Leave the depot for the north-west — scarcity of water — fossil limestone — arrive at the first creek — extensive plains — succession of creeks — flooded character of the country — pond with fish — sterile country — grassy plains — intrepid native — country apparently improves — disappointments — water found — appearance of the stony desert — night thereon — the earthy plain — hills raised by refraction — recommencement of the sand ridges — their undeviating regularity — conjectures as to the desert — relative position of Lake Torrens — concluding remarks.
On the morning of the 14th Mr. Browne and I mounted our horses, and left the camp at 9 a.m., followed by the men I had selected, and crossing the grassy plain in a N.W. direction, soon found ourselves amidst sand hills and scrub.
As I have stated I had determined to preserve a course of 45 degrees to the west of north, or in other words a north-west course, but the reader will readily believe that in such a country I had no distant object on which to rely. We were therefore obliged to take fresh bearings with great precision from almost every sand-hill, for on the correctness of these bearings, together with our latitude, we had to depend for our true position. We were indeed like a ship at sea, without the advantage of a steady compass.
Throughout the whole day of our departure from the camp we traversed a better country than that between it and Lake Torrens, insomuch that there was more grass. Sand ridges and flats succeeded each other, but the former were not so broken and precipitous or the latter so barren, as on our line to the westward, and about four miles from the camp we passed a pool of water to our right. At five miles we observed a new melaleuca, similar to the one I had remarked when to the north with Joseph, growing on the skirts of the flats, but the shrubs for the most part consisted of hakea and mimosae with geum and many other minor plants. For a time the ridges were smooth on their sides, and a quantity of young green grass was springing up on them. At nine miles we crossed some stony plains, and halted after a ride of 26 miles without water.
On the 15th a strong and bitterly cold wind blew from the westward as we passed through a country differing in no material respect from that of the day before. Spinifex generally covered the sand ridges, which looked like ocean swells rising before us, and many were of considerable height. At six miles we came to a small pool of water, where we breakfasted. On leaving this we dug a hole and let the remainder of the water into it, in the hope of its longer continuance, and halted after a long journey in a valley in which there was a kind of watercourse with plenty of water, our latitude being 28 degrees 21 minutes 39 seconds. Before we left this place we cut a deep square hole, into which as before we drained the water, that by diminishing its surface we might prevent the too speedy evaporation of it, in case of our being forced back from the want of water in the interior, since that element was becoming more scarce every day. We saw but little change in the character of the country generally as we rode through it, but observed that it was more open to the right, in which direction we passed several extensive plains. There were heaps of small pebbles also of ironstone and quartz on some of the flats we crossed. We halted at the foot of a sand hill, where there was a good deal of grass, after a vain search for water, of which we did not see a drop during the day. The night of the 17th, like the preceding one, was bitterly cold, with the wind at S.W. During the early part of this day we passed over high ridges of sand, thickly covered with spinifex, and a new polygonum, but subsequently crossed some flats of much greater extent than usual, and of much better soil, but the country again fell off in quality and appearance, although on the whole the tract we had crossed on our present journey was certainly better than that we traversed in going to Lake Torrens. We halted rather earlier than usual, at a creek containing a long pond of water between two and three feet deep. The ground near it was barren, if I except the polygonum that was growing near it. The horses however found a sufficiency to eat, and we were prevented the necessity of digging at this point, in consequence of the depth of the water. We observed some fossil limestone cropping out of the ground in several places as we rode along, and the flats were on many parts covered with small rounded nodules of lime, similar to those I have noticed as being strewed over the fossil cliffs of the Murray. It appeared to me as I rode over some of the flats that the drainage was to the south, but it was exceedingly difficult in so level and monotonous a region to form a satisfactory opinion. We saw several emus in the course of the day, and a solitary crow, but scarcely any other of the feathered tribe. There was an universal sameness in the vegetation, if I except the angophora, growing on the sand hills and superseding the acacia.
On the 18th the morning was very cold, with the wind at cast, and a cloudy sky. We started at eight; and after crossing three very high sand ridges, descended into a plain of about three miles in breadth, extending on either hand to the north and south for many miles. At the further extremity of this plain we observed a line of box-trees, lying, or rather stretching, right across our course; but as they were thicker to the S.W. than at the point towards which we were riding, I sent Flood to examine the plain in that direction. In the mean time Mr. Browne and I rode quietly on; and on arriving at the trees, found that they were growing in the broad bed of a creek, and were overhanging a beautiful sheet of water, such as we had not seen for many a day. It was altogether too important a feature to pass without further examination; I therefore crossed, and halted on its west bank, and as soon as Flood returned, (who had not seen any water,) but had ascertained that just below the trees, the creek spreads over the plain, I sent him with Mr. Browne to trace it up northward, the fall of the country apparently being from that point. In the meantime we unloaded the horses, and put them out on better grass than they had had for some time. On the opposite side of the creek, and somewhat above us, there were two huts, and the claws of crayfish were scattered about near them. There were also a few wild fowl and Haemantopus sitting on the water, either unconscious of or indifferent to our presence. This fine sheet of water was more than 60 yards broad by about 120 long, but, as far as we could judge, it was shallow.
Mr. Browne returned to me in about three hours, having traced the creek upwards until he lost its channel, as Flood had done on a large plain, that extended northwards to the horizon. He observed the country was very open in that direction, and had passed another pond of water, deeper but not so large as that at which we had stopped, and surprised an old native in his hut with two of his wives, from whom he learnt that there were both hills and fish to the north.
Whilst Mr. Browne was away, I debated within myself whether or not to turn from the course on which I had been running to trace this creek up. The surface water was so very scarce, that I doubted the possibility of our getting on; but was reluctant to deviate from the line on which I had determined to penetrate, and I think that, generally, one seldom gains anything in so doing. From Mr. Browne’s account of the creek, its character appeared to be doubtful, so that I no longer hesitated on my onward course; but we remained stationary for the remainder of the day.
The evening of this day was beautifully fine, and during it many flights of parrots and pigeons came to the water. Of the latter we shot several, but they were very wild and wary. There was on the opposite side of the creek a long grassy flat, with box-trees growing on it, together with a new Bauhinia, which we saw here for the first time. On this grassy flat there were a number of the water-hens we had noticed on the little fresh-water creek near Lake Torrens. These birds were running about like fowls all over the grass, but although they had been so tame as to occupy the gardens and to run about the streets of Adelaide, they were now wild enough.
Mr. Browne remarked that the females he had seen were, contrary to general custom as regards that sex, deficient in the two front teeth of the upper jaw, but that the teeth of the man were entire, and that he was not otherwise disfigured. I was anxious to have seen these natives, and, as their hut was not very far from us, we walked to it in the cool of the afternoon, but they had left, and apparently gone to the N.E.; we found some mussel shells amongst the embers of some old fire near it. Our latitude at this point was 28 degrees 3 minutes S., at a distance of 86 miles from the Park.
We left on the morning of the 20th at an early hour, and after crossing that portion of the plain lying to the westward, ascended a small conical sand hill, that rose above the otherwise level summit of the ridge. From this little sand hill we had our anticipations confirmed as to the low nature of the country to the north as a medium point, but observing another and a much higher point to the westward, we went to, and found that the view extended to a much greater distance from it. The country was very depressed, both to the north and northwest. The plains had almost the character of lagoons, since it was evident they were sometimes inundated, from the water mark on the sand hills, by which they were partly separated from one another. Below us, on our course, there was a large plain of about eight miles in breadth; but immediately at the foot of the hill, which was very abrupt (being the terminating point of a sandy ridge of which it was the northern extremity), there was a polygonum flat. We there saw a beautiful parrot, but could not procure it. The plain we next rode across was evidently subject to floods in many parts; the soil was a mixture of sand and clay. There was a good deal of grass here and there upon it, and box-trees stunted in their growth were scattered very sparingly round about; but the country was otherwise denuded of timber. There were large bare patches on the plains, that had been full of water not long before, but too shallow to have lasted long, and were now dry. We found several small pools, however, and halted at one, after a journey of 17 miles, near some gum-trees.
The morning of the 20th was exceedingly calm, with the wind from the west, but it had been previously from the opposite point. The channel of the creek was broad, and we traced it to some distance on either hand, but it contained no water, excepting that at which we stopped; but at about two miles before we halted, Mr. Browne found a supply under some gum-trees, a little to the right of our course, where we halted on our return.
The Bauhinia here grew to the height of 16 to 20 feet, and was a very pretty tree; the ends of its branches were covered with seed-pods, both of this and the year before: it was a flat vessel, containing four or six flat hard beans. I regretted, at this early stage of our journey, that the horses were not up to much work, although we were very considerate with them, but the truth is, that they had for about two or three months before leaving the Depot, been living on pulpy vegetables, in which there was no strength, they nevertheless looked in good condition. They had become exceedingly tractable, and never wandered far from our fires; Flood, however, watched them so narrowly that they could not have gone far. Since the three days’ rain in July, the sky was but little clouded, but we now observed, that from whatever quarter the wind blew, a bank of clouds would rise in the opposite direction — if from the east, in the west, and vice versa — but these clouds invariably came against the wind, and must consequently have been moving in an upper current.
On the 20th we commenced our journey early, that is to say, at 6 a.m.; the sky was clear, the temperature mild, and the wind in the S.E. quarter. We crossed plains of still greater extent than any we had hitherto seen; their soil was similar to that on the flats of the Darling, and vegetation seemed to suffer from their liability to inundation. The only trees now to be seen were a few box-trees along their skirts, and on the line of the creeks, which last were a perfectly new feature in the country, and surprised me greatly. The tract we passed over on this day was certainly more subject to overflow than usual. Large flats of polygonum, and plains having rents and fissures in them, succeeded those I have already described. At ten miles we intersected a creek of considerable size, but without any water; just below where we crossed its channel it spreads over a large flat and is lost. Proceeding onwards, at a mile and a half, we ascended a line of sand hills, and from them descended to firmer ground than that on which we had previously travelled. At six miles we struck another creek with a broad and grassy bed, on the banks of which we halted, at a small and muddy pool of water. The trees on this creek were larger than usual and beautifully umbrageous. It appeared as if coming from the N.E., and falling to the N.W. There were many huts both above and below our bivouac, and well-trodden paths from one angle of the creek to the other. All around us, indeed, there were traces of natives, nor can there be any doubt, but that at one season of the year or other, it is frequented by them in great numbers. From a small contiguous elevation our view extended over an apparently interminable plain in the line of our course. That of the creek was marked by gum-trees, and I was not without hopes that we should again have halted on it on the 21st, but we did not, for shortly after we started it turned suddenly to the west, and we were obliged to leave it, and crossed successive plains of a description similar to those we had left behind, but with little or no vegetation upon them. At about five miles we intersected a branch creek coming from the E.N.E., in which there was a large but shallow pool of water. About a mile to the westward of this channel we ascended some hills, in the composition of which there was more clay than sand, and descended from them to a firm and grassy plain of about three and a half miles in breadth. At the farther extremity we crossed a line of sand hills, and at a mile and a half again descended to lower ground, and made for some gum-trees at the western extremity of the succeeding plain, on our old bearing of 55 degrees to the west of north. There we intersected another creek with two pools of water in it, and as there was also a sufficiency of grass we halted on its banks.
The singular and rapid succession of these watercourses exceedingly perplexed me, for we were in a country remote from any high lands, and consequently in one not likely to give birth to such features, yet their existence was a most fortunate circumstance for us. There can be no doubt but that the rain, which enabled us to break up the old Depot and resume our operations, had extended thus far, but all the surface water had dried up, and if we had not found these creeks our progress into the interior would have been checked. In considering their probable origin, it struck me that they might have been formed by the rush of floods from the extensive plains we had lately crossed. The whole country indeed over which we had passed from the first creek, was without doubt very low, and must sometimes be almost entirely under water, but what, it may be asked, causes such inundation? Such indeed was the question I asked myself, but I must say I could arrive at no satisfactory conclusion.
That these regions are subject to heavy rains I had not the slightest doubt, but could the effect of heavy rains have produced these creeks, short and uncertain in their course, rising apparently in one plain, to spread over and terminate in another, for had we gone more to the westward in our course than we did, it is probable we should never have known of the existence of any of them. I was truly thankful that we had thus fallen upon them, and considering how much our further success depended on their continuance, I began to hope that we should find them a permanent feature in the country.
About this period and two or three days previously, we observed a white bank of clouds hanging upon the northern horizon, and extending from N.E. to N.W. No wind affected it, but without in the least altering its shape, which was arched like a bow, it gradually faded away about 3 p.m. Could this bank have been over any inland waters?
At the point to which I have now brought the reader, we were in lat. 27 degrees 38 minutes S., and in long. 140 degrees 10 minutes by account, and here, as I have observed, as in our journey to Lake Torrens, the N.E. winds were invariably cold. On the 22nd we crossed the creek, and traversed a large plain on the opposite side that was bounded in the distance by a line of sand hills. On this plain were portions of ground perfectly flat, raised some 12 or 18 inches above its general level; on these, rhagodia bushes were growing, which in the distance looked like large trees, in consequence of the strong refraction. The lower ground of these plains had little or no vegetation upon it, but bore the appearance of land on which water has lodged and subsided; being hard and baked in some places, but cracked and blistered in others, and against the sides of the higher portions of the plain, a line of sticks and rubbish had been lodged, such as is left by a retiring tide, and from this it seemed that the floods must have been about a foot deep on the plain when it was last inundated. At 4 1/2 miles we reached its western extremity, and ascending the line of sand hills by which it is bounded on that side, dropped down to another plain, and at six miles intersected a creek with a deep broad and grassy bed, but no water. A high row of gum trees marked its course from a point rather from the southward of east to the north-north-west. Crossing to the opposite side we ascended another sand hill by a gradual rise, and again descended to another plain, at the farther extremity of which we could indistinctly see a dark line of trees. Arriving at these after a ride of six miles, we were stopped by another creek. Its banks were too steep for the cart, and we consequently turned northward and traced it downwards for four miles before we found a convenient spot at which to halt. The ground along the creek side was of the most distressing nature; rent to pieces by solar heat, and entangled with polygonum twisted together. We passed several muddy water-holes, and at length stopped at a small clear deep pond. The colour of the water, a light green, at once betrayed its quality; but fortunately for us, though brackish it was still tolerable, much better than the gritty water we had passed. There was however but little vegetation in its neighbourhood, the grass being coarse and wiry. Both on this creek and some others we had passed, we observed that the graves of the natives were made longitudinally from north to south, and not as they usually are from east to west.
The evening we stopped at this place was very fine. We had descended into the bed of the creek, and Mr. Browne and I were reclining on the ground, looking at the little pond, in which the bank above was clearly reflected. On a sudden my companion asked me if I had brought a small hook with me, as he had taken it into his head that there were fish in the pond. Being unable to supply his wants, he got a pin, and soon had a rough kind of apparatus prepared, with which he went to the water; and, having cast in his bait, almost immediately pulled out a white and glittering fish, and held it up to me in triumph. I must confess that I was exceedingly astonished, for the first idea that occurred to my mind was — How could fish get into so isolated a spot? In the water-holes above us no animals of the kind could have lived. How then were we to account for their being where we found them, and for the no less singular phenomenon of brackish waters in the bed of a fresh water creek? These were exceedingly puzzling questions to me at the time, but, as the reader will find, were afterwards explained. Mr. Browne succeeded in taking no less than thirteen fish, and seemed to think that they were identical with the silver perch of the Murray, but they appeared to me to be a deeper and a thinner fish. Although none of them exceeded six inches in length, they were very acceptable to men who were living on five pounds of flour only a-week.
The night we stayed here was very dark, and about 11 p.m. the horses which had been turned down the creek by Flood, rushed violently past our fire, as if they had been suddenly alarmed. They were found at a distance of five miles above us the next morning, but we could never discover why they had taken fright. Their recovery detained us longer than our usual hour, but at nine we mounted, and, crossing the creek at three-quarters of a mile, ascended a hill, connected with several others by sandy valleys, and saw that the creek, a little below where we crossed it, turned to the west. We could trace its course, by the trees on its bank, for several miles. From the hills we descended to a country of a very different character from that which I have been describing. As we overlooked it from the higher ground it was dark, with a snow-white patch of sand in the centre; on traversing it we found that its productions were almost entirely samphire-bushes growing on a salty soil.
The white patch we had seen from a distance was the dry bed of a shallow salt lagoon also fringed round with samphire bushes, and being in our course we crossed it. There was a fine coating of salt on its surface, together with gypsum and clay, as at Lake Torrens. The country for several miles round it was barren beyond description, and small nodules of limestone were scattered over the ground in many places. After leaving the lagoon, which though moist had been sufficiently hard to bear our weight, we passed amidst tortuous and stunted box-trees for about three miles; then crossed the small dry and bare bed of a water-course, that was shaded by trees of better appearance, and almost immediately afterwards found ourselves on the outskirts of extensive and beautifully grassed plains, similar to that on which I had fixed the Depot, and most probably owing, like them, their formation to the overflow of the last, or some other creek we had traced. The character of the country we had previously travelled over being so very bad, the change to the park-like scene now before us was very remarkable. Like the plains at the Depot, they had gum-trees all round them, and a line of the same trees running through their centre.
Entering upon them on a north-west course, we proceeded over the open ground, and saw three dark figures in the distance, who proved to be women gathering seeds. They did not perceive us until we were so near to them that they could not escape, but stood for some time transfixed with amazement. On riding up we dismounted, and asked them by signs where there was any water, to which question they signified most energetically that there was none in the direction we were going, that it was to the west. One of these women had a jet black skin, and long curling glossy ringlets. She seemed indeed almost of a different race, and was, without doubt, a secondary object of consideration with her companions; who, to secure themselves I fancy, intimated to us that we might take her away; this, however, we declined doing. One of the women went on with her occupation of cleaning the grass seeds she had collected, all the time we remained, humming a melancholy dirge. On leaving them, and turning to the point where they said no water was to be found, they exhibited great alarm, and followed us at a distance. Soon after we passed close to some gum-trees and found a small dry channel under a sand hill on the other side, running this down we came suddenly on two bough huts, before which two or three little urchins were playing, who, the moment they saw us, popped into the huts like rabbits. Directly opposite there was a shallow puddle rather than a pool of water, and as Joseph had just met with an accident I was obliged to stop at it. I was really sorry to do so, however, for I knew our horses would exhaust it all during the night, and I was reluctant to rob these poor creatures of so valuable a store, I therefore sent Flood to try if he could find any lower down; but, as he failed, we unsaddled our horses and sat down.
The women who had kept us in sight were then at the huts, to which Mr. Browne and I walked. In addition to the women and children, there was an old man with hair as white as snow. As I have observed, there was a sand hill at the back of the huts, and as we were trying to make ourselves understood by the women a native made his appearance over it; he was painted in all the colours of the rainbow, and armed to the teeth with spear and shield. Great was the surprise and indignation of this warrior on seeing that we had taken possession of his camp and water. He came fearlessly down the hill, and by signs ordered us to depart, threatening to go for his tribe to kill us all, but seeing that his anger only made us smile, he sat down and sulked. I really respected the native’s bravery, and question much if I should have shewn equal spirit in a similar situation. Mr. Browne’s feelings I am sure corresponded with my own, so we got up and left him, with an intention on my part to return when I thought he had cooled down to make him some presents, but when we did so he had departed with all his family, and returned not to the neighbourhood again. We had preserved two or three of the fish, and in the hope of making the women understand us better, produced them, on which they eagerly tried to snatch them from us, but did not succeed. They were evidently anxious to get them to eat, and I mention the fact, though perhaps telling against my generosity on the occasion, to prove how rare such a feast must be to them.
As I had foreseen, our horses finished all the water in the puddle during the night, and we left at seven in the following morning, taking up our usual N.N.W. course, from which, up to this point we had not deviated. We passed for about eight miles through open box-tree forest, with a large grassy flat, backed by sand hills to the right. The country indeed had an appearance of improvement. There was grass under the trees, and the scenery as we rode along was really cheerful. I began to hope we were about to leave behind us the dreary region we had wandered over, and that happier and brighter prospects would soon open out, to reward us for past disappointment. Mr. Browne and I even ventured to express such anticipations to each other as we journeyed onwards. At eight miles however, all our hopes were annihilated. A wall of sand suddenly rose before us, such as we had not before seen; lying as it did directly across our course we had no choice but to ascend. For 20 miles we toiled over as distressing a country as can be imagined, each succeeding sand ridge assumed a steeper and more rugged character, and the horse with difficulty pulled the cart along. At 13 miles we crossed a salt lagoon similar to the one I have described to the S.E. of the plains on which we had last seen the natives, but larger. Near it there was a temporary cessation of the fearful country we had just passed, but it was only temporary, the sand ridges again crossed our path, and at five or seven miles from the lagoon we pulled up for the night in a small confined valley in which there was a little grass, our poor horses sadly jaded and fatigued, and our cart in a very rickety state. We could not well have been in a more trying situation, and as Mr. Browne, and Lewis (one of the men I had with me), went to examine the neighbourhood from a knoll not far off, while there was yet light, I could not but reflect on the singular fatality that had attended us. I had little hope of finding water, and doubted in the event of disappointment whether we should get any of the horses back to the Fish-pond, the nearest water in our rear. Mr. Browne was late in returning to me, but the news he had to communicate dispelled all my fears. He had, he told me, from the summit of the knoll to which he went, observed something glittering in a dark looking valley about three miles to the N.W., and had walked down to ascertain what it was, when to his infinite delight he found that it was a pool of water, covering no small space amongst rocks and stones. It was too late to avail ourselves, however, of this providential discovery; but we were on our way to the place at an early hour. There we broke our fast, and I should have halted for the day to repair the cart, but there was little or no grass in the valley for the horses, so that we moved on after breakfast; but coming at less than a mile to a little grassy valley in which there was likewise water, we stopped, not only to give the animals a day of rest, and to repair the cart, but to examine the country, and to satisfy ourselves as to the nature of the sudden and remarkable change it had undergone. With this view, as soon as the camp was formed, and the men set to repair the cart, Mr. Browne and I walked to the extremity of a sandy ridge that bore N.N.W. from us, and was about two miles distant. On arriving at this point we saw an immense plain, occupying more than one half of the horizon, that is to say, from the south round to the eastward of north. A number of sandy ridges, similar to that on which we stood, abutted upon, and terminated in this plain like so many head lands projecting into the sea. The plain itself was of a dark purple hue, and from the elevated point on which we stood appeared to be perfectly level.
There was a line of low trees far away upon it to the N.E.; and to the north, at a great distance, the sun was shining on the bright point of a sand hill. The plain was otherwise without vegetation, and its horizon was like that of the ocean. In the direction I was about to proceed, nothing was to be seen but the gloomy stone-clad plain, of an extent such as I could not possibly form any just idea. Ignorant of the existence of a similar geographical feature in any other part of the world, I was at a loss to divine its nature. I could not however pause as to what was to be done, but on our return to the party prepared to cross it. I was fully aware, before leaving the old Depot, that as soon as we got a few miles distant from the hills, I should be unable to continue my angles, and should thenceforth have to rely on bearings. So long as we were chaining there was no great fear of miscalculating position; so far then as the second Depot, it would not be difficult for any other traveller to follow my course. From that point, as I have already stated, I ran on a compass bearing of 25 degrees to the west of north, or on a N.N.W. course, and adhered to it up to the point I have now led the reader, a new bearing having been taken on some object still farther in advance from every sand hill we ascended. This appeared to me to be the most satisfactory way of computing our distances and position, for the latitude necessarily correcting both, the amount of error could not be very great. I now found, on this principle, that I was in latitude 27 degrees 4 minutes 40 seconds south, and in longitude, by account, 139 degrees 10 minutes east.
On reaching the cart I learnt that Lewis, while wandering about, had stumbled on a fine sheet of water, in a valley about two miles to the south of us, and that Joseph and Flood had shot a couple of ducks, or I should have said widgeon of the common kind.
On the 26th I directed Flood to keep close under the sandy ridge, to the termination of which Mr. Browne and I had been, and to move into the plain on the original bearing of 25 degrees to the west of north until I should overtake him; Mr. Browne and I then mounted and went to see the water Lewis had discovered, for which we had not had time the previous evening. It was a pretty little sequestered spot surrounded by sand hills, excepting to the N.W. forming a long serpentine canal, apparently deep, and shaded by many gum-trees; there were a numbers of ducks on the water, but too wild to allow us within shot. Both Mr. Browne and I were pleased with the spot, and could not but congratulate ourselves in having such a place to fall back upon, if we should be forced to retreat, as it had all the promise of durability for some weeks to come. We overtook the drays far upon the plains, and continued our journey for twenty miles, when I halted on a bare piece of sandy ground on which there were a few tussocks of grass, and a small puddle of water. On travelling over the plain we found it undulating, with shining hollows in which it was evident water sometimes collects. The stones, with which the ground was so thickly covered as to exclude vegetation, were of different lengths, from one inch to six, they had been rounded by attrition, were coated with oxide of iron, and evenly distributed. In going over this dreary waste the horses left no track, and that of the cart was only visible here and there. From the spot on which we stopped no object of any kind broke the line of the horizon; we were as lonely as a ship at sea, and as a navigator seeking for land, only that we had the disadvantage of an unsteady compass, without any fixed point on which to steer. The fragments covering this singular feature were all of the same kind of rock, indurated or compact quartz, and appeared to me to have had originally the form of parallelograms, resembling both in their size and shape the shivered fragments, lying at the base of the northern ranges, to which I have already had occasion to call attention.
Although the ground on which we slept was not many yards square, and there was little or nothing on it to eat, the poor animals, loose as they were, did not venture to trespass on the adamantine plain by which they were on all sides surrounded.
On the 27th we continued onwards, obliged to keep the course by taking bearings on any prominent though trifling object in front. At ten miles there was a sensible fall of some few feet from the level of the Stony Desert, as I shall henceforth call it, and we descended into a belt of polygonum of about two miles in breadth, that separated it from another feature, apparently of equal extent but of very different character. This was an earthy plain, on which likewise there was no vegetation; resembling in appearance a boundless piece of ploughed land, on which floods had settled and subsided — the earth seemed to have once been mud and then dried. It had been impossible to ascertain the fall or dip of the Stony Desert, but somewhat to the west of our course on the earthy plain there were numerous channels, which as we advanced seemed to be making to a common centre towards the N.E. Here and there a polygonum bush was growing on the edge of the channels; and some of them contained the muddy dregs of what had been pools of water. Over this field of earth we continued to advance almost all day, without knowing whether we were getting still farther into it, or working our way out. About an hour before sunset, this point was settled beyond doubt, by the sudden appearance of some hills over the line of the horizon, raised above their true position by refraction. They bore somewhat to the westward of north, but were too distant for speculation upon their character. It was very clear, however, that there was a termination to the otherwise apparently boundless level on which we were, in that direction, if not in any other. Our view of these hills was but transient, for they gradually faded from sight, and in less than ten minutes had entirely disappeared. Shortly afterwards some trees were seen in front, directly in the line of our course; but, as they were at a great distance, it was near sunset before we reached them; and finding they were growing close to a small channel (of which there were many traversing the plain) containing a little water, we pulled up at them for the night, more especially as just at the same moment the hills, before seen, again became visible, now bearing due north. To scramble up into the box-trees and examine them with our telescopes was but the work of a moment, still it was doubtful whether they were rock or sand. There were dark shadows on their faces, as if produced by cliffs, and anxiously did we look at them so long as they continued above the horizon, but again they disappeared and left us in perplexity. They were, however, much more distinct on the second occasion, and Mr. Browne made out a line of trees, and what he thought was grass on our side of them.
There was not a blade of anything for our horses to eat round about our solitary bivouac, so that we were obliged to fasten them to the trees, only three in number, and to the cart. There was, however, a dark kind of weed growing in the creek, and some half dozen stalks of a white mallow, the latter of which Flood pulled up and gave to the horses, but they partook sparingly of them, and kept gnawing at the bark of the trees all night long.
In reference to our movements on the morrow, it became a matter of imperative necessity to get the poor things to where they could procure some food as soon as possible; I determined, therefore, to make for the hills, whatever they might be, at early dawn. The night was exceedingly cold, the thermometer falling to freezing point. At day-break there was a heavy fog, so we did not mount until half-past six, when the atmosphere was clearer, the fog having in some measure dispersed. We then proceeded, and for the first time since commencing the journey turned from the course 332 degrees, or one of N.N.W. to one due north, allowing 5 degrees for easterly variation. My object was to gain the trees Mr. Browne had noticed, as soon as possible, but did not reach them until a quarter to ten. We then discovered that they lined a long muddy channel, in which was a good deal of water, but not a blade of vegetation anywhere to be seen. I turned back, therefore, to a small sandy rise, whereon we had observed a few tufts of grass, and allowed the animals to pick what they could. At this spot we were about a mile and a half from the hills, which now stood before us, their character fully developed, and whatever hope we might have before encouraged of the probability of a change of country on this side of the desert, was at one glance dispelled. Had these hills been as barren as the wastes over which we had just passed, so as they had been of stone we should have hailed them with joy. But, no! — sandy ridges once more rose up in terrible array against us, although we had left the last full 50 miles behind, even the animals I think regarded them with dismay.
From the little rising ground on which we had stopped, we passed to the opposite side of the creek, which apparently fell to the east, and traversing a bare earthy plain, we soon afterwards found ourselves ascending one of the very hills we had been examining with so much anxiety through a glass the evening before. It was flanked on either side by other hills, that projected into and terminated on this plain, as those we had before seen terminated in the Stony Desert; and they looked, as I believe I have already remarked, like channel head-lands jutting into the sea, and gradually shutting each other out. The one we ascended was partly composed of clay and partly of sand; but the former, protruding in large masses, caused deep shadows to fall on the faces and gave the appearance of a rocky cliff to the whole formation, as viewed from a distance.
Broad and striking as were the features of the landscape over which the eye wandered from the summit of this hill, I have much difficulty in describing them.
Immediately beneath was the low region from which we had just ascended, occupying the line of the horizon from the north-east point, southwards, round to the west. Southward, and for some degrees on either side, a fine dark line met the sky; but to the north-east and south-west was a boundless extent of earthy plain. Here and there a solitary clump of trees appeared, and on the plain, at the distance of a mile to the eastward, were two moving specks, in the shape of native women gathering roots, but they saw us not, neither did we disturb them — their presence indicated that even these gloomy and forbidding regions were not altogether uninhabited.
As the reader will, I have no doubt, remember, the sandy ridges on the S.E. side of the Desert were running at an angle of about 18 degrees to the west of north, having gradually changed from the original direction of about 6 degrees to the eastward of that point. I myself had marked this gradual change with great interest, because it was strongly corroborative of my views as to the course the current I have supposed to have swept over the central parts of the continent must have taken, i. e. a course at right angles to the ridges. It is a remarkable fact that here, on the northern side of the Desert, and after an open interval of more than 50 miles, the same sand ridges should occur, running in parallel lines at the same angle as before, into the very heart of the interior, as if they absolutely were never to terminate. Here, on both sides of us, to the eastward and to the westward, they followed each other like the waves of the sea in endless succession, suddenly terminating as I have already observed on the vast plain into which they ran. What, I will ask, was I to conclude from these facts? — that the winds had formed these remarkable accumulations of sand, as straight as an arrow lying on the ground without a break in them for more than ninety miles at a stretch, and which we had already followed up for hundreds of miles, that is to say across six degrees of latitude? No! winds may indeed have assisted in shaping their outlines, but I cannot think, that these constituted the originating cause of their formation. They exhibit a regularity that water alone could have given, and to water, I believe, they plainly owe their first existence. It struck me then, and calmer reflection confirms the impression, that the whole of the low interior I had traversed was formerly a sea-bed, since raised from its sub-marine position by natural though hidden causes; that when this process of elevation so changed the state of things, as to make a continuous continent of that, which had been an archipelago of islands, a current would have passed across the central parts of it, the direction of which must have been parallel to the sandy ridges, and consequently from east to west, or nearly so — that also being the present dip of the interior, as I shall elsewhere prove. I further think, that the line of the Stony Desert being the lowest part of the interior, the current must there have swept along it with greater force, and have either made the breach in the sandy ridges now occupied by it, or have prevented their formation at the time when, under more favourable circumstances, they were thrown up on either side of it. I do not know if I am sufficiently clear in explanation, finding it difficult to lay down on paper all that crowds my own mind on this subject; neither can I, without destroying the interest my narrative may possess, now bring forward the arguments that gradually developed themselves in support of the foregoing hypothesis.
Although I had been unable to penetrate to the north-west of Lake Torrens, that basin appeared to me to have once formed part of the back waters of Spencer’s Gulf; still I long kept in view the possibility of its being connected with some more central body of water. Having however gained a position so much higher to the north, and almost on the same meridian, and having crossed so remarkable a feature as the Stony Desert (which, as I suppose, was once the focus of a mighty current, to judge from its direction passing to the westward), I no longer encouraged hopes which, if realized, would have been of great advantage to me, or regretted the circumstances by which I was prevented from more fully examining the north-east and northern shores of Lake Torrens. I felt doubtful of the immediate proximity of an inland sea, although many circumstances combined to strengthen the impression on my mind that such a feature existed on the very ground over which we had made our way. I had assuredly put great credit on the statements of the solitary old man who visited the Depot, but his information as far as we could judge had turned out to be false; and I was half angry with myself for having been so credulous, well aware as I was of the exaggerations of the natives, and how little dependence can be placed on what they say.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00