The Australian explorers/Chapter 7

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The Australian explorers by George Grimm
Chapter 7: Eyre's Adventurous Journey along the Great Australian Bight



Edward John Eyre, the son of a Yorkshire clergyman, was born in the year 1815. A youthful passion for the heroic led him to chose the military profession; but, having failed to obtain a commission, he turned his attention to the colonies, and came to Sydney in 1833, with the slender capital of £400. Part of this sum was spent in obtaining colonial experience, in which he graduated so high as to become the leader in a new Australian enterprise. The newly founded settlements of Port Phillip (subsequently Victoria) and South Australia had created a great demand for stock, all of which had hitherto been carried by sea, and, on reaching their destination, were sold at famine prices. Young Eyre conceived the practicability of an overland route, and proceeded to prove it to a demonstration. In the first of these journeys he took 1,000 sheep and 600 head of cattle from the Monaro district, in New South Wales, to Adelaide, in South Australia, by way of the Murray River, and reaped a handsome pecuniary reward in the sale of the stock. Smaller men followed in the wake of this born adventurer, making overlanding the most paying game in Australia, till a glut was produced in the southern markets. Success having followed Eyre in the new path his enterprise had struck out, he was soon in possession of sufficient funds to begin squatting on his own account. He purchased the station "Murrundi," on the Lower Murray, where he resided for several years, acting also as magistrate and protector of the aborigines. Occasionally, too, he varied the monotony of bush life by feats of exploration into the unknown territory, thus keeping alive the spirit of adventure, and unconsciously qualifying himself for the romantic enterprise which will transmit his name to distant posterity.

Up to the year 1840 Western Australia remained completely isolated from the other colonies, and could be approached only by sea. But as that country was now being extensively occupied, it was of great importance also to the settlers in the south to find an overland route from Adelaide, and it was believed the time had come when a successful effort could be made. The obstacles which barred the way were enormous, and for that epoch insuperable; but so little were they suspected by the South Australians that the proposed journey was regarded as a pleasure excursion, and it was considered advisable to lighten the expense of the expedition by sending over a quantity of stock with the pioneer explorers! The one man who could correct this public delusion was Mr. Eyre, for he knew enough of the outlying country to feel safe in predicting the failure of the proposed undertaking. By both speech and pen he laboured to oppose the misguided enthusiasm, and succeeded in preventing a certain waste of treasure and a very probable sacrifice of human life. But it was far from his desire to see so much ardour for exploration run to waste, and now that the colony was in high feather for discovery, Eyre made a successful effort to divert it into what he considered a more profitable channel. Very little was yet known of the country to the north. Why not strike out in this direction now, and make a bold attempt to reach the centre of Australia from the city of Adelaide? One argument alone was sufficient, and with it Eyre prevailed. He offered to be the leader of the expedition, providing one-third of its expense from his own pocket. Nothing remained now but to get on with the preparations.

On the 20th of June, 1840, a well-provisioned party consisting of eight persons, with Eyre in command, supported by two other Europeans, Scott and Baxter, left Adelaide under favourable auspices, and in high hopes of exploring a large portion of the interior if more cherished results should prove unattainable; but, as the event proved, only to meet with crushing disappointment. Lake Torrens was as yet very imperfectly known, and Eyre, misled by refraction, conceived it to be an immense sheet of water in the shape of a horse-shoe, within the bend of which he supposed the expedition was being entrapped. The curve, in reality, was described by a chain of mud lakes partly covered with water, and partly encrusted with salt. Passages are now found, at intervals, between these mud lagoons, but Eyre had not the good luck to hit on one of them. Aroused by the energy of despair, he next determined to round this impenetrable barrier, and struck out to the eastward, for an isolated peak which he called Mount Hopeless. The name corresponded to the reality, for the outlook from its summit revealed nothing but a barren and burning desert, which forced the expedition to fall back by a western route to the southern coast.

Headquarters now remained for some time at Streaky Bay, on the eastern shoulder of the Great Australian Bight. Taking a subdivision of the party, he again and again endeavoured to round the head of the Bight in the hope of finding better country, which would open a favourable route towards the interior. Here, too, his expectations were baffled in this latter respect, and even Eyre had to abandon his pet project in utter despair. But he was of too dauntless a temperament to brook the idea of returning to Adelaide without accomplishing something worthy of remembrance. His next move was competent only to a madman or a hero. It was a serious attempt to lead an expedition from the encampment on Fowler's Bay to King George's Sound, along the Great Australian Bight, a journey of more than 1,500 miles over the worst country under the sun. He proposed to proceed with his present party unbroken, if Governor Gawler would allow the government cutter to advance to Cape Arid, a sort of half-way station, and there await the expedition, with a supply of provisions. The Governor refused the use of the vessel in connection with so romantic a proposal, except for the purpose of bringing the entire part}back to Adelaide, and so putting an end to what he must be excused for regarding as a mad freak. But Eyre was a man born to lead, not to be led, and determined to stick to his purpose, with help or without it. Yet, being conscious of the extreme peril that lay on the very face of the undertaking, he resolved to risk the sacrifice of no European's life but his own, and made preparations to send home Scott and Baxter in the cutter. Baxter, an old and faithful servant, who had been overseer on Eyre's station, persisted in clinging to his master, whether for life or death. And, alas! it was for the latter. The party, as thus reduced, consisted of only two white men and three black boys, one being an old favourite named Wylie. A few horses and sheep, together with a limited supply of provisions, made up the sum total of the expedition.

Never before was an enterprise of such overwhelming difficulty engaged in by reasonable men. This section of the southern coast was yet scarcely known. The navigators Nuyts and Flinders had cruised over its waters, gazing with mysterious awe on its weather-beaten cliffs, rising to the precipitous height of 400 or even 600 feet above the water. At intervals along the base the waves had undermined this Titanic sea-wall, causing it to fall in many a yawning breach, the debris of which completely obstructed the passage between the rocks and the sea in the few places where such a convenience might have been previously possible. The crown of these cliffs had not yet been trodden by the white man's foot, and the reports of the sparse aborigines were enough to freeze the ardour of the most adventurous in the heroic age of Australian exploration. On this border-land of earth and sea contending winds had deposited the dust particles borne on their wings, and rolled them together in heaps, to be met with at long and dreary intervals. These sand-hills, resting on a limestone formation, retained at their base a small supply of water, to be reached only by painstaking, and often painful, digging. For the greater part of the way no other water was to be found on this barren and inhospitable region of parched-up Australia.

From Cape Adieu, where leave had been taken of the cutter audits passengers, to the first stage at the head of the Bight, the difficulties were manageable—for this part of the route had been traversed and supplies hidden for future use—but, this over, they had to be faced in all their appalling magnitude. The sand-hills were found to be so far apart that it was impossible to bring the stock from the one to the other without intermediate supply. When the sheep, and sometimes the horses, could travel no further, one or two of the parties had to be left in charge while others pushed forward in search of water, and then returned with what supply they could bring, when the animals were driven on to the station. The discouragements were infinite and the labour superhuman. Eyre alone was equal to the strain, and he owed it more to his indomitable spirit than to his natural strength. It was a sore trial to perceive even Baxter to be giving way and wishing to return; but as this seemed to threaten certain death, he kept to his resolution, and persevered against all hope of a successful issue, so desperate had the aspect of affairs now become. The few sheep having dwindled away with ominous rapidity, it had become necessary to kill several of the horses and eat them, although they furnished little but skin and bone. Matters having come to extremities, the baggage had to be reduced to the smallest proportions, and most of the valuables were thrown away in the wilderness to lighten the burden of carriage. Their sufferings from want of water now became indescribable. Man and beast were compelled to travel three or four days without getting a mouthful. With only one exception, none had been found but in the sand-hills for the distance of 800 miles, and how hard it was to reach it there has already been described. Even the dew on the sparse patches of grass was put in requisition, as may be learned from the following extract from the journal of the expedition:—"Leaving the overseer to search for the horses, which had strayed, I took a sponge and went to try to collect some of the dew which was hanging in spangles on the grass and shrubs. Brushing these with the sponge, I squeezed it, when saturated, into a quart-pot, which in an hour's time I filled with water. The native boys were occupied in the same way, and, by using a handful of fine grass instead of a sponge, they collected about a quart among them. Having taken the water to the camp and made it into tea, we divided it amongst the party, and never was a meal more truly relished, although we ate the last morsel of bread we had with us, and none knew when we might again enjoy either a drink of water or a mouthful of bread. We had now demonstrated the practicability of collecting water from the dew. I had often heard from the natives that they were in the habit of practising this plan, but had never before actually witnessed its adoption."

But the climax was yet to come. To privations and difficulties the crime of treachery and murder was now to be added. Two of the blacks proved unfaithful, and shot the overseer, Baxter, in cold blood, apparently for the purpose of deserting with as much of the provisions as they could lay hands on, perhaps after the murder of the leader himself. The words in which Eyre describes the anguish of his situation exceed the highest efforts of tragedy, and show how fact may become stranger than fiction. "The night was cold, and the wind blowing hard from the south-west, whilst scud and nimbus were passing very rapidly by the moon. The horses fed tolerably well, but rambled a good deal, threading in and out among the many belts of scrub which intersected the grassy openings, until I scarcely knew exactly' where our camp was, the fires having apparently expired some time ago. It was now half-past ten, and I headed the horses back in the direction in which I thought the camp lay, that I might be ready to call the overseer to relieve me at eleven. Whilst thus engaged and looking steadfastly around among the scrub to see if I could anywhere detect the embers of our fires, I was startled by a sudden flash, followed by the report of a gun, not a quarter of a mile away from me. Imagining that the overseer had mistaken the hour of the night, and not being able to find me or the horses had taken that method to attract my attention, I immediately called out, but no answer was returned. I got alarmed, and, leaving the horses, hurried up towards the camp as rapidly as I could. About a hundred yards from it I met the King George's Sound native (Wylie) running towards me, and in great haste and alarm, crying out, ' Oh, Massa! oh, Massa, come here I' but could gain no information from him as to what had occurred. Upon reaching the encampment, which I did in about five minutes after the shot was fired, I was horror-struck to find my poor overseer lying on the ground weltering in his blood, and in the last agonies of death. Glancing hastily around the camp, I found it deserted by the two younger native boys, whilst the scattered fragments of our baggage, which I left carefully piled under the oilskin, lay thrown about in wild disorder, and at once revealed the cause of the harrowing scene before me. Upon raising the body of my faithful but ill-fated follower, I found that he was beyond all human aid; he had been shot through the left breast with a ball; the last convulsions of death were upon him, and he expired almost immediately after our arrival. The frightful, the appalling truth now burst upon me that I was alone in the desert. He who had faithfully served me for many years, who had followed my fortunes in adversity and prosperity, who had accompanied me in all my wanderings, and whose attachment to me had been his sole inducement to remain with me in this last and, to him, alas! fatal journey, was now no more. For an instant, I was almost tempted to wish that it had been my fate instead of his. The horrors of my situation glared upon me in such startling reality as for an instant almost to paralyze the mind. At the dead hour of night, in the wildest and most inhospitable wastes of Australia, with the fierce wind raging in unison with the scene of violence before me, I was left with a single native, whose fidelity I could not rely upon, and who for aught I knew might be in league with the other two, who were perhaps even now lurking about with the view of taking away my life as they had done that of the overseer. Three days had passed away since we left the last water, and it was very doubtful when we might find any more. Six hundred miles of country had to be traversed before I could hope to obtain the slightest aid or assistance of any kind, whilst I knew not that a single drop of water or an ounce of Hour had been left by these murderers from a stock that had previously been so small. Though years have now passed away since the enactment of this tragedy, the dreadful horrors of that time and scene are recalled before me with frightful vividness, and make me shudder when I think of them. A lifetime was crowded into those few short hours, and death alone may blot out the impression they produced."

To give decent burial to the body of a friend whom death only could separate would have been a melancholy satisfaction, but even this slight tribute of affection was denied by the situation. No grave could be dug, for sheet-rock, stretching far and wide, formed the adamantine pavement of this horrible place. Wrapt in a blanket for its winding-sheet, the corpse was left in this lonely wilderness, where it lay undisturbed till it was stumbled on quite recently by the district mailman. On a calmer view of the position, Eyre discovered that the ruffians had left him only forty pounds of flour, a little tea and sugar, and four gallons of water. Such was the provision for two men against a journey of 600 miles! Nothing, however, could be gained by delay in this awful scene, and every consideration counselled an immediate departure—most of all, the knowledge that the two murderers were skulking in the neighbourhood with the probable design of taking Eyre's life. A start was made without further loss of time. Another horse was killed for food, but the animal having been poor and sickly, its flesh did not agree with them, and ill health supervened. When thus brought face to face with the last extremity, a sudden vision of deliverance nearly overwhelmed them with joy. Coming unexpectedly on an opening in the Bight, first a boat and then a ship at anchor rushed upon the view. A closer acquaintance proved the apparition to be a French whaling-vessel, under the command of Captain Rossiter, whose name is fittingly perpetuated in the same little bay. The unlooked-for visitors were hospitably entertained and lodged for twelve days in the ship, till they were sufficiently recruited for the remainder of the journey. With renewed strength, and a fresh supply of provisions, the march through the desert was once more resumed, for the indomitable explorer would not even yet abandon the project. Though hardship had now lost its sting, more difficulties had yet to be encountered than might have been expected, but they were of a different kind from the preceding. Water became only too plentiful, for a wet season had set in, and the travellers had often to wade rather than to walk. But the end of this terrible journey drew on apace. To their unspeakable joy the mountains on the further side of King George's Sound began to loom in the distance, and Wylie, who was a native of that district, now for the first time showed some confidence in his leader, whom he never expected to bring him back to his home. The welcome sight, in truth, inspired both the black and the white man with fresh life; for they had to make only one more effort, and, this over, their weary feet found rest in the hospitable settlement of Albany. The heroic endurance displayed during this journey stands without a parallel in history, but it led to nothing but a barren triumph over stupendous difficulties. Had Eyre kept further inland he would have found a better route and opened up a more profitable country. This discovery had to wait for another and more fortunate explorer. The present expedition, by hugging the shore, travelled over a tract of country that was seen to be utterly useless for the wants of civilization. So patent was this fact to Mr. Eyre himself that he justified the publication of his narrative by the strange argument that no one had traversed this wilderness before and he was perfectly sure none would ever do it again.

Henceforward Edward John Eyre was known to fame—but not to fortune. Being subsequently appointed Governor of Jamaica, he fell heir to an upheaval of disorder, which culminated in open rebellion. This insurrection Eyre put down with an iron hand. Some accused him of needless severity, while others justified his conduct as an act of imperative necessity. The her-worshipper, the late Thomas Carlyle, defended him bravely, and was seconded by many sympathizers of less note, who came to the rescue with pen and purse. This perilous journey of former years was justly pleaded in Mr. Eyre's favour, but his friends weakened their case by confounding the Great Australian Bight with the Gulf of Carpentaria! Though exonerated by a commission of inquiry, the Governor was recalled, and for four years thereafter harassed by a bitter prosecution, which he probably found harder to endure than his terrible journey on the Great Australian Bight.