Narrative of an expedition into Central Australia, by Charles Sturt

Chapter 9

Flood’s quick sight — forest full of birds — native well — birds collect to drink — dangerous plain — Flood’s horse lost — scarcity of water — turn northward — discover a large creek — bright prospects — sudden disappointment — salt lagoon — scarcity of water — salt water creek — character of the interior — forced to turn back — risk of advancing — the furthest north — return to and examination of the creek — proceed to the westward — dreadful country — journey to the north — again forced to return — natives — station on the creek — concluding remarks.

Reflecting on the singular character of the country below me, as I stood on the pointed termination of the ridge the party had just ascended, I could not but think how fortunate it was we had not found it in a wet state, for in such a case to cross it would have been impossible. I felt assured indeed, from the moment we set foot on it, that in the event of rain, while we should be in the more distant interior, return would be altogether impracticable, but we had neither time to pause on, or provide against, the consequences of any heavy fall that might have set in. I do not think that this flashed across the minds of any of the party excepting my own, who would not have been justified in leading men forward as I was doing, without weighing every probable chance of difficulty or success.

As the line of the sand ridges was nearly parallel to that of our course, we descended to a polygonum flat, and keeping the ridge upon our left, proceeded on a bearing of 342 degrees, or on a N.N.W. course, up a kind of valley. Whilst thus riding leisurely along, Flood, whose eyes were always about him, noticed something dark moving in the bushes, to which he called our attention. It was a dark object, and was then perfectly stationary; as Flood however insisted that he saw it move, Mr. Browne went forward to ascertain what it could be, when a native woman jumped up and ran away. She had squatted down and put a large trough before her, the more effectually to conceal her person, and must have been astonished at the quickness of our sight in discovering her. We were much amused at the figure she cut, but as she exhibited great alarm Mr. Browne refrained from following her; after getting to some distance she turned round to look at us, and then walked off at a more leisurely pace. At the distance of about four miles, the sandy ridge made a short turn, and we were obliged to cross over to the opposite side to preserve our course. On gaining the top of the ridge, we saw an open box-tree forest, and a small column of smoke rising up from amongst the trees, towards which we silently bent our steps. Our approach had however been noticed by the natives, who no doubt were at the place not a minute before, but had now fled. We then pushed on through the forest, the ground beneath our horses’ feet being destitute of vegetation, and the soil composed of a whitish clay, so peculiar to the flooded lands of the interior. The farther we entered the depths of the forest, the more did the notes of birds assail our ears. Cockatoos, parrots, calodera, pigeons, crows, etc., all made that solitude ring with their wild notes, and as (with the exception of the ducks on the southern side of the Stony Desert) we had not seen any of the feathered race for many days, we were now astonished at their numbers and variety. About an hour before sunset we arrived on the banks of a large creek, with a bed of couch grass, but no water. The appearance of this creek, however, was so promising that we momentarily expected to see a pond glittering before us, but rode on until sunset ere we arrived at a place which had attracted our attention as we approached it. Somewhat to the right, but in the bed of the creek, there were two magnificent trees, the forest still extending back on either side. Beneath these trees there was a large mound of earth, that appeared to have been thrown up. On reaching the spot we discovered a well of very unusual dimensions, and as there was water in it, we halted for the night.

On a closer examination of the locality, this well appeared to be of great value to the inhabitants. It was 22 feet deep and 8 feet broad at the top. There was a landing place, but no steps down to it, and a recess had been made to hold the water, which was slightly brackish, the rim of the basin being also incrusted with salt. Paths led from this spot to almost every point of the compass, and in walking along one to the left, I came on a village consisting of nineteen huts, but there were not any signs of recent occupation. Troughs and stones for grinding seed were lying about, with broken spears and shields, but it was evident that the inhabitants were now dispersed in other places, and only assembled here to collect the box-tree seeds, for small boughs of that tree were lying in heaps on the ground, and the trees themselves bore the marks of having been stripped. There were two or three huts in the village of large size, to each of which two smaller ones were attached, opening into its main apartment, but none of them had been left in such order as those I have already described.

It being the hour of sunset when we reached the well, the trees were crowded with birds of all kinds coming for water, and the reader may judge of the straits to which they were driven, when he learns that they dived down into so dark a chamber to procure the life-sustaining element it contained. The wildest birds of the forest were here obliged to yield to the wants of nature at any risk, but notwithstanding, they were exceedingly wary; and we shot only a few cockatoos. The fact of there being so large a well at this point, (a work that must have required the united labour of a powerful tribe to complete), assured us that this distant part of the interior, however useless and forbidding to civilized man, was not without inhabitants, but at the same time it plainly indicated, that water must be scarce. Indeed, considering that the birds of the forest had powers of flight to go where they would, I could not but regard it as a most unfavourable sign, that so many had collected here. Had this well contained a sufficiency of water, it would have been of the utmost value to us, but there was not more than enough for our wants, so that, although I should gladly have halted for a day, as our horses were both ill and tired, necessity obliged me to continue my journey, and accordingly on the 29th we resumed our progress into the interior on our original course. At about a mile we broke through the forest, and entered an open earthy plain, such as I believe man never before crossed. Subject to be laid under water by the creek we had just left, and to the effects of an almost vertical sun, its surface was absolutely so rent and torn by solar heat, that there was scarcely room for the horses to tread, and they kept constantly slipping their hind feet into chasms from eight to ten feet deep, into which the earth fell with a hollow rumbling sound, as if into a grave. The poor horse in the cart had a sad task, and it surprised me, how we all at length got safely over the plain, which was between five and six miles in breadth, but we managed it, and at that distance found ourselves on the banks of another creek, in the bed of which there was plenty of grass but no water. I was however exceedingly anxious to give the horses a day’s rest; for several of them were seriously griped, and had either taken something that disagreed with them, or were beginning to suffer from constant work and irregularity of food. Mr. Browne too was unwell and Lewis complaining, so that it was advisable to indulge ourselves if possible. I therefore determined to trace the creek downwards, in the hope of finding water, and at a mile came upon a shallow pond where I gladly halted, for by this time several of the horses had swollen to a great size, and were evidently in much pain.

After arranging the little bivouac our attention was turned to the horses, and Mr. Browne found it necessary to bleed Flood’s horse, to allay the inflammatory symptoms that were upon him. Still however he got worse, and no remedy we had in our power to apply seemed to do him good. The poor animal threw himself down violently on the ground, and bruised himself all over, so that we were obliged to fasten him up, but as there appeared to be no fear of his wandering, at sunset he was allowed to be loose. He remained near me for the greater part of the night, and was last seen close to where I was lying, but in the morning was no where to be found, and although we searched for a whole day, and made extensive sweeps to get on his track we never saw him more, and concluded he had died under some bush. This was the horse we recovered on the Murray, the same that had escaped from the government paddock in Adelaide. The other animals had in some measure recovered, and the additional day of rest they got while we were searching for Flood’s horse, enabled me to resume my journey on the last day of August. Our course being one of 335 degrees to the west of north, or nearly N.N.W., and that of the sandy ridges being 340 degrees we necessarily crossed them at a very acute angle, and the horses suffered a good deal. In the afternoon we travelled over large bare plains, of a most difficult and distressing kind, the ground absolutely yawning underneath us, perfectly destitute of vegetation, and denuded of timber, excepting here and there, where a stunted box-tree was to be seen. While on the sand hills, the general covering of which was spinifex, there were a few hakea and low shrubs. On such ground as that whereon we were travelling, it would have been hopeless to look for water, nevertheless our search was constant, but we were obliged to halt without having found any, and to make ourselves as comfortable as we could. All the surface water left by the July rain had entirely disappeared, and what now remained even in the creeks was muddy and thick. It was indeed at the best most disgusting beverage, nor would boiling cause any great sediment. Every here and there, as we travelled along, we passed some holes scooped out by the natives to catch rain, and in some of these there was still a muddy residuum; we moreover observed that the inhabitants of this desert made these holes in places the best adapted to their purpose, where if the slightest shower occurred, the water falling on hard clay would necessarily run into them.

The circumstances under which we halted in the evening of the 31st of August were very embarrassing. It was evident that the country into which we were now advancing, was drier and more difficult than the country we had left behind. It was impossible, indeed, to hope that the animals would get on, if it should continue as we had found it thus far. There were numerous high ridges of sand to the westward, in addition to those on the plains, and so full of holes and chasms were the latter, that the horses would soon have been placed hors de combat, if they had continued to traverse them. Moreover, I could not but foresee that unless I used great precaution our retreat would be infallibly cut off. Whatever water we had passed, since the morning we commenced our journey over the Stony Desert, was not to be depended upon for more than four or five days, and although we might reckon with some certainty on the native well in the box-tree forest, the supply it had yielded was so very small that we could not expect to obtain more from it than would suffice ourselves and one or two of the horses. Taking all these matters into consideration, I determined on once more turning to the north for a day or two, in order that by keeping along the flats, close under the ridges, I might get firmer travelling for the cart, and in the expectation, that we should be more likely to find water in thus doing, than by crossing the succession of ridges. Accordingly, on the 1st of September, we started on a course of 6 degrees to the west of north, or a N. 1/2 W. course, that allowing for variation, being within 1 1/2 points of a due north course. On this we went up the flat where we had slept. By keeping close to the ridges we found, as I had anticipated, firmer ground, though the centre of the flat was still of the worst description. There were a few small box-trees to be seen as we passed along, but scarcely any minor vegetation. At about nine miles we were attracted by the green appearance of some low polygonum bushes, to which we went, and under them found two small puddles of water, that we might easily have passed. They must have been three feet deep after the rains, but were now barely five inches, and about the size of a loo table. However, we had no choice, and as the horse had suffered so much from the rickety motion of the cart, caused by the inequalities of the ground, and there was a silky kind of grass growing sparingly around, I stopped here for the rest of the day to effect necessary repairs. When, however, we came to examine the wheels, we found that so many of the spokes were shivered and had shrunk, that Lewis got on but slowly, renewing only such as were found absolutely useless; we were consequently detained at this point another day, but on the 3rd resumed our journey up the flat, and at two miles crossed a small sandy ridge into the opposite flat, and at five miles stopped at a second ridge of some height for Lewis and Joseph, who were a good way behind with the cart. On coming up, they informed us that they had fallen in with a tribe of natives, twelve in number, shortly after starting, and had remained some time with them. They were at a dirty puddle, such as we had left, and were at no great distance from our little bivouac. Joseph good-naturedly gave one of them his knife, but he could not understand a word they said.

After crossing the sand ridge, we kept on the edge of the flats, as I have said, for the sake of the horses. The ridges had now become very long, and varied in breadth from a few hundred yards to a mile. Box-trees were scattered over them, and, although generally bare, they were not altogether destitute of grass or herbage; the ridges of sand, on the contrary, still continued unbroken, and several were covered with spinifex; but on the whole the country appeared to be improving, and the fall of waters being decidedly somewhat to the eastward of south, or towards the Stony Desert, I entertained hopes that we had crossed the lowest part of the interior, and reached the southerly drainage. We were again fortunate in coming on another pond at 20 miles, where we halted, the country round about us wearing an improved appearance. Still our situation was very precarious, and we were risking a great deal by thus pushing forward, for although I call the hollows (in which we found the water) ponds, they were strictly speaking the dregs only of what had been such, and were thick, black, and muddy; but the present aspect of the country led us to hope for a favourable change, and on the morning of the 4th we still held our northerly course up the flat, on which we had travelled the greater part of the day before. As we advanced, it became more open and grassy, and at three miles we found a small supply of very tolerable water in the bed of a shallow watercourse. We had ridden about ten miles from the place where we had slept, and Mr. Browne and I were talking together, when Flood, who was some little distance a-head, held up his hat and called out to us. We were quite sure from this circumstance that he had seen something unusual, and on riding up were astonished at finding ourselves on the banks of a beautiful creek, the bed of which was full both of water and grass. The bank on our side was twenty feet high, and shelved too rapidly to admit of our taking the horses down, but the opposite bank was comparatively low.

Immediately within view were two large sheets of water around the margin of which reeds were growing, but nevertheless these ponds were exceedingly shallow. The direction of this fine watercourse was N. by W. and S. by E., coming from the first and falling to the last point, thus enabling us to trace it up without changing our own. A little above where we intersected its channel two small tributaries join it, or, I am more inclined to think, two small branches go from it; for we had apparently been rising as we came up the valley, but more especially as the direction from which they appeared to come (the S.W.), was almost opposite to the course of the creek itself. On proceeding upwards we observed that there were considerable intervals, along which the channel of the creek was dry; but where such was the case, it was abundantly covered with couch grass, of which the horses were exceedingly fond. We passed several sheets of water, however, some of which had a depth of two feet, although the greater number were shallow. After following it for ten miles, we halted with brighter prospects, and under more cheering circumstances than we had any right to anticipate; but, although the creek promised so well, the valley on either side of it was more than usually barren and scrubby, and was bounded in, as usual, by high ridges of sand, that still continued to head us in unbroken lines, and were the most prominent and prevailing feature of the interior; and although we were now within two degrees of the Tropics, our latitude at this point being 25 degrees 34 minutes 19 seconds, we had not as yet observed the slightest change in the vegetation, or anything to intimate our approach to a tropical country.

On the 5th we started on a course of 340 degrees, the upward course of the creek. At two miles it turned to the N. E, but soon came round again to N.W., and afterwards kept a general course of 10 degrees to the west of north. Its channel gradually contracted as we advanced, and the polygonum grew to the size of a very large bush upon its banks. At nine miles we arrived at a creek junction from the S.W. and traced it over grassy plains, on which some Bauhimia were growing, but finding that it took its rise in a kind of marsh occupying the centre of the plain into which it had led us, we turned away to the main creek. The country now became more open, and tertiary limestone shewed itself on the plains, and at a short distance from the creek a vein of milky quartz cropped out near a pretty sheet of water. As we proceeded upwards sandstone traversed its bed in several places; in some degree contracting its channel. A short time before we halted we passed a very large and long sheet of water, on which there were a good many wild fowl, so very shy, that although the brush grew close to the banks of the creek, so as to favour our creeping upon them, we could not shoot any.

Notwithstanding that the creek had thus changed its appearance from what it was where we first came upon it (its waters being muddy with less grass in its channel), we had no reason to suppose that it would disappoint our hopes; we therefore resumed our journey on the morning of the 6th, without any idea that we should meet with any check in the course of the day. As the immediate neighbourhood of this creek had become scrubby, we kept wide of it and travelled for 12 miles, on a bearing of 340, over flats destitute of all manner of vegetation, but thinly scattered over with the box, acacia and the Bauhimia. These flats were still bounded on either side by high sandy ridges, covered with spinifex, excepting on their summits, which were perfectly bare. The view from them both to the eastward and westward was, as it were, over a sandy sea; ridge after ridge succeeding each other as far as the eye could stretch the vision. To the north the flat appeared to terminate at a low sand hill bearing 335 degrees or N.N.W. 1/2 W.

When we again came on the creek, there was an abundance both of water and grass in its bed, but just above, the channel suddenly turned to the N.E. and in again keeping wide of it to avoid the inequalities of the ground, we arrived at the little sand hill that had previously bounded our view, and on ascending it, found that immediately beneath us, there was a clear small lake, covered with wild fowl. The colour of the water immediately betrayed its quality, and we found on tasting that it was too salt to drink. An extensive grassy flat extended to the westward of the lake, bounded by box-trees, and the channel of the creek still held its course to the N.E. I could not therefore but suppose, that this was a junction from that point, and therefore determined on passing to the opposite side, in anticipation that I should again come on our old friend amidst the trees. We accordingly crossed at the bottom of the little lake, and in so doing found amidst the other herbage two withered stalks of millet.

The grassy woodland continued for several miles, and as it was evidently subject to flood, we were in momentary expectation of seeing a denser mass of foliage before us, as indicating the course of the creek, but we suddenly debouched upon open plains, bounded by distant sand hills. There was not now a tree to be seen, but samphire bushes were mixed with the polygonum growing round about; as the changes however in this singular and anomalous region had been so sudden and instantaneous, I still held on my course, but the farther I advanced into the plains the more did the ground betray a salt formation.

We halted an hour after sunset, under a sand hill about 16 miles distant from the creek, without having succeeded in our search for water, for although we passed several muddy pools at which the birds still continued to drink they were too thick for our animals.

The prospect from the top of the sand hill under which we had formed our bivouac, was the most cheerless and I may add the most forbidding of any that our eyes had wandered over, during this long and anxious journey. To the west and north-west there were lines of heavy sand ridges, so steep and rugged as to deter me from any attempt to cross them with my jaded horses. To the north and north-east a dark green plain covered with samphire bushes (amidst which the dry beds of small salt lagoons, as white as snow, formed a singular and striking contrast) was to be seen extending for about eight miles. This plain was bounded by distant hills, the bright red tops of which gleamed, even in the twilight. I was here really puzzled what course to pursue, one only indeed was open to me — the north — unless I should determine to fall back on the creek; but I thought it better to advance, in the hope of being able to maintain my ground, and with the intention of halting for a few days at the first favourable point at which we should arrive, for my mind was filled with anxiety. It had pained me for some time, to see Mr. Browne daily suffering more and more, and although he continued to render me the most valuable assistance, a gloom hung over him; he seldom spoke, his hands were constantly behind him, pressing or supporting his back, and he appeared unfit to ride. My men were also beginning to feel the effects of constant exposure, of ceaseless journeying, and of poverty of food, for all we had was 5 lbs. of flour and 2 oz. of tea per week; it is true we occasionally shot a pigeon or a duck, but the wildness of the birds of all kinds was perfectly unaccountable. The horses living chiefly on pulpy vegetation had little stamina, and were incapable of enduring much privation or hardship. No rain had fallen since July, nor was there any present indication of a change. Much as I desired it, I yet dreaded having to traverse such a country as that into which I was now about to plunge, in a wet state. With a soil of stiff tenacious clay, already soft from the moisture produced by the mixture of salt in it, I foresaw that in the event of heavy rain, I should be involved in almost inextricable difficulties, but there was no alternative.

On the morning of the 7th I sent Mr. Browne to the westward, to ascertain the nature of the country, and if by any chance he could again find the creek, and in case I had inadvertently mistaken the real creek for a tributary, I myself pushed on to the north, in the hope of intersecting it. Mr. Browne had not, however, been absent more than three-quarters of an hour, when he returned to inform me that he had been stopped by a salt creek, coming direct from the north, the bed of which was too soft for him to cross. He said that its channel was white as snow, and that every reed and blade of grass on its banks, was encrusted with salt. Under an impression that as long as I should continue in the neighbourhood of, and on a course nearly parallel to this creek, I could not hope for any favourable change, I decided on crossing it, and with that view turned to the west; but finding the bed of the creek still too soft to admit of our doing so, I traced it upwards to the north, along a sandy ridge.

As Mr. Browne had informed me, its channel was glittering white, and thickly encrusted with salt, nor was there any water visible, but on going down to examine it in several places where the salt had the appearance of broken and rotten ice, we found that there were deep pools of perfect brine underneath, on which the salt floated, to the thickness of three or four inches. The marks of flood on the side of the sand hill shewed a rise of 12 feet above its ordinary level. At about a mile and a half we descended the sand hill on which we had previously kept, and ascended another, when we saw the basin of the creek immediately below us, but quite dry, and surrounded by sand hills. Crossing just below it, we proceeded on a course of 331 degrees over extensive plains, covered with samphire, excepting where the beds of dry salt lagoons occurred. The ground was spongy and soft, and the cart wheels consequently sank deep into it. The plain was surrounded on all sides by sand hills, and that towards which we were advancing appeared to run athwart our course instead of nearly parallel to it as heretofore. On gaining the summit, we found that other ridges extended from it in parallel lines, the ridge on which we stood forming the head of the respective valleys. A line of acacia, a species we had never found near water, was growing down the centre of each, and the fall of the country seemed again to be to the N.N.W.

Pushing down one of the valleys, the descent of which was very gradual, and keeping on such clear ground as there was, the ridges rose higher and higher on either side of us as we advanced, all grass and other vegetation disappeared, and at length both valley and sand ridge became thickly coated with spinifex.

At noon I halted, in the hope of obtaining a meridian altitude, but was disappointed, as also at night, the sky continuing obscured. At half-past two I pulled up, to consider whether or not it would be prudent to push on any farther. I calculated that we were now 34 miles from the creek, our only place of refuge. The horses had not tasted water from the early part of the day before, and we could not reasonably expect to get back to the salt lagoon under a day and a half. Our poor animals were not in a condition to endure much fatigue, although by going on steadily we had managed to get over a good deal of ground. It is, however, probable that I should not have had much consideration for them on this occasion, if other matters had not weighed on my mind and influenced my decision. My men were all three unwell, and had been so for some days prior to this, and Mr. Browne’s sufferings were such that I hesitated subjecting him to exertions greater than those he was necessarily obliged to submit to, and by which I felt assured he would ultimately be overcome. The treacherous character of the disease by which he had been attacked was well understood. I had no hope of any improvement in his condition until such time as he could procure change of food. So far from this I dreaded every day that he might be laid prostrate as Mr. Poole had been, that I should have to carry him about in a state of helplessness, and that he would ultimately sink as his unfortunate companion had done. Had other considerations, therefore, not influenced me, I could not make up my mind to persevere, and see my only remaining companion perish at my side, and that, too, under the most trying, I had almost said the most appalling circumstances, for no one who has not seen the scurvy in its worst character can form an idea of it. I could not run the risk of being obliged to lay and leave one, in that gloomy desert, whose attention and kindness to me had been uniform, and whose life I knew was valuable to very many. The time has now passed, and I thank God that Mr. Browne, who embarked in this expedition in reliance on my discretion, is now restored to health and strength; but although he has regained his elasticity of spirits, and would, I have no doubt, again encounter even the same risks, he will yet remember Central Australia, and all that both of us there suffered.

The question for me however was, how far I should be justified in pushing forward under the almost certainty of inextricable embarrassment. I was now within reach of water, but another fifteen miles would have put it out of my reach; and though I felt I had the power, I did not see the advantage of perseverance, with so many difficulties staring me in the face. Our distance from the creek may appear to be short; but it will be borne in mind that our horses had now been more than a year living upon dry grass and salsolaceous plants; that from the time of our leaving the Depot, they had been ridden from sunrise to sunset; and that at night they had been tethered and confined to a certain range, within which there was not sufficient for them to eat. They had already been too long without water or food, and therefore that which would have been a trifling journey to them under ordinary circumstances, under existing ones was beyond their strength. Nevertheless, though thus convincing my understanding, I felt that it required greater moral firmness to determine me to retrace my steps than to proceed onwards.

Regarding our situation in its most favourable point of view, my advancing would have been attended with extreme risk. If I had advanced, and had found water, all would have been well for the time at least — if not, the extent of our misfortunes would only have been tested by their results. The first would have been the certain loss of all our horses, and I know not if one of us would ever have returned to the Depot, then more than 400 miles distant, to tell the fate of his companions to those we had left there. On mature deliberation then, I resolved to fall back on the creek, and as my progress was arrested in this direction, to make that the centre of my movements, in trying every other point where I thought there might be a chance of success.

I saw clearly indeed that there was no help for this measure. We had penetrated to a point at which water and feed had both failed. Spinifex and a new species of mesembryanthemum, with light pink flowers on a slender stalk, were the only plants growing in that wilderness, if I except a few withered acacia trees about four feet high. The spinifex was close and matted, and the horses were obliged to lift their feet straight up to avoid its sharp points. From the summit of a sandy undulation close upon our right, we saw that the ridges extended northwards in parallel lines beyond the range of vision, and appeared as if interminable. To the eastward and westward they succeeded each other like the waves of the sea. The sand was of a deep red colour, and a bright narrow line of it marked the top of each ridge, amidst the sickly pink and glaucous coloured vegetation around. I fear I have already wearied the reader by a description of such scenes, but he may form some idea of the one now placed before him, when I state, that, familiar as we had been to such, my companion involuntarily uttered an exclamation of amazement when he first glanced his eye over it. “Good Heavens,” said he, “did ever man see such country!” Indeed, if it was not so gloomy, it was more difficult than the Stony Desert itself; yet I turned from it with a feeling of bitter disappointment. I was at that moment scarcely a degree from the Tropic, and within 150 miles of the centre of the continent. If I had gained that spot my task would have been performed, my most earnest wish would have been gratified, but for some wise purpose this was denied to me; yet I may truly say, that I should not thus have abandoned my position, if it had not been a measure of urgent and imperative necessity.

After what I have said, the feelings with which, on the morning of the 8th, we unloosed our horses from the bushes, to which they had all night been fastened, will easily be imagined. Just as we were about to mount, a flight of crested parroquets on rapid wing and with loud shriek flew over us, coming directly from the north, and making for the creek to which we were going — it was a singular occurrence just at that moment, and so I regarded it, for I had well nigh turned again. It proved, however, that to the very last, we had followed the line of migration with unerring precision. What would I not have given for the powers of those swift wanderers of the air? But as it was I knew not how long they had been on the wing, or how far it was to the spot where they had last rested.

We passed the salt lagoon about 10 a.m. of the 9th, and stopped at a shallow but fresh water pond, a little below it, no less thankful than our exhausted animals that we were relieved from want, and the anxiety attendant on the last few days. On passing the lagoon we saw two natives digging for roots, but did not disturb them. In the afternoon, however, Joseph and Lewis saw twenty, who exhibited some unfriendly symptoms, and would not allow them to approach. They were not armed, but carried red bags. The food of the natives here, as in other parts of the interior, appeared to be seeds of various kinds. They had even been amongst the spinifex gathering the seed of the mesembryanthemum, of which they must obtain an abundant harvest. The weather, a little before this time, had been very cold, but was now getting warmer every day. As we had been advancing northwards towards the Tropics, I was not surprised at this. The sky also was clear, generally speaking, but we had observed for the last two or three months that it was invariably more cloudy at the full of the moon than at any other period.

As our recent journey proved that in going to the westward on the 5th inst., we had wandered from the creek, and that instead of holding on in that direction, it had changed its course considerably to the eastward of north, I determined, after we should all have had a day of rest, to trace the channel upwards, in order to satisfy myself as to what became of it. On the 10th, therefore, Mr. Browne and myself with Flood, mounted our horses, with the intention of tracing it up until we should have ascertained to what point it led. We passed through some very pretty scenery in the proximity of the lagoon where it was lightly wooded, with an abundance of grass; and I could not help reflecting with how much more buoyant and pleasurable feelings we should have explored such a country, when compared with the monotonous and sterile region we had wandered over. The transition however from the rich to the barren, from the picturesque to the contrary, was instantaneous. From the grassy woodland we had been riding through, we debouched upon a barren plain without any vegetation, and after crossing a small channel, intersected a second much larger, a little beyond it. Both creeks evidently traversed different parts of a large plain to the north, to which they had no apparent inlet. There was a long tongue of sand, rather elevated, and running up into the plain, to the termination of which we rode, and then found ourselves, as it were, in the centre of an area, that was of great extent, and appeared to be bounded on all sides, excepting that by which we had entered, by sand hills. Unconnected lines of trees marked the courses of the channels traversing it in different directions, but as the evening had far advanced, and my object had been rather to look round about me than to make any lengthened excursion, we returned to our little bivouac, with the intention of devoting another day to the fuller examination of the neighbourhood.

On the following day I proceeded with the whole party to the westward, anticipating that the salt formation existing to the north-west was merely local, and that by thus turning a few degrees from the course on which we had before gone, we should altogether avoid it. I should not, however, have taken Joseph and Lewis with the cart, if I had not been somewhat apprehensive that the natives might visit the camp during my absence, and some misunderstanding be the consequence; for as we had hitherto found the country to the westward worse than at any other point, I was after all doubtful how far I should be able to push on.

We left the creek on a W. by N. course, the direction of the sandy ridges being to the N.N.W., so that we were obliged to cross them successively. I soon found that the country was infinitely worse than I expected. We had scarcely passed a kind of marsh at some little distance from the creek, when we once more crossed salty valleys, between high sandy ridges. The wind blowing fresh from the south, peppered us with showers of sand as we ascended the last, and carried the salt in the valleys like drifting snow from one end of them to the other, filling our eyes and entering the pores of the skin, so as to cause us much annoyance. Before noon we had crossed eighteen of these sandy undulations, and were on the top of another, having fairly tired the horses in the ascent, and I consequently pulled up, to wait for the cart, but the heavy nature of the country had so shaken it, that the men were obliged to stop; and on examining the spokes of the wheels, I really wondered how they could have got on so far, and expected that in another half mile every one of them would be shaken out, and the cart itself fall to the ground. The spokes had shrunk to such a degree that they did not hold in the felloes and axles by more than two or three 10ths of an inch. I felt it necessary therefore to turn back to the creek, to get new spokes of such wood as we could procure, there not being a tree of any kind visible near us; but it was late ere we got back to water, and once more took up our position on the same ground we had quitted in the morning. The country we had passed was certainly such as to deter me from making a second attempt in the same quarter, and to confirm my impression that from some cause or other the interior to the westward was worse than anywhere else. Lewis, the moment we got back to the creek, set to work in good earnest, with Joseph’s assistance, to repair the cart, but it necessarily delayed us longer than prudence would have allowed; in the meantime, however, we were at least deriving benefit from rest.

On mature consideration, I thought the quarter in which we should have most chance of success would be a course a little to the east of north, for the day Mr. Browne and I rode up the creek it appeared to me that the country was more open in that direction. I thought it better, however, to make for the sandy tongue of land in the centre of the plain, in which the creek appeared to take its rise, and to be guided by circumstances both in the examination of that plain, and the course I should ultimately pursue. The cart being fit for use on the morning of the 12th we again left the creek, and at four miles on an east by north course arrived at the sand hill to which I desired to go; from that point I proceeded to the N.N.W., that appearing to be the general direction of the creek upwards; but as there were lines of box-trees on both sides of us, those to our left being denser than the right, I moved for them over a plain of about five miles in breadth, but so full of cracks and fissures that we had great difficulty in crossing it. Not-withstanding, however, that the cart fell constantly into them, we got it safely over. Not finding any water under or near the trees I turned a little to the north, keeping wide of the creek; but, coming on its channel again at five miles, I halted, because there happened to be a little grass there, and we were fortunate enough, after some perseverance, to find a muddy puddle that served the horses, however unfit for our use. From the appearance of the plain before us, I hardly anticipated success in our undertaking. We had evidently arrived near the head of the creek, and I felt assured that if the features of the country here, were similar to those of other parts of the interior, we should, between where we then were, and some distant sand hills, again find ourselves travelling over a salt formation. The evening had closed in with a cloudy sky, and the wind at W.N.W., and during the night we had two or three flying showers, but they were really in mockery of rain, nor was any vestige of it to be seen in the morning, which broke with a clear sky, and the wind from the S.E.

As soon as morning dawned we saddled our horses and made for the head of the plain, crossing bare and heavy ground until we neared the sand hills, when observing that I was leaving the creek, which I was anxious to trace up, we turned to the north-east for a line of gum-trees, but the channel was scarcely perceptible under them, and we had evidently run it out. There were only two or three solitary trees to be seen to the north, at which point the plain was bounded by sand hills. To the S.E. there was a short line of trees, from the midst of which the natives were throwing up a signal smoke, but as it would have taken me out of my way to have gone to them, I held on a N.N.W. course, and at the termination of the plain ascended a sand hill, though of no great height. From it we descended a small valley, the sides of which were covered with samphire bushes, and the bottom by the dry white and shallow bed of a salt lagoon. From this valley we passed into a plain, in which various kinds of salsolaceous productions were growing round shallow salty basins. At a little distance from these, however, we stumbled upon a channel with some tolerable water in it, hid amongst rhagodia bushes, but the horses refused to drink. This plain communicated with that we had just left, round the N.E. point of the sand hill we had crossed but there were no box-trees on it to mark the line of any creek or water; but the sand ridge forming its northern boundary was very high, and contrary to their usual lay, ran directly across our course, and as the ascent was long and gradual, so was it some time before we got to the top. The view which then presented itself was precisely similar to the one I have already described, and from which we had before been obliged to retreat. Long parallel lines of sandy ridges ran up northwards, further than we could see, and rose in the same manner on either side. Their sides were covered with spinifex, but there was a clear space at the bottom of the valleys, and as there was really no choice we proceeded down one of them, for 12 miles, and then halted.

At this point the open space at the bottom of the valleys had all closed in, and the cart, during the latter part of the journey, had gone jolting over the tufts and circles of spinifex to the great distress of the horse; grass and water had both failed, nor could I see the remotest chance of any change in the character of the country. It was clear, indeed, that until rain should fall it was perfectly impracticable; and with such a conviction on my mind, I felt that it would only be endangering the lives of those who were with me, if I persevered in advancing. I therefore once more determined to fall back upon the creek, there to hold my ground until such time as it should please God to send us rain. We re-entered the plain in which the creek rises at 3 p.m., and made for the trees, from whence the signal smoke was rising, and there came on a tolerable sized pond of water, at which we stopped for a short time, and while resting, ascertained that some natives were encamped at a little distance above us; but although we went to them, and endeavoured by signs and other means to obtain information, we could not succeed, they either did not or would not understand us; neither, although our manner must have allayed any fear of personal injury to themselves, did they evince the slightest curiosity, or move, or even look up when we left them. I cannot, however, think that such apparent indifference arises from a want of feeling, for that, on some points, they possess in a strong degree; but so it was, that the natives of the interior never approached our camps, however much we might encourage them. On leaving these people, of whom, if I recollect, there were seven, we tried to avoid the distressing plains we had crossed in the morning, and it was consequently late before we got to the creek and dismounted from our horses, after a journey of about 42 miles. The 13th thus found us beaten back by difficulties such as were not to be overcome by human perseverance. I had returned to the creek with the intention of abiding the fall of rain, and was not without hopes that it would have gladdened us, for the sky about this time was very cloudy, and anywhere else but in the low country in which we were, rain most assuredly would have fallen. As it was, the clouds passed over us without breaking.

A lunar we here obtained placed us in longitude 138 degrees 15 minutes 31 seconds E., our latitude being 25 degrees 4 minutes 0 seconds S. Computed from these data I deem I may fairly assume we were in 24 degrees 40 minutes 0 seconds S., and on the 138th meridian, when we stopped on the 8th; being then 470 geographical miles to the north of Mount Arden, about 350 from Mount Hopeless, and rather more than midway between the first of those hills and the Gulf of Carpentaria. My readers will perhaps bear in mind, that the object of this expedition was limited “to ascertaining the existence and the character of a supposed chain of hills, or a succession of separate hills, trending down from N.E. to S.W. and forming a great natural division of the continent.” I hope I do not take too much credit to myself; if I say that I have set that question at rest; and that, considering the nature of the country into which I penetrated, no such chain can reasonably be supposed to exist. If, indeed, any mountains had really been in the direction specified, it appears to me that I must have discovered them, but, as far as my poor opinion goes, I think the sandy ridges, both I and my readers have so much reason to hold in dread, are as extensive on one side of the Stony Desert as the other. In truth, I believe, that not only is such the case, but that the same region extends with undiminished breadth even to the great Australian Bight, which occupies a space along the south coast of the continent, as nearly as may be of equal breadth with the sea-born Desert itself; and I cannot but conclude that that remarkable wall, shewing a perpendicular front to the ocean, but sloping inwards from the coast, was thrown up simultaneously with the fossil bed of the Murray, during the time those convulsions, by which the changes in the central parts of the continent, to which I have already called attention, were going on. But I venture to give these opinions with extreme diffidence; they may be contrary to general views on the subject. I merely record my own impressions from what I have observed, in the hope that I may assist the geologist in his inferences. The ideas I would desire to convey are clear enough in my own mind, but I must confess that I feel a great difficulty in placing them so forcibly and so clearly before my readers as I could desire.

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