Edward John Eyre - Vol 1 - Ch 8

Proceed to the westward—channel of communication between lake torrens and spencer’s gulf—Baxter’s range—Divide the party—Route towards Port Lincoln—Scrub—Fruitless search for water—Send dray back for water—Plundered by the natives—Return of dray—Dense scrub—Refuge rocks—Dense scrub—Salt creek—Mount Hill—Dense scrub—Large watercourse—Arrive at a station—Rich and grassy valleys—Character of Port Lincoln Peninsula—Unable to procure supplies—Engage a boat to send over to Adelaide—Buy sheep.

September 18.—Upon taking a view of the country, this morning, previous to starting, it appeared so low and level, and held out so little prospect of our finding water, that I was induced to deviate from the course I had laid down, and steering S. 20 degrees E. made for some hills before us. After travelling four miles upon this course, I observed a native fire upon the hills at a bearing of S. 40 degrees E. and immediately turned towards it, fully hoping that it was at a native camp and in the immediate vicinity of water.

At eight miles we were close under the hills, but found the dray could not cross the front ridges; I therefore left Mr. Scott to keep a course parallel with the range, whilst I and the native boy rode across to where we had seen the fire. Upon arriving at the spot I was greatly disappointed to find, instead of a native camp, only a few burning bushes, which had either been lit as a signal by the natives, after noticing us in the plains, or was one of those casual fires so frequently left by them on their line of march. I found the hills scrubby, barren, and rocky, with much prickly grass growing upon their slopes. There were no watercourses upon the west side of the range at all, nor could I by tracing up some short rocky valleys coming from steep gorges in the face of the hill find any water. The rock was principally of ironstone formation. Upon ascending to the summit of the hill, I had an extensive but unsatisfactory view, a vast level field of scrub stretching every where around me, interspersed here and there with the beds of small dried up lakes, but with no signs of water any where. At S. W. by S. I saw the smoke of a native fire rising in the plains. Hurrying down from the range, I followed the dray, and as soon as I overtook it, halted for the night in the midst of a thick scrub of large tea–trees and minor shrubs. There was a little grass scattered among the trees, on which, by giving our horses two buckets of water each, they were able to feed tolerably well. During the day we had travelled over a very heavy sandy country and through dense brush, and our horses were much jaded. Occasionally we had passed small dried up salt lakes and the beds of salt water channels; but even these did not appear to have had any water in them for a long time.

Upon halting the party, I sent Mr. Scott to explore the range further south than I had been, whilst I myself went to search among the salt lakes to the southwest. We, however, both returned equally unsuccessful, and I now found that I should be compelled to send the dray back for a supply of water from Baxter’s range. The country was so scrubby and difficult to get a dray through that our progress was necessarily slow; and in the level waste before us I had no hope of finding water for some distance further. I thought, therefore, that if the dray could bring a supply to last us for two days after leaving our present encampment, we should then be enabled to make a fresh push through a considerable extent of bad country, and might have a better chance of finding water as we advanced to the south–west.

September 19.—This morning I unloaded the dray of every thing except the water casks, and pitching my tent among the scrub took up my quarters alone, whilst I sent back the man, the native boy, the dray, and all the horses with Mr. Scott to Baxter’s range. As they made an early start, I gave them instructions to push on as rapidly as possible, so as to get the range that night, to rest the horses next day and fill the casks with water, and on the third day, if possible, to return the whole distance and rejoin me.

Having seen them fairly away, I occupied myself in writing and charting during the day, and at night amused myself in taking stellar observations for latitude. I had already taken the altitude of Vega, and deduced the latitude to be 32 degrees 3 minutes 23 seconds S.; leaving my artificial horizon on the ground outside whilst I remained in the tent waiting until Altair came to the meridian, I then took my sextant and went out to observe this star also; but upon putting down my hand to take hold of the horizon glass in order to wipe the dew off, my fingers went into the quick–silver—the horizon glass was gone, and also the piece of canvass I had put on the ground to lie down upon whilst observing so low an altitude as that of Vega. Searching a little more I missed a spade, a parcel of horse shoes, an axe, a tin dish, some ropes, a grubbing hoe, and several smaller things which had been left outside the tent, as not being likely to take any injury from the damp.

It was evident I was surrounded by natives, who had stolen all these things during the short time I had been in my tent, certainly not exceeding half an hour. The night was very windy and I had heard nothing, besides I was encamped in the midst of a very dense brush of large wide–spreading tea–trees and other bushes, any of which would afford a screen for a considerable number of natives. In daylight it was impossible to see many yards in distance, and nothing could be discerned at night.

The natives must have watched the dray go away in the morning, and waited until dark for their opportunity to rob me; and most daringly and effectually had they done it. At the time that I lay on the ground, taking the star’s altitude, they must have been close to me, and after I went into the tent, they doubtless saw me sitting there by the light of the candle, since the door was not quite closed, and they had come quite in front to obtain some of the things they had stolen. The only wonder with me was that they had not speared me, as they could scarcely have been intimidated by my individual presence.

As soon as I missed my horizon glass, and entertained the suspicion of natives being about, I hurried into the tent and lighting a large blue light, run with it rapidly through the bushes around me. The effect of this was very beautiful amidst the darkness and gloom of the woods, and for a great distance in every direction objects could be seen as well as by day; the natives, however, were gone, and I could only console myself by firing a couple of balls after them through the underwood to warn them of the danger of intruding upon me again; I then put every thing which had been left outside, into the tent, and kept watch for an hour or two, but my visitors came no more. The shots, or the blue light, had effectually frightened them. They had, however, in their turn, produced as great an effect upon me, and had at least deprived me of one night’s rest.

September 20.—Rising very early I set to work, with an axe, to clear away the bushes from around my tent. I now discovered that the natives had been concealed behind a large tea–tree not twenty yards from the tent; there were numerous foot–marks there, and the remains of fire–sticks which they had brought with them, for a native rarely moves at night without fire.

By working hard I cleared a large circle with a radius of from thirty to forty yards, and then piling up all the bushes outside and around the tent, which was in the centre, I was completely fortified, and my sable friends could no longer creep upon me to steal without my hearing them. I spent great part of the day in charting, and took a few angles from the tent, but did not dare to venture far away. At night, when it was dark, I mounted guard with my gun for three hours, walking round outside the tent, and firing off my gun before I lay down, which I did with my clothes on, ready to get up at a moment’s notice. Nothing, however, disturbed me.

September 21.—I had been occupied during the greater part of the day in charting, and in the evening was just shouldering my gun to mount guard again, when I was delighted to see Mr. Scott returning with the dray, and the party all safe. They had executed the duty entrusted to them well, and had lost no time in rejoining me; the horses were, however, somewhat fatigued, having come all the way from the range in one day. Being now reinforced, I had no longer occasion to mount guard, and for the first time since the natives had stolen upon me, enjoyed a sound sleep.

September 22.—Moving on the party for ten miles at a course of S. 35 degrees W., we passed through a dreadful country, composed of dense scrub and heavy sandy ridges, with some salt water channels and beds of small dry lakes at intervals. In many cases the margins bounding these were composed of a kind of decomposed lime, very light and loose, which yielded to the slightest pressure; in this our horses and drays sank deep, throwing out as they went, clouds of fine white dust on every side around them. This, added to the very fatiguing and harassing work of dragging the dray through the thick scrub and over the heavy sand ridges, almost knocked them up, and we had the sad prospect before us of encamping at night without a blade of grass for them to eat. Just at this juncture the native boy who was with me, said he saw rocks in one of the distant sand hills, but upon examining the place with a telescope I could not make out distinctly whether they were rocks or only sand. The boy however persisted that there were rocks, and to settle the point I halted the dray in camp, whilst I proceeded with him to the spot to look.

At seven miles W. 10 degrees S. of the drays we reached the ridge, and to my great delight I found the boy was right; he had seen the bare sheets of granite peeping out near the summit of a sandy elevation, and in these we found many holes with water in them. At the base of the hill too, was an opening with good grass around, and a fine spring of pure water. Hastening back to the dray, I conducted the party to the hills, which I named Refuge Rocks, for such they were to us in our difficulties, and such they may be to many future travellers who may have to cross this dreary desert.

From the nature of the road and the exhausted state of our horses, it was very late when we encamped, but as the position was so favourable a one to recruit at, I determined to take advantage of it, and remain a couple of days for that purpose.