The story of Australia — XXIV
Edward John Eyre
Daring Australian explorer
A certain day of July, 1841 — the seventh to be exact — was a day long to be remembered by the inhabitants of Albany, a small port in Western Australia.
A storm had been raging for hours, and the streets were deserted. Suddenly a shrill cry rang out, to be repeated after a short interval. At once the streets assumed an animated appearance, and crowds swarmed round the breathless native who had startled the neighbourhood with his cries. He spoke rapidly and pointed a lean finger in the direction of the hill from whence he had come. They listened to the tale he had to tell, and then rushed pell-mell up the steep slopes that overlooked the town. Two figures were approaching. One, a native boy, they recognised as Wylie, whose home was in Albany. The other, they guessed, was Edward John Eyre, the explorer.
Nearly 18 months before Eyre had set out to explore the northern interior of Australia. His ambition was frustrated, but with remarkable daring he resolved to seek a passage between South and Western Australia, across hundreds of miles of unknown, forbidding deserts. For months nothing had been heard of him and his gallant companions, and all hopes of seeing them alive again had been abandoned. Now, the intrepid leader and his faithful follower had reached the goal, it seemed, from the grave — a remnant of that gallant band of adventurers, who had set out from Adelaide full of confidence and hope.
It was on February 24, 1840, that Eyre, with his old and faithful friend, John Baxter, his black boy, Wylie, and two other natives, set out from Fowler’s Bay to cross a thousand miles of inhospitable desert to find a route to King George Sound. From Cape Adieu, where they had taken leave of their friends, prickly scrub hampered their progress, and the absence of water was severely felt.
Trouble after trouble dogged the footsteps of the little band, and before they had been travelling a fortnight all the party were suffering intensely. More than once Eyre was tempted to leave the sandhills, but they were “condemned to live among them for the sake of procuring water.” The sheep and the horses were feeling the strain, and it was with great difficulty that they were kept alive. At one stage they travelled 150 miles without finding a pool or well to quench their thirst, and at times, their strength was so reduced that they fell down in a state of complete exhaustion.
Murdered by natives
It was at this stage that the first signs of discontent appeared in the camp. Baxter urged upon Eyre to abandon the expedition, and the two blacks deserted, but soon returned when they could not find food to sustain them. But the climax was yet to come. On the night previous to the expedition commencing its last struggle with the cliffs of the Great Bight a tragedy occurred. Two of the blacks proved faithless and shot Baxter in cold blood. They also seized a large quantity of provisions and made off.
After burying his faithful friend as best he could, Eyre and Wylie went on. They had very little water, and seven days passed before they reached a native well amid the sand dunes. They now and again caught a glimpse of the two murderers, who evaded all Eyre’s attempts to bring them to close quarters.
Help from ship
From there on water was more easily obtained, and at last, when their food was gone and they were in the last extremity, they came unexpectedly on an opening in the Bight and saw a ship at anchor. They received help from the vessel, and with renewed strength and a fresh supply of provisions the march through the desert was continued.
Many more days of difficulties and hardships were encountered, but the knowledge that he was near the goal of his ambition spurred Eyre on. To their great joy the mountains on the further side of King George Sound were seen, and after one more effort they reached Albany on that memorable day, July 7, 1841, to which reference has already been made.
As an example of endurance, grit, and determination displayed under most distressing circumstances, this journey of Eyre’s has seldom if ever been equalled.
The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 25 November 1934, p. 29
[Editor: Corrected: “inhabiants” to “inhabitants”.]