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Cooper to the Gulf, 1860

'The following narrative, taken down from King's own lips, shortly after his return from the glorious but ill-starred expedition which resulted so fatally to its leaders, has never yet seen the light. It is now published, partly as a not unimportant contribution to the geographical literature of Australia, but chiefly because it will be found to contain some interesting descriptions of the country lying at the head of the numerous rivers which discharge their waters into the Gulf of Carpentaria. Excepting the occasional substitution of a more expressive word for that employed by King, we are assured that the narrative is a faithful transcript of his viva voca account of what he saw and suffered.'


Saturday, 7 May 1870.

Page 582.

We started at an early hour on the morning of Sunday December 16th 1860 , for Eyre's Creek. Our party consisted of Mr Robert O'Hara Burke, leader of the expedition, Mr William John Wills, astronomer, Charles Gray and myself. We were provisioned for three months and were accompanied by six camels and one horse. Brahe, who was appointed to take charge of the Depot until the arrival of Wright and his party from Menindie, accompanied us as far as the first camp. I was out with the camels when he turned his horse's head southward and he rode over to me saying - "Goodbye King, I don't expect to see you for at least four months." We camped on the east side of the creek, which here is broken up into small channels, with grass growing in the beds. There were stony rises to the westward and plains sprinkled with salt bush occupying the intervening flat. We observed an abundance of pigeons flying about.

Our course next day lay along the banks of the creek, the water of which began to be brackish. The country to the eastward consisted of fine flats profusely covered with salt bush. We saw numbers of emus, which appeared to be comparatively tame and approached very near to us. We experienced a squall which raised clouds of dust which darkened the air and obscured the sight of objects that were only three or four yards distant from us. Very little rain fell, but a pleasant change occurred in the temperature.

On Tuesday we rested for the day.

On Wednesday December the 19th we struck across in a north-westerly direction for Eyre's Creek.

Our usual plan of travel was this; We set out early in the morning, halted for breakfast and afterwards resumed our journey until we found water, when, provided we had accomplished fifteen miles, we camped for the night. Our daily rations were 1 lb. of damper each, ½ lb. dried meat, ¼ lb. pork and tea, of which we partook in mess. In between the sand ridges we found the vegetation beautiful, groups of salt bush and portulac predominating. The flats appeared to be well adapted for pastoral purposes. Going along I flushed out a cockatoo and called out to Burke, "there is a cockatoo; we must be near water." He replied, "Yes, that is as important to us as the pigeon which Sturt saw one day plunge into a water hole not far from where he was standing." At the junction of the two plains mentioned by Wills in his journal, we came upon a deserted native camp, with paths radiating in all directions. We always made it a rule to follow these paths up, as we invariably found that they conducted us to water. While we waited at this point, Wills rode off for a quarter of an hour to a sand hill to the westward, from the summit of which he took a survey of the country and on his return he said he was convinced that we were within five miles of O' Hallaran's Creek. In following up the creek, at which we arrived in the evening, we were guided by the twittering of birds which were disturbed by our approach. We used to prefer the milky water which we found to that which was clear, as the former had a pleasant lacteal sort of flavour. The clay in the vicinity of the creek was so spongy and penetrable, that you could plunge a stick into it four or five feet deep with very little pressure. There was every appearance of the surrounding country being subjected to periodical inundations.

On the 20th we were travelling along a native path. Our course lay to the right of a lagoon, but seeing the blacks, we made a detour so as to reach its left bank. The lagoon was only a few inches deep and we could discern the weedy bottom. Heavy rains must have fallen recently. We halted when approaching the natives, as Burke was always extremely cautious in his intercourse with them.

They seemed very friendly however and conducted us to the sight of one of their best camps, on a plot of rising ground under a large tree, and signified that we could camp there, which we did. They had no gunyahs, but backwinds, and were armed with spears and boomerangs. The men carried the children and the burdens. When giving us the fish, they divided it equally among our party. I was out grazing the camels at the time and they called me in, giving me three fish, in the sight of my companions. We gave the blacks some dried meat, which they rejected, smelling it and throwing it down. That evening they came and offered us their lubras, a mark of attention which we courteously declined. They asked us at the same time for the camel pads. Heavy clouds were hanging about and the natives pantomimically expressed to us that a storm was impending.

Next morning we offered the natives a small camel's pad to conduct us to water. They made signs intimating that we should find some to the north, putting their hands to their mouths and crying out "appa" (water) but refused to accompany us. The country we traversed was flat and richly grassed, with a few small box trees in the hollows between the sand ridges. No mountain ranges were visible. So lush was the vegetation that we were obliged to allow the camels a long nose cord so as to admit of their cropping grass as they went.

On the 22nd, (in latitude 27° south), Mr Burke commenced making each of us take his turn in steering our course by compass, himself setting the example. Saw numbers of the common rat, while in the sandy plains mice were equally abundant; the natives burning off the herbage of the plains in order to catch these delicate articles of food. When entering on the desert, we had expected we should be obliged to put on the camel's shoes, but found the travelling less arduous than on the plains. Our progress was literally smooth and pleasant, reminding one of walking over a gravel path, or a hard sea beach sprinkled with water worn pebbles. Occasionally were visible little patches of vegetation, about 10 or 12 yards in diameter, occupying a rising ground. There is usually some description of bush growing there which served us to steer our course by. These bushes were rarely more than two or three feet high, but the distance was so deceptive and they loomed so large in the absence of all other objects as to appear far off like great trees until the delusion was dissipated by a near view of them. This was the first night we camped away from water.

On Sunday the 23rd December, we struck across the desert in WNW direction and after crossing a sand ridge, distant about five miles, we resumed our NW by N course. We found heaps of grass lying about the plains. This grass grew about three feet high, with three inches of ear and resembles a wild oat.

Next day we came upon a fine creek. This water, however, was not permanent and was of a milky consistency. We bathed in it and found it only knee deep. We observed a dead dog and several native tracks. There was beautiful feed for the camels and the timber consisted for the most part of bastard box and gum trees. We found plenty of grubs in the trees, which are choice eating when roasted; but Mr Burke refused to partake of them. As Gray had discovered the creek it was named after him. We rested on its banks on Christmas Eve, and gave the camels a good washing, by which they were greatly refreshed. Altogether this was a very pleasant halt.

On the 25th December we quitted Gray's Creek and struck across some earthy rotten plains, in the direction of Eyre's Creek.

One of the camels hurt his leg descending into the bed of a creek, and we shifted his "swag" on to the other camels and allowed him to travel unburdened. The blacks were very numerous about here, and numbers of them, well-armed, used to follow us, beckoning us not to approach their camps and crying out "Kou, kou!". We passed two native camps in the space of five miles, where the fires were still burning, but from which the natives must have hastily retreated and concealed themselves. The days were now becoming frightly hot, but the nights were tolerably cool. At sundown I used to hobble the camels, secure them to their swags and sleep in the centre. Mr Burke was in buoyant spirits and used to observe that it was more like a party of pleasure then an exploring expedition.

On the 27th, 28th and 29th we were employed in tracing the course of the creek which we crossed on the 27th so as to keep it on our left. The contiguous plains were covered with salt bush and cotton bush. Stony rises visible on the 29th, running in a north-easterly direction and we crossed several channels communicating with the creek and apparently conveying to it the flood water from those rises during the rainy season. In the bed of the creek we found a great quantity of petrified drift wood, of which we collected some specimens which we were subsequently compelled to abandon. We camped on the evening of this day (the 29th) upon a billybong running into the creek (the main waters of which we had left) from the NW. The adjacent country consisted of plains, somewhat stony in character but sprinkled with vivid vegetation.

On the 30th of December, the stony rises gradually ascended towards some barren ranges, which were presumably the source of the creek, whose waters diminished in volume and narrowed in their channel as we proceeded northward. Shaped our course rather more to the eastward to avoid these ranges, traversing alluvial plains, with a firm soil and scanty vegetation. Towards evening we entered upon another patch of stony desert.

We started before daylight on the 31st, our course lying across a stony desert precisely similar in character to those which we had previously traversed. About 4 o'clock pm we entered upon some sand ridges running N and S, through which we traveled for an hour; the vegetation improving, with every indication that we were approaching a better country. To the westward we could see nothing but a stony desert. We saw volumes of smoke both to the north-west and the east. That to our east appearing to be the nearer of the two, we made for it. An hour's journey brought us on to a large flat, thickly timbered and encircled by sand ridges. Channels of water courses were visible in all directions. Plenty of crows and large flocks of red-breasted cockatoos were flying about. Mr Burke liked the appearance of the country and believing there must be water ahead, rode through the plain until he found a small waterhole sufficient to refresh the horses and camels. The latter did not appear to be suffering from thirst, and the six of them only drank five bucketfuls; whereas the horse swallowed seven, and at night strayed back to the hole in search of more. This circumstance, as Mr Burke remarked, demonstrated the superiority of camels over horses for travelling through an arid country. At the bottom of the hole, we obtained a bucket full of fish, about four inches long and an inch thick. In other dry water courses we observed a good many fish dead. We resolved to push on for the smoke and traveled an hour in that direction, but finding the camels fatigued, we halted about 6.30 pm and camped in between two sand hills, where the feed was rather scanty. The sides of these sand hills ware covered with withered marshmallow stalks, about five feet in height. During the evening we saw a fire ahead.

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