Albert River, 15 October 1861.
Journal of Landsborough's Expedition from Carpentaria, in search of Burke & Wills
Albert River, Gulf of Carpentaria, October 15 1861.
To Captain Norman of H.M.C.S. Victoria, and Commander-in-chief of the Northern Expedition Parties.
I have the honour to inform you that the senior lieutenant of H.M.C.S. Victoria, having been commissioned by you to take the Firefly hulk to the head of the navigation of the Albert River to form a Depot there, shortly after midnight of the 14th October, at the flood of the tide, which occurs here only once in twenty-four hours, we stood in for the mouth of the river and, as the channel is of a winding character, and the ship almost unmanageable, we had to take her right over the bar. From thence we proceeded some time after daylight with a fair wind, several miles up the river to where we took grass on board, which some of my party, having preceded us, had in readiness. On the 16th, from the time of the tide, the wind being unfavourable, we had reached no further than Norman's Group of Islands, which are about ten miles in a straight line from the mouth of the river. At that place, from the small quantity of water on board it became necessary to decide on what bank the horses should be landed; consequently three parties started in search of water--a boat and two land parties. The former, under the command of Mr Frost, found a good pond of water near the lowest water we had found when we first explored the Albert River. In the same neighbourhood Mr Campbell's party, who went up the west bank of the river, found another waterhole, which was distant from the ship, by the road they went, about four miles, and passable for the horses, although partly over mudflats which during high tides are covered with water; and on that account I thought, having observed the country to be very low from the masthead, it would be impassable.
I accompanied Mr Bourne, Mr Hennie the botanist, and two native police-troopers to the eastward in search of water. In that direction we went about six miles, which was further than was necessary as we found water within that distance. The first three miles we went was chiefly over hard flats which at high tides are covered with water; the next was over such good country that Mr Bourne, although I had given him my account of the Plains of Promise, said he did not expect to have seen such fine country on the Albert River. The character of the country is plains with the best grasses on them. Mr Bourne and I agreed in thinking that the lowest of them (with the exception of there being on them no cotton and cabbage saltbush) resembled in appearance, and from their having salty herbage in abundance, some parts of the Murrumbidgee plains. The higher parts are more thickly grassed and are slightly wooded with stunted timber, consisting of box, apple, white-gum, cotton, and other trees. The cotton-trees I had never seen before; but Mr Hennie told me they had been found by Dr Mueller when in Mr Gregory's party in the expedition to Northern Australia.
On this country we found abundance of waterholes, some of which were divided from each other by sandstone dykes and contained fresh, and others brackish, water. Near the waterholes, at the most conspicuous points of timber on our route, we marked trees. The north-easterly waterhole I called Mueller Lake. It is a fine long sheet of water which is brackish but not to an extent to render it undrinkable.
Before we reached any water on our way from the ship, we observed, at some distance from us, several blacks, of whom three gins and three children we overtook in their camps. These we tried to persuade by signs to lead us to the nearest water, but they were so extremely terrified that they clung to each other and would not move, except to point in the direction in which by our proceeding a short distance we found it ourselves.
On the 17th October the ship was taken alongside of the western bank of the river, and, a landing stage having been made, twenty-three of the horses were walked on shore and driven up to Frost's Ponds; the remaining two from their being too weak were kept on board. A few of the horses after their voyage were in good order, and the most of the others, which were in such low condition from their insufficient allowance of water from Moreton Bay to Torres Strait, now showed, from their having plenty of water since their reshipment at Hardy's Islands, that they were in a thriving state.
On the 20th Messrs. Bourne, Moore, Frost, and two troopers started up the river on a shooting and land excursion. I accompanied them to near Frost's Ponds where the horses were running, and I was glad to find the horses were doing well, as I expected they would do, from the herbage of the plains in that neighbourhood being of the most fattening character. Late in the evening our sportsmen returned and gave a most glowing description of about eight miles of the plains they had crossed in going to and returning from some waterholes they had found, one of which was within half a mile of the river. As they made their excursion an exploring rather than a sporting expedition they shot very little, although they saw several wallabies on the plains, and crowds of duck and other aquatic fowl at the waterholes they passed in the course of their walk.
On the 22nd, having made circulars to the effect that the Firefly hulk and the horses (broad arrow before L) were on their way up the river, the latter on the west bank, some of our party landed on the east bank and stuck them up in places where Mr Walker's party would probably find them in the event of their passing us and following down that side of the river. In doing so we went over a fine grassed plain, and in that distance found two waterholes. On the 24th the blacks paid us a visit and we gave them presents; but afterwards, as they stole some clothes that were out to dry, we determined to give them no further encouragement unless they returned the stolen things. This Mr Woods, on the following day, tried to explain to a few of them who swam across the river to the bank that we were alongside of.
When I see naked blacks I am very much tempted to give them clothes and tomahawks; but this should not be indulged for I have found from having done so that the more they have got the more they have wanted; and on the other hand I have found that when they got nothing from us they gave us very little of their company and thus rarely gave us any occasion for quarrelling with them.
On the 27th of October Mr Campbell and the troopers went on shore and collected the horses and took them up as far as Moore's Ponds.
From twenty-two observations, chiefly taken during the day, the temperature has ranged from 69 to 89 degrees and averaged a fraction over 80 degrees. On the 29th we had a few drops of rain which reminded us that we had hardly had any since we started from Brisbane, upwards of a couple of months ago.
My party went in search of the horses yesterday and returned with them today to the place where the ship was aground, a point about fifteen miles in a straight line from the mouth of the river. The horses were so fresh that to hobble them two of the quietest had to be caught to round with them the others up. In the ten days that they had been ashore they had improved more in condition than any horses I have seen do in other parts of Australia in a similar period. To collect the horses they had to go as far as ten miles in a north-west direction, to a saltwater creek which, from Mr Campbell's report, I believe is the River Nicholson. On the following day I accompanied Mr Campbell and the troopers to the Nicholson River. The water in it we found not so brackish as that part of the Albert River where we left the ship. I was surprised to find it was not so broad as the river I have just mentioned. We encamped all night on the bank of the river, and near our camp marked a tree (broad arrow before L). On the 30th we returned to the ship after getting the troopers to collect the horses and shoot a quantity of ducks. By counting my steps I made the distance seven miles to a bend of the Albert River near which Moore's Ponds are situated, and two miles and three-quarters further brought us to the point near which the ship had reached. It is a grassy plain between the two rivers, with a few stunted trees upon it; that nearest the Nicholson River is the poorest soil, and the grass at present upon it is very much parched up. A fine large enclosure for stock might be formed by running a fence across from the Albert to the Nicholson River.
On the 1st November we commenced making a yard for the horses and, having got the assistance of two of the carpenters, we commenced to shoe the horses. On the 4th I got a passage in the barge to H.M.C.S. Victoria, which was stationed at the distance of seven miles from the mouth of this river, to consult with yourself respecting the plan to be pursued in the search for Mr Burke and his companions, and to express my earnest desire to have rations at the Albert River Depot to make a second expedition by the route which Mr Gregory and I agreed to as the most likely way to find traces to follow Mr Burke and his companions--namely by skirting the desert, and passing, as near as the country would admit of my doing, to their starting-point, and also to go to a place on the Bowen Downs (a well-watered country) to seek for a continuation of tracks seen by Messrs. Cornish and Buchanan, which they thought were made by a South Australian party, at a point rather less than 300 miles towards the Gulf of Carpentaria from Burke's Depot on Cooper's Creek.
On the 6th instant we left the Victoria together (as you are aware) for the Depot on the Albert River, and that evening after nine hours boating reached our destination.
On the following morning, having proceeded up the river on the previous day, reached the junction of the Barkly with the Albert River, near which we found the tree marked by Mr Gregory and Captain Chimmo, the former on the left and the latter on the right bank; afterwards having marked lines of trees, and marked on trees directions to lead the exploring parties to the Depot, we returned to it.
On the 15th, intending to start tomorrow on the inland expedition, I had all the horses, in number twenty-three, brought up, the two weak ones having died since our arrival at the Albert River, besides the five I mentioned as having died on the voyage. We saddled and packed a few of the wildest of the horses* to make them more tractable tomorrow, when I hope, as I have mentioned, to start on our journey.
I have the honour to be, Sir,
(*Footnote. The freshness of the horses was surprising: because so soon after the hardships of their voyage, and the destruction of their forage on board the Firefly by seawater, they were chiefly sustained, from Hardy's Island till landing at Carpentaria, by grass cut by our party: this was a task of some difficulty, as we had no implements for doing so excepting our knives.)