The story of Australia — XXVI
Sturt’s attempt to reach the centre of the continent
After fourteen years of retirement Captain Sturt again entered the field of exploration. He had become fired with his old ambition, and was now covetous of the honour of being the first European to plant his foot in the centre of Australia.
The failure of Eyre in 1840 to penetrate beyond the salt plains of Lake Torrens roused him to action, and he was confident that, if the supposed barrier of Lake Torrens was evaded by following up the Darling to its great bend near Menindie, and then striking north-west, the interior could be reached.
Great preparations were made, and the party was the largest and best equipped yet seen in Australia — 12 men besides the leader, three carts, 200 sheep, 11 horses, and 30 bullocks. Among the party were James Poole, second in command; John Harris-Browne, surgeon; and McDougall Stuart, whose fame as an explorer was after destined nearly to equal that of his leader.
Party set out
On August 15, 1844, the party left Adelaide, and by October 11 a locality now known as Laidley Ponds was reached. This was the place where Sturt intended leaving the Darling for the interior, and where he expected to find a fair-sized creek heading from a low range, visible at a distance to the north-west. But he found the stream to be a mere surface channel, distributing the flood water of the Darling into some shallow lakes about seven or eight miles distant. It became evident that the expedition must proceed at once into the interior.
Sturt decided to make for some distant ranges which Poole had seen to the north-west, “rising like islands out of a vast sheet of water.” Reaching these (the Barrier Ranges), near the present Broken Hill, and travelling north along their western slopes, always lured a little farther by the discovery of some small creek or pond of fresh water that dried up almost under their eyes, the party on January 12, 1845, found near what is now Milparinka an apparently permanent creek issuing from a low range of hills, and on the 27th pitched tents beside it. Sturt considered it a convenient resting-place before his next advance.
This depot in the Rocky Glen proved his prison for six months. When the party had sufficiently rested Sturt found that his retreat was cut off, while it was equally impossible to advance. Northwards no water could be found, southwards the drought had destroyed all the pools. Here is Sturt’s description of the heat and misery they had to undergo:—
“The tubes of the thermometers burst, the men’s shoes were scorched, as if by fire, their finger nails were as brittle as glass; the lead dropped from the pencil, the ink dried in the pen; the drays almost fell to pieces, the screws loosened in their boxes, the horn handles of the instruments and their combs split the wool on the sheep and their own hair ceased to grow.”
On July 12 a sudden change in the weather took place, and on the following night the clouds burst in a storm of rain, which deluged the valley.
Sturt had already decided to divide the party, sending most back to Adelaide so as to economise provisions for the rest. Poole, who was nominally in charge of this section, was so reduced to a frightful condition by scurvy that he died on the first day’s journey. His body was brought back and buried under the elevation which is now known as Mount Poole. Sturt with the rest of the party moved a few miles on, and established a new depot at Fort Grey.
The indomitable spirit of the great explorer would not admit defeat, and after a short period of rest at Fort Grey, he announced his intention of making one more effort to reach the centre of Australia. Wishing to have as little encumbrance as possible he divided his party, and, having picked three of the best men, started for the goal of his weary journeys, leaving the remainder in the depot.
Day after day the little party toiled on. Parallel water courses barely supplied them with water. Strzelecki Creek, Cooper’s Creek, and the Diamantina were crossed, finding beyond the last-named channel that “stony desert” which is ever associated with the name.
This they crossed, but the conditions made it impossible to make further progress. They were forced to retreat to the depot, then 400 miles away. Sturt reached it on October 2, having been absent seven weeks, and travelled 800 miles.
On October 9, 1845, Sturt made one more attempt to reach the centre of Australia. Accompanied by Stuart and two picked men they struck the Strzelecki Creek on the second day. The stream was followed, and as it continued in a northerly direction it seemed as if good fortune was at last to smile on the expedition. On October 13 the terminal point of the creek was reached, and there they discovered a fine stream, 200 yards wide. To this river Sturt gave the name of Cooper’s Creek, in honour of Sir Charles Cooper, a distinguished South Australian judge.
As the river followed an eastern course, Sturt decided to leave it for future examination and continued his journey northward. After seven days of weary travelling over sandy ridges he had the mortification of once more seeing the stony desert which had barred his way before. The land of dreary waste and desolation stretched as far as the eye could see, and Sturt knew that it would be courting death to enter this wilderness. He retraced his steps to Cooper’s Creek, for the last time. His great dream of being the first white man to reach the centre of Australia was shattered.
After exploring Cooper’s Creek for some distance, Sturt commenced his retreat to Fort Grey. The dry season had set in, the water was rapidly drying, and the men were breaking down under the hardships they had endured. On reaching Fort Grey he found the camp deserted. Riding day and night, they journeyed on, and when Rocky Glen was reached Sturt was in a deplorable condition.
For the rest of the journey to the settled parts he had to be carried, and before Laidley Ponds was reached his sight began to fail. The intense glare of the sun in the desert wastes had impaired his eyes, and for the rest of his life he was practically blind.
The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 9 December 1934, p. 31
[Editor: Corrected: “suppposed” to “supposed”; “th last time” to “the last time”; “possibly” to “possible”; “in the depots” to “in the depot” (corrected with reference to an almost identical article by the same author in The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 21 June, p. 21 1931); “lastnamed” to “last-named”.]