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through the Interior of Australia from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

From the Journals and Letters of William John Wills, edited by his father, William Wills.
London: Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street.
(Ferguson 18622)

Chapter 8

  • Mr Wills's Survey of the line of Country pursued by the Expedition, from Torowoto Swamp to Cooper's Creek

The following reports, which were duly forwarded and published, contain interesting particulars of the country traversed, and the observations made between Torowoto and Cooper's Creek. They were accompanied by a tracing, which is shown on the map.

Camp 65, Depot, Cooper's Creek, December 15th, 1860.
Sir - I have had the honour to place in the hands of our leader, for transmission to the committee, my third report, and a tracing, showing the country traversed since my last was written. I regret that I have been unable to devote as much attention to either as I could have desired; but I have no doubt the committee will make due allowance for my want of time, and the inconveniences attending the execution of such work in our present position.
I have, etc.
William J Wills, Surveyor and Assistant Observer.
The Honorary Secretary of the Exploration Committee.
(Forwarded) Depot, December 16, 1860.

As Mr Wills's report, with which I fully concur, contains all the necessary details with regard to the state of the country through which we passed, I have not referred to the subject in mine.
R O'Hara Burke, Leader.
The Honorary Secretary of the Exploration Committee.

The accompanying tracing will show the course taken by the expedition party from the Torowoto Swamp, in latitude 30 degrees 1 minute 30 seconds south, longitude 142 degrees 36 minutes east, to the Depot on Cooper's Creek, Camp 65, latitude 27 degrees 37 minutes 8 seconds south, longitude 141 degrees 6 minutes east.

Water supply between Torowoto and Wright's Creek.--The country traversed to the north of the Torowoto Swamp, and lying between that place and Wright's Creek, is neither so well grassed nor watered as that to the south of the Swamp; the land falls considerably as far as Cangapundy, and a great extent of it is subject to inundation. Nearly all the water met with was thick and muddy: it was met with in small clay pans, most of which would probably be dry in three weeks. This applies to all the places at which we found water, with the exception of Cannilta, Cangapundy, --and the four waterholes to the south of Wright's Creek.

Cannilta.--Cannilta is a waterhole of good clear water in a small rocky creek which runs out on the low mud flats and swampy ground lying between Altoka and Tangowoko: it is situated in latitude 29 degrees 26 minutes 42 seconds south, longitude 142 degrees 40 minutes east, by account, nearly a mile from the north-westernmost point of the swampy ground. This point may be distinguished by the growth of a coarse kind of reedy grass, which does not make its appearance on the southern portion of the swamp or lake. The water in the hole was only two or three feet deep, but is well shaded by box trees, and will probably last two or three months. The temperature of the surface of the water at seven AM, 2nd of November, was 60.5 degrees; that of the air being at the same time 60 degrees.

The Cangapundy Swamp.--The Cangapundy Swamp is an extensive tract of low clay land, which bears the appearance, as regards the vegetation of its banks, of having a tolerably permanent supply of water; but, unless some portions of the swamp are much deeper than where we passed, the water could not last throughout a dry season. The banks of the swamp are densely clothed with grasses, marshmallows, polygonum bushes, and shrubs, which shelter numerous kinds of waterfowl and snakes.

Character of Land.--It will be seen by the tracing that a large proportion of the land between Torowoto and Wright's Creek is composed of low mud plains and clay flats, subject to inundation. Most of these are devoid of vegetation of any kind, and others carry some stunted salt bushes and coarse grasses, which appear to be struggling between life and death. Bounding the mud-flats are generally some stony rises well grassed and sometimes lightly timbered. The more elevated plains are sandy, and support a fine supply of healthy salt bushes, as well as here and there a few grasses. On the rises to the south-south-east of Cannilta may be seen great quantities of quartz rock, forming dykes in the schist rises: the latter in some places adjoin, and run into hills of loose stone, having the appearance of indurated clay. From Cangapundy to Wright's Creek the ground is light-coloured, and of a clayey nature: it forms a series of dry clay-pans, separated from one another by low sandy banks, on which the vegetation was fresh and green. At about seventeen miles from the former place are three large holes with water from two to three feet deep in the deepest part, and at six miles further another large one which might almost be termed a lake, being nearly 1000 links square. About these there were some lines of sandhills running about north-east and south-west; and in one of the flats between the sandhills I found several pieces of satin spar in lumps of the size of one's hand, partially buried in the ground, and all of them with the plane of cleavage nearly perpendicular with the surface to the ground.

Balloo, or Wright's Creek.--The lower portion of Wright's Creek, called by the natives "Balloo," is situated in latitude 28 degrees 48 minutes south, and longitude 142 degrees 53 minutes east by account. At this point, the creek, after breaking into several mall channels, runs out on a grassy plain, the water running in a southerly direction, probably until it meets that from the Torrens and other creeks at the Cangapundy Swamp. There was plenty of water in this part of the creek when we passed, but I cannot speak to its permanence. The banks are well lined with box timber, as well as with marshmallows and wild spinach: the land on either side consists of well-grassed sandy rises. At four or five miles above this, the creek is a narrow, dry, sandy watercourse, winding through a grassy valley, which everywhere presents indications of the most violent floods. Beyond this is an extensive grassy plain; and for three or four miles scarcely a trace of the creek could be seen. We then came to a clump of trees, amongst which were two large waterholes surrounded by polygonum bushes, and containing great numbers of small fish. These holes appear to be permanent. We found about sixty blacks camped here. Above these waterholes, which are together about half a mile long, the creek again disappears on the plain. The land for the next ten or twelve miles in a north-north-easterly direction is very fine for pastoral purposes, being alternately grassy plains and ridges. At twelve or thirteen miles we crossed the creek where it has cut for itself a deep narrow channel, the banks of which are densely timbered and well grassed, but the waterholes are small, and contained very little water. For a distance of six miles the creek is of a very insignificant character. It appears to be divided into several branches, which traverse clay flats badly grassed. Here and there are some lines of low sandy rises, with plenty of feed on them. All the watercourses are distinctly marked by lines of box timber. At about nine miles from where we crossed the creek, and after traversing some loose polygonum ground, which was covered with mussel shells and a shell resembling a periwinkle, we came to a branch of the creek containing a splendid waterhole 150 links broad and about half a mile long. A little above this the creek again disappears for a short distance, and then there is a long narrow channel of undoubtedly permanent water, being nearly four feet deep in the shallowest places; it is only on an average about fifty links broad, and well sheltered by overhanging box trees. The temperature of the water on the morning of the 7th November, at six o'clock, was 68 degrees; the temperature of the air at the same time being 50.5 degrees. Our camp at this place is indicated by a box tree marked B over LII in square, the geographical position of which is by account 28 degrees 26 minutes 9 seconds south latitude, and longitude 143 degrees 0 minutes east. In proceeding from here in a north-north-easterly direction up the course of the creek, or rather of the water, for the creek is again lost on the plains for five or six miles, we passed the southernmost point of a prominent sandstone range, the nearest portion of which lay about a mile and a half to the westward. At about nine miles we again touched the creek, where it is about three chains broad. The banks are firm and shelving, from ten to twelve feet above the water, and lined with box, acacias, some large gums, gigantic marshmallows, polygonum, etc. In the creek there is abundance of fish, and the ducks and other waterfowl on it are numberless. From what we have seen of the blacks, I should say the population cannot be far short of 150, and it might be considerably more. From here we proceeded in an east-north-easterly direction along the west bank of this fine waterhole, and at two and a half miles found it begin rapidly to decrease in breadth, and a little further on there was nothing but a few small stony watercourses traversing a dense box forest: at this point there is a level bed of sandstone pebbles, close to and over a part of which the creek flows. The blacks have here gone to the trouble of making paths for themselves, along which we turned off from the creek on a north-north-easterly course, and at about three miles, coming on earthy plains, with no signs of water ahead, we again turned in to the creek and camped at a small waterhole. From here the line of river timber continues in a north-easterly direction. To the west and north-north-west is a line of sandstone ranges running off in the same direction. The land in the immediate vicinity of the creek on the west side is very poorly grassed all the way up from where we crossed it: that on the east side appeared to be better. I think there can scarcely be a doubt but that this creek is the lower portion of the Warrego River, although I believe that its main supply of water is obtained from the adjoining ranges, which send down innumerable creeks into the flats through which it flows.

Some latitude observations at Camp 53, (the furthest point to which we traced the creek) placed us in 28 degrees 16 minutes 40 seconds south; our latitude, by account, being 28 degrees 17 minutes 8 seconds, and longitude, 143 degrees 18 minutes east. On Thursday, November 8th, we left Wright's Creek with the intention of crossing the ranges to Cooper's Creek. We found the land as we approached the hills well grassed, and in some places densely timbered: it is intersected by numerous watercourses with deep sandy channels, in most of which there seemed little chance of finding water. We camped at a waterhole in McDonagh's Creek; the spot is indicated by a gum tree marked B over LIV within square.

De Rinsy's Tracks.--Near here we found the tracks of drays; there were four distinct tracks, two of which appeared to be those of heavy horse drays, the other two might have been made by light ones or ring carts; we were unable to make out the tracks of the horses or cattle. I cannot imagine what tracks these are, unless they may be those of De Rinsy, who, I believe, had some drays with him, and reported that he had been somewhere in this direction.

From Camp 54 to Camp 55 we were obliged to take a very circuitous route on account of the rugged and stony nature of the ranges, which were more extensive than we had anticipated. They stretch away far to the north and north-north-west, and although we kept well out to the north-west we were unable to avoid the low stony rises which adjoin them. On the north-west side of the hills we crosses two dry creeks which flow in a north-north-easterly direction; their banks are thinly lined with box trees, and the holes in them were quite dry. From this we took a west-north-westerly course, across an undulating country covered with sandstone, quartz, and (magnetic) ironstone pebbles, so densely and firmly set together in some places as to have the appearance of an old-fashioned pavement. At about three miles, we had to change our course to north-west, to avoid a spur of the high range on our left. At two miles further we came to a grassy flat through which ran a fine-looking creek, but the bed was sandy and quite dry; there were, however, a good many small birds about here, which would indicate that there must be water in the neighbourhood. We here again changed our course to west-north-west, and at six miles camped at a dry stony creek, having travelled about eight-and-twenty miles over the worst ground that we had yet met with. On the morning of the 10th we continued on a west-north-westerly course, across stony ground of the same nature as that passed during the previous day; but at a distance of five miles we turned to west quarter south, as the ranges appeared to be as low in that direction as in the other; and as they ran nearly north-north-west there seemed a chance of sooner getting out of them, which we did at a distance of about eight miles more.

From the point at which we emerged from these ranges the view was as follows:--From south-west nearly up to north-west were extensive plains, as far as the eye could reach, intersected by numerous lines of timber, the general direction of which was about north-north-west. Several columns of smoke were visible along these lines, some of which had the appearance of camp and others of bush fires. From north-west to north were lines of ranges running in a north-westerly direction, and in the valley between us and the first spur was a fine line of timber, indicating the course of what appeared to be a large creek, probably the recipient of all the small creeks that we had crossed during the morning; in every other direction there was nothing to be seen but timbered sandstone ranges. At noon we crossed a small creek running nearly north: the grass had been burnt on its banks. About half a mile beyond it was another creek of a more promising appearance, and as we approached it we saw several crows, as well as other birds, in the trees. We here found a small hole with the water fast drying up; it contained a lot of young fish about half an inch long, and just sufficient water to replenish our water bags and give the horses a drink; below it the creek took a north-north-westerly course, and was dry and sandy for a distance of two miles and a half, at which point we found some large but shallow holes of milky-looking water. On the plains near these holes we found large flocks of pigeons. The grass was very coarse and dry, and the water would probably not last more than a few weeks.

Horse Tracks.--On the plains to the east of the creek were the tracks of a single horse, which had evidently crossed when the ground was very soft, and gone in a south-westerly direction.

Position of Water.--The waterholes are situated in latitude 27 degrees 51 south, longitude 142 degrees 40 minutes east, by account from Camp 55. From here a course of west half south took us in a distance of about twenty miles to Cooper's Creek, which we first struck in latitude 27 degrees 49 minutes south, longitude 142 degrees 20 minutes east. The land through which we passed on the 11th was so low and wooded as to prevent me from seeing the direction of the ranges; the first five or six miles was tolerably open. We then came to a box forest, where the soil was loose and earthy, similar to polygonum ground; there were in every direction signs of heavy floods and frequent inundations. We crossed several small watercourses, in one of which there was a hole of rather creamy water, at which we halted for an hour. From the waterhole we quite unexpectedly obtained a rather fine fish, about eight inches long, of the same description as the young ones we had found in Brahe's Creek.

Cooper's Creek.--At the point at which we first struck Cooper's Creek it was rocky, sandy, and dry; but about half a mile further down we came to some good waterholes, where the bed of the creek was very boggy, and the banks richly grassed with kangaroo and other grasses. The general course is a little north of west, but it winds about very much between high sand hills. The waterholes are not large, but deep, and well shaded, both by the steep banks and the numerous box trees surrounding them. The logs and bushes high upon the forks of the trees, tell of the destructive floods to which this part of the country has been subjected, and that at no very distant period, as may be seen by the flood marks on trees of not more than five or six years' growth.

From Camp 57 we traced the creek in a west-north-westerly direction about six miles. It then runs out among the sand hills, the water flowing by various small channels in a south-westerly direction. The main channel, however, continues nearly south until it is lost on an extensive earthy plain covered with marshmallows and chrysanthemums.

Creek.-In one of the valleys between the sand hills, at a distance of about ten miles in a south-westerly direction, we found a shallow waterhole where a creek is formed for a short distance, and is then lost again on the earthy plain beyond. West by north and west from here, about twelve miles, there are some splendid sheets of water, in some places two and three chains broad; the banks well timbered, but the land in the neighbourhood so loose and rotten that one can scarcely ride over it. I expect this is the reason why we saw no blacks about here, for it must be worse for them to walk over than the stony ground. From Camp 60 the general course of the creek is north-west, but it frequently disappears on the earthy plains for several miles, and then forms into waterholes again finer than before. At our first Depot, Camp 63, in latitude 27 degrees 36 minutes 15 seconds south, longitude 141 degrees 30 minutes east, there is a fine hole about a mile long, and on an average one chain and a half broad. It exceeds five feet in depth everywhere that I tried it, except within three or four feet of the bank. Two or three miles above this camp we saw the first melaburus growing around the waterholes, some of them as large as a moderate size gum tree.

Earthy Flat.--The feed in the vicinity of Camp 63 is unexceptionable, both for horses and camels but the herbage on the creek generally down to this point is of a very inferior quality; the grasses are very coarse, and bear a very small proportion to the other plants. By far the chief portion of the herbage consists of chrysanthemums and marshmallows; the former, to judge from their dried-up powdery state, can contain very little nourishment, although some of the horses and camels eat them with great relish; the latter, I need hardly mention, are at this time of the year merely withered sticks. A few small salsolaceous plants are to be found on some of the flats, but they are scarcely worth mentioning. In some places where the bed of the creek is shallow and dry, there is an abundance of good grass and rushes of several kinds. The polygonum bushes are also fresh and good, in such places.

Stony Rises.--The stony rises are generally bare and barren; but some of those on the north side of the creek carry a fair crop of light grass.

Sand Hills.--Wherever there are sand banks or ridges the feed is almost invariably good; the salt bush is healthy and abundant, and there are a variety of plants on which cattle would do well. For camels, these hills are particularly well adapted, for there is scarcely a plant grows on them that they will not eat, with the exception of porcupine grass; but there is very little of that until one gets many miles back from the creek.

Character of Ground.--I have mentioned three distinct kinds of ground--the earthy plains, the stony rises, and the sand ridges. The latter, which is by far the most agreeable whether for travelling on, for feed, or in respect to the freedom from flies, ants, musquitoes, and rats, is simply a series of hills composed of blown sand of a red colour, very fine, and so compactly set that the foot does not sink in it much. In some places the ridges have a uniform direction, in others the hills are scattered about without any regularity; the average direction of the ridges is north-north-east and south-south-west. In the valleys between the hills, are shallow clay plains, in which the water rapidly collects, even after slight showers; but when full they seldom exceed five or six inches in depth, so that in summer they are soon dry again.

Stony Rises.--The stony ground, in contradistinction to the sandstone ranges, appears to have been formed from the detritus of the latter, deposited in undulating beds of vast extent. The greater portion of this ground appears almost level when one is on it, but when viewed from a distance the undulations are very distinct; the stones are chiefly water-worn pebbles of sandstone, quartz, and iron-stone; in some places the rises approach more nearly to the nature of the sandstone ranges, and here the stones are less water-worn, and are mixed with large blocks of rock. I found the magnetic polarity to be very distinct in some of the ironstone pebbles on these rises.

Earthy Plains.--The earthy plains which are such an important geological feature in this part of the country, will, I fear, greatly interfere with its future occupation. When dry they are so intersected by chasms and cracks that it is in some places dangerous for animals to cross them, and when wet they would be quite impassable. Cattle would, perhaps, do well on them for some time after an inundation, and the ground might improve after having been stocked. The boggy nature of the banks of the creeks passing through this ground would be another impediment to settlers, from the losses of cattle that it would sometimes entail. To furnish an idea of the danger in that respect, I may mention that there are places where, for a distance of two or three miles, neither a bullock nor a horse could get to the water with safety, and it was with difficulty that we could approach it ourselves; the safest spots are at the lower end of the waterhole, where the creeks run out on the plains. A peculiar geological feature that I have never seen so strongly exhibited elsewhere is, that the watercourses on these plains have a strong tendency to work away to the south and south-west; the fall of the ground, as shown by the flow of the flood water, being to the west and north-west. I found that at almost every place where a portion of the creek ran out, the small branches into which it split before disappearing, struck off at nearly right angles to the creek, and that the flow of the water on the level plain was invariably in a west or north-westerly direction; whereas the creeks generally had a course considerably to the south and west, more especially before running out. The branch creeks and waterholes are always lined with box trees and polygonum bushes; they are generally situated between or near sandhills, and have doubtless been formed by the rush of water consequent on the interference of these hills by the general flow. In some places the direction of the sand ridges was the course of the creeks, trending to the southward; but I allude to the tendency as exhibited on the open plain, with no sand ridges near the creek

Country to the north of Camp 63,--Cooper's.--During our stay at Camp 63, from which spot we found it necessary to remove for several reasons, but chiefly because the rats attacked our stores in such numbers that we could keep nothing from them, unless by suspending it in the trees, four excursions were made to the north of that place in search of a practicable route to the Gulf. The first attempt was made with horses, which were soon knocked up from the strong nature of the ground and the want of water; the others we made with camels, by the help of which the country was well examined to a distance of nearly ninety miles. Water was found at two places at distances of about seventy and seventy-three miles north of the creek, but it was fast drying up, and would not last beyond Christmas. No blacks were seen, but a column of smoke was observed to the north-north-east, at a distance of about fifteen miles, as ascertained by some bearings, from the point at which we turned back. The chief portion of the land traversed consists of land-dunes and flats of the same nature, the latter clothed with porcupine grass, the former with salt bushes, grasses, and a variety of shrubs, sometimes intermixed with mesembryanthemums and porcupine grass. The sandy ground is bounded on either side by sandstone ranges, from which numerous small creeks flow east and west until they are lost in small flats and clay pans amongst the sand hills. Their course is marked by an acacia, which is somewhat analogous in its general characteristics to the common wattle; a few are favoured with some box trees, but we only found water in one. The whole country has a most deplorably arid appearance; birds are very scarce, native dogs numerous. The paths of the blacks on the strong ground look as if they had been used many years. Anthills and beds are to be found everywhere in great numbers and of considerable size; the paths to and from them are better marked and more worn than any I have ever seen before; but nearly all of them are deserted, and those that are inhabited contain a small and weakly population that seems to be fast dying away. Neither about the flats nor the ranges did we see any signs of the heavy floods that have left such distinct marks in other parts, and the appearance of the whole country gave me the idea of a place that had been subjected to a long-continued drought. At the northernmost end of the eastern line of ranges, and on the west side of them, in latitude 26 degrees 30 minutes south, longitude 141 degrees 40 minutes east, is a low detached line of range about seven miles from north to south. On passing inside this range at its southern extremity, one enters a flat bounded to the south by high red sand hills to the west and north by the low range, and running up to the north-north-east, until it reaches the main range. On the lower part of the flat there is no creek, but on proceeding up it, at a mile and a half there are three waterholes with a few bushes growing around them; the water was fast drying up when we were there. There were some ducks, snipe, and pigeons about them: the former always returned to the holes after having been disturbed, so I imagine there is not much more water in the vicinity. In continuing up the flat, the main creek appears to be that along which the box timber grows, but the bed is sandy and quite dry. By keeping off a little to the left, at a mile above the waterholes, one comes on the bed of another creek, with only here and there a gum tree and a few bushes. Up this creek at a distance of three miles nearly north from the three holes, and where the creek emerges from the ranges, is a large hole well shaded by heavy box trees; it contained only a small quantity of water when we passed, but I fancy that in ordinary seasons the water would be permanent. This creek has been much frequented by blacks at one time, but not lately. Hundreds of hawks and a good many crows and magpies were in the trees near the waterhole.

Geographical position.--The geographical position of the three waterholes is by account from Cooper's Creek latitude 26 degrees 34 minutes south, longitude 140 degrees 43 minutes east.

Meteorological remarks.--It would be rather premature for me to offer any opinion on the climate of Cooper's Creek on so short a stay, and my other duties have prevented me from making any observations that would be worth forwarding in detail. I may mention, however, that neither on the creek, nor during the journey up, have we experienced any extreme temperatures: the heat, although considerably greater here than in Melbourne, as shown by a thermometer, is not felt more severely by us. The maximum daily temperatures since our arrival on Cooper's Creek have generally exceeded 100 degrees; the highest of all was registered on November 27th at Camp 63, when the thermometer stood at 109 degrees in the shade. There was at that time a strong wind from the north, which felt rather warm, but had not the peculiar characteristics of a hot wind. One of the most noticeable features in the weather has been the well-marked regularity in the course of the wind, which almost invariably blew lightly from the east or south-east soon after sunrise, went gradually round to north by two o'clock, sometimes blowing fresh from that quarter, followed the sun to west by sunset, and then died away or blew gently from the south throughout the night. A sudden change took place yesterday, December 14th; the day had been unusually hot, temperature of air at one PM 106 degrees, at which time cirrocumulus clouds began to cross the sky from north-west, and at two PM the wind sprang up in the south-west, blowing with great violence (force 6); it soon shifted to south, increasing in force to (7) and sometimes (8); it continued to blow from the same quarter all night, and has not yet much abated. Once during the night it lulled for about an hour, and then commenced again; it is now (four PM) blowing with a force of (5) from south by east, with a clear sky. Before the wind had sprung up the sky had become overcast, and we were threatened with a thunderstorm; rain was evidently falling in the west and north-west, but the sky partially cleared in the evening without our receiving any. Flashes of distant lightning were visible towards the north. During the night, the thunderstorm from the north approached sufficiently near for thunder to be distinctly heard; the flashes of lightning were painfully brilliant, although so far away. The storm passed to the south-east without reaching us; the sky remained overcast until between eight and nine AM, since when it has been quite clear; the temperature of air, which at sunrise was as low as 72 degrees, has reached a maximum of 92 degrees: it is at present 89 degrees, and that of the surface of the water in the creek 78 degrees. Two other thunderstorms have passed over since we have been on the creek, from only one of which we have received any rain worth mentioning.

Mr Brahe, who remains here in charge of the Depot, and from whom I have received great assistance both in making meteorological observations and in the filling in of feature surveys, will keep a regular meteorological register. I have handed over to him for that purpose an aneroid barometer, Number 21,543, and four thermometers, two for dry and wet bulb observations, and the others for temperature of water, etc.

With regard to hot winds, the direction of the sand-ridges would seem to indicate a prevalence of east and west winds here rather than of northerly.
William J Wills,
Surveyor and Astronomical Observer.
Cooper's Creek, 15th December, 1860.

This concludes my son's third report; the first, as far as I can ascertain, was never published. This last was accompanied by many observations taken with the sextant and other instruments, requiring long experience to understand and handle correctly. Brahe, a German, had been instructed by my son in their use, and had made some progress. Notwithstanding his fatal error in leaving the Depot contrary to orders, he had, in some respects, superior requisites to either of the others left with him. He was a good traveller, and a better bushman than Wright. Had he been associated with a single companion of nerve and energy, the consequent misfortunes might have been surmounted.

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