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Minutes of Evidence: Alfred Howitt

Report of the commissioners appointed to enquire into and report upon the circumstances connected with the sufferings and death of Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills.
Melbourne: John Ferres, Government Printer.
Parliamentary papers, No 97, 1861-2. 1862.

Thursday 5th December 1861

Alfred W. Howitt, Esq., examined.

Q1125. You had charge of contingent party ?-Yes.

Q1126. You arrived at the Darling in charge of that party ?-Yes.

Q1127. Did you find any stores there left by the former party ?-Yes; there were stores of various kinds both at the camp at the Pamamoroo Creek and also at Menindie.

Q1128. The camp was a few miles from Menindie ?-It is generally supposed to be about seven miles, more or less.

Q1129. Do you know what quantity or description of stores were there ?-I could tell by referring to a list, but it is quite impossible to recollect exactly what there was; [a book containing a list of the stores was handed to the witness.] This (referring to the book), I believe to be a list of the stores in a building under the charge of the police at Menindie.

Q1130. That comprises articles of all description ?-It does.

Q1131. Provisions ?-Yes; there was some provisions there.

Q1132. Flour ?-Yes; flour damaged.

Q1133. Were there many packages of it ?-No very large quantity, there might be two or three bags or there might have been four.

Q1134. Clothing ?-Yes; clothing of different kinds, no great quantity of clothing.

Q1135. Oatmeal and sugar ?-There was no sugar or at any rate only a very small quantity in use at the camp, there were meat biscuits, four or five casks, I am not quite certain which.

Q1136. Were there other provisions-meat, for instance ?-No, the meat was procured as it was wanted.

Q1137. No preserved meat ?-No.

Q1138. Preserved vegetables ?-Yes.

Q1139. And not much clothing ?-There were some boots and trousers.

Q1140. Did you understand that those were the things that Mr Wright left behind him when he went up ?-I did not understand anything, except that they were stores belonging to the Exploration Committee.

Q1141. These were the stores you found both at Menindie and at the creek ?-At the Pamamoroo camp and also at Menindie, and there was another list from Balranald.

Q1142. What was the state of the cattle you found there ?-The camels were not in very good order; the horses, of course, were, on the whole, in very good order, because they had had a good spell, and it could hardly be otherwise.

Q1143. Did you take on with you a large quantity of those provisions ?-I took on such provisions as I considered useful to me, and such as I required, such as biscuits, and some tea that was there, and flour.

Q1144. Your journal relates the history of your travels to Cooper's Creek ?-Yes; it was written every evening.

Q1145. And you had no difficulty in getting there ?-No.

Q1146. Was the water abundant ?-It was so far abundant that we had enough, but at several camps we left none behind us, or so far none that it. was nothing but a little mud; but we had sufficient with the exception of two separate nights and two nights together.

Q1147. Had you instructions from the committee to get anything you wanted ?-Yes.

Q1148. Full instructions ?-Yes.

Q1149. In passing up, the water was a great part of the way surface water ?-Yes, a great part of it.

Q1150. Up to Torowoto ?-Beyond it.

Q1151. Then up to Torowoto there is not much difficulty ?-I think the difficulty commences at Torowoto; there is no permanent water that I know of there.

Q1152. What is the nearest water between Menindie and Torowoto ?-The first water that can be considered permanent-and I think that is only to a certain extent until consumed-is in the Daubeny Ranges.

Q1153. Is there none which you would consider permanent water ?-There might be a slight drainage in some of the hills but I saw no evidence of any springs; beyond that there is another creek where I believe permanent water might be got by sinking. We obtained it by sinking, but it had fallen very much when we came down.

Q1154. What distance had you to sink ?-Six or seven feet, but it had fallen fully two feet when we came down.

Q1155. Then you would have had to go two feet in returning ?-Very possibly, that is in the bed of the creek, loose fine gravel.

Q1156. Then the whole route to Cooper's Creek, or till you get to Bulloo, is a dry route ?-It is dry in dry seasons. When there have been any rains you might get water according to the time of year, from one month to two or three months after the rains.

Q1157. Are the pools shallow ?-In places.

Q1158. They do not look like deep water courses ?-No, except at Areminta.

Q1159. Did you follow Mr Wright and Mr Burke's track ?-I followed their track until I reached Poria Creek; that was the first place. I thought it prudent to leave it.

Q1160. That is within a stage of Bulloo ?-Two stages.

Q1161. You struck across from there to the lower camp ?-Yes, to camp 60.

Q1162. Is it the same description of country there ?-Yes, one large creek which we crossed I believe is connected with Bulloo.

Q1163. You are aware that there was a considerable detention of Mr Wright's party in starting from Menindie, before Mr Wright started at all ?-I know no more of it than what I have heard.

Q1164. Judging from the time of the year, was it not most undesirable that he should not have followed up immediately from the state of the weather ?-All that I should feel justified in saying upon that subject is that the country is so treacherous and the rain so uncertain that delays may be of the greatest consequence-one day's delay may be of the very greatest consequence to any party going out.

Q1165. The season at that period of the year would render any delay very undesirable ?-Yes, certainly, at that time of the year, which I believe is the same as this time, any delay is of the utmost importance.

Q1166. Did you meet Mr Wright when you went up ?-No; I did not see him at all.

Q1167. Mr Brahe was with you when you went back ?-Yes.

Q1168. When you arrived at the lower depot-that was the first you arrived at ?-No, the camp was above it.

Q1169. That was the first depot ?-Yes.

Q1170. Have you entered all that you knew of it in your journal ?-Yes; I endeavored to give a correct account of what occurred during the day.

Q1171. How do you explain overlooking opening the depot ?-I thought there was nothing but stores at this depot, and there was no trace of any one having been there and as I had plenty of provisions, if I had opened this plant, I must either have carried he provisions with me, believing provisions to be there, or I must have buried it again with an increased risk of being found by natives; and under these circumstances I most certainly should never open it. I looked at in this light-that if the stores were spoiled they would be useless to me, and if they were not spoiled they would in all probability keep in the same state unti1 I required them for my return.

Q1172. Do you believe it would have been possible for Mr Burke's and Mr Wills to have followed down the route to Menindie at that time, in the state they were in ?-It would depend entirely upon the state they were in.

Q1173. You have heard what state they were in ?-If they had strength enough they could have followed it down.

Q1174. Do you think with forty days' provisions they might have made Menindie from Cooper's Creek, if in the ordinary state of health ?-With horses in good order?

Q1175. No; just as they were-on foot ?-They could not, because they could not carry forty days' provisions on foot.

Q1176. Supposing they started in that condition-you have heard the evidence given-with one camel ?-I think it is very possible they might have, or at any rate they would have got very near the Darling.

Q1177. What were the general instructions given to you by the committee when you started ?-The general instructions were to proceed to Menindie with the greatest despatch, and to follow Mr Burke's tracks, and endeavor to find traces of him or the party.

Q1178. You were left to your own discretion from the time you left Menindie ?-Excepting that I had this general course of action laid down, that I was to follow Mr Burke and render him every assistance I could; to follow his track; that was the manner in which I understood my instructions.

Q1179. Did any of your party suffer from scurvy at all ?-No; they were all perfectly well.

Q1180. Did you take any extra means for keeping them well ?-We used such native vegetables as we found there.

Q1181. Portulac ?-That and several other things, the native spinach, and a kind of mesembryanthemum.

Q1182. Can you get that daily ?-After rain you can, but I should doubt whether at this time of year you can get any of those things.

Q1183. Have you not been there in a very favorable season ?-Yes; on the Darling it has been an unusually fine season.

Q1184. Did you see any game ?-Not a great quantity.

Q1185. How many days were you going from Menindie to Cooper's Creek ?-I could scarcely tell to a day, I think my camp at Poria was the 20th camp, and I spent two days, that would be twenty-three days; from leaving there I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight days before I made the creek.

Q1186. All your people were mounted ?-Yes.

Q1187. And your animals in good condition ?-Yes, they were in excellent order.

Q1188. You did not meet those natives near Bulloo that Mr Wright came across ?-No, I did not go through that country; I left it to the eastward considerably.

Q1189. You met no difficulty from the blacks ?-No, they were very friendly; I had nothing to complain of them in any way.

Q1190. Have you seen a statement made by Mr McKinlay in the Argus this morning ?-I have. It appears to me very mysterious; it requires some explanation I think. It is more probable that it is Bleasley's party than Mr Burke's remains; he could not have found those or been in the neighborhood without having seen traces of me by the marked trees.

Q1191. How near were you to Bleasley's track ?-I could not tell without seeing the maps.

Q1192. Did you leave any marks ?-Yes, the camps were marked with my initials and the broad arrow pointing the direction in which I had gone.

Q1193. Do you think you would be able to get back again ?-I think it would be quite impossible to say; it would depend on how the country would be.

Q1194. Do you think it would be possible to get through to Cooper's Creek at all times ?-With camels in good order, I believe I could go through in almost any season.

Q1195. How would you divide your journey for water to do that ?-If I made a very long stage, knowing the country well, and knowing where I might depend upon water, I should send on camels with water half the journey before I started, and water the camels perhaps half way, and then push through to the next water.

Q1196. Are the camels in good order now ?-Some of them.

Q1197. Do you think you could do it now with them ?-I think I could with those I could depend upon.

Q1198. Is there any portion of country between Menindie and Cooper's Creek, adapted for a permanent station, with any grazing capabilities ?-You mean for a depot.

Q1199. Yes ?-I think the most likely place to get water, would be some 170 or 180 miles; and the feed is not very good about there.

Q1200. Not much grazing capability ?-Quite sufficient for a limited number, but the best grazing country is without surface water.

Q1201. There is nothing left now in the depot at Cooper's Creek, is there ?-Nothing in the depot, there is only the stockade.

Q1202. Then supposing another party had struck upon Mr Burke's tracks, and attempted to follow them, they would find nothing ?-They would find nothing except our track; there are no provisions there. I will do my best to get back-what I can do I will, but it does not depend upon me, it depends upon a Higher Power than myself to get back.

Q1203. How long is it since you left the Darling ?-I left on the 23rd of last month.

Q1204. When you left the Darling, what was the state of the weather ?-Very dry; much drier there than here.

Q1205. Had there been rain any short time before you left ?-No.

Q1206. In sending a supply of provisions to Cooper's Creek, are you not of opinion that it would be a much more expeditious way to send them up the Murray, and the Darling, than to send them by land from Melbourne ?-If you could make certain of having them delivered in a certain time there.

Q1207. The river is navigable up as far as Menindie for a considerable portion of the year ?-There will he no more steamers able to go up after this time.

Q1208. In ordinary times when it is navigable it would be the most expeditious and economical way ?-I think it would be if you could make such arrangements as to secure the provisions being landed there within a given time.

Q1209. You could always get them to Wentworth ?-Yes; that is 170 miles from Menindie.

Q1210. Would it not be practicable to strike into some of the South Australian lines across ?-Not, certainly, with horses, at this time of the year. Although I should feel very much inclined to strike out a new track, I believe at this time of the year the wisest thing is to keep to a track where you know certainly that you can get water in places, and to endeavor to get over the awkward gaps as well as you can. I think to go off now, when it probably may set in a very dry season, in an unknown track, is rather dangerous.

The witness withdrew.

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