Journals of Two Expeditions into the Interior of New South Wales, by John Oxley

No. V.

Governor’s report on the return of Oxley from the second expedition, together with a letter from Oxley on his arrival at Port Stephens.


Government House, Parramatta, December 5, 1818.


The sanguine hope which his excellency the governor was induced to entertain, that, by pursuing the course of the Macquarie River, which had been discovered running in a north-west direction by John Oxley, Esq., on his return last year from tracing the course of the Lachlan to the south-west, would have amply compensated for the disappointment sustained on that occasion; and his excellency having in consequence accepted the farther services of Mr. Oxley, on a second expedition; the party consisting of John Oxley, Esq., surveyor general; John Harris, Esq., late surgeon of the 102nd regiment, (who most liberally volunteered to accompany the expedition); Mr. Evans, deputy surveyor general; and Mr. Charles Fraser, colonial botanist; together with twelve men, having eighteen horses and two boats, and provisions for twenty-four weeks, took their final departure on the 4th of June last, from a depot prepared for the occasion in the Wellington Valley, at about ninety miles west of Bathurst; and those gentlemen, and the entire party, having a few days since arrived at Port Jackson by sea, from the northward, his excellency is happy in offering his most cordial congratulations to John Oxley, Esq., the conductor of this expedition, and to John Harris, Esq., Mr. Evans, and Mr. Fraser, on their safe return from this arduous undertaking.

The zeal, talent, and attention manifested by Mr. Oxley, considering the perils and privations to which he and his party were exposed, in exploring a tract of country so singularly circumstanced in its various bearings, are no less honourable to Mr. Oxley than conducive to the public interest; and although the principal object, namely, that of tracing the Macquarie River to its embouchure, has not been so favourable as was anticipated, yet the failure is in a great degree counterbalanced by other important discoveries made in the course of this tour, which promise, at no very remote period, to prove of material advantage to this rising colony.

Whilst his excellency thus offers this public tribute of congratulations, he desires to accompany it with expressions of his high sense and approbation of Mr. Oxley’s meritorious services on this occasion; which his excellency will not fail to represent to His Majesty’s ministers, by the earliest opportunity.

The personal assistance and support so cheerfully and beneficially afforded to Mr. Oxley by the gentlemen associated with him on this expedition, demand his excellency’s best acknowledgments, which be is happy thus publicly to request them to accept.

The following letter received from Mr. Oxley on his arrival at Port Stephens, on the 1st of November last, is now published for general information on the interesting subject of this tour.

By his excellency the governor’s command,

J. T. CAMPBELL, Secretary.

Port Stephens, November 1, 1818.


I have the honour to inform your excellency, that I arrived at this port to-day, and circumstances rendering it necessary that Mr. Evans should proceed to Newcastle, I embrace the opportunity to make to your excellency a brief report of the route pursued by the western expedition entrusted to my direction.

My letter, dated the 22nd of June last, will have made your excellency acquainted with the sanguine hopes I entertained, from the appearance of the river, that its termination would be either in interior waters, or coastwise. When I wrote that letter to your excellency, I certainly did not anticipate the possibility, that a very few days farther travelling would lead us to its termination as an accessible river.

On the 28th of June, having traced its course without the smallest diminution or addition, about seventy miles farther to the north-north-west, there being a slight fresh in the river, it overflowed its banks, and although we were at the distance of near three miles from it, the country was so perfectly level that the waters soon spread over the ground on which we were. We had been for some days before travelling over such very low ground, that the people in the boats finding the country flooded, proceeded slowly; a circumstance which enabled me to send them directions to return to the station we had quitted in the morning, where the ground was a little more elevated. This spot being by no means secure, it was arranged that the horses, with the provisions, should return to the last high land we had quitted, a distance of sixteen miles; and as it appeared to me that the body of water in the river was too important to be much affected by the mere overflowing of its waters, I determined to take the large boat, and in her to endeavour to discover their point of discharge.

On the 2nd of July I proceeded in the boat down the river, and in the course of the day went near thirty miles in a north-north-west course, for ten of which there had been, strictly speaking, no land, as the flood made the surrounding country a perfect sea: the banks of the river were heavily timbered, and many large spaces within our view, covered with the common reed, were also encircled by large trees. On the third, the main channel of the river was much contracted but very deep, the banks being under water from a foot to eighteen inches; the stream continued for about twenty miles on the same course as yesterday, when we lost sight of land and trees, the channel of the river winding through reeds, among which the water was about three feet deep, the current having the same direction as the river. It continued in this manner for near four miles more, when, without any previous change in the breadth, depth, and rapidity of the stream, and when I was sanguine in my expectations of soon entering the long-sought-for lake, it all at once eluded our farther pursuit, by spreading at all points from north-west to north-east over the plain of reeds which surrounded us; the river decreasing in depth from upwards of twenty feet to less than five feet, and flowing over a bottom of tenacious blue mud; and the current still running with nearly the same rapidity, as when the water was confined within the banks of the river. This point of junction with interior waters, or where the Macquarie ceased to have the form of a river, is in lat. 30. 45. S., and long. 147. 10. E.

To assert positively that we were on the margin of the lake, or sea, into which this great body of water is discharged, might reasonably be deemed a conclusion that has nothing but conjecture for its basis; but if an opinion may he hazarded from actual appearances, which our subsequent route tended more strongly to confirm, I feel confident we were in the immediate vicinity of an inland sea, most probably a shoal one, and gradually decreasing, or being filled up by the immense depositions from the waters flowing into it from the higher lands, which, on this singular continent, seem not to extend beyond a few hundred miles from the seacoast; as westward of these bounding ranges, (which from the observations I have been enabled to make, appear to me to run parallel to the direction of the coast), there is not a single hill or other eminence discoverable on this apparently boundless space, those isolated points excepted, on which we remained until the 28th of July; the rocks, and stones composing which, are a distinct species from those found on the above ranges.

I trust your excellency will believe, that fully impressed with the great importance of the question, as to the interior formation of this great country, I was anxiously solicitous to remove all ground for farther conjecture, by the most careful observations on the nature of the country; which though it was to me a proof that the interior was covered with water, yet I felt it my duty to leave no measure untried which would in any way tend to a direct elucidation of the fact.

It was physically impracticable to gain the edge of these waters by making a detour round the flooded portion of the country on the south-west side of the river, as we proved it to be a barren wet marsh, overrun with a species of polygonum, and not offering a single dry spot to which our course might be directed; and that there was no probability of finding any in that direction, I had a certain knowledge from the observations made during the former expedition. To circle the flooded country to the north-east yet remained to be tried; and when on the 7th of July I returned to the tents, which I found pitched on the high land before mentioned, and from whence we could see mountains at the distance of eighty miles to the eastward, the country between being a perfect level, Mr. Evans was sent forward to explore the country to the north-east, that being the point on which I purposed to set forward.

On the 18th of July Mr. Evans returned, having been prevented from continuing on a north-east course beyond two day’s journey, by waters running north-easterly through high reeds, and which were most probably those of the Macquarie River; as during his absence it had swelled so considerably as entirely to surround us, coming within a few yards of the tent. Mr. Evans afterwards proceeded more easterly, and, at a distance of fifty miles from the Macquarie River, crossed another much wider but not so deep, running to the north: advancing still more easterly, he went nearly to the base of the mountains seen from the tent, and returning a more southerly route, found the country somewhat drier, but not in the least more elevated.

The discretionary instructions with which your excellency was pleased to furnish me, leaving me at liberty as to the course to be pursued by the expedition on its return to Port Jackson, I determined to attempt making the sea-coast on an easterly course, first proceeding along the base of the high range before mentioned, which I still indulged hopes might lead me to the margin of these, or any other interior waters which this portion of New South Wales might contain; and embracing a low line of coast on which many small openings remained unexamined, at the same time that the knowledge obtained of the country to be encircled, might materially tend to the advantage of the colony, in the event of any communication with the interior being discovered.

We quitted this station on the 30th of July, being in latitude 31. 18. S., and longitude 147. 31. E. on our route for the coast; and on the 8th of August arrived at the lofty range of mountains to which our course had been directed. From the highest point of this range we had the most extended prospect. From south by the west to north, it was one vast level, resembling the ocean in extent, but yet without water being discerned, the range of high land extending to the north-east by north, elevated points of which were distinguished upwards of one hundred and twenty miles.

From this point, in conformity to the resolution I had made on quitting the Macquarie River, I pursued a north-east course; but after encountering numerous difficulties from the country being an entire marsh, interspersed with quicksands, until the 20th of August, and finding I was surrounded by bogs, I was reluctantly compelled to take a more easterly course, having practically proved that the country could not be traversed on any point deviating from the main range of hills which bound the interior; although partial dry portions of level alluvial land extend from their base westerly to a distance which I estimate to exceed one hundred and fifty miles, before it is gradually lost in the waters which I am clearly convinced cover the interior. The alteration in our course more easterly, soon brought us into a very different description of country, forming a remarkable contrast to that which had so long occupied us. Numerous fine streams, running northerly, watered a rich and beautiful country, through which we passed until the 7th of September, when we crossed the meridian of Sydney, as also the most elevated known land in New South Wales, being, then in latitude 31. S. We were afterwards considerably embarrassed and impeded by very lofty mountains. On the 20th of September, we gained the summit of the most elevated mountain in this extensive range, and from it we were gratified with a view of the ocean, at a distance of fifty miles; the country beneath us being formed into an immense triangular valley, the base of which extended along the coast from the Three Brothers on the south, to the high land north of Smoky Cape. We had the farther gratification to find that we were near the source of a large stream running to the sea. On descending the mountain, we followed the course of this river, increased by many accessions, until the 8th of October, when we arrived on the beach near the entrance of the port which received it; having passed over, since the 18th of July, a tract of country near five hundred miles in extent from west to east.

This inlet is situated in lat. 31. 25. 45. S., and long. 162. 53. 54. E., and had been previously noticed by Captain Flinders, but from the distance at which he was necessarily obliged to keep from the coast, he did not discover that it had a navigable entrance; of course our most anxious attention was directed to this important point; and although the want of a boat rendered the examination as to the depth of water in the channel incomplete, yet there appeared to be at low water at least three fathoms, with a safe though narrow entrance between the sand-rollers on either hand. Having ascertained thus far, and that by its means the fine country on the banks, and in the neighbourhood of the river, might be of future service to the colony, I took the liberty to name it Port Macquarie, in honour of your excellency, as the original promoter of the expedition.

On the 12th of October, we quitted Port Macquarie on our course for Sydney; and although no charts can be more accurate in their outline and principal points than those of Captain Flinders, we soon experienced how little the best marine charts can he depended upon, to show all the inlets and openings upon an extensive line of coast. The distance his ship was generally at, from that portion of the coast we had to travel over, did not allow him to perceive openings, which, though doubtless of little consequence to shipping, yet presented the most serious difficulties to travellers by land; and of which, if they had been laid down in the chart, I should have hesitated to have attempted the passage without assistance from the sea-ward: as it is, we are indebted for our preservation, and that of the horses, to the providential discovery of a small boat on the beach, which the men with the most cheerful alacrity carried upwards of ninety miles on their shoulders, thereby enabling us to overcome obstacles, otherwise insurmountable.

Until within these few days, I hoped to have had the satisfaction to report the return of the expedition without accident to any individual composing it; but such is the ferocious treachery of the natives along the coast to the northward, that our utmost circumspection could not save us from having one man (William Blake), severely wounded by them; but by the skillful care bestowed upon him by Dr. Harris, (who accompanied the expedition as a volunteer, and to whom upon this occasion, and throughout the whole course of it, we are indebted for much valuable assistance); I trust his recovery is no longer doubtful.

The general merits of Mr. Evans are so well known to your excellency, that it will here be sufficient to observe, that by his zealous attention to every point that could facilitate the progress of the expedition, he has endeavoured to deserve a continuance of your excellency’s approbation.

Mr. Charles Fraser, the colonial botanist, has added many new species to the already extended catalogue of Australian plants, besides an extensive collection of seeds, etc.; and in the collection, and preservation, he has indefatigably endeavoured to obtain your excellency’s approval of his services.

I confidently hope that the Journal of the expedition will amply evince to your excellency the exemplary and praiseworthy conduct of the men employed on it; and I feel the sincerest pleasure in earnestly soliciting for them your excellency’s favourable consideration.

Respectfully hoping, that on a perusal and inspection of the journals and charts of the expedition, that the course I have penned in the execution of your excellency’s instructions will be honoured by your approbation,

I beg leave to subscribe myself, with the greatest respect,

Your excellency’s most obedient and humble servant,
(Signed), JOHN OXLEY, Surveyor General.
To His Excellency, Governor Macquarie, etc., etc., etc.

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