Edward John Eyre - Vol 1 - Ch 7

Excursion to the north–east—Trace down the Frome—Water becomes salt—Pass beyond the ranges—Cockatoos seen—Heavy rains—Dry water–courses—Mount Distance—Brine springs—Mount Hopeless—Termination of Flinders range—Lake Torrens to the north and to the east—All further advance hopeless—Young emus caught—Rejoin party—Move back towards Mount Arden—Loss of a horse—Arrive at the depot—Plans for the future—Take up stores—Prepare for leaving.

Upon returning to the depot at the Burr, I decided upon making an excursion to the north–east, to ascertain the actual termination of Flinders range, and the nature of the prospect beyond it; not to satisfy myself, for a single glance from the eminence I had recently occupied at Mount Serle, had for ever set my curiosity at rest on these points, but in discharge of the duty I owed to the Governor, and the promoters of the expedition, who could not be expected to be satisfied with a bare conjecture on a subject which they had sent me practically to demonstrate, however fairly from circumstances the conclusions might be deduced at which I had been compelled to arrive. Accordingly, on the morning of the 29th, I took with me my overseer, one man, a native boy, and a cart drawn by three horses to carry water; and making an early start, proceeded to attempt for the last time to penetrate into those regions of gloom.

After travelling ten miles, we arrived at the Frome, where we watered and fed the horses. From this place I sent the overseer on before us, to see how far the water extended, that we might determine where to fix our halting–place for the night. After resting awhile we proceeded on with the cart, tracing down the watercourse over a very rough and stony road on which the cart was upset, but without any serious damage, and passing several very large and fine water–holes with many teal and wood–duck upon them.

At eight miles from where we lunched, we encamped with abundance of water, but very little grass. The latitude by meridian altitude of Altair was 30 degrees 18 minutes 30 seconds S. In the evening the overseer returned, and stated there was water for nine miles further, but that the road was very rocky and bad.
August 30.—Leaving the overseer to bring on the cart, I rode on a–head down the watercourse to trace the continuance of the water. The road I found to be very bad, and at twenty–three miles, upon tasting the water I found it as salt as the sea, and the bed of the creek quite impracticable for a cart; I therefore hurried back for seven miles, and halted the party at the last good water–hole, which was about sixteen miles from our yesterday’s camp.

We had seen many ducks during the day, two of which I shot, and the black boy found a nest with fresh eggs in it, so that we fared more luxuriously than usual. The night set in very dark and windy, but no rain fell.
August 31.—This morning I sent the overseer back to the depot with the cart and two horses, whilst I and the native boy proceeded on our route on horseback, taking also a man leading a pack–horse to carry water for us the first day. Following down the watercourse, we passed through some imposing scenery, consisting of cliffs from six to eight hundred feet in height, rising perpendicularly from their bases, below which were recesses, into which the sun never shone, and whose gloomy grandeur imparted a melancholy cast to the thoughts and feelings, in unison with the sublimity of the scene around.

After travelling twelve miles from the camp, we got clear of the hills, and found an open country before us to the north; through this we proceeded for ten miles further, still following the direction of the watercourse, and halting upon it for the night, after having made a stage of twenty–two miles. We had tolerable grass for the horses, but were obliged to give them water from the kegs.

At this place I was much astonished to see four white cockatoos, flying about among the gum–trees in the watercourse, and immediately commenced a narrow search for water, as I knew those birds did not frequently go far away from it: there was not, however, a drop to be found anywhere, nor the least sign of there having been any for a long time. What made the circumstance of finding cockatoos here so surprising and unusual was, that for the last two hundred miles we had never seen one at all. Where then had these four birds come from? could it be that they had followed under Flinders range from the south, and had strayed so far away from all others of their kind, or had they come from some better country beyond the desert by which I was surrounded, or how was that country to be attained, supposing it to exist? Time only may reply to these queries, but the occasion which prompted them was, to say the least, extraordinary.

Towards night the sky became overcast with clouds, and as I saw that we should have rain, I set to work with the boy and made a house of boughs for our protection, but the man who accompanied us was too indolent to take the same precaution, thinking probably that the rain would pass away as it had often done before. In this, however, he was disappointed, for the rain came down in torrents [Note 7 at end para.]—in an hour or two the whole country was inundated, and he was taught a lesson of industry at the expense of a thorough and unmitigated drenching.

[Note 7: This will not appear surprising, when the great amount of rain which falls annually in some parts of Australia, is taken into account. The Count Strzelecki gives 62.68 inches, as the average annual fall for upwards of twenty years, at Port Macquarie.—At p. 193, that gentleman remarks:—”The greatest fall of rain recorded in New South Wales, during 24 hours, amounted to 25 inches. (Port Jackson).”]
September 1.—This morning I sent the man back to the depot with the pack–horse, with orders to the overseer to move back the party as rapidly as possible towards Mount Arden, that by taking advantage of the rain we might make a short route through the plains, and avoid the necessity of going up among the rugged and stony watercourses of the hills.

This retrograde movement was rendered absolutely necessary from our present position, for since we had wound through the hills to the north, and come out upon the open plains, I saw that Flinders range had terminated, and I now only wished to trace its northern termination so far east as to enable me to see round it to the southward, as well as to ascertain the character and appearance of the country to the north and to the east; as soon therefore as the man had left, I proceeded at a course of E. 35 degrees N. for a low and very distant elevation, apparently the last of the hills to the eastward, this I named Mount Distance, for it deceived us greatly as to the distance we were from it.

In passing through the plains, which were yesterday so arid and dry, I found immense pools, nay almost large reaches of water lodged in the hollows, and in which boats might have floated. Such was the result of only an hour or two’s rain, whilst the ground itself, formerly so hard, was soft and boggy in the extreme, rendering progress much slower and more fatiguing to the horses than it otherwise would have been. By steadily persevering we made a stage of thirty–five miles, but were obliged to encamp at night some miles short of the little height I had been steering for.

During our ride we passed several dry watercourses at five, ten, twenty–five, thirty, and thirty–five miles from our last encampment. The last we halted upon with good feed for the horses, and rainwater lodged everywhere. All these watercourses took their course to the north, emptying and losing themselves in the plains. In the evening heavy showers again fell, and the night set in very dark.
September 2.—After travelling seven miles we ascended Mount Distance, and from it I could see that the hills now bore S. and S.E. and were getting much lower, so that we were rapidly rounding their northern extremity. To the north and north–east were seen only broken fragments of table lands, similar to what I found near the lake to the north–west; the lake itself, however, was nowhere visible, and I saw that I should have another day’s hard riding before I could satisfactorily determine its direction. Upon descending I steered for a distant low haycock–like peak in the midst of one of the table–topped fragments; from this rise I expected the view would be decisive, and I named it Mount Hopeless.—From Mount Distance it bore E. 25 degrees N.

Crossing many little stony ridges, and passing the channel of several watercourses, I discovered a new and still more disheartening feature in the country, the existence of brine springs. Hitherto we had found brackish and occasionally salt water in some of the watercourses, but by tracing them up among the hills, we had usually found the quality to improve as we advanced, but now the springs were out in the open plains, and the water poisoned at its very source.

Occasionally round the springs were a few coarse rushes, but the soil in other respects was quite bare, destitute of vegetation, and thickly coated over with salt, presenting the most miserable and melancholy aspect imaginable. We were now in nearly the same latitude as that in which Captain Sturt had discovered brine springs in the bed of the Darling, and which had rendered even that river so perfectly salt that his party could not make use of it.