Discoveries in Australia/Volume 2/Chapter 3

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CHAPTER III.
VICTORIA RIVER.

PROCEED DOWN THE RIVER FROM REACH HOPELESS—MEET WATERING PARTY—ONE OF THE MEN DESERTS—KANGAROO SHOOTING—THE WRITER LEFT TO COMPLETE SURVEY OF RIVER—SILK COTTON-TREE—FERTILITY OF WHIRLWIND PLAINS—ATTEMPT OF ONE OF THE CREW TO JUMP OVERBOARD—REACH THE SHIP—SUFFER FROM SORE EYES—LIEUTENANT EMERY FINDS WATER—GEOLOGICAL SPECIMENS—BIRD'S PLAYHOUSE—TIDES—STRANGE WEATHER—RANGE OF BAROMETER—ACCOUNTED FOR BY PROXIMITY OF PORT ESSINGTON—HURRICANE—EFFECTS OF THE LATTER—DREARY COUNTRY BEHIND WATER VALLEY—FRUITLESS ATTEMPT TO WEIGH SHIP'S ANCHORS—OBLIGED TO SLIP FROM BOTH OF THEM—PROCEED DOWN THE RIVER—COMPLETE SURVEY OF MAIN CHANNEL—VISIT SOUTH ENTRANCE POINT OF RIVER—DISCOVER A NUMBER OF DEAD TURTLES—CROSS OVER TO POINT PEARCE—MR. BYNOE SHOOTS A NEW FINCH—THE AUTHOR SPEARED—PURSUED BY NATIVES—ESCAPE—FLIGHT OF NATIVES—ARMED PARTY PURSUE THEM—NIGHT OF SUFFERING—GENERAL DESCRIPTION OF THE VICTORIA—GOUTY-STEM TREE AND FRUIT

November 13.—The day was devoted to fixing the position of several of the surrounding hills; and in the afternoon we obtained observations for rating the chronometers: I found that one by French, which I had worn in my pocket, had gone most admirably. Captain Wickham joined us in the gig after dark. The evening was cloudy, and we had a sharp squall at midnight from south-east.

November 14.—Both boats were moved off down the river at daylight, and ere it had passed away, the ford above Steep Head was left behind. We found that the watering boats had not got over the shallow below, so that we spent the night together; and a merry party we made. We talked over all we had seen, and the hills that rose around echoed back for the first time the laugh and the song of civilized man, and our strange language was repeated as glibly by the rocks of Australia as if they were those of our own native land. So true is it that nature is ever ready to commune familiarly with us, whereas by our very brethren we are looked upon as enemies to shun, and are incapable of making ourselves understood by them.

When the morning of the 15th broke it was discovered that one of the men belonging to the watering party had deserted during the night. He had been guilty of this offence once before, in order to steal the spirits which had been buried for the use of my exploring party. What however could have induced him to take this step a second time — risking, without any apparent motive, the danger of being left on a strange, and almost uninhabited coast, it would be difficult even to suggest. Parties were immediately despatched in quest of him, and at length, after an arduous search, he was found behind a large sandstone rock on the side of a hill; having revisited the spot where the provisions had been concealed for the use of my party, in the hope of obtaining possession of his god the rum-keg. He had evidently prepared for desertion: clothing, biscuit, and fishing-tackle being among the stores with which he had made off. This despicable wretch — for such must everyone consider the man who would steal his shipmates' provisions, when each had only his bare allowance — had nothing to say, either in extenuation or explanation of his conduct. Most fortunate for him was it that our humane exertions to discover his retreat were successful; he could not long have subsisted by himself, and even had he been so happy as to fall in with, and receive hospitable welcome from the natives, he must of necessity have lingered out a life of toilsome, cheerless hardship while a companion of their wanderings, and when unfitted for this by old age, he would, according to the custom of the country, have been left to die, unfriended and alone, upon the spot where his last weary efforts failed. The delay occasioned by this extraordinary and unlooked-for event, made it late by the time all the boats were fairly on their way down the river. The wind was light from the north-east, and the temperature about 90°, at 9 o'clock.

I pushed on to gain a station at the commencement of the hills on the eastern side of Whirlwind Plains, and also, if possible, to shoot a kangaroo to send to the ship:* I was so fortunate as to secure two; one of a new species, very small, and of a dark brown colour, with coarse hair, I found in rocky land, which it appears solely to inhabit, as it was also found near the ship. As, however, like the generality of kangaroos, this species only move of their own accord in the night time, they are rarely seen, and but one good specimen was obtained by Lieutenant Emery, who brought it to England, and submitted it to Mr. Gould, who has described it as Petrogale concinna. It is now in the British Museum.

* I had now become quite an adept in this kind of sport. My plan was to direct a man to walk along near the river, where they are generally found, whilst I kept considerably above him and a little in advance, so that all those that were started running up from the bank in the curved direction, habitual with all kangaroos, passed within shot.

The height we visited was of coarse sandstone formation, and attained an elevation of 150 feet. As I was left to examine some parts of the river which had been passed in the night, I had a further opportunity of determining the value, and estimating the fertility of Whirlwind Plains. My examination only confirmed my previous conjectures in favour of the capabilities of the soil. From what I had seen at Port Essington, as ground considered favourable for the growth of cotton, there can be no doubt that on these plains it would thrive much better; but the soil on the Victoria is of too fertile a character to bear any comparison with that of Cobourg Peninsula.

At Reach Hopeless, and at other points of the important stream I am describing we observed numerous specimens of a kind of silk cotton-tree (Bombax): the diameter was sometimes as great as twenty inches; and it not unfrequently rose to the height of twenty or thirty feet, though generally shorter. The pods were of an oval shape, and about two inches and a half in length; each pod was in three divisions and full of a silky cotton, with the seeds not imbedded but held at the extremity of the fibres. I brought home a specimen and presented it to Sir William Hooker, of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, with whom I have since had some correspondence on the subject. He informs me that the plant is one hitherto undescribed; but that Sir Joseph Banks met with it in Captain Cook's voyage.

November 17.—We continued our descent of the river: stopping from time to time to complete the survey. In the end of Long Reach we noticed that the stream ran up two hours after high-water. After securing some observations for lat. under Station Peak in the early part of the night, we proceeded further down the river, delighted to escape from that musquito-haunted neighbourhood.

November 18.—At day-break I was very much distressed and astonished to see one of the men on a sudden start up under the influence of delirium, and attempt to throw himself into the water, from which the combined strength of three or four of the crew with difficulty restrained him. He was one of the best men I had with me; his sudden and serious illness had doubtless been produced by the draughts of saltwater which he had swallowed during the night. He had been accustomed to indulge in very liberal potations while we were up the river, and now, when from necessity the allowance was restricted to a gallon per day, he had most foolishly attempted in the dark to quench his thirst with the salt waters of the advancing tide. In the afternoon we rejoined the ship, and he was placed under the care of Mr. Bynoe; but it was some time before he fully recovered from the effects of his rash experiment. The day was very oppressive, the thermometer being 105° in the shade, and there was no wind. We were cordially greeted by our shipmates upon our return, and both Mr. Forsyth and myself enjoyed the luxury of a night's rest in our hammocks; a most agreeable change after the hot stones upon which we had generally been compelled to court repose during our exploration. We had both suffered much inconvenience from the attacks of flies upon our visual organs, necessarily exposed and undefended as they had been when we were occupied during the observations and in viewing the strange scenes of the last eighteen days. The irritation upon the lids produced a copious discharge, which fairly sealed them up at night; so that, at last, in order to have them ready for immediate use, I found it requisite to sleep with a wet linen cloth covering each eye.

We heard with great satisfaction that Lieutenant Emery's search for water had been completely successful, and that two large wells had been dug in the valley, abreast of which the ship was anchored. During our absence the barometer had ranged between 30.08 and 29.97; the minimum height being always at noon. There had been several sharp squalls from the eastward, beginning at south-east and ending at north-east, with a few showers of rain. North-west, or seabreezes, were regular near the changes of the moon, and of greater duration. No meteors were observed since the 16th, but between the 7th and 11th they were very numerous.

November 20.—I went ashore to collect a few geological specimens: the sandstone which prevailed everywhere was in a decomposed state, but there was a very decided dip in the strata to the south-east, of about 30°. On the east side of Water Valley, I found the same kind of slate, noticed before at Curiosity Peak: but what most interested me was a bituminous substance found near the bottom of the wells recently dug, and 23 feet from the surface of the ground. It was apparently of a clayey nature when first brought up, but became hard and dark upon exposure to the air, and ignited quickly when put into the flame of a candle. The sides of Water Valley were very precipitous, and nearly 300 feet high: a growth of palms marked the spot, and served to indicate our wells. We here saw also the same fruit I had noticed on Curiosity Peak.

I found matter for conjecture in noticing a number of twigs with their ends stuck into the ground, which was strewed over with shells, and their tops brought together so as to form a small bower; this was 2½ feet long, 1½ foot wide at either end. It was not until my next visit to Port Essington that I thought this anything but some Australian mother's toy to amuse her child: there I was asked, one day, to go and see the "bird's playhouse", when I immediately recognised the same kind of construction I had seen at the Victoria River: the bird* was amusing itself by flying backwards and forwards, taking a shell alternately from each side, and carrying it through the archway in its mouth.

* Figured in Mr. Gould's work as Chlamydera nuchalis.

November 22.—The moon being full to-day we noticed that the tides were very strong: particularly the flood-stream, which came in bores, and sometimes swept by the ship at the rate of 6½ knots, while the ebb did not exceed 4½: the greatest rise also to-day was 24 feet.

November 25.—My journal of this day begins with remarking a very extraordinary change that took place in the winds. Instead of the usual fresh N.W. breeze after ten a.m., there was a moderate one from E.S.E. This drew round gradually by east to north. At sunset the weather was very gloomy; but the barometer indicated nothing, ranging as usual. In the early part of the night the wind was light from N.N.W., changing suddenly at midnight to a fresh breeze from S.E. with rain. When the morning broke, it had veered to E.S.E. with squalls from E.N.E. and heavy rain. Dense masses of clouds covered the sky, enveloping everything in gloom; which, though so far agreeable as to reduce the temperature to 75°, had a most singular effect after the constant bright sunny days we had experienced. There was still no unusual change in the barometer, the maximum being 30.06, and the minimum 29.98 at two p.m. The night was squally without rain.

November 27.—The day broke with an appearance of fine weather; patches of blue sky peeped between the heavy masses of clouds, and expanding as the day advanced, left us at sunset with a cloudless vault of blue overhead. The barometer was lower throughout the whole of this day than it had been at all, being at two p.m. 29.91. When this strange weather first began I was disposed to consider it to be of the same character as that which I had before observed to occur within a few days of the change of the moon. But its duration and occasional violence led me to think otherwise, and I afterwards found my conclusions to be correct; as at this very time a hurricane visited Port Essington, distant 270 miles, in a N. 30° E. direction.*

* The following account of the effects of this hurricane at Port Essington is from the pen of Captain Stanley, and has been published in the Nautical Magazine for September 1841.

Monday 25th.—A strong breeze set in from the south-east with drizzling rain, but as the barometer remained at 29.90, its usual point, and similar weather had been experienced at the change of the monsoon in 1838, nothing was apprehended, more particularly as the wind moderated (as had been expected) at sunset. Between seven and eight o'clock the wind drew round to the southward, and the barometer began to fall rapidly: at ten it blew furiously from the same quarter, and the barometer was as low as 29.10; many of the trees were blown down at this time. At midnight the wind drew round to the eastward, and blew a perfect hurricane, before which nearly everything gave way; the trees came down in every part of the settlement; the marines' houses were all blown down; the church, only finished a week, shared the same fate: the barometer fell to 28.52.

About two a.m. the wind shifted suddenly to the northward, from which point for about half-an-hour, its fury was tremendous; the government-house, built on stone piers, was blown away from them to a distance of nine feet; the sea rose ten feet and a half, by measurement afterwards, above the usual high-water mark. H.M.S. Pelorus, having parted her cables, was driven on shore, and thrown over on her beam ends, on the north-east point of the settlement, where heeling over 82°, her starboard side was buried nine feet in the mud, leaving the keel three feet clear of the ground.†

At daylight the barometer rose slowly to 29.90, the gale moderated, and the sea went down so fast, that between seven and eight we were able to send a boat to the assistance of the Pelorus: after eight the breeze continued to blow strong from the northward for two days, with heavy rain.

The occurrence of such a hurricane must be very rare, as the natives were as much astonished as ourselves, and came to beg for shelter: they have no name for it, and no tradition of anything of the sort having happened before: the state in which the very extensive fences at Raffles Bay were in shortly before, must prove that the trees had never been blown down in the way they were on the 25th of November, since that settlement was abandoned in 1829.

The extent of the hurricane must have been very limited: at Coepang a strong gale from the south-west was experienced, and also between Java and Timor on the 26th, but the wind did not change. Even 18 miles north, at Vashon Head, the change of wind must have been greater though equal in force. There the first trees fell with the wind from W.S.W.; a few fell when the wind was east, and most when the wind was north-west. The Malays have an idea that every fifth year the monsoon is stronger than usual, but can give no reason for thinking so. According to them this monsoon ought to have been a strong one.

† The Pelorus was dug out of the mud, and once more got afloat towards the middle of February following. This immense undertaking was accomplished by the indefatigable exertion and mechanical skill of her commander, Captain Kuper, C.B., assisted by Captain Stanley. J.L.S.

The bad weather in the Victoria then would appear to have been caused by the proximity of the southern edge of this storm as it passed to the westward. The fact of the time when the weather was the worst, having been the same at Port Essington, and in the Victoria; and of the French discovery ships meeting it in Torres Strait first, shows the westerly course of the storm. Its northern edge did not reach Coepang, but a strong gale from the south-west on the 26th showed that it was passing. Most probably it took a more southerly course before reaching Timor.*

* We were informed at Timor that hurricanes were never felt there, but occur once in four or five years to the southward of it. It may be added that a vessel lost her top-masts in the Port Essington hurricane, near Sandalwood Island, and that to the southward of Java hurricanes occur frequently.

I passed the night on shore, making observations for lat., and in the hope also of being able to obtain another specimen of the new small kangaroo, that being the time when it is generally to be found on the move. But I did not succeed in this object; and failed also in my expectation of knocking over one of a large kind seen in the interior. I left the observation spot for this purpose with the first grey of the morn, taking an E.N.E. direction for about four miles.

The country was most dreary; vast ranges strewn over with huge blocks of sandstone, rose in desolate grandeur around; chasms, ravines, and thirsty stony valleys yawned on every side; all was broken, rugged, and arid, as if the curse of sterility had fallen on the land; in short, the contrast was complete between this desert place and the country we had so lately traversed up the river. I was able, accordingly, to procure nothing in the shape of a fresh meal, save a few black cockatoos and some of the pigeons of a dark brown colour, with a white patch on the extremity of the wing, which I have alluded to in the earlier part of the work relating to King's Sound, as always inhabiting rocky districts and making a whirring sound, like a partridge, on the wing.

November 29.—This afternoon and the whole of the next day, when the tide suited, we were endeavouring to weigh the ship's anchors; but they were together with the cables so imbedded in the bottom, which must have been a quicksand, that this proved impossible. Had the ship been fitted with Captain Charles Phillips', R.N., capstan, there would have been a better chance of succeeding. As it was, after heaving down the ship nineteen inches by the head, and splitting the hawse pipes, we were ultimately obliged to leave both behind, and thirty fathoms of cable with one and fifteen with the other. This circumstance suggested the appropriate name of Holdfast Reach for this locality; and perhaps in some future generations, when this part of the world has undergone the changes that seems destined for it, the archaeologist of Victoria River may in vain puzzle his wits with speculations concerning the Beagle's anchors.

Whilst at this anchorage, just after dark, flocks of whistling ducks were constantly heard passing over our heads in a S.W. by W. direction, or towards the head of Cambridge Gulf, which led to the supposition that there was a river in that neighbourhood. We placed the south point of Water Valley in lat. 15° 13¾' S. and long. 2° 22' W. of Port Essington, variation one degree easterly. Our tidal observation made the time of high-water, at the full and change of the moon, 9 o'clock, when the mean rise at springs was sixteen feet, and at neaps ten. The duration of the flood-stream was seven hours, being two greater than the ebb. The former ran 50' after high-water, and the latter 30' after low-water. Before leaving Holdfast Reach, Lieutenant Emery observed one or two natives, opposite Water Valley, being the only ones that had been seen from the ship. He endeavoured to obtain an interview, by going up alone towards them, but they drew off when he got near.

December 1.—We slipped from our last anchor at daylight, and proceeded down the river. After pirouetting through Whirlpool Reach, we got as far down as the flats fronting River Peak, above which we anchored near noon. After having been shut up among rocky ranges for a month, the sight of the sea horizon was a novelty, and the cool, refreshing breeze, as it came sweeping over the unbroken expanse of waters, created in us very pleasing sensations.

Next morning we beat down the main channel, which was called the Queen's, the deep water varying from five to nine fathoms being on the west side. Some shoal patches of a quarter and two fathoms, lying midway between Observation Island, and the end of the long sand extending off its northern side, prevented our proceeding further. The boats completed the survey of the western side of the channel in the afternoon: the largest creek examined by Mr. Forsyth received his name.

December 3.—Dropping down the channel with a light air from the westward, and a boat in advance sounding, no impediment occurred after passing the sands extending off Observation Island, as a fine deep channel of six and eight fathoms followed the western side of Quoin Island, and the long sand stretching off its north end. When we had cleared this the anchor was dropped in eight fathoms, and the boats were again employed in sounding.

That the Beagle was once more anchored outside all the banks—to have touched on any of which, with the great strength of the tides that hurried us along would have been fatal—was a great relief to all of us, especially to me, in whom Captain Wickham had placed so much confidence as to trust the ship to my guidance, whilst exposed to the dangers I have mentioned.

December 4.—Moved the ship within three miles and a half of the south extreme point of the river, the highest part bearing S. 40° W. A party of us visited it, and, from a rather extraordinary sight we there beheld, it was called Turtle Point.

Behind some very low scattered sandhills that form it, fronting a mangrove flat, we beheld great numbers of dead turtles, that seemed to have repaired thither of their own accord to die. They were lying on their bellies, with their shells for the most part uninjured, though some were turned over, and showed other signs of visits from the natives. A few skeletons of a large bustard* were also seen there, so that the place had quite the appearance of a cemetery, and reminded me of a spot on the River Gallegos in Patagonia, where the guanacos (a kind of llama) assemble to pay the debt of nature, and leave their bones to whiten the surface of the plain. Never before, on any occasion, had we seen dead turtles in any similar position; how they could have got there was a mystery, unless we suppose them to have been thrown up by some earthquake wave. They had evidently not been transported thither by the hand of man, though, as I have observed, some of the natives who thinly inhabit this district, finding them there, ready to their hand, had availed themselves of the gifts of fortune. I could not help, as I gazed on this remarkable scene, calling to mind the marvellous elephant cemetery described by Sinbad the Sailor. It is possible that the observation of some similar phenomenon may have suggested to the imagination of the authors of the Thousand and One Nights their romantic fiction. At any rate an air of mystery will always hang round Turtle Point until the facts I have mentioned shall have been explained.

* A specimen of one of them was brought away and deposited in the Museum at Sydney.

The nature of this part of the country I have before described on my visit to Indian Hill. A ridge of breakers ran off north a couple of miles from our station; a low point, bearing W. 16° S. about eight or nine miles, with an opening trending in south intervening, with some slightly elevated land bearing S. 34° W. about four or five leagues, terminated our view to the westward. We found the tide much weaker on this side of the entrance, not exceeding three miles an hour; the stream ran up three-quarters of an hour after high-water. The times of high-water for the last three days had been most unaccountably the same.

December 5.—Crossed over to Point Pearce at daylight, but the wind being light all the morning did not reach an anchorage till the afternoon; the extreme of the point bearing N. 41° W. three-quarters of a mile. A line of ripplings extended a couple of miles off to the south-west of it, in which we found there was only four fathoms. In standing across the entrance we passed first a bank of three fathoms, with six and seven on each side; Turtle Point bearing S. 45° W. 11 miles; then two more, one of seven and eight fathoms, with twelve and seventeen on each side, the other of only two fathoms with twelve on the south, and twenty on the north side.

We subsequently found the latter to be a continuation of the bank on which Captain King had five fathoms, Point Pearce bearing N. 22° E. 5 miles; and in order to record his visit we named it, after his vessel, Mermaid Bank.

December 7.—I left the ship in the morning to make some observations at Point Pearce for the errors of the chronometers. I was accompanied to the shore by Mr. Bynoe, who was going on a shooting excursion. It being high-water, I was obliged to select a spot near the cliffs forming the point, for carrying out my intention. That selected was about 60 yards from the wood-crowned cliff which rose behind; thinking such an intervening distance would secure me from the spear of the treacherous native. This caution rather resulted from what had before occurred at Escape Cliffs, where Messrs. Fitzmaurice and Keys so narrowly escaped, than from any idea that natives might be lurking about. Indeed, Mr. Bynoe had been shooting all over the ground yesterday, and had neither seen nor heard anything to indicate their existence in this neighbourhood; though doubtless, from what followed, they had been very busily watching him all the time, and were probably only deterred from making an attack, by the alarm with which his destructive gun, dealing death to the birds, must have filled them. Requiring equal altitudes, I was compelled to revisit the spot in the afternoon for the corresponding observations. The boat in which Mr. Bynoe returned to the ship, was to carry me on shore. We met at the gangway, and in answer to my inquiry, he informed me that he had seen no traces of the natives. He had shot a new and very beautiful bird of the finch tribe, in which the brilliant colours of verdigris green, lilac purple, and bright yellow, were admirably blended.* The time was short; half an hour would have sufficed for the observations, and we should have left the coast. As it was now low-water, and I had to traverse a coral reef half a mile in width, I resolved to lighten myself of my gun, which I had taken with me in the morning, that I might with greater safety carry the chronometer. On landing I directed Mr. Tarrant and one of the boat's crew to follow with the rest of the instruments. The walking was very bad, the reef being strewed with coral fragments, and interspersed with large pools. With my mind fully occupied by all we had seen of late, I hurried on without waiting, and reached the observation spot, just glancing towards the cliff, which presented nothing to the view except the silvery stems of the never-failing gumtrees.

* Figured by Mr. Gould from this specimen as Amadina Gouldiae.

I had just turned my head round to look after my followers when I was suddenly staggered by a violent and piercing blow about the left shoulder:* and ere the dart had ceased to quiver in its destined mark, a loud long yell, such as the savage only can produce, told me by whom I had been speared. One glance sufficed to show me the cliffs, so lately the abode of silence and solitude, swarming with the dusky forms of the natives, now indulging in all the exuberant action with which the Australian testifies his delight. One tall bushy-headed fellow led the group, and was evidently my successful assailant. I drew out the spear, which had entered the cavity of the chest, and retreated, with all the swiftness I could command, in the hope of reaching those who were coming up from the boat, and were then about halfway. I fully expected another spear while my back was turned; but fortunately the savages seemed only to think of getting down to the beach to complete their work. Onward I hurried, carrying the spear, which I had drawn from the wound, and determined if, as I expected, overtaken, to sell my life dearly. Each step, less steady than the former one, reminded me that I was fast losing blood: but I hurried on, still retaining the chronometer, and grasping my only weapon of defence. The savage cry behind soon told me that my pursuers had found their way to the beach: while at every respiration, the air escaping through the orifice of the wound, warned me that the strength by which I was still enabled to struggle through the deep pools and various other impediments in my path, must fail me soon. I had fallen twice: each disaster being announced by a shout of vindictive triumph, from the bloodhounds behind. To add to my distress, I now saw, with utter dismay, that Mr. Tarrant, and the man with the instruments, unconscious of the fact that I had been speared, and therefore believing that I could make good my escape, were moving off towards the boat. I gave up all hope, and with that rapid glance at the past, which in such an hour crowds the whole history of life upon the mind, and one brief mental act of supplication or rather submission to Him in whose hands are the issues of life and death, I prepared for the last dread struggle. At that moment the attention of the retreating party was aroused by a boat approaching hastily from the ship; the first long, loud, wild shriek of the natives having most providentially apprised those on board of our danger. They turned and perceived that I was completely exhausted. I spent the last struggling energy I possessed to join them. Supported on each side I had just strength to direct them to turn towards our savage enemies: who were hurrying on in a long file, shouting and waving their clubs, and were now only about thirty yards off. Our turning, momentarily checked their advance, whilst their force increased. During these very few and awfully anxious moments, a party, headed by Lieutenant Emery, hastened over the reef to our support. Another moment, and ours would have been the fate of so many other explorers; the hand of the savage almost grasped our throats—we should have fallen a sacrifice in the cause of discovery, and our bones left to moulder on this distant shore, would have been trodden heedlessly underfoot by the wandering native.

* See the view annexed.

Captain Stokes Speared at Point Pearce (Discoveries in Australia).jpg

At the sight of Lieutenant Emery's party, the natives flew with the utmost rapidity, covering their flight, either from chance or skill, by my party; in a moment the air, so lately echoing with their ferocious yells, was silent, and the scene of their intended massacre, as lonely and deserted as before!

I was soon got down to the boat, lifted over the ship's side, and stretched on the poop cabin table, under the care of Mr. Bynoe, who on probing the wound gave me a cheering hope of its not proving fatal. The anxiety with which I watched his countenance, and listened to the words of life or death, the reader may imagine, but I cannot attempt to describe. The natives never throw a spear when the eye of the person they aim at is turned towards them, supposing that everyone, like themselves, can avoid it. This was most fortunate, as, my side being towards them, the spear had to pass through the thick muscles of the breast before reaching my lungs. Another circumstance in my favour was that I had been very much reduced by my late exertions.

The sufferings of that night I will not fatigue my readers by describing; but I can never forget the anxiety with which Mr. Bynoe watched over me during the whole of it. Neither can I forget my feelings of gratitude to the Almighty when my sunken eyes the next morning once more caught the first rays of the sun. It seemed as though I could discover in these an assurance that my hour was not yet come, and that it would be my lot for some time longer to gaze with grateful pleasure on their splendour.

Several excursions were made during our stay in search of the natives, but without success. An encampment was found in the neighbourhood, near a small freshwater swamp, and by the things that were left behind it was evident that a hasty retreat had been made. It would have been as well if we could have punished these people in some way for their unprovoked attack; but to have followed them far into the bush would have been quite useless. A comparison of their conduct with that of the natives of Shoal Bay, confirms what I have before stated of the extraordinary contrast presented by the dispositions of the aboriginal inhabitants of Australia; for in both instances we were the first Europeans they had ever encountered.

The observations, which nearly cost me my life in endeavouring to obtain, placed Point Pearce in lat. 14° 25' 50", S. long. 2° 49' W. of Port Essington. The time of high-water, at the full and change, was seven o'clock, when the tides rose from twenty to twenty-six feet. The cliffs forming it are of a reddish hue, from the quantity of iron the rocks in the neighbourhood contain. To commemorate the accident which befell me, the bay within Point Pearce was called Treachery Bay, and a high hill over it Providence Hill.

In the nights of the 10th and 11th we had sharp squalls from the eastward, being early in the season for their repeated appearance. There was the usual gathering of clouds, the hard edges of which were lit up by the constant flashing of lightning. It is singular that all these squalls, wherever we have met them, should happen within five hours of the same time, between nine at night and two in the morning.

I have thus detailed the circumstances attending the discovery and partial exploration of the Victoria, that new and important addition to our geographical knowledge of one of the least known and most interesting portions of the globe. Its peculiar characteristics—for, like all Australian rivers, it has distinctive habits and scenery of its own—the nature of the country through which it flows—its present condition, its future destiny, are all subjects, to which, though I may have cursorily alluded before, I am under promise to the reader of returning. Of that promise, therefore, I now tender this in fulfilment.

The Victoria falls into the Indian Ocean in lat. 14° 40' S. and long. 129° 21' E., being at its confluence with the sea, between Turtle and Pearce Points, twenty-six miles wide. The land upon either side as you enter the river is bold and well defined, but from the margin of the western shore, an extensive mud and mangrove flat, not entirely above the level of high-water, and reaching to the base of a range of hills, about seventeen miles from the water's edge, seems to indicate that at one time the waters of the Victoria washed the high land on either side.

For the first thirty miles of the upward course, the character of the river undergoes but little change. The left side continues bold, with the exception of a few extensive flats, sometimes overflowed, and a remarkable rocky elevation, about twenty-five miles up, to which we gave the name of The Fort, as suggested by its bastion-like appearance, though now called Table Hill in the chart. To the right the shore remains low, studded with mangroves, and still, from appearance, subject to not unfrequent inundations: towards the mouth, indeed, it is partially flooded by each returning tide. Thirty-five miles from its mouth its whole appearance undergoes the most striking alteration. We now enter the narrow defile of a precipitous rocky range of compact sandstone, rising from 4 to 500 feet in height, and coming down to the river, in some places nearly two miles wide, in others not less than twenty fathoms deep, and hurrying through, as if to force a passage, with a velocity sometimes not less than six miles an hour.

It continues a rapid stream during its passage through this defile, an extent of some thirty miles, and beyond it is found slowly winding its way towards the sea across a rich alluvial plain, fifteen miles in width. Above this plain is found a second range of similar character and formation to that before mentioned; the stream, however, having of course somewhat less both of width and depth, and flowing with a decreased rapidity. The elevation of the hills on either side was at first entering considerably less than in the former range; they had also lost much of their steep and precipitous appearance; but as we gradually proceeded up, the former distinctive characteristics returned: the hills rose higher and more boldly, almost immediately from the water's edge, and continued each mile to present a loftier and more rugged front; never however attaining the extreme altitude of the former or Sea Range. Above Reach Hopeless the width of the alluvial land, lying between the immediate margin of the river and the hills which bound its valley, considerably increased; and just in proportion as the high bold land approached the channel on one shore, it receded from it on the opposite, and left an extensive alluvial flat between that bank and the retreating hills; the whole valley, too, widened out, so that, supposing the stream at one time to have filled it from the bases of the high land on either side, it must have had a breadth above Reach Hopeless of from three to five miles, and this still increased when I last traced its presumed course beyond Mount Regret.

The extreme altitude of Sea Range is from 7 to 800 feet, and of the hills last seen, near Mount Regret, from 4 to 500. The distinctive formation common to both consists in their level summits, within twenty feet of which a precipitous wall of rock, of a reddish hue, runs along the hillside.

The upper portion of the valley through which the river passes varies in its nature from treeless, stony plains to rich alluvial flats, lightly timbered with a white-stemmed gum. The banks are steep and high, thickly clothed with the acacia, drooping eucalyptus, and tall reeds. The various lake-like reaches had, of course, no perceptible stream, but their banks, no less than the dry patches in the bed of the river, satisfied us that the Victoria had recently been, and in all probability would soon again become, a large and rapid river.

Among the most curious vegetable productions along its banks are the silk cotton-tree and the gouty-stem tree. The latter has been already mentioned by Captains King and Grey, and here attains a great size: it bears a very fragrant white flower, not unlike the jasmine; the fruit is used by the natives, and found to be a very nutritious article of food, something similar to a coconut. Not having previously noticed it in this neighbourhood I conclude this to be the northern limit of its growth. The reader will remember my having before alluded to seeing it near the mouth of Fitzroy River, where I have also mentioned the extent of coast on which we found it, and given the limits of its indigenous empire, extending not quite over two° of lat. The peculiar character of the tree I leave the reader to learn from the woodcuts annexed. That containing the fruit* is from a specimen obtained near the Fitzroy, as it was in flower when I saw it in the month of November on the banks of the Victoria.

Gouty Stem Tree (Discoveries in Australia).jpg
* For description of this fruit, see Vol. I. p. 128
Section of fruit, shewing the manner in which the seeds are disposed.


Fruit of Gouty Stem Tree (Discoveries in Australia).jpg

I may here remind the reader, that among the results of our exploration of the Victoria was the addition of a new species of kangaroo, a freshwater tortoise, some fish, and several beautiful birds to the domains of natural history.