Narrative of an expedition undertaken for the exploration of the country lying between Rockingham Bay and Cape York, by William Carron

Chapter 1

We left Sydney on the 29th of April, 1848, in the barque “Tam O’Shanter” (Captain Merionberg); in company with H.M.S. “Rattlesnake.”

Our party consisted of the following persons: Mr. E. B. Kennedy, (leader,) Mr. W. Carron, (botanist,) Mr. T. Wall, (naturalist,) Mr. C. Niblet, (storekeeper,) James Luff, Edward Taylor, and William Costigan, (carters,) Edward Carpenter, (shepherd,) William Goddard, Thomas Mitchell, John Douglas, Dennis Dunn, (labourers,) and Jackey, an aboriginal native of the Patrick’s Plains tribe.

Our supplies and equipment for the journey had been most fully considered, and were estimated by Mr. Kennedy as amply sufficient for a journey so short as that we then anticipated.

Our live stock consisted of twenty-eight horses, one hundred sheep, three kangaroo dogs, and one sheep dog. Our dry provisions comprised one ton of flour, ninety lbs. of tea, and six hundred lbs. of sugar. Besides these necessary supplies for subsistence on the road, we took with us twenty-four pack-saddles, one heavy square cart, two spring carts, with harness for nine horses, four tents, a canvas sheepfold, twenty-two pounds gunpowder, one hundred and thirty lbs. shot, a quarter cask of ammunition, twenty-eight tether ropes, each twenty-one yards long, forty hobble chains and straps, together with boxes, paper, &c., for preserving specimens, firearms, cloaks, blankets, tomahawks, and other minor requisites for such an expedition, not forgetting a supply of fish-hooks and other small articles, as presents for the natives.

After a tedious passage of twenty-two days, we arrived at Rockingham Bay on the 21st May; and even here, at the very starting point of our journey, those unforeseen difficulties began to arise, which led us subsequently to hardships so great and calamities so fatal.

On casting anchor, Mr. Kennedy, in company with Captain Merionberg, proceeded in a boat to examine the shores of the Bay, and to determine on a suitable landing place for the horses, but returned in the evening without having been able to discover one.

The attempt was renewed the next morning, and continued during the entire day; and on the morning of the 23rd of May Mr. Kennedy and Captain Merionberg returned to the ship with the intelligence that they had discovered a spot where the horses might be landed with tolerable safety, and where, too, there was plenty of grass and water. This was an important desideratum, as we had lost one horse and eleven sheep on the voyage.

The water round the shores of the bay was very shallow, in consequence of which the vessel could not approach close inland, but was compelled to cast anchor about a quarter of a mile from the shore, and this distance the horses had to swim.

In the afternoon the vessel was anchored off the landing place, and early on the following morning (May 24th) the tents, tether ropes, and sheepfold were taken ashore, with a party to take care of the horses when landed. At ten o’clock AM., slings having been prepared, we commenced hoisting the horses out of the hold, and lowering them into the water alongside a boat, to the stern of which the head of each horse was secured, as it was pulled ashore. One horse was drowned in landing, but all the others were safely taken ashore during the day. The weather this day was very cold, with occasional showers of rain.

During the time occupied by landing the horses, a number of aboriginal natives assembled on the beach; they evinced no symptom of hostility, but appeared much surprised at our horses and sheep. White men they had frequently seen before, as parties have landed on the beach from surveying vessels.

We found no difficulty in making them comprehend that we desired to be friendly with them, and they advanced towards us with green boughs in their hands, which they displayed as emblems of peace. We met them with our arms extended and our hands open, indicating that we had no implements of war with us. We made them a present of two circular tin plates, with Mr. Kennedy’s initials stamped upon them, with chains to hang them round the neck; we also gave them a few fish-hooks, and they accepted our presents with great demonstrations of pleasure. We made signs for them to sit down about 200 yards from the spot where the horses and sheep were being landed, and marking a line upon the sand we made them understand that they were not to cross it to approach us. One of our party was placed amongst them. to enforce this regulation, which he did with little difficulty, although they expressed great curiosity as to various articles brought on shore from the ship.

These natives appeared to be very fine strong men, varying much in intelligence and disposition.

I entered into such conversation with them as we were enabled to hold, and I soon found that while some were eagerly anxious to learn the names of different articles and their uses, others were perfectly indifferent about them.

We pitched our tents about two hundred yards from the beach, forming a square, with the sheepfold in the centre. Mr. Kennedy came on shore in the morning to superintend the arrangements, and after giving the necessary directions and instructions, returned to the ship. The party left ashore in charge, consisted of myself, Wall, Dunn, Carpenter, and Douglas. Our provisions were supplied from the ship, in order that no time might be lost in getting all our stores and implements in proper order for starting.

A few yards from our camp was a fresh water creek, from which, although the tide ran into it about one hundred yards, where it was stopped by a small bank, we could obtain excellent water. The grass around was very long, and mostly of very coarse descriptions, consisting chiefly of a species of uniola growing in tufts, agrostis with creeping roots and broad blades; the horses seemed to like the uniola best.

A little to the northward of our camp were very high and almost perpendicular rocks, composed mostly of micaceous schist, covered with various epiphytal ORCHIDES and ferns.

The labour of the day being ended, and most of our stores landed, the greater number of our party came ashore to pass the night; and after having tethered the horses in fresh places, we assembled at supper, the MATERIEL of which, (beef and biscuit,) was sent from the ship. We then took possession of our tents, one square tent being allotted to Mr. Kennedy; Niblet, Wall, and myself occupied a small round one; Taylor, Douglas, Carpenter, Mitchell, and Jackey, a large round tent; and Luff, Dunn, Goddard, and Costigan, the other.

Mr. Kennedy’s tent was 8 feet. long, by 6 feet, and 8 feet high, and in it were placed a compact table, constructed with joints so as to fold up, a light camp stool, his books and instruments. The two larger round tents were pyramidal in shape, seven feet in diameter at the least, and nine feet high. The small tent was six feet diameter, and eight feet high.

Every man was then supplied with one pair of blankets, one cloak, a double-barrel gun or carbine, a brace of pistols, cartridge box, small percussion cap pouch, and six rounds of ammunition.

The arrangement for preserving the safety of the camp from attack, was, that every man, with the exception of Mr. Kennedy, should take his turn to watch through the night — two hours being the duration of each man’s watch — the watch extending from 8 P.M. till 6 A.M. During the night the kangaroo dogs were kept chained up, but the sheep dog was at large.

The position of this our first encampment was near the northern extremity of Rockingham Bay, being in latitude 17° 58’ 10” south, longitude 146° 8’ east. The soil, where our cattle and sheep were feeding, was sandy and very wet, The land, from the beach to the scrub in the swamp beyond, was slightly undulating and very thickly strewed with shells, principally bivalves.

On the morning of the 25th May, a party commenced landing the remainder of our stores; and it being a fine morning, I went out to collect specimens and seeds of any new and interesting plants I might find. On leaving the camp I proceeded through a small belt of scrub to the rocks on the north; the scrub was composed of the GENERA FLAGELLARIA, KENNEDYA, BAMBUSA (bamboo), SMILAX, CISSUS, MUCUNA, and various climbing plants unknown to me: the trees consisting principally of EUGENIA, ANACARDIUM, CASTANOSPERMUM (Moreton Bay chesnut), a fine species of SARCOCEPHALUS, and a large spreading tree belonging to the natural order RUTACEAE, with ternate leaves, axillary panicles of white flowers, about the size of those of BORONIA PINNATA. At the edge of the rocks were some fine tree ferns (DICKSONIA), with the GENERA XIPHOPTERIS, and POLYPODIUM; also some beautiful epiphytal ORCHIDEAE; one beautiful specimen of DENDROBIUM, (rock lily,) with the habit of D. SPECIOSUM but of stronger growth, bearing long spikes of bright yellow flowers, the sepals spotted with rich purple. I found also, another species with smaller leaves, and move slender habit, with spikes of dull green flowers, the column and tips of the sepals purple. Also a very fine CYMBIDIUM, much larger than C. SUAVE, with brown blossoms, having a yellow column.

I proceeded along the edge of a mangrove swamp for a short distance, and entered a fresh water swamp about a mile from the beach, covered with very thick scrub, composed of large trees of the genus MELALEUCA, running for the most part from forty to fifty feet high. Here also I first found a strong growing climbing palm (CALAMUS), throwing up a number of shoots from its roots, many of them 100 feet long, and about the thickness of a man’s finger, with long pinnatified leaves, covered with sharp spines, long tendrils growing out of the stem alternately with the leaves, many of them twenty feet long, covered with strong spines slightly curved downward, by which the shoots are supported in their rambling growth. They lay hold of the surrounding bushes and branches of trees, often covering the tops of the tallest, and turning in all directions. On some of these tendrils the blossoms and seeds are produced, the seed bearing tendrils having at about two feet apart long bunches of very small white apelatous hermaphrodite flowers, closely crowded together, with six stamens, one pistil, and three cleft stigma. The seed is a small hard nut, with a thin scaly covering, and is produced in great abundance.

The leaves of this palm resemble those of the LIVISTONA, being about three feet long, of a dark green colour, and cut at regular spaces to the mid-rib. The shoots are remarkably tough, and I afterwards found were used by the natives in making their canoes. These canoes are small, and constructed of bark, with a small sapling on each side to strengthen them, the ends of which are tied together with these shoots. They are jointed, and resemble the common cane used in basket-making, and when cut they exhibit the small pores in a similar manner.

The growth of this plant forms one of the greatest obstacles to travelling in the bush in this district. It forms a dense thicket, into which it is impossible to penetrate without first cutting it away, and a person once entangled in its long tendrils has much difficulty in extricating himself, as they lay hold on everything they touch. On entering the swamp to examine plants, I was caught by them, and became so much entangled before I was aware of it, that it took me nearly an hour to get clear, although I had entered but a few yards.

No sooner did I cut one tendril, than two or three others clung around me at the first attempt to move, and where they once clasp they are very difficult to unloose. Abundance of the shoots, from fifteen to twenty feet long, free from leaves or tendrils, could be obtained, and would be useful for all the purposes to which the common cane is now applied.

At this spot also I met with a beautiful plant, belonging to the natural order AROIDEAE, climbing by its rooting stems to the tops of the trees, like the common ivy, (HEDERA HELIX). This plant has narrow pointed leaves, four inches long, and produces at the ends of the shoots a red spatha, enclosing a cylindrical spadix of yellow flowers.

In many parts the swamp was completely covered with a very strong growing species of RESTIO (rope-grass.) On the open ground, between the beach and the swamp, were a few large flooded gums, and a few Moreton Bay ash trees. Near the beach I found a strong growing species of EXOCARPUS, (B. LATIFOLIA, of Brown,) with glancescent oval leaves, about one inch long.

On the beach, too, just above high water mark, was a beautiful spreading, lactescent tree, about twenty feet high, belonging to the natural order APOCYNEAE, with alternate exstipulate, broad, lanceolate leaves, six to eight inches long, and producing terminal spikes of large, white, sweet-scented flowers, resembling those of the white nerium oleander, but much larger. I also met with a tree about twenty feet high belonging to the natural order DILLENIACEAE, with large spreading branches, producing at the axilla of the leaves from three to five large yellow flowers, with a row of red appendages surrounding the carpels.

A fine species of CALOPHYLLUM, with large dark green leaves, six to eight inches long, two and a-half to three inches broad, beautifully veined, and with axillary racemes of white, sweet-scented flowers; the seed being a large round nut with a thin rind, of a yellowish green colour when ripe. There were many other interesting plants growing about, but the afternoon turning out wet, I left their examination to stand over till finer weather.

Growing on the beach was a species of PORTULACA, a quantity of the young shoots of which I collected, and we partook of them at our supper, boiled as a vegetable.

In the evening after watering our horses, we took them to the camp and gave each of them a feed of corn, which we had brought with us for the purpose of strengthening them previous to our starting from Rockingham Bay, on our expedition; but although the grass on which they had been depasturing was coarse, they were with difficulty induced to eat the corn, many of them leaving it almost all behind them. We then tethered them and folded our sheep, one of which we killed for food. The ration per week on which the party was now put, was one hundred pounds flour, twenty-six pounds sugar, three and a-half pounds tea, with one sheep every alternate day.

This night too we commenced our nightly watch, the whole of the stores being landed and packed in the camp.

During nearly the whole of the day a tribe of natives was watching our movements, but they seemed to be quite peaceably inclined; the weather was very cold, and at night the rain set in and continued to fall almost without intermission, till morning.

The next morning (May 26th) was very wet and cold; but after securing our horses, I again went out to search for, and examine plants, although it was too rainy to collect seeds or specimens. On a CASUARINA near the swamp, I saw a beautiful LORANTHUS with rather small oval leaves, panicles of flowers, with the tube of the corolla green; segments of the limbs dark red; of a dwarf bushy habit.

This beautiful parasite covered the tree, and was very showy.

The afternoon turning out fine and warm, I collected several specimens and sorts of seeds. In the open ground grew a beautiful tree producing large terminal spikes of yellow flowers, with broad, and slightly cordate leaves, belonging to the natural order BIGNONIACEAE.

The open ground between the beach and the swamp varied in width from half a mile to three or four miles; it was principally covered with long grass, with a belt of bushy land along the edge of the beach; the bush consisting principally of EXOCARPUS, with dark green oval leaves, near an inch long; two dwarf species of FABRICIA, one with white, the other with pink flowers; a species of JASMINUM, with rather large, white, sweet-scented flowers; and a few acacia trees, with long, linear, lanceolate, phyllodia, racemose spikes of bright yellow flowers. There also grew the genera XANTHORRHEA, XEROTES, and RESTIO (rope-grass.)

There were a great many wallabies near the beach, but they were very wild. Returning to the camp in the evening, I met several natives who had been fishing. Most of the fish they had taken had been speared, but few having been caught with hooks.

I remained with them some time, and learned some of their expressions. Fresh water they call “hammoo,” salt water, “mocull;” their dogs, the same species as the native dogs found near Sydney, they call “taa-taa.”

We had not as yet seen any of their women, as they were encamped at some distance from us.

Near the beach, by the side of the salt water creek, I saw a beautiful species of RUELLIA with terminal spikes of blue flowers, and spiney-toothed leaves, and a bushy shrub eight or ten feet high, with alternate extipulate simple oval leaves, bearing a solitary, axillary, round fruit, resembling a greengage plum; the fleshy pulp covering the hard round stone has rather a bitter taste, but it is not disagreeable when ripe. It acts as a laxative if eaten in any quantity (probably MABA LAURINA).

On the following morning, May 27th, when the horses were watered and fed, I commenced digging a piece of ground, in which I sowed seeds of cabbage, turnip, leek, pumpkin, rock and water melons, pomegranate, peach stones, and apple pips. On the two following days, May 28th and 29th, I remained in the camp all day.

The next morning, May 30th, Mr. Kennedy and three others of the party rode out to examine the surrounding country, and to determine in what direction the expedition should start, the remainder staying at the camp, busily occupied with preparations for our departure into the wilderness. The flour was put into canvas bags, holding 100lbs. each, made in the shape of saddlebags, to hold 50lbs weight on each side. The sugar we put into two large tin canisters, made to fit into one of the carts, and the tea was packed in quarter-chests. The surplus stores, comprising horse shoes, clothes, specimen boxes, &c., which would not be required before our arrival at Cape York, were sent on board H. M. S. Rattlesnake, which it was arranged should meet us at Port Albany. During the day one of the party shot a wallaby on the beach, which made very good soup.

During the morning of the next day (May 31st) I was employed in procuring specimens and seeds of various plants, and in the afternoon we all resumed our preparations for starting, as we expected Mr. Kennedy back next day. He however did not arrive in the camp, and in the afternoon (of June 1st) I obtained specimens of a very pretty plant of the natural order ONAGRARIAE, with opposite oblong simple leaves, and large purple flowers.

The following day (June 2nd) Mr. Kennedy and his party returned to the camp, with the intelligence that it was impossible to proceed in a north or north-westerly direction, in consequence of the swamps. Mr. Kennedy had penetrated them in some places, where the scrub was not too thick; but could not get through them in any place, on account of the water, and the dense scrub. He informed us that he found we should be obliged to cross a river on the beach to the south-west of the camp before we could hope to make any progress.

The two following days were occupied with completing our arrangements for starting; as it wits determined on the following morning to strike our tents and proceed at once on our expedition.

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