Two expeditions into the interior of southern Australia, by Charles Sturt

Chapter 8

Environs of the lake Alexandrina — Appointment of Capt. Barker to make a further survey of the coast near Encounter Bay — Narrative of his proceedings — Mount Lofty, Mount Barker, and beautiful country adjacent — Australian salmon — Survey of the coast — Outlet of lake to the sea — Circumstances that led to the slaughter of Capt. Barker by the natives — His character — Features of this part of the country and capabilities of its coasts — Its adaptation for colonization — Suggestions for the furtherance of future Expeditions.

Environs of the Lake Alexandrina.

The foregoing narrative will have given the reader some idea of the state in which the last expedition reached the bottom of that extensive and magnificent basin which receives the waters of the Murray. The men were, indeed, so exhausted, in strength, and their provisions so much reduced by the time they gained the coast, that I doubted much, whether either would hold out to such place as we might hope for relief. Yet, reduced as the whole of us were from previous exertion, beset as our homeward path was by difficulty and danger, and involved as our eventual safety was in obscurity and doubt, I could not but deplore the necessity that obliged me to re-cross the Lake Alexandrina (as I had named it in honour of the heir apparent to the British crown), and to relinquish the examination of its western shores. We were borne over its ruffled and agitated surface with such rapidity, that I had scarcely time to view it as we passed; but, cursory as my glance was, I could not but think I was leaving behind me the fullest reward of our toil, in a country that would ultimately render our discoveries valuable, and benefit the colony for whose interests we were engaged. Hurried, I would repeat, as my view of it was, my eye never fell on a country of more promising aspect, or of more favourable position, than that which occupies the space between the lake and the ranges of St. Vincent’s Gulf, and, continuing northerly from Mount Barker, stretches away, without any visible boundary.

Chart of Cape Jervis, and Encounter Bay

It appeared to me that, unless nature had deviated from her usual laws, this tract of country could not but be fertile, situated as it was to receive the mountain deposits on the one hand, and those of the lake upon the other.

Further Examination of the Coast.

In my report to the Colonial Government, however, I did not feel myself justified in stating, to their full extent, opinions that were founded on probability and conjecture alone. But, although I was guarded in this particular, I strongly recommended a further examination of the coast, from the most eastern point of Encounter Bay, to the head St. Vincent’s Gulf, to ascertain if any other than the known channel existed among the sand-hills of the former, or if, as I had every reason to hope from the great extent of water to the N.W., there was a practicable communication with the lake from the other; and I ventured to predict, that a closer survey of the interjacent country, would be attended with the most beneficial results; nor have I a doubt that the promontory of Cape Jervis would ere this have been settled, had Captain Barker lived to complete his official reports.

Capt. Barker’s Survey.

The governor, General Darling, whose multifarious duties might well have excused him from paying attention to distant objects, hesitated not a moment when he thought the interests of the colony, whose welfare he so zealously promoted, appeared to be concerned; and he determined to avail himself of the services of Captain Collet Barker, of the 39th regiment, who was about to be recalled from King George’s Sound, in order to satisfy himself as to the correctness of my views.

Captain Barker had not long before been removed from Port Raffles, on the northern coast, where he had had much intercourse with the natives, and had frequently trusted himself wholly in their hands. It was not, however, merely on account of his conciliating manners, and knowledge of the temper and habits of the natives, that he was particularly fitted for the duty upon which it was the governor’s pleasure to employ him. He was, in addition, a man of great energy of character, and of much and various information.

Orders having reached Sydney, directing the establishment belonging to New South Wales to be withdrawn, prior to the occupation of King George’s Sound by the government of Western Australia, the ISABELLA schooner was sent to receive the troops and prisoners on board; and Captain Barker was directed, as soon as he should have handed over the settlement to Captain Stirling, to proceed to Cape Jervis from which point it was thought he could best carry on a survey not only of the coast but also of the interior.

This excellent and zealous officer sailed from King George’s Sound, on the 10th of April, 1831, and arrived off Cape Jervis on the 13th. He was attended by Doctor Davies, one of the assistant surgeons of his regiment, and by Mr. Kent, of the Commissariat. It is to the latter gentleman that the public are indebted for the greater part of the following details; he having attended Captain Barker closely during the whole of this short but disastrous excursion, and made notes as copious as they are interesting. At the time the ISABELLA arrived off Cape Jervis, the weather was clear and favourable. Captain Barker consequently stood into St. Vincent’s Gulf, keeping, as near as practicable, to the eastern shore, in soundings that varied from six to ten fathoms, upon sand and mud. His immediate object was to ascertain if there was any communication with the lake Alexandrina from the gulf. He ascended to lat. 34 degrees 40 minutes where he fully satisfied himself that no channel did exist between them. He found, however, that the ranges behind Cape Jervis terminated abruptly at Mount Lofty, in lat. 34 degrees 56 minutes, and, that a flat and wooded country succeeded to the N. and N.E. The shore of the gulf tended more to the N.N.W., and mud flats and mangrove swamps prevailed along it.

Inviting Country — Mount Lofty.

Mr. Kent informs me, that they landed for the first time on the 15th, but that they returned almost immediately to the vessel. On the 17th, Captain Barker again landed, with the intention of remaining on shore for two or three days. He was accompanied by Mr. Kent, his servant Mills, and two soldiers. The boat went to the place at which they had before landed, as they thought they had discovered a small river with a bar entrance. They crossed the bar, and ascertained that it was a narrow inlet, of four miles in length, that terminated at the base of the ranges. The party were quite delighted with the aspect of the country on either side of the inlet, and with the bold and romantic scenery behind them. The former bore the appearance of natural meadows, lightly timbered, and covered with a variety of grasses. The soil was observed to be a rich, fat, chocolate coloured earth, probably the decomposition of the deep blue limestone, that showed itself along the coast hereabouts. On the other hand, a rocky glen made a cleft in the ranges at the head of the inlet; and they were supplied with abundance of fresh water which remained in the deeper pools that had been filled by the torrents during late rains. The whole neighbourhood was so inviting that the party slept at the head of the inlet.

Mount Lofty and its Environs.

In the morning, Captain Barker proceeded to ascend Mount Lofty, accompanied by Mr. Kent and his servant, leaving the two soldiers at the bivouac, at which he directed them to remain until his return. Mr. Kent says they kept the ridge all the way, and rose above the sea by a gradual ascent. The rock-formation of the lower ranges appeared to be an argillaceous schist; the sides and summit of the ranges were covered with verdure, and the trees upon them were of more than ordinary size. The view to the eastward was shut out by other ranges, parallel to those on which they were; below them to the westward, the same pleasing kind of country that flanked the inlet still continued.

Mount Barker.

In the course of the day they passed round the head of a deep ravine, whose smooth and grassy sides presented a beautiful appearance. The party stood 600 feet above the bed of a small rivulet that occupied the bottom of the ravine. In some places huge blocks of granite interrupted its course, in others the waters had worn the rock smooth. The polish of these rocks was quite beautiful, and the veins of red and white quartz which traversed them, looked like mosaic work. They did not gain the top of Mount Lofty, but slept a few miles beyond the ravine. In the morning they continued their journey, and, crossing Mount Lofty, descended northerly, to a point from which the range bent away a little to the N.N.E., and then terminated. The view from this point was much more extensive than that from Mount Lofty itself. They overlooked a great part of the gulf, and could distinctly see the mountains at the head of it to the N.N.W. To the N.W. there was a considerable indentation in the coast, which had escaped Captain Barker’s notice when examining it. A mountain, very similar to Mount Lofty, bore due east of them, and appeared to be the termination of its range. They were separated by a valley of about ten miles in width, the appearance of which was not favourable. Mr. Kent states to me, that Capt. Barker observed at the time that he thought it probable I had mistaken this hill for Mount Lofty, since it shut out the view of the lake from him, and therefore he naturally concluded, I could not have seen Mount Lofty. I can readily imagine such an error to have been made by me, more especially as I remember that at the time I was taking bearings in the lake, I thought Captain Flinders had not given Mount Lofty, as I then conceived it to be, its proper position in longitude. Both hills are in the same parallel of latitude. The mistake on my part is obvious. I have corrected it in the charts, and have availed myself of the opportunity thus afforded me of perpetuating, as far as I can, the name of an inestimable companion in Captain Barker himself

Immediately below the point on which they stood, Mr. Kent says, a low undulating country extended to the northward, as far as he could see. It was partly open, and partly wooded; and was every where covered with verdure. It continued round to the eastward, and apparently ran down southerly, at the opposite base of the mount Barker Range. I think there can be but little doubt that my view from the S.E., that is, from the lake, extended over the same or a part of the same country. Captain Barker again slept on the summit of the range, near a large basin that looked like the mouth of a crater, in which huge fragments of rocks made a scene of the utmost confusion. These rocks were a coarse grey granite, of which the higher parts and northern termination of the Mount Lofty range are evidently formed; for Mr. Kent remarks that it superseded the schistose formation at the ravine we have noticed — and that, subsequently, the sides of the hills became more broken, and valleys, or gullies, more properly speaking, very numerous. Captain Barker estimated the height of Mount Lofty above the sea at 2,400 feet, and the distance of its summit from the coast at eleven miles. Mr. Kent says they were surprised at the size of the trees on the immediate brow of it; they measured one and found it to be 43 feet in girth. Indeed, he adds, vegetation did not appear to have suffered either from its elevated position, or from any prevailing wind. Eucalypti were the general timber on the ranges; one species of which, resembling strongly the black butted-gum, was remarkable for a scent peculiar to its bark.

Australian Salmon.

The party rejoined the soldiers on the 21st, and enjoyed the supply of fish which they had provided for them. The soldiers had amused themselves by fishing during Captain Barker’s absence, and had been abundantly successful. Among others they had taken a kind of salmon, which, though inferior in size, resembled in shape, in taste, and in the colour of its flesh, the salmon of Europe. I fancied that a fish which I observed with extremely glittering scales, in the mouth of a seal, when myself on the coast, must have been of this kind; and I have no doubt that the lake is periodically visited by salmon, and that these fish retain their habits of entering fresh water at particular seasons, also in the southern hemisphere.

Immediately behind Cape Jervis, there is a small bay, in which according to the information of the sealers who frequent Kangaroo Island, there is good and safe anchorage for seven months in the year, that is to say, during the prevalence of the E. and N.E. winds.

Survey of the Coast.

Captain Barker landed on the 21st on this rocky point at the northern extremity of this bay. He had, however, previously to this, examined the indentation in the coast which he had observed from Mount Lofty, and had ascertained that it was nothing more than an inlet; a spit of sand, projecting from the shore at right angles with it, concealed the month of the inlet. They took the boat to examine this point, and carried six fathoms soundings round the head of the spit to the mouth of the inlet, when it shoaled to two fathoms, and the landing was observed to be bad, by reason of mangrove swamps on either side of it. Mr. Kent, I think, told me that this inlet was from ten to twelve miles long. Can it be that a current setting out of it at times, has thrown up the sand-bank that protects its mouth, and that trees, or any other obstacle, have hidden its further prolongation from Captain Barker’s notice? I have little hope that such is the case, but the remark is not an idle one.

Beautiful Valleys.

Between this inlet and the one formerly mentioned, a small and clear stream was discovered, to which Captain Barker kindly gave my name. On landing, the party, which consisted of the same persons as the former one, found themselves in a valley, which opened direct upon the bay. It was confined to the north from the chief range by a lateral ridge, that gradually declined towards and terminated at, the rocky point on which they had landed. The other side of the valley was formed of a continuation of the main range, which also gradually declined to the south, and appeared to be connected with the hills at the extremity of the cape. The valley was from nine to ten miles in length, and from three to four in breadth. In crossing it, they ascertained that the lagoon from which the schooner had obtained a supply of water, was filled by a watercourse that came down its centre. The soil in the valley was rich, but stony in some parts. There was an abundance of pasture over the whole, from amongst which they started numerous kangaroos. The scenery towards the ranges was beautiful and romantic, and the general appearance of the country such as to delight the whole party.

Preserving a due east course, Captain Barker passed over the opposite range of hills, and descended almost immediately into a second valley that continued to the southwards. Its soil was poor and stony, and it was covered with low scrub. Crossing it, they ascended the opposite range, from the summit of which they had a view of Encounter Bay. An extensive flat stretched from beneath them to the eastward, and was backed, in the distance, by sand hummocks, and low wooded hills. The extreme right of the flat rested upon the coast, at a rocky point near which there were two or three islands. From the left a beautiful valley opened upon it. A strong and clear rivulet from this valley traversed the flat obliquely, and fell into the sea at the rocky point, or a little to the southward of it. The hills forming the opposite side of the valley had already terminated. Captain Barker, therefore, ascended to higher ground, and, at length, obtained a view of the Lake Alexandrina, and the channel of its communication with the sea to the N.E. He now descended to the flat, and frequently expressed his anxious wish to Mr. Kent that I had been one of their number to enjoy the beauty of the scenery around them, and to participate in their labours. Had fate so ordained it, it is possible the melancholy tragedy that soon after occurred might have been averted.

Outlet of Lake to the Sea.

At the termination of the flat they found themselves upon the banks of the channel, and close to the sand hillock under which my tents had been pitched. From this point they proceeded along the line of sand-hills to the outlet; from which it would appear that Kangaroo Island is not visible, but that the distant point which I mistook for it was the S.E. angle of Cape Jervis. I have remarked, in describing that part of the coast, that there is a sand-hill to the eastward of the inlet, under which the tide runs strong, and the water is deep. Captain Barker judged the breadth of the channel to be a quarter of a mile, and he expressed a desire to swim across it to the sand-hill to take bearings, and to ascertain the nature of the strand beyond it to the eastward.

It unfortunately happened, that he was the only one of the party who could swim well, in consequence of which his people remonstrated with him on the danger of making the attempt unattended. Notwithstanding, however, that he was seriously indisposed, he stripped, and after Mr. Kent had fastened his compass on his head for him, he plunged into the water, and with difficulty gained the opposite side; to effect which took him nine minutes and fifty-eight seconds. His anxious comrades saw him ascend the hillock, and take several bearings; he then descended the farther side, and was never seen by them again.

Circumstances Attending the Loss of Captain Barker.

For a considerable time Mr. Kent remained stationary, in momentary expectation of his return; but at length, taking the two soldiers with him, he proceeded along the shore in search of wood for a fire. At about a quarter of a mile, the soldiers stopped and expressed their wish to return, as their minds misgave them, and they feared that Captain Barker had met with some accident. While conversing, they heard a distant shout, or cry, which Mr. Kent thought resembled the call of the natives, but which the soldiers positively declared to be the voice of a white man. On their return to their companions, they asked if any sounds had caught their ears, to which they replied in the negative. The wind was blowing from the E.S.E., in which direction Captain Barker had gone; and, to me, the fact of the nearer party not having heard that which must have been his cries for assistance, is satisfactorily accounted for, as, being immediately under the hill, the sounds must have passed over their heads to be heard more distinctly at the distance at which Mr. Kent and the soldiers stood. It is more than probable, that while his men were expressing their anxiety about him, the fearful tragedy was enacting which it has become my painful task to detail.

Evening closed in without any signs of Captain Barker’s return, or any circumstance by which Mr. Kent could confirm his fears that he had fallen into the hands of the natives. For, whether it was that the tribe which had shown such decided hostility to me when on the coast had not observed the party, none made their appearance; and if I except two, who crossed the channel when Mr. Kent was in search of wood, they had neither seen nor heard any; and Captain Barker’s enterprising disposition being well known to his men, hopes were still entertained that he was safe. A large fire was kindled, and the party formed a silent and anxious group around it. Soon after night-fall, however, their attention was roused by the sounds of the natives, and it was at length discovered, that they had lighted a chain of small fires between the sand-hill Captain Barker had ascended and the opposite side of the channel, around which their women were chanting their melancholy dirge. It struck upon the ears of the listeners with an ominous thrill, and assured them of the certainty of the irreparable loss they had sustained. All night did those dismal sounds echo along that lonely shore, but as morning dawned, they ceased, and Mr. Kent and his companions were again left in anxiety and doubt. They, at length, thought it most advisable to proceed to the schooner to advise with Doctor Davies. They traversed the beach with hasty steps, but did not get on board till the following day. It was then determined to procure assistance from the sealers on Kangaroo Island, as the only means by which they could ascertain their leader’s fate, and they accordingly entered American Harbour. For a certain reward, one of the men agreed to accompany Mr. Kent to the main with a native woman, to communicate with the tribe that was supposed to have killed him. They landed at or near the rocky point of Encounter Bay, where they were joined by two other natives, one of whom was blind. The woman was sent forward for intelligence, and on her return gave the following details:

Account of His Murder.

It appears that at a very considerable distance from the first sand-hill, there is another to which Captain Barker must have walked, for the woman stated that three natives were going to the shore from their tribe, and that they crossed his tract. Their quick perception immediately told them it was an unusual impression. They followed upon it, and saw Captain Barker returning. They hesitated for a long time to approach him, being fearful of the instrument he carried. At length, however, they closed upon him. Capt. Barker tried to soothe them, but finding that they were determined to attack him, he made for the water from which he could not have been very distant. One of the blacks immediately threw his spear and struck him in the hip. This did not, however, stop him. He got among the breakers, when he received the second spear in the shoulder. On this, turning round, he received a third full in the breast: with such deadly precision do these savages cast their weapons. It would appear that the third spear was already on its flight when Capt. Barker turned, and it is to be hoped, that it was at once mortal. He fell on his back into the water. The natives then rushed in, and dragging him out by the legs, seized their spears, and indicted innumerable wounds upon his body; after which, they threw it into deep water, and the sea-tide carried it away.

His Character.

Such, we have every reason to believe, was the untimely fate of this amiable and talented man. It is a melancholy satisfaction to me thus publicly to record his worth; instrumental, as I cannot but in some measure consider my last journey to have been in leading to this fatal catastrophe. Captain Barker was in disposition, as he was in the close of his life, in many respects similar to Captain Cook. Mild, affable, and attentive, he had the esteem and regard of every companion, and the respect of every one under him. Zealous in the discharge of his public duties, honourable and just in private life; a lover and a follower of science; indefatigable and dauntless in his pursuits; a steady friend, an entertaining companion; charitable, kind-hearted, disinterested, and sincere — the task is equally difficult to find adequate expressions of praise or of regret. In him the king lost one of his most valuable officers, and his regiment one of its most efficient members. Beloved as he was, the news of his loss struck his numerous friends with sincere grief, but by none was it more severely felt than by the humble individual who has endeavoured thus feebly to draw his portrait.

From the same source from which the particulars of his death were obtained, it was reported that the natives who perpetrated the deed were influenced by no other motive than curiosity to ascertain if they had power to kill a white man. But we must be careful in giving credit to this, for it is much more probable that the cruelties exercised by the sealers towards the blacks along the south coast, may have instigated the latter to take vengeance on the innocent as well as on the guilty. It will be seen, by a reference to the chart, that Captain Barker, by crossing the channel, threw himself into the very hands of that tribe which had evinced such determined hostility to myself and my men. He got into the rear of their strong hold, and was sacrificed to those feelings of suspicion, and to that desire of revenge, which the savages never lose sight of until they have been gratified.

Features of the Country, and Capabilities of the Coast.

It yet remains for me to state that when Mr. Kent returned to the schooner, after this irreparable loss, he kept to the south of the place at which he had crossed the first range with Captain Barker, and travelled through a valley right across the promontory. He thus discovered that there was a division in the ranges, through which there was a direct and level road from the little bay on the northern extremity of which they had last landed in St. Vincent’s Gulf, to the rocky point of Encounter Bay. The importance of this fact will be better estimated, when it is known that good anchorage is secured to small vessels inside the island that lies off the point of Encounter Bay, which is rendered still safer by a horse shoe reef that forms, as it were, a thick wall to break the swell of the sea. But this anchorage is not safe for more than five months in the year. Independently of these points, however, Mr. Kent remarks, that the spit a little to the north of Mount Lofty would afford good shelter to minor vessels under its lee. When the nature of the country is taken into consideration, and the facility of entering that which lies between the ranges and the Lake Alexandrina, from the south, and of a direct communication with the lake itself, the want of an extensive harbour will, in some measure, be compensated for, more especially when it is known that within four leagues of Cape Jervis, a port little inferior to Port Jackson, with a safe and broad entrance, exists at Kangaroo Island. The sealers have given this spot the name of American Harbour. In it, I am informed, vessels are completely land-locked, and secure from every wind. Kangaroo Island is not, however, fertile by any means. It abounds in shallow lakes filled with salt water during high tides, and which, by evaporation, yield a vast quantity of salt.

I gathered from the sealers that neither the promontory separating St. Vincent from Spencer’s Gulf, nor the neighbourhood of Port Lincoln, are other than barren and sandy wastes. They all agree in describing Port Lincoln itself as a magnificent roadstead, but equally agree as to the sterility of its shores. It appears, therefore, that the promontory of Cape Jervis owes its superiority to its natural features; in fact, to the mountains that occupy its centre, to the debris that has been washed from them, and to the decomposition of the better description of its rocks. Such is the case at Illawarra, where the mountains approach the sea; such indeed is the case every where, at a certain distance from mountain ranges.

Adaption of this Part of the Country for Colonisation.

From the above account it would appear that a spot has, at length, been found upon the south coast of New Holland, to which the colonist might venture with every prospect of success, and in whose valleys the exile might hope to build for himself and for his family a peaceful and prosperous home. All who have ever landed upon the eastern shore of St. Vincent’s Gulf, agree as to the richness of its soil, and the abundance of its pasture. Indeed, if we cast our eyes upon the chart, and examine the natural features of the country behind Cape Jervis, we shall no longer wonder at its differing in soil and fertility from the low and sandy tracks that generally prevail along the shores of Australia. Without entering largely into the consideration of the more remote advantages that would, in all human probability, result from the establishment of a colony, rather than a penal settlement, at St. Vincent’s Gulf, it will be expedient to glance hastily over the preceding narrative, and, disengaging it from all extraneous matter, to condense, as much as possible, the information it contains respecting the country itself; for I have been unable to introduce any passing remark, lest I should break the thread of an interesting detail.

The country immediately behind Cape Jervis may, strictly speaking, be termed a promontory, bounded to the west by St. Vincent’s Gulf, and to the east by the lake Alexandrina, and the sandy track separating that basin from the sea. Supposing a line to be drawn from the parallel of 34 degrees 40 minutes to the eastward, it will strike the Murray river about 25 miles above the head of the lake, and will clear the ranges, of which Mount Lofty and Mount Barker are the respective terminations. The line will cut off a space whose greatest breadth will be 55 miles, whose length from north to south will be 75, and whose surface exceeds 7 millions of acres; from which if we deduct 2 millions for the unavailable hills, we shall have 5 millions of acres of land, of rich soil, upon which no scrub exists, and whose most distant points are accessible, through a level country on the one hand, and by water on the other. The southern extremity of the ranges can be turned by that valley through which Mr. Kent returned to the schooner, after Captain Barker’s death. It is certain, therefore, that this valley not only secures so grand a point, but also presents a level line of communication from the small bay immediately to the north of the cape, to the rocky point of Encounter Bay, at both of which places there is safe anchorage at different periods of the year.

Hints for Future Expeditions.

The only objection that can be raised to the occupation of this spot, is the want of an available harbour. Yet it admits of great doubt whether the contiguity of Kangaroo Island to Cape Jervis, (serving as it does to break the force of the prevailing winds, as also of the heavy swell that would otherwise roll direct into the bay,) and the fact of its possessing a safe and commodious harbour, certainly at an available distance, does not in a great measure remove the objection. Certain it is that no port, with the exception of that on the shores of which the capital of Australia is situated, offers half the convenience of this, although it be detached between three and four leagues from the main.

On the other hand it would appear, that there is no place from which at any time the survey of the more central parts of the continent could be so effectually carried on; for in a country like Australia, where the chief obstacle to be apprehended in travelling is the want of water, the facilities afforded by the Murray and its tributaries, are indisputable; and I have little doubt that the very centre of the continent might be gained by a judicious and enterprising expedition. Certainly it is most desirable to ascertain whether the river I have supposed to be the Darling be really so or not. I have stated my objection to depots, but I think that if a party commenced its operations upon the Murray from the junction upwards, and, after ascertaining the fact of its ultimate course, turned away to the N.W. up one of the tributaries of the Murray, with a supply of six months’ provisions, the results would be of the most satisfactory kind, and the features of the country be wholly developed. I cannot, I think, conclude this work better than by expressing a hope, that the Colonial Government will direct such measures to be adopted as may be necessary for the extension of our geographical knowledge in Australia. The facilities of fitting out expeditions in New South Wales, render the expenses of little moment, when compared with the importance of the object in view; and although I am labouring under the effects of former attempts, yet would I willingly give such assistance as I could to carry such an object into effect.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00