Remarks on the season — dry state of the atmosphere — thermometrical observations — winds in the interior — direction of the ranges — geological observations — non-existence of any central chain — probable course of the stony desert — whether connected with lake torrens — opinions of Captain Flinders — no information derived from the natives — the natives — their personal appearance — disproportion between the sexes — the women — customs of the natives — their habitations — food — language — conclusion.
Having thus brought my narrative to a conclusion I shall trespass but little more on the patience of the reader. It appears to me that a few observations are necessary to clear some parts, and to make up for omissions in the body of my work. I have written it indeed under considerable disadvantage; for although I have in a great measure recovered from the loss of sight consequent on my former services, I cannot glance my eye so rapidly as I once did over such a voluminous document as this journal; and I feel that I owe it to the public, as well as to myself, to make this apology for its imperfections.
There were two great difficulties against which, during the progress of the expedition, I had to contend. The one was, the want of water; the other, the nature of the country. That it was altogether impracticable for wheeled carriages of any kind, may readily be conceived from my description; and in the state in which I found it, horses were evidently unequal to the task. I cannot help thinking that camels might have done better; not only for their indurance, but because they carry more than a horse. I should, undoubtedly, have been led to try those animals if I could have procured them; but that was impossible. Certain however it is, that I went into the interior to meet with trials that scarcely camels could have borne up against; for I think there can be no doubt, from the facts I have detailed, that the season, during which this expedition was undertaken, was one of unusual dryness; but although the arid state of the country contributed so much to prevent its movements, I question whether, under opposite circumstances, it would have been possible to have pushed so far as the party succeeded in doing. Certainly, if the ground had been kept in a state of constant saturation, travelling would have been out of the question; for the rain of July abundantly proved how impracticable any attempt to penetrate it under such circumstances would have been.
It is difficult to say what kind of seasons prevail in Central Australia. That low region does not, as far as I can judge, appear to be influenced by tropical rains, but rather to be subject to sudden falls. That the continent of Australia was at one time more humid than it now is, appears to be an admitted fact; the marks of floods, and the violence of torrents (none of which have been witnessed), are mentioned by every explorer as traceable over every part of the continent; but no instance of any general inundation is on record: on the contrary the seasons appear to be getting drier and drier every year, and the slowness with which any body exposed to the air decomposes, would argue the extreme absence of moisture in the atmosphere. It will be remembered that one of my bullocks died in the Pine Forest when I was passing through it in December, 1844. In July, 1845, when Mr. Piesse was on his route home from the Depot in charge of the home returning party, he passed by the spot where this animal had fallen; and, in elucidation of what I have stated, I will here give the extract of a letter I subsequently received from him from India. Speaking of the humidity of the climate of Bengal, he says: “It appears to me that heat alone is rather a preservative from decomposition; of which I recollect an instance, in the bullock that died in the march through the Pine scrub on the 1st of January, 1845. When I passed by the spot in the following July, the carcase was dried up like a mummy, and was in such a perfect state of preservation as to be easily recognised.”
No stronger proof, I apprehend, could have been adduced of the dryness of the atmosphere in that part of the interior, or more corroborative of the intensity of heat there during the interval referred to; but the singular and unusual effects it had on ourselves, and on every thing around was equally corroborative of the fact. The atmosphere on some occasions was so rarified, that we felt a difficulty in breathing, and a buzzing sensation on the crown of the head, as if a hot iron had been there.
There were only two occasions on which the thermometer was noticed to exceed the range of 130 degrees in the shade, the solar intensity at the same time being nearly 160 degrees. The extremes between this last and our winter’s cold, when the thermometer descended to 24 degrees was 133 degrees. I observe that Sir Thomas Mitchell gives the temperature at the Bogan, in his tent at 117 degrees and when exposed to the wind at 129 degrees; but I presume that local causes, such as radiation from stones and sand, operated more powerfully with us than in his case. Whilst we were at the Depot about May, the water of the creek became slightly putrid, and cleared itself like Thames water; and during the hotter months of our stay there, it evaporated at the rate of nearly an inch a day, as shewn by a rod Mr. Browne placed in it to note the changes, but the amount varied according to the quiescent or boisterous state of the atmosphere. It will readily be believed that in so heated a region the air was seldom still; to the currents sweeping over it we had to attribute the loathsome and muddy state of the water on which we generally subsisted after we left that place, for the pools from which we took it were so shallow as to be stirred up to the consistency of white-wash by the play and action of the wind on their surfaces. During our stay at the Depot the barometer never rose above 30.260, or fell below 29.540.
From December, 1844, to the end of April of the following year, the prevailing winds were from E.N.E. to E.S.E., after that month they were variable, but westerly winds predominated. The south wind was always cold, and its approach was invariably indicated by the rise of the barometer.
The rain of July commenced in the north-east quarter and gradually went round to the north-west; but more clouds rose from the former point than from any other. The sky generally speaking was without a speck, and the dazzling brightness of the moon was one of the most distressing things we had to endure when out in the bush. It was impossible indeed to shut out its light which ever way one turned, and its irritating effects were remarkable.
It will be observable to those who cast their eyes over the chart of South Australia that the range of mountains between St. Vincent’s Gulf and the Murray river runs up northwards into the interior. In like manner the ranges crossed by the Expedition also ran in the same direction. The Black Rock Hill, so named by Captain Frome, is in lat. 32 degrees 45 minutes and in the 139th meridian, and is the easternmost of the chain to which it belongs. Mount Gipps on the Coonbaralba range is in lat. 31 degrees 52 minutes and in long. 141 degrees 41 minutes, but from that point the ranges trend somewhat to the westward of south, and consequently, may run nearer to that (of which the Black Rock Hill forms so prominent a feature) than we may suppose, but there is a distance of nearly 150 miles of country still remaining to be explored, before this point can be decided. Nevertheless, it is more than probable the two chains are in some measure connected, especially as they greatly resemble each other in their classification. They are for the most part composed of primary igneous rocks, amongst which there is a general distribution of iron, and perhaps of other metals. The iron ore, however, that was discovered during the progress of the Expedition, of which Piesse’s Knob is a remarkable specimen, was of the purest kind.
It was, as has been found in South Australia, a surface deposit, protruding or cropping out of the ground in immense clean blocks. This ore was highly magnetic; the veins of the metal run north and south, the direction of the ranges, as did a similar crop on the plains at the S.E. base of the ranges. Generally speaking there was nothing bold or picturesque in the scenery of the Barrier Range, but the Rocky Glen and some few others of a similar description were exceptions. As the Barrier Range ran parallel to the coast ranges, so there were other ranges to the eastward of the Barrier Range, running parallel to it, and they were separated by broad plains, partly open and partly covered with brush. The general elevation of the ranges was about 1200 feet above the level of the sea, but some of the hills exceeded 1600. Mount Lyell was 2000; Mount Gipps 1500; Lewis’s Hill 1000: but the general elevation of the range might be rather under than over what I have stated. It appears to me that the whole of the geological formation of this portion of the continent is the same, and that all the lines of ranges terminate in the same kind of way to the north, that is to say, in detached flat-topped hills of compact or indurated quartz shewing white and abrupt faces. So terminated the Coonbaralba Range, and so Mr. Eyre tells us did the Mount Serle Range, and so terminated the range we saw to the westward of Lake Torrens.
That they exhibit evidences of a past violent commotion of waters, I think any one who will follow my steps and view them, will be ready to admit.
That the range of hills I have called “Stanley’s Barrier Range,” and that all the mountain chains to the eastward and westward of it, were once so many islands I have not the slightest doubt, and that during the primeval period, a sea covered the deserts over which I wandered; but it is impossible for a writer, whatever powers of description he may have, to transfer to the minds of his readers the same vivid impressions his own may have received, on a view of any external object.
From the remarks into which I have thus been led, as well as those which have escaped me in the course of this narrative, it will be seen that the impressions I had received as to the past and present state of the continent were rather strengthened than diminished, on my further knowledge of its internal structure.
It is true, that I did not find an inland sea as I certainly expected to have done, but the country as a desert was what I had anticipated, although I could not have supposed it would have proved of such boundless extent.
Viewing the objects for which the Expedition was equipped, and its results, there can, I think, be no doubt, as to the non-existence of any mountain ranges in the interior of Australia, but, on the contrary, that its central regions are nearly if not quite on a sea level, and that the north coast is separated from the south as effectually as if seas rolled between them. I have stated my opinion that that portion of the desert which I tried to cross continues with undiminished breadth to the Great Australian Bight, and I agree with Captain Flinders, in supposing that if an inland sea exists any where, it exists underneath and behind that bank, (speaking from seaward). It would, I think, be unreasonable to suppose that such an immense tract of sandy desert, once undoubtedly a sea-bed, should immediately contract; considering, indeed, the sterile character of the country to the north of Gawler’s Range, to the westward of Port Lincoln, and along the whole of the south coast of Australia, nearly to King George’s Sound, I must confess I have no hope of any inland fertile country. I am aware it is the opinion of some of my friends that the Stony Desert may communicate with Lake Torrens. Such may have been and still may be the case — I will not argue the contrary, or answer for the changes in so extraordinary a region. I only state my own ideas from what I observed, strengthened by my view of the position I occupied, when at my farthest north; we will therefore refer to that position, and to the position of Lake Torrens, and see how far it is probable, that a large channel, such as I have described the Stony Dessert to be, should turn so abruptly, as it must do to connect itself with that basin; the evident fall of the interior, as far as that fact could be ascertained, being plainly from east to west.
The western shore of Lake Torrens, as laid down by Mr. Eyre, is in 137 degrees 40 minutes or thereabouts. Its eastern shore in 141 degrees of longitude. Its southern extremity being in lat. 28 1/2 degrees. My position was in 138 degrees of long. and 24 degrees 40 minutes of latitude. I was therefore within 20 miles as far to the westward of the westernmost part of Lake Torrens, and was also 250 geographical miles due north of it. To gain Lake Torrens, the Stony Desert must turn at a right angle from its known course, and in such case hills must exist to the westward of where I was, for hills alone could so change the direction of a current, but the whole aspect of the interior would argue against such a conclusion. I never lost sight of the probability of Lake Torrens being connected with some central feature, until my hopes were destroyed by the nature of the country I traversed, nor do I think it probable that in so level a region as that in which I left it, there is any likelihood of the Stony Desert changing its direction so much as to form any connection with the sandy basin to which I have alluded. Nevertheless it may do so. We naturally cling to the ideas we ourselves have adopted, and it is difficult to transfer them to the mind of another. In reference however to what I had previously stated, I would give the following quotation from Flinders. His impressions from what he observed while sailing along the coast, in a great measure correspond with mine when travelling inland, the only point we differ upon is as to the probable origin of the great sea-wall, which appeared to him to be of calcareous formation, and he therefore concluded that it had been a coral reef raised by some convulsion of nature. Had Capt. Flinders been able to examine the rock formation of the Great Australian Bight, he would have found that it was for the most part an oolitic limestone, with many shells imbedded in it, similar in substance and in formation to the fossil bed of the Murray, but differing from it in colour.
“The length of these cliffs from their second commencement is 33 leagues, and that of the level bank from New Cape Paisley, where it was first seen from the sea, no less than 145 leagues. The height of this extraordinary bank is nearly the same throughout, being nowhere less by estimation than 400 feet, not anywhere more than 600. In the first 20 leagues the rugged tops of some inland mountains were visible over it, but during the remainder of its long course, the bank was the limit of our view.
“This equality of elevation for so great an extent, and the evidently calcareous nature of the bank, at least in the upper 200 feet, would bespeak it to have been the exterior line of some vast coral reef, which is always more elevated than the interior parts, and commonly level with high water mark. From the gradual subsiding of the sea, or perhaps from some convulsion of nature, this bank may have attained its present height above the surface, and however extraordinary such a change may appear, yet when it is recollected that branches of coral still exist, upon Bald Head, at the elevation of 400 feet or more, this supposition assumes a degree of probability, and it would farther seem that the subsiding of the waters has not been at a period very remote, since these frail branches have yet neither been all beaten down nor mouldered away by the wind and weather.
“If this supposition be well founded, it may with the fact of no other hill or object having been perceived above the bank in the greater part of its course, assist in forming some conjecture as to what may be within it, which cannot as I judge in such case, be other than flat sandy plains or water. The bank may even be a narrow barrier between an interior and the exterior sea, and much do I regret the not having formed an idea of this probability at the time, for notwithstanding the great difficulty and risk, I should certainly have attempted a landing upon some part of the coast, to ascertain a fact of so much importance.”
Had there been any inland ranges they would have been seen by that searching officer from the ocean, but it is clear that none exists; for Mr. Eyre in his intercourse with the natives, during his journey from South Australia to King George’s Sound, elicited nothing from them that led him to suppose that there were any hills in the interior, or indeed that an inland sea was to be found there; even the existence of one may reasonably be doubted, and it may be that the country behind the Great Australian Bight is, as Captain Flinders has conjectured, a low sandy country, formed by a channel of 400 or 500 miles in breadth, separating the south coast of the continent from the west and north ones. Although I did not gain the direct centre of the continent there can be very little doubt as to the character of the country round it. The spirit of enterprise alone will now ever lead any man to gain it, but the gradual development of the character of the yet unexplored interior will alone put an end to doubts and theories on the subject. The desert of Australia is not more extensive than the deserts in other parts of the world. Its character constitutes its peculiarity, and that may lead to some satisfactory conclusion as to how it was formed, and by what agent the sandy ridges which traverse it were thrown up. I would repeat that I am diffident of my own judgment, and that I should be indebted to any one better acquainted with the nature of these things than I am to point out wherein I am in error.
It remains for me, before I close this part of my work, to make a few observations on the natives with whom we communicated beyond the river tribes. Mr. Eyre has given so full and so accurate an account of the natives of the Murray and Darling that it is needless for me to repeat his observations. I would only remark that I attribute our friendly intercourse with them to the great influence he had gained over them by his judicious conduct as Resident Protector at the Murray. I fully concur with him in the good that resulted from the establishment of a post on that river, for the express pur pose of putting a stop to the mutual aggression of the overlanders and natives upon each other. I have received too many kindnesses at the hands of the natives not to be interested in their social welfare, and most fully approved the wise policy of Captain Grey, in sending Mr. Eyre to a place where his exertions were so eminently successful.
In another place I may be led to make some remarks on the condition of the natives of South Australia, but at present I have only to observe upon that of the natives of the distant interior with whom no white man had ever before come in contact.
If I except the tribe upon Cooper’s Creek, on which they are numerous, the natives are but thinly scattered over the interior, as far as our range extended. The few families wandering over those gloomy regions may scarcely exceed one hundred souls. They are a feeble and diminutive race when compared to the river tribes, but they have evidently sprung from the same parent stock, and local circumstances may satisfactorily and clearly account for physical differences of appearance. Like the tribes of the Darling and the Murray, and indeed like the aborigines of the whole continent, they have the quick and deep set eye, the rapidly retiring forehead, and the great enlargement of the frontal sinus, the flat nose and the thick lip. It is quite true that many have not the depression of the head so great, but in such cases I think an unusual proportion of the brain lies behind the ear. In addition, however, to the above physiognomical resemblances, they have the same disproportion between the upper region of the body and the lower extremities, the same prominent chest, and the same want of muscular development, and in common with all the natives I have seen, their beards are strong and stand out from the chin, and their hair the finest ornament they possess, only that they destroy its natural beauty by filth and neglect, is both straight and curly. Their skins are nearly of the same hue; nor did we see any great difference, excepting in one woman, whose skin was of a jet black. Two young women, however, were noticed who had beautiful glossy ringlets, of which they appeared to be exceedingly proud, and kept clean, as if they knew their value. Both Mr. Browne and myself observed a great disparity of numbers in the male and female children, there being an excess of the latter of nearly two to one, and in some instances of a still greater disproportion.
This fact was also obvious both to Mr. Stuart and myself in the tribe on Cooper’s Creek, in which the number of female children greatly exceeded that of the male, though there were more adult men than women. The personal appearance of the men of this tribe, as I have already stated, was exceedingly prepossessing — they were well made and tall, and notwithstanding that my long-legged friend was an ugly fellow, were generally good looking. Their children in like manner were in good condition and appeared to be larger than I had remarked elsewhere, but with the women no improvement was to be seen. Thin, half-starved and emaciated they were still made to bear the burden of the work, and while the men were lounging about their fires, and were laughing and talking, the women were ceaselessly hammering and pounding to prepare that meat, of which, from their appearance, so small a proportion fell to their share. As regards the treatment of their women, however, I think I have observed that they are subjected to harsher treatment when they are members of a large tribe than when fewer are congregated together. Both parents are very fond of and indulgent to their children, and there is no surer way of gaining the assistance of the father, or of making a favourable impression on a tribe than by noticing the children.
I think that generally speaking the native women seldom have more than four children, or if they have, few above that number arrive at the age of puberty. There are, however, several reasons why the women are not more prolific; the principal of which is that they suckle their young for such a length of time, and so severe a task is it with them to rear their offspring that the child is frequently destroyed at its birth; and however revolting to us such a custom may be, it is now too notorious a fact to be disputed.
The voices of the natives, generally speaking, are soft, especially those of the women. They are also a merry people and sit up laughing and talking all night long. It is this habit, and the stars so constantly passing before their eyes, which enables them to know when they are likely to have rain or cold weather, as they will point to any star and tell you that when it shall get up higher then the weather will be cold or hot.
These primitive people have peculiar customs and ceremonies in their intercourse with strangers, and on first meeting preserve a most painful silence; whether this arises from diffidence or some other feeling it is difficult to say, but it is exceedingly awkward; but, however awkward or embarrassing it may be, there can be no doubt as to the policy and necessity of respecting it. The natives certainly do not allow strangers to pass through their territory without permission first obtained, and their passions and fears are both excited when suddenly intruded upon. To my early observation of this fact, and to my forbearing any forced interview, but giving them time to recover from the surprise into which my presence had thrown them, I attribute my success in avoiding any hostile collision. I am sure, indeed, whatever instances of violence and murder may be recorded of them, they are naturally a mild and inoffensive people.
It is a remarkable fact that we seldom or ever saw weapons in the hands of any of the natives of the interior, such as we did see were similar to those ordinarily used by natives of other parts of the continent. Their implements were simple and rude, and consisted chiefly of troughs for holding water or seeds, rush bags, skins, stones, etc. The native habitations, at all events those of the natives of the interior, with the exception of the Cooper’s Creek tribe, had huts of a much more solid construction than those of the natives of the Murray or the Darling, although some of their huts were substantially built also. Those of the interior natives however were made of strong boughs with a thick coating of clay over leaves and grass. They were entirely impervious to wind and rain, and were really comfortable, being evidently erections of a permanent kind to which the inhabitants frequently returned. Where there were villages these huts were built in rows, the front of one hut being at the back of the other, and it appeared to be a singular but universal custom to erect a smaller hut at no great distance from the large ones, but we were unable to detect for what purpose they were made, unless it was to deposit their seeds; as they were too small even for children to inhabit. At the little hut to the north of the ranges, from which the reader will recollect we twice frightened away a poor native, we found a very large spear, apparently for a canoe, which I brought to the camp. This spear could not possibly have been used as a weapon, for it was too heavy, but on shewing it subsequently to some natives, they did not intimate that it was a canoe spear.
It may be thought that having been in the interior for so many months I ought to have become acquainted with many of the customs and habits of the people inhabiting it, but it will have been seen that they seldom came near us.
The custom of circumcision generally prevailed, excepting with the Cooper’s Creek tribe, but you would meet with a tribe with which that custom did not prevail, between two with which it did.
As regards their food, it varies with the season. That which they appeared to me to use in the greatest abundance were seeds of various kinds, as of grasses of several sorts, of the mesembryanthemum, of the acacia and of the box-tree; of roots and herbs, of caterpillars and moths, of lizards and snakes, but of these there are very few. Besides these they sometimes take the emu and kangaroo, but they are never so plentiful as to constitute a principal article of food. They take ducks when the rains favour their frequenting the creeks and lagoons, exactly as the natives of other parts of Australia do, with nets stuck up to long poles, and must procure a sufficiency of birds during the summer season. They also wander among the sand ridges immediately after a fall of rain, to hunt the jerboa and talperoo, (see Nat. Hist.,) of which they procure vast supplies; but all these sports are temporary, particularly the latter, as the moment the puddles dry up the natives are forced to retreat and fall back on previous means of subsistence.
With regard to their language, it differed in different localities, though all had words common to each respectively. My friend Mr. Eyre states, that they have not any generic name for anything, as tree, fish, bird; but in this, as far as the fish goes, I think he is mistaken, for the old man who visited our camp before the rains, and who so much raised our hopes, certainly gave them a generic name; for placing his fingers on such fish as he recognised, he distinctly mentioned their specific name, but when he put his fingers on such as he did not recognise, he said “Guia, Guia, Guia,” successively after each, evidently intending to include them under the one name. With respect to their religious impressions, if I may so call them, I believe they have none. The only impression they have is of an evil spirit, but however melancholy the fact, it is no less true that the aborigines of Australia have no idea of a superintending Providence.
In conclusion: I have spoken of Mr. Browne and Mr. Piesse throughout my narrative, in terms such as I feel they deserved. I should be sorry to close its pages without also recording the valuable and cheerful assistance I received from Mr. Stuart, whose zeal and spirit were equally conspicuous, and whose labour at the charts did him great credit. To Flood I was indebted for having my horses in a state fit for service, than whom as a person in charge of stock, I could not have had a better; and I cannot but speak well of all the men in their respective capacities, as having always displayed a willingness to bear with me, when ever I called on them to do so, the fatigues and exposure incidental to such a service as that on which I was employed.
Before closing my narrative I would make a few observations on the conduct of such an Expedition as the one the details of which I have just been giving.
It appears to me then that discipline is the first and principal point to be considered on such occasions; unless indeed the leader be implicitly obeyed it is impossible that matters should go on regularly. For this reason it is objectionable to associate any irresponsible person in such an undertaking. When I engaged the men who were to accompany me, I made them sign an agreement, giving me power to diminish or increase the rations, and binding themselves not only to the performance of any particular duty, but to do everything in their power to promote the success of the service in which they were engaged, under the penalty of forfeiture of wages, in whole or part as I should determine. I deemed it absolutely necessary to arm myself with powers with which I could restrain my men even in the Desert, before I left the haunts of civilized man, although I never put these powers in force — and this appears to me to be a necessary precaution on all such occasions. Equally necessary is the establishment of a guard at night, for it is impossible to calculate on the presence of natives — they may be close at hand, when none have been seen or heard during the day. Had Dr. Leichhardt adopted this precaution his camp would not have been surprised, nor would he have lost a valuable companion. Equally necessary is it to keep the stock, whether horses or bullocks, constantly within view. In all situations where I thought it probable they might wander I had them watched all night long. Unless due precaution however is used to ensure their being at hand when wanted, they are sure to wander and give ceaseless trouble.
As regards the consumption of provisions, I had both a weekly and a monthly statement of issues. In addition to this they were weighed monthly and their loss ascertained, and their consumption regulated accordingly, and I must say that I never found that the men were disposed to object to any reasonable reduction I made. I found the sheep I took with me were admirable stock, but I was always aware that an unforeseen accident might deprive me of them, and indeed they called for more watchful care even than the other stock. The men at the Depot were never without their full allowance of mutton. It was only the parties out on distant and separate services who were reduced to an allowance scarcely sufficient to do their work upon.
The attention of a Leader is no less called to all these minutiae than his eye and judgment to the nature of the country in which he may happen to be. I would observe that in searching for water along the dry channel of a creek, he should watch for the slightest appearance of a creek junction, for water is more frequently found in these lateral branches, however small they may at first appear to be, than in the main creek itself, and I would certainly recommend a close examination of them. The explorer will ever find the gum-tree in the neighbour hood of water, and if he should ever traverse such a country as that into which I went, and should discover creeks as I did losing themselves on plains, he should never despair of recovering their channels again. They invariably terminate in grassy plains, and until he sees such before him he may rest assured that their course continues. Should the traveller be in a country in which water is scarce it will be better for him to stop at any he may find, although early in the day, than to go on in the chance of being without all night, and so entailing fatigue on his men.
I trust that what I have said of the natives renders it unnecessary for me to add anything as to the caution and forbearance required in communicating with them. Kindness gains much on them, and their friendly disposition eases the mind of a load of anxiety — for however confident the Leader may be, it is impossible to divest the minds of the men of apprehension when in the presence of hostile natives. He who shall have perused these pages will have learnt that under whatever difficulties he may be placed, that although his last hope is almost extinguished, he should never despair. I have recorded instances enough of the watchful superintendence of that Providence over me and my party, without whose guidance we should have perished, nor can I more appropriately close these humble sheets, than by such an acknowledgment, and expressing my fervent thanks to Almighty God for the mercies vouchsafed to me during the trying and doubtful service on which I was employed.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00