possible, before leaving, to efface the unfavourable impression which they had received. Letting the drays therefore move on, I remained behind with Mr. Scott, leading our horses, and trying to induce some of the natives to come up to us; for a long time, however, our efforts were in vain, but at last I succeeded in persuading a fine athletic looking man to approach within a moderate distance; I then shewed him a tomahawk, which I laid on the ground, making signs that I intended it for him. When I had retired a little, he went and took it up, evidently comprehending its use, and appearing much pleased with the gift; the others soon congregated around him, and Mr. Scott and I mounting our horses, followed the party, leaving the sable council to discuss the merits of their new acquisition, and hoping that the unfavourable opinion with which we had at first impressed them, would be somewhat modified for the future.

Steering N. 43 degrees W. for five miles, and then winding through the range, in the bed of a watercourse to the plains on the other side, we took a direction of E. 20 degrees N. for fifteen miles, arriving about dark upon a small channel that I had crossed on the 14th of August. Here was good feed for the horses, and plenty of water a little way up among the hills. This watercourse I had not examined when I was here before, preferring to trace up the larger one beyond instead. Had I followed this, I should easily have found water, and been relieved from much of the anxiety which I had then undergone.

In travelling through a country previously unexplored, no pains should be spared in examining every spot, even the most unlikely, where it is possible for water to exist, for after searching in vain, in large deep rocky and likely looking watercourses, I have frequently found water in some small branch or gorge, that had appeared too insignificant, or too uninviting to require to be explored. This I named The Mundy, after my friend, Alfred Mundy, Esq., now the Colonial Secretary of South Australia.

Early this morning, I took Mr. Scott with me, to examine The Mundy, leaving the overseer to proceed with the party.

After entering the hills a short distance, we found in the bed of the Mundy a strongly running stream, connecting several reaches of waters, upon which many black ducks were sailing about. This appeared to be one of the finest and best streams we had yet discovered, although the water was slightly impregnated with alum. After the watercourse left the hills, the surface water all disappeared, the drainage being then absorbed by the light sandy soil of the plains, and this had invariably been the case with all the waters emanating from Flinders range.

Crossing some stony ridges, we followed the party up the large watercourse, which I had traced so far on the 5th of August, since named the Burr, after the Deputy Surveyor–general of the colony, and at nineteen miles halted early in the afternoon, at some springs rising among rocks and rushes in its bed. The water was very brackish, though drinkable, but did not extend far on either side of the spot we were encamped at, and when after dinner, I took a long walk up the watercourse to search for more, I was unable to find any either in the main channel or its branches. The grass was abundant and good. The latitude of the camp I ascertained to be 30 degrees 27 minutes S.

August 27

August 27.—Having risen and breakfasted very early, I took Mr. Scott and a native boy with me, and steered for a very high hill with rather a rounded summit, bearing from our camp E. 17 degrees S. This I named Mount Serle, in accordance with a request made to me before my departure, by the Governor, that I would name some remarkable feature in the country after Mr. Serle. This was the most prominent object we had hitherto met with; among high ranges it appeared the highest, and from a height above our present encampment, it had been selected by us as the most likely point from which to obtain a view to the eastward.

The elevation of this hill could not be less than three thousand feet above the level of the sea; but unfortunately, the injury my barometer had sustained in the escape of some of the mercury, and my being unable to fill it again properly, quite precluded me from ascertaining the height with accuracy.

In our route to Mount Serle, we observed another hill rather more to the northward, seemingly of as great an altitude as Mount Serle itself; this was not situate in the Mount Serle range, nor had it been seen by us in our view from the height above the depot.

At ten miles from our camp, we came to a large watercourse, emanating from the Mount Serle range on the south side, and running close under its western aspect, with an abundance of excellent clear water in it. This I named the Frome, after the Surveyor–general of the colony, to whose kindness I was so much indebted in preparing my outfit and for the loan of instruments for the use of the expedition.

Having watered our horses we tied them up to some trees, and commenced the ascent of Mount Serle on foot. The day was exceedingly hot, and we found our task a much harder one than we had anticipated, being compelled to wind up and down several steep and rugged ridges before we could reach the main one.

At length, however, having overcome all difficulties we stood upon the summit of the mountain. Our view was then extensive and final. At one glance I saw the realization of my worst forebodings; and the termination of the expedition of which I had the command. Lake Torrens now faced us to the east, whilst on every side we were hemmed in by a barrier which we could never hope to pass. Our toils and labours and privations, had all been endured to no purpose; and the only alternative left us would be to return, disappointed and baffled.

To the north and north–west the horizon was unbroken to the naked eye, but with the aid of a powerful telescope I could discover fragments of table land similar to those I had seen in the neighbourhood of the lake in that direction. At N. 8 degrees W. a very small haycock–looking hill might be seen above the level waste, probably the last of the low spurs of Flinders range to the north. To the north–east, the view was obstructed by a high range immediately in front of us, but to the east and as far as E. 13 degrees S. we saw through a break in the hills, a broad glittering belt in appearance, like the bed of a lake, but apparently dry.

The ranges seemed to continue to the eastward of Mount Serle for about fifteen miles, and then terminated abruptly in a low, level, scrubby–looking country, also about fifteen miles in extent, between the hills and the borders of the lake. The latter appearing about twenty–five miles across, whilst beyond it was a level region without a height or elevation of any kind.

Connecting the view before me with the fact that on the 14th August, when in about lat. 29 degrees S., I had found Lake Torrens turning round to the north–east, and had observed no continuation of Flinders range to the eastward of my position, I could now no longer doubt that I had almost arrived at the termination of that range, and that the glittering belt I now saw to the east, was in fact only an arm of the lake taking the drainage from its eastern slopes.

Sad and painful were the thoughts that occupied my mind in returning to the camp. Hitherto, even when placed in the most difficult or desperate circumstances I was cheered by hope, but now I had no longer even that frail solace to cling to, there was no mistaking the nature of the country, by which we were surrounded on every side, and no room for doubting its impracticability.