The Island Continent of Australia contains an area of about three millions of square miles, it being, so to say, an elliptically-shaped mass about 2500 miles in length from east to west, and 2000 from north to south. The degrees of latitude and longitude it occupies will be shown by the map accompanying these volumes.
The continent is divided into five separate colonies, whose respective capitals are situated several hundreds of miles apart. The oldest colony is New South Wales. The largest in area is Western Australia, next comes South Australia; then Queensland, New South Wales, and lastly Victoria, which, though the smallest in area, is now the first in importance among the group. It was no wonder that Mitchell, the Surveyor-General of New South Wales, designated that region “Australia Felix.”
It may be strange, but it is no less true, that there is almost as great a difference between the fiscal laws and governments of the various Australian Colonies as between those of foreign States in Europe — the only thing in common being the language and the money of the British Empire. Although however, they agree to differ amongst themselves, there can be no doubt of the loyalty of the group, as a whole, to their parent nation. I shall go no further into this matter, as, although English enough, it is foreign to my subject. I shall treat more especially of the colony or colonies within whose boundaries my travels led me, and shall begin with South Australia, where my first expedition was conducted.
South Australia includes a vast extent of country called the Northern Territory, which must become in time a separate colony, as it extends from the 26th parallel of latitude, embracing the whole country northwards to the Indian Ocean at the 11th parallel. South Australia possesses one advantage over the other colonies, from the geographical fact of her oblong territory extending, so to speak, exactly in the middle right across the continent from the Southern to the Indian Ocean. The dimensions of the colony are in extreme length over 1800 miles, by a breadth of nearly 700, and almost through the centre of this vast region the South Australian Transcontinental Telegraph line runs from Adelaide, via Port Augusta, to Port Darwin.
At the time I undertook my first expedition in 1872, this extensive work had just been completed, and it may be said to divide the continent into halves, which, for the purpose I then had in view, might be termed the explored and the unexplored halves. For several years previous to my taking the field, I had desired to be the first to penetrate into this unknown region, where, for a thousand miles in a straight line, no white man's foot had ever wandered, or, if it had, its owner had never brought it back, nor told the tale. I had ever been a delighted student of the narratives of voyages and discoveries, from Robinson Crusoe to Anson and Cook, and the exploits on land in the brilliant accounts given by Sturt, Mitchell, Eyre, Grey, Leichhardt, and Kennedy, constantly excited my imagination, as my own travels may do that of future rovers, and continually spurred me on to emulate them in the pursuit they had so eminently graced.
My object, as indeed had been Leichhardt's, was to force my way across the thousand miles that lay untrodden and unknown, between the South Australian telegraph line and the settlements upon the Swan River. What hopes I formed, what aspirations came of what might be my fortune, for I trust it will be believed that an explorer may be an imaginative as well as a practical creature, to discover in that unknown space. Here let me remark that the exploration of 1000 miles in Australia is equal to 10,000 in any other part of the earth's surface, always excepting Arctic and Antarctic travels.
There was room for snowy mountains, an inland sea, ancient river, and palmy plain, for races of new kinds of men inhabiting a new and odorous land, for fields of gold and golcondas of gems, for a new flora and a new fauna, and, above all the rest combined, there was room for me! Many well-meaning friends tried to dissuade me altogether, and endeavoured to instil into my mind that what I so ardently wished to attempt was simply deliberate suicide, and to persuade me of the truth of the poetic line, that the sad eye of experience sees beneath youth's radiant glow, so that, like Falstaff, I was only partly consoled by the remark that they hate us youth. But in spite of their experience, and probably on account of youth's radiant glow, I was not to be deterred, however, and at last I met with Baron von Mueller, who, himself an explorer with the two Gregorys, has always had the cause of Australian exploration at heart, and he assisting, I was at length enabled to take the field. Baron Mueller and I had consulted, and it was deemed advisable that I should make a peculiar feature near the Finke river, called Chambers' Pillar, my point of departure for the west. This Pillar is situated in latitude 24° 55´ and longitude 133° 50´, being 1200 miles from Melbourne in a straight line, over which distance Mr. Carmichael, a black boy, and I travelled. In the course of our travels from Melbourne to the starting point, we reached Port Augusta, a seaport though an inland town, at the head of Spencer's Gulf in South Australia, first visited by the Investigator in 1803, and where, a few miles to the eastwards, a fine bold range of mountains runs along for scores of miles and bears the gallant navigator's name. A railway line of 250 miles now connects Port Augusta with Adelaide. To this town was the first section of the Transcontinental telegraph line carried; and it was in those days the last place where I could get stores for my expedition. Various telegraph stations are erected along the line, the average distance between each being from 150 to 200 miles. There were eleven stations between Port Augusta and Port Darwin. A railway is now completed as far as the Peake Telegraph Station, about 450 miles north-westwards from Port Augusta along the telegraph line towards Port Darwin, to which it will no doubt be carried before many years elapse.
From Port Augusta the Flinders range runs almost northerly for nearly 200 miles, throwing out numerous creeks (I must here remark that throughout this work the word creek will often occur. This is not to be considered in its English acceptation of an inlet from the sea, but, no matter how far inland, it means, in Australia a watercourse.), through rocky pine-clad glens and gorges, these all emptying, in times of flood, into the salt lake Torrens, that peculiar depression which baffled Eyre in 1840-1. Captain Frome, the Surveyor-General of the Colony, dispelled the old horse-shoe-shaped illusion of this feature, and discovered that there were several similar features instead of one. As far as the Flinders range extends northwards, the water supply of the traveller in that region is obtained from its watercourses. The country beyond, where this long range falls off, continues an extensive open stony plateau or plain, occasionally intersected with watercourses, the course of the line of road being west of north. Most of these watercourses on the plains fall into Lake Eyre, another and more northerly salt depression. A curious limestone formation now occurs, and for some hundreds of miles the whole country is open and studded with what are called mound-springs. These are usually about fifty feet high, and ornamented on the summit with clumps of tall reeds or bulrushes. These mounds are natural artesian wells, through which the water, forced up from below, gushes out over the tops to the level ground, where it forms little water-channels at which sheep and cattle can water. Some of these mounds have miniature lakes on their summits, where people might bathe. The most perfect mound is called the Blanche Cup, in latitude about 29° 20´, and longitude 136° 40´.
The water of some of these springs is fresh and good, the Blanche Cup is drinkable, but the generality of them have either a mineral salt- or soda-ish taste; at first their effect is aperient, but afterwards just the opposite. The water is good enough for animals.
The Honourable Sir Thomas Elder's sheep, cattle, horse, and camel station, Beltana, is the first telegraph station from Port Augusta, the distance being 150 miles. The next is at the Strangways Springs, about 200 miles distant. This station occupies a nearly central position in this region of mound-springs; it is situated on a low rise out of the surrounding plain; all around are dozens of these peculiar mounds. The Messrs. Hogarth and Warren, who own the sheep and cattle station, have springs with a sufficiently strong flow of water to spout their wool at shearing time. The next telegraph station beyond the Strangways is the Peake, distant 100 miles. About twenty miles northward, or rather north-westward, from the Peake the mound-springs cease, and the country is watered by large pools in stony watercourses and creek beds. These pools are generally no more than twelve to fifteen miles apart. The waters in times of flood run into Lake Eyre, which receives the Cooper and all the flood waters of West and South-western Queensland, and all the drainage from the hundred watercourses of Central South Australia. The chief among the latter is the huge artery, the Finke, from the north-west.
The Charlotte Waters Station, named after Lady Charlotte Bacon, the Ianthe of Byron, which was to be my last outpost of civilisation, is a quadrangular stone building, plastered or painted white, having a corrugated iron roof, and a courtyard enclosed by the two wings of the building, having loop-holes in the walls for rifles and musketry, a cemented water-tank dug under the yard, and tall heavy iron gates to secure the place from attack by the natives.
I may here relate an occurrence at a station farther up the line, built upon the same principle. One evening, while the telegraph master and staff were sitting outside the gates after the heat of the day, the natives, knowing that the stand of arms was inside the courtyard, sent some of their warriors to creep unseen inside and slam the gates, so as to prevent retreat. Then from the outside an attempt to massacre was made; several whites were speared, some were killed on the spot, others died soon afterwards, but the greatest wonder was that any at all escaped.
The establishment at the Charlotte Waters stands on a large grassy and pebbly plain, bounded on the north by a watercourse half a mile away. The natives here have always been peaceful, and never displayed any hostility to the whites. From this last station I made my way to Chambers' Pillar, which was to be my actual starting-point for the west.