The story of Australia — XVII
Captain Charles Sturt
Discovery of the Darling River
As we have already seen, Oxley, in 1816, had made an heroic attempt to explore the Macquarie River. In 1824 Hume and Hovell had explored south as far as Port Phillip, but no further attempt had been made to explore the mysterious west.
A severe drought visited the colony in 1826, and continued for some years. This calamity brought to men’s minds the possibilities of a westward expansion, and the exploration of the rivers that had baffled Oxley. It was thought that the continued dry weather would have dried up the swamps, and that there would be no difficulty in discovering what had become of waterways.
Captain Charles Sturt had come to Australia as a soldier, but when the expedition inland was mooted he volunteered for the leadership, and Governor Darling was so impressed with his extensive scientific knowledge, that his services were accepted. He was accompanied by Hamilton Hume, as second in command, and the rest of the party consisted of two soldiers and eight convicts, two of the latter being taken to return with dispatches. As soon as they had reached the limit of the known country Sturt’s instructions were to ascertain what became of the Macquarie, and to put forth the utmost effort to penetrate westward to the farthest possible limit.
The expedition started from Wellington on December 19, 1828, and ten days later Mount Harris, close to Oxley’s terminal point on the Macquarie, was reached. From the summit of the mountain a good prospect towards the interior was viewed. The swamps were seen to be dried up in some places altogether, and the reeds withered. The course of the Macquarie was followed for some miles, until it entered a swamp of considerable size. The current could be distinguished, and Sturt turned to account a good sized boat which had been included in the travelling requisites. They were, however, soon lost in a maize of creeks and marshes, and no further progress could be made.
Sturt and Hume now determined to make separate journeys to the right and left, each taking his own men, but the results were not considerable. On January 17, 1829, the party reached New Year’s Creek (now known as Bogan River), and the next day the foremost of the party came upon the bank of a fine river. Almost perishing with thirst, the party rushed down to the welcome stream. To their great disappointment they found the water salt and undrinkable.
“I shall never forget,” said Sturt, “the cry of amazement or the look of terror with which they cried out to inform me that the river was so salt as to be unfit for drinking.”
The cause was afterwards traced to the effect of brine springs along the banks, which in dry weather was strong enough to impregnate the river.
The party followed the river for about 76 miles, but as the country was in a parched and barren condition and the blacks troublesome Sturt deemed it advisable to return to the depot at Mount Harris, which they reached in safety. The river which he had found was named the Darling, in honour of the Governor of New South Wales.
On March 7 the party left the camp with the object of exploring the Castlereagh, the river which Oxley had found in full flood. Here they expected to obtain a good supply of water, but to their astonishment there was not a drop of water to be found. The bed of the river was as dry as dust. After a long search a pool of water was found in the sand which brought relief to the parched men. The course of the river was followed, and after travelling 100 miles their efforts were rewarded by a second view of the Darling. Again they found the water salt and unfit to drink. Fortunately they were not in absolute need of water at the time.
Sturt now determined to return, as the country on every side was a parched wilderness. In his diary be says: “So long has the drought continued that the vegetable kingdom was almost annihilated. The largest forest trees were drooping, and many were dead. The Emus, with outstretched necks, gasping for breath, searched the channels of the river for water in vain; and the native dog, so thin that it could hardly walk, seemed to implore some friendly hand to despatch it.”
The party arrived at Mount Harris on the 7th of April 1829, and later Wellington Valley was reached, from which the expedition had started four and a half months before.
The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 7 October 1934, p. 29
[Editor: Corrected: “April 1929” to “April 1829”.]