Expeditions of John Oxley: Discovery of Liverpool Plains [chapter 14 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton]

[Editor: This is chapter 14 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton. Published in The Sunday Mail, 16 September 1934.]

The Story of Australia — XIV.

Expeditions of John Oxley

Discovery of Liverpool Plains

The discovery of the Bathurst plains with two promising rivers, aroused the enthusiasm of the settlers, and there was a natural desire to know something of the nature and the capabilities of the land which stretched still further to the west. The general opinion seemed to be that the Lachlan and the Macquarie joined their waters in some part of their course and entered the sea in an unknown part of the eastern coast. But this was mere conjecture which could only be substantiated by actual exploration.

The colonists were fortunate in having Governor Macquarie at this period. During his administration he had always encouraged exploration work, and his effort had resulted in the opening up of new country to the settler. He now fell in with the wishes of the community and set on foot a new expedition, and appointed a fit person to the post of leader. This was Surveyor-General John Oxley, R.N.

The first journey

When, on April 6, 1817, John Oxley set out on his first journey of exploration he was accompanied by G. W. Evans, the original discoverer of the Lachlan River, as second in command. Allan Cunningham, as King’s botanist; Charles Fraser, as Colonial botanist; William Parr, mineralogist; and nine other men. They had five months’ provisions, which were carried on 13 pack horses, and two boats to use when required. The point fixed on for the expedition to take its final departure from was the right bank of the river Lachlan, about 100 miles south-west of Bathurst, where Evans had turned back in 1815.

By April 20, 1817, all the members were assembled at this depot, and here provisions and equipment were collected and stored. On April 28, a start was made from the depot. Part of the expedition proceeded down the river in boats, while, Oxley. travelling with the horses, examined the surrounding country.

Series of swamps

Soon, however, the river narrowed, and at last resolved itself into a series of swamps, through which it was impossible to take the boats. “The whole country,” wrote Oxley, “from the west, north-west, round to the north, was either a complete marsh, or lay under water.” Keenly disappointed, Oxley altered his plans, resolving to make for the southern coast which he hoped to strike about Cape Northumberland, and thence reach Sydney by sea.

On May 18 they commenced their journey to the south, and immediately encountered fresh trouble. The country they entered was covered with scrub, acacia bushes, and creepers. It was practically waterless, and it became necessary to retrace their steps to the Lachlan for this reason.

After a weary journey of 19 days the Lachlan was reached at a point below the swamps. Here water-fowl and fish were plentiful, and soon the party were in good spirits. Before returning they determined to follow the course of the river in the hope of gaining some satisfactory result. But they were doomed to failure. The stream ended as before in a dismal swamp, and Oxley concluded that this was the end of it. Had he continued two days’ further journeying he would have discovered the Murrumbidgee, with its never-failing supply of water.

“Great Inland Sea”

The Lachlan had now been followed 500 miles, and Oxley had come to the conclusion that the country through which it flowed was marshy and uninhabitable. In his diary he wrote: “There is a dreary uniformity in the barren desolateness of this country, which wearies one. One tree, one soil, one water, and one description of bird, fish, or animal prevails alike for 10 miles and for 100.”

Shaping a course for Bathurst, the party crossed some splendid country, several rapid streams running north-east, which they named the Elizabeth River, Mary River, Molle Rivulet, and Bell’s River. The Macquarie River was struck about 50 miles below the place where it had been seen by Evans. Bathurst was reached on August 29. Oxley reported that, in his opinion, the Lachlan flowed into an extensive series of swamps, “which were, perhaps, the margin of a great inland sea.”

Oxley had been keenly disappointed with the result of his expedition to solve the course of the Lachlan, but this did not deter him from organising an expedition in 1818 to trace the course of the Macquarie. On June 16, 1818, accompanied by Evans; Dr. Harris, a volunteer; Charles Frazer, botanist, and 12 men, a start was made from Wellington Valley, where a depot had been established. The stream followed a westerly course, and for 125 miles no serious difficulty was encountered. From this point the river entered a flat country, and after travelling a few more miles, Oxley had the mortification of seeing it lose its well-defined course, and become a huge, dreary swamp, spreading out as far as the eye could see. For 20 miles Oxley followed the current, amid the tall reeds, until his progress was barred when the channel became unnavigable.

Oxley returned to the depot at Mount Harris fully convinced that he had reached the margin of the great inland sea, which he and many others thought existed. Rather than return disappointed, Oxley determined to strike across the country and seek new discoveries.

Pastoral Land

On July 27, after two months travelling, the party came to a river in high flood. This was named the Castlereagh, and continuing their journey through wet and boggy country they came to a range which Oxley named the Arbuthnot Range. They ascended the principal height, which they named Mount Emmott, and saw a magnificent area of pastoral land which Oxley named the Liverpool Plains. This splendid land is supposed to have formed in past ages the bed of a small inland sea.

Travelling east through this rich country they discovered and named the Peel River, in honour of Sir Robert Peel, and soon afterwards discovered Goulburn Valley and Cookburn River. The Aspley river was next found, followed by the Hastings. This river was traced to the sea, and the entrance named Port Macquarie.

They now travelled along the coast, which they found a most difficult undertaking, as they encountered many estuaries of rivers to bar their way. Fortunately they discovered a boat which they carried on their shoulders 90 miles from one inlet to another, until they arrived at Port Stephen.

The result of this remarkable journey was the necessity of finding a track to Liverpool Plains, while to the puzzle of mysteriously flowing rivers was now added the theory of an inland sea.

The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 16 September 1934, p. 31

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