Chapter 20 [A Short History of Australia, by Ernest Scott]

[Editor: This is a chapter from A Short History of Australia (6th edition, 1936) by Ernest Scott (1867-1939).]

Chapter XX

The heart of the continent

Flinders’s plan — George Grey’s journeys — Eyre’s journey to Central Australia — His tramp across the desert — Sturt’s journey to the interior — McDouall Stuart reaches the centre — He crosses the continent — Leichhardt’s explorations — His fate — Mitchell and the Barcoo — Death of Kennedy — Burke and Wills — Angus Macmillan in Gippsland — Strzelecki — The Forrest brothers — Ernest Giles.

The inland exploration of Australia so far described has chiefly related to the discovery of the great river system. The finding of a route across the Blue Mountains, the tracing of a number of vagrant streams to the Darling, the connection of that far-reaching river and its tributaries with the Murray, and the following of the main trunk of the whole concourse of waters to the sea, forms a distinct chapter in the story, complete in itself. A separate series of inland explorations must now be related, which were concerned in large measure with waterless areas. What was the continent like at its centre? That was the problem which a succession of tough and courageous men set themselves to solve.

Flinders, during his captivity at Mauritius, drew up a plan for penetrating the interior from the head of the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north and the head of Spencer’s Gulf in the south with five or six asses to carry provisions for two parties, who were to meet in the middle. He had no conception of what such an enterprise would entail, nor had any one else. Whether there was a large inland sea, as some supposed, or a great mountain range, as appeared improbable, or a desert, as seemed more likely, were questions upon which there was much speculation. The only way to tell was to go and see. And, apart from the problem of the interior, there was much work to do in the regions lying between established settlements, as between Adelaide and Perth, and Sydney and Melbourne. The traversing of the continent and its unoccupied fringes is, then, the theme of this chapter. We will group the principal expeditions according to the belts of territory with which they were concerned, instead of considering them in chronological order.

The journeys of George Grey, 1837-40, were confined to the western and north-western coastal regions, and did not penetrate far inland. Their chief result was the discovery of the Murchison and Gascoyne Rivers and eight other streams. But they were fine adventures, involving severe privations; and Grey’s published narrative of them suggested that the mastering of this region would make high demands upon the skill and endurance of colonists. The distinction brought to Grey by his explorations induced Lord John Russell to confer upon him the governorship of South Australia.

Edward John Eyre was the first to make a considerable acquaintance with the parched belt wherein less than ten inches of rain per annum fall. He was but twenty-five years of age when he undertook on foot a tramp of a thousand miles across as barren a tract of country as the earth contains; but he had already made some difficult journeys with cattle, and his expedition to Lake Torrens in 1839 showed him to be a bold and resourceful explorer. In 1840 he resolved upon a larger enterprise. He would, if he could, penetrate to the heart of the continent.

With funds raised by a committee in Adelaide, Eyre fitted out an expedition. Some of the committee thought that his energies could be more profitably directed to finding a practicable route between Adelaide and King George’s Sound, but Eyre’s mind was set upon his own plan. He wished to plant in the very middle of Australia a silken Union Jack which had been worked for him by the young ladies of Adelaide.

That distinction was not attained by Eyre, but he did accomplish a very memorable achievement. First he penetrated the Lake Eyre basin till he reached the hill which he called Mount Hopeless. Ahead of him lay a wilderness of sand and salty swamp. His supply of water was exhausted, and no replenishment was to be had in this Lot’s-wife country. So he toiled down to the sea-coast to gather fresh stores; and from Streaky Bay on the Great Australian Bight he resolved to carry out the plan of his Adelaide friends, working his way westward along the coastal fringe to King George’s Sound. It seemed a mad endeavour to make from that point, and when he sent for supplies and explained his plan his supporters begged him to return home. But Eyre, showing that dogged obstinacy which twenty years later, when he was Governor of Jamaica, got him into trouble there, would not be beaten. To return without a notable stroke of success to his credit was abhorrent to him. He knew that the danger was great, and ordered the whites in his party to return to Adelaide. But his overseer, Baxter, refused to leave him. So with this companion and three young aboriginals Eyre set out on his long march.

The tale of that tramp through a land of utter desolation is a thrilling one. The pack-horses became exhausted after toiling 150 miles without water, and when Eyre struggled on and found some by scooping out a well six feet deep in limestone, were hardly strong enough to stagger to it. Baxter quailed as the difficulties increased, but Eyre would not turn back. After two months of this desperately severe work, Baxter was murdered by two of the aboriginals, who made off into the scrub. Eyre pushed on for two more months with only one black as a companion. At the time of the murder he was 500 miles from any hope of aid. Remembering to have read that Flinders found water in Lucky Bay, Eyre made for the coast. He had to kill his horses for food, drying the flesh in the sun to preserve it, after the fashion of the buccaneers; and he was in prospect of a failure of this resource when he had the good fortune to sight a French whaling barque, the Mississippi, from whose captain he received sustenance. He stayed a fortnight with his host, and then set out again on his dreary track, reaching his goal at Albany on July 7, 1841. The whole expedition had occupied twelve months, and, as an example of human will in conflict with adversity, it was a striking adventure.

Sturt, whose voyage down the Murray has been considered in Chapter XI, was occupying the post of Registrar-General of South Australia when Eyre made his attempt to reach the centre of the continent. The humdrum duties of an office did not suit Sturt’s ardent spirit, despite his desire to be useful. Brooding over the great unsettled problems, he wrote that it would be ‘a fearful but a splendid enterprise’ to devote two years to a solution of them. He knew the risks; but ‘if I fell my name would stand in a list I have always envied.’ Securing official assistance for the enterprise, Sturt planned to avoid the salt-pans which had blocked Eyre’s northward advance by following the Murray and the Darling for about one hundred and eighty miles above their junction, and then striking north. He had carefully observed the flight of migratory birds during his previous explorations, and during his residence in South Australia; and he noticed that they followed certain regular lines which, when laid down upon the map, converged upon a point a little to the north of the tropic of Capricorn. He argued that the country to which these birds flew probably resembled that which they had left — ‘that birds which frequented rich valleys or high hills would not settle down in deserts or flat country.’

The reasoning was sound, and there is indeed such good country in the far interior of Australia. But explorers are not birds; they have to toil over hot, blinding sand before they reach the cool rills in the shaded valleys. Moreover, the summer of 1844-5 was one of exceptional torridity. The travellers actually traversed the Barrier Range, which included that huge silver ingot, Broken Hill; but the gleam of water at this period of their journey would have been more precious to them than the metal which lay beneath their feet. For they were tortured by thirst, and Sturt wrote that the truth flashed across his mind that ‘we were locked up in this desolate and heated region as effectually as if we were ice-bound at the Pole.’ Overhead the birds flew on their aerial high-roads to some more hospitable region — parrots, pigeons, cockatoos, bitterns — mocking Sturt with the constant evidence of the truth of his theory; whilst upon the parched and blistered earth he and his companions were stung with the burning sand which the wind blew in their faces, and sore with scurvy. The monotony of sand and stones and shrivelled vegetation was only relieved where here and there the gravelly bed of some dried-up creek flamed with the brilliant scarlet and black blossoms of ‘Sturt’s desert pea’ (clianthus dampieri). Where they expected to find water they obtained only a chalky paste which ‘fell like thick cream over the pannikin and stuck like pipe-clay to the horses’ noses.’ The skin was burnt off the feet of the dogs; the screws fell out of the boxes; the lead dropped out of the pencils; the ink dried upon the pen before it could write a word upon the paper. Northward of Cooper’s Creek (or Barcoo) the explorers crossed twenty miles of fiery red sand-ridges, and then plunged into the stony desert which bears Sturt’s name. Before them lay an immense plain covered with lumps of quartz rounded by attrition and coated with oxide of iron. ‘Not a feature broke the dead level, the gloomy, purple hue; not a blade of vegetation grew on this forbidden plain.’ Occasionally a loud explosion would rattle over the startled desert like the sound of a big gun, caused by the splitting and crashing of masses of rock in the mountains to the westward; for sharp alternations of torrid heat by day and cold by night cracked the boulders of the ranges in that awful summer. ‘Good heavens! did ever man see such country!’ exclaimed Harris-Browne, the surgeon of the party.

The stony desert beat Sturt, as the salt marshes of the Torrens basin had beaten Eyre, and he was compelled to retreat. Just at the moment when he mounted and turned the head of his horse southward to march to his depot 443 miles away, a flock of parakeets flew shrieking overhead. He knew that his theory was right; there was good country beyond; those screaming birds, Sturt wrote, ‘proved to the last that we had followed with unerring precision the line of migration.’ He wavered as he turned. He was very reluctant to give up the quest whilst those birds, speaking like oracles, flew in arrow-shaped formation to the north, with the sun glancing from their burnished plumage as they disappeared in the purple distance. But he could not go on. The gaunt company of sun-blackened scarecrows on skeleton horses were driven back to the Darling. ‘On every play the curtain falls at last,’ said the gallant leader in a letter, ‘and I believe that I shall never again enter the field on which I have reaped my humble laurels.’ His foreboding was verified. He had reached within 150 miles of the centre of Australia, but he was broken in health and his career as an explorer was at an end.

But Sturt’s example fired a young member of his party to take up the task and carry it to success. John McDouall Stuart had been Sturt’s draftsman, and was keen to distinguish himself as an explorer. He made some important discoveries of good cultivable land west of Lake Torrens in 1858, proving his capacity to lead; and when in 1859 the South Australian Government offered a prize of £2,000 to the first man to traverse the continent from south to north, Stuart determined to make the attempt. Keeping to the west of the Torrens basin on a march directly north from Adelaide, he reached the very centre of Australia on April 22, 1860, and camped at a red sandstone hill covered with spinifex and scrub. Tersely in his journal he recorded the triumph: ‘Built a cone of stones, in the centre of which I placed a pole with the British flag nailed to it; on the top of the cone I placed a small bottle in which is a slip of paper stating by whom it was raised. We then gave three hearty cheers for the flag.’

The name which Stuart originally gave to the hill was ‘Central Mount Sturt,’ and he wrote in his Journal (the manuscript of which is in the Mitchell Library, Sydney) that he named it ‘after my excellent and esteemed commander of the expedition in 1844 and 1845, Captain Sturt.’ The paper which he placed in the bottle on the top of the cone also contained the name ‘Central Mount Sturt.’ (The paper is now in the museum at Adelaide.) But the name was afterwards altered to ‘Central Mount Stuart,’ and as such appears on most Australian maps. There is no evidence to show that Stuart himself desired that his own name should be substituted for that of Sturt. The change is said to have been made by Governor McDonnell of South Australia. Stuart found in the centre of the continent not an inland sea, not a desert, but a fine stretch of fertile grass country. Scarcity of water on the further journey north-west, combined with illness, lack of provisions, and attacks by aboriginals, drove the party back to Adelaide.

In 1861 Stuart started out again with twelve men, to traverse the continent. He went over his former route, got still farther north, was blocked by the density of the scrub, and was compelled to beat a retreat. But Stuart would not endure defeat. He made a third attempt in 1862, heading an expedition fitted out by the Government. This time he was successful. On July 24 he and his men emerged upon the north coast of the continent near Port Darwin, and looked upon the waters of the Indian Ocean. He returned in triumph to Adelaide, to report that he had passed through ‘one of the finest countries one could wish to see.’ Stuart’s journeys were of the greatest value in demonstrating that the interior was conquerable, and in revealing the excellent pasturage to be found in portions of the country. He dispelled much of the old-time darkness and mystery from the ‘Never Never,’ and the ‘Back o’ Beyond.’ His three great journeys of 1859-62 cost the South Australian Government only £9,143, including his own reward of £2,000.

The expeditions of Eyre, Sturt, and Stuart worked from Adelaide. Another group of celebrated explorers, starting from Sydney, traversed the country to the eastward of the dry, central belt. Ludwig Leichhardt, a Prussian man of science, came to Australia in 1842 in the hope of finding employment as a naturalist on some exploring expedition. He had introductions to a German mission to the aboriginals established at Moreton Bay, and from that centre he made a number of expeditions inland, including a remarkably successful one to Port Essington, in the extreme north centre of the continent. Amongst his letters of introduction was one from Professor Owen of London to Sir Thomas Mitchell, who happened in 1844 to be making plans for a journey overland from Sydney to the Gulf of Carpentaria, and agreed to take the eager young German student with him. As there was some hesitation on the part of the Government in finding the money — though only £1,000 was required — Leichhardt raised it amongst his friends, and set out in command of an expedition of his own in October 1844. So brilliantly did he accomplish his task that he had no difficulty in obtaining funds for a second expedition (1846), also to the Gulf country. But his next attempt proved fatal. In 1848 he proposed to cross the continent from east to west, from the Darling Downs to Perth. This was before it had been traversed from south to north, and while the nature of the far interior still remained a mystery. Leichhardt knew of Sturt’s stony desert, but he hoped to avoid that obstacle. He and his party started in March 1848, and certainly reached the Barcoo, where the letter L was found cut upon a tree some years later. But exactly where or how he perished has never been ascertained. The fate of Ludwig Leichhardt is one of the unsolved mysteries of Australian land exploration, as the fate of George Bass is an unsolved mystery pertaining to one of the maritime explorers.

While Leichhardt was engaged upon his expedition of 1844, the funds required for Mitchell’s journey were authorized by the Government, and he explored the Maranoa country at the back of the Darling Downs. He found it in a good season, and rhapsodized about it in characteristic fashion. Just as he had described the western district of Victoria as another Eden, so he wrote of the sight of the Barcoo as a ‘reward direct from Heaven’ for his fidelity to the belief that a river would be found running from the middle of Australia to the Gulf of Carpentaria. But, alas! Mitchell’s psalm of joy was sung before he had justified it. He returned to Sydney without following up his river. People shook their heads; and when E. B. Kennedy was sent to see what became of it, he found that, after flowing past the point where the enthusiastic Surveyor-General had seen it, his Victoria River or Barcoo (which was none other than Sturt’s Cooper’s Creek) most perversely took a turn south, and squandered itself, after the manner of the inland rivers, in shallow pools among sand-hills. Kennedy perished in 1848 on another expedition to examine the rivers flowing into the Gulf of Carpentaria. The journeys of A. C. Gregory in search of traces of Leichhardt (1856 and 1858) traversed the great extent of country from Adelaide to the Barcoo, and from northern Australia through the Gulf of Carpentaria area to Port Curtis.

One of the most famous of Australian inland exploratory enterprises was that of Burke and Wills (1861). The éclat with which it started and the tragedy of its ending have invested it with an atmosphere of romance. It was quite the most expensive and one of the best-equipped expeditions that ever went to the interior. The great achievements of Sturt cost an insignificant amount. The Burke and Wills expedition was promoted by the public of Melbourne, who raised by subscription £3,500, which was supplemented by a grant of £9,000 from the Victorian Government. The object was to explore central Australia and find out what pasture land it contained. The command was entrusted to Robert O’Hara Burke, a police inspector of dashing appearance, who had had no experience of the bush, and had shown no previous aptitude for such work. He was an amateur gifted with much confidence and courage. His second in command, Landells, who was taken because of his knowledge of the ways of camels (twenty-four of which had been especially imported from Peshawar), quarrelled with him before they got out of touch with inhabited parts, and returned in ill-temper. The most promising member of the party was a brilliant young man of science, W. J. Wills.

The outstanding achievement of the Burke and Wills expedition is that it was the first to cross the continent from south to north, for it emerged from central Australia upon the southern shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria on February 11, 1861, nearly a year and a half before McDouall Stuart reached Port Darwin from Adelaide. Burke left his caravan at Menindie on the Darling, and started north towards the Gulf. He established a depot on Cooper’s Creek, but instead of waiting for the stores to come up, as he could well have done, impatiently resolved to hurry on with three companions, Wills, and two others named King and Gray. Reaching the Cloncurry, which flowed north to the head of the Gulf, Burke drove on at such a pace that his camels died. As the pack-horse which carried the food made slow progress, King and Gray were left behind, whilst Burke and Wills made their final dash for or the coast.

They reached the mouth of the Flinders River, into which the Cloncurry flows, and saw the salt tidal water rushing in through the mangrove jungle, but were too weak to push on till they actually beheld the blue sea. The tragedy occurred on the return journey. Gray died by the way, the plans made for rejoining the caravan miscarried, and the two starved and thirst-tortured leaders perished miserably on the Barcoo. King found refuge with a native tribe and was rescued. The expeditions of William Landsborough, A. W. Howitt, and McKinlay in search of Burke and Wills were fruitless to save them because the gallant pair were dead before their rescuers started; but they themselves did notable pieces of exploration. From first to last the Burke and Wills expedition cost £50,000. Sturt, Eyre, Leichhardt, Mitchell, and Gregory between them probably did not spend so much on their far more important journeys. The wonder is that they did so much with such scanty resources, and that Burke should have brought disaster upon himself with such a lavish equipment.

Another series of inland explorations relates to the mountainous region on the south-east of the continent, where the Murray and the Murrumbidgee rise. In 1839 Angus McMillan, a young Scottish highlander employed on a cattle station on the Monaro tableland, set out to look for good grazing country to the south. Accompanied by an aboriginal, he clambered over the hills till he got a view of the sea at Corner Inlet, east of Wilson’s Promontory. In 1840 and again in 1841 he penetrated this mountainous district, opening the way to settlement in it. In 1840 also Count Strzelecki travelled through the mountains, named the highest peak upon the continent after Kosciusco, the Polish hero, and struggled through the wilds of Gippsland to Westernport. In naming the district after his friend, the Governor of New South Wales, he described it as a land ‘which in richness of soil, pasture, and situation, cannot be surpassed,’ a verdict which later experience has done much to confirm.

The inland explorations upon the western side of Australia were directed principally from Perth after the formation of settlements upon the Swan River, and they were naturally concerned with the examination of the country stretching towards the centre. John Forrest in 1869 went to look for Leichhardt; in 1870 he followed the course of the Murchison River inland to the inhospitable region of sand and spinifex; and in 1874 he travelled from Perth to Adelaide almost over the route of Eyre. The Western Australian journeys of Ernest Giles were likewise very remarkable feats of endurance. Especially so was that of 1875, when, starting from Adelaide, he struck into the desert west of Lake Torrens, travelled for hundreds of miles without water, reached Perth, and thence after a rest started off again into the arid country beyond the Gascoyne and the Murchison, working round to the east of Lake Eyre, and reaching Adelaide once more after traversing a circle of over 5,000 miles, mostly in utterly sterile territory. Giles verily seemed to have the constitution of a camel.

These were the principal pieces of formal or planned exploration by means of which the map of the interior of Australia was delineated. But hundreds of brave and enduring men whose names are unknown to history have done a great part in this pioneering work. The ‘overlanders’ with their cattle, the prospectors with their picks and their pannikins, the selectors searching for land for settlement, the squatters looking for pastures, have struck out from the mapped routes into the trackless places. The country had to be known in its harsher features as well as in its richness and beauty, and many a forgotten hero has died in the quest.

Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 1936, pages 222-235

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