The Journals of John McDouall Stuart, by John McDouall Stuart

Preface by the Editor.

The explorations of Mr. John McDouall Stuart may truly be said, without disparaging his brother explorers, to be amongst the most important in the history of Australian discovery. In 1844 he gained his first experiences under the guidance of that distinguished explorer, Captain Sturt, whose expedition he accompanied in the capacity of draughtsman. Leaving Lake Torrens on the left, Captain Sturt and his party passed up the Murray and the Darling, until finding that the latter would carry him too far from the northern course, which was the one he had marked out for himself, he turned up a small tributary known to the natives as the Williorara. The water of this stream failing him, he pushed on over a barren tract, until he suddenly came upon a fruitful and well-watered spot, which he named the Rocky Glen. In this picturesque glen they were detained for six months, during which time no rain fell. The heat of the sun was so intense that every screw in their boxes was drawn, and all horn handles and combs split into fine laminae. The lead dropped from their pencils, their finger-nails became as brittle as glass, and their hair, and the wool on their sheep, ceased to grow. Scurvy attacked them all, and Mr. Poole, the second in command, died. In order to avoid the scorching rays of the sun, they had excavated an underground chamber, to which they retired during the heat of the day.

When the long-expected rain fell, they pushed on for fifty miles to another suitable halting-place, which was called Park Depot. From this depot Captain Sturt made two attempts to reach the Centre of the continent. He started, accompanied by four of his party, advancing over a country which resembled an ocean whose mighty billows, fifty or sixty feet high, had become suddenly hardened into long parallel ridges of solid sand. The abrupt termination of this was succeeded at two hundred miles by what is now so well known as Sturt’s Stony Desert, to which frequent allusion is made by Mr. Stuart in his journals. After thirty miles more, this stony desert ceased with equal abruptness, and was followed by a vast plain of dried mud, which Captain Sturt describes as “a boundless ploughed field, on which floods had settled and subsided.” After advancing two hundred miles beyond the Stony Desert, and to within one hundred and fifty miles of the Centre of the continent, they were compelled to return to Park Depot, where they arrived in a most exhausted condition.

A short rest at the Depot was followed by another expedition, Captain Sturt being on this occasion accompanied by Mr. Stuart and two men. The seventh day of their journey brought them to the banks of a fine creek, now so well known as Cooper Creek in connection with the fate of those unfortunate explorers, Burke and Wills. At two hundred miles from Cooper Creek Captain Sturt and his party were again met by the Stony Desert, but slightly varied in its aspect. Before abandoning his attempt to proceed, the leader of the expedition laid the matter before his companions, and he writes as follows: “I should be doing an injustice to Mr. Stuart and my men, if I did not here mention that I told them the position we were placed in, and the chance on which our safety would depend if we went on. They might well have been excused if they expressed an opinion contrary to such a course; but the only reply they made me was to assure me that they were ready and willing to follow me to the last.”

With much reluctance, however, Captain Sturt determined to return to Cooper Creek without delay. They travelled night and day without interruption, and on the morning of their arrival at the creek, one of those terrible hot north winds, so much dreaded by the colonists, began to blow with unusual violence. Lucky was it for them that it had not overtaken them in the Desert, for they could scarcely have survived it. The heat was awful; a thermometer, graduated to 127 degrees, burst, though sheltered in the fork of a large tree, and their skin was blistered by a torrent of fine sand, which was driven along by the fury of the hurricane. They still had fearful difficulties to encounter, but after an absence of nineteen months they returned safely to Adelaide.

The discouraging account of the interior which was brought by Captain Sturt did not prevent other explorers from making further attempts; but the terrible fate of Kennedy and his party on York Peninsula, and the utter disappearance of Leichardt’s expedition, both in the same year (1848), had a very decided influence in checking the progress of Australian exploration. Seven years later, in 1855, Mr. Gregory landed on the north-west coast for the purpose of exploring the Victoria River, and after penetrating as far south as latitude 20 degrees 16 minutes, longitude 131 degrees 44 minutes, he was compelled to proceed to the head of the Gulf of Carpentaria, and thence to Sydney along the route taken by Dr. Leichardt in 1844. Shortly after his return Mr. Gregory was despatched by the Government of New South Wales in 1857, to find, if possible, some trace of the lost expedition of the lamented Leichardt; his efforts, however, did nothing to clear up the mystery that enshrouds the fate of that celebrated explorer.1

The colonists of South Australia have always been distinguished for promoting by private aid and public grant the cause of exploration. They usually kept somebody in the field, whose discoveries were intended to throw light on the caprices of Lake Torrens, at one time a vast inland sea, at another a dry desert of stones and baked mud. Hack, Warburton, Freeling, Babbage, and other well-known names, are associated with this particular district, and, in 1858, Stuart started to the north-west of the same country, accompanied by one white man (Forster) and a native. In this, the first expedition which he had the honour to command, he was aided solely by his friend Mr. William Finke, but in his later journeys Mr. James Chambers also bore a share of the expense.2 This journey was commenced in May, 1858, from Mount Eyre in the north to Denial and Streaky Bays on the west coast of the Port Lincoln country. On this journey Mr. Stuart accomplished one of the most arduous feats in all his travels, having, with one man only (the black having basely deserted them), pushed through a long tract of dense scrub and sand with unusual rapidity, thus saving his own life and that of his companion. During this part of the journey they were without food or water, and his companion was thoroughly dispirited and despairing of success. This expedition occupied him till September, 1858, and was undertaken with the object of examining the country for runs. On his return the South Australian Government presented him with a large grant of land in the district which he had explored.

Mr. Stuart now turned his attention to crossing the interior, and, with the assistance of his friends Messrs. Chambers and Finke, he was enabled to make two preparatory expeditions in the vicinity of Lake Torrens — from April 2nd to July 3rd, 1859, and from November 4th, 1859, to January 21st, 1860. The fourth expedition started from Chambers Creek (discovered by Mr. Stuart in 1858, and since treated as his head-quarters for exploring purposes), on March 2nd, 1860, and consisted of Mr. Stuart and two men, with thirteen horses. Proceeding steadily northwards, until the country which his previous explorations had rendered familiar was left far behind, on April 23rd the great explorer calmly records in his Journal the following important announcement: “To-day I find from my observations of the sun that I am now camped in the CENTRE OF AUSTRALIA.” One of the greatest problems of Australian discovery was solved! The Centre of the continent was reached, and, instead of being an inhospitable desert or an inland sea, it was a splendid grass country through which ran numerous watercourses.

Leaving the Centre, a north-westerly course was followed, but, after various repulses, a north-easterly course eventually carried the party as far as latitude 18 degrees 47 minutes south, longitude 134 degrees, when they were driven back by the hostility of the natives. As has already been stated, Mr. Gregory in 1855, starting from the north-west coast, had penetrated to the south as low as latitude 20 degrees 16 minutes, longitude 127 degrees 35 minutes. Mr. Stuart had now reached a position about half-way between Gregory’s lowest southward point and the head of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Without actually reaching the country explored by Gregory, he had overlapped his brother explorer’s position by one degree and a half, or more than one hundred miles, and was about two hundred and fifty miles in actual distance from the nearest part of the shores of the Gulf. It is important to remark that the attack of the savages which forced Mr. Stuart to return occurred on June 26th, 1860, so that he had virtually crossed the continent two months before Messrs. Burke and Wills had left Melbourne.3

On New Year’s day 1861, Mr. Stuart again left Adelaide, aided this time by a grant from the Colonial Government of 2500 pounds, in addition to the assistance of his well-tried friends Messrs. Chambers and Finke. He made his former position with ease, and advanced about one hundred miles beyond it, to latitude 17 degrees, longitude 133 degrees; but an impenetrable scrub barred all further progress, and failing provisions, etc., compelled him, after such prolonged and strenuous efforts that his horses on one occasion were one hundred and six hours without water, most reluctantly to return. The expedition arrived safely in the settled districts in September, and the determined explorer, after a delay of less than a month, was again despatched by the South Australian Government along what had now become to him a familiar road. This time success crowned his efforts; a passage was found northwards through the opposing scrub, and leaving the Gulf of Carpentaria far to the right, the Indian Ocean itself was reached. Other explorers had merely seen the rise and fall of the tide in rivers, boggy ground and swamps intervening and cutting off all chance of ever seeing the sea. But Stuart actually stood on its shore and washed his hands in its waters! What a pleasure it must have been to the leader when, knowing well from his reckoning that the sea must be close at hand, but keeping it a secret from all except Thring and Auld, he witnessed the joyful surprise of the rest of the party!

The expedition reached Adelaide safely, although for a long time the leader’s life was despaired of, the constant hardships of so many journeys with scarcely any intermission having brought on a terrible attack of scurvy. The South Australian Government in 1859 liberally rewarded Mr. Stuart and his party for their successful enterprise.4 On the 10th of March a resolution was passed to the effect that a sum of 3500 pounds should be paid as a reward to John McDouall Stuart, Esquire, and the members of his party, in the following proportions: Mr. Stuart 2000 pounds; Mr. Keckwick 500 pounds; Messrs. Thring and Auld 200 pounds each; and Messrs. King, Billiatt, Frew, Nash, McGorrerey, and Waterhouse, 100 pounds each. Perhaps this is the most fitting place to express Mr. Stuart’s appreciation of the honour done him by the Royal Geographical Society of London, in awarding him their gold medal and presenting him with a gold watch. He wishes particularly to express his hearty thanks to Sir Roderick Murchison, and the other distinguished members of the society, for the lively interest they have evinced in his welfare.

Mr. Stuart’s experiences have led him to form a very decided opinion as to the cause of the well-known hot winds of Australia, so long the subject of scientific speculation. North and north-west of Flinders Range are large plains covered with stones, extending as far as latitude 25 degrees. To the north of that, although the sun was intensely hot, there were no hot winds; in fact from that parallel of latitude to the Indian Ocean, either going or returning, they were not met with. “On reaching latitude 27 degrees on my return,” writes Mr. Stuart, “I found the hot winds prevailing again as on my outward journey. I saw no sandy desert to which these hot winds have been attributed, but, on lifting some of the stones that were lying on the surface,5 I found them so hot that I was obliged to drop them immediately. It is my opinion that when a north wind blows across those stone-covered plains, it collects the heat from them, and the air, becoming rarified, is driven on southwards with increased vehemence. To the north of latitude 25 degrees, although exposure to the sun in the middle of the day was very oppressive, yet the moment we got under the shade of a tree we felt quite alive again; there was none of that languid feeling which is experienced in the south during a hot wind, as for example that which blew on the morning after reaching the Hamilton,6 in latitude 26 degrees 40 minutes. That was one of the hottest winds I ever experienced. I had the horses brought up at 7 o’clock, intending to proceed, but seeing there was a very hot wind coming on, I had them turned out again. It was well I did so, for before 10 o’clock all the horses were in small groups under the trees, and the men lying under the shade of blankets unable to do anything, so overpowering was the heat.” Unfortunately, Mr. Stuart had no thermometer.

Mr. Stuart is anxious to direct attention to the establishment of a Telegraph line along his route. On this subject he writes as follows:—

“On my arrival in Adelaide from my last journey I found a great deal of anxiety felt as to whether a line could be carried across to the mouth of the Adelaide river. There would be a few difficulties in the way, but none which could not be overcome and made to repay the cost of such an undertaking. The first would be in crossing from Mr. Glen’s station to Chambers Creek, in finding timber sufficiently long for poles, supposing that no more favourable line than I travelled over could be adopted, but I have good reason for supposing that there is plenty of suitable timber in the range and creek, not more than ten miles off my track: the distance between the two places is one hundred miles. From Chambers Creek through the spring country to the Gap in Hanson Range the cartage would be a little farther, in consequence of the timber being scarce in some places. There are many creeks in which it would be found, but I had not time to examine them in detail. Another difficulty would be in crossing the McDonnell Range, which is rough and ragged, but there is a great quantity of timber in the Hugh; the distance to this in a straight line is not more than seven miles; from thence to the Roper River there are a few places where the cartage might be from ten to twenty miles, that is in crossing the plains where only stunted gum-trees grow, but tall timber can be obtained from the rising ground around them. From latitude 16 degrees 30 minutes south to the north coast, there would be no difficulty whatever, as there is an abundance of timber everywhere. I am promised information, through the kindness of Mr. Todd, of the Telegraph department, as to the average cost of establishing the lines through the outer districts of this colony, and it is my intention to make a calculation of the cost of a line on my route, by which the comparative merits and expense will be tested, and I am of opinion I shall be able to show most favourable results. I should have been glad for this information to have accompanied my works, but I find I cannot postpone them longer for that purpose, as parties have already taken advantage of the delay occasioned by my illness at the time of, and since, my arrival home to collect what scraps of information they could obtain, with the intention of publishing them as my travels. I leave the reward of such conduct to a discriminating public; I shall not fail to carry out my intention with regard to a Telegraph line; and should I have no opportunity of submitting it to the public, I shall take care to advance the matter in such channels as may be most likely to lead to a successful issue. I beg reference to my map accompanying this work, which will at once show the favourable geographical situation of the Adelaide River for a settlement, and the short and safe route it opens up for communication and trading with India: indeed when I look upon the present system of shipping to that important empire, I cannot over-estimate the advantages that such an extended intercourse would create.”

Mr. Stuart is also very anxious for the formation of a new colony on the scene of his discoveries on the River Adelaide, and would fain have been one of the first pioneers of such an enterprise, but his health has been so much shattered by his last journey that he can only now hope to see younger men follow in the path which he had made his own. He writes as follows:—

“Judging from the experience I have had in travelling through the Continent of Australia for the last twenty-two years, and also from the description that other explorers have given of the different portions they have examined in their journeys, I have no hesitation in saying, that the country that I have discovered on and around the banks of the Adelaide River is more favourable than any other part of the continent for the formation of a new colony. The soil is generally of the richest nature ever formed for the benefit of mankind: black and alluvial, and capable of producing anything that could be desired, and watered by one of the finest rivers in Australia. This river was found by Lieutenant Helpman to be about four to seven fathoms deep at the mouth, and at one hundred and twenty miles up (the furthest point he reached) it was found to be about seven fathoms deep and nearly one hundred yards broad, with a clear passage all the way up. I struck it about this point, and followed it down, encamping fifteen miles from its mouth, and found the water perfectly fresh, and the river broader and apparently very deep; the country around most excellent, abundantly supplied with fresh water, running in many flowing streams into the Adelaide River, the grass in many places growing six feet high, and the herbage very close — a thing seldom seen in a new country. The timber is chiefly composed of stringy-bark, gum, myall, casurina, pine, and many other descriptions of large timber, all of which will be most useful to new colonists. There is also a plentiful supply of stone in the low rises suitable for building purposes, and any quantity of bamboo can be obtained from the river from two to fifty feet long. I measured one fifteen inches in circumference, and saw many larger. The river abounds in fish and waterfowl of all descriptions. On my arrival from the coast I kept more to the eastward of my north course, with the intention of seeing further into the country. I crossed the sources of the running streams before alluded to, and had great difficulty in getting more to the west. They take their rise from large bodies of springs coming from extensive grassy plains, which proves there must be a very considerable underground drainage, as there are no hills of sufficient elevation to cause the supply of water in these streams. I feel confident that, if a new settlement is formed in this splendid country, in a few years it will become one of the brightest gems in the British Crown. To South Australia and some of the more remote Australian colonies the benefits to be derived from the formation of such a colony would be equally advantageous, creating an outlet for their surplus beef and mutton, which would be eagerly consumed by the races in the Indian Islands, and payment made by the shipment of their useful ponies, and the other valuable products of those islands; indeed I see one of the finest openings I am aware of for trading between these islands and a colony formed where proposed.”

Mr. Stuart was accompanied on his last journey by Mr. Waterhouse, a clever naturalist, whose report to the Commissioner of Crown Lands of South Australia, although too long for insertion here, is full of most interesting information. Unfortunately, the interests of geographical science were apparently lost sight of in the hurry to effect the grand object of the expedition, namely, to cross from sea to sea. Thermometers were forgotten; two mounted maps of the country from Chambers Creek to Newcastle Water, in a tin case, never came to hand, and the expedition was provided with no means of estimating even the approximate height of the elevated land or of the mountains in the interior. As Mr. Waterhouse remarks: “The thermometers were much needed, as it would have been very desirable to have kept a register of the temperature, and to have tested occasionally the degree of heat at which water boiled on the high table lands. The loss of the maps prevented my marking down at the time on the maps the physical features of the country, and the distribution of its fauna and flora.”

Mr. Waterhouse divides the country into three divisions. The first, which extends from Goolong Springs to a little north of the Gap in Hanson Range, latitude 27 degrees 18 minutes 23 seconds, may be called the spring and saltbush country. The second division commences north of the Gap in Hanson Range, and extends to the southern side of Newcastle Water, latitude 17 degrees 36 minutes 29 seconds. It is marked by great scarcity of water — in fact, there are few places where water can be relied on as permanent — and also by the presence of the porcupine grass (Triodia pungens of Gregory, and Spinifex of Stuart), which is the prevailing flora. The third division commences from the north end of Newcastle Water, latitude 17 degrees 16 minutes 20 seconds, and extends to Van Diemen Gulf, latitude 12 degrees 12 minutes 30 seconds; it comprises a large part of Sturt Plains, with soil formed of a fine lacustrine deposit, the valleys of the Roper filled with a luxuriant tropical vegetation, and thence to the Adelaide River and the sea-coast.

On visiting Hergott Springs, Mr. Waterhouse learnt that Mr. Burtt, whose station is only a few miles distant, in opening these springs discovered some fossil bones, casts of which were forwarded to Professor Owen, who pronounced them to be the remains of a gigantic extinct marsupial, named Diprotodon Australis.7 Bones of this animal have also been found in a newer tertiary formation in New South Wales. Mr. Waterhouse considers that a great tertiary drift extends over this part of the country, obscuring and concealing at no great depth below the surface many springs, which may hereafter be discovered as the country becomes better known.

The Louden Spa is a hot spring arising out of a small hillock, and proceeds from the fissures of volcanic rock. This water is medicinal, but not disagreeable to the taste: the damper made with it was very light, and tasted like soda-bread.

In his remarks on the second division Mr. Waterhouse states much that is valuable. He estimates the height of Mount Hay at two thousand feet, regarding it as the highest point of the McDonnell Range, which is the natural centre of this part of the continent. Mr. Waterhouse only saw Chambers Pillar from a distance, but he had an opportunity of examining a smaller hill of the same character, and found it to be composed of a soft loose argillaceous rock, at the top of which was a thin stratum of a hard siliceous rock, much broken up. “The isolated hills appear to have been at some remote period connected, but from the soft and loose nature of the lower rock meeting with the action of water, had arisen a succession of landslips. These have been washed away and others have followed in their turn; the upper rock, from being undermined, has fallen down and broken up, supplying the peculiar siliceous stones so widely distributed on parts of the surface of the country.”

The vegetation of this district is poor; the myall is scarce, but the mulga (Acacia aneura) generally plentiful. Both these shrubs are species of acacia, the myall being of much larger growth and longer lived than the mulga. Nutritious grass is seldom found except in the immediate vicinity of the creeks, and the scrubs are very extensive.

Mr. Waterhouse collected a great number of specimens of natural history, but, from want of the convenience for carrying them, many of the more delicate objects were broken.

In the Appendix will be found some remarks by Mr. John Gould, F.R.S., etc., on the birds collected by Mr. Waterhouse during Mr. Stuart’s expedition, including a description of a new and beautiful parrakeet. There are also descriptions of new species of Freshwater Shells from the same expedition, by Mr. Arthur Adams, F.L.S., and Mr. G. French Angas, to the skill of which latter gentleman this work is indebted for its admirable illustrations.

Dr. Muller, the Government Botanist, Director of the Botanic Garden at Melbourne, in his report to both Houses of the Legislature of Victoria, April 15th, 1863, says, “A series of all the plants collected during Mr. J.M. Stuart’s last expedition was presented by the Hon. H. Strangways, Commissioner of Crown Lands for South Australia, and those of the former expeditions of that highly distinguished explorer, by the late J. Chambers, Esquire, of North Adelaide.” Of this collection, Dr. Muller has furnished a systematic enumeration, which will be found in the Appendix. This enumeration must not, however, be accepted as final, for Dr. Muller has forwarded all the specimens to England for the inspection of Mr. Bentham, the learned President of the Linnaean Society of London, who is now elaborating his great and exhaustive work on the Flora of Australia, the second volume of which will shortly be before the public.

WILLIAM HARDMAN.

1 It is possible that Mr. McKinlay has been hasty in the opinion he formed from the graves and remains of white men shown to him by Keri Keri, and the story related of their massacre. May they not belong to Leichardt’s party?

2 It is greatly to be regretted that both these gentlemen are since dead. Mr. Chambers did not survive to witness the success of his friend’s later expeditions, and the news of Mr. Finke’s death reached us while these sheets were going through the press.

3 They did not leave Cooper Creek until December 14th, rather more than a fortnight before Mr. Stuart started on his fifth expedition.

4 Mr. Stuart’s qualities as a practised Bushman are unrivalled, and he has always succeeded in bringing his party back without loss of life.

5 On the surface, as I suppose, of the large plains North of Flinders Range. ED.

6 Journal 1861 to 1862.

7 Hergott Springs were only discovered and named by Stuart three years before, yet we now find a station close by them. The explorer is not far ahead of his fellow-colonists, as is well remarked by the Edinburgh Review for July, 1862: “Australian occupation has kept close on the heels of Australian discovery.”

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