State of the Colony in 1828-29 — Objects of the Expedition — Departure from Sydney — Wellington Valley — Progress down the Macquarie — Arrival at Mount Harris — Stopped by the marshes — Encamp amidst reeds — Excursions down the river — Its termination — Appearance of the marshes — Opthalmic affection of the men — Mr. Hume’s successful journey to the northward — Journey across the plain — Second great marsh — Perplexities — Situation of the exploring party — Consequent resolutions.
The year 1826 was remarkable for the commencement of one of those fearful droughts to which we have reason to believe the climate of New South Wales is periodically subject. It continued during the two following years with unabated severity. The surface of the earth became so parched up that minor vegetation ceased upon it. Culinary herbs were raised with difficulty, and crops failed even in the most favourable situations. Settlers drove their flocks and herds to distant tracts for pasture and water, neither remaining for them in the located districts. The interior suffered equally with the coast, and men, at length, began to despond under so alarming a visitation. It almost appeared as if the Australian sky were never again to be traversed by a cloud.
But, however severe for the colony the seasons had proved, or were likely to prove, it was borne in mind at this critical moment, that the wet and swampy state of the interior had alone prevented Mr. Oxley from penetrating further into it, in 1818. Each successive report from Wellington Valley, the most distant settlement to the N. W., confirmed the news of the unusually dry state of the lowlands, and of the exhausted appearance of the streams falling into them. It was, consequently, hoped that an expedition, pursuing the line of the Macquarie, would have a greater chance of success than the late Surveyor General had; and that the difficulties he had to contend against would be found to be greatly diminished, if not altogether removed. The immediate fitting out of an expedition was therefore decided upon, for the express purpose of ascertaining the nature and extent of that basin into which the Macquarie was supposed to fall, and whether any connection existed between it and the streams falling westerly. As I had early taken a great interest in the geography of New South Wales, the Governor was pleased to appoint me to the command of this expedition.
In the month of September, 1828, I received his Excellency’s commands to prepare for my journey; and by the commencement of November, had organised my party, and completed the necessary arrangements. On the 9th of that month, I waited on the Governor, at Parramatta, to receive his definitive instructions. As the establishments at Sydney had been unable to supply me with the necessary number of horses and oxen, instructions had been forwarded to Mr. Maxwell, the superintendent of Wellington Valley, to train a certain number for my use; and I was now directed to push for that settlement without loss of time. I returned to Sydney in the afternoon of the 9th, and on the 10th took leave of my brother officers, to commence a journey of very dubious issue; and, in company with my friend, Staff-surgeon M’Leod, who had obtained permission to accompany me to the limits of the colony, followed my men along the great western road. We moved leisurely over the level country, between the coast and the Nepean River, and availed ourselves of the kind hospitality of those of our friends whose property lay along that line of road, to secure more comfortable places of rest than the inns would have afforded.
We reached Sheane, the residence of Dr. Harris, on the 11th, and were received by him with the characteristic kindness with which friends or strangers are ever welcomed by that gentleman, He had accompanied Mr. Oxley as a volunteer in 1818, and his name was then given to the mount which formed the extreme point to which the main body of the first expedition down the banks of the Macquarie penetrated, in a westerly direction.
The general appearance of the property of Dr. Harris, showed how much perseverance and labour had effected towards its improvement. Many acres of ground bore a promising crop, over which a gloomy forest had once waved. The Doctor’s farming establishment was as complete as his husbandry seemed to be prosperous; but he did not appear to be satisfied with the extent of his dwelling, to which he was making considerable additions, although I should have thought it large enough for all ordinary purposes of residence or hospitality. The rewards of successful industry were everywhere visible.
On the 13th, we gained Regent’s Ville, the more splendid mansion of Sir John Jamieson, which overlooks the Nepean River, and commands the most beautiful and extensive views of the Blue Mountains. Crossing the ford on the 14th, we overtook the men as they were toiling up the first ascent of those rugged bulwarks, which certainly gave no favourable earnest of the road before us; and, as we could scarcely hope to reach the level country to the westward without the occurrence of some accident, I determined to keep near the drays, that I might be on hand should my presence be required. We gained O’Connell’s plains on the 20th November, and arrived at Bathurst on the 22nd, with no other damage than the loss of one of the props supporting the boat which snapped in two as we descended Mount York. On examination, it was found that the boat had also received a slight contusion, but it admitted of easy repair.
I was detained at Bathurst longer than I intended, in consequence of indisposition, and during my stay there experienced many proofs of the kind hospitality of the settlers of that promising district: nor was I ever more impressed with the importance of the service upon which I was employed, or more anxious as to the issue, than while contemplating the rapid advance of agriculture upon its plains, and the formidable bar to its prosperity which I had left behind me, in the dark and gloomy ranges which I had crossed.
On the 27th, Mr. Hamilton Hume, whose experience well qualified him for the task, and who had been associated with me in the expedition, having joined me, we proceeded on our journey, and reached Wellington Valley about the end of the month.
I wished to push into the interior without any delay, or at least, so soon as we should have completed our arrangements and organized the party; but, although Mr. Maxwell had paid every attention to the training of the cattle, he was of opinion that they could not yet be wholly relied upon, and strongly recommended that they should be kept at practice for another week. As we could not have left the settlement under the most favourable circumstances in less than four days, the further delay attendant on this measure was considered immaterial, and it was, accordingly, determined upon. Mr. Hume undertook to superintend the training of the animals, and this left me at leisure to gather such information as would be of use to us in our progress down the river.
In his description of Wellington Valley, Mr. Oxley has not done it more than justice. It is certainly a beautiful and fertile spot, and it was now abundant in pasturage, notwithstanding the unfavourable season that had passed over it.
The settlement stands upon the right bank of the Bell, about two miles above the junction of that stream with the Macquarie. Its whitewashed buildings bore outward testimony to the cleanliness and regularity of the inhabitants; and the respectful conduct of the prisoners under his charge, showed that Mr. Maxwell had maintained that discipline by which alone he could have secured respect to himself and success to his exertions, at such a distance from the seat of government.
The weather was so exceedingly hot, during our stay, that it was impossible to take exercise at noon; but in the evening, or at an early hour in the morning, we were enabled to make short excursions in the neighbourhood.
Mr. Maxwell informed me that there were three stations below the settlement, the first of which, called Gobawlin, belonging to Mr. Wylde, was not more than five miles from it; the other two, occupied by Mr. Palmer, were at a greater distance, one being nineteen, the other thirty-four miles below the junction of the Bell. He was good enough to send for the stockman (or chief herdsman), in charge of the last, to give me such information of the nature of the country below him, as he could furnish from personal knowledge or from the accounts of the natives.
Mr. Maxwell pointed out to me the spot on which Mr. Oxley’s boats had been built, close upon the bank of the Macquarie; and I could not but reflect with some degree of apprehension on the singularly diminished state of the river from what it must then have been to allow a boat to pass down it. Instead of a broad stream and a rapid current, the stream was confined to a narrow space in the centre of the channel, and it ran so feebly amidst frequent shallows that it was often scarcely perceptible. The Bell, also, which Mr. Oxley describes as dashing and rippling along its pebbly bed, had ceased to flow, and consisted merely of a chain of ponds.
On the 3rd of Dec, the stockman from below arrived; but the only information we gathered from him was the existence of a lake to the left of the river, about three days’ journey below the run of his herds, on the banks of which he assured us, the native companions, a species of stork, stood in rows like companies of soldiers.
He brought up a nest of small paroquets of the most beautiful plumage, as a present to Mr. Maxwell, and affirmed that they were common about his part of the river. The peculiarity of the seasons had also brought a parrot into the valley which had never before visited it. This delicate bird was noticed by Captain Cook upon the coast, and is called PSITTACUS NOVAE HOLLANDIAE, or New Holland Parrot, by Mr. Brown. It had not, however, been subsequently seen until the summer of 1828, when it made its appearance at Wellington Valley in considerable numbers, together with a species of merops or mountain bee-eater.
On the 5th, our preparations being wholly completed, and the loads arranged, the party was mustered, and was found to consist of myself and Mr. Hume, two soldiers and eight prisoners of the crown, two of whom were to return with dispatches. Our animals numbered two riding, and seven pack, horses, two draft, and eight pack, bullocks, exclusive of two horses of my own, and two for the men to be sent back.
The morning of the 7th December, the day upon which we were to leave the valley, was ushered in by a cloudless sky, and that heated appearance in the atmosphere which foretells an oppressively sultry day. I therefore put off the moment of our departure to the evening, and determined to proceed no further than Gobawlin. I was the more readily induced to order this short journey because the animals had not been practised to their full loads, and I thought they might have given some trouble at starting with an unusual weight. They moved off however very quietly, and as if they had been accustomed to their work by a long course of training. We took our departure from the settlement at 3 p.m. and, crossing to the right bank of the Macquarie, a little above its junction with the Bell, reached Mr Wylde’s station about half-past five. Thus we commenced our journey under circumstances as favorable as could have been wished. In disengaging ourselves on the following day from the hills by which Wellington Valley is encompassed on the westward, with a view to approach Mr. Palmer’s first station, we kept rather wide of the river, and only occasionally touched on its more projecting angles. The soil at a distance from the stream was by no means so good as that in its immediate vicinity, nor was the timber of the same description. On the rich and picturesque grounds near the river the angophora prevailed with the flooded gum, and the scenery upon its banks was improved by the casuarinae that overhung them. On the latter, inferior eucalypti and cypresses were mixed together. The country was broken and undulating, and the hills stony, notwithstanding which, they appeared to have an abundance of pasture upon them. Mr. Hume rode with me to the summit of a limestone elevation, from which I thought it probable we might have obtained such a view as would have enabled us to form some idea of the country into which we were about to descend. But in following the river line, the eye wandered over a dark and unbroken forest alone. The ranges from which we were fast receding formed an irregular and beautiful landscape to the southward; and contrasted strongly with the appearance of the country to the N. W., in which direction it was rapidly assuming a level.
We reached Mr. Palmer’s at a late hour in the afternoon, in consequence of a delay we experienced in crossing a gully, and encamped upon a high bank immediately opposite to the mouth of Molle’s rivulet which here joins the Macquarie from the southward. The cattle had consumed all the food, and the ground on both sides of the river looked bare and arid.
No doubt, however, the face of the country in ordinary seasons wears a very different appearance. Its general elevation continued high; nor did the Macquarie assume any change of aspect. Mountain debris and rounded pebbles of various kinds formed its bed, which was much encumbered with timber.
We had been unable to persuade any of the natives of Wellington Valley to accompany us as guides, on our leaving that settlement. Even Mr. Maxwell’s influence failed; for, notwithstanding the promises of several, when they saw that we were ready to depart, they either feigned sickness or stated that they were afraid of the more distant natives. The fact is, that they were too lazy to wander far from their own district, and too fond of Maxwell’s beef to leave it for a precarious bush subsistence. Fortunately we found several natives with Mr. Palmer’s stockmen, who readily undertook to conduct us by the nearest route to the cataract, which we considered to be midway between Wellington Valley and Mount Harris. We started under their guidance for Dibilamble, Mr. Palmer’s second station, and reached it about half-past 4 p.m. The distance between the two is sixteen miles. The country for some miles differs in no material point from that through which we had already passed. The same rich tracts of soil near the river and the same inferiority in the tracks remote from it. Near Dibilamble, however, the limestone formation terminates, and gives place to barren stony ridges, upon which the cypress callities is of close and stunted growth. The ridges themselves were formed of a coarse kind of freestone in a state of rapid decomposition. The Tabragar (the Erskine of Mr. Oxley) falls into the Macquarie at Dibilamble. It had long ceased to flow, being a small mountain torrent whose source, if we judge from the shingly nature of its bed, cannot be very distant. Our descent was considerable during the day; the rapids were frequent in the river, but it underwent no change in its general appearance. Its waters were hard and transparent, and its banks, in many places, extremely lofty; with a red sandy loam and gravel under the alluvial deposits. It generally happened that where the bank was high on the one side it was low and subject to flood, to a limited extent at least, on the other. Upon these low grounds the blue-gum trees were of lofty growth, but on the upper levels box prevailed.
The views upon the river were really beautiful, and varied at every turn; nor is it possible for any tree to exceed the casuarina in the graceful manner in which it bends over the stream, or clings to some solitary rock in its centre.
It here became necessary for us to cross to the left bank of the river, not only to avoid its numerous windings, and thus to preserve as much as possible the direct line to Mount Harris; but also, because the travelling was much better on the south side. We therefore availed ourselves of a ford opposite to the ground on which the tents had stood; and then pursued our journey, in a south-westerly course, over a country of a description very inferior to that of any we had previously noticed.
Iron-bark and cypresses generally prevailed along our line of route on a poor and sandy soil, which improved after we passed Elizabeth Burn, a small creek mentioned by Mr. Oxley.
We approached the river again early in the day, and pitched our tent on the summit of a sloping bank that overlooked one of its long still reaches. We were protected from the sun by the angophora trees, which formed a hanging wood around us, and, with its bright green foliage, gave a cheerfulness to the scene that was altogether unusual. The opposite side of the river was rather undulated, and the soil appeared to be of the finest description. The grass, although growing in tufts, afforded abundance of pasture for the cattle; and, on the whole, this struck me as a most eligible spot for a station, and I found it occupied as such on the return of the expedition. We had encamped about a quarter of a mile from Taylor’s Rivulet, which discharges itself into the Macquarie from the N. E., and is the first stream, upon the right bank, below the Wellington Valley.
Immediately after receiving it the river sweeps away to the southward, in consequence of which it became again necessary for us to cross it. Our guides, who were intelligent lads, led the cattle to a ford, a little below the junction of Taylor’s Rivulet, at which we effected a passage with some difficulty; the opposite bank being very steep, and we were obliged to force our way up a gully for some eighty or a hundred yards before we could extricate the team. Pursuing our journey, in a N. W. direction, we soon left the rich and undulating grounds bordering the river behind us. A poor, level, and open country, succeeded them. The soil changed to a light red, sandy loam, on which eucalypti, cypresses, and casuarinae, were intermixed with minor shrubs; of which latter, the cherry tree (exocarpus cupressiformis) was the most prevalent.
At about seven miles from the river we passed some barren freestone ridges, near which Mr. Hume killed the first kangaroo we had seen. At mid-day we passed a small creek, at which the cattle were watered; and afterwards continued our journey through a country similar to that over which we had already made our way.
As we neared the stream we noticed the acacia pendula for the first time — an indication of our approach to the marshes. The weather still continued extremely hot. Our journey this day was unusually long, and our cattle suffered so much, and moved so slowly, that it was late when we struck upon the Macquarie, at a part where its banks were so high that we had some difficulty in finding a good watering place.
Being considerably in front of the party, with one of our guides, when we neared the river, I came suddenly upon a family of natives. They were much terrified, and finding that they could not escape, called vehemently to some of their companions, who were in the distance. By the time Mr. Hume came up, they had in some measure recovered their presence of mind, but availed themselves of the first favourable moment to leave us. I was particular in not imposing any restraint on these men, in consequence of which they afterwards mustered sufficient resolution to visit us in our camp. We now judged that we were about ten miles from the cataract, and that, according to the accounts of the stockman, we could not be very distant from the lake he had mentioned.
As I was unwilling to pass any important feature of the country without enquiry or examination, I requested Mr. Hume to interrogate the strangers on the subject. They stated that they belonged to the lake tribe, that the lake was a short day’s journey to the eastward, and that they would guide us to it if we wished. The matter was accordingly arranged. They left us at dusk, but returned to the camp at the earliest dawn; when we once more crossed the river, and, after traversing a very level country for about nine miles, arrived at our destination. We passed over the dried beds of lagoons, and through coppices of cypresses and acacia pendula, or open forest, but did not observe any of the barren stony ridges so common to the N.E. About a mile, or a mile and a half, from the lake we examined a solitary grave that had recently been constructed. It consisted of an oblong mound, with three semicircular seats. A walk encompassed the whole, from which three others branched off for a few yards only, into the forest. Several cypresses, overhanging the grave, were fancifully carved on the inner side, and on one the shape of a heart was deeply engraved.
We were sadly disappointed in the appearance of the lake, which the natives call the Buddah. It is a serpentine sheet of fresh water, of rather more than a mile in length, and from three to four hundred yards in breadth. Its depth was four fathoms; but it seemed as if it were now five or six feet below the ordinary level. No stream either runs into it or flows from it; yet it abounds in fish; from which circumstance I should imagine that it originally owed its supply to the river during some extensive inundation. Notwithstanding that we had crossed some rich tracts of land in our way to it, the neighbourhood of the lake was by no means fertile. The trees around it were in rapid decay, and the little vegetation to be seen appeared to derive but little advantage from its proximity to water.
We had started at early dawn; and the heat had become intolerable long ere the sun had gained the meridian. It was rendered still more oppressive from the want of air in the dense bushes through which we occasionally moved. At 2 p.m. the thermometer stood at 129 degrees of Fahrenheit, in the shade; and at 149 degrees in the sun; the difference being exactly 20 degrees. It is not to be wondered at that the cattle suffered, although the journey was so short. The sun’s rays were too powerful even for the natives, who kept as much as possible in the shade. In the evening, when the atmosphere was somewhat cooler, we launched the boat upon the lake, in order to get some wild fowl and fish; but although we were tolerably successful with our guns, we did not take anything with our hooks.
The natives had, in the course of the afternoon, been joined by the rest of the tribe, and they now numbered about three and twenty. They were rather distant in their manner, and gazed with apparent astonishment at the scene that was passing before them.
If there had been other proof wanting, of the lamentably parched and exhausted state of the interior, we had on this occasion ample evidence of it, and of the fearful severity of the drought under which the country was suffering. As soon as the sun dipped under the horizon, hundreds of birds came crowding to the border of the lake, to quench the thirst they had been unable to allay in the forest. Some were gasping, others almost too weak to avoid us, and all were indifferent to the reports of our guns.
On leaving the Buddah, eleven only of the natives accompanied us. We reached the river again about noon, on a north-half-east course, where it had a rocky bed, and continued to journey along it, until we reached the cataract at which we halted. We travelled over soil generally inferior to that which we had seen on the preceding day, but rich in many places. The same kind of timber was observed, but the acacia pendula was more prevalent than any other, although near the river the flooded gum and Australian apple-tree were of beautiful growth.
It had appeared to me that the waters of the Macquarie had been diminishing in volume since our departure from Wellington Valley, and I had a favourable opportunity of judging as to the correctness of this conclusion at the cataract, where its channel, at all times much contracted, was particularly so on the present occasion. So little force was there in the current, that I began to entertain doubts how long it would continue, more especially when I reflected on the level character of the country we had entered, and the fact of the Macquarie not receiving any tributary between this point and the marshes. I was in consequence led to infer that result, which, though not immediately, eventually took place.
As they were treated with kindness, the natives who accompanied us soon threw off all reserve, and in the afternoon assembled at the pool below the fall to take fish. They went very systematically to work, with short spears in their hands that tapered gradually to a point, and sank at once under water without splash or noise at a given signal from an elderly man. In a short time, one or two rose with the fish they had transfixed; the others remained about a minute under water, and then made their appearance near the same rock into the crevices of which they had driven their prey. Seven fine bream were taken, the whole of which they insisted on giving to our men, although I am not aware that any of themselves had broken their fast that day. They soon, however, procured a quantity of muscles, with which they sat down very contentedly at a fire. My barometrical admeasurement gave the cataract an elevation of 680 feet above the level of the sea; and my observations placed it in east longitude 148 degrees 3 minutes and in latitude 31 degrees 50 minutes south.
It became an object with us to gain the right bank of the Macquarie as soon as possible; for it was evident that the country to the southward of it was much more swampy than it was to the north: but for some distance below the cataract, we found it impossible to effect our purpose. The rocks composing the bed of the river at the cataract, which are of trapp formation, disappeared at about eight miles below it, when the river immediately assumed another character. Its banks became of equal height, which had not before been the case, and averaged from fifteen to eighteen feet. They were composed entirely of alluvial soil, and were higher than the highest flood-marks. Its waters appeared to be turbid and deep, and its bed was a mixture of sand and clay. The casuarina, which had so often been admired by us, entirely disappeared and the channel in many places became so narrow as to be completely arched over by gum-trees.
On the 16th, we fell in with a numerous tribe of natives who joined our train after the very necessary ceremonies of an introduction had passed, and when added to those who still accompanied us, amounted to fifty-three. On this occasion I was riding somewhat in front of the party, when I came upon them. They were very different in appearance from those whom we had surprised at the river; and from the manner in which I was received, I was led to infer that they had been informed of our arrival, and had purposely assembled to meet us. I was saluted by an old man, who had stationed himself in front of his tribe, and who was their chief. Behind him the young men stood in a line, and behind them the warriors were seated on the ground.
I had a young native with me who had attached himself to our party, and who, from his extreme good nature and superior intelligence, was considered by us as a first-rate kind of fellow. He explained who and what we were, and I was glad to observe that the old chief seemed perfectly reconciled to my presence, although he cast many an anxious glance at the long train of animals that were approaching. The warriors, I remarked, never lifted their eyes from the ground. They were hideously painted with red and yellow ochre, and had their weapons at their sides, while their countenances were fixed, sullen, and determined. In order to overcome this mood, I rode up to them, and, taking a spear from the nearest, gave him my gun to examine; a mark of confidence that was not lost upon them, for they immediately relaxed from their gravity, and as soon as my party arrived, rose up and followed us. That which appeared most to excite their surprise, was the motion of the wheels of the boat carriage. The young native whom I have noticed above, acted as interpreter, and, by his facetious manner, contrived to keep the whole of us in a fit of laughter as we moved along. He had been named Botheri by some stockman.
In consequence of our wish to cross the river, we kept near it, and experienced considerable delay from the frequent marshes that opposed themselves to our progress. In one of these we saw a number of ibises and spoonbills; and the natives succeeded in killing two or three snakes. Our view to the westward was extremely limited; but to the eastward the country appeared in some places to expand into plains.
After travelling some miles down the banks of the river, finding that they still retained their steep character, we turned back to a place which Mr. Hume had observed, and at which he thought we might, with some little trouble, cross to the opposite side. And, however objectionable the attempt was, we found ourselves obliged to make it. We descended, therefore, into the channel of the river, and unloaded the animals and boat-carriage. In order to facilitate the ascent of the right bank, some of the men were directed to cut steps up it. I was amused to see the natives voluntarily assist them; and was surprised when they took up bags of flour weighing 100 pounds each, and carried them across the river. We were not long in getting the whole of the stores over. The boat was then hoisted on the shoulders of the strongest, and deposited on the top of the opposite bank; and ropes being afterwards attached to the carriage, it was soon drawn up to a place of safety. The natives worked as hard as our own people, and that, too, with a cheerfulness for which I was altogether unprepared, and which is certainly foreign to their natural habits. We pitched our tents as soon as we had effected the passage of the river; after which, the men went to bathe, and blacks and whites were mingled promiscuously in the stream. I did not observe that the former differed in any respect from the natives who frequent the located districts. They were generally clean limbed and stout, and some of the young men had pleasing intelligent countenances. They lacerate their bodies, inflicting deep wounds to raise the flesh, and extract the front teeth like the Bathurst tribes; and their weapons are precisely the same. They are certainly a merry people, and sit up laughing and talking more than half the night.
During the removal of the stores my barometer was unfortunately broken, and I had often, in the subsequent stages of the journey, occasion to regret the accident. I apprehend that the corks in the instrument, placed to steady the tube, are too distant from each other in most cases; and indeed I fear that barometers as at present constructed, will seldom be carried with safety in overland expeditions.
Nine only of the natives accompanied us on the morning succeeding the day in which we crossed the river. Botheri was, however, at the head of them; and, as we journeyed along, he informed me that he had been promised a wife on his return from acting as our guide, by the chief of the last tribe. The excessive heat of the weather obliged us to shorten our journey, and we encamped about noon in some scrub after having traversed a level country for about eleven miles.
Several considerable plains were noticed to our right, stretching east and west, which were generally rich in point of soil; but we passed through much brushy land during the day. It was lamentable to see the state of vegetation upon the plains from want of moisture. Although the country had assumed a level character, and was more open than on the higher branches of the Macquarie, the small freestone elevations, backing the alluvial tracts near the river, still continued upon our right, though much diminished in height, and at a great distance from the banks. They seemed to be covered with cypresses and beef-wood, but dwarf-box and the acacia pendula prevailed along the plains; while flooded-gum alone occupied the lands in the immediate neighbourhood of the stream, which was evidently fast diminishing, both in volume and rapidity; its bed, however, still continuing to be a mixture of sand and clay.
The cattle found such poor feed around the camp that they strayed away in search of better during the night. On such an occasion Botheri and his fraternity would have been of real service; but he had decamped at an early hour, and had carried off an axe, a tomahawk, and some bacon, although I had made him several presents. I was not at all surprised at this piece of roguery, since cunning is the natural attribute of a savage; but I was provoked at their running away at a moment when I so much required their assistance.
Left to ourselves, I found Mr. Hume of the most essential service in tracking the animals, and to his perseverance we were indebted for their speedy recovery, They had managed to find tolerable feed near a serpentine sheet of water, which Mr. Hume thought it would be advisable to examine. We directed our course to it as soon as the cattle were loaded, moving through bush, and found it to be a very considerable creek that receives a part of the superfluous waters of the Macquarie, and distributes them, most probably, over the level country to the north. It was much wider than the river, being from fifty to sixty yards across, and is resorted to by the natives, who procure muscles from its bed in great abundance. We were obliged to traverse its eastern bank to its junction with the river, at which it fortunately happened to be dry. We had, however, to cut roads down both its banks before we could cross it; and, consequently, made but a short day’s journey. The soil passed over was inferior to the generality of soil near the river, but we encamped on a tongue of land on which both the flooded-gum and the grass were of luxuriant height. We found a quantity of a substance like pipe-clay in the bed of the river, similar to that mentioned by Mr. Oxley.
The heat, which had been excessive at Wellington Valley, increased upon us as we advanced into the interior. The thermometer was seldom under 114 degrees at noon, and rose still higher at 2 p.m. We had no dews at night, and consequently the range of the instrument was trifling in the twenty-four hours. The country looked bare and scorched, and the plains over which we journeyed had large fissures traversing them, so that the earth may literally be said to have gasped for moisture. The country, which above the cataract had borne the character of open forest, excepting on the immediate banks of the river, where its undulations and openness gave it a park-like appearance, or where the barren stony ridges prevailed below that point, generally exhibited alternately plain and brush, the soil on both of which was good. On the former, crested pigeons were numerous, several of which were shot. We had likewise procured some of the rose-coloured and grey parrots, mentioned by Mr. Oxley, and a small paroquet of beautiful plumage; but there was less of variety in the feathered race than I expected to find, and most of the other birds we had seen were recognised by me as similar to specimens I had procured from Melville Island, and were, therefore, most probably birds of passage.
The Rose Cockatoo
As we neared Mount Harris, the Macquarie became more sluggish in its flow, and fell off so much as scarcely to deserve the name of a river. In breadth, it averaged from thirty-five to forty-five yards, and in the height of its banks, from fifteen to eighteen. Mr. Hume had succeeded in taking some fish at one of the stock stations; but if I except those speared by the natives, we had since been altogether unsuccessful with the hook, a circumstance which I attribute to the lowness of the river itself.
About thirty miles from the cataract the country declines to the north as a medium point, and again changes somewhat in its general appearance. To the S. and S.W. it appeared level and wooded, while to the N. the plains became more frequent, but smaller, and travelling over them was extremely dangerous, in consequence of the large fissures by which they were traversed. The only trees to be observed were dwarf-box and the acacia pendula, both of stunted growth, although flooded-gum still prevailed upon the river.
On the 20th we travelled on a N.W. course, and in the early part of the day passed over tolerably good soil. It was succeeded by a barren scrub, through which we penetrated in the direction of Welcome Rock, a point we had seen from one of the Plains and had mistaken for Mount Harris.
On a nearer approach, however, we observed our error, and corrected it by turning more to the left; and we ultimately encamped about a mile to the W.S.W. of the latter eminence. On issuing from the scrub we found ourselves among reeds and coarse water-grass; and, from the appearance of the country, we were led to conclude that we had arrived at a part of the interior more than ordinarily subject to overflow.
As soon as the camp was fixed, Mr. Hume and I rode to Mount Harris, over ground subject to flood and covered for the most part by the polygonum, being too anxious to defer our examination of its neighbourhood even for a few hours.
Nearly ten years had elapsed since Mr. Oxley pitched his tents under the smallest of the two hills into which Mount Harris is broken. There was no difficulty in hitting upon his position. The trenches that had been cut round the tents were still perfect, and the marks of the fire-places distinguishable; while the trees in the neighbourhood had been felled, and round about them the staves of some casks and a few tent-pegs were scattered. Mr. Oxley had selected a place at some distance from the river, in consequence of its then swollen state. I looked upon it from the same ground, and could not discern the waters in its channel; so much had they fallen below their ordinary level. He saw the river when it was overflowing its banks; on the present occasion it had scarcely sufficient water to support a current. On the summit of the greater eminence, which we ascended, there remained the half-burnt planks of a boat, some clenched and rusty nails, and an old trunk; but my search for the bottle Mr. Oxley had left was unsuccessful.
A reflection naturally arose to my mind on examining these decaying vestiges of a former expedition, whether I should be more fortunate than the leader of it, and how far I should be enabled to penetrate beyond the point which had conquered his perseverance. Only a week before I left Sydney I had followed Mr. Oxley to the tomb. A man of uncommon quickness, and of great ability, the task of following up his discoveries was not less enviable than arduous; but, arrived at that point at which his journey may be said to have terminated and mine only to commence, I knew not how soon I should be obliged, like him, to retreat from the marshes and exhalations of so depressed a country. My eye instinctively turned to the North-West, and the view extended over an apparently endless forest. I could trace the river line of trees by their superior height; but saw no appearance of reeds, save the few that grew on the banks of the stream.
Mount Foster, somewhat higher than Mount Harris, on the opposite side of the river, alone broke the line of the horizon to the North N.W. at a distance of five miles. From that point all round the compass, the low lands spread, like a dark sea, before me; except where a large plain stretching from E. to W., and lying to the S.E. broke their monotony; and if there was nothing discouraging, there certainly was nothing cheering, in the prospect.
On our return to the camp, I was vexed to find two of the men, Henwood and Williams, with increased inflammation of the eyes, of which they had previously been complaining, and I thought it advisable to bleed the latter.
In consequence of the indisposition of these men, we remained stationary on the 21st, which enabled me to pay a second visit to Mount Harris. On ascending the smaller hill, I was surprised to find similar vestiges on its summit to those I had noticed on the larger one; in addition to which, the rollers still continued on the side of the hill, which had been used to get the boat up it. [Mr. Oxley had two boats; one of which he dragged to the top of each of these hills, and left them turned bottom upwards, buryinq a bottle under the head of the larger boat, which was conveyed to the more distant hill.]
Mount Harris is of basaltic formation, but I could not observe any columnar regularity in it, although large blocks are exposed above the ground. The rock is extremely hard and sonorous.
We moved leisurely towards Mount Foster, on the 22nd, and arrived opposite to it a little before sunset. The country between the two is mostly open, or covered only with the acacia pendula and dwarf-box. The soil, although an alluvial deposit, is not of the best; nor was vegetation either fresh or close upon it. As soon as the party stopped, I crossed the river, and lost no time in ascending the hill, being anxious to ascertain if any fresh object was visible from its summit, I thought that from an eminence so much above the level of the surrounding objects, I might obtain a view of the marshes, or of water; but I was wholly disappointed. The view was certainly extensive, but it was otherwise unsatisfactory. Again to the N.W. the lowlands spread in darkness before me; there were some considerable plains beyond the near wood; but the country at the foot of the hill appeared open and promising. Although the river line was lost in the distance, it was as truly pointed out by the fires of the natives, which rose in upright columns into the sky, as if it had been marked by the trees upon its banks.
To the eastward, Arbuthnot’s range rose high above the line of the horizon, bearing nearly due East, distant seventy miles. The following sketch of its outlines will convey a better idea of its appearance from Mount Foster than any written description.
I stayed on the mount until after sunset, but I could not make out any space that at all resembled the formidable barrier I knew we were so rapidly approaching. I saw nothing to check our advance, and I therefore returned to the camp, to advise with Mr. Hume upon the subject. Not having been with me on Mount Foster, he took the opportunity to ascend it on the following morning; and on his return concurred with me in opinion, that there was no apparent obstacle to our moving onwards. As the men were considerably better, I had the less hesitation in closing with the marshes. We left our position, intending to travel slowly, and to halt early.
The first part of our journey was over rich flats, timbered sufficiently to afford a shade, on which the grass was luxuriant; but we were obliged to seek more open ground, in consequence of the frequent stumbling of the cattle.
We issued, at length, upon a plain, the view across which was as dreary as can be imagined; in many places without a tree, save a few old stumps left by the natives when they fired the timber, some of which were still smoking in different parts of it. Observing some lofty trees at the extremity of the plain, we moved towards them, under an impression that they indicated the river line. But on this exposed spot the sun’s rays fell with intense power upon us, and the dust was so minute and penetrating, that I soon regretted having left the shady banks of the river.
About 2.p.m. we neared the trees for which we had been making, over ground evidently formed by alluvial deposition, and were astonished to find that reeds alone were growing under the trees as far as the eye could penetrate. It appeared that we were still some distance from the river, and it was very doubtful how far we might be from water, for which the men were anxiously calling. I therefore halted, and sent Fraser into the reeds towards some dead trees, on which a number of spoonbills were sitting. He found that there was a small lake in the centre of the reeds, the resort of numerous wild fowl; but although the men were enabled to quench their thirst, we found it impossible to water the animals. We were obliged, therefore, to continue our course along the edge of the reeds; which in a short time appeared in large masses in front of us, stretching into a vast plain upon our right; and it became evident that the whole neighbourhood was subject to extensive inundation.
I was fearful that the reeds would have checked us; but there was a passage between the patches, through which we managed to force our way into a deep bight, and fortunately gained the river at the bottom of it much sooner than we expected. We were obliged to clear away a space for the tents; and thus, although there had been no such appearance from Mount Foster, we found ourselves in less than seven hours after leaving it, encamped pretty far in that marsh for which we had so anxiously looked from its summit, and now trusting to circumstances for safety, upon ground on which, in any ordinary state of the river, it would have been dangerous to have ventured. Indeed, as it was, our situation was sufficiently critical, and would not admit of hesitation on my part.
After the cattle had been turned out, Mr. Hume and I again mounted our horses, and proceeded to the westward, with a view to examine the nature of the country before us, and to ascertain if it was still practicable to move along the river side. For, although it was evident that we had arrived at what might strictly be called the marshes of the Macquarie, I still thought we might be at some distance from the place where Mr. Oxley terminated his journey.
There was no indication in the river to encourage an idea that it would speedily terminate; nor, although we were on ground subject to extensive inundation, could we be said to have reached the heart of the marshes, as the reeds still continued in detached bodies only. We forced a path through various portions of them, and passed over ground wholly subject to flood, to a distance of about six miles. We then crossed a small rise of ground, sufficiently high to have afforded a retreat, had necessity obliged us to seek for one; and we shortly afterwards descended on the river, unaltered in its appearance, and rather increased than diminished in size. A vast plain extended to the N.W., the extremity of which we could not discern; though a thick forest formed its northern boundary.
It was evident that this plain had been frequently under water, but it was difficult to judge from the marks on the trees to what height the floods had risen. The soil was an alluvial deposit, superficially sandy; and many shells were scattered over its surface. To the south, the country appeared close and low; nor do I think we could have approached the river from that side, by reason of the huge belts of reeds that appeared to extend as far as the the eye could reach.
The approach of night obliged us to return to the camp. On our arrival, we found that the state of Henwood and Williams would prevent our stirring for a day or two. Not only had they a return of inflammation, but several other of the men complained of a painful irritation of the eyes, which were dreadfully blood-shot and weak. I was in some measure prepared for a relapse in Henwood, as the exposure which he necessarily underwent on the plain was sufficient to produce that effect; but I now became apprehensive that the affection would run through the party.
Considering our situation in its different bearings, it struck me that the men who were to return to Wellington Valley with an account our our proceedings for the Governor’s information, had been brought as far as prudence warranted. There was no fear of their going astray, as long as they had the river to guide them; but in the open country which we were to all appearance approaching, or amidst fields of reeds, they might wander from the track, and irrecoverably lose themselves. I determined, therefore, not to risk their safety, but to prepare my dispatches for Sydney, and I hoped most anxiously, that ere they were closed, all symptoms of disease would have terminated.
In the course of the day, however, Spencer, who was to return with Riley to Wellington Valley, became seriously indisposed, and I feared that he was attacked with dysentery. Indeed, I should have attributed his illness to our situation, but I did not notice any unusual moisture in the atmosphere, nor did any fogs rise from the river. I therefore the rather attributed it to exposure and change of diet, and treated him accordingly. To my satisfaction, when I visited the men late in the evening, I found a general improvement in the whole of them. Spencer was considerably relieved, and those of the party who had inflammation of the eyes no longer felt that painful irritation of which they had before complained. I determined, therefore, unless untoward circumstances should prevent it, to send Riley and his companion homewards, and to move the party without loss of time.
We had not seen any natives for many days, but a few passed the camp on the opposite side of the river on the evening of the 25th. They would not, however, come to us; but fled into the interior in great apparent alarm.
On the morning of the 26th, the men were sufficiently recovered to pursue their journey. Riley and Spencer left us at an early hour; and about 7 a.m. we pursued a N.N.W. course along the great plain I have noticed, starting numberless quails, and many wild turkeys, by the way. Leaving that part of the river on which Mr. Hume and I had touched considerably to the left, we made for the point of a wood, projecting from the river line of trees into the plain. The ground under us was an alluvial deposit, and bore all the marks of frequent inundation.
The soil was yielding, blistered, and uneven; and the claws of cray-fish, together with numerous small shells, were every where collected in the hollows made by the subsiding of the waters, between broad belts of reeds and scrubs of polygonum.
On gaining the point of the wood, we found an absolute check put to our further progress. We had been moving directly on the great body of the marsh, and from the wood it spread in boundless extent before us. It was evidently lower than the ground on which we stood; we had therefore, a complete view over the whole expanse; and there was a dreariness and desolation pervading the scene that strengthened as we gazed upon it. Under existing circumstances, it only remained for us either to skirt the reeds to the northward, or to turn in again upon the river; and as I considered it important to ascertain the direction of the Macquarie at so critical and interesting a point, I thought it better to adopt the latter measure. We, accordingly, made for the river, and pitched our tents, as at the last station, in the midst of reeds.
There were two points at this time, upon which I was extremely anxious. The first was as to the course of the river; the second, as to the extent of the marshes by which we had been checked, and the practicability of the country to the northward.
In advising with Mr. Hume, I proposed launching the boat, as the surest means of ascertaining the former, and he, on his part, most readily volunteered to examine the marshes, in any direction I should point out. It was therefore, arranged, that I should take two men, and a week’s provision with me in the boat down the river; and that he should proceed with a like number of men on an excursion to the northward.
After having given directions as to the regulations of camp during our absence, we separated, on the morning of the 26th for the first time, in furtherance of the objects each had in view.
In pulling down the river, I found that its channel was at first extremely tortuous and irregular, but that it held a general N.W. course, and bore much the same appearance as it had done since our descent from Mount Foster.
We had a laborious task in lifting the boat over the trunks of trees that had fallen into the channel of the river or that had been left by the floods, and at length we stove her in upon a sunken log. The injury she received was too serious not to require immediate repair; and we, therefore, patched her up with a tin plate. This accident occasioned some delay, and the morning was consumed without our having made any considerable progress. At length, however, we got into a more open channel.
The river suddenly increased in breadth to thirty-five or forty-five yards, with a depth of from twelve to twenty feet of water. Its banks shelved perpendicularly down, and were almost on a level with the surface of the stream; and the flood mark was not more than two feet high on the reeds by which they were lined. We had hitherto passed under the shade of the flooded gum, which still continued on the immediate banks of the river; but, the farther we advanced, the more did we find these trees in a state of decay, until at length they ceased, or were only rarely met with.
About 2 p.m. I brought up under a solitary tree, in consequence of heavy rain: this was upon the left bank. In the afternoon, however, we again pushed forward, and soon lost sight of every other object amidst reeds of great height. The channel of the river continued as broad and as deep as ever, but the flood mark did not show more than a foot above the banks, which were now almost on a level with the water; and the current was so sluggish as to be scarcely perceptible. These general appearances continued for about three miles, when our course was suddenly, and most unexpectedly, checked. The channel, which had promised so well, without any change in its breadth or depth, ceased altogether; and whilst we were yet lost in astonishment at so abrupt a termination of it, the boat grounded. It only remained for us to examine the banks, which we did with particular attention. Two creeks were then discovered, so small as scarcely to deserve the name, and which would, under ordinary circumstances, have been overlooked. The one branched off to the north — the other to the west. We were obliged to get out of the boat to push up the former, the leeches sticking in numbers to our legs. The creek continued for about thirty yards, when it was terminated; and, in order fully to satisfy myself of the fact, I walked round the head of it by pushing through the reeds. Night coming on, we returned to the tree at which we had stopped during the rain, and slept under it. The men cut away the reeds, or we should not have had room to move. At 2 a.m. it commenced raining, with a heavy storm of thunder and lightning; the boat was consequently hauled ashore, and turned over to afford us a temporary shelter. The lightning was extremely vivid, and frequently played upon the ground, near the firelocks, for more than a quarter of a minute at a time.
It is singular, that Mr. Oxley should, under similar circumstances, have experienced an equally stormy night, and most probably within a few yards of the place on which I had posted myself. Notwithstanding that the elements were raging around me, as if to warn me of the danger of my situation, my mind turned solely on the singular failure of the river. I could not but encourage hopes that this second channel that remained to be explored would lead us into an open space again; and as soon as the morning dawned we pursued our way to it. In passing some dead trees upon the right bank, I stopped to ascend one, that, from an elevation, I might survey the marsh, but I found it impossible to trace the river through it. The country to the westward was covered with reeds, apparently to the distance of seven miles; to the N.W. to a still greater distance; and to the north they bounded the horizon.
The whole expanse was level and unbroken, but here and there the reeds were higher and darker than at other places, as if they grew near constant moisture; but I could see no appearance of water in any body, or of high lands beyond the distant forest.
As soon as we arrived at the end of the main channel, we again got out of the boat, and in pushing up the smaller one, soon found ourselves under a dark arch of reeds. It did not, however, continue more than twenty yards when it ceased, and I walked round the head of it as I had done round that of the other. We then examined the space between the creeks, where the bank receives the force of the current, which I did not doubt had formed them by the separation of its eddies. Observing water among the reeds, I pushed through them with infinite labour to a considerable distance. The soil proved to be a stiff clay; the reeds were closely embodied, and from ten to twelve feet high; the waters were in some places ankle deep, and in others scarcely covered the surface. They were flowing in different points, with greater speed than those of the river, which at once convinced me that they were not permanent, but must have lodged in the night during which so much rain had fallen. They ultimately appeared to flow to the northward, but I found it impossible to follow them, and it was not without difficulty that, after having wandered about at every point of the compass, I again reached the boat.
The care with which I had noted every change that took place in the Macquarie, from Wellington Valley downwards, enabled me, in some measure, to account for its present features. I was led to conclude that the waters of the river being so small in body, excepting in times of flood, and flowing for so many miles through a level country without receiving any tributary to support their first impulse, became too sluggish, long ere they reached the marshes, to cleave through so formidable a barrier; and consequently spread over the surrounding country — whether again to take up the character of a river, we had still to determine. Unless, however, a decline of country should favour its assuming its original shape, it was evident that the Macquarie would not be found to exist beyond this marsh, of the nature and extent of which we were still ignorant. The loss of my barometer was at this time severely felt by me, since I could only guess at our probable height above the ocean; and I found that my only course was to endeavour to force my way to the northward, to ascertain, if I could, from the bottom of the marshes; then penetrate in a westerly direction beyond them, in order to commence my survey of the S.W. interior. I was aware of Mr. Hume’s perseverance, and determined, therefore, to wait the result of his report ere I again moved the camp, to which we returned late in the afternoon of the second day of our departure. We found it unsufferably hot and suffocating in the reeds, and were tormented by myriads of mosquitoes, but the waters were perfectly sweet to the taste, nor did the slightest smell, as of stagnation, proceed from them. I may add that the birds, whose sanctuary we had invaded, as the bittern and various tribes of the galinule, together with the frogs, made incessant noises around us, There were, however, but few water-fowl on the river; which was an additional proof to me that we were not near any very extensive lake.
Mr. Hume had returned before me to the camp, and had succeeded in finding a serpentine sheet of water, about twelve miles to the northward; which he did not doubt to be the channel of the river. He had pushed on after this success, in the hope of gaining a further knowledge of the country; but another still more extensive marsh checked him, and obliged him to retrace his steps. He was no less surprised at the account I gave of the termination of the river, than I was at its so speedily re-forming, and it was determined to lose no time in the further examination of so singular a region.
On the morning of the 28th therefore we broke up the camp, and proceeded to the northward, under Mr. Hume’s guidance, moving over ground wholly subject to flood, and extensively covered with reeds; the great body of the marsh lying upon our left. After passing the angle of a wood, upon our right, from which Mount Foster was distant about fourteen miles, we got upon a small plain, on which there was a new species of tortuous box. This plain was clear of reeds, and the soil upon it was very rich. Crossing in a westerly direction we arrived at the channel found by Mr. Hume, who must naturally have concluded that it was a continuation of the river. The boat was immediately prepared, and I went up it in order to ascertain the nature of its formation. For two miles it preserved a pretty general width of from twenty to thirty yards; but at that distance began to narrow, and at length it became quite shallow and covered with weeds. We were ultimately obliged to abandon the boat, and to walk along a native path. The country to the westward was more open than I had expected. About a quarter of a mile from where we had left the boat, the channel separated into two branches; to which I perceived it owed its formation, coming, as they evidently did, direct from the heart of the marsh. The wood through which I had entered it on the first occasion bore south of me, to which one of the branches inclined; as the other did to the S.W. An almost imperceptible rise of ground was before me, which, by giving an impetus to the waters of the marsh, accounted to me for the formation of the main channel. It was too late, on my return to the camp, to prosecute any further examination of it downwards; but in the morning, Mr. Hume accompanied me in the boat, to ascertain to what point it led; and we found that at about a mile it began to diminish in breadth, until at length it was completely lost in a second expanse of reeds. We passed a singular scaffolding erected by the natives, on the side of the channel, to take fish; and also found a weir at the termination of it for the like purpose so that it was evident the natives occasionally ventured into the marshes.
There was a small wood to our left which Mr. Hume endeavoured to gain, but he failed in the attempt. He did, however, reach a tree that was sufficiently high to give him a full view of the marsh, which appeared to extend in every direction, but more particularly to the north, for many miles. We were, however, at fault, and I really felt at a loss what step to take. I should have been led to believe from the extreme flatness of the country, that the Macquarie would never assume its natural shape, but from the direction of the marshes I could not but indulge a hope that it would meet the Castlereagh, and that their united waters might form a stream of some importance. Under this impression I determined on again sending Mr. Hume to the N.E. in order to ascertain the nature of the country in that direction.
The weather was excessively hot, and as my men were but slowly recovering, I was anxious while those who were in health continued active, to give the others a few days of rest. I proposed, therefore, to cross the river, and to make an excursion into the interior, during the probable time of Mr. Hume’s absence; since if, as I imagined, the Macquarie had taken a permanent northerly course, I should not have an opportunity of examining the distant western country. Mr. Hume’s experience rendered it unnecessary for me to give him other than general directions.
On the last day of the year we left the camp, each accompanied by two men. I had the evening previously ordered the horses I intended taking with me across the channel, and at an early hour of the morning I followed them. Getting on a plain, immediately after I had disengaged myself from the reeds on the opposite side of the river, which was full of holes and exceedingly treacherous for the animals, I pushed on for a part of the wood Mr. Hume had endeavoured to gain from the boat, with the intention of keeping near the marsh. On entering it, I found myself in a thick brush of eucalypti, casuarinae and minor trees; the soil under them being mixed with sand. I kept a N.N.W. course through it, and at the distance of three miles from its commencement, ascended a tree, to ascertain if I was near the marshes; when I found that I was fast receding from them. I concluded, therefore, that my conjecture as to their direction was right, and altered my course to N.W., a direction in which I had observed a dense smoke arising, which I supposed had been made by some natives near water. At the termination of the brush I crossed a barren sandy plain, and from it saw the smoke ascending at a few miles’ distance from me. Passing through a wood, at the extremity of the plain, I found myself at the outskirts of an open space of great extent, almost wholly enveloped in flames. The fire was running with incredible rapidity through the rhagodia shrubs with which it was covered. Passing quickly over it, I continued my journey to the N.W. over barren plains of red sandy loam of even surface, and bushes of cypresses skirted by acacia pendula. It was not until after sunset that we struck upon a creek, in which the water was excellent; and we halted on its banks for the night, calculating our distance at twenty-nine miles from the camp. The creek was of considerable size, leading northerly. Several huts were observed by us, and from the heaps of muscle-shells that were scattered about, there could be no doubt of its being much frequented by the natives. The grass being fairly burnt up, our animals found but little to eat, but they had a tolerable journey. and did not attempt to wander in search of better food. I shot a snipe near the creek, much resembling the painted snipe of India; but I had not the means with me of preserving it.
Continuing our journey on the following morning, we at first kept on the banks of the creek, and at about a quarter of a mile from where we had slept, came upon a numerous tribe of natives. A young girl sitting by the fire was the first to observe us as we were slowly approaching her. She was so excessively alarmed, that she had not the power to run away; but threw herself on the ground and screamed violently. We now observed a number of huts, out of which the natives issued, little dreaming of the spectacle they were to behold. But the moment they saw us, they started back; their huts were in a moment in flames, and each with a fire-brand ran to and fro with hideous yells, thrusting them into every bush they passed. I walked my horse quietly towards an old man who stood more forward than the rest, as if he intended to devote himself for the preservation of his tribe. I had intended speaking to him, but on a nearer approach I remarked that he trembled so violently that it was impossible to expect that I could obtain any information from him, and as I had not time for explanations, I left him to form his own conjectures as to what we were, and continued to move towards a thick brush, into which they did not venture to follow us.
After a ride of about eighteen miles, through a country of alternate plain and brush, we struck upon a second creek leading like the first to the northward. The water in it was very bitter and muddy, and it was much inferior in appearance to that at which we had slept. After stopping for half-an-hour upon its banks, to rest our animals, we again pushed forward. We had not as yet risen any perceptible height above the level of the marshes, but had left the country subject to overflow for a considerable space behind us. The brushes through which we had passed were too sandy to retain water long, but the plains were of such an even surface, that they could not but continue wet for a considerable period after any fall of rain. They were covered with salsolaceous plants, without a blade of grass; and their soil was generally a red sandy loam. There were occasional patches that appeared moist, in which the calystemma was abundant, and these patches must, I should imagine, form quagmires in the wet season.
On leaving the last-mentioned creek, we found a gently rising country before us; and about three or four miles from it we crossed some stony ridges, covered with a new species of acacia so thickly as to prevent our obtaining any view from them. As the sun declined, we got into open forest ground; and travelled forwards in momentary expectation, from appearances, of coming in sight of water; but we were obliged to pull up at sunset on the outskirts of a larger plain without having our expectation realized. The day had been extremely warm, and our animals were as thirsty as ourselves. Hope never forsakes the human breast; and thence it was that, after we had secured the horses, we began to wander round our lonely bivouac. It was almost dark, when one of my men came to inform me that he had found a small puddle of water, to which he had been led by a pigeon.
It was, indeed, small enough, probably the remains of a passing shower; it was, however, sufficient for our necessities, and I thanked Providence for its bounty to us. We were now about sixty miles from the Macquarie, in a N.W. by W. direction, and the country had proved so extremely discouraging, that I intimated to my men my intention of retracing my steps, should I not discover any change in it before noon on the morrow. A dense brush of acacia succeeded to the plain on which we had slept, which we entered, and shortly afterwards found ourselves in an open space, of oblong shape, at the extremity of which there was a shallow lake. The brush completely encircled it, and a few huts were upon its banks. About 10 p.m. we got into an open forest track of better appearance than any over which we had recently travelled.
There was a visible change in the country, and the soil, although red, was extremely rich and free from sand. A short time afterwards we rose to the summit of a round hill, from which we obtained an extensive view on most points of the compass. We had imperceptibly risen considerably above the general level of the interior.
Beneath us, to the westward, I observed a broad and thinly wooded valley; and W. by S., distant apparently about twenty miles, an isolated mountain, whose sides seemed almost perpendicular, broke the otherwise even line of the horizon; but the country in every other direction looked as if it was darkly wooded. Anticipating that I should find a stream in the valley, I did not for a moment hesitate in striking down into it. Disappointed, however, in this expectation, I continued onwards to the mountain, which I reached just before the sun set. Indeed, he was barely visible when I gained its summit; but my eyes, from exposure to his glare, became so weak, my face was so blistered, and my lips cracked in so many places, that I was unable to look towards the west, and was actually obliged to sit down behind a rock until he had set.
Perhaps no time is so favourable for a view along the horizon as the sunset hour; and here, at an elevation of from five to six hundred feet above the plain, the visible line of it could not have been less than from thirty-five to forty-five miles. The hill upon which I stood was broken into two points; the one was a bold rocky elevation; the other had its rear face also perpendicular, but gradually declined to the north, and at a distance of from four to five miles was lost in an extensive and open plain in that direction. In the S.E. quarter, two wooded hills were visible, which before had appeared to be nothing more than swells in the general level of the country. A small hill, similar to the above, bore N.E. by compass; and again, to the west, a more considerable mountain than that I had ascended, and evidently much higher, reflected the last beams of the sun as he sunk behind them. I looked, however, in vain for water. I could not trace either the windings of a stream, or the course of a mountain torrent; and, as we had passed a swamp about a mile from the hill, we descended to it for the night, during which we were grievously tormented by the mosquitoes.
I had no inducement to proceed further into the interior. I had been sufficiently disappointed in the termination of this excursion, and the track before me was still less inviting. Nothing but a dense forest, and a level country, existed between me and the distant hill. I had learnt, by experience, that it was impossible to form any opinion of the probable features of so singular a region as that in which I was wandering, from previous appearances, or to expect the same result, as in other countries, from similar causes. In a geographical point of view, my journey had been more successful, and had enabled me to put to rest for ever a question of much previous doubt. Of whatever extent the marshes of the Macquarie might be, it was evident they were not connected with those of the Lachlan. I had gained knowledge of more than 100 miles of the western interior, and had ascertained that no sea, indeed that little water, existed on its surface; and that, although it is generally flat, it still has elevations of considerable magnitude upon it.
Although I had passed over much barren ground, I had likewise noticed soil that was far from poor, and the vegetation upon which in ordinary seasons would, I am convinced, have borne a very different aspect.
Yet, upon the whole, the space I traversed is unlikely to become the haunt of civilized man, or will only become so in isolated spots, as a chain of connection to a more fertile country; if such a country exist to the westward.
The hill which thus became the extreme of my journey, is of sandstone formation, and is bold and precipitous. Its summit is level and lightly timbered. As a tribute of respect to the late Surveyor-General, I called it Oxley’s Table Land, and I named the distant hills D’Urban’s Group, after Sir Benjamin D’Urban, in compliance with a previous request of my friend Lieut. De la Condamine, that I would so name any prominent feature of the interior that I might happen to come upon.
In returning to the camp, I made a circuit to the N.E., and reached the Macquarie late on the evening of the 5th of January; having been absent six days, during which we could not have ridden less than 200 miles. Yet the horses were not so fatigued as it was natural to expect they would have been.
My servant informed me that a party of natives had visited the camp on the 3rd, but that they retired precipitately on seeing the animals. I regretted to find the men but little better than when I left them. Several still complained of a painful irritation of the eyes, and of great weakness of sight. Attributing their continued indisposition in some measure to our situation, I was anxious to have moved from it; but as Mr. Hume was still absent, I could not decide upon the measure. He made his appearance, however, on the 6th, having ridden the greater part of the day through rain, which commenced to fall in the morning. Soon after his arrival, Dawber, my overseer of animals, who had accompanied him, was taken suddenly ill. During the night he became much worse, with shivering and spasms, and on the following morning he was extremely weak and feverish. To add to my anxiety, Mr. Hume also complained of indisposition. His state of health made me the more anxious to quit a position which I fancied unwholesome, and in which, if there was no apparent, there was certainly some secret, exciting cause; and as Mr. Hume reported having crossed a chain of ponds about four miles to the eastward, and out of the immediate precincts of the marshes, I ordered the tents to be struck, and placing Dawber on my horse, we all moved quietly over to them.
The result of Mr. Hume’s journey perplexed me exceedingly. He stated, that on setting out from the Macquarie his intention was to have proceeded to the N.E., to ascertain how far the reeds existed in that direction, and, if at all practicable, to reach the Castlereagh; but in case of failure, to regain the Macquarie by a westerly course. At first he travelled nearly four miles east, to clear the marshes, when he came on the chain of ponds to which we had removed.
He travelled over good soil for two miles after crossing this chain of ponds, but afterwards got on a red sandy loam, and found it difficult to proceed, by reason of the thickness of the brush, and the swampy state of the ground in consequence of the late rain.
The timber in the brushes was of various kinds, and he saw numerous kangaroos and emus. On issuing from this brush, he crossed a creek, leading northerly, the banks of which were from ten to twelve feet high. Whatever the body of water usually in it is, it now only afforded a few shallow puddles. Mr. Hume travelled through brushes until he came upon a third creek, similar to the one he had left behind him, at which he halted for the night. The water in it was bad, and the feed for the animals extremely poor. The brush lined the creek thickly, and consisted chiefly of acacia pendula and box. The country preserved an uniform level, nor did Mr. Hume, from the highest trees, observe any break on the horizon.
On the 2nd of January, Mr. Hume kept more northerly, being unable to penetrate the brushes he encountered. At two miles he crossed a creek leading to the N.W., between which and the place at which he had slept, he passed a native burial ground, containing eight graves. The earth was piled up in a conical shape, but the trees were not carved over as he had seen them in most other places.
The country became more open after he had passed the last mentioned creek, which he again struck upon at the distance of eight miles, and as it was then leading to the N.N.E. he followed it down for eighteen or twenty miles, and crossed it frequently during the day. The creek was dry in most places, and where he stopped for the night the water was bad, and the cattle feed indifferent.
Mr. Hume saw many huts, but none of them had been recently occupied, although large quantities of muscle-shells were scattered about. He computed that he had travelled about thirty miles, in a N.N.W. direction, and the whole of the land he passed over was, generally speaking, bad, nor did it appear to be subject to overflow.
On the 3rd, Mr. Hume proceeded down the creek on which he had slept, on a northern course, under an impression that it would have joined the Castlereagh, but it took a N.W. direction after he had ridden about four miles, and then turned again to the eastward of north. In consequence of this, he left it, and proceeded to the westward, being of opinion that the river just mentioned must have taken a more northerly course than Mr. Oxley supposed it to have done.
A short time after Mr. Hume turned towards the Macquarie, the country assumed a more pleasing appearance. He soon cleared the brushes, and at two miles came upon a chain of ponds, again running northerly in times of flood. Shortly after crossing these, he found himself on an extensive plain, apparently subject to overflow. The timber on it was chiefly of the blue-gum kind, and the ground was covered with shells. He then thought he was approaching the Macquarie, and proceeded due west across the flat for about two miles. At the extremity of it there was a hollow, which he searched in vain for water. Ascending about thirty feet, he entered a thick brush of box and acacia pendula, which continued for fourteen miles, when it terminated abruptly, and extensive plains of good soil commenced, stretching from N. to S. as far as the eye could reach, on which there were many kangaroos. Continuing to journey over them, he reached a creek at 5 p.m. on which the wild fowl were numerous, running nearly north and south, and he rested on its banks for the night. The timber consisted both of blue and rough gum, and the soil was a light earth.
Mr. Hume expected in the course of the day to have reached the Macquarie, but on arriving at the creek, he began to doubt whether it any longer existed, or whether it had not taken a more westerly direction. On the following morning, therefore, he crossed the creek, and travelled W.S.W., for about two miles over good plains; then through light brushes of swamp-oak, cypress, box, and acacia pendula, for about twelve miles, to another creek leading northerly. He shortly afterwards ascended a range of hills stretching W.N.W. to which he gave the name of New Year’s Range. From these hills, he had an extensive view, although not upon the highest part, but the only break he could see in the horizon was caused by some hills bearing by compass W. by S. distant about twenty-five miles. There was, however, an appearance as of high land to the northward, although Mr. Hume thought it might have been an atmospheric deception. From the range he looked in vain for the Macquarie, or other waters, and, as his provisions were nearly consumed, he was obliged to give up all further pursuit, and to retrace his steps. He fell in with two parties of natives, which, taken collectively, amounted to thirty-five in number, but had no communication with them.
It was evident, from the above account, that supposing a line to have been drawn from the camp northerly, Mr. Hume must have travelled considerably to the westward of it, and as I had run on a N.W. course from the marshes, it necessarily followed that our lines of route must have intersected each other, or that want of extension could alone have prevented them from having done so; but that, under any circumstances, they could not have been very far apart. This was too important a point to be left undecided, as upon it the question of the Macquarie’s termination seemed to depend.
Both Mr. Hume and myself were of opinion, that a medium course would be the most satisfactory for us to pursue, to decide this point; and it appeared that we could not do better than, by availing ourselves of the creek on which we were, and skirting the reeds, to take the first opportunity of dashing through them in a westerly direction.
I entertained great doubts as to the longer existence of the river, and as I foresaw that, in the event of its having terminated we should strike at once into the heart of the interior, I became anxious for the arrival of supplies at Mount Harris; and although I could hardly expect that they had yet reached it, I determined to proceed thither. Mr. Hume was too unwell for me to think of imposing additional fatigue upon him; I left him, therefore, to conduct the party, by easy stages, to the northward, until such time as I should overtake them. Even in one day there was a visible improvement in the men, and Dawber’s attack seemed to be rather the effects of cold than of any thing else. A death, however, under our circumstances, would have been so truly deplorable an event, that the least illness was sufficient to create alarm.
I can hardly say that I was disappointed on my arrival at Mount Harris, to find its neighbourhood silent and deserted. I remained, however, under it for the greater part of the next day, and, prior to leaving it, placed a sheet of paper with written instructions against a tree, though almost without a hope that it would remain untouched.
A little after sun-set we reached the first small marsh, at which we slept; and on the following morning I crossed the plains of the Macquarie, and joined the party at about fifteen miles from the creek at which I had left it. I found it in a condition that was as unlooked for by Mr. Hume as it was unexpected by me, and really in a most perplexing situation.
On the day I left him, Mr. Hume only advanced about two miles, in consequence of some derangement in the loads. Having crossed the creek, he, the next morning, proceeded down its right bank, until it entered the marshes and was lost. He then continued to move on the outskirts of the latter, and having performed a journey or about eight miles, was anxious to have stopped, but there was no water at hand. The men, however, were so fatigued, in consequence of previous illness, that he felt it necessary to halt after travelling about eleven miles.
No water could be procured even here, notwithstanding that Mr. Hume, who was quite unfit for great exertion, underwent considerable bodily fatigue in his anxiety to find some. He was, therefore, obliged to move early on the following morning, but neither men nor animals were in a condition to travel; and he had scarcely made three miles’ progress, when he stopped and endeavoured to obtain a supply or water by digging pits among the reeds. From these he had drawn sufficient for the wants of the people when I arrived. Some rain had fallen on the 6th and 7th of the month, or it is more than probable the expedient to which he resorted would have failed of success. Mr. Hume, I was sorry to observe, looked very unwell; but nothing could prevent him from further endeavours to extricate the party from its present embarrassment.
As soon as I had taken a little refreshment, therefore, I mounted a fresh horse; and he accompanied me across a small plain, immediately in front of the camp, which was subject to overflow and covered with polygonum, having a considerable extent of reeds to its right.
From the plain we entered a wood of blue-gum, in which reeds, grass, and brush formed a thick coppice. We at length passed into an open space, surrounded on every side by weeds in dense bodies. The great marsh bore south of us, and was clear and open, but behind us the blue-gum trees formed a thick wood above the weeds.
About two hundred yards from the outskirts of the marsh there was a line of saplings that had perished, and round about them a number of the tern tribe (sea swallow) were flying, one of which Mr. Hume had followed a considerable way into the reeds the evening before, in the hope that it would have led him to water. The circumstance of their being in such numbers led us to penetrate towards them, when we found a serpentine sheet of water of some length, over which they were playing. We had scarcely time to examine it before night closed in upon us, and it was after nine when we returned to the tents.
From the general appearance of the country to the northward, and from the circumstance of our having got to the bottom of the great marsh, which but a few days before had threatened to be so formidable, I thought it probable that the reeds would not again prove so extensive as they had been, and I determined, if I could do so, to push through them in a westerly direction from our position.
The pits yielded us so abundant a supply during the night, that in the morning we found it unnecessary to take the animals to water at the channel we had succeeded in finding the evening before; but pursuing a westerly course we passed it, and struck deep into the reeds. At mid-day we were hemmed in by them on every side, and had crossed over numerous channels, by means of which the waters of the marshes are equally and generally distributed over the space subject to their influence. Coming to a second sheet of water, narrower, but longer, as well as we could judge, than the first, we stopped to dine at it; and, while the men were resting themselves, Mr. Hume rode with me in a westerly direction, to ascertain what obstacles we still had to contend with. Forcing our way through bodies of reeds, we at length got on a plain, stretching from S.E. to N.W., bounded on the right by a wood of blue-gum, under which the reeds still extended, and on the left by a wood in which they did not appear to exist. Certain that there was no serious obstacle in our way, we returned to the men; and as soon as they had finished their meal, led them over the plain in a N.W. by W. direction. It was covered with shells, and was full of holes from the effects of flood.
As we were journeying over it, I requested Mr. Hume to ride into the wood upon our left, to ascertain if it concealed any channel. On his return he informed me that he descended from the plain into a hollow, the bottom of which was covered with small shells and bulrushes. He observed a new species of eucalypti, on the trunks of which the water-mark was three feet high. After crossing this hollow, which was about a quarter of a mile in breadth, he gained an open forest of box, having good grass under it; and, judging from the appearance of the country that no other channel could exist beyond him, and that he had ascertained sufficient for the object I had in view, he turned back to the plain. We stopped for the night under a wood of box, where the grass, which had been burnt down, was then springing up most beautifully green, and was relished exceedingly by the animals.
It was in consequence of our not having crossed any channel, while penetrating through the reeds, that could by any possible exaggeration have been laid down as the bed of the river, that I detached Mr. Hume; and the account he brought me at once confirmed my opinion in regard to the Macquarie, and I thenceforth gave up every hope of ever seeing it in its characteristic shape again.
Independently however of all circumstantial evidence, it was clear that the river had not re-formed at a distance of twenty-five miles to the north of us, since Mr. Hume had gone to the westward of that point, at about the same distance on his late journey, without having observed the least appearance of reeds or of a river. He had, indeed, noticed a hollow, which occasionally contained water, but he saw nothing like the bed of a permanent stream. I became convinced, also, from observation of the country through which we had passed, that the sources of the Macquarie could not be of such magnitude as to give a constant flow to it as a river, and at the same time to supply with water the vast concavity into which it falls. In very heavy rains only could the marshes and adjacent lands be laid wholly under water, since the evaporation alone would be equal to the supply.
The great plains stretching for so many miles to the westward of Mount Harris, even where they were clear of reeds, were covered with shells and the claws of cray-fish and their soil, although an alluvial deposit, was superficially sandy. They bore the appearance not only of frequent inundation, but of the floods having eventually subsided upon them. This was particularly observable at the bottom of the marshes. We did not find any accumulation of rubbish to indicate a rush of water to any one point; but numerous minor channels existed to distribute the floods equally and generally over every part of the area subject to them, and the marks of inundation and subsidence were everywhere the same. The plain we had last crossed, was, in like manner, covered with shells, so that we could not yet be said to be out of the influence of the marshes; besides which we had not crossed the hollow noticed by Mr. Hume, which it was clear we should do, sooner or later.
To have remained in our position would have been impossible, as there was no water either for ourselves or the animals; to have descended into the reeds again, for the purpose of carrying on a minute survey, would, under existing circumstances, have been imprudent. Our provisions were running short, and if a knowledge of the distant interior was to be gained, we had no time to lose. It was determined, therefore, to defer our further examination of the marshes to the period of our return; and to pursue such a course as would soonest and most effectually enable us to determine the character of the western interior.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00