Two expeditions into the interior of southern Australia, by Charles Sturt

Chapter 4

Perplexity — Trait of honesty in the natives — Excursion on horseback across the Darling — Forced to return — Desolating effects of the drought — Retreat towards the colony — Connection between the Macquarie and the Darling — Return up the banks of the Macquarie — Starving condition of the natives.

On our return to the party, we found them surrounded by the natives, who were looking with an eye of wonder on the cattle and horses. We pointed out to them the direction in which we were going, and invited them to visit us; and nothing appeared to astonish them so much as the management of the team by a single man. We got back to our position early, and again fixed ourselves upon it.

It now only remained for us to consider what we should do under circumstances of certainly more than ordinary perplexity. We had nothing to hope for from travelling in a southerly direction, while to the E. and N.E., the state of the country was worse than that by which we had penetrated to the Darling. It was evident, that the large creeks joining the Castlereagh in that direction were dry, since the natives not only intimated this to us, but it was unquestionable that they themselves had deserted them, and had crowded to such places as still contained a supply of water. Even in retreating, we could not hope to retrace our steps. Experience had proved to us, that the dry state of the interior was as injurious to the movements of an expedition as a too wet season would have been. Taking everything, therefore, into consideration, I determined on leaving the party stationary, and on crossing the Darling to the N.W., and, if any encouraging feature presented itself, to return for the party, and persevere in an examination of the distant interior. Such, at least, appeared to me the most judicious plan: indeed, an attempt to have moved in any other direction would have been fruitless. And, as the result of this journey would be decisive, and would either fix or determine our advance or retreat, I was anxious for Mr. Hume’s attendance.

The natives followed to the camp, and in the course of the afternoon, were joined by their women. The latter however, would not approach nearer than the top of a little hillock on which they sat. The men did not come round the tents, but stood in a row at a short distance. At sunset, they gained a little courage, and wandered about a little more; at length they went off to the Darling.

Honesty of a Native.

It was quite dark, when I heard a native call from the hill on which the women had been, and I desired Hopkinson to take his firelock and ascertain what the man wanted. He soon after returned, and brought a blanket, which he said the man had returned to him. The native was alone, and when he offered the blanket, kept his spear poised in his right hand; but, seeing that no violence was intended him, he lowered his weapon, and walked away.

Reward the Man for His Conduct.

I was extremely pleased at this trait of honesty, and determined to reward it. On inquiry, I found that the men had availed themselves of the day to wash their blankets and that one of them had been flung over a bush hanging over the bank of the river, and it was supposed that one of the natives must have pulled it down with him. In the morning, the tribe went away from their encampment before day-light as we judged from the cry of their dogs, than which nothing could be more melancholy; but about eight, the men made their appearance on the hill occupied by the women the evening previously, and seemed to be doubtful whether to approach nearer. I went out to them, and, with a downward motion of my hand, beckoned for them to come to me: they mistook the signal, but laid all their spears on the ground, and it was not until after the sign had been reversed that they stirred or moved towards me. I then got them in a row, and desired Hopkinson to single out the man who had given him the blanket. It was, however, with great difficulty that he recognised him, as the man stood firm and motionless. At length, after walking two or three times along the line, he stopped before one man, and put his hand on his shoulder, upon which the manner of the native testified as to the correctness of his guess.

The blanket being produced, I explained to the savage, with Mr. Hume’s assistance, that I was highly pleased with him, and forthwith presented him with a tomahawk and a clasp-knife. The tribe were perfectly aware of the reason of my conduct, and all of them seemed highly delighted.

I was happy in having such an opportunity of showing the natives of the interior that I came among them with a determination to maintain justice in my communication with them, and to impress them, at the same time, with a sense of our love of it in them. That they appreciated my apparent lenity in not calling for the defaulter, I am sure, and I feel perfectly conscious that I should have failed in my duty had I acted otherwise than I did.

Effect of Firing a Gun.

Although the natives had shown so good a disposition, as they were numerous, I thought it as well, since I was about to leave the camp, to show them that I had a power they little dreamt of about me. I therefore called for my gun and fired a ball into a tree. The effect of the report upon the natives, was truly ridiculous. Some stood and stared at me, others fell down, and others ran away; and it was with some difficulty we collected them again. At last, however, we did so, and, leaving them to pick out the ball, mounted our horses and struck away for the Darling. We crossed the river a little above where we struck it, and then proceeded N.W. into the interior.

Excursion Across the Darling.

It is impossible for me to describe the nature of the country over which we passed, for the first eight miles. We rode through brushes of polygonum, under rough-gum, without a blade of vegetation, the whole space being subject to inundation. We then got on small plains of firmer surface, and red soil, but these soon changed again for the former; and at 4 p.m. we found ourselves advanced about two miles on a plain that stretched away before us, and bounded the horizon. It was dismally brown; a few trees only served to mark the distance. Up one of the highest I sent Hopkinson, who reported that he could not see the end of it, and that all around looked blank and desolate. It is a singular fact, that during the whole day, we had not seen a drop of water or a blade of grass.

Desolating Effects of the Drought.

To have stopped where we were, would, therefore, have been impossible; to have advanced, would probably have been ruin. Had there been one favorable circumstance to have encouraged me with the hope of success, I would have proceeded. Had we picked up a stone as indicating our approach to high land, I would have gone on; or had there been a break in the level of the country, or even a change in the vegetation. But we had left all traces of the natives far behind us; and this seemed a desert they never entered — that not even a bird inhabited. I could not encourage a hope of success, and, therefore, gave up the point; not from want of means, but a conviction of the inutility of any further efforts. If there is any blame to be attached to the measure, it is I who am in fault, but none who had not like me traversed the interior at such a season, would believe the state of the country over which I had wandered. During the short interval I had been out, I had seen rivers cease to flow before me, and sheets of water disappear; and had it not been for a merciful Providence, should, ere reaching the Darling, have been overwhelmed by misfortune.

I am giving no false picture of the reality. So long had the drought continued, that the vegetable kingdom was almost annihilated, and minor vegetation had disappeared. In the creeks, weeds had grown and withered, and grown again; and young saplings were now rising in their beds, nourished by the moisture that still remained; but the largest forest trees were drooping, and many were dead. The emus, with outstretched necks, gasping for breath, searched the channels of the rivers for water, in vain; and the native dog, so thin that it could hardly walk, seemed to implore some merciful hand to despatch it. How the natives subsisted it was difficult to say, but there was no doubt of the scarcity of food among them.

We arrived in camp at a late hour, and having nothing to detain us longer, prepared for our retreat in the morning. The natives had remained with the party during the greater part of the day, and had only left them a short time prior to our arrival,

When examining the creek on which we had been encamped for some days, Mr. Hume observed a small junction; and as we knew we were almost due N. of the marshes of the Macquarie, both of us were anxious to ascertain whence it originated. To return to Mount Harris, by retracing our steps up the Castlereagh, would have entailed the severest distress upon us; we the rather preferred proceeding up this creek, and taking our chance for a supply of water. We therefore crossed Morrisset’s chain of ponds, and encamped in the angle formed by the junction of the two creeks.

Before we left this position, we were visited by a party of natives, twelve in number, but not of the Darling tribe. They accompanied us a short way, and then struck off to the right. At about a mile and a half, we crossed Mr. Hume’s track, leading westerly, which still remained observable. The creek was, no doubt, the hollow he stated that he crossed on that excursion, and its appearance certainly justified his opinion of it. Its bed was choked up with bulrushes or the polygonum, and its banks were level with the country on either side, or nearly so. We passed over extremely rich soil the whole day, on a S.W. and by W. course, though the timber upon it was dwarfish, and principally of the rough-gum kind.

On the 2nd of April, we stopped in order to make some repairs upon the dray; the wheels of which had failed us. Clayton put in four new spokes, and we heated the tyres over again, by which means we got it once more serviceable.

Wild Melon.

The soil in the creek was of the richest quality, and was found to produce a dwarf melon, having all the habits and character of the cucumber. The fruit was not larger than a pigeon’s egg, but was extremely sweet. There were not, however, many ripe, although the runners were covered with flowers, and had an abundance of fruit upon them. In the morning, we sent the tinker on horseback up the creek, to ascertain how far the next water was from us, desiring him to keep the creek upon his right, and to follow his own track back again. He thought fit, however, considering himself a good bushman, to wander away to his left, and the consequence was, that he soon lost himself. It would appear that he doubled and passed through some thick brush at the back of the camp, and at length found himself at dark on the banks of a considerable creek. In wandering along it, he luckily struck upon the natives we had last seen, who, good-naturedly, led him to the track of the dray, which his horse would not afterwards desert, and the tinker sneaked into the tent about 3 o’clock in the morning, having failed in his errand, and made himself the butt of the whole party.

Return up the Creek.

The day succeeding this adventure, we moved up the creek, which was, for the most part, even with the plain. The country continued the same as that we had passed over from the junction, being subject to flood, and having patches of bulrushes and reeds upon it. No change took place in the timber, but the line of acacia pendula, which forms the line of inundation, approached neater to us; nor was the mark of flood so high on the trunks of trees as below. We halted, with abominable water, but excellent food for the animals in the plains behind us. In continuing our journey, we found several changes take place in the appearance of the creek and its neighbourhood. The former diminished in size, and at length separated into two distinct channels, choked up, for the most part, with dead bulrushes, but having a few green reeds in patches along it. The flats on either side became slightly timbered, and blue gum was the prevailing tree. Crossing one of the channels, we observed every appearance of our near approach to the marshes, the flats being intersected by many little water-runs, such as we had noticed at the bottom of them. About noon we struck upon a body of reeds under the wood of eucalypti, below the second great morass, and keeping a little to our right to avoid them, fell shortly afterwards into our old track on the plain, upon which we continued to move, making the best of our way to the channel which had supplied our wants on our first return from the Darling. It was now, however, quite dry, and we were obliged to push on further, to shorten the journey of the morrow.

Connection of Macquarie and Darling.

The result of our journey up the creek was particularly satisfactory, both to myself and Mr. Hume; since it cleared up every doubt that might have existed regarding the actual termination of the Macquarie, and enabled us to connect the flow of waters at so interesting and particular a point. It will be seen by a reference to the chart, that the waters of the marshes, after trickling through the reeds, form a small creek, which carries off the superfluous part of them into Morrisset’s chain of ponds, which latter again falls into the Castlereagh, at about eight miles to the W.N.W. and all three join the Darling in a W. by N. direction, in lat. 30 degrees 52 minutes south and E. lon. 147 degrees 8 minutes at about 90 miles to the N.N.W. of Mount Harris, and about an equal distance to the E.S.E. of where we struck upon the last-mentioned river. Thus it is evident that the Darling had considerably neared the eastern ranges, although it was still more than 150 miles from their base. It was apparently coming from the N.E., and whether it has its sources in the mountains behind our distant settlements, or still farther to the northwards, is a question of curious speculation, although, as I have already stated, I am of opinion that none but tropical rains could supply the furious torrent that must sometimes rage in it.

It would be presumptuous to hazard any opinion as to the nature of the interior to the westward of that remarkable river. Its course is involved in equal mystery, and it is a matter of equal doubt whether it makes its way to the south coast, or ultimately exhausts itself in feeding a succession of swamps, or falls into a large reservoir in the centre of the island.

Return to Mount Harris.

We reached Mount Harris on the 7th of the month, and moving leisurely up the banks of the Macquarie, gained Mr. Palmer’s first station on the 14th, and Wellington Valley on the 21st, having been absent from that settlement four months and two weeks. The waters of the Macquarie had diminished so much, that its bed was dry for more than half a mile at a stretch, nor did we observe the least appearance of a current in it, until after we had ascended the ranges. The lower tribes were actually starving, and brought their children to us to implore something to eat. The men attempted to surprise the camp, but I believe they were urged from absolute necessity to procure subsistence for themselves, and that they intended robbery rather than personal violence.

Deplorable State of the Country.

We left the interior in a still more deplorable state than that in which we found it; but it is more than probable that under other circumstances, we should have found it impossible to traverse its distant plains, as it is certain that unless rain fell in less than three weeks, all communication with the Darling would have been cut off:

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