Discovery of the Murray: Sturt’s heroic achievement [chapter 18 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton]

[Editor: This is chapter 18 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton. Published in The Sunday Mail, 14 October 1934.]

The story of Australia — XVIII

Discovery of the Murray

Sturt’s heroic achievement

It was in September, 1829, that Sturt was ordered to get ready for a full exploration of the Murrumbidgee. It was still believed that some river must lead into the interior, and the Murrumbidgee gave hope of a successful issue.

The expedition left Sydney on November 3, 1829. The party included George Macleay, son of the Colonial Secretary, Mr. Fraser Harris (Sturt’s soldier servant), and five others, all well equipped, among the requisites being a whale boat, which proved of great service in the events that followed. The Murrumbidgee was reached on November 25, in the vicinity of Jugiong.

Travelling now became difficult, but the course of the river was followed until the water shallowed into reed beds. Sturt was determined to continue the journey by water. A skiff for carrying the provisions was built on the ground by the carpenters, and six men were selected for the crew of the whale boat. On the morning of January 7, 1830, the memorable voyage was begun, which was to have far-reaching results. Fifteen miles from the starting point they passed the junction of the Lachlan. The following day the skiff was sunk by striking a snag, and two days were spent in recovering the provisions. On January 14 the river suddenly narrowed, and the current became so strong that it was with difficulty that the boat could be controlled. Suddenly it shot out of the Murrumbideee into a broad and noble river. The width at this point was 350 feet and the depth not less than 12 feet. Sturt named the river the Murray, after the Imperial Colonial Secretary.

Saved by Blacks

The river journey was continued, and new dangers were encountered, which impeded the expedition. The aborigines were very hostile, and on one occasion, when the boat grounded, the party was in great danger of being annihilated, but for the intervention of some friendly blacks, who arrived opportunely. This episode is unequalled in the traditions of the Australian aborigines.

On the 23rd Sturt saw a new and beautiful stream coming apparently from the north. After pulling up this for a short distance he was convinced that it was the Darling, whose upper course he had discovered in the previous year. His decision was disputed for many years, but subsequent exploration finally settled the question in Sturt’s favour.

Down the Murray

The voyage down the Murray was resumed. The Rufus (a perpetual reminder of Macleay’s red hair) and the Lindesay (now misspelt Lindsay) were discovered and named. On the 33rd day after leaving the starting point Sturt saw before him a lake which was at the end of the Murray. He called it Alexandrina, in honour of the young Princess, who afterwards became Queen Victoria. Here a great disappointment was experienced. It had been arranged to send a vessel to St. Vincent’s Gulf, to pick up the explorers, as Sturt thought that this would be the most likely place the Murray, if it continued south, would enter the sea. Unfortunately, on examining the channel which connected Lake Alexandrina with Encounter Bay, Sturt found it impossible to take the boat through.

Their only course was to return by the route they had come, Sturt re-entered the Murray on February 13, and the story of his return is one of the most heroic in the annals of Australia. It was undoubtedly Sturt’s greatest achievement.

An heroic journey

“Our journeys,” writes Sturt, “were short, and the head we made against the stream very trifling. The men had lost the proper and muscular jerk with which they once made the waters foam and the oars bend. Their whole bodies swung with an awkward and laboured motion. Their arms appeared to be nerveless, and their faces became haggard, their bodies wasted, their spirits wholly sank, and, nature was so completely overcome that from mere exhaustion they frequently fell asleep during the painful and almost unceasing exertions. No murmur, however, escaped them, nor did any complaint reach me that was intended to indicate that they had done all they could do. I frequently heard them in their tent, when they thought I had dropped asleep, complaining of serious pains and of great exhaustion. ‘I must tell the Captain to-morrow,’ some of them would say, that I can pull no more.’ To-morrow came, and they pulled on, as if reluctant to yield to circumstances.

In this terrible condition they reached the camp on the Murrumbidgee on March 20, but the relief party was not there. Two men were sent forward for succour, which arrived on the very day the last ounce of flour had been consumed. The party eventually arrived in Sydney after an absence of nearly seven months.

The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 14 October 1934, p. 29

Editor’s notes:
skiff = a small boat (of various types, whether powered by a motor, sail, or oars)

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