Discoveries in Australia/Volume 2/Chapter 8
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Chapter 8. Gulf of Carpentaria.
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GULF OF CARPENTARIA.
LEAVE BOOBY ISLAND—E.ERN SHORE OF GULF—VAN DIEMEN'S INLET—EXPLORATION OF—PARTY OF NATIVES—LEVEL COUNTRY—TIDES—VISIT BOUNTIFUL ISLANDS—DESCRIPTION OF THEM—SAIL FOR SWEERS ISLAND—INVESTIGATOR ROAD—NATIVES—LOCUSTS—RECORD OF THE INVESTIGATOR'S VISIT—DIG A WELL—BOATS EXPLORE ISLAND AND COAST TO THE WESTWARD—SWEERS AND BENTINCK ISLANDS—TIDES—TAKE SHIP OVER TO THE MAIN—ANOTHER BOAT EXPEDITION LEAVES—SHIP PROCEEDS TO THE HEAD OF THE GULF—DISCOVERY AND EXPLORATION OF DISASTER INLET—NARROW ESCAPE—DESCRIPTION OF INTERIOR—WILD FOWL—EXPLORE COAST TO THE EASTWARD—INLETS—DISCOVER THE FLINDERS—THE CUCKOO—ASCENT OF THE RIVER—NIGHT SCENE—BURIAL TREE—REMARKS—RETURN TO THE SHIP—EXPLORATION OF SOUTH-WESTERN PART OF GULF—LARGE INLETS DISCOVERED
June 26.—The vessels forming our convoy departed this morning, and soon disappeared in the western horizon, leaving the Beagle, that seemed destined to be a solitary roamer, once more alone at anchor under Booby Island.
On the same evening she was herself pursuing her lonely way towards the Gulf of Carpentaria, the eastern shore of which we saw on the morning of the 1st of July. In the afternoon we anchored in 3¼ fathoms; the north end of a very low sandy piece of coast, which we found to be in lat. 16° 13½' S., long. 9° 10 E. of Port Essington, bearing S. 70° E., six miles and a half. From this place the coast trended S. 10° W., and was fringed with mangroves; a few straggling casuarinas grew near the sandy parts, a feature which we constantly afterwards found to recur; their tall broom-like shapes form a remarkable element in the coast scenery of the Gulf.
A fruitless attempt was made to visit the shore, which was fronted for the distance of a mile by a bank of soft mud. We could therefore gain no information respecting the interior; but from the numerous fires, it appeared to be thickly inhabited. It was here that we first observed the singular phenomenon of the tides ebbing and flowing twelve hours.
Next day the coast was examined for fifteen miles to the southward; its general character has already been given, which renders it unnecessary to dilate further here. North-east winds now forced us away from the land, and we did not see it again till the morning of the 3rd; when, finding as much as four fathoms within two miles and a half of a projection, we named it, in consequence, Bold Point. It is in lat. 17° 0' S., long. 8° 48' E. of Port Essington, and is rendered conspicuous by two clumps of trees. N. 23° W. two miles from Bold Point, we observed an opening, and after anchoring the ship as near the entrance as possible, I left with the whaleboats, accompanied by Messrs. Forsyth, Fitzmaurice, and Tarrant, to examine it, early in the afternoon. The view annexed, taken by Lieutenant Gore, just after the boats had shoved off, will give the reader an excellent idea of the appearance of the south-eastern shore of the Gulf of Carpentaria, from a distance of only two miles. In this view, a gull, resting on the back of a sleeping turtle, will attract the attention of the reader.
Proceeding, we crossed the bar, extending three quarters of a mile off the mouth of the inlet, on which we found only two feet at low-water. The coast on each side was sandy, with clumps of trees, and to the northward was fronted by an extensive flat of sand. The first reaches of the inlet promised well, having a depth of from 1½ to 3 fathoms, and a width of from two to three hundred yards; but it ultimately became much narrower, and so torturous that, after following its windings for twenty-seven miles, we had only advanced eight miles in a S. 60° E. direction from the entrance. It then divided—one branch trending south, and the other east; and each being only fifteen yards wide and two feet deep, the water quite salt, and the mangroves on either side, moreover, almost meeting, rendered it impossible to proceed further. Our hopes had been buoyed up as we advanced, an impression prevailing that we had discovered a river, from our finding that at low tide the water was simply brackish. I can only account for this by supposing that there was an imperceptible drainage of fresh water through the banks.
The highest part of the country we saw was on the south side of one of the reaches, six miles from the mouth; but even there the utmost elevation was only ten feet. This rise was marked by a growth of tolerable-sized eucalypti. Elsewhere the banks were scarcely three feet above high-water level, and generally fringed with mangroves, behind which in many places were extensive clear flats, reaching occasionally the sides of the inlet towards the upper parts, and forming at that time the resort of large flights of the bronze-winged pigeon.
In many of the reaches we met with flocks of wild ducks, of the white and brown, and also of the whistling kind. The birds we had not before seen were a large dark brown species of rail, so wary that I could never get within shot of it, and a rather small blackbird with a white crest. A few of the large species of crane, called the Native Companion, were also seen. The only kind of fish taken was the common catfish.
Alligators were very numerous for the first fifteen miles as we ascended; and we saw a party of natives, but did not communicate with them. Their astonishment at the appearance of such strange beings as ourselves must have been very great. It could never before have fallen to their lot to behold any of the white race; and until our presence undeceived them, they must have been living in happy ignorance that they were not the only specimens of humanity upon the face of the earth.
There was little to interest us in our examination of this inlet, especially as the Dutch had probably visited it some two hundred years before; thus destroying the principal charm it would have possessed, namely, that of novelty. We inferred this from there being an opening laid down in this neighbourhood by them as Van Diemen's River. I, in consequence, continued the name, altering river to inlet; though, probably, at times, it may deserve the appellation of a river, as after heavy falls of rain it must contain fresh water. Our finding the water only brackish near the head favours this supposition.
The habitations of the natives were of a more substantial kind than we should have expected to meet with in these lat.s, being snug oval-shaped huts, thatched with coarse grass. The extremely low level nature of the country, the reader can imagine, as also how much it surprised us to find that from the boat at high-water our eyes could wander over miles. Occasionally on the plains, rendered warm from their colour reflecting the powerful beams of the sun, were to be seen whirling clouds of dust, towering upwards until their centrifugal force became exhausted. The temperature, however, was lower about four in the morning than we had noticed it since leaving Sydney, being only 65°, when easterly or land winds prevailed; those in the afternoon were generally from seaward.
A slight rise, even of ten feet, in the water beyond the tidal change, must overflow a vast portion of such very low country; many evidences of this having taken place were observed.*
- * At the entrance of Van Diemen's Inlet it is high-water on the full and change of the moon at a quarter to seven; but in the upper part the tides are three hours and a quarter later. The length of both flood and ebb is twelve hours, and the direction of the former stream from the northward, following the eastern shore of the Gulf.
The formation of this part of the continent is of very recent date, as we did not observe any rock; and the soil is chiefly alluvial. The only fresh water found was at a native well, half a mile S.E. from the eastern entrance point of the inlet.
In the morning of the 5th, the boats reached the ship. During our absence a few natives had made their appearance on the beach, attending some fires, it seemed, on a hunting excursion. Several grampuses were seen at the anchorage, also many dugongs and turtles.
In the evening the Beagle was standing across the Gulf towards Bountiful Islands. I found that with the winds we had experienced the last few days it would be the most expeditious way of completing our survey of the Gulf to proceed at once to the head of it, as we should then have a fair wind, to examine the coast back to Van Diemen's Inlet.
I also resolved to ascertain if the supply of water that Flinders found on Sweers Island was still to be obtained; and on our way thither determined on visiting Bountiful Islands, where we arrived accordingly on the morning of the 6th. The greatest depth we had in crossing the Gulf was 15 fathoms, the nature of the bottom being a fine dark sandy mud.
Bountiful Islands form the eastern part of a group called Wellesley Islands, and were so named by Flinders from the great supply of turtle he found there. As, however, it was two months before the season of their visiting the shores, we only caught twelve, for the most part females. Near the islands was noticed the same shrubby thick compact kind of seaweed, that had previously been seen on the parts of the North-west coast frequented by the turtle. Flinders speaks of finding here in one turtle as many as 1,940 eggs; and such is their fecundity that were it not for the destruction of the young by sharks and birds of prey, these temperate seas would absolutely swarm with them.
Our anchorage was in 7 fathoms, three quarters of a mile S.E. from the highest hill, which I called Mount Flinders; it stands close to the beach, near the east end of the island, and is in lat. 16° 40' 0" S., long. 7° 45' 25" E. of Port Essington.
Bountiful Islands, two in number, are distant a mile and a half in a N.E. direction from each other. The northern and largest is two miles and a half long, and three-quarters of a mile wide; whilst the other is rather more than half a mile each way, and has at the northern end a mound with a remarkable casuarina tree on its summit. Both are fronted with coral reefs, particularly at the N.E. extreme; there are some cliffs on the south-east side of the large island of sand and ironstone formation, the latter prevailing; and over the low north-western parts a ferruginous kind of gravel was scattered. The crests of the hills or hillocks were of a reddish sort of sandstone, and so honeycombed or pointed at the top that it was difficult to walk over them.
Near the landing-place, at the foot of Mount Flinders, were a few isolated gum-trees, and small clusters of the casuarina, which were the only trees on the northern island. Some drift timber was on the south-east and north-west sides. On the latter was a tree of considerable size, doubtless brought from the shore of the Gulf by the N.W. monsoon. Its whole surface was covered with a long brown kind of grass, interwoven with creepers. There were great quantities of a cinnamon-coloured bittern seen, as well as quails, doves, and large plovers, but not any of the bustards mentioned by Flinders. We saw no traces of land animals of any kind; neither did we of the natives. A flock of screaming white cockatoos had taken up their abode on the south island, where also some bulbs of the Angustifolia were found. A few small fish, besides sharks, were caught alongside the ship.
I was surprised to find the tides an hour later than at Van Diemen's Inlet; their velocity, likewise, was increased to two knots; the flood-stream came from the north-east at the anchorage.
July 7.—At daylight, we left for Sweers Island; but owing to light winds, chiefly easterly, did not reach Investigator Road, between Sweers and Bentinck Islands, before the afternoon of the 8th. The soundings on the way were generally 9 fathoms, fine sandy mud. A small islet, lying off the S.E. side of Bentinck Island, and forming the immediate eastern side of the Road, I named after the first lieutenant of the Investigator, now Captain Fowler.
Under Mount Inspection, a hill 105 feet high, and the most remarkable feature hereabouts, on the S.E. extreme of Sweers Island, a party of twelve natives was observed as we passed. They gazed silently at us, making no demonstration of joy, fear, anger, or surprise. It is possible they may have been stupefied by the appearance of that wonderful creation of man's ingenuity—a ship; in their eyes it must have seemed a being endowed with life walking the waters, for purposes to them incomprehensible, on a mission to the discovery of which they could not even apply the limited faculties they possessed. Fortunately or unfortunately for them—according as we determine on the value of civilization to the aboriginal races of the S.-they did not possess the fatal, or salutary, curiosity that prompts most men to attempt fathoming the depth of whatever is mysterious. Restrained by their fears, or by their ignorant, or philosophical indifference, they did not again show themselves: and though when we landed we once or twice thought we heard sounds of life in our vicinity, the natives of the island never again came under our observation. It is remarkable that the same circumstance happened to Flinders. He also perceived human beings at a distance; but when he endeavoured to communicate with them, they retired, as he mentions, to some of the caverns that exist on the island, and were seen no more.
Sweers Island appeared to be very woody, and bounded by low dark cliffs on the north-east side. We found a long extent of foul ground, with a dry reef near its outer end, extending off two miles in a S. 33° E. direction from the S.E. extreme. Our anchorage was in 5½ fathoms, nearly abreast of a remarkable and solitary sandy point on the above-mentioned island. As we beat up, the navigable width between this and Fowler Island was found to be one mile, and the depth 4 and 5 fathoms.
A party was immediately despatched in search of the Investigator's well. Previous to landing, the whole island appeared to be perfectly alive with a dense cloud of small flying animals, which, on our reaching the shore, proved to be locusts in countless numbers, forming a complete curtain over the island. They rose from the ground in such prodigious flights at each footstep that we were absolutely prevented from shooting any of the quails with which the island abounds. This annoyance, however, was only experienced for the first day or two, as the locusts winged their flight to Bentinck Island, leaving the trees only laden with them; out of these they started, when disturbed, with a rushing noise like surf on a pebbly beach.
The Investigator's old well was discovered half a mile eastward of the point, to which I gave the name of Point Inscription, from a very interesting discovery we made of the name of Flinders' ship cut on a tree near the well, and still perfectly legible, although nearly forty years old, as the reader will perceive from the woodcut annexed. On the opposite side of the trunk the Beagle's name and the date of our visit were cut.
It was thus our good fortune to find at last some traces of the Investigator's voyage, which at once invested the place with all the charms of association, and gave it an interest in our eyes that words can ill express. All the adventures and sufferings of the intrepid Flinders vividly recurred to our memory; his discoveries on the shores of this great continent, his imprisonment on his way home, and cruel treatment by the French Governor of Mauritius, called forth renewed sympathies. I forthwith determined accordingly that the first river we discovered in the Gulf should be named the Flinders, as the tribute to his memory which it was best becoming in his humble follower to bestow, and that which would most successfully serve the purpose of recording his services on this side of the continent. Monuments may crumble, but a name endures as long as the world.
Being desirous of ascertaining if now, in the dry season, water could be obtained in other parts of the island, I ordered a well to be dug on the extreme of Point Inscription, a more convenient spot for watering a ship, and at a depth of 25 feet met excellent water, pouring through a rock of concreted sand, pebbles, and shells.
Our success may be attributed, as Flinders says, to the clayey consistence of the stratum immediately under the sand, and to the gravelly rock upon which that stratum rests; the one preventing the evaporation of the rains, and the other obstructing their further infiltration.
This was a very important discovery, as Investigator Road is the only anchorage for vessels of all sizes at the head of the Gulf in either monsoon, and possesses an equal supply of wood, fish, and birds, with turtle close at hand on Bountiful Islands. Moreover, should an expedition be formed for the purpose of exploring the interior from the head of the Gulf, it is, as Flinders remarks, "particularly well adapted for a ship during the absence of the travellers." In addition to this, it is a point at which an expedition would first arrive to arrange plans for the future; and lastly, I should observe that in case of our being fortunate enough to find rivers or fertile country on the southern shores of the Gulf, we at once saw that we might look forward to the time when Investigator Road* should be the port from which all the produce of the neighbouring parts of the continent must be shipped, and when it should bear on its shores the habitations of civilized man, and the heavenward pointing spires of the Christian Church. The feeling that we might be the means of bringing about this happy state of things by discovering a country habitable by Europeans, greatly added to the zest with which we prosecuted our subsequent researches.
- * This road fully deserves the name of a good port, being four miles in length by one in breadth, with a depth of from 4 to 6 fathoms, and sheltered at all points except from south to S.S.E., in which direction the shoalness of the water prevents any sea from getting up.
On duly weighing these considerations in my mind I determined to make an accurate survey of this anchorage, including Sweers and the eastern portion of Bentinck Island; and to despatch two boats to examine the group of islands to the north-west, and the mainland from thence to abreast of the south-west end of Bentinck Island. On the morning of the 9th, accordingly, Messrs. Forsyth and Parker proceeded with the whaleboats on this service.
Near Point Inscription, I found a native skull on the shore, with forearm, left tibia, and a portion of the inferior maxillary. They must have been exposed some time, as they were very nearly destroyed by the action of the air. How they could have come in this situation was a mystery, as there was nothing indicating a place of burial.
On the eastern Point of Bentinck Island a number of rafts were seen, which suggested the name of Raft Point. We also on one occasion perceived some natives at a distance.
Mount Inspection being the highest land in the neighbourhood, became the principal station of the survey. From it a glimpse was got of the mainland, bearing S. 17° W. about eighteen miles. The north-eastern end of the island, also, could be seen, fronted with rocky ledges extending three quarters of a mile off. This hill is a mass of calcareous rock, similar to the high parts of Bountiful Island, with the same honeycombed surface, as if it had been exposed to the action of the sea. In other parts of the island there is a great quantity of ironstone; and the cliffs on the eastern side are mixed with this and pipe-clay; on the northern extreme are some lakes or swamps.
The soil is chiefly a mixture of sand and decomposed vegetable matter; but it cannot boast of fertility. The wood on the island, which consisted for the most part of gums, wattles, a few acacias, palms, and, near the beach, a straggling casuarina or two, bespoke this by its stunted appearance; but as cotton grows well at Port Essington, there can be little doubt that it will thrive here. Several of the bustards spoken of by Flinders, were noticed; but too wary to be killed. They were as large as those seen in the neighbourhood of Port Phillip, but much browner. The other birds, most common, will be found in an extract from the game book, given in a future page. We saw no animals, except some large iguanas.
Investigator Road is sheltered to the northward by shoal water stretching across between Sweers and Bentinck islands. The latter is slightly elevated, and thickly wooded; it is large in comparison with its neighbours, being about ten miles in extent either way. Its south side is much indented, and the projections as well as the extreme of Fowler Island, are lined with mangroves; they are fronted with coral ledges. Near the south-east point, I noticed large patches of the ferruginous sort of gravel, before alluded to in King's Sound.
On one occasion a party thought they heard a cooey—or cry peculiar to the natives of Port Jackson—uttered by some of the aborigines in the distance. It would have been exceedingly interesting to ascertain if this actually was the case; as the sound generally emitted by the natives of the northern coasts when they wish to communicate with each other afar off, is the monotonous "oh! oh!"
On the 13th the boats returned, having completed the work that had been allotted them. Mr. Forsyth reported their proceedings as follows:— Leaving the north point of Bentinck Island, off which a reef extends nearly three miles, they crossed over to the south end of Mornington Island, bearing N. 60° W. twenty-three miles, the depth, midway between being 7 and 8 fathoms. The south shore of this island was found to be low and sandy, much indented, and fronted with reefs. From the south extreme, the nearest part of the main, called Point Bayley, bore S. 32° W. eleven miles, the intervening space being occupied by four low isles, which I named after Mr. Forsyth. With the exception of 5 fathoms two miles south-west from the end of Mornington Island, the space between it and the main is only navigable for boats; and westward of Forsyth Islands, shoals, partly dry, extend off four miles from the main.
From Point Bayley,* where we found a native well, the coast trended on one hand N. 73° W., in which direction, at the distance of two and four miles, were small openings in the low mangrove shore; whilst, on the other, it trended S. 53° E. with inlets two, three, and six miles distant, and a point ten miles and a half from Point Bayley, which was named after the officer in charge of one of the boats, Point Parker. A hillock elevated about thirty feet, which was great for this part of the continent, rendered it conspicuous. Like Point Bayley, it is fronted with a rocky ledge, and has a sandy beach on the south side. From Point Parker the coast trended south ten miles, which was the furthest the boats reached; beyond, it appeared to take a more easterly direction.
- * In lat. 16° 35' 10" S., and long. 6° 55' 30" E. of Port Essington.
The hillock on Point Parker, afforded Mr. Forsyth a slight view of the interior: it was a vast plain with clumps of small trees interspersed here and there; a growth of gums rose close behind the fringe of mangroves that lined the coast to the southward, and in other places constituted the only vegetable production of the country that could be seen. Although there was little that could be called actually interesting in the vast level that stretched away to an indefinite distance from Point Parker, yet still, when the reflection presented itself that never before had the eye of a European wandered over it, the feelings of the exploring party were necessarily of a pleasing character.
This projection in the coast brought it within thirteen miles of the east end of Bentinck Island. Allen's Isle lay between at the distance of three miles and a half; on some ironstone cliffs at the south-east end of it, Mr. Forsyth, after leaving, saw some natives; he speaks of this island as being more fertile than any other part visited, being clothed with rich grass, and with small trees and shrubs of a very green appearance.
It was on a little island, two miles to the eastward of it, that Flinders succeeded in obtaining an interview with a party of natives; two of whom, he says, were of the great height of six feet three inches, but with features similar to those on the south and east coasts. They were deficient in two front teeth of the upper jaw; their hair was short but not curly; and with the exception of a fillet of network worn round the head of one of them, they had not a vestige of clothing. Two of the older men of the party, Flinders was surprised to find had undergone the rite of circumcision; they had rafts of precisely the same construction as those in use on the North-west coast.
On the 17th, very unusual gloomy weather was experienced, quite what we should have expected from the opposite monsoon; indeed the wind was light from the westward for a short time. The morning broke, however, with a moderate S.S.E. breeze, accompanied by constant heavy rain; the temperature, before daylight, was 61°.*
Our operations were completed by the 19th, but in consequence of strong winds from the S.S.E. we did not leave before the 21st; when, beating out against a fresh breeze,† we stood over towards the main to the south-west of Bentinck Island, but found the water so shallow that we could not approach within eight miles. The boats were again sent, with Messrs. Fitzmaurice and Pasco, to continue the examination of the shore of the Gulf, towards the head of it, where they were to meet the ship. We made the best of our way thither, after securing some soundings to the S.W. of Sweers Island and carrying a line eastwards from it, midway across the gulf, where we found a very even dark sandy mud bottom, with a depth of 7 fathoms.
- * Our observations place Point Inscription in lat. 17° 6' 50" S. and long. 7° 28' 30" E. of Port Essington; variation, 4° 35' easterly: the time of high-water at the full and change, was 8 a.m., when the tide rose 9 feet; the stream changes to the northward two hours before high-water. At other times the change takes place about one hour before. The direction of the flood is S. by W. and that of the ebb N.; the strength of the former is from half a knot to one knot an hour, and of the latter, three quarters of a knot to one and a half. Near the full and change days there is no slack water; the northerly stream is then longer by two hours: during the neaps they are more equal, each being of twelve hours duration.
- † The west point of Sweers Island, bearing N. 10° E. and the east point of Bentinck Island, N. 8° E. mark the limits of each board. The north-west part of Sweers Island just shut in with Point Inscription leads in, and the dry part of the reef off the south-east end of Sweers Island, bearing S. 85° E., clears the reef off the south end of Sweers and Fowler Islands. A white patch of cliff to the northward of Point Inscription, in one with it, leads over the extreme of the shoal off the south-east end of Fowler Island.
Strong south and south-east winds, which reduced the temperature, on one occasion, to 56° about 4 a.m., generally prevailed, excepting for a few hours in the afternoon; quite reminding us of the winds we experienced at Depuch Island on the North-west coast, and preventing us from reaching our destination till the morning of the 24th, when we anchored two miles and a quarter from a particularly bare sand hillock, bearing S. 53° W. This was named The Sandhill, par excellence; there being no other on the shore of the Gulf. To the eastward there appeared an opening with a remarkable quoin-shaped clump of tall mangroves at the entrance. It being neap tide, we were enabled to take the ship thus close to the shore, and as it was the nearest approach we could make to the head of the Gulf, another boat expedition was set on foot to explore it, consisting of the yawl and gig, in which Lieutenant Gore and myself left the ship the same afternoon. The first spot visited was The Sandhill, which we found to be forty feet high, in lat. 17° 38' 20" S., long. 7° 48' 00" E. of Port Essington. From its summit we immediately perceived that our conjecture was right respecting the opening close to the eastward. The shore was sandy to the westward, a remarkable circumstance, considering that nearly everywhere else all was mangrove. Whatever we saw of the interior, appeared to be low patches of bare mud, which bespoke frequent inundations. We could also trace a low mangrove shore forming the head of the Gulf, without any appearance of a large opening, which was a bitter disappointment; in some measure, however, compensated by the fact that it was all new, Flinders having expressed himself doubtful how far back the shore lay.
The point on which The Sandhill is situated I called after Lieutenant Gore, and the inlet, which we entered just before dark, Disaster Inlet, from a circumstance of what may be called a tragical nature which happened in it. Like all the other inlets, as we afterwards found, it had a bar scarcely passable at low-water for boats; but within there was a depth of two and three fathoms. It appears that the streams passing out of these openings groove out a channel in the great flat fronting the shores for from one to three miles; but as the distance from their mouths increased, the velocity and consequent strength of the stream diminished in proportion, and, as we afterwards found, at this season was never strong enough to force a channel the entire way through the flat or bank at the entrance, which was thrown out in consequence further from the shore. The projection thus formed in the great flat indicated the importance of the inlet.
We passed the night a mile within the mouth of Disaster Inlet, and next morning, which was cool and bracing enough for a lat. twenty° further south, we followed its upward course, which was more westerly than suited our impatience to proceed direct into the interior. Four miles and a half from the entrance, in a straight line, though ten by the distance the boats had gone, we came on a reach trending south. This improvement in the course was equally felt by all, as was shown by the bending of the oars to the eager desire of the crew to push on; but scarcely had the boats glided midway through the hitherto untraversed piece of water, when the tragical event occurred, which the name of the inlet serves to recall, although it is too deeply engraven on the memories of both actors and spectators ever to be forgotten.
The mangroves that in patches fringed the banks, whilst all besides was one flat grassy plain, were literally whitened with flocks of noisy cockatoos, giving the trees an appearance as if they were absolutely laden with huge flakes of snow—a somewhat remarkable aspect for a scene in such a clime to wear. It seemed as if the rigid hand of winter had for once been permitted to visit with its icy touch this tropical land; but the verdure of all around, the serenity of the heavens, warm with the fervid beams of the sun that gilded the rippling waters of the reach, dispelled the illusion. And soon the huge masses of white plumage began to float from tree to tree across the reach, whilst their screams as they flew by seemed a fair challenge to the sportsman. Mr. Gore accordingly resolved to secure a few of them for dinner, and put out his gun for the purpose.
The sudden arrest of the birds' flight—the flash of the gun—the volume of smoke—caught the eye as it closed at the explosion; with some of us it might have been for ever! Twas the affair of but a second. Death came to our sides, as it were, and departed ere the report of the gun had ceased to roll over the waters of the reach. Something whizzed past my ear, deafening and stupefying me for a moment—the next I saw my much-valued friend Gore stretched at his length in the bottom of the boat, and I perceived at a glance the danger we had incurred and providentially escaped.
His fowling piece had burst in his hand, and flown away in fragments, leaving only a small portion of the barrel at my feet. How it happened that the coxswain and myself were unhurt seemed a miracle. I was on the right of Mr. Gore, in the stern-sheets of the yawl, and the coxswain was a little on the left, and over him, steering. Our preservation can only be attributed to Him whose eye is on all his creatures and who disposes of our lives as it seemeth good in his sight. Without intending to be presumptuous, we may be permitted to believe that we were spared partly on account of the service in which we were engaged—so beneficial to humanity, so calculated to promote the spread of civilization, which must ever be the harbinger of Christianity. At any rate it is not, in my humble opinion, any impeachment of the wisdom of the Almighty, to imagine that he determines the fortunes of men according to the work in which they are engaged.
Mr. Gore's hand was dreadfully lacerated; but no bones were broken; and on recovering from his swoon, the first words he uttered were: "Killed the bird!"—an expression truly characteristic of a sportsman, and evincing how exactly the mind, when its perception has been momentarily suspended, reverts, on recovering, to the idea last present to it.
My first impulse was to return to the ship; but at the earnest request of Mr. Gore, who felt somewhat revived after I washed his hand in brandy and tied it up, we continued; but the utter silence and grave demeanour of all showed that each was occupied with thoughts of the danger some of us had escaped of being ushered unprepared into the presence of our Maker. A rustling in the bushes on the bank, as we wound round an island of some size at the extremity of this nearly fatal reach, broke the reverie in which we were indulging. Fancying it was a kangaroo, I fired at the spot, when a half-grown wild dog came rolling down into the water. It was of a dark brown colour, with large patches of white, differing from any of the kind I had ever seen before.
Above this island we pursued a general W.S.W. direction; but to our great mortification there was water for the yawl only four miles further. In the gig I was able to ascend nearly two miles higher in a S.W. by S. direction. Our position was then nine miles S.W. ½ W. from the mouth in a direct line; but thrice that distance by the meandering course of the inlet through this vast level. The width had decreased from three hundred yards at the entrance to scarcely one hundred, and the depth from two fathoms to a quarter. The banks were, at intervals fringed with mangroves, the country behind being very open plains, with patches of dwarf gums scattered here and there.
The brown whistling wood-ducks were in great abundance at the yawl's furthest; and in three shots I bagged twenty. The native companions were also numerous, of two kinds, one with black on the back, and the other, which kept more on the plain, of a blue or slate colour. Pigeons, too, were abundant; and the rare large brown rail was frequently observed at low-water, running along the edge of the mangroves, too wary, however, as before, to be shot. There were few alligators seen; and the only fish caught was the catfish, common in the Adelaide and Victoria Rivers. Where the yawl lay the bank was clear, forming cliffs ten feet high, in which no stone or rock was found; neither had we seen any before.
In the evening and early part of the night observations were made for our position.* A party was also arranged for a pedestrian excursion in the morning, as I was determined on seeing a few miles more of the interior than it was our good fortune to have obtained by water conveyance. I had ordered a gun to be fired in the evening to inform Mr. Fitzmaurice and his party of the ship's position; and we distinctly heard it booming over the plain, for the first time awakening the echoes to the sounds of warfare peculiar to civilized man. May many years elapse ere they be once more roused by the voice of cannon fired with a less peaceful intent!
- * lat. 17° 42' 55" S., long. 7° 42' 30" E. of Port Essington.
July 25.—The first grey streaks of the morning were scarcely visible in the horizon, ere my party were scrambling up the eastern bank, eager to penetrate where no European foot had hitherto pressed. After leaving the inlet some distance behind, we took a S. ½ E. direction. The morning was deliciously cool for our purpose, the temperature being 56°; and there was a most delightful elasticity in the air, quite in unison with the buoyant spirits that sustained us, as we stepped out over what we felt to be untrodden ground.
It had often before been my lot to be placed in a similar position, and I have necessarily, therefore, given expression already to identical sentiments; but I cannot refrain from again reminding the reader how far inferior is the pleasure of perusing the descriptions of new lands, especially when attempted by an unskilled pen, to that which the explorer himself experiences. All are here on an equal footing; the most finished writer and the most imperfect scribbler are on the same level; they are equally capable of the exquisite enjoyment of discovery, they are equally susceptible of the feelings of delight that gush upon the heart as every forward step discloses fresh prospects, and brings a still more new horizon, if I may so speak, to view. And it may be added, that to the production of the emotions I allude to, beauty of landscape is scarcely necessary. We strain forward incited by curiosity, as eagerly over an untrodden heath, or untraversed desert, as through valleys of surpassing loveliness, and amid mountains of unexplored grandeur; or perhaps, I should say, more eagerly, for there is nothing on which the mind can repose, nothing to tempt it to linger, nothing to divert the current of its thoughts. Onward we move, with expectation at its highest, led by the irresistible charm of novelty, almost panting with excitement, even when every step seems to add certainty to the conviction that all that is beyond resembles all that has been seen. In the present case, with the exception of a clump of trees to the southward, there was nothing to break the vast level that stretched before us, its rim sharply defined against the morning sky. Here and there a charred stump, the relic of some conflagration, reared its blackened face, serving to keep us in the direction we had taken at starting, which was over a rich alluvial soil, that seemed to hold out a promise of a future brilliant destiny to this part of the continent. A partially dry lagoon communicating with another that was wet, to the eastward, and with a slight drain from the inlet to the westward, was crossed at the distance of four miles, when the direction we pursued was changed to S. by W. and a mile further we gained the raised patch of woodland already mentioned, where we put up a small light-coloured kangaroo. Descending from this we entered a low plain, the northern part of which is evidently at times under water. It is five miles across, surrounded with trees of small and open growth. Continuing over a clayey soil till we had made six miles from the boats, we turned off to the eastward, for the wood on that side, distant two miles, with the hope of getting a better view of the country around from the top of a tree; but there was nothing for my eager eyes to wander over but alternate plain and patches of stunted wood, stretching away in unbroken monotony on every side. The furthest we saw of this new country was in lat. 17° 55' S. It was with great reluctance that we turned our backs on a route so direct to the interior of the continent, now comparatively a proximate point; and the tide of animal spirits that flowed so high during our advance to the southward ebbed rapidly as soon as the retreat commenced; and our return appeared wearisome.
We now varied our track, and traced the head of the inlet, where we saw the smokes of the natives and heard them shouting to each other, though they did not come in sight; the prints of their feet also seemed quite recent. Near the partially dry lagoon a small freshwater lake was found, and the only rock formation yet seen; it was a sand and ironstone. About two miles south of the boats we discovered another freshwater lake, literally alive with waterfowl, whose varied colours contrasted charmingly with the bright verdure of the banks that seemed to repose on the silent waters, and were reflected on its glassy surface, now and then disturbed by the birds as they winged their way from one part to the other. Spoonbills and ibises, some white and some glossy rifle-green, and two kinds of a small grey duck, seen once only before on the Victoria, are among those worth enumerating. In the afternoon we got back to the boats. I may here mention, that as in Van Diemen's Inlet, the water appeared to be less salt at low tide.
July 26.—At daylight the boats moved off on their return; and soon after the sun's bright orb had sunk into the same vast dead level from which it rose, we reached the entrance. Being anxious that the surgeon should see Mr. Gore's hand, I sent the gig on with him to the ship; next morning, as we crossed the bar, he rejoined us, and I was very happy to find the ablution in brandy had been of great service to his wound.
After leaving Disaster Inlet, the coast was examined to the eastward, and at the distance of fifteen miles, in an E. 5° S. direction, we came to a projection that we called Middle Point. The shore between fell back, forming a bight three miles deep, in lat. 17° 44' S., the most southern shore of the Gulf. A growth of mangroves prevented our landing at high-water, and at low, soft mud flat fronted the shore for the distance of a mile and more. Five miles from Disaster Inlet there was a small creek; with others, three, four, and six miles westward of Middle Point.
Two miles south-east of it was another opening of more importance, almost forming a channel quite through the flat at the entrance, which extended three miles off the north-west side of Middle Point. I named this Morning Inlet, from the time at which I entered it; and after proceeding a mile in a southerly direction landed for observations, just within the mangroves that fringe the entire coast. My view of the interior was very limited: for some distance were patches of bare mud, whitened with a salt incrustation, which appeared the character of the country immediately behind the mangroves; afterwards it rose into plains, on which small gum-trees were to be seen in the distance.
From Morning Inlet the coast was slightly waving and trended E. 20° N. At the end of twelve miles we found a little opening on the south-east side of a small point which concealed the boats from two natives, who were out on the mud flats, till we got close to them. They gazed for a moment at the strange apparition, and then made off as fast as the nature of the ground would admit; they were quite naked, and we were not a little amused to see them floundering through the soft mud. Close to the westward of this opening are two clumps of tall mangroves, the only remarkable objects on the shore of the Gulf from Disaster Inlet. There was another small inlet four miles further on; and what is remarkable for this neighbourhood, a sandy beach midway between them.
On the evening of the 28th we entered a large and promising opening,* distant twenty-one miles from Morning Inlet; its importance was made manifest by its forming a channel of two feet at low-water through the flat at the entrance, which it threw out considerably.
- * The mouth is in lat. 17° 36' 40" S., and long. 8° 27' 0" E. of Port Essington.
The boats proceeded up the opening at daylight on the 29th; our hopes were considerably raised by finding a depth of three and, in some places, five fathoms, and a width of about a hundred and twenty yards. The banks were, as usual, lined with mangroves; behind which, on the eastern side, retreated vast plains, with trees of some size scattered over them. They extend to the coast eastward of the entrance, which is sandy for some distance, with casuarinae, acacias, and small gums, which was not only a pleasing change from the monotonous mangrove shore, but had also its utility, serving to show the mouth of the opening from the offing.
We pursued a general S.S.E. direction, though from the windings, and the tide being against us, our progress was slow; and at the end of eleven miles were obliged to wait its changing. Here we landed in the mouth of a small creek at the end of a clear bank on the eastern side; the opposite one also began to wear the same character, and our eyes therefore were permitted to wander over an immense extent of very level open grassy country, dotted with clumps of trees.
The tides changing only twice in twenty-four hours presented a great impediment to our exploration, and it was evening before we could again move onwards.
Whilst waiting the tide, the note of a bird resembling the cuckoo broke the deep stillness that prevailed. It was evening; all around was calm: the wide extended plain dimly stretching away on every side, the waters as they imperceptibly swelled between the curving banks, the heavens in which the last rays of the sun still lingered, gilding the few clouds that hovered near the horizon. A pleasing sadness stole over the heart as these familiar sounds—the note of this Australian cuckoo, if I may venture to name a bird from its voice—floated through the tranquil air. Recollections of the domestic hearth, and the latticed window shaded with vines and honeysuckles, and the distant meadows, and glades, and woodlands, covered with the bursting buds of spring; and—pervading all and giving a charm to all—the monotonous but ever welcome and thrilling note of the cuckoo sounding afar off: recollections of all these things, I say, "rushed o'er each fancy", and bore us for a moment back in imagination to our island home.
The more rapid flow of the tide and the announcement that there was now sufficient water for the boats to proceed, broke our reverie; and we were soon once more cleaving the moonlit reach. I may here mention that this bird, and another with a more mournful cry, the same before spoken of up the Victoria River, were heard again at eventide.
Avoiding a large shoal, which threatened to arrest our further progress, by a narrow channel close to the west bank, we continued to pursue the upward course of this inlet or river—we were yet uncertain what to call it—in a general southerly direction; though the reaches were singularly tortuous, resembling the folds of a snake. The depth was now only about one fathom, and our progress was much impeded by banks; but by the friendly aid of the moon we were able to proceed, and many of the sudden bends were revealed by the silvery stream of light it shed over the still waters as they lay between banks now overhung by mangrove thickets, now receding in plains dotted with gloomy clumps of gumtrees, as far as the eye, from our low position and by the imperfect light afforded, could reach. As we advanced, the measured plash of the oars frightened from their roosting places in the trees, a huge flock of screeching vampires, that disturbed for a time the serenity of the scene by their discordant notes; and a few reaches further up, noisy flights of our old friends, the whistling-ducks, greeted our ears. Their presence and cries were hailed with delight, not exactly because they gave rise to any romantic associations, but because they promised to recruit our victualling department, which had not been supplied with such dainties since leaving Disaster Inlet. Had our taste resembled that of some of the natives of the western coast of Africa, the vampires would have answered our purpose.
The yawl grounding repeatedly, occasioned so much delay, that after proceeding seven miles I pushed on with the gig alone. Our course was still S. by E. and the reaches were less crooked. Four miles further we were delighted to find our progress rendered hazardous by sunken trees, so much so indeed, that I was most reluctantly obliged to wait a few hours for daylight. There could now no longer be a doubt that we were in a river, and I immediately embraced the opportunity of gratifying my earnest and heartfelt desire of paying the promised tribute to our scientific predecessor; and accordingly named this, our first discovery, after him, The Flinders.
As soon as the blackened heads of the fallen trees, evidences of how fierce a torrent had borne them hither, could be discerned, we proceeded. The reaches became again tortuous, but we still made some progress. The mangroves were no longer to be seen fringing the banks with their garden shrubbery appearance. In a broad easterly reach, some natives were burning the country close to the west bank, but they did not show themselves. At the end of it the river expanded into a beautiful sheet of water a quarter of a mile in width, though only three feet deep.
Some low grassy islets were scattered here and there, reposing in emerald verdure on the surface of the stream, which was reverting under the influence of the tide, towards its source, and now hurried the boat so rapidly through a narrow channel between the west side of a large island and a low line of earthy cliffs, as to carry her foul of a submerged tree and half fill and almost capsize her. In order to ascertain the extent of the damage, we landed on a small sandy beach, in which was the fresh print of a native's foot; but we neither heard nor saw him or his companions, although columns of smoke from their fires stole upwards through the calm still air on all sides. A fine sheet of water now lay before us, trending southwards for upwards of two miles, with a width of about a quarter; and it was with increasing interest and anxiety that we pulled up it.
Passing a line of cliffs, twenty feet high, the banks became green and grassy, descending with an almost imperceptible slope into the stream, and blending with their vivid reflections so as to render it difficult to determine where was the point of contact. It seemed as if we were gliding through an indefinite expanse of limpid water reposing between two vast plains, that here rose higher than we had before seen the land on this part of the continent.
Hurrying on with a still favourable tide, but at a rate much too slow for our impatience, we passed two other small grassy islets, and a third was before us. The eastern bank had become steep, overhanging, and clothed with a mass of luxuriant creepers; whilst on the opposite side was a low woody patch, partly immersed by the lake-like glassy water of the river, into which one slender tree dipped its feathery crest, appearing like another Narcissus, to admire its own beauty in the stream. In front, the eye could penetrate far down the reach hemmed in as it was by trees that clustered thick on the water's brink.
To the right was what might be called an open glade; in the midst of it rose a tree the branches of which were laden with a most singular looking bundle or roll of pieces of wood. Struck with its appearance, we rested on our oars to observe it;* but scarcely had we done so, when from a point higher up, that appeared to divide the river into two branches, rose a thick volume of smoke that soon filled the air, as if a huge black cloud had lighted on the earth in that direction. We endeavoured to proceed in order to satisfy our curiosity, but a rocky ledge extending across the river arrested our further progress at this time of the tide. Landing, accordingly, I advanced for nearer inspection, towards the huge bundle of sticks before mentioned. It seemed almost like the nest of some new bird, and greatly excited my curiosity. As I approached a most unpleasant smell assailed me; and on climbing up to examine it narrowly, I found that it contained the decaying body of a native.
- * See the view annexed.
Within the outer covering of sticks was one of net, with an inner one of the bark of the papyrus tree enveloping the corpse. According to the singular practice of uncivilized people, of providing for the wants of those who have nothing more to do with earthly things, some weapons were deposited with the deceased in this novel kind of mortuary habitation; and a little beyond was a rill of water.
There was an air of loneliness in the spot, perfectly in keeping with the feelings this strange discovery naturally called forth; and from the few recent signs of the natives, it would appear that here, as in other parts of the continent, spots where the dead lie are kept sacred. Some dark brown and black hawks were perched on the trees near, looking like so many mutes stationed to show respect to the departed; but their intentions were of a different character, as they were waiting, I imagine, for some friendly gust of wind to shake off the covering of the deceased.
While we were making these observations, the conflagration on the point above continued to rage with great fury; and I have no doubt that it was kindled in order to attract our attention and prevent us from visiting this sacred spot. Though we saw not the form of a living being, I am persuaded that the eyes of the natives were upon us, and that our every movement was watched. The method they adopted to lure us away from the neighbourhood of the dead was simple and ingenious, and might have proved successful had not the interposing ledge of rocks prevented our further progress. To effect their purpose they must have burnt up a very large space, as the smoke that arose obscured all that quarter of the heavens. We observed also that the ground about the burial tree had been submitted to the flames, as if to keep away the few kangaroos that visit this spot.
This singular mode of disposing of the dead among the aborigines of Australia, extends to the banks of the Murray River, on the south coast, as we learn from Mr. Eyre's vivid narrative; and as we know that it exists in New Guinea, we may fairly infer that so far we can trace the migration of the population of the fifth division of the globe.*
- * It is a curious circumstance to observe that the same custom prevailed among the ancient Scythians, as we learn from Mr. St. John's History of the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Greeks vol. iii. p. 345.
I have always considered that Eastern and Western Australia were originally separated by the sea; and that when they were thus separated (which the narrow space, and as I conjecture, lowness of the country between the Gulf of Carpentaria and Lake Torrens fully bears out) the habits of what is now the northern side of the continent found their way to the southern. It is true I have in another place conjectured, that in cases where similar habits are found to prevail at widely distant points, they may be looked upon as relics of a former universal state of things, now preserved only in particular localities; yet without invalidating this general rule, I think that the facts of the mode of burial I have described, and likewise the rite of circumcision, existing in the bottom of the Gulf of Carpentaria, and on the south side of the continent, strongly support the opinion that there once existed water communication between them.
However this may be, the discovery we had made highly interested the whole party, and suggested the name of Burial Reach for that part of the river. Knowing, or at least feeling, that we were narrowly watched by those into whose territories we had penetrated, I did not venture far inland. In the few miles traversed there was little of interest, except that we felt the pleasure which almost surpasses that created by beauty of scenery, of traversing a country totally new to the European. It is astonishing how charming mere plains covered with clumps of trees appear under such circumstances. But this feeling can be enjoyed but once; for it is the explorer alone who can either experience or deserve it.
This part of the country, though to all appearance equally level with any other, was higher, and may perhaps have attained to the elevation of thirty-five feet above the level of the sea. Over the plains were scattered flocks of beautiful rose-coloured cockatoos, several of which I shot; they were precisely the same as those on the southern parts of the continent.
Beyond Burial Reach the river separates into two branches, one taking an easterly and the other a southerly direction; but neither of them, unfortunately, was it at that time in my power to explore. Here we again, for the second time only, met with a rocky formation: it was of a red ferruginous character. Our furthest position on the Flinders was in lat. 17° 51' S. in a general S. by E. ½ E. direction from the entrance, nearly thirty miles by the distance the boats had traversed.
After noon observations, the gig moved down the river. On passing the large island, I shot an animal resembling a water-rat, of large dimensions, particularly expanded across the loins, with stout hind legs and palmated feet, of a light slate colour and soft fine hair approaching fur, the colour gradually becoming lighter under the abdomen; the head was flatter than that of the usual tribe of water-rats, and resembled an otter.*
- * There is a species of water-rat inhabiting the coast of Australia, called Hydromys chrysogaster; but this was the first time we met with anything like it.
It was not until long after dark that we reached the mouth, where, meeting the yawl, both boats ran out of the river on their return to the ship, distant thirty-three miles. The prevalence of light winds made it noon before we got on board, when I found that in consequence of the tides approaching the springs and falling 12 instead of 6 feet, it had been necessary to move the ship farther off.
During our absence light winds had prevailed; on several days land and seabreezes. The cessation of strong southerly winds kept the temperature about 60°. Mr. Fitzmaurice had returned and gave the following account of his examination.
Commencing at Mr. Forsyth's furthest, he found the southerly trend of the coast change in the course of nine miles to the eastward, forming a large shoal bay, which at low-water had a mud flat extending off nearly two miles. The east point of this bay, named Point Tarrant,* I had seen from the south-east end of Sweers Island, bearing S. 17° W. eighteen miles. It is rendered remarkable by a slight rise in the land behind it, forming low mounds or hillocks. Two miles to the westward Mr. Fitzmaurice discovered an inlet, which he followed a league in a general south-west direction, when it had in no way lost the promising appearance it possessed from its breadth at the mouth, which was further increased by the manner in which the bank was thrown out off it.
- * After one of the officers who had shared all the hard work, a practice generally adopted.
Nine miles further westward were two other small openings. Mr. Fitzmaurice's exploration terminated seventeen miles S. 56° E. from Point Tarrrant, where another inlet was found of still greater magnitude and importance. The coast between fell back slightly, forming two shallow bights with the usual low monotonous mangrove shores, and extensive frontage of mud. At the distance of six and ten miles from Point Tarrant were two other inlets, the latter of which was large and received Mr. Pasco's name. It was examined for a short distance in a S. by W. direction, and presented the usual low banks lined with mangroves. Near the entrance a native came down to the shore to look at the boat; he was very tall and quite naked, and would not allow our party to approach.