Intercourse with the natives — Their appearance and condition — Remarks on the Salt or Darling River — Appearance of the marshes on our return — Alarm for safety of the provision party — Return to Mount Harris — Miserable condition of the natives — Circumstances attending the slaughter of two Irish runaways — Bend our course towards the Castlereagh — Wallis’s Ponds — Find the famished natives feeding on gum — Channel of the Castlereagh — Character of the country in its vicinity — Another tribe of natives — Amicable intercourse with them — Morrisset’s chain of Ponds — Again reach the Darling River ninety miles higher up than where we first struck upon it.
We kept near the river as we journeyed homewards, and in striking across a plain, found an isolated rock of quartz and jasper, just showing itself partially above the surface of the ground.
We were anxious to get to the small plain I have mentioned, if possible, for the sake of the animals, and pushed on rapidly for it. About 4 p.m. we had reached our sleeping place of the previous evening, and being overpowered by thirst, we stopped in hopes that by making our tea strong we might destroy, in some measure, the nauseous taste of the water. The horses were spancelled and a fire lit. Whilst we were sitting patiently for the boiling of the tins, Mr. Hume observed at a considerable distance above us, a large body of natives under some gum trees. They were not near enough for us to observe them distinctly, but it was evident that they were watching our motions. We did not take any notice of them for some time, but at last I thought it better to call out to them, and accordingly requested Mr. Hume to do so. In a moment the whole of them ran forward and dashed into the river, having been on the opposite side, with an uproar I had never witnessed on any former occasion.
Mr. Hume thought they intended an attack, and the horses had taken fright and galloped away. I determined, therefore, to fire at once upon them if they pressed up the bank on which we were posted. Mr. Hume went with me to the crest of it, and we rather angrily beckoned to the foremost of the natives to stop. They mistook our meaning, but laid all their spears in a heap as they came up. We then sat down on the bank and they immediately did the same; nor did they stir until we beckoned to them after the horses had been secured.
As they conducted themselves so inoffensively, we gave them everything we had to spare. My gun seemed to excite their curiosity, as they had seen Mr. Hume shoot a cockatoo with it; they must consequently have been close to us for the greater part of the day, as the bird was killed in the morning. It was of a species new to me, being smaller than the common white cockatoo, and having a large scarlet-and-yellow instead of a pine-yellow top-knot.
Having stayed about half an hour with them, we remounted our horses, and struck away from the river into the plains, while the natives went up its banks to join their hordes. Those whom we saw were about twenty-seven in number and the most of them were strangers.
It was some time after sunset before we reached the little plain on which we had arranged to sleep, and when we dismounted we were in a truly pitiable state. I had been unable to refrain from drinking copiously at the river, and now became extremely sick. Mr. Hume had been scarcely more prudent than myself, but on him the water had a contrary effect, as well as upon Hopkinson. The tinker was the only man fit for duty, and it was well for us that such was the case, as the horses made frequent attempts to stray, and would have left us in a pretty plight had they succeeded. We reached the camp on the following day a little before sunset, nor was I more rejoiced to dismount from my wearied horse than to learn that everything in the camp had been regular during our absence and that the men had kept on the best terms with the natives who had paid them frequent visits.
The bullocks had improved, but were still extremely weak, and as the horses we had employed on the last journey required a day or two’s rest, it was arranged that we should not break up our camp until the 12th, beyond which period we could not stop, in consequence of the low state of our salt provisions, we having barely sufficient to last to Mount Harris, at the rate of two pounds per week.
The morning after we returned from our excursion, a large party of natives, about seventy in number, visited the camp. On this occasion, the women and children passed behind the tents, but did not venture to stop. Most of the men had spears, and were unusually inquisitive and forward. Several of them carried fire-sticks under the influence of the disease I have already noticed, whilst others were remarked to have violent cutaneous eruptions all over the body. We were pretty well on the alert; notwithstanding which, every minor article was seized with a quickness that would have done credit to a most finished juggler. One of the natives thus picked up my comb and toothbrush, but as he did not attempt to conceal them, they were fortunately recovered. After staying with us a short time the men followed the women. They appeared to be strangers who had come from a distance.
The natives of the Darling are a clean-limbed, well-conditioned race, generally speaking. They seemingly occupy permanent huts, but their tribe did not bear any proportion to the size or number of their habitations. It was evident their population had been thinned. The customs of these distant tribes, as far as we could judge, were similar to those of the mountain blacks, and they are essentially the same people, although their language differs. They lacerate their bodies, but do not extract the front teeth. We saw but few cloaks among them, since the opossum does not inhabit the interior. Those that were noticed, were made of the red kangaroo skin. In appearance, these men are stouter in the bust than at the lower extremities; they have broad noses, sunken eyes, overhanging eyebrows, and thick lips. The men are much better looking than the women. Both go perfectly naked, if I except the former, who wear nets over the loins and across the forehead, and bones through the cartilages of the nose. Their chief food is fish, of which they have great supplies in the river; still they have their seasons for hunting their emus and kangaroos. The nets they use for this purpose, as well as for fishing, are of great length, and are made upon large frames. These people do not appear to have warlike habits nor do they take any pride in their arms, which differ little from those used by the inland tribes, and are assimilated to them as far as the materials will allow. One powerful man, however, had a regular trident, for which Mr. Hume offered many things without success. He plainly intimated to us that he had a use for it, but whether against an enemy or to secure prey, we could not understand. I was most anxious to have ascertained if any religious ceremonies obtained among them, but the difficulty of making them comprehend our meaning was insurmountable; and to the same cause may be attributed the circumstance of my being unable to collect any satisfactory vocabulary of their language. They evinced a strange perversity, or obstinacy rather, in repeating words, although it was evident that they knew they were meant as questions. The pole we observed in the creek, on the evening previously to our making the Darling, was not the only one that fell under our notice; our impression therefore, that they were fixed by the natives to propitiate some deity, was confirmed. It would appear that the white pigment was an indication of mourning. Whether these people have an idea of a superintending Providence I doubt, but they evidently dread evil agency. On the whole I should say they are a people, at present, at the very bottom of the scale of humanity.
We struck the Darling River in lat. 29 degrees 37 minutes S. and in E. long. 145 degrees 33 minutes, and traced it down for about sixty-six miles in a direct line to the S.W. If I might hazard an opinion from appearance, to whatever part of the interior it leads, its source must be far to the N.E. or N. The capacity of its channel, and the terrific floods that must sometimes rage in it, would argue that it is influenced by tropical rains, which alone would cause such floods. It is likely that it seldom arrives at so reduced a state as that in which we found it, and that, generally speaking, it has a sufficient depth of water for the purposes of inland navigation: in such case its future importance cannot be questioned, since it most probably receives the chief streams falling westerly from the coast ranges. But, with every anticipation of the benefit that may at some time or other be derived from this remarkable and central stream, it is incumbent on me to state that the country, through which it flows, holds out but little prospect of advantage. Certainly the portion we know of it, is far from encouraging. The extent of alluvial soil, between the inner and outer banks of the river, is extremely limited, and, instead of being covered with sward, is in most places over-run by the polygonum. Beyond this the plains of the interior stretch away, whose character and soil must change, ere they can be available to any good purpose. But there is a singular want of vegetable decay in the interior of New Holland, and that powerfully argues its recent origin.
There is no life upon its surface, if I may so express myself; but the stillness of death reigns in its brushes, and over its plains. It cannot, however, be doubted that we visited the interior during a most unfavorable season. Probably in ordinary ones it wears a different appearance, but its deserts are of great extent, and its productions are of little value.
Agreeably to our arrangements, we broke up our camp at an early hour on the morning of the 12th, and proceeded up the river to the junction of New Year’s Creek. We then struck away in an easterly direction from it, detaching a man to trace the creek up, lest we should pass any water; and we should certainly have been without it had we not taken this precaution.
On the following day, we again passed to the eastward, through an open country, having picturesque views of Oxley’s Table Land. We crossed our track about noon, and struck on the creek at about five miles beyond it, and we were fortunate enough to procure both water and grass. The timber upon the plains, between us and the Darling, we found to be a rough gum, but box prevailed in the neighbourhood of the creek at this part of it.
On the 14th, we changed our direction more to the southward, but made a short journey, in consequence of being obliged to make some slight repairs on the boat carriage.
On the 15th, we kept an E.S.E. course, and, crossing the creek at an early hour, got upon our old track, which we kept. We had the lateral ridge of the Pink Hills upon our right, and travelled through a good deal of brush. Four or five natives joined us, and two followed us to the end of our day’s journey. In the course of the evening, they endeavoured to pilfer whatever was in their reach, but were detected putting a tin into a bush, and soon took to their heels. This was the first instance we had of open theft among the natives of the interior.
We passed Mosquito Brush on the 18th, but found the ponds quite dry, we were, therefore, under the necessity of pushing on, to shorten the next day’s journey, as we could not expect to get water nearer than the marshes. At noon, on the 19th, we entered the plain, and once more saw them spreading in dreariness before us. While the party was crossing to the first channel, I rode to the left, in order to examine the appearance of the country in the direction of the wood, and as far as I skirted the reeds had my impressions confirmed as to their partial extension. I was obliged, however, to join the men without completing the circuit of the marshes. They had found the first channel dry, and had passed on to the other, in which, fortunately, a small quantity of water still remained. It was, however, so shallow as to expose the backs of the fish in it, and a number of crows had congregated, and were pecking at them. Wishing to satisfy my mind as to the distance to which the river extended to the northward, Mr. Hume rode with me on the following day, to examine the country in that direction, leaving the men stationary. We found that the reeds gradually decreased in body, until, at length, they ceased, or gave place to bulrushes. There were general appearances of inundation, and of the subsidence of waters, but none that led us to suppose that any channel existed beyond the flooded lands.
On our return to the camp, we observed dense masses of smoke rising at the head of the marshes, and immediately under Mount Foster. This excited our alarm for the safety of the party we hoped to find at Mount Harris, and obliged us to make forced marches, to relieve it if threatened by the natives.
On the 22nd, we crossed the plains of the Macquarie, and surprised a numerous tribe on the banks of the river; and the difficulty we found in getting any of them to approach us, their evident timidity, and the circumstance of one of them having on a jacket, tended to increase our apprehensions. When two or three came to us, they intimated that white men either had been or were under Mount Harris, but we were left in uncertainty and passed a most anxious night.
The body of reeds was still on fire; and the light embers were carried to an amazing distance by the wind, falling like a black-shower around us. As we knew that the natives never made such extensive conflagration, unless they had some mischievous object in view, our apprehension for the safety of Riley, with his supplies, was increased.
At the earliest dawn, we pushed for the hill. In passing that part of the meadows under Mount Foster, we observed that the grass had also been consumed, and we scarcely recognized the ground from its altered appearance. As we approached Mount Harris, we saw recent traces of cattle, but none were visible on the plains. Under the hill, however, we could distinctly see that a hut of some kind had been erected, and it is impossible for me to describe the relief we felt when a soldier came forward to reconnoitre us. I could no longer doubt the safety of the party, and this was confirmed by the rest of the men turning out to welcome us. It appeared that our suspicions with regard to the natives had not been without foundation, since they attempted to surprise the camp, and it was supposed the firing of the marshes was done with a view to collect the distant tribes, to make a second attack; so that our arrival was most opportune.
The party I found awaiting our arrival at Mount Harris consisted of one soldier, Riley, who had the charge of the supplies, and a drayman. They had found the paper I had fixed against the tree, and also the letters I had hid, and had forwarded them to Sydney, by another soldier and a prisoner; which had weakened their party a good deal. Riley informed me, that he had been between a month and three weeks at the station, and that knowing our provisions must have run short he had expected us much earlier than we had made our appearance.
My dispatches stated, that additional supplies had been forwarded for my use, together with horses and bullocks, in the event of my requiring them. On examination, the former were found to be in excellent order; and, as it would take some time to carry any changes I might contemplate, or find it necessary to make, into effect, I determined to give the men who had been with me a week’s rest.
The camp was made snug; and as the weather had become much cooler I thought it a good opportunity to slaughter one of the bullocks, in order to guard against any bad effects of our having been living for some weeks exclusively on salt provisions. I was also induced to this measure, from a wish to preserve my supplies as much as possible.
These matters having been arranged, I had a temporary awning erected near the river, and was for three or four days busily employed writing an account of our journey for the Governor’s information.
Having closed my despatches, and answered the numerous friendly letters I had received, my attention was next turned to the changes that had taken place at Mount Harris during our absence. The Macquarie, I found, had wholly ceased to flow, and now consisted of a chain of ponds. Such of the minor vegetation as had escaped the fires of the natives, had perished under the extreme heat of the season. The acacia pendula stood leafless upon the plains, and the polygonum junceum appeared to be the only plant that had withstood the effects of the drought. Yet, notwithstanding this general depression of the vegetable kingdom, the animals that had been brought from Wellington Valley were in the best condition, and were, indeed, too fat for effective labour; it might, therefore, be reasonably presumed, that herbage affording such nourishment in so unfavourable a season, would be of the richest quality, if fresh and vigorous under the influence of seasonable, and not excessive, rains.
The appearance of the country was, however, truly melancholy; there was not a flower in bloom, nor a green object to be seen. Whether our arrival had increased their alarm, is uncertain, but the natives continued to fire the great marshes, and as the element raged amongst them, large bodies of smoke rose over the horizon like storm clouds, and had the effect of giving additional dreariness to the scene. I am inclined to think that they made these conflagrations to procure food, by seizing whatsoever might issue from the flames, as snakes, birds, or other animals; for they had taken every fish in the river, and the low state of its waters had enabled them to procure an abundance of muscles from its bed, which they had consumed with their characteristic improvidence. They were, consequently, in a starving condition, and so pitiable were their indications of it, that I was induced to feed such of them as visited the camp, notwithstanding their late misconduct; being likewise anxious to bring about a good understanding, as the best means of ensuring the safety of the smaller party when we should separate, of which I had reason to be doubtful. These people had killed two white men not long before my arrival among them, and as the circumstances attending the slaughter are singular, I shall relate them.
The parties were two Irish runaways, who thought they could make their way to Timor. They escaped from Wellington Valley with a fortnight’s provision each, and a couple of dogs, and proceeded down the Macquarie. About the cataract, they fell in with the Mount Harris tribe, and remained with them for some days, when they determined on pursuing their journey. The blacks, however, wanted to get possession of their dogs, and a resistance on the part of the Europeans brought on a quarrel. It appears, that before the blacks proceeded to extremities, they furnished the Irishmen, who were unarmed, with weapons, and then told them to defend themselves, but whether against equal or inferior numbers, I am uninformed. One of them soon fell, which the other observing, he took his knife out, and cut the throats of both the dogs before the blacks had time to put him to death. He was, however, sacrificed; and both the men were eaten by the tribe generally. I questioned several on the subject, but they preserved the most sullen silence, neither acknowledging nor denying the fact.
Mr. Hume had been one day on Mount Harris, and while there, had laid his compass on a large rock, near to which Mr. Oxley’s boat had been burnt. To his surprise, he found the needle affected; and his bearings were all wrong. I subsequently went up to ascertain the extent of the error produced, and found it precisely the same as Mr. Hume noticed. When I placed the compass on the rock, Mount Foster bore from me N. by W., the true bearing of the one hill from the other being N.N.W. My placing my notebook under the compass did not alter the effect, nor did the card move until I raised the instrument a couple of feet above the stone, when it first became violently agitated, and then settled correctly; and my bearings of the highest parts of Arbuthnot’s Range, and of its centre, were as follows:
Mount Exmouth to the N . . . . .. N. 86 E. Centre. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . N. 85 E. Vernon’s Peak. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . N. 89 E. Distance 70 miles.
Having finished my reports and letters, it became necessary to consider the best point on which to move, and to fix a day for our departure from Mount Harris. It struck me that having found so important a feature as the Darling River, the Governor would approve my endeavouring to regain it more to the southward, in order to trace it down. I, therefore, detached Mr. Hume to survey the country in that direction, and to ascertain if a descent upon the Bogen district would be practicable, through which I had been informed a considerable river forced itself. The report he made on his return was such as to deter me from that attempt, but he stated that the country for 30 miles from the Macquarie was well watered, and superior to any he had passed over during the journey; beyond that distance, it took up the character of the remote interior, and alternated with plains and brush, the soil being too sandy to retain water on its surface. He saw some hills from the extremity of his journey, bearing by compass W.S.W. We consequently determined to make for the Castlereagh, agreeably to our instructions. Preparations were made for breaking up the camp, all the various arrangements in the change of animals were completed, the boat carriage was exchanged for a dray, and I took Boyle in the place of Norman, whose timidity in the bush rendered him unfit for service.
There is a small hill on the opposite side of the river, and immediately facing Mount Harris, and to the S.E. of it there is a small lagoon, the head of a creek, by means of which its superfluous waters are carried off. This creek runs parallel to the river for about ten miles, and enters the marshes at the S.E. angle. This I ascertained one day in riding to carry on my survey of the southern extremity of the marshes, and to join my line of route by making the circuit of that part of them. I found that the river was turned to its northerly course by a rising ground of forest land, which checks its further progress westerly. I proceeded round the S.W. angle, and then, taking a northerly course, got down to the bottom of the first great marsh, thus completing the circuit of them. I did not return to the camp until after 10 p.m., having crossed the river at day-light, nor did we procure any water from the time we left the stream to the moment of our recrossing it.
Having completed our various arrangements, and closed our letters, we struck our tents on the morning of the 7th March; we remained, however, to witness the departure of Riley’s party for Wellington Valley, and then left the Macquarie on an E.N.E. course for Wallis’s Ponds, and made them at about 14 miles. They undoubtedly empty themselves into the marshes, and are a continuation of that chain of ponds on which I left the party in Mr. Hume’s charge. About a mile from Mount Harris, we passed a small dry creek, that evidently lays the country under water in the wet seasons. There was a blue-gum flat to the eastward of it, which we crossed, and then entered a brush of acacia pendula and box. The soil upon the plain was an alluvial deposit; that in the brushes was sandy. From the extremity of the plain, Mount Harris bore, by compass, S.W. by W.; Mount Foster due west. The scrub through which we were penetrating, at length became so dense, that we found it impossible to travel in a direct line through it, and frequent ridges of cypresses growing closely together, turned us repeatedly from our course. The country at length became clearer, and we travelled over open forest of box, casuarina, and cypresses, on a sandy soil; the first predominating. For about two miles before we made the creek, the country was not heavily timbered, the acacia pendula succeeding the larger trees. The ground had a good covering of grass upon it, and there were few of the salsolaceous plants, so abundant on the western plains, to be found. The rough-gum abounded near the creek, with a small tree bearing a hard round nut, and we had the luxury of plenty of water.
We remained stationary on the 8th, in hopes that Riley would have met the soldier who had been sent back to Wellington Valley, and that he would have forwarded any letters to us, of which he might have been the bearer. The day, however, passed over without realizing our expectations; and we started once more for the interior, and cut ourselves off from all communication with society.
We made for Morrisset’s chain of ponds, and travelled over rich and extensive plains, divided by plantations of cypress, box, and casuarina, in the early and latter period of the day. About noon we entered a dense forest of cypresses, which continued for three miles, when the cypresses became mixed with casuarina, box, and mountain-gum, a tree we had not remarked before in so low a situation. We struck upon the creek after a journey of about 15 miles. It had a sandy bed, and was extremely tortuous in its course, nor was it until after a considerable search, that we at length succeeded in finding water, at which a party of natives were encamped. The moment they saw us, they fled, and left all their utensils, &c. behind them. Among other things, we found a number of bark troughs, filled with the gum of the mimosa, and vast quantities of gum made into cakes upon the ground. From this it would appear these unfortunate creatures were reduced to the last extremity, and, being unable to procure any other nourishment, had been obliged to collect this mucilaginous food.
The plains we traversed, were of uniform equality of surface. Water evidently lodges and continues on them long after a fall of rain, and in wet seasons they must, I should imagine, be full of quagmires, and almost impassable.
On the 10th, we passed through a country that differed in no material point from that already described. We stopped at 10 a.m. under some brush, in the centre of a large plain, from which Arbuthnot’s range bore S. 84 E. distant from 50 to 55 miles, and afterwards traversed or rather crossed, those extensive tracts described by Mr. Evans as being under water and covered with reeds, in 1817. They now bore a very different appearance, being firm and dry. The soil was in general good, and covered with forest grass and a species of oxalia. We did not observe any reeds, or the signs of inundation, but, as is invariably the case with plains in the interior, they were of too even surface, as I have so lately remarked, to admit of the waters running quickly off them; and no doubt, when they became saturated, many quagmires are formed, that would very much impede the movements of an expedition.
We reached the Castlereagh about 4 p.m., and although its channel could not have been less than 130 yards in breadth, there was apparently not a drop of water in it. Its bed consisted of pure sand and reeds; amid the latter, we found a small pond of 15 yards circumference, after a long search. There is a considerable dip in the country towards the river, at about two miles from it; and the intervening brush was full of kangaroo, which, I fancy, had congregated to a spot where there was abundance of food for them. The soil covering the space was of the richest quality, and the timber upon it consisted of box, mountain gum, and the angophora lanceolata, a tree that is never found except on rich ground.
It appeared that our troubles were to recommence, and that in order to continue on the Castlereagh, it would be necessary for Mr. Hume and myself to undertake those fatiguing journeys in search of water that had so exhausted us already: and after all, it was doubtful how soon we might be forced back. I had certainly expected that, on our gaining the banks of the river, we should have had a constant supply of water, but the circumstance of the Castlereagh having not only ceased to flow, but being absolutely dry, while it afforded the best and clearest proof of the severity and continuance of the drought in the interior, at the same time damped the spirits and ardour of the men. We kept the left bank of the river as we proceeded down it, and passed two or three larger ponds about a mile below where we had slept, but there they ceased. The bed of the river became one of pure sand, nor did there appear to be any chance of our finding any water in it. I stopped the party at about eight miles, and desired the men to get their dinners, to give Mr. Hume and myself time to search for a supply upon the plains. Disappointed to the left, we crossed the channel of the Castlereagh, and struck over a small plain upon the right bank, and at the extremity of it, came upon a swamp, from which we immediately returned for the cattle, and got them unloaded by seven o’clock. As there was sufficient pasture around us, I proposed to Mr. Hume on the following day, to leave the party stationary, and to ride down the river to see how far its present appearances continued. Like the generality of rivers of the interior, it had, where we struck upon it, outer banks to confine its waters during floods, and to prevent them from spreading generally over the country; the space between the two banks being of the richest soil, and the timber chiefly of the angophora kind. Flooded-gum overhung the inner banks of the river, or grew upon the many islands, with casuarina. It became evident, however, that the outer banks declined in height as we proceeded down the river, nor was it long before they ceased altogether. As we rode along, we found that the inner ones were fast decreasing in height also. Riding under a hanging wood of the angophora, which had ceased for a time, we were induced to break off to our right, to examine some large flooded-gum trees about a couple of miles to the N.W. of us. On arriving near them, we were astonished to find that they concealed a serpentine lagoon that had a belt of reeds round it. Keeping this lagoon upon our right, we at length came to the head of it, past which the river sweeps. Crossing the channel of the river, we continued to ride in an easterly direction to examine the country. In doing this, we struck on a second branch of the Castlereagh, leading W. by N. into a plain, which it of course inundates at times, and running up it, we found its bed at the point of separation, to be considerably higher than that of the main channel, which still continued of pure sand — and was stamped all over with the prints of the feet of natives, kangaroos, emus, and wild dogs, We then turned again to the head of the lagoon, and took the following bearings of Arbuthnot’s range:
Mount Exmouth . . . . . . . . .. E. 90 S. Centre Range . . . . . . . . . . . E. 35 E. Vernon’s Peak . . . . . . . . .. E. 20 S.
From the head of the lagoon, the river appeared to enter a reedy hollow, shaded by a long line of flooded gum trees, and on proceeding to it, we found the banks ceased here altogether; and that a very considerable plain extended both to the right and the left, which cannot fail of being frequently laid under water.
On the following morning we moved the party to the lagoon, and, passing its head, encamped to the north of it; after which we again rode down the river in search of water. It continued to hold a straight and northerly course for about five miles, having a plain on either side. The reeds that had previously covered the channel then suddenly ceased, and the channel, contracting in breadth, gained in depth: it became extremely serpentine, and at length lost all the character and appearance of a river. It had many back channels, as large as the main one, serving to overflow the neighbouring country. We succeeded in finding a small pond of water in one of the former, hardly large enough to supply our necessities, but as it enabled us to push so much further on, we turned towards the lagoon, making a circuitous journey to the right, across a large plain, bounded to the north by low acacia brush and box. We struck upon a creek at the further extremity of the plain, in which there was a tolerably sized pond. It appeared from the traces of men, that some natives had been there the day before; but we did not see any of them. The water was extremely muddy and unfit for use. The lagoon at which we had encamped, was of less importance than we had imagined.
Whilst Mr. Hume led the party down the river, I rode up its northward bank, to examine it more closely. I found it to be a serpentine sheet of about three miles in length, gradually decreasing in depth until it separated into two small creeks. In following one of them up, I observed that they re-united at the distance of about two miles, and that the lagoon was filled from the eastward, and not by the river as I had at first supposed. The waters at the head of the lagoon were putrid, nor was there a fish in, or a wild fowl upon it. The only bird we saw was a beautiful eagle, of the osprey kind, with plumage like a sea gull, which had a nest in the tree over the tents.
In turning to overtake the party I rode through a great deal of acacia scrub, and on arriving at the place at which I expected to have overtaken them, I found they had pushed on.
The Castlereagh, as I rode down it, diminished in size considerably, and became quite choked up with rushes and brambles. Rough-gum again made its appearance, with swamp-oak and a miserable acacia scrub outside. The country on both sides of the river seemed to be an interminable flat, and the soil of an inferior description.
I came up with with Mr. Hume about 1 o’clock and we again pushed forward at 3, and halted for the night without water, the want of which the cattle did not feel. The river held a general westerly course, and the country in its neighbourhood became extremely depressed and low. On the following day we moved forward a distance of not more than nine miles, through a country on which, at first, the acacia pendula alone was growing on a light alluvial soil. The river had many back drains, by means of which, in wet seasons, it inundates the adjacent plains. It was evident, however, that they had not been flooded for many years; and, notwithstanding that the country was low, the line of inundation did not appear to be very extensive, nor were there any reeds growing beyond the immediate banks of the river. Swamp-oak and rough-gum again prevailed near the stream at our halting place, and the improvement that had taken place, both in the country and in the Castlereagh, had induced us to make so short a journey; for not only was there abundance of the grass for the animals, but large ponds of water in the river. Some natives had only just preceded us down it: we came upon their fires that were still smoking; and upon them were the remains of some fish they had taken, near which they had left a cumbrous spear. The circumstances cheered us with hopes that an improvement would take place in the country, and that some new feature would soon open upon us. In the course of the following day, however, every favorable change, both in the river and in the country, disappeared. The latter continued extremely depressed, and in general open, or lightly covered with acacia pendula; the former dwindled into a mere ditch, choked up with brambles and reeds, and having only here and there a stagnant pool of water. We travelled on a N.W. 1/2 W. course for about ten miles, and again stopped for the night without water. In the course of the afternoon, we traversed several flats, on which the rough-gum alone was growing. These flats were evidently subject to flood; and contained an alluvial soil.
They became more frequent as we travelled down the river, and the work was so heavy for the animals, that I was obliged to keep wide of them, in doing which we struck upon a creek of large size, coming from the N.E. and, having crossed, we traversed its right bank to its junction with the Castlereagh, and stopped close to it at a pond of water, though the feed for the animals was bad. The country to the left of the river, though somewhat high, was the same, in essential points, as that to the right.
The Castlereagh seemed to have increased in size below the creek, but still it had no resemblance to a river. We had not proceeded very far down its banks, on the 18th, when we crossed a broad footpath leading to it from the interior. I turned my horse to the left, and struck upon a long sheet of water, from which I startled a number of pelicans. It was evident that the natives had recently been in the neighbourhood, but we thought it probable they might have been a hunting party, who had returned again to the plains. The whole track we passed over during the day was miserably poor and bare of vegetation, nor did the appearance of the country to the N.E. indicate any improvement. We lost the traces of the natives immediately after crossing their path or beat, and again found the bed of the river dry, after we had passed the sheet of water to which it led. The soil was so rotten and yielding, that the team knocked up early; indeed, it was a matter of surprise to me that they should not have failed before. The river made somewhat to the westward with little promise of improvement. The wretched appearance of the country as we penetrated into it, damped our spirits; we pressed on, however, with difficulty, over ground that was totally destitute of vegetation. Instead of lofty timber and a living stream, we wandered along the banks of an insignificant watercourse, and under trees of stunted size and scanty foliage. We stopped on the 20th at the angle of a creek, in which there was some dry grass, in consequence of the animals being almost in a starving state, but even here they had but little to eat.
A violent thunder-storm passed over us in the afternoon, but it made no change in the temperature of the air. The weather, although it had been hot and sultry, had fallen far short of the intense heat we experienced in crossing the marshes of the Macquarie, when it was such as to melt the sugar in the canisters, and to destroy all our dogs; and our nights were now become agreeably cool.
We still, however, continued to travel over a dead level, nor was a height or break visible from the loftiest trees we ascended. A little before we stopped at the creek, we surprised a party of natives; old men, women, and children. They were preparing dinners of fish in much larger quantities than they could have devoured — probably for a part of the tribe that were absent; but the moment they saw us they fled, and left every thing at our mercy. On examining the fish, we found them totally different from any in the Macquarie, and took two of the most perfect to preserve. In the afternoon one of the men came to inform me that the tribe was coming down upon us.
Mr. Hume and I, therefore, went to meet them. They were at this time about 150 yards from the tent, but seeing us advance, they stopped, and forming two deep, they marched to and fro, to a war song I suppose, crouching with their spears. We had not, however, any difficulty in communicating with them, and I shall detail the manner in which this was brought about, in hopes that it may help to guide others. When the natives saw us advance, they stopped, and we did the same. Mr. Hume then walked to a tree, and broke off a short branch. It is singular that this should, even with these rude people, be a token of peace. As soon as they saw the branch, the natives laid aside their spears, and two of them advanced about twenty paces in front of the rest, who sat down. Mr. Hume then went forward and sat down, when the two natives again advanced and seated themselves close to him.
Now it is evident that a little insight into the customs of every people is necessary to insure a kindly communication; this, joined with patience and kindness, will seldom fail with the natives of the interior. It is not to avoid alarming their natural timidity that a gradual approach is so necessary. They preserve the same ceremony among themselves. These men, who were eighteen in number, came with us to the tents, and received such presents as we had for them. They conducted themselves very quietly, and, after a short time, left us with every token of friendship.
On the 21st we proceeded down the river on a N.N.W. course, and at about five miles struck upon a very large creek, apparently coming from the E.N.E.
Although the Castlereagh had increased in size, this creek was infinitely larger; it was, however, perfectly dry. Lofty flooded-gum trees were upon its banks, and it appeared so much superior to the river that I was induced to halt the party at the junction, in order to examine it more closely. Mr. Hume, therefore, rode with me up the right bank. We had not proceeded very far, when some natives called out to us from the opposite scrub. Thinking that they belonged to the tribe we had left behind us, we pointed to the junction, and motioned them to go there, but one of the party continued to follow and call to us for some time. On our return to the men, we found that the natives had joined them, and they now gave us to understand that we were going away from water. This had indeed been apparent to us. The creek was perfectly dry, as far as we traced it up; and seemed to have been totally deserted by the natives.
We were about to proceed on our journey, when from twenty to thirty natives approached us from down the river. We sent two of those who had been with us to them, and the whole accompanied us for some miles, talking incessantly to the men, but keeping at a very respectful distance from the animals. We at length got opposite to their camp, near which there was a very fine pool of water, and they were earnest in persuading us to stop at it. We were, however, too anxious to get forward to comply; under the improved appearance of the river since it had received the creeks from the eastward, little anticipating what was before us.
The natives did not follow us beyond their own encampment. Within sight of it, we came upon their armoury, if I may so term it. Numerous spears were reared against the trees, and heaps of boomerangs were lying on the ground. The spears were very heavy, and half barbed; and it is singular that three of them were marked with a broad arrow. We saw the natives watching us, fearful, I imagine, that we should help ourselves; but I would not permit any of their weapons to be touched.
Pursuing our journey, we reached another creek, at about five miles, similar to the last in appearance and size, and we crossed it repeatedly during the afternoon. We had been induced to keep along a native path in the hope that it would have led us to the river by a short cut; but it eventually led us to this creek, and away from the Castlereagh; for, notwithstanding that we subsequently changed our course to the S.W., we failed, as we supposed, again to strike upon the latter, and were obliged to stop for the night on the banks of what appeared to be a third large dry creek, which we intersected nearly at right angles.
We travelled through a good deal of brush during the day, nor did the country change from the miserable and barren character it had assumed for the last thirty or forty miles. The Castlereagh had so frequently changed, that both Mr. Hume and myself were puzzled as to the identity of the creek upon which we had halted. We searched its bed in vain for water, although it was most capacious. Under an impression that the river was still to the south, and that we were at a point to which many watercourses from the high lands tended, I crossed the creek early in the morning, and held a S.W. course, over an open forest country. At about eight miles, we came upon a large space over-run by the polygonum junceum, a certain indication of flooded ground, and of our consequent proximity to some stream. Accordingly, after pushing through it, we struck upon a small creek with abundance of water in it. Whether this creek was the Castlereagh, which it resembled much more than the one we had left in the morning, was doubtful; but it was a great source of comfort to us to have so unexpected a supply of water as that which was now at our disposal. Whatever channel this was, whether a river or a creek, our tracing it down would lead us in the direction we wished to go, and probably to some junction.
The neighbourhood of the creek was well clothed with vegetation, and the cattle found good feed; but the only trees near it were rough-gum and casuarinae; the flooded-gum had again disappeared. The soil of the forest land over which we journeyed was a light sandy loam; and its timber consisted chiefly of eucalypti, acacia pendula, and the angophora.
Some natives visited us in the afternoon, and among them, both Mr. Hume and I recognized one of those we had seen on the Darling. He also knew us again, but we could not make out from him how far we were from that river. They stayed with us till sunset, and then went down the creek, leaving their spears against a tree, for which they said they would return.
On the 23rd we took up a W.N.W. course, and when we again touched on the creek it was dry. This was at a distance of about five miles from where we had slept. As the animals had not recovered from their late privations, I deemed it better to halt the party and to examine the creek for a few miles below us, that in case it should prove destitute of water, we might return to that we had left. Mr. Hume accordingly rode down it for about three miles, without success; and on his rejoining the men, we returned with them to our last camp, or to within a short distance of it. Wishing to examine the creek above our position, I requested Mr. Hume to take two men with him, and to trace it down in search of water, while I should proceed in the opposite direction. I went from the camp at an early hour, and as I wandered along the creek, I passed a regular chain of ponds. The country on both sides of the creek was evidently subject to flood, but more extensively to the south than to the north. From the creek, I struck away to my left, and after penetrating through a belt of swamp-oak and minor shrubs, got on a small plain, which I crossed N.E. and, to my annoyance, found it covered with rhagodia and salsolae. As I had not started with the intention of sleeping, I turned to the S.W. a little before sunset, and reached the tents between ten and eleven. I found Mr. Hume awaiting me. He informed me that at about nine miles from where we had turned back with the party, he had struck upon a junction; and that as the junction was much larger than the channel he had been tracing, he thought it better to follow it up for a few miles. He found that it narrowed in width, and that its banks became steep, with a fine avenue of flooded-gum trees overhanging them. At four miles, he came upon another junction, and at four miles more, found himself opposite to the ground on which we had slept on the previous Saturday. From this point he retraced the channel, but not finding any water for three miles below the lower junction, he returned to the camp, with a view of prosecuting a longer journey on the morrow. Mr. Hume had become impressed with an opinion, that the junction up which we had slept was no other than the Castlereagh itself; and that our position was on a creek, probably Morrisset’s chain of ponds, flowing into it. As the cattle wanted a few days’ rest, Mr. Hume and I determined to ride, unattended, along our track to our camp of the 21st, and then to follow the channel upwards, until we should arrive at the station of the natives, or until we should have ridden to such a distance as would set our conjectures at rest. In the morning, however, instead of running upon our old track, we followed that of Mr. Hume to the junction, giving up our first intention, with a view to ascertain if there existed any water which we could, by an effort, gain, below where Mr. Hume had been. The channel was very broad, with a considerable fall in its bed, and, in appearance, more resembled the slope of a lawn than the bed of a river. It had two gum-trees in the centre of its channel, in one of which the floods had left the trunk of a large tree. We could discover where it narrowed and its banks rose, but, as we intended to make a closer examination before we left the neighbourhood, we continued our journey down the principal channel. The ground exhibited an abundance of pasture in its immediate neighbourhood, but the distant country was miserably poor and bare. At about three miles, we came upon the fresh traces of some natives, which led us to the channel again, from which we had wandered unintentionally. In it we found there had been water very lately, and it appeared that the natives had dug holes at the bottom to insure a longer supply. These were now exhausted, but still retained the appearance of moisture. At a mile and a half beyond these, we were led to some similar holes, by observing a number of birds flying about them. The water was too muddy for us to drink, but the horses emptied them successively. We now kept sufficiently near the channel to insure our seeing any pool that might still remain in it, but rode for about seven miles before we again saw water, and even here, although it was a spring, we were obliged to dig holes, and await their filling, before we could get sufficient for our use. Having dined, we again pursued our journey, and almost immediately came upon a long narrow ditch, full of water, and lined by bulrushes. The creek or river had for some time kept the centre of a deep alluvial valley, in which there was plenty of food for the cattle, and which, at this place, was apparently broader than anywhere else. The situation being favourable, we returned to the camp, and reached it late.
I do not know whether I was wrong in my conjecture, but I fancied, about this time, that the men generally were desponding. Whether it was that the constant fatigue entailed on myself and Mr. Hume, and that our constant absence, or the consequent exhaustion it produced, had any effect on their minds, or that they feared the result of our perseverance, is difficult to say; but certainly, they all had a depression of spirits, and looked, I thought, altered in appearance; nor did they evince any satisfaction at our success — at least, not the satisfaction they would have shown at an earlier period of our journey.
Before moving forward, it remained for us to ascertain if the channel from the junction was the Castlereagh, or only a creek. The intersection of so many channels in this neighbourhood, most of them so much alike, made it essentially necessary that we should satisfy ourselves on this point. Mr. Hume, therefore, accompanied me, as had at first been intended the morning of our return to the place at which we had slept. We took fresh horses, but dispensed with any other attendants, and indeed went wholly unarmed.
After following our old track to its termination, we kept up the right bank of the channel, and at length arrived at the camp of the natives; thus satisfying ourselves that we had been journeying on the Castlereagh, and that we were still following it down. By this ride we ascertained that there was a distance of five-and-forty miles in its bed without a drop of water. Few of the natives were in the camp. The women avoided us, but not as if they were under any apprehension. Crossing at the head of the pool, we again got on our old track, but seeing two or three men coming towards us we alighted, and, tying our horses to a tree, went to meet them. One poor fellow had two ducks in his hand, which he had just taken off the fire; these he offered to us, and on our declining to accept of them, he called to a boy, who soon appeared with a large trough of honey, of which we partook. One of the men had an ulcer in the arm, and asked me what he should do to heal it; indeed, I believe Fraser had promised him some ointment, but not having any with me, I signified to him that be should wash it often, and stooping down, made as if I was taking up water in my hand. The poor fellow mistook me, and, also stooping down, took up a handful of dust which he threw over the sore. This gave me the trouble of explaining matters again, and by pointing to the water, I believe I at length made him understand me.
These good natured people asked us where we had slept the day we passed, and when informed of the direction, shook their heads, motioning at the same time, that we must have been without water. We informed them where the party was, and asked them to come and see us, but I fancy the distance was too great, or else we were in the beat of another tribe. On mentioning these facts to the men, they said that two of the natives had followed us for some miles, calling out loudly to us, but Mr. Hume and I both being in front, we did not hear them, although, evidently, they wished to save us distress.
Since the result of our excursion proved that the channel, about which I had been so doubtful, was the Castlereagh, it necessarily followed, that the creek at which we were encamped was one of those (most probably Morrisset’s chain of ponds,) which we had already crossed nearer its source, and which Mr. Hume must have struck upon when endeavouring to gain the Castlereagh from the marshes of the Macquarie.
A perusal of these sheets will ere this have impressed on the reader’s mind, the peculiarity of that fortune which led us from the Castlereagh to the creek, at which alone our wants could have been supplied. Had we wandered down the river, as we undoubtedly should have done had we recognised it as such, the loss of many of our animals would have been the inevitable consequence, and very probably a final issue would have been put to our journey. It is only to those who are placed in situations that baffle their own exertions or foresight, that the singular guidance of Providence becomes fully apparent.
It would appear that the natives were dying fast, not from any disease, but from the scarcity of food; and, should the drought continue, it seemed probable they may became extinct.
The men found the body of a woman covered with leaves near the tents, and very properly buried it. We made Friday a day of rest for ourselves, as indeed was necessary; and on the following morning proceeded down the river, and encamped on a high bank above it, at the base of which, our cattle both fed and watered.
At this spot one of the largest gum-trees I had ever seen had fallen, having died for want of moisture; indeed, the state of the vegetable kingdom was such as to threaten its total extinction, unless a change of seasons should take place.
It may be worthy of remark that, from our first arrival on the banks of the Castlereagh, to our arrival at the present camp, we never picked up a stone, or a pebble, in its bed.
In the hope that we should fall on some detached pond, we pursued our journey on the 29th. The Castlereagh gave singular proofs of its violence, as if its waters, confined in the valley, had a difficulty in escaping from it. We had not travelled two miles, when in crossing, as we imagined, one of its bights, we found ourselves checked by a broad river. A single glimpse of it was sufficient to tell us it was the Darling. At a distance of more than ninety miles nearer its source, this singular river still preserved its character, so strikingly, that it was impossible not to have recognised it in a moment. The same steep banks and lofty timber, the same deep reaches, alive with fish, were here visible as when we left it. A hope naturally arose to our minds, that if it was unchanged in other respects, it might have lost the saltness that rendered its waters unfit for use; but in this we were disappointed — even its waters continued the same. As it was impossible for us to cross the Darling, I determined on falling back upon our last encampment, which was at a most Convenient distance, and of concerting measures there for our future movements. Prior to doing so, however, I rode to the junction of the Castlereagh with the Darling, accompanied by Mr. Hume, a distance of about half a mile. Upon the point formed by the two streams, there were a number of huts, and on the opposite bank of the Darling, about twenty natives had collected. We called out to them, but they would not join us.
At the junction, the Castlereagh, with whatever impetuosity it rushes from its confinement, makes not apparently the least impression on the Darling River. The latter seemed to loll on, totally heedless of such a tributary.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00