[Editor: An appraisal of the explorations of Charles Sturt.]
Australia’s greatest explorer and his work.
By E. Waterman.
The name of Captain Charles Sturt is one which will live for ever in the glorious list of heroic and daring Australian explorers. Sturt wrote that he undertook his series of toilsome explorations from “a wish to contribute to the public good.” The spirit of his work was entirely in accord with this fine profession of true patriotism.
Sturt came to New South Wales with his regiment, the 39th Dorsets, and at once became fascinated by the baffling mystery of the problem of the rivers. Whence came the rivers which Oxley had navigated, and which Hume and Hovell had crossed? Whither did they go? Many speculated that their waters flowed into a vast inland sea. If that were true, where was that sea?
For the three years prior to 1828 Australia had been afflicted by a severe drought. It was urgent therefore, if watered areas existed in the interior, that they be found. For crops failed and stock died for lack of grass and
Sturt was placed in charge of an expedition equipped by Governor Darling to follow the channel of the Macquarie River. The course of the river was pursued as long as there remained a sufficient depth of water. Then the explorers started off on horseback. The country was here intersected by numerous creeks, but no trace of the main stream could be found. The route carried the party in a north-westerly direction over sun-baked, drought-smitten land, till they came suddenly upon the precipitous banks of a river which gleamed in the sunlight, forty feet below.
Although the river-bed was partly dry, it was plain that this channel sometimes held a deep, raging river. The water was found to be brackish, so Sturt concluded that Oxley’s sea could not be far off. This saltiness is really due to salt springs in the river bed.
Sturt now followed the Darling — as he called his new discovery — to the mouth of the Bogan, which he thought might be the Macquarie. He explored up the stream far enough to discover his mistake, turned east to look for the Macquarie once more. He came upon, and followed the parched bed of the Castlereagh to the Darling. The water-holes were nearly dry, and the drought became more and more severe, so Sturt decided it was advisable to return to civilization. He had ascertained that the rivers north-west ran into the Darling, and not into a sea.
It still remained to find where the Darling itself emptied its waters. In 1829 the intrepid Sturt attacked the problem of the rivers from another angle. His theory was that the direction of the courses of the Murrumbidgee and the Darling seemed to indicate that the two formed a junction somewhere.
Sturt left Sydney on November 3, and struck the banks of the Murrumbidgee above the site of the present town of Gundagai, near Yass, on November 23. Here they found it to be a rapid foaming stream fresh from the snow clad mountains to the east. The party followed the banks of the river until it shallowed into reed beds.
Sturt then decided to make a depot and proceed in a whale boat. On January 7th, with a party of seven, Sturt commenced the memorable voyage which was to prove that the Murrumbidgee and the Darling flowed into a main stream, which in turn yielded its waters to the sea.
After a week’s dangerous and exciting journey, they found that the course of the river unexpectedly turned to the south, and on January 14th they entered a broad and noble stream which amazed the explorers by the extent of its vast reaches. Nine days later another large river was discovered pouring its waters into the main waterway.
Sturt felt sure this was the Darling River, although some years elapsed before the truth of this theory was established. The explorers eventually reached Lake Alexandrina and saw the waters of Encounter Bay.
Sturt had solved the problem of the rivers. He had shown that the western rivers of New South Wales flowed into the Darling, which was a tributary of that vast waterway which Sturt named the Murray. This river system eventually poured its waters into the ocean by means of a lake at its mouth.
The brave men then commenced their heart-breaking journey home, a pull of hundreds of miles against a swiftly-moving stream. The depot was at last reached, the explorers being thoroughly exhausted, and Sturt’s eyesight was seriously if temporarily impaired.
Sturt’s two great journeys of 1828-30 are the greatest pieces of inland Australian exploration in the annals of Australian history. Other explorers have attempted more desperately dangerous feats of exploration. Sturt himself, in his expedition from Adelaide in 1844 endured more hardships in a more desperate enterprise. But the discovery of the Darling; the exploration of the Murray; the preparing of the map of vast arteries and enormous areas drained by the network of streams of western New South Wales; the opening up of the rich, well-watered country to British colonization — this was the consummate achievement of Sturt’s life work in Australia.
The Federal Capital Pioneer Magazine (Canberra, ACT), Thursday 16 December 1926, page 24