Narrative of an expedition into Central Australia, by Charles Sturt

Chapter 11

The horses — ascend the hills — irresolution and retreat — horses reduced to great want — unexpected relief — try the desert to the N.e. — find water in our last well — reach the creek — proceed to the eastward — plague of flies and ants — surprise an old man — sea-gulls and pelicans — fish — pool of brine — meet natives — turn to the N.e. — Cooper’s Creek tribe, their kindness and appearance — attempt to cross the plains — turn back — proceed to the northward — effects of refraction — find natives at our old camp and the stores untouched — Cooper’s Creek, its geographical position.

I had taken all the horses, with the exception of one, out with me on this journey, and as they will shortly bear a prominent part in this narrative, I will make some mention of them. My own horse was a grey — for which reason I called him Duncan — I had ridden him during the whole period of my wanderings, and think I never saw an animal that could endure more, or suffered less from the want of water; he was aged, and a proof, that in the brute creation as well as with mankind, years give a certain stamina that youth does not possess. This animal, as the reader will believe, knew me well, as indeed did all the horses, for I had stood by to see them watered many a time. Mr. Stuart rode Mr. Browne’s horse, a little animal, but one of great endurance also; Mack used a horse we called the Roan, a hunter that had been Mr. Poole’s. Morgan rode poor Punch, whose name I have before had occasion to mention, and who, notwithstanding subsequent rest, had not recovered from the fatigues of his northern excursion. Besides these we had four pack horses:— Bawley, a strong and compact little animal, with a blaze on the forehead, high spirited, with a shining coat, and having been a pet, was up to all kind of tricks, but was a general favourite, and a nice horse; — the other was Traveller, a light chesnut, what the hunter would call a washy brute, always eating and never fat; — the Colt, so called from his being young, certainly unequal to such a journey as that on which he was taken; — and Slommy, another aged horse. During the summer, Traveller had had a great discharge from the nose, and I was several times on the point of ordering him to be shot, under an apprehension that his disease was the glanders; but, although the colt and my own horse contracted it, I postponed my final mandate, and all recovered; however, he continued weak. At this time they were unshod, and had pretty well worn their hoofs down to the quick, insomuch that any inequality in the ground made them limp, and it was distressing to ride them; but, notwithstanding, they bore up singularly against the changes and fatigues they had to go through.

From a small rising ground near where we stopped in the valley, on the occasion of which I am speaking, and in the obscure light of departing day we saw to the N.N.W. a line of dark looking hills, at the distance of about ten or twelve miles, but we could not discover tree or bush upon them, all we could make out was that they were dark objects above the line of horizon, and that the intervening country seemed to be as dark as they were. The weather had changed from cold to hot, the wind having flown from S. to the N.E., and the day and night were exceedingly warm. I was sorry to observe, too, that the horses had scarcely touched the grass on which, for their sakes, I had been tempted to stop, and that they were evidently suffering from the previous day’s journey of from 34 to 36 miles, that being about the distance we had left the water in the grassy valley. Before mounting, on the morning of the 21st, Mr. Stuart and I went to see if we could make out more than we had been able to do the night before, what kind of country was in front of us, but we were disappointed, and found that we should have to wait patiently until we got nearer the hills to judge of their formation. About half a mile below where we had slept, the valley led to the N.N.E., and on turning, we found it there opened at once upon the Stony Desert; but the hills were now hid from us by sandy undulations to our left, and even when we got well into the plain we could hardly make out what the hills were. As we neared them, however, we observed that they were nothing more than high sand hills, covered with stones even as the desert itself, to their tops. That part of it over which we were riding also differed from any other portion, in having large sharp-pointed water-worn rocks embedded in the ground amongst the stones, as if they had been so whilst the ground was soft. There was a line of small box-trees marking the course of a creek between us and the hills, and a hope that we should find water cheered us for a moment, but that ray soon vanished when we saw the nature of its bed. We searched along it for about half an hour in vain, and then turned to the hills and ascended to the top of one of the highest, about 150 feet above the level of the plain. From it the eye wandered hopelessly for some bright object on which to rest. Behind us to the south-east lay the sand hills we had crossed, with the stony plain sweeping right round them, but in every other direction the dark brown desert extended. The line of the horizon was broken to the north-west and north by hills similar to the one we had ascended; but in those directions not a blade of grass, not a glittering spot was to be seen.

At this point, which I have placed in lat. 25 degrees 54 minutes and in long. 139 degrees 25 minutes, I had again to choose between the chance of success or disaster, as on the first occasion; if I went on and should happen to find water, all for the time would be well, if not, destruction would have been inevitable. I was now nearly 50 miles from water, and feared that, as it was, some of my horses would fall before I could get back to it, yet I lingered undecided on the hill, reluctant to make up my mind, for I felt that if I thus again retired, it would be a virtual abandonment of the task undertaken. I should be doing an injustice to Mr. Stuart and to 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 had expressed an opinion contrary to such a course, but the only reply they made was to assure me that they were ready and willing to follow me to the last. After this, I believe I sat on the hill for more than half an hour with the telescope in my hand, but there was nothing to encourage me onwards; our situation, however, admitted not of delay. I might, it is true, have gone on and perished with all my men; but I saw neither the credit nor the utility of such a measure. I trust the reader will believe that I would not have shrunk from any danger that perseverance or physical strength could have overcome; that indeed I did not shrink from the slow fate, which, as far as I could judge, would inevitably have awaited me if I had gone on; but that in the exercise of sound discretion I decided on falling back. The feeling which would have led me onwards was similar to that of a man who is sensible of having committed an error, yet is ashamed to make an apology, and who would rather run the risk of being shot, than of having the charge of pusillanimity fixed upon him; but I have never regretted the step I took, and it has been no small gratification to me to find that the Noble President of the Royal Geographical Society, Lord Colchester, when addressing the members of that enlightened body, in its name presenting medals to Dr. Leichhardt and myself, for our labours in the cause of Geography, alluded to and approved “the prudence with which further advance was abandoned, when it could only have risked the loss of those entrusted to my charge.”

We slowly retraced our steps to the valley in which we had slept, and I stopped there for half an hour, but none of the horses would eat, with the exception of Traveller, and he certainly made good use of his time. The others collected round me as I sat under a tree, with their heads over mine, and my own horse pulled my hat off my head to engage my attention. Poor brute! I would have given much at that moment to have relieved him, but I could not. We were all of us in the same distress, and if we had not ultimately found water must all have perished together. Finding that they would not eat, we saddled and proceeded onwards, I should say backwards — and at 10 p.m. we were on the sand ridges. At the head of the valley Traveller fell dead, and I feared every moment that we should lose the Colt. At one I stopped to rest the horses till dawn, and then remounted, but Morgan and Mack got slowly on, so that I thought it better to precede them, and if possible to take some water back to moisten the mouth of their horses, and I accordingly went in advance with Mr. Stuart. I thought we should never have got through the dead box-tree forest I have mentioned, however we did so about 11 a.m., and made straight for the spot where we expected to relieve both ourselves and our horses, but the water was gone. Mr. Stuart poked his fingers into the mud and moistened his lips with the water that filled the holes he had made, but that was all. We were yet searching for water when Morgan and Mack appeared, but without the colt; fortunately they had descended into the valley higher up, and had found a little pool, which they had emptied, under an impression that we had found plenty; and were astonished at hearing that none any longer remained. In this situation, and with the apparent certain prospect of losing my own and Mr. Browne’s horse, and the colt which was still alive when the men left him, not more than a mile in the rear, we continued our search for water, but it would have been to no purpose. Suddenly a pigeon topped the sand hill — it being the first bird we had seen — a solitary bird — passing us like lightning, it pitched for a moment, and for a moment only, on the plain, about a quarter of a mile from us, and then flew away. It could only have wetted its bill, but Mr. Stuart had marked the spot, and there was water. Perhaps I ought to dwell for a moment on this singular occurrence, but I leave it to make its own impression on the reader’s feelings. I was enabled to send back to the colt, and we managed to save him, and as there was a sufficiency of water for our consumption, I determined to give the men a day of rest, and to try if I could find a passage across the Desert a little to the eastward of north, and with Mr. Stuart proceeded in that direction on the morning of the 24th; but at 3 p.m. we were out of sight of all high land. The appearance of the Desert was like that of an immense sea beach, and large fragments of rock were imbedded in the ground, as if by the force of waters, and the stones were more scattered, thus shewing the sandy bed beneath and betwixt them. The day was exceedingly hot, and our horses’ hoofs were so brittle that pieces flew off them like splinters when they struck them against the stones. We were at this time about sixteen or seventeen miles from the sand hill where we had left the men. The Desert appeared to be taking a northerly direction, and certainly was much broader than further to the westward, making apparently for the Gulf of Carpentaria; nor could I doubt but that there had once been an open sea between us and it. We reached our little bivouac at 9 p.m. both ourselves and our horses thoroughly wearied, and disappointed as we had been, I regretted that I had put the poor things to unnecessary hardships. Perhaps I was wrong in having done so, but I could not rest. Our latitude here was 26 degrees 26 minutes and our long. by account 139 degrees 21 minutes. In the morning we crossed the remaining portion of the Desert, as I had determined on making the best of my way to the creek, and passing the sandy ridges reached our first water (the 4th going out), about sunset or a little before. Water still remained, but it was horridly thick, and in the morning smelt so offensive that it was loathsome to ourselves and the animals. Our great, indeed our only, dependence then was on the water in the little channel on the grassy plain; at this we arrived late on the afternoon of the 25th. Another day and we should again have been disappointed: the water on which I had calculated for a fortnight was all but gone. In the morning we drained almost the last drop out of the channel. We were now about 92 miles from the creek, without the apparent probability of relief till we should get to it, for it seemed hopeless to expect that we should find any water in the wells we had dug. Crossing the grassy plains on an east-north-east course, we passed the salt lake about 10 a.m. to our left, and ran along the sandy ridges between it and our encampment of the 15th, where we had made our second well, at 6 p.m., but it was dry and the bottom cracked and baked.

I would gladly have given my poor horses a longer rest than prudence would have justified, but we had not time for rest. At 8 we again mounted, and went slowly on; and when darkness closed around us lit a small lamp, and one of us walking in front led the way for the others to follow; thus tracking our way over those dreary regions all night long, we neared our last remaining well, 36 miles distant from the creek, just as morning dawned. Objects were still obscure as we approached the spot where our hopes rested, for our horses could hardly drag one foot after the other. Mr. Stuart was in front, and called to me that he saw the little trees under whose shade we had slept; soon after he said he saw something glittering where the well was, and immediately after shouted out, “Water, water.” It is impossible for me to record all this without a feeling of more than thankfulness to the Almighty Power that guided us. At this place we were still 180 miles from Fort Grey; and if we had not found this supply, it is more than probable the fate of our horses would have sealed our own. As it was we joyfully unsaddled, and, after watering, turned them out to feed. Singular it was that the well on which we had least dependence, and from which we had been longest absent, should thus have held out — but so it was. At 9 we resumed our journey, there being about half a gallon a-piece for the horses just before we started; but although this, and the short rest they had, had relieved them, they got on slowly; and it was not until after midnight of the 27th, a.m. indeed of the 28th, that we reached the creek, with two short of our complement of horses, the Roan and the Colt both having dropped on the plains, but fortunately at no great distance, so that we recovered them in the course of the day.

It will naturally be supposed that, arrived at a place of safety, we here rested for a while; but my mind was no sooner relieved from one cause for anxiety, than it was filled with another. If I except the thunder-storm which had enabled me to undertake my late journey from the creek, no rain had fallen, the weather had suddenly become oppressively hot, with a sky as clear as ether. I had still the mountain range to the N.E. to examine, and the upper branches of the creek, and in this necessary survey I knew no time was to be lost. Indeed I doubted if my return to the Depot was not already shut out, by the drying up of the water in Strzelecki’s Creek, although I hoped Mr. Browne still held his ground; but not only was I anxious on these heads, but as to our eventual retreat from these heartless regions. I would gladly have rested for a few days, for I was beginning to feel weak. From the 20th of July, and it was now the last day but two of October, I had been in constant exercise from sunrise to sunset; and if I except the few days I had rested at the Depot, had slept under the canopy of heaven. My food had been insufficient to support me, and I had a malady hanging upon me that was slowly doing its work; but I felt that I had no time to spare, and, as I could not justify indulgence to myself, so on the 29th we commenced our progress up the creek, but halted at six miles on a beautiful sheet of water, and with every promise of success. In the course of the day we passed a singularly large grave. It was twenty-three feet long, and fourteen broad. The boughs on the top of it were laid so as to meet the oval shape of the mound itself, but the trees were not carved, nor were there any walks about it, as I had seen in other parts of the continent.

Native Grave

Before we commenced our journey up the creek, I determined to secrete all the stores I could, in order to lighten the loads of the horses as much as possible, for they were now almost worn out; but it was difficult to say where we should conceal them, so as to be secure from the quick eyes of the natives. At first I thought my best plan would be to dig a hole and bury them, and then to light a fire, so as to obliterate the marks; but I changed my purpose, and placed them under a rhagodia bush, a short distance from the creek, and arranged some boughs all round it. In this place I hoped they would escape observation, for there were one or two things I should have exceedingly regretted to lose.

The weather had been getting warmer and warmer, and it had at this time become so hot that it was almost intolerable, worse indeed than at this season the previous year. The 30th was a day of oppressive heat, and the flies and mosquitoes were more than usually troublesome. I have not said much of these insects in the course of this narrative, for after all they are secondary objects only; but it is impossible to describe the ceaseless annoyance of these and a small ant. The latter swarmed in myriads in the creek and on the plains, and what with these little creatures at night, and the flies by day, we really had no rest. I continually wore a veil, or I could not have attended to our movements, or performed my duties. It is probable that being in the neighbourhood of water they were more numerous, but here they were a perfect plague, and in our depressed and wearied condition we, perhaps, felt their attacks more than we should otherwise have done. We commenced our journey at seven, and crossing the creek at three-quarters of a mile, ascended a small sand hill upon its proper left bank. Where we had crossed the channel was perfectly dry, but from the sand hill another magnificent sheet of water stretched away to the southeast as far as we could see.

Cooper's Creek

From this point the creek appeared to be bounded by forest land, partly scrubby and partly grassed. To the south there were flats seemingly subject to floods, and lightly timbered, and beyond these were low sand hills. To the S.W. a high line of trees marked the course of a tributary from that quarter. To the north the country was exceedingly sandy and low, as well as to the east; and the direction of the sand ridges was only 5 degrees to the west of north, so that from this point to our extreme west they gradually alter their line 17 degrees, as in 138 degrees of longitude they ran 22 degrees to the west of north. I was not able to take more than one bearing from the hill I had ascended, to a remarkable flat-topped hill nearly N.E. I now crossed the creek on an east course, and traversed sandy plains, and low undulations, there being a tolerable quantity of grass on both; and at four miles changed the route a little to the northward for a small conical sand hill, from which the flat-topped hill bore 41 degrees, and from it some darker hills were visible, somewhat more to the eastward, and as they appeared to be different from the sand ridges, I again changed my course for them, and crossing the bed of the creek at four miles, ascended a small stony range trending to the eastward, the creek being directly at their base. Following up its proper left bank I ascended another part of the range at three miles and a half, from which the flat-topped hill bore 24 degrees, and the last hill I had ascended 239 degrees. The channel of the creek had been dry for several miles, but we now saw a large sheet of water bearing due east, distant two miles, to which we made our way, and then stopped. From the top of this range the creek seemed to pass over extensive and bare plains in many branches, southward there were some stony hills, treeless and herbless, like those nearer to us. I was fairly driven down to the valley by the flies, as numerous on the burning stones on the top of the hill as any where else, and I left a knife and a pocket handkerchief behind me. Notwithstanding the magnificent sheet of water we were now resting near, I began thus early to doubt the character of this creek. It had changed so often during the day, at one place having a broad channel, at another splitting into numerous small ones, having a great portion of its bed dry, and then presenting large and beautiful reaches to view, that I hardly knew what opinion to form of it; I also observed that it was leading away from the hills and taking us into a low and desolate region, almost as bad as that to the westward; however, time alone was to prove whether I was right in my surmises.

In the afternoon two natives made their appearance on the opposite side of the water, and I walked over to them, as I could not by any signs induce them to come to us. They were not bad looking men, and had lost their two front teeth of the upper jaw. To one I gave a tomahawk, and a hook to the other, but when I rose to depart, they gave them both back to me, and were astonished to find that I had intended them as presents. Seeing, I suppose, that we intended them no injury, these men in the morning went on with their ordinary occupations, and swimming into the middle of the water began to dive for mussels. They looked like two seals in the water with their black heads, and seemed to be very expert: at all events they were not long in procuring a breakfast.

Notwithstanding the misgivings I had as to the creek, the paths of the natives became wider and wider as we advanced. They were now as broad as a footpath in England, by a road side, and were well trodden; numerous huts of boughs also lined the creek, so that it was evident we were advancing into a well peopled country, and this circumstance raised my hopes that it would improve. As, however, our horses had no longer a gallop in them, we found it necessary to keep a sharp look out; although the natives with whom we had communicated, did not appear anxious to leave the place as they generally are to tell the news of our being on the creek to others above us.

On the 31st we started at 7 a.m., and at a mile and a half found ourselves at the termination of the stony ranges to our left. They fell back to the north, and a larger plain succeeded them. At two miles we crossed a small tributary, and passed over a stony plain, from which we entered an open box-tree forest extending far away to our left. At five miles and a half we found ourselves again on the banks of the creek, where it had an upper and a lower channel, that is to say, it had a lower channel for the stream, and an upper one independently of it. In the lower bed there was a little water, and we therefore stopped for a short time, the day being exceedingly hot. While here we saw a native at some water a little lower down, mending a net, but did not call to him. On resuming our journey we kept in the upper channel, and had not ridden very far when we saw a native about 150 yards ahead of us, pulling boughs. On getting nearer we called out to him, but to no purpose. At the distance of about 70 yards, we called out again, but still he did not hear, perhaps because of the rustling of the boughs he was breaking down. At length he bundled them up, and throwing them over his shoulder, turned from us to cross to the lower part of the creek, when suddenly he came bolt up against us. I cannot describe his horror and amazement — down went his branches — out went his hands — and trembling from head to foot, he began to shout as loud as he could bawl. On this we pulled up, and I desired Mr. Stuart to dismount and sit down. This for a time increased the poor fellow’s alarm, for he doubtless mistook man and horse for one animal, and he stretched himself out in absolute astonishment when he saw them separate. When Mr. Stuart sat down, however, he stood more erect, and he gradually got somewhat composed. His shouting had brought another black, who had stood afar off, watching the state of affairs, but who now approached. From these men I tried to gather some information, and my hopes were greatly raised from what passed between us, insomuch that one of the men could not help expressing his hope that we were now near the long sought for inland sea.

On my seeking to know, by signs, to what point the creek would lead us, the old man stretched out his hand considerably to the southward of east, and spreading out his fingers, suddenly dropped his hand, as if he desired us to understand that it commenced, as he shewed, by numerous little channels uniting into one not very far off. On asking if the natives used canoes, he threw himself into the attitude of a native propelling one, which is a peculiar stoop, in which he must have been practised. After going through the motions, he pointed due north, and turning the palm of his hand forward, made it sweep the horizon round to east, and then again put himself into the attitude of a native propelling a canoe. There certainly was no mistaking these motions. On my asking if the creek went into a large water, he intimated not, by again spreading out his hand as before and dropping it, neither did he seem to know anything of any hills. The direction he pointed to us, where there were large waters, was that over which the cold E.S.E. wind I have noticed, must have passed. This poor fellow was exceedingly communicative, but he did not cease to tremble all the while we were with him. After leaving him, the creek led us up to the northward of east, and we cut off every angle by following the broad and well beaten paths crossing from one to the other. At three miles I turned to ascend a conical sand hill, from whence the country appeared as follows: to the north were immense plains, with here and there a gum-tree on them; they were bounded in the distance by hills that I took to be the outer line of the range we purposed visiting; to the eastward the ground was undulating and woody; and southward, the prospect was bounded by low stony elevations, or a low range. The course of the creek was now north-east, in the direction of two distant sand hills. We now ran along it for seven miles, under an open box-tree forest, varying in breadth from a quarter of a mile to two miles; the creek frequently changed from a broad channel to a smaller one, but still having splendid sheets of water in it. At length, as we pushed up, it became sandy, and the lofty gum-trees that had ornamented it, gradually disappeared. Nevertheless we encamped on a beautiful spot.

The 1st of November broke bright and clear over us. Started at seven, the poor horses scarcely able to draw one leg after the other, the Roan having worn his hoof down the quick was exposed and raw, and he walked with difficulty. At a mile and a half we ascended an eminence, and to the eastward, saw a magnificent sheet of water to which we moved, and at five miles reached a low stony range, bounding the creek to the north; having ridden along a broad native path the whole of that distance, close to the edge of the above mentioned water. There were large rocks in the middle of it, and pelicans, one swan, several sea-gulls, and a number of cormorants on its bosom, together with many ducks, but none would let us within reach. We next ran on a bearing of 75 degrees, or nearly east, along a large path, crossing numerous small branches of the creek, with deep and sandy beds, and occasionally over small stony plains. At noon we were at some distance from the creek, but then went towards it. The gum-trees were no longer visible, but melaleucas, from fifteen to twenty feet high, lined its banks like a copse of young birch. We now observed a long but somewhat narrow sheet of water, to which we rode; our suspicions as to its quality being roused by its colour, and the appearance of the melaleuca. It proved, as we feared, to be slightly brackish, but not undrinkable. Near the edge of the water, or rather about four or five feet from it, there was a belt of fine weeds, between which and the shore there were myriads of small fish of all sizes swimming, similar to those we had captured to the westward, in the fourth or O’Halloran’s Creek. Here then was not only the clue as to how fish got into that isolated pond, but a proof of the westerly fall of the interior, since there was now no doubt whatever, but that the whole of the country Mr. Browne and I had traversed, even to the great sand hills on this side the Stony Desert, was laid under water, and by the overflow of this great creek filled the several creeks, and inundated the several plains that we had crossed. By so unexpected a fact, was this material point discovered. The Roan, at this time, could hardly walk, and not knowing when or at what distance we might again find water, or what kind of water it would be, I stopped on reaching the upper end of this pool, but even there it had a nasty taste, nor were any fish to be seen; a kind of weed covered the bed of the creek, and it looked like an inlet of the sea.

I was exceedingly surprised that we had not seen more natives, and momentarily expected to come on some large tribe, but did not, and what was very singular, all the paths were to the right, and none on the southern bank of the creek.

The weather continued intensely hot, and the flies swarmed in hundreds of thousands. The sky was without a cloud, either by day or night, and I could not but be apprehensive as to the consequences if rain should not fall; it was impossible that the largest pools could stand the rapid evaporation that was going on, but I did not deem it right to unburden my mind, even to Mr. Stuart, at this particular juncture.

On the morning of the 2nd of November the horses strayed for the first time, and delayed us for more than two hours, and we were after all indebted to three natives for their recovery, who had seen them and pointed out the direction in which they were. It really was a distressing spectacle to see them brought up, but their troubles and sufferings were not yet over. The Roan was hardly able to move along, and in pity I left him behind to wander at large along the sunny banks of the finest water-course we had discovered.

Starting at 10 a.m. we crossed the creek, and traversed a large sandy plain, intersected by numerous native paths, that had now become as wide as an ordinary gravel walk. From this plain we observed a thin white line along the eastern horizon. The plain itself was also of white sand, and had many stones upon it, similar in substance and shape to those on the Stony Desert, but there was, not withstanding, some grass upon it. A little above where we had slept, we struck a turn or angle of the creek where there was a beautiful sheet of water, but of a deep indigo blue colour. This was as salt as brine, insomuch that no animal could possibly have lived in it, and we observed water trickling into it from many springs on both sides. At four miles when we again struck the creek, after having crossed the plain, the water was perfectly fresh and sweet in a large pool close to which we passed. Here again there were several sea-gulls sitting on the rocks in the water, and a good many cormorants in the trees, yet I do not think there were any fish in this basin; I have no other reason for so thinking, however, than that we never saw any, either swimming in the water or rising to its surface in the coolness of evening on the sheets of fresh water. There might, however, have been fish of large size in the deep pools of this creek, although I would observe that I had two reasons for believing otherwise. The first was, that, the meshes of the nets used by the natives, of which we examined several hanging in the trees, were very small, and that among the fish bones at the natives’ fires, we never saw any of a larger size than those we had ourselves captured, and it was evident that at this particular time, it was not the fishing season. I was led to think, that the water in which we noticed so many swimming about, was sacred, and that it is only when the creek overflows, that the fish are generally distributed along its whole line, that the natives take them. Certainly, to judge from the smooth and delicate appearance of the weeds round that sheet of water the fish were not disturbed.

We had been riding for some time on the proper right {LEFT in published text} bank of the creek, but I at length crossed to the right and altered my course to E.S.E., but shortly afterwards ran due east across earthy plains covered with grass in tufts and very soft, but observing that I had got outside of the native tracks, and that there was no indication of the creek in front, I turned to the S.E. and at five miles struck a small sandy channel which I searched in vain for water; I therefore left it, crossing many similar channels still on a S.E. course; but observing that they all had level sandy beds, I gave up the hope of finding water in them and turned to the south, as the horses were not in a condition to suffer from want. At about two miles I ascended a sand hill, but could not see any thing of the creek; it was now getting late and two of the horses were hardly able to get along. Had we halted then, there was not a tree or a bush to which we could have tethered our animals, anxious too to get them to water I turned to the west, and at a mile got on a native path, that ultimately led me to the creek, and we pulled up at a small pond, where there was better feed than we had any right to expect.

We had hardly arranged our bivouac, when we heard a most melancholy howling over an earthen bank directly opposite to us, and saw seven black heads slowly advancing towards us. I therefore sent Mr. Stuart to meet the party and bring them up. The group consisted of a very old blind man, led by a younger one, and five women. They all wept most bitterly, and the women uttered low melancholy sounds, but we made them sit down and managed to allay their fears. It is impossible to say how old the man was, but his hair was white as snow, and he had one foot in the grave.

These poor creatures must have observed us coming, and being helpless, had I suppose thought it better to come forward, for they had their huts immediately on the other side of the bank over which they ventured. We gave the old man a great coat, as the most useful present, and he seemed delighted with it. I saw that it was hopeless to expect any information from this timid party, so I made no objection to their leaving us after staying for about half an hour. Our latitude here, by an altitude of Jupiter, was 27 degrees 47 minutes S.; our longitude by account 141 degrees 51 minutes E.

The plains we had crossed during the day were very extensive, stretching from the north-west, to the south-east, like an open sea. They were thinly scattered over with box-trees, and comprised hundreds of thousands of acres of flooded grassy land. It is worthy of remark that none of these plains existed to the south of the creek, in which quarter the country was very barren, neither were there any native paths. We were at this time in too low a position to see any of the mountain ranges of which I have spoken. As the old native with the boughs had told us, the creek led us to the southward of east, and consequently away from them, and I feared that his further information would prove correct, and that we should soon arrive at its commencement.

The morning of the 3rd of November was as cloudy as the night of the 2nd had been, during which it blew violently from the N.W., and a few heat-drops fell, but without effect on the temperature. One of the horses got bogged in attempting to drink, and Mack’s illness made it nine before we mounted and resumed our journey up the creek, on a N.N.E. course, but it gradually came round to north. At six miles we crossed the small and sandy bed of a creek coming from the stony plains to the south, and beneath a tree, near two huts, observed a large oval stone. It was embedded in the ground, and was evidently used by the natives for pounding seeds. We now proceeded along a broad native path towards some gum-trees, having stony undulating hills upon our right. Underneath the trees there was a fine deep pool in the channel of the creek, which had again assumed something of its original shape; but as we were in an immense hollow or bowl, and the view was very limited, I branched off to the hills, then not more than half a mile distant. From their summit the country to the south and south-west appeared darkly covered with brush; to the west, there were numerous stony undulations; northward and to the east were immense grassy plains, with many creeks, all making for a common centre upon them. In the near ground to the south-east, the surface of the country was of fine white sand, partly covered with salsolaceous plants, with small fragments of stone, and patches of more grassy land. There was no fixed point on which to take a bearing, nor could we see anything of the higher ranges, now to the north-west of us.

In returning to the creek, we observed a body of natives to our left. They were walking in double file, and approaching us slowly. I therefore pulled up, and sent Mr. Stuart forward on foot, following myself with his horse. As he neared them the natives sat down, and he walked up and sat down in front of them. The party consisted of two chiefs and fourteen young men and boys. The former sat in front and the latter were ranged in two rows behind. The two chiefs wept as usual, and in truth shed tears, keeping their eyes on the ground; but Mr. Stuart, after the interview, informed me that the party behind were laughing at them and sticking their tongues in their cheeks. One of the chiefs was an exceedingly tall man, since he could not have measured less than six feet three inches, and was about 24 years of age. He was painted with red ochre, and his body shone as if he had been polished with Warren’s best blacking. His companion was older and of shorter stature. We soon got on good terms with them, and I made a present of a knife to each. They told us, as intelligibly as it was possible for them to do, that we were going away from water; that there was no more water to the eastward, and, excepting in the creek, none anywhere but to the N.E. I had observed, indeed, that the native paths had altogether ceased on the side of the creek on which we then were (the south or left bank), and the chief pointed that fact out to me, explaining that we should have to cross the creek at the head of the water, under the trees, and get on a path that would lead us to the N.E. On this I rose up and mounting my horse, riding quietly towards it, descended into the bed of the creek, in which the natives had their huts, but their women and children were not there. The two chiefs and the other natives had followed, but, the former only crossed the creek and accompanied us. We almost immediately struck on the native path which, as my tall friend had informed me, led direct to the N.E.

I was not at first aware, what object our new friends had in following or rather accompanying us; but, at about a mile and a half, we came to a native hut at which there was an old man and his two lubras. The tall young man introduced him to us as his father, in consequence of which I dismounted, and shook hands with the old gentleman, and, as I had no hatchet or knife to give him, I parted my blanket and gave him half of it. We then pro ceeded on our journey, attended as before, and at a mile, came on two huts, at which there were from twelve to fifteen natives. Here again we were introduced by our long-legged friend, who kept pace with our animals with ease, and after a short parley once more moved on, but were again obliged to stop with another tribe, rather more numerous than the last, who were encamped on a dirty little puddle of water that was hardly drinkable; however, they very kindly asked us to stay and sleep, an honour I begged to decline. Thus, in the space of less than five miles, we were introduced to four different tribes, whose collective numbers amounted to seventy-one. The huts of these natives were constructed of boughs, and were of the usual form, excepting those of the last tribe, which were open behind, forming elliptic arches of boughs, and the effect was very pretty.

These good folks also asked us to stop, and I thought I saw an expression of impatience on the countenance of my guide when I declined, and turned my horse to move on. We had been riding on a sandy kind of bank, higher than the flooded ground around us. The plains extended on either side to the north and east, nor could we distinctly trace the creek beyond the trees at the point we had crossed it, but there were a few gum-trees separated by long intervals, that still slightly marked its course. When we left the last tribe, we rode towards a sand hill about half a mile in front, and had scarcely gone from the huts when our ambassadors, for in such a light I suppose I must consider them, set off at a trot and getting a-head of us disappeared over the sand hill. I was too well aware of the customs of these people, not to anticipate that there was something behind the scene, and I told Mr. Stuart that I felt satisfied we had not yet seen the whole of the population of this creek; but I was at a loss to conjecture why they should have squatted down at such muddy puddles, when there were such magnificent sheets of water for them to encamp upon, at no great distance; however, we reached the hill soon after the natives had gone over it, and on gaining the summit were hailed with a deafening shout by 3 or 400 natives, who were assembled in the flat below. I do not know, that my desire to see the savage in his wild state, was ever more gratified than on this occasion, for I had never before come so suddenly upon so large a party. The scene was one of the most animated description, and was rendered still more striking from the circumstance of the native huts, at which there were a number of women and children, occupying the whole crest of a long piece of rising ground at the opposite side of the flat.

I checked my horse for a short time on the top of the sand hill, and gazed on the assemblage of agitated figures below me, covering so small a space that I could have enclosed the whole under a casting net, and then quietly rode down into the flat, followed by Mr. Stuart and my men, to one of whom I gave my horse when I dismounted, and then walked to the natives, by whom Mr. Stuart and myself were immediately surrounded.

Had these people been of an unfriendly temper, we could not by any possibility have escaped them, for our horses could not have broken into a canter to save our lives or their own. We were therefore wholly in their power, although happily for us perhaps, they were not aware of it; but, so far from exhibiting any unkind feeling, they treated us with genuine hospitality, and we might certainly have commanded whatever they had. Several of them brought us large troughs of water, and when we had taken a little, held them up for our horses to drink; an instance of nerve that is very remarkable, for I am quite sure that no white man, (having never seen or heard of a horse before, and with the natural apprehension the first sight of such an animal would create,) would deliberately have walked up to what must have appeared to them most formidable brutes, and placing the troughs they carried against their breast, have allowed the horses to drink, with their noses almost touching them. They likewise offered us some roasted ducks, and some cake. When we walked over to their camp, they pointed to a large new hut, and told us we could sleep there, but I had noticed a little hillock on which there were four box-trees, about fifty yards from the native encampment, on which, foreseeing that we could go no farther, I had already determined to remain, and on my intimating this to the natives they appeared highly delighted; we accordingly went to the trees, and unsaddling our animals turned them out to feed. When the natives saw us quietly seated they came over, and brought a quantity of sticks for us to make a fire, wood being extremely scarce.

The men of this tribe were, without exception, the finest of any I had seen on the Australian Continent. Their bodies were not disfigured by any scars, neither were their countenances by the loss of any teeth, nor were they circumcised. They were a well-made race, with a sufficiency of muscular development, and stood as erect as it was possible to do, without the unseemly protrusion of stomach, so common among the generality of natives. Of sixty-nine who I counted round me at one time, I do not think there was one under my own height, 5 feet 10 3/4 inches, but there were several upwards of 6 feet. The children were also very fine, and I thought healthier and better grown than most I had seen, but I observed here, as elsewhere amongst smaller tribes, that the female children were more numerous than the males, why such should be the case, it is difficult to say. Whilst, however, I am thus praising the personal appearance of the men, I am sorry to say I observed but little improvement in the fairer sex. They were the same half-starved unhappy looking creatures whose condition I have so often pitied elsewhere.

These were a merry people and seemed highly delighted at our visit, and if one or two of them were a little forward, I laid it to the account of curiosity and a feeling of confidence in their own numbers. But a little thing checked them, nor did they venture to touch our persons, much less to put their hands into our pockets, as the natives appear to have done, in the case of another explorer. It is a liberty I never allowed any native to take, not only because I did not like it, but because I am sure it must have the effect of lowering the white man in the estimation of the savage, and diminishing those feelings of awe and inferiority, which are the European’s best security against ill treatment. The natives told us, that there was no water to the eastward, and that if we went there we should all die. They explained that the creek commenced on the plains, by spreading out their fingers as the old man had done, to shew that many small channels made a large one, pointing to the creek, and they said the water was all gone to the place we had come from; meaning, to the lower part of it. On asking them by signs, if the creek continued beyond the plains, they shook their heads, and again put their extended hand on the ground, pointing to the plain. They could give us no account of the ranges to which I proposed going, any more than others we had asked. On inquiring, if there was any water to the north-west a long discussion took place, and it was ultimately decided that there was not. I could understand, that several of them mentioned the names of places where they supposed there might be water, but it was evidently the general opinion that there was none. Neither did they appear to know of any large waters, on which the natives had canoes, in confirmation of the old man’s actions. On this interesting and important point they were wholly ignorant.

The smallness of the water-hole, on which these people depended, was quite a matter of surprise to me, and I hardly liked to let the horses drink at it, in consequence. At sunset all the natives left us (as is their wont at that hour), and went to their own encampment; nor did one approach us afterwards, but they sat up to a late hour at their own camp, the women being employed beating the seed for cakes, between two stones, and the noise they made was exactly like the working of a loom factory. The whole encampment, with the long line of fires, looked exceedingly pretty, and the dusky figures of the natives standing by them, or moving from one hut to the other, had the effect of a fine scene in a play. At 11 all was still, and you would not have known that you were in such close contiguity to so large an assemblage of people.

When I laid down, I revolved in my own mind what course I should pursue in the morning. If the account of the natives was correct, it was clear that my further progress eastward, was at an end. My horses, indeed, were now reduced to such a state, that I foresaw my labours were drawing to a close. Mack, too, was so ill, that he could hardly sit his animal, and although I did not anticipate any thing serious in his case, anything tending to embarrass was now felt by us. Mr. Stuart and Morgan held up well, but I felt myself getting daily weaker and weaker. I found that I could not rise into my saddle with the same facility, and that I lost wind in going up a bank of only a few feet in height. I determined, however, on mature consideration, to examine the plain, and to satisfy myself before I should turn back, as to the fact of the creek commencing upon it. Accordingly, in the morning, we saddled and loaded our horses, but none of the natives came to us until we had mounted; when they approached to take leave, and to persuade us not to go in the direction we proposed, but to no purpose. The pool from which they drew their supply of water, was in the centre of a broad shallow grassy channel, that passed the point of the sand hill we had ascended, and ran up to the northward and westward; we were, therefore, obliged to cross this channel, and soon afterwards got on the plains. They were evidently subject to flood, and were exceedingly soft and blistered; the grass upon them grew in tufts, not close, so that in the distance, the plains appeared better grassed than they really were. At length, we got on a polygonum flat of great size, in the soil of which our horses absolutely sunk up to the shoulder at every step. I never rode over such a piece of ground in my life, but we managed to flounder through it, until at length we got on the somewhat firmer but still heavy plain. It was very clear, however, that our horses would not go a day’s journey over such ground. It looked exactly as I have described it — an immense concavity, with numerous small channels running down from every part, and making for the creek as a centre of union; nor, could we anywhere see a termination to it. Had the plain been of less extent, I might have doubted the information of the natives; but, looking at the boundless hollow around me, I did not feel any surprise that such a creek even as the one up which we had journeyed, should rise in it, and could easily picture to myself the rush of water there must be to the centre of the plain, when the ground has been saturated with moisture.

The day being far advanced, whilst we were yet pushing on, without any apparent termination to the heavy ground over which we were riding, I turned westward at 2 p.m., finding that the attainment of the object I had in view, in attempting to cross the plain, was a physical impossibility. We reached the water, at which the blind native visited us, a little after sunset, and were as glad as our poor animals could have been, when night closed in upon us, and our labours.

On the 5th, we passed the old man’s camp, in going down the creek, instead of crossing the plains as before, and halted at the junction of a creek we had passed, that came from the north, and along the banks of which I proposed turning towards the ranges. On the morning of the 6th we kept the general course of this tributary, which ran through an undulating country of rocks and sand. Its channel was exceedingly capacious, and its banks were high and perpendicular, but everything about it, was sand or gravel. Its bed was perfectly level, and its appearance at once destroyed the hope of finding water in it.

The ground over which we rode, was, as I have stated, a mixture of gravel and rocks, and our horses yielded under us at almost every step as they trod on the sharp pointed fragments. At eight miles we reached the outer line of hills, as they had appeared to us in the distance, and entered a pass between two of them, of about a quarter of a mile in width. At this confined point there were the remains and ravages of terrific floods. The waters had reached from one side of the pass to the other, and the dead trunks of trees and heaps of rubbish, were piled up against every bush.

There was not a blade of vegetation to be seen either on the low ground or on the ranges, which were from 3 to 400 feet in height, and were nothing more than vast accumulations of sand and rocks. At a mile, we arrived at the termination of the pass, and found ourselves at the entrance of a barren, sandy valley, with ranges in front of us, similar to those we had already passed. I thought it advisable, therefore, to ascend a hill to my left, somewhat higher than any near it, to ascertain, if possible, the character of the northern interior. The task of clambering to the top of it however, was, in my then reduced state, greater than I expected, and I had to wait a few minutes before I could look about me after gaining the summit. I could see nothing, after all, to cheer me in the view that presented itself. To the northward was the valley in which the creek rises, bounded all round by barren, stony hills, like that on which I stood; and the summits of other similar hills shewed themselves above the nearer line. To the east the apparently interminable plains on which we had been, still met the horizon, nor was anything to be seen beyond them. Westward the outer line of hills continued backed by others, in the outlines of which we recognised the peaks and forms of the apparently lofty chain we first saw when we discovered the creek. Thus, then, it appeared, that I had been entirely deceived in the character of these hills, and that it had been the effect of refraction in those burning regions, which had given to these moderate hills their mountain-like appearance.

Satisfied that my horses had not the strength to cross such a country, and that in it I had not the slightest chance of procuring the necessary sustenance for them, I turned back to Cooper’s Creek, and then deemed it prudent to travel quietly on towards the place at which we first struck it, and had subsequently left our surplus stores.

In riding amongst some rocky ground, we shot a new and beautiful little pigeon, with a long crest. The habits of this bird were very singular, for it never perched on the trees, but on the highest and most exposed rocks, in what must have been an intense heat; its flight was short like that of a quail, and it ran in the same manner through the grass when feeding in the evening. We reached our destination on the evening of the 8th, and were astonished to see how much the waters had shrunk from their previous level. Such an instance of the rapid diminution of so large a pool, made me doubt whether I should find any water in Strzelecki’s Creek to enable me to regain the Depot.

As we descended from the flats to cross over to our old berth, we found it occupied by a party of natives, who were disposed to be rather troublesome, especially one old fellow, whose conduct annoyed me exceedingly. However, I very soon got rid of them; and after strolling for a short time within sight of us, they all went up the creek; but I could not help thinking, from the impertinent pertinacity of these fellows, that they had discovered my magazine, and taken all the things, more especially as they had been digging where our fire had been, so that, if I had buried the stores there as intended, they would have been taken.

As soon as the natives were out of sight, Mr. Stuart and I went to the rhagodia bush for our things. As we approached, the branches appeared just as we had left them; but on getting near, we saw a bag lying outside, and I therefore concluded that the natives had carried off everything. Still, when we came up to the bush, nothing but the bag appeared to have been touched, all the other things were just as we left them, and, on examining the bag, nothing was missing. Concluding, therefore, that the natives had really discovered my store, but had been too honest to rob us, I returned to the creek in better humour with them; but, a sudden thought occurring to Mr. Stuart, that as there was an oil lamp in the bag, a native dog might have smelt and dragged it out of its place, we returned to the bush, to see if there were any impressions of naked feet round about it, but with the exception of our own, there were no tracks save those of a native dog. I was consequently obliged to give Mr. Stuart credit for his surmise, and felt somewhat mortified that the favourable impression I had received as to the honesty of the natives had thus been destroyed. They had gone up the creek on seeing that I was displeased, and we saw nothing more of them during the afternoon; but on the following morning they came to see us, and as they behaved well, I gave them a powder canister, a little box, and some other trifles; for after all there was only one old fellow who had been unruly, and he now shewed as much impatience with his companions as he had done with us, and I therefore set his manner down to the score of petulance.

At 10 a.m. on the 9th we prepared to move over to the branch creek, as I really required rest and quiet, and knew very well that as long as I remained where I was, we should be troubled by our sable friends, who, being sixteen in number, would require being well looked after. Before we finally left the neighbourhood, however, where our hopes had so often been raised and depressed, I gave the name of Cooper’s Creek to the fine watercourse we had so anxiously traced, as a proof of my great respect for Mr. Cooper, the Judge of South Australia. I am not conversant in the language of praise, but thus much will I venture to say, that whether in his public or private capacity, Mr. Cooper was equally entitled to this record of my feelings towards him. I would gladly have laid this creek down as a river, but as it had no current I did not feel myself justified in so doing. Had it been nearer the located districts of South Australia, its discovery would have been a matter of some importance. As it is we know not what changes or speculations may lead the white man to its banks. Purposes of utility were amongst the first objects I had in view in my pursuit of geographical discovery; nor do I think that any country, however barren, can be explored without the attainment of some good end. Circumstances may yet arise to give a value to my recent labours, and my name may be remembered by after generations in Australia, as the first who tried to penetrate to its centre. If I failed in that great object, I have one consolation in the retrospect of my past services. My path amongst savage tribes has been a bloodless one, not but that I have often been placed in situations of risk and danger, when I might have been justified in shedding blood, but I trust I have ever made allowances for human timidity, and respected the customs and prejudices of the rudest people. I hope, indeed, that in this my last expedition, I have not done discredit to the good opinion Sir C. Napier, an officer I knew not, was pleased to entertain of me. Most assuredly in my intercourse with the savage, I have endeavoured to elevate the character of the white man. Justice and humanity have been my guides, but while I have the consolation to know that no European will follow my track into the Desert without experiencing kindness from its tenants, I have to regret that the progress of civilized man into an uncivilized region, is almost invariably attended with misfortune to its original inhabitants.

I struck Cooper’s Creek in lat. 27 degrees 44 minutes, and in long. 140 degrees 22 minutes, and traced it upwards to lat. 27 degrees 56 minutes, and long. 142 degrees 0 minutes. There can be no doubt but that it would support a number of cattle upon its banks, but its agricultural capabilities appear to me doubtful, for the region in which it lies is subject evidently to variations of temperature and seasons that must, I should say, be inimical to cereal productions; nevertheless I should suppose its soil would yield sufficient to support any population that might settle on it.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:31