Saturday, 5 March 1870, page 2.
Mr A.W. Howitt, Police Magistrate and Goldfields Warden, delivered his promised lecture, in aid of the building fund of the Bairnsdale Common School, on Thursday evening. The room was crowded to excess, and the lecture 'Explorations in Central Australia, and the Burke and Wills Expedition' was listened to with well sustained interest throughout, and resulted in a substantial addition to the school fund.
By the courtesy of Mr Howitt we shall be enabled to give a full report of this very interesting lecture in our next Saturday's issue.
15 March 1870, Supplement, page 1S.
Explorations in Central Australia
Supplement, page 2S.
... (such as the portulac and native spinach), against the insidious attacks of that terrible scourge, the land scurvy.
On stony country camels have, strange as it may seem, an advantage over horses. Their padded feet - something like the ball of a dog's foot on a large scale - resist the stones four days, long after the horses had become quite foot sore and knocked up; but there the advantage the ends. Once let the camels sole be worn through in one small spot, and he becomes almost useless. I can then only compare him to a man or walking over new road metal in a pair of worn out dancing pumps, up to this time all attempts to shoe them have proved futile; it is possible perhaps to discover some composition of gutta-percha or India-rubber and with which these then are places may be stopped.
I daresay that everyone knows that the horses and natural, and in some cases an invincible, terror of the camel; and this dread appears to arise not so much from sight us from the peculiar and unpleasant odour exhaled by these animals. It is only after weeks have passed over that horses can be brought to remain in the company of camels with even a semblance of contentment. The dread it seems instinctive, overpowering.
From these general remarks on Central Australia and some of its earlier explorers, we must now turn to the greatest of all Australian expeditions - that sent out by this colony under the command of Robert O'Hara Burke.
A great deal has been said about the management of the Victorian expedition. I believe that a great deal has been said of the Exploration Committee, which that body did not deserve. They appear to have exercised every care in fitting out the party, and to have given Burke sufficient authority for its management and control; and, in fact, to have done all that they could to ensure its success. If any fault is to be found, he could only be, I believe, that too much was done in the way of fitting out, in supplying every conceivable thing for the needs or for the comfort of the men. After providing such ample outfit, and after the expedition was a launched, surely they cannot be blamed for the circumstances over which they had no control, or events which it was not possible for them to foresee.
If the expedition had had to traverse country intersected with rivers, like that explored by Mitchell, Sturt, Leichardt, and the Gregorys in Northern Australia, its waggons, its boat, its innumerable stores of all kinds, would have been more suitable; but, as I have already pointed out, the era of these expeditions seems to have ended at the commencement of Captain Sturt's great journey into Central Australia. In the country Burke had to traverse this very wealth of material would tend to ruin the expedition, for in the dry interior a party must be capable of rapid movement - must be kept together, for every sub-division more than doubles the chances of disaster, because the leader can no longer keep everything under his own eye; and I regard it as a physical impossibility for horse teams of any kind to accompany an expedition successfully in the normal condition of the country. The necessary stores must form almost the whole of the loading, for no resources can be calculated upon; game and fish may be procured, but they merely serve to extend the time for which the expedition must be provisioned.
The causes which led to the disastrous result of the Burke and Wills Expedition may be regarded as the following:
I believe that these are the principal causes of disaster, and many of them necessarily arose from want of acquaintance with the serious business of exploration. However brave and determined a man may be, it is impossible, excepting under most exceptional circumstances, to form him into an explorer in a moment.
Wright's delay may probably be partly explained by the supposition that when at Bulloo Creek he was at a loss to follow Burke's track, and this view is borne out to some extent by his movements there. The tracks of an expedition are soon obliterated unless made in wet weather. But, above all, the careful concealment of the cache seems to me of all causes the one which may be regarded as the turning point of their fates. Had they only followed the usual course in such cases, and cut a word, a letter, or a sign under Brahe's inscription, 'Dig' I do not in the least doubt that they would have been rescued front their fate when Wright and Brahe returned to the depot at Fort Wills.
One important consideration presents itself in connection with Brahe's retreat from his depot. What were Burke's intentions when he left with Wills, King, and Grey? Were his intentions merely to make a reconnaissance, or had he then determined to cross the continent at all risks?
His last instructions to Brahe to a certain extent appear to point to the latter, and this view is confirmed in my mind by a statement made by King soon after he was found, namely, that two or three days after starting on their ill-fated journey Burke told him that he and Wills had determined never to turn their faces back until they had reached the north coast. These may not be exactly the words, but the substance and meaning are expressed as King told me. This being the case, how can Brahe be blamed for acting as he did? Had he waited but one day, how greatly would the course of events have been changed. But I do not see how, under the circumstances we can blame Brahe; he waited six weeks beyond the time fixed by Burke, and the men left under his charge were falling ill - so ill that one shortly after died. It shows how narrow the line is dividing the greatest success from the greatest disaster. After all the success of their almost incredible walk across the continent and back, after the determination shown by Burke and the calm heroism of Wills, it produces a melancholy feeling in the mind to picture the last survivors of that small band, who had already buried one of their number, making desperate and unavailing efforts to escape from the meshes which misfortune had cast around them, and seemingly blinded to the steps which would have most probably insured their safety. It almost seems as if Providence, for some wise purpose, had decreed that by their deaths they should more surely clear up the mystery of Central Australia, and develop the spread of civilisation, than they could have done by their safe return. It almost seems as if this sacrifice was needed to give that wonderful impetus to the settlement of the north-eastern, the northern, and the north-western coasts which we have all witnessed in the last few years. If so, how noble wars their end, from which such vast events have sprung, and which are but the foreshadowing of the wonderful future which is certainly before our adopted country.
The second was this:
As I had no knowledge of ballooning, I requested the writer to favour the public with an ascent, in the Royal Park, after which I might be better able to judge his suggestions. I heard no more.
The party under my command started from Pamamaroo, on the Darling River, so soon as it was possible to push forward preparations, and proceeded along Burke's track, gradually day by day getting into working order, and meeting with no more than ordinary hindrances or adventures. When past the well-known Toronato Swamp, it became necessary to look out for the best point at which to depart from Burke's track, and make a direct line for Cooper's Creek, thereby to avoid a large and circuitous bend, which his expedition had made by way of Bulloo or Wright's Creek. This point was found at Poria Creek, where we rested for a day, and I buried despatches before making a fresh departure.
After travelling for three days, two of which were without water, and across the stony wilderness called Stoke's Ranges, we had our first glimpse of what might truly be called Central Australia. It was on the afternoon of September 5th that we found ourselves on the edge of a sudden descent, with a wide basin, the further margin of which consisted of square-shaped hills; beyond these lay a boundless extent of low country to the north, of which the nearer portion consisted of stony plains; the distant part to the horizon a dark, gloomy expanse of scrub covered sand hills.
Although in this view there was nothing striking, yet it has remained more prominently photographed as it were on my mind than many other scenes infinitely more grand or beautiful. It was possibly the interest attached to Cooper's Creek, and to the fact that here at length we were approaching that point where the threads of our search were to be carefully gathered together and followed.
In this basin we camped, after a hazardous descent over rocks, which seemed to me at first impracticable for camels. The horses were suffering terribly from thirst, suffering so keenly that more than one endeavoured to take the quart pots from the fire on which we were carefully boiling the small ration of water we could carry.
The following day, after a dreary ride over stony plains under a burning sun, we found water among the sand hills; on the 8th, we here camped on Cooper's Creek, about half-a-mile above Camp 60 of Burke. This was on the mud plains, and on one of the back-waters by which the floods extend over the country; here and there ridges of red sand rose above the monotonous level, and winding lines of stunted box trees marked other channels in the distance. The spring rains had not influenced the plains, but the sand hills were covered with green grass and flowers.
On the next morning five black-fellows made their appearance while we were loading up. They were very demonstrative, and continued shouting 'Gow! gow!' and pointing down the creek. Not knowing a word of their language, we understood this as an intimation to be off. It was not so, as we discovered afterwards, but the word 'Gow' means goodwill, very much as we might say 'All right.' Again, on the following day, we came across natives who made similar signs to us. I went towards them with Mr Welsh, the surveyor to our party, and with much difficulty induced one to come to us. He was a fine-looking fellow, painted white, skeleton fashion, and carried a very long boomerang in his waist-belt. Although not understanding a word of each other's language, we fraternised. I gave him my lunch, viz.,- a piece of cold doughboy, and he presented me with a green-looking ball of seemingly chewed grass, which he took from behind his ear; he ate my gift, but I respectfully declined to eat his, whereupon he replaced it behind his ear. I found out afterwards that it was a narcotic used by the natives - in fact a quid.
Day by day we followed down the course of Cooper's Creek, finding abundance of water, but often put to straits for feed for our horses, and almost always attended at a distance by natives, shouting 'Gow' and waving their hands down the creek.
On the 13th we camped on a large deep reach of water enclosed by rocky banks. I had often questioned Mr Brahe, who was with me, as to whether fish were not to be caught; his opinion was that there were only small ones - in fact he had when at Burke's depot baled out a small hole and caught some fish a few inches long. This water we were now at I felt convinced must contain fish; and as soon as I could get my fishing tackle, and procure some bait by shooting one of the crows that always attended us, I dropped my line into the water and instantly hooked a splendid fish about three pounds weight. Camp was no sooner formed than all hands went fishing, and we secured a large number, weighing from 1½ to 3 lbs. each. They were a great treat to us after dried beef and damper.
On the following morning, soon after starting we came to Brahe's depot, from which Burke and his small party started on their track across the continent. It was named Fort Wills. To all appearance, the depot was as Brahe left it. The usual sign of a deserted camp were there; fragments of old clothes, old equipment, a few tins, and such like. The whole of the ground round was loose and dusty, and covered with the tracks of the crested pigeon and other birds; and of small animals.
To Mr Brahe all seemed exactly as he left it, and he only missed a piece of old leather from the useless things lying about. It must be borne in mind that he and Wright had been at Fort Wills on the 8th of May, about sixteen days after Burke, Wills, and King had left it, intending to try and reach Mount Hopeless. (Of course all this was at the time unknown to Brahe and myself.) The tree under which Brahe had buried the stores, and with which Burke's document were now cached, bore only the words, 'Dig. April 21.' cut upon it by Brahe; no mark or signs had been left by Burke - indeed I believe, on the contrary, that when Burke and Wills buried a note in the cache saying that they had gone down the creek, they left the place as near as possible as they found it, in order that it might not appear to have been opened.
Not requiring the provisions we supposed to be buried there, no reason existed that we should dig them up. The cache was left untouched, and in it records which at once would have told us everything we had to learn, excepting the last fatal act of the tragedy.
A few miles lower down the creek than this depot, I found the print of a camel going eastward; it was upon a sandbank in the river bed, and comparatively fresh. It instantly struck me that something must be wrong, and, calling Brahe and the two black boys, we carefully examined it. It could not have been one of Brahe's camels at the depot; and it was not old enough for a track of one of those Burke took with him, besides it was going in the wrong direction; it might possibly be one of those lost before Burke left, but it might also be one of those he took with him, if lost or if set adrift by disaster to the party. This discovery at once put all on the alert, and the greatest care was exercised in order not to pass over any tracks unnoticed.
On the following morning we followed down the creek, looking out for signs of the missing explorers, for we were here near the last-known camp of Burke.
At nine miles, rocky ridges closed in on the river, confining its channel for a short distance with a perfect wall of rock. The immense force of the floods was shown here by the manner in which the intensely hard siliceous rocks were rounded and. smoothly polished. Immediately below, commenced the finest reach on Cooper's Creek, 'Calliom-maron', the place where our depot was afterwards maintained for many months.
It was a considerable labour to cross our camels over the rocky barrier; but had we been aware of it, we should have found on the opposite side a well beaten path, from which the natives have carefully removed all the stones and piled them in heaps at intervals along the track. I think this is probably the only instance of aboriginal road-making, although native tracks are to be found leading from one water to the other. On the north side, at about two miles distance, are some remarkable flat-topped hills, and from this point the country improves in a marked manner, the land is sandy, but the mud plains have been left behind; large red gums line the banks, and flocks of pelicans and ducks rest upon the water.
In the afternoon, about three o'clock, we camped on another sheet of water, and a few hundred yards below Burke's last known camp. The places where the camels had been tied up for the night were plainly visible; but no marked tree was to be found. A careful search was made by myself, Mr Brahe, the two black boys, and several others of the party all round the camp, but without any result beyond finding some pieces of an old saddle and camel tracks. It was singular that no tree had been marked, because it had hitherto been Burke's custom to mark all camps; and it was also singular that we should find camel tracks going in a direction contrary to that which Burke's camels would have taken in their out journey; but such was the fact.
This evening, many were the discussions by the camp fire about the missing explorers, and the general opinion in the party seemed to be that Burke and his companions had I probably been killed by the natives before leaving the creek, or immediately on their return to it, and that the stray camel was one of theirs. I felt extremely puzzled, and certainly inclined to the belief that such a theory might prove correct. Mr Brahe had informed me that the blacks were troublesome while he was at the depot, and that he had once been obliged to fire his revolver, over their heads to frighten them away; he also pointed out to me the native who had been the ringleader among them at that time. Ever since we had been on the creek the natives had been very excited, eternally hovering about us, and shouting 'Gow' and waving their hands. We had interpreted this, and I think not unnaturally, as a hostile sign, ordering us out of their country; but the real meaning was at that time unknown to us. Add to this the comparatively recent track of a camel going up the creek and the belief that something had happened to Burke's party might have some probability.
Dire were the threats of vengeance among the men should it turn out that the blacks had murdered Burke.
On the following day we started, feeling that now the real difficulties of the expedition commenced. It was here that we held, the end of a weak, uncertain clue, at the other end of which was the solution of the mystery we had to unravel.
I went on before the party with one of the blackboys to search for tracks. On the banks of a large sheet of water (Malkanbar), were tracks of a horse, from a few days to as many months old (The horse was afterwards caught. It was one left by Sturt about 7 years before), and near the place, the same camel track going eastward. At the lower end of the waterhole was a clasp-knife. Whose was the horse, and whose the knife? The horse, it seemed to me, could only be the one Burke took with him; the knife certainly might, and probably was, left there by some black fellow. However, they seemed links in the chain we were slowly following.
Here I sent the blackboy to the party, in order that they might follow down the course of the creek. I proposed to keep out northward, over country on which I might hope to find the tracks made by Burke's party, if he had left the creek here; for, from the nature of the county, this was the first place where an explorer would probably take his departure to the north or north-west. The chain of stony hills was passed, and open sandy country and sand ridges extended northward.
After travelling five or six miles, I again struck the, creek, having gradually borne round, without finding any signs. I came into the lower end of a large waterhole (Goyapedree), and could see a number of native huts at the other side. A little higher up, I crossed, and on the south bank again found the same camel tracks going east. At the same time I saw a native with his gin and little child; the gin was gathering firewood by picking it up with her foot, and then with one hand placing it in a bundle which she held on her head with the other. When they saw me, the gin gave a yell, and, dropping her wood, ran off with the child to the camp. The man remained about fifty yards distant from me, he was much excited; he shouted and gesticulated, and pointed down the creek; he raised one finger in the air, and then patted the ground with his hand. When I went towards him he ran away, and, having no time to spare in making dumb show that was doubtless as unintelligible to him as his was to me, I rode off up the creek to look after my party, whose movements I was now anxious about. I followed the camel track for some distance, and, then crossing the creek, found my party had passed. At this place there was a quantity of tobacco lying about; it had evidently been there some time - again a puzzle.
Cantering along the level sandy plains bordering the creek, and on which the track of the party was clearly impressed, it was not long before I caught sight of them, halted on the edge of the bank, and on drawing near to them the two blackboys came forward. We met at some little distance from the others. I could see that something had taken place. Sandy, one of the black boys said, 'Find 'em, two fellow dead, and one fellow alive, belonging to Mr Burke.'
All this he told me, but I did not understand. Our immediate arrival being thus expected, for our presence on the creek had a day or two before been announced by some of the natives whom we first saw, the black fellows took King, and, so soon as the party came in sight, placed him on the edge of the bank. I believe Mr Welch, the surveyor, was the first person who had the good fortune to speak to him. Seeing this strange being seated there, he exclaimed, 'Who are you?' The answer was: 'I am John King, the last survivor of Mr Burke's party; thank God I'm saved' and here fell on his knees in an attitude of thanksgiving.
Here, then, our search may be said to have come to a close, and with it our outward journey; and it now only remained for us to search out the remains of the two devoted men who had fallen, and to prepare for our journey homeward, so, soon as the survivor than a fortnight longer without help, but it would have been difficult to believe this two days after he was found. Soap and water, decent clothes, and proper food, together with freedom from anxiety, worked wonders; and although very weak, he no longer had the anxious, haggard look at first seen in him.
Near this spot we formed our camp. On the 18th of September I went with Messrs Brahe, Welch, Wheeler, and King to the spot where Wills died. It was about seven miles down the creek, and a little past the place where Streleski's Creek branches to the south. The name of the place is 'Breerily'. It is a wide sandy river bed, full of polygonum, and near a large reach of water. One or two native huts were pitched on the sand bank, and in one of these Wills breathed his last. About a mile distant is the flat on which they collected the 'nardoo' on which they tried to exist.
It was to this place that King returned, after witnessing the death of his leader, only to find himself companionless in the wilderness.
We found the remains of Wills disturbed, probably by dogs, and scattered from the sand with which King had covered them. With great difficulty we collected the greater part of the remains, but some portions were never found. We interred them near a gum tree, and cut upon it an inscription to mark the spot.
It was here also that King had secreted the documents, and we recovered them and returned, taking them with us together with various trifles belonging to the dead, and some of the 'nardoo' and the wooden bowl in which poor Wills had prepared his last meal, when he wrote that it was not 'unpleasant starvation'.
It is impossible to describe the feelings of sadness and awe that filled our minds as we gazed on this sad spectacle. It was lying down to die on the very threshold of success and home, after the heat and burden of the day' were passed. We consigned him to the earth wrapped in the British flag, as a fit covering for a brave man. An inscription was cut in a box tree marking the spot.
Riding homewards, I could but feel surprise that we should have missed the remains, so near to our camp, and still nearer to our track. It seemed incredible that half-a dozen whites and two black boys should spend hours in minutely searching round the very spot where Burke lay, and yet not be able to see his remains. But such was the fact, and I have often regarded it as providential, and felt thankful that it was so. In the state of feeling in which the party was. the night we camped at Yennie-ming-Kar, it only needed that we should have found the skeleton of a white man, who Brahe would probably have recognised as Burke, lying unburied in the bush with his revolver beside him, to have fully confirmed the, theory current among the men that Burke had been killed by the natives. I think that I should, have believed it, and, burning with vengeance, we should in the next day, in all likelihood, have burst into the camp of friendly, backs with whom King was living, and he himself might have fallen a victim. The possibility of such a mischance is terrible to contemplate.
Thus the fate of Burke and Wills had been discovered, King had been rescued, and it only remained to account for the fourth of the party, Grey. From the accounts of Wills and King he had been the first to succumb to hardships. King gives a plain but touching account of how he died and was buried before reaching Cooper's Creek on the return journey.
His fate being ascertained, it was not part of our duties to proceed to his grave, and between that time and my return to the creek it had been visited by McKinlay, who, apparently through misunderstanding the natives, and possibly through exaggerated accounts and misstatements made to him, had a skirmish with them the there. The place was called by him Lake Massacre.
It has seemed to me singular that any doubt could have been felt by anyone that the remains found were those of Gray, but I have heard such doubts expressed. There was no doubt they were those of a white man, and how was it possible that white man could be any other than Gray? No white men were likely to be wandering about in that far interior, and no parties of settlers were or had been out seeking for country. The interment was too recent for any of Leichhardt's party; it could only be Gray.
Besides questioning the natives respecting Gray, I always made a point of inquiring about other parties of white men they might remember. Some remembered Sturt: one man said that when he was a little boy a white man went past 'Kyejerou' with a 'wheelpra', that is, a 'wheelbarrow', a name evidently derived from the salt-water blacks, who visit the stations, and thus describe a dray or cart.
Many others spoke of the white fellows who came down the creek with numbers of packhorses, and showed me their tracks: this referred to Gregory. All of them, of course, were well acquainted with Burke and McKinlay; but not one of the numbers I spoke with, both north and south of the desert, could tell me anything which might apply to Leichhardt's party, or even remembered hearing of any parties than those I have named. Singularly I could hear nothing of Stuart; possibly the salt lakes may prevent communication.
A few words will conclude. Our preparations were soon made, and on the 26th of September we commenced our homeward journey.
One more incident I must mention before concluding. On our upward journey we had, with great trouble and care, carried four carrier pigeons in a wicker cage, strapped on a camel. By the time we required their services on Cooper's Creek, the incessant travelling had completely worn down their tails against the cage, and before liberating them we had to splice on feathers from the native crested pigeon. All our trouble was thrown away, for of the four liberated and bearing messages two flew southward, one was chased by a large fish-hawk, and another perched in a tree and was brought to the camp, where he took up his abode, and where we left him when we departed. I need. hardly say that none of the pigeons were ever after heard of.
Here may be said to have ended the most interesting part of our expedition. The journey homeward was without event to be recorded, and time is wanting to note anything of the second visit to Cooper's Creek to bring back the remains of the explorers.
The districts I have spoken of are, I believe, still possessed by the aboriginals, excepting where at Bulloo Creek and at Lake Hope stations have been occupied The accounts we have read of the progress of settlement on Cooper's Creek, of the fat cattle brought from Burke's grave, of the hotel, and the coach running there, are, I believe, to be referred to the upper part of the Barcoo, hundreds of miles distant - perhaps to Bulloo Creek, but scarcely to the Cooper's Creek, where the Victorian explorers laid down their lives in the cause of exploration.
The eastern half of the continent is now well known; only parts remain to be explored, such as the country lying on the eastern side of the salt lakes, and towards Eyre's Creek; but the western half of Central Australia remains almost a blank. Stuart's tracks alone intersect it, and its further borders have been merely penetrated from Western Australia. I regard it as a field for the last great exploration remaining, but also the most difficult.
In the eastern half we have large rivers pouring down seas of water into the interior at uncertain intervals, which fill the immense depressions, such as that chain of salt lakes formerly described as Lake Torrens. On the western side of these lakes we failed to find any such water-courses. Those crossed by Stuart would seem to be comparatively local. We may therefore conceive that there is probably a second series of salt lakes in the western half, receiving the waters flowing westward from Stuart's track, and eastward from the coast range of Western Australia. The high cliffs and table lands on the Australian Bight on the south; the sandy desert on the north, into which Gregory descended from the head waters of the Victoria River; and the saline country reported by explorers from Western Australia, speak to me of an arid and difficult country. Only those who have travelled in the saline parts of the interior can picture their desolation.
This great journey may, in a favourable season, be performed with horses in perhaps six months, but I believe that it is far more likely that it will occupy two years, and-that camels must be employed as beasts of burden. It will be a great undertaking, and will require the greatest care and foresight, and men who, if they do turn back, will only do so to make a fresh attempt.
When this great journey shall have been performed, and the eastern half of the continent connected with the western, then, and only then; may we conclude that the work of Australian exploration is drawing to its close, and we may sincerely hope that it will be productive of as great results as, and be freer from misfortune, than the expeditions we have now been considering.