by Alfred Howitt, 1874.
Ovens and Murray Advertiser
Mr Chairman, and Ladies and Gentlemen, The committee of the Beechworth Athenaeum and Burke Museum, having honored me by accepting a lecture in aid of their most valuable institution, I conceived that I; could do no better than adopt one which I had once before given, for a similar purpose, and it appeared to me that no more appropriate subject could be chosen, than "Exploration in Central Australia, and the Burke and Wills Expedition" and specially the discovery of the remains of those explorers, and the rescue of King.
Doubtless there are many here who personally knew Robert O'Hara. -Burke," the gallant leader of the "Victorian Expedition, and there can be none in this district where he lived so long who are unacquainted by report with his high and sterling qualities. It might have been still more appropriate to this occasion had I attempted to have described to you Burke's own expedition.
I might have depicted their start full of high hopes, the expedition almost the one grand object of public interest, till they vanished from our view into the distant solitudes of Central Australia. I might have pictured to you the adventurous journey of Burke and his three companions across to the north coast, their dogged determination, their triumphant success with inadequate means over the natural difficulties of the country-; their laborious - return to the depot where they hoped their hardships and sufferings would have ended; the death and; burial of Grey on the way back; their final miserable fate, even in which with death by famine slowly but surely overtaking them, they showed the highest qualities of calm and steadfast courage; and, at last, how the gallant Burke and his true comrade, Wills, laid down their lives in the wilderness, tended to the last by their faithful companion John King.
All this I might have told you, but in doing so, I must have repeated at second hand, that which you can read in the living words of the dead explorers, and I do not think that that sad story could be told by any one with more graphic simplicity or pathos.
I have, therefore, considered that it would probably of the most interest to you to hear, that which I can tell you from my own experience; giving you, if possible, a picture. of the country and of the events connected with exploring, so that you may vividly realise the finding of the remains of the last explorers, and of the rescue of the survivor, which will form the later portion of my lecture.
The interest excited by those expeditions of discovery into the interior and across the continent of Australia which commenced with the explorations of Burke and Wills, is still fresh in our minds; but it is only in looking back to the boundaries of the settlement's existing at that time that we can measure the astonishing advance of the settlement's into the wilderness, or form an adequate idea of the important benefits resulting from these explorations. These expeditions, however, constitute by small link in the long chain of such undertakings, ranging over a period whose earliest date commences with the first settlement of these Colonies.
If you would be impossible in the remarks which I propose to make this evening, for me to enter into at length, or even to review shortly, the various explorations to which I have alluded, and I have therefore determined to confine my remarks to those expeditions which traversed that portion of our island continent known as Central Australia, and in doing so more particularly to deal with those districts which have become historical is connected with the memories of Burke and Wills and their companions, and of which I have obtained some personal knowledge.
A few remarks may be necessary before speaking of these events which have happened within an immediate recollection, and which - so rapidly does timed pass - may yet be regarded as historical, and as such may be discussed calmly and without those feelings of warmth which, however necessary perhaps to give life to a discussion, our act, unconsciously, to walk a judgement and bias our opinions. I feel that I may possibly throw some light on the final events of the Burke and wills expedition, from a recital of facts within my own knowledge, and from having visited the localities now are ended famous in Australian history by the last days of our great explorers.
Passing over the expedition of Eyre and into Central Australia, we come to one who may be regarded as the father of inland exploration - the late Captain Sturt.
In the years 1844-45-46 he was engaged in his great expedition to Central Australia. Up to this time the explorers had, as a general rule, travelled through those portions of the continent which were watered by large streams; some of their parties were accompanied by bullock-drays as well as pack horses, and in one or two instances made use of boats, and the real difficulties of exploring were but little encountered. The Murray, Murrumbidgee, the Lachlan, and the Darling Rivers provided well-watered the lines of communication with the distant interior; and although large bodies of natives we to be met with on those rivers, yet, water being always procurable, the difficulties of an advance or retreat were confined to the hostilities of these natives, and to the delays and hindrances inseparable from of the management of an expedition accompanied by a number of teams or pack horses, and the care to be taken for the health and sustenance of a number of men.
In this journey of Sturt's however, a new and far more difficult kind of country had to be traversed. The great and perennial streams which rise in the mountains of south-eastern Australia were left behind, and the only waters to be found were either pools of rainwater left by local thunderstorms or by the rains which is certain times seemed to be general over wide districts; at the rare intervals springs were to be found his them in the recesses of the hills; and, lastly, the flood waters, derived from the western watershed of the coast ranges of that part of Australia now known as Queensland. These floods pour down at uncertain intervals into the interior, and, spreading over immense tracts of country, are either lost by absorption or gradually evaporated into the beds of creeks, in large shallow lakes, or finally in extensive saline depressions, such as the so-called Lake Torrens Basin. An expedition into Central Australia would no longer follow day by day the course of a permanent river, but must proceed in uncertainty as to the next supply of water, searching perhaps in vain while enduring all the horrors of thirst, and perhaps at last compelled to fall black wearied and disheartened, uncertain whether the small pool of liquid mud they had last had left might not already have disappeared. It is no wonder that under such circumstances Captain Sturt described in sombre colours country which has since then being eagerly grasped for pastoral purposes, and that at this moment stations are formed in sports which he describes as a desert.
The character of Central Australia differed from the southern portions, and it was necessary that many hardships and much suffering should be undergone before the apprenticeship to it had been completed. Besides these external difficulties, Captain Sturt had another and a most serious one to contend with, and one which he had assisted to create for himself. He had adopted an opinion that what is now the continent of Australia had once been an archipelago of islands, and that the immense plains into which not only he, but Oxley, Cunningham, and Mitchell had descended in proceeding towards the centre of the continent, had been the beds of channels which formerly separated the islands, and that an immense inland sea must still exist somewhere. All that Mitchell, Grey, and Eyre had done in their attempts to penetrate the burning and sandy deserts towards the interior had only confirmed the idea. He believed that he should find somewhere in the centre of the continent a great inland sea, surrounded by the deserts of sand.
Now, although probably this theory of the former condition of Australia may be true, and indeed the interior so far as I have seen it strongly bears out the view in many points, yet having brought himself firmly to believe in his theory, he has firmly believed all the details he had adorned it with, and on every possible occasion not only permitted his hobby to run away with him, but seemed bent on driving forward everything he saw as a confirmation; in fact he commenced at the wrong end; he formed his theory first and then set to work to discover facts to support it. In perusing his narrative in the very neighbourhoods he speaks of, I have felt sad and yet amuesd at his determination in clinging to hope even against hope, when from his narrative it is evident that had he not been blinded by the glamour of the false theory, he would in all probability have rent aside the dark veil of mystery which surrounded Central Australia.
Later on in this lecture I shall have occasion to point out where Sturt appeared to be led blindfold past the very signposts of the path northwards. This however only adds to the feelings of admiration and respect with which I regard this explorer. Nowhere in the narratives of exploration have I met with and witnessed such enthusiasm, such patient determination against the accidents of hunger, thirst, disease and all their attendant hardships which dogged his steps, and above all such a firmer and yet simple reliance on the divine providence that I have found in the vivid and simple yet often eloquent account of his great journey into Central Australia in search of that ignis fatuus [a will-o'-the-wisp], the inland sea.
In the year 1858, A.C. Gregory, when on his search for traces of Leichhardt, followed down the Barcoo River, which in fact is the Cooper's Creek of Sturt and thence proceeded southward into the settlements of Sonth Australia at Mount Hopeless. The principal result of this journey was to connect the explorations of Mitchell,, Start, Kennedy and Eyre, and to prove that connection of the Victoria River with Cooper's Creek. The tracks of Gregory's party were pointed out to me by the natives where deeply impressed during the wet weather.
The next expedition which penetrated to Cooper's Creek was the ill-fated one sent out by this colony. Before speaking of this I shall briefly describes the character of the country, the natives, and such other things as you will, I hope, to some extent enable me to bring more clearly before you the scenes attending the finding of the remains of Burke and Wills, and the rescuing of their comrades, King.
The country traversed by Stuart in his wonderful journey's from South Australia lies outside of the limits propose for this lecture.
That portion of Central Australia to which my remarks this evening more particularly refer, lies between the 139° and 143° of east longitude, and north of the 32° of south latitude. Until late years, in consequence of the accounts given by Sturt, Eyre, and others, it was regarded as desert, and at times it fully deserves this character; but I believe that even in the worst seasons portions of it owing to local rain, will form luxuriant oases of verdure. The general characteristics may be classified into plains, sand hills, and stony ranges. The plains may be of firm clay, or undulating sandy ground, or covered with a thick layer of stones, singularly and unpleasantly resembling broken road metal. In the neighbourhood of the flood waters they may consist of deposited mud, which during the summer heats becomes utterly devoid of all vegetation, and is torn and in every direction by sun cracks, at this time there is scarcely a square yard of sound ground, and the cracks traversing it are in many places wide enough to let in a horse's hoof, and several feet deep. Travelling over these mud plains is harassing in the extreme to men and horses; the dry mud becomes very loose with the heat, and rises in a thick cloud of impalpable dust. I have looked back, after our party has crossed one of these plains, and a track was distinctly marked for miles, forming a path which will remain as plain as the day it was made until obliterated by the next flood.
The sandy country is generally seen in ridges, like the waves of the sea. Each ridge is separated from the other by clay flats, from 20 yards to two or three miles in width. These ridges and are generally nearly meridianal in direction. At their base they are firm, but usually the crests formed of loose sand, varying in colour from nearly white to the hue of red-hot iron; the crests drift from one side of the ridge to the other with every wind, and in places rise into loose cones, showing of their bare red fronts to the north, and presenting a most singular appearance among the bright green grass that grows after every rain. These extents of sand hills spread over many miles -I have crossed them in one place for ninety. The clay flats between them are very often found to be full of shallow pans, the margin formed by ridges of sand, and the clay bottom as hard as brick; and it is in these 'clay-pans' as they are called, that water may be found for some time after rain -a wonderful provision of nature in that dry country. It can be easily understood that a thunderstorm one run off the smooth clay flats, and collect very rapidly in these natural reservoirs.
Another class of country consists of ranges but we must not be led by that term to picture ourselves such forest ranges as we see in Victoria; these they in no way resemble. They are of two classes, the most frequent being what are called hills of denudation - that is, the remains of former table lands, perhaps five or 600 feet above the level of the surrounding country, and which in the course of pages, and probably by the action of the sea in a late geological epoch, have been cut down and the materials carried away to form the stony plains and the sand ridges of which I have spoken. The appearance of these chains of hills is most singular. Their summits of perfectly level, and only separated by Steve values, which gradually trend or back until they rise to the elevation of the further edge of the chain, which still shows the form of the ancient table land. These hills present the most perfect picture of desolation imaginable. Stones are seen everywhere, and generally coated with a brown oxide of iron. In places the sides of the hills show horizontal strips of white clay, and as far as the eye can reach the same barren desolate waste extends. Scarcely a bush or a blade of grass can be found nourishment; and even away in some main gully a line of stunted gums or box trees marks the course of a creek, it will probably found that the bed is of a loose stones of all sizes, and of such a porous nature that water can never lie there, excepting immediately after heavy rains. This kind of country is dreaded by explorers; water is scarce, feed for the stock poor and scanty; and the sharp stones, everywhere lying on a loose soil like powdered gingerbread, and rendered travelling, except with shod horses, next to impossible.
The second a description of ranges is all the different and older formation. Razor backed ridges of slate rise abruptly from the plains, there bare peaks and rugged precipices looming blue and sharply defined. Here again timber is almost absent, being usually only found as a line of guns or box trees marking the Creeks. These dark lines of trees can be seen winding from the gorges of the hills across the plains, until they gradually die away into a few stunted bushes, and the creek itself disappears most likely in a dry lake bed. These slate the ranges, however, are far to be preferred to the stony hills I have just mentioned; grass and herbage are more plentiful, and in the gorges pools of water may be found lying in the deep rocky basins, and shaded with trees; or clumps of green reeds along lines of rushes show the far more welcome sight of the spring.
The sandy plains and sand hills are, however, after rains, the kind of country most to be preferred; the grass and herbage are then luxuriant; and when within the influence of the large water courses, a perfect network of channels and lakes among the sand hills make exploring no longer a difficulty, but a kind of picnic.
Such a country lies west of the 141°east longitude back on Cooper's creek and on Wills's Creek north of Sturt's desert, or, as I believe it is now called, the Diamantina River, north of Sturt's Desert.
Another water system of this part of the interior can be described as contracting the watershed from the north-eastern coast ranges and falling into the interior in a south-west direction. The water thus derived partly soaks into the earth in the immense mud plains, or is partly stored in a natural reservoirs in the creeks or the lakes of all sizes in the sand hill country; and the residue evaporates rapidly in shallow waters on plains called 'Maro' by the natives, or in salt lakes such as Lake Torrens.
The most northerly of these rivers was named Cooper's Creek by Sturt, who discovered it and who had not been aware, I presume, of the direction of the watershed in the tropical coast ranges, regarded it as a local drainage. He seems to have struck it somewhere below 'Breerily' the place where Wills died, and here it rapidly breaks up to the north and south in innumerable channels. He followed it upwards to the eastward for about seventy miles through a chain of stony hills which confined the course to the point where he was, and being misled by the signs made by the natives, he fell back upon his theory, and regarded Cooper's Creek as being formed by the drainage of a great basin, the dry bed of a former sea. Instead of this it is a river which takes its rise in Queensland; receives tributaries as the Alice and the Thomson; and after spreading over immense extent of mud plains - which we must recollect are the accumulator deposits of its floods for countless ages - it reunites in one stream at the point where Sturt turned back; there, as I have said, it has to force a its way through a chain of hills, and turning to the westward, forms magnificent sheets of water along its course, and abounds with fish and water fowl.
A few miles westward of the South Australian boundary line it emerges from the hills into sandy country, which extends for about 100 miles westward to the salt lakes, the 'Appo Kaldree', or 'salt-water' of the natives. To call this the creek is to miss-describe it. Its course extends westward over about 8° of longitude and at its and breaking up, after emerging from the hills, its waters of country had some 10° of latitude and of longitude in extent. Viewing it thus in its true light as one of the larger Rivers of Australia, we are able to understand the immense volume of water brought down from the tropics at uncertain times. These times are uncertain, for, although there is no doubt that it's upper course is flooded annually, it is only in unusual seasons that the great inundations take place. When we consider the scene of water required not only to flood the mud plains (which are in places 20 miles wide), but to saturate to repletion the yawning crevices which are scarcely affected by the heavy local rains, and then to fill the main channel in the hills for 70 miles, and to flood the banks between the hills for 3 miles in width, 10 feet high above the banks, and afterwards lay underwater the greater part of the sandy country, we must regard Cooper's creek as a river, which is only prevented from forcing its way to the sea by obstacles which could be overcome by a perennial stream, but against which its inundations, the great as they are, have been powerless.
This river, where in one channel is from 100 to 280 yards wide, from bank to bank. Immense gums border it, and box trees former fringe of from quarter of a mile to a mile wide. Bauhinias, Acacias, native cork trees, native or orange trees with their thick foliage, white blossoms, and aromatic fruit, and many shrubs - such as salt bush and dwarf Acacias - grow singly or in clumps. Great beds of polygonum and water plants fringe the sheets of water. These are of great extent and, the one on which our depot was situated is about 4 miles long, and from 150 to 300 yards wide, and in places tend feet deep at the edge. It is called 'Callioumarou' by the natives.
It is difficult to convey a correct idea of the country where Cooper's creek commences to break up, west of the 141°of east longitude.
No sooner are the hills passed, then deep channels lead off to the south, forming afterwards into Strezlecki's creek, and ultimately reaching one of the lakes of the Torrens Basin. From this point channels break off continually to the south, the west, and the north, confined into watercourses when among the sand ridges, vanishing into extensive clay flats or mud plains, again forming into lakes of all sizes (which are at one season sheets of water miles in width, at others grassy meadows), and finally ending in two great lakes - one in the south, Lake Hope, the 'Bando Pinna' or Big Lake of the natives; the other in the north 'Bando Patchadilly' the Lake Lipson of Sturt.
Here and there Cooper's Creek makes the struggle to regain its former dimensions as at Kyejerou, where it is the headquarters of a strong body of natives.
The contrast presented by this country in its two phases of drought and flood are so wonderfully marked, that it is hard to conceive without actually having witnessed it. During drought everything seems to swelter in the parching atmosphere of an oven; the only difference between winter and summer seems to be that the former is not quite so hot; grass and herbage almost disappear, excepting at the margins of water holes; and the waters even in the large reservoirs evaporate at the rate of from 9 to 12 inches a month. The trees and bushes look half-dead, and the salt bush and cotton bush break when you brush against them. The only things that are green are a few Hardy bushes on the sand hills, and that delusive spinifex, which has been aptly called 'porcupine'.
The change after the flood has swept over the country, is a magical. No sooner had the waters subsided into the channels than nature burst forth, the earth becomes green under the steaming heat almost in a night, and before we can believe it possible we are in the midst of a luxuriant spring; birds commenced to build in flocks, and green grass and flowers and young leaves make a garden of what but a few weeks before was a desert. This wonderful effect of the floods I was fortunate in witnessing on Wills' Creek on the north side of Sturt's Desert.
I think it was in the autumn, after forming a depot on the second journey, that the Cooper's Creek blacks (with whom I was on good terms) reported to me that the great flood had come down several days' journey to the north. They were in ecstasies about this 'Arimata', with a constant chorus of 'Tarralco, cotee capee, bowar' - this is 'ducks, swans, eggs and seed-cakes'. At the same time, however, one of them who had just come from this land of promise told me that 'Wheelpra Pinnarow', meaning McKinlay the explorer, was caught in the flood on the other side of the 'Big Stones' (Sturt's Desert), and that he could not get out, and was in fact in difficulties. This report being repeated with the most circumstantial account of his doings. I determined to push out northwards and make an exploration I had long meditated across Sturt's Desert.
Taking my black friends to introduce me to the natives on our route, we started on the 3rd of July, being a party of five whites and two natives, with 13 horses and a month's rations. On the sixth evening having examined the country by Kyejerou Creek and Lake Lipson, we camped on the edge of the desert. We were here close to the track Sturt had taken so many years before, and I felt no little surprised to find that he must, in travelling northwards from Cooper's Creek to Lake Lipson, have passed almost in sight of the dense mass of timber marking Kyejerou Creek and the shallow lakes near it, without seeing them; and I could only really account for this by supposing that the heavy sand ridges lying between these places and the other waters on his right hand at Merrimoka, Bateman's and O'Donnel's Creeks, and among which his course lay, prevented his perceiving the permanent waters. Again when near Lake Lipson he was but a few miles from another permanent sheet of water called 'Appanmarrow' - that is, the 'Fishwater' which lies on the verge of the barren sandhills he crossed after seeing the Hope Plains and before entering the desert. Kyejeroo Creek, the shallow lakes near it, Appan Parroo, the Hope Plains form a chain by which the inundations from Cooper's Creek find their way along the sand hills northward.
Our first view of the deserts was singularly uninviting. No rain appeared to have fallen for many months; the sand hills presented a melancholia prospect of drifts and of a dull brown colour, scattered with the withered and blackened stumps of the salt bush and Acacias, which had perished; the remains of grass only showed that at times vegetation might be found there in a favourable season, and it was with difficulty that we procuring sufficient feed for our horses; water there was none. Billy the following day we came to the desert, the celebrated Desert of Sturt, which he had so graphically described. The sand ridges suddenly ceased, and an undulating country lay before us, into which we descended. It looked brown and shiny from the stones with which he was covered; in places they were roughly strewn about in others as smoothly packed as a mosaic pavement; in other places, where hollows occurred, we found sandy patches, but everywhere as far as we could see, was stones, nothing but stones, on all sides.
Captain Sturt had regarded this as the depressed bed of an ancient sea; in fact, it appeared from the sand hills as a tract of country lower than that surrounding it. This is so far true as regards the sand hills, but it is not so low as the flood level of Cooper's Creek on the south, or that of Wills' Creek on the north. It is in fact, not a depressed drainage, but a low undulating watershed, separating two rivers - a western offshoots from the range of hills which, starting from the Darling at the Barrier Ranges, and continues with certain breaks through the Grey Ranges to those through which Cooper's Creek forces its way, and then again extends northward, crossing Wills' Creek; having send out an offshoot, the Stony Desert, I believe that it may possibly extending to or beyond the tropics. The cats stony Desert, being just a watershed, probably extends to the salt lakes into which I presume the waters of both Wills' and Cooper's Creeks find their way. Thus we have a key to the drainage of a considerable part of the interior.
To return. During the morning we crossed endless undulations of the desert, and suddenly found ourselves within the track of a thunderstorm. Pools of water lay on the pavement-like hollows, and our thirsty horses and we, their scarcely less thirsty riders, drank from them with delight. Several patches of sandy ground covered with myall and Acacias, and well grassed from recent rains, showed themselves, thus proving that the desert was after all not as black as it had been painted. The reality was dreary enough in all conscience. My black friends, our guide from Cooper's Creek, every moment exclaimed 'One more stones and the flood'; and still undulation after undulation was crossed without change from the endless stone pavement. About three o' clock our camping time arrived, and found us at a pretty little sandy oasis, scattered with Acacias and green bushes; and the green grass and some fine pools of rainwater invited as so strongly to halt that we camped for the day. Some miles to the north-west we could see high sand ridges raising their wave-like crests above the stony plains, showing that in all probability we were close on the northern confines of a desert. My black friends still persisted in saying 'Murda coono arimataney' - that is 'one more stones and the flood', but I no longer placed much confidence in him, and determined on the morning to make my own course more westerly, in the direction of Eyre's Creek as laid down by Captain Sturt, and which had not been revisited since he was there.
The afternoon was spent as usual in camp, cooking, seeing to the horses, and getting through the time as best way we could until the long-wished-for night came. My usual occupation of working out the dead reckoning, preparing for the necessary observations at night, being over, I watched my black friend, Tommy, busy grabbing under the routes of the salt bushes, where small burrows were visible, and from which by means of a pointed stick he soon dug out a number of fat rats, which he a forthwith proceeded to roast in the ashes; then, pulling off the tails, ate them at like a bunch of radishes and finally demolished all the bodies, very much as a personal would eat sausages. The discovery of so much fresh meat was not lost upon us, and my comrades were not above taking a lesson from a black fellow, and thus adding to their meagre fare of damper and dried horse; for my part, I can say that those fat rats were not to be despised.
My belief in my black friends suddenly revived, however, after nightfall, for no sooner had he become darker than the air seemed alive with water fowl - ducks, swans, and native companions flew in flocks over others, quacking and trumpeting in a way that made us jump up in a hurry and endeavour in the darkness to find out their course. It was clear we were near the so long talked of and expected 'Arimata'.
Daylight was no sooner seen than we hardly prepared to start, and a mile or two of the 'one more stones' revealed a sight that I shall never forget.
The brown desert of stones suddenly ceased below us, trending from where we were to the north-east, and in front lay a wide green meadow, bounded on the north-west by the sand ridges we had seen the night before, and extending northward until it was lost in the sand ridges, rising above and dense masses of timber. A joyous shout rose as the party came over the rich, and halted there for a moment at the unexpected sight. After travelling through the desert the contrast was very striking. Riding down to the flats we found the line of vegetation so marked that I could halt my horse with his forefeet in rich native clover, and his hind-feet on the bare stones of the desert. This was the line to which the floods had risen.
All day and we were through this magnificent country; and at the clover and grass knee deep around us, making the air almost oppressive with sweetness; water holes and Creeks and lagoons were on all sides full to the brim under there now green and budding trees, all surrounded by luxuriant beds of polygonum; wildfowl of all kinds were in myriads, flocks of emus and turkey's stalked around us and our spirits rose high at the sight of what looked a very paradise after the barren and parched country we had been in. Here at length and we had simple proof of the magical effects of the floods that pour down from the tropics into Central Australia. The verdant Meadows around us as far as we could see had not long before been cracked and sun baked mud plains.
That evening we came upon a large lake, about 6 miles across, and extending down in long arms into the very skirt of the desert, carrying fertility everywhere within its attendance.
From this time, as long as we could make our meagre rations hold out, and as long as it had to be absent from the depot, we traversed this fine country, finding the same luxuriant vegetation extending for 20 miles northward, this being the width of the inundation. The only space free from the floods were a large extent of sand hills and a block of stony hills of which I have something to say later. Wills' Creek was even a then and running, and was so boggy with mud and quicksand so that we had to follow it for miles before I found a spot where it was safe to cross. The blacks were very wild and usually made off long before we could get near them, but at length we found an old man who professed to know that he was camped at two days' distance; this old gentleman we surprised with other natives after camp buried in one of the denser beds of gigantic marsh mallows - beds so tall that they over-topped us on horseback. His friends bolted, but the old fellow, have been two lakes, hurried into his heart, and securely barricaded his door with a bundle of grass. After some little time, and through the mediation of my native guide (for the language of these blacks was perfectly unintelligible to me), he came forth trembling into the presence of the wonderful strangers, and entered into a long account of McKinlay's doings, but persistently refused to go with us to his camps.
We cut McKinlay's tracks going to the north-east, shortly after making our adieu to this 'oldest inhabitant' who would no doubt at once become a lion and an oracle amongst his fellows.
I now regret that, instead of minutely inspecting the country for many miles around, in the vain hope of finding McKinlay's camps, and perhaps some records buried by him of his proceedings, I did not use the remainder of the time we could spare in making a rapid exclusion towards Eyre's Creek, all in following up and down the creek we were on to its final resting place - the salt lakes. At this time, however, I had determined on my return to the depot to up once prepare for a fresh start, with a renewed stock of rations and fresh animals from the number left to spell at Cooper's Creek. This intention was frustrated by the recall of our party.
The country from the point where we then were or had been traversed to the Gulf by Burke, McKinlay had now gone to the north-east, and circumstances were in the highest degree favourable for exploring the most interesting part of Central Australia, the great salt lakes, of which Lake Gregory is supposed to be the largest, and which are by this time but little known - indeed the tract of country lying north of Lake Gregory, and between Burke and Stuart's tracks, comprises 5° of longitude and six of latitude.
Regrets are unavailing, and it remains for some more for to explore to fill in this large blank on our maps; but many years may elapse before such favourable circumstances combine as at that time to the journey - a secure basis of operations at Cooper's Creek, an excellent unwilling party, and good horses, camels and equipment and a great flood, which had subsided just so much as to leave splendid vegetation and abundant water. What could an explorer desire more? Delays are proverbially dangerous and this instance shows how necessary it is for an expedition never to lose an opportunity water deferred to another time what might be performed at once.
In one place during our wanderings on Wills' Creek we found a large block of stony hills almost surrounded by the flooded country, and presenting a most marked contrast to the luxuriant meadows about them. Here was a spot where Sturt sat, disheartened and travel-worn - he himself and his party suffering from thirst and hunger, his horses almost in a dying state - when on his second a desperate attempt northward he was forced to return to his deserted depot at Fort Grey. Speaking of this spot, he says " Latitude 23°38', longitude 139°26'30". Ridges of 100 to 300 feet in height, covered with large fragments of stone. From the top of the highest ridge the eye wanders over a dark expanse of stone. All round the visible horizon the line of desert was unbroken, except to the south-east where lay the sand hills he had just crossed." Here we have a gloomy picture, but still strictly true, at such a season as that when Sturt saw it; but at the same time we see how near success maybe to us, and still be beyond our grasp. In the darkest moments no explorer need despair, for in this instance, at only a few miles distance northward, and only invisible because the 'visible horizon of desert' intervened, was situated Wills' Creek with permanent water, and offering a direct route to the Flinders River and the north coast.
The track of Burke and Wills was somewhat to the westward, and they must have touched in the creek some miles below where I struck it. He found a more interesting relic of their passage. namely, the well-defined print of a camel's foot and with it the impression of a man's boot. This was in the line of route followed by Burke, and of such an age as to render it impossible that it could have been made by McKinley's party. It may be imagined with what interest we regarded this relic; many were the speculations as to whose was the foot that had made this print that now remained the sole visible record of the passage through this land.
For a week we picnicked in this fine country, but without finding the camps we sought for. They had probably been obliterated by the floods, and the only traces of our fellow-explorers were their tracks where above the level of the floods, and two of their bullocks. The day after I saw these, I again found their fresh tracks going at top speed in the sand hills, and accompanied by the prints of naked feet, and I have little doubt that they were by that time frying on the coals. My last day before turning homeward was spent in riding northward towards some blue hills, in the confines of the second desert; and here, in the afternoon, I and my companions sat on a high sandhill, while our horses picked the young grass, looking over the distant country to the north with longing eyes. I could then understand the fable of Tantalus. From our elevation we could see stretches of brown stones, broken by sand hills, gradually melting into a blue haze on the horizon, where some hills formed a tempting landmark to steer for; far off, on the plains a sombre line of timber showed that a large creek would be found at the end of the stage. It was with the greatest reluctance that we mounted and turned back to the camp, having for the last time looked northward, our constant goal at that time.
The natives who inhabit this part of Australia differ but slightly from those met with elsewhere; the distinctive features which mark them as a peculiar family of the human race are everywhere the same; those I met with seemed to me perhaps darker in colour than the natives inhabiting the cooler regions of the south-east. The younger ones were many of them fine examples of the savage but anything more ape-like than the old men and women is difficult to conceive.
It is not easy to arrive at any idea of the numbers; but as a rough estimate of the various camps I met with, and of these I heard of, I came to the conclusion that there are probably 1,200 natives living on the waters of Cooper's Creek, who all speak the same language. They are divided into several tribes, and subdivided into numerous families. The principal tribes I met with were the 'Yan-tru-wunter', and who inhabit Cooper's Creek proper, and so family of which succoured King; the 'Deerie' living in the lake country; and another tribe at Kyejerou and the edge of the desert the name of which I have forgotten (I am inclined to believe it is Ya-wurra-wudgee'. They are the natives with whom McKinlay had a skirmish). The families appear to bear surnames, such as 'Purdee' (the ant), 'Mungallee' (the lizard), 'Tehnku-ro' (the kangaroo), 'Pitchery' (a narcotic herb), and so on; the various members of the family being often distinguish from each other by personal peculiarities, as 'Pitchery Koono milkee', meaning 'Pitchery of the one eye', The name of another native was usually given, not in words, but by chopping with the right hand perpendicularly upon the left wrist; this native had a broken arm. The majority of natives had names of which I could obtain no meaning.
Their weapons are the usual shield, spear, and throwing sticks, the boomerang, waddy, and a singular weapon shaped like boomerang, but about 6 feet long and made of very hard and heavy black-box - a most formidable weapon in close quarters. The shields are made of very light wood which I was told was brought from a distance, and they are not only used for defensive purposes, but also as a means of procuring fire, by rapidly rubbing a hard piece of wood between the hands in a round indentation in the end of the shield.
Tomahawks, knives, adzes, and large axe-heads, which are used without handles, are made by them from stone, principally from a very hard silicoeous limestone, which is very common. The natives are in fact in the stone age, and quite unacquainted with metals.
Their clothing is simple in the extreme consisting of a girdle of string, a coat of red ochre or grease and charcoal, and a net for their hair. Some of the men tie their beards up tightly to a point with cord, but I believe they are regarded as dandies. No rugs of any kind are to be found among them, and I only once saw a covering used - this was a pelicans skin.
It is easily conceived that in variations of temperature the natives suffer very much; in winter months, after a warm day, a cold wind may set in from the south that seems to pierce one's very bones. I have several times found it too cold to ride, and yet in such mornings I have seen the natives at daybreak wading up to their necks in the lake taking out the fish which had been entangled in their nets during the night. Their 'gunnyahs', or as they call them, 'wurlies,' are differently formed for summer and winter, the former being no more than breakwinds, while the latter, shaped like old fashioned beehives, are formed of branches meeting at the apex, covered with grass, and finished off with earth and sand thrown up from around them and beaten down with the oval wooden bowls which the natives use for many purposes. These huts are about five or six feet high in the centre, and from five to eight feet in diameter; the doorway is only a hole large enough for the inhabitants to go in upon all fours, and the floor is scraped out dishlike, as I hare seen done by the natives here.
For the purpose of securing warmth, a fire is often lighted just outside, and during the night the inhabitant nearest the door will often scoop in a dish full of hot coals as a kind of warming-pan. Another mode of warming themselves is by taking a fire-stick or lighted bunch of bark in each hand and passing them over the various parts of their bodies at a little distance; it always reminded me of singeing a goose.
The winter huts are formed in permanent villages on the great waters, and are resorted to by the same families at intervals. I have counted forty-eight in one village in Sturt's Desert, on the banks of a fine sheet of deep water. In the neighbourhood of these village are usually several very large graves, and I suspect that they may be those of the head men, or 'Pinnaraoos' as they are far larger than the common graves: they are mounds of earth of considerable size, and covered on the top with piles of dead wood, no doubt to prevent the ravages of native dogs. I never examined the contents of these graves, as the natives are most particular about them, not permitting the use of firewood from them; and I think that no surer way of producing ill-feeling could be chosen than to dig up one of these burial mounds.
At a place called Merrimoke, north of Cooper's Creek, seven or eight large mounds were pointed out to me as the 'narries,' or graves of the slain who fell in a battle fought many years ago between the Deeries, Yan-truwunters, and the tribe living at Kyejerou.
The food of the natives consists principally of fish and grass seeds of which they make a kind of porridge and also cakes; but they are not particular, and I doubt whether any thing having life in it is excluded from their bill of fare. Many of them use a narcotic called 'Pitchery,' which is brought, according to their account, from some place ten days' journey to the north and west. Its taste resembles a hot and pungent tobacco. Besides making journeys north-west for Pitchery, I was informed by them that they procure their shields from the north-east, and that at certain times a number of the men proceed into the bounds of the South Australian settlements to procure 'Pocarto,' the red ochre, and the slabs of freestone in which they grind the seeds of nardoo, postulae, and grass.
In looking back to my intercourse with the natives of Central Australia, it is a great satisfaction to me to feel that the necessity never arose of having recourse to firearms. It is true that three or four times I felt that we were upon the verge of a rupture with them, and that twice night surprises were attempted, but in each instance peace was preserved. It would have been only an extreme provocation that would have induced me to fire upon kindred families to those who so humanely succoured King in his sore need. The native character can be summed up in a few words. They are but children of a larger growth, with the strong unreasoning desires of children, but also with the violent passions of maturity. They are capable of feeling a certain amount of affection and gratitude, but a breath may turn them into treachery and greed.
The limits I have proposed do not permit me to do more than to sketch in outline a few notes upon these aborigines, and I must pass over many of those peculiarities which an only be found among savages who have had but little or no intercourse with the whites.
Many amusing traits in their character present themselves to my mind, which I must pass with a mere notice. Their surprise and awe at the white fellow's watch, and compass, and burning glass; at the little revolver, which never needed feeding, but was always ready to go off; their terror and cries of 'Touro! touro! touralie! (Fire! fire! burning!) at the sight of a pipe of tobacco being smoked; and the firm belief of some old people one day that I was a black-fellow 'jumped up white-feller', as our natives would say here, because I could speak some of their language, and knew my way from one part of the country to another. Numbers of such incidents and anecdotes might prove amusing, but I must merely mention them and pass on to say a few words about the beasts of burden attached to an expedition, and more especially to speak of the camels, which I believe ought properly to be called dromedaries.
I have often been asked 'do you approve of the camels?' and I daresay you would like to hear something about them. In a the hot and dry country of Central Australia - particularly in the sandy tracts and where water is scarce - they are invaluable, but I think that in well watered and well grassed country and also where the steep ranges and slippery or boggy ground is met with, I should, without hesitation, prefer horses. But this may, perhaps be partly prejudice in favor of the more noble animal - the horse. The great advantages possessed by the camels are the heavy loads they can carry; the saving of time in the morning starts, as they are tied up in camp every night, and fed morning and evening and while on the journey from every bush and plains within reach of their long necks; and finally, the seeming ease with which they support thirst which would incapacitate horses from work. I think from my observations that the common belief, that camels lake in a supply of water, is at the leased over coloured, for I have found that in hot weather these animals will drink amazing quantities morning and evening, so that I conclude that they rather are able to support their thirst than do without water. Their paces are either a walk of about 3 miles an hour or a kind of Campbell of 6 to 8 miles an hour; at the expedition pace of 3 miles I believe camels will average 100 miles a week, carrying say, 230 to 300 lbs each, for months. The vegetation of the interior seems particularly adapted to the camel - nothing comes amiss to them - and I have often thought that the more prickly and harsh the plants were, the more palatable they seemed to find them. When nothing else can be got, they will fill themselves from the branches of a gum tree or a pine; salt bush, cotton bush and the succulent herbage such as the tall white mallows on the creek banks, are their especial favourites.
The tempers of the camels are very uncertain, and at times the Males are very dangerous. One we had (Naro) had several times on the Darling cleared a of the camp of everyone in it, and finally almost killed a sepoy who was attending to him; he was then sent to Melbourne as unfit for our use. Several times after that the men have had narrow escapes and the terrible stories told by the members of my first party to some of the new recruits or my second trip gave rise to rather an amusing incident, which I cannot resist relating to you.
You must understand that the camp for depot formed on the Darling River, where the last arrangements were made before leaving the settlement, was situated at a point where a backwater of the Darling ran into the back country to fill a large lake called Pamomeroo, a lake about 25 miles in circumference; here at camp was formed by the tents being pitched on a little sandy rise on the point of land between the river and the back water. My tent happen to be in the centre of the line, with several others on each side; the last tent near the river was occupied by three of the men, or one of whom had a most insuperable dread of camels, and especially the diabolical Naro, who had just before almost eaten the sepoy; at the opposite end worth three others, who determined to play up on the fears of their comrades. However secretly plots may be delayed, it usually happens that there is some form or through which the secret leaks out, and such was here that case, for I soon heard of it and not only I, but the intended victim, who in his turn with his friends laid a counter-plot. The plan was this: Naro, the camel, was to be represented by the very tall men - one the fore-quarters and the other the hind-quarters - with the of the body made up of an opossum rug; the head and neck consisted of a slight young fellow perched on the front man. And it was fully expected that at 9.00 PM, by starlight, just when the victim might have turned in, the appearance of Naro stumping about in the gloom, rattling his hobble chains, and making an unearthly do dealing with the water bladder in his throat (imitated by a read and a pannikin of water), and finally, as the pith of the plot, rubbing against the tent host of the victim, would cause him in dire fright to rush out, and as they described it, 'two scud over the plains under bare poles.' Against this the other party had loaded a revolver with powder to shoot a camel. Well, to cut the story short on the evening fixed I had turned in early to enjoy the fun, and after lying awake for some time fell into it doze. I was roused up by the sound of a camel walking about. For the moment I said to myself 'Naro's looses', when I remembered the plot; but so excellent was the imitation that I still had some doubts. The almost noiseless foot fall, the rattling of the chain, and the most artistic gurgling of the water were followed by the creaking of the tent poles. A moment's silence and five rapid shots, a yell, a scuffle, and a shout of laughter showing the plot and counter-plot had succeeded running out I found all hands collected, and the camel had fallen into its own trap, each of its component parts having believes himself shot - the body dissolved in partnership with the head, shooting and that member of the partnership off into the sand like a bag of flour, where he lay there feeling himself over carefully to see if he were actually shot or not. The story may seem trivial, but I give it to show you that even amid the serious labours of exploration there are times when fun and amusement can be thought of.
On the subject of horses I have but a few words to say. The country suits them and from the nature of the feeder they are so hard in condition that they not only do an amazing amount of work, but recover from it in a wonderfully quick manner. Two of my horses did about 1,700 miles with comparatively short intervals of rest, and were then sold in Adelaide in working order; the remainder of the horses when they were sold had all done six or 700 miles, with butter short spell on the road, and were mostly in working condition. I attribute this to the salt bush and the cotton bush, and to the fact that the grass is dried so rapidly after seeding that it forms a natural hay, and as long as no rain falls on it, retains its virtues.
One most important advantage I have found in the horses is, that they are the most convenient mode of supplying fresh meat to a party. I daresay many of you will be horrified at the idea of eating horse, but let me ask you to put the question to yourselves, why should horse not be eaten? I think you will find it easier asked than answered. No animal can be a cleaner feed at the and the horse, and the 'proof of the pudding is in the eating' - on our last journey we ate four, and found the meat agreeable an nutritious. It seems to me to be the perfection of commissariat, to make the meat carry the flour that is to be eaten up with it; even if this plan where otherwise of objectionable, the supply of fresh meat is absolutely necessary, in a sanitary point of view, to counteract with the aid of vegetable provided by nature there, ...
... (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.
Of all that expedition how few remain alive. Of those who formed the expedition under Burke, six purchased with their lives the territories now occupied by thousands, and King has now also gone from among us; he followed his companions on that long journey from which there is no return.