EXPLORATION OF THE VICTORIA—FIRST APPEARANCE OF SEA RANGE—CURIOSITY PEAK—APPEARANCE OF COUNTRY FROM—WHIRLWIND PLAINS—ENCOUNTER WITH AN ALLIGATOR—HIS CAPTURE AND DESCRIPTION—CROSS WHIRLWIND PLAINS—WHITE AND BLACK DUCKS—KANGAROOS—ENTER HILLY COUNTRY—MEET THE BOATS—THUNDERSTORM—CARRY BOATS OVER SHOALS—NEW BIRDS—REACH HOPELESS—PROGRESS OF BOATS ARRESTED—RECONNOITRE THE RIVER—PROSPECT FROM VIEW HILL—PREPARATION FOR PEDESTRIAN EXCURSION—LEAVE REACH HOPELESS TO EXPLORE THE UPPER PART OF THE RIVER—NATIVE VILLAGE—SQUALL—MUSCLE BEND—MEET NATIVES—SUCCESSFUL FISHING—PARTY DISTRESSED—THIRSTY FLAT—TORTOISE REACH—SINGULAR APPEARANCE OF THE RANGES—EFFECT OF THE GREAT HEAT—ONE MAN KNOCKED UP—APPROACH OF NATIVES—PREPARATION FOR DEFENCE—APPEARANCE OF THE NATIVES—MOVE FURTHER UP THE RIVER—EMU PLAINS—SELECT POSITION FOR NIGHT QUARTERS—UPWARD COURSE OF THE VICTORIA—COMMENCE RETURN—KANGAROO SHOT—WICKHAM HEIGHTS—NEW TORTOISE—LUCKY VALLEY—RACE WAS WITH A NATIVE—MEET HIS TRIBE—THEY MAKE OFF—HARD DAY'S WORK—QUARTERS FOR THE NIGHT—RETURN TO REACH HOPELESS
The expedition, consisting of the two large boats and gig, with Captain Wickham, who was to show them the watering place, left the ship early on the morning of the 31st of October. I was to follow in one of the whaleboats, and explore the upper parts in company with Captain Wickham; and after completing the survey near the ship, I was at last fairly off to explore the Victoria with the first glimmer of light the morning following, once more to revel in scenes where all was new. How amply is the explorer repaid by such sights for all his toils! To ascend a hill and say you are the first civilized man that has ever trod on this spot; to gaze around from its summit and behold a prospect over which no European eye has ever before wandered; to descry new mountains; to dart your eager glance down unexplored valleys, and unvisited glens; to trace the course of rivers whose waters no white man's boat has ever cleaved, and which tempt you onwards into the bosom of unknown lands: these are the charms of an explorer's life.
Mr. Forsyth accompanied me. We landed nearly opposite the rugged ridge I have before mentioned, for a few angles and bearings. Here we found two native rafts of precisely the same construction as those we had previously seen on the North-west coast, formed out of nine poles. The shape the reader will remember from the sketch in that part of the work, and with the exception of only two instances, where they appeared merely temporary affairs, we have noticed no other kind of rafts in use. Wherever this great similarity in their mode of water-conveyance prevails, we may infer the natives have had communication with each other.
We passed the night in the end of a crooked reach, near the only rocky islet in the river, lying four miles E.S.E. from the furthest point I had before attained. With the exception of a squall from north-east in the afternoon, there was scarcely any wind, and the night was cloudy with some slight showers of rain. As the musquitoes allowed us little rest, we were glad, when the day broke, to be again moving. We now found the river take a north-east direction for eight miles, averaging in width upwards of three-quarters of a mile, and in depth at low-water two fathoms. A sudden change in the trend of the reaches brought in sight the strange appearance of the country represented in the woodcut annexed.
The peak on the right bank we named, from the passion it assisted us in gratifying, Curiosity Peak. Landing at the foot we were not long reaching the summit, although the thermometer was 90° in the shade. The river formed a remarkable feature in the landscape before us, to the north-east; and behind it rose a high table-range of hills, from five to six hundred feet in elevation. These were capped with low reddish-coloured cliffs.
At their feet stretched an extensive and seemingly boundless plain in a north-east direction, whilst on the south-east side, and distant about eighteen miles from where we stood, low ranges of hills were visible. Here and there over the plains were many small whirlwinds appearing in the distance like streaks of smoke curling upwards through the air. These, though affording relief to the eye in the wide prospect that opened before us, are fraught with danger when occurring on the river; for on one occasion they nearly upset the gig, and threatened to consign its crew to a watery grave. In the present instance they gave an impulse to our invention, suggesting the propriety of designating the level tract of country before us, Whirlwind Plains. The high land rising suddenly out of it, and bounding it very abruptly on the north-west side, we named Sea Range. We could trace the river passing along at its foot in an E.N.E. direction for nine miles, when it appeared to cross the plain; a large island lying midway changed its course for a short distance.
I found a strange kind of fruit growing in a hollow, near the top of Curiosity Peak; the tree was small and leafless, with the fruit hanging in bunches about the size of a damascene plum, of the colour of a peach, and containing a large stone. I afterwards had a pie made of this fruit, which proved to be by no means bad eating.
Besides the sandstone of which the peak is composed, I found a kind of slate on the north-west side. Several banks showed themselves, leaving at that time of tide scarcely a boat channel, although the river was a mile wide at high-water. A great part of the day was occupied in collecting material for the chart of this part, and we passed the night near the foot of Curiosity Peak. On the grassy flat opposite, I killed five white ibises at a shot.
At sunset, I noticed large flocks of a rather small brown pigeon, constantly flying from Whirlwind Plains to the north-west, and back again in the morning. The musquitoes did not give us any peace again this night.
November 3.—Starting early, we had just passed all the shoals in the neighbourhood of Curiosity Peak, and entered a narrow part of the river, when the leadsman in the bows of the boat reported, "A large alligator coming down the stream, sir." Elated by the expectation of sport, we instantly grounded the boat on the right bank to keep her steady, and waited anxiously for the monster's approach. It will readily be believed, that every eye was fixed upon him as he slowly advanced, scarcely disturbing the glassy surface of the water, and quite unconscious of the fate that impended over him. At length he came abreast, and about eighty yards off, only the flat crown of his head, and the partly serrated ridge along his back, appearing in sight. It was a moment of deep excitement for us all, and everyone held his breath in suspense as I pointed my gun at the brute's head.
I felt confident of hitting my mark; but judging from the little effect I had produced on former occasions, scarcely dreamt of the execution my ball actually did. It happened that to-day I was in excellent practice, and had just hit a large wild dog, a long shot, making him jump high off the ground; but this beast is as tenacious of life as a cat, and instead of falling dead, he limped off and escaped. But to resume: I fired, and never heard a ball strike with more satisfaction in my life. It laid the alligator sprawling, feet uppermost. There was no time to be lost in getting him on shore; two or three strokes with the oars brought us alongside of the monster, as he floated on the surface of the stream. The business was to attach a line to one of his legs; and as we knew that he was not dead, but only stunned, this was rather a nervous operation. I noticed indeed a hesitation among the men, as to who should venture, and fearing lest our prize should escape, I seized the line and made it fast to one of his fore-legs, when we proceeded to the shore, dragging him alongside. Before reaching it, however, our friend gave signs of reviving animation, and as we could not foresee to what extent he might regain his activity, we dropped him astern, clear of the boat, fearing lest in floundering about he might stave in her broadside. In doing so, moreover, and by way of a sedative, I fired a charge of large shot at his head, the muzzle of the gun not being a yard from it; and yet the only effect produced, was a slight stupor of the intellectual faculties, evinced by a momentary state of quiescence.
On reaching the shore, the men jumped out to haul the alligator up on the dry land, and began to pull away vigorously. It was a comic scene to witness. They expected to have some difficulty in performing their task; but suddenly they found the rope slacken, and looking round beheld the alligator walking up after them of his own accord, faster than was pleasant. In their haste, endeavouring to keep the rope taut, one fellow tripped up; and it was for a moment a question whether he would not be snapped in two; the feeling of alarm, however, soon gave way to a sense of the ludicrous, at beholding the manner in which he gathered himself up into a ball and rolled out of the alligator's way. I thought it now high time to take decisive measures, and with another shot altered the intentions of the monster, who endeavoured to back towards the water. Perhaps if he had been further away from it, I might have been tempted to try Waterton's experiment.
It was not before he had received six balls in the head, that he consented to be killed. During the operation he exhibited something of his savoir faire, by opening his mouth, that looked like a gigantic man-trap, and suddenly shutting it with a loud snap, which made us shudder, and forcibly recalled to mind the escape I had had a few days before, from having my body embraced by such a pair of jaws.
The reader will gather a good idea of their size from the woodcut; and their power of holding will be shown in the description accompanying. The view annexed represents the moment when the alligator received the first shot on shore; the singular character of Sea Range is also shown, and the small whirlwinds I have alluded to, as having the appearance of smoke.
KILLING AN ALLIGATOR, VICTORIA RIVER. G. Gore, del. London, Published by T. & W. Boone, 1846.
All the alligator's stomach contained was about fourteen pounds of pebbles, some of them measuring four inches in diameter. We were some time skinning the monster, and after securing a little of the best part of the flesh for eating,* proceeded on our way.
- * The writer supped off alligator steaks, and informs the reader that the meat is by no means bad, and has a white appearance like veal.
The river, as I have already said, ran along the base of Sea Range for some distance, when it turned off across the plain in a south-east direction.
The high land quite overlooked the stream, and enhanced the picturesque effect of the trees that rose in rich green masses on the banks, which were here only about half a mile apart. The depth, however, was two fathoms, double what it had been for some distance before. We had now fairly turned our backs on Sea Range, and were crossing the plains in a south-east direction. On the part of the Victoria we had passed were a few white ducks, with black or very dark brown wings. I noticed that the bill and legs were of a very pale pink, and they had a pale yellow eye. They were evidently the same bird that I had seen at Port Essington.* They were scarce and not met with in other parts of the river. Kangaroos were numerous on the banks, as we entered the plain, and during the day were to be seen in numbers under the bushes near the water's edge. I added one to our stock of fresh provisions, which with alligator steaks and ducks, gave us a good supply to share with the other boats. We named this part of the river Long Reach, from its carrying us nine miles in a direct course, with a general width of a quarter of a mile, and a depth of two and three fathoms. The banks were well defined, in many places being a low line of cliffs six feet high, presenting to our view several feet of brown soil, resting on a compact clay. This is the general character of this extensive plain; and from the small size of the trees, chiefly white gums, that are thinly scattered over it, we may infer that it is land of recent formation. Two miles from the end of Long Reach, we passed a sandy head, where the tide rises from three to ten feet.
- * Figured by Mr. Gould, as Tadorna radjah.
The river now took a south by west direction, for nearly two miles, a little narrower, but three fathoms deep throughout. Towards the latter part the banks were fringed with mangroves of a small and singularly even growth, resembling a clipped garden shrubbery. Our course again changed to south-east, entering the low range of hills bounding the south-eastern side of Whirlwind Plains. It was long after dark when we reached so far. We had passed the watering boats some distance further down on their way to the ship. Our sudden meeting in the dark on the lonely river, had a singular and romantic effect. Being anxious to join the gig, we pushed on, and at midnight were surprised by a loud call from Captain Wickham, who lay beneath the shadow of a high bank. It was a strange sound, this English hail, to hear echoed in these wild hills, where only the shrill cry of the savage had been borne on the blast before!
I was sorry to find, that the tide did not at present rise sufficient to admit the large boats into the fresh water, so that getting a load would have been a very long operation, had it not been for a tremendous fall of rain that followed a thunderstorm, deluging every pool, and at once affording the means of filling the casks. This storm began at S.E. and drew round by east to N.W., from which quarter it blew strong for an hour. The torrents of rain lasted two hours, and cooled the air so rapidly, as in that time to reduce the thermometer from 92 to 82°. This change was so sudden, that it made those who felt it shiver as if it were the depth of winter, and ruch into the river water to keep themselves warm.
November 4.—Both boats proceeded up the river at daylight. We started from the end of Short Reach, trending E.N.E., and about four miles within the range of hills, on the S.E. side of the Plains. The first reach led us a mile and a half in a S.E. direction, and at the end of it a flat of large boulders extended; across this we dragged the boats easily. The river now took a turn from E.N.E. to North, and at the end of a mile we came to another extensive flat, quite dry. There was a deep pool below it, with a precipitous hill, 350 feet high, on the eastern side. This we called Steep Head, and its singular dark cliffy face, frowning over the placid waters, gave an air of grandeur to the scenery. Stretched out on the face of these cliffs, we left the skin of our friend the alligator, to be taken to the ship by the watering boats when they returned. There was now heavy work before us, with the thermometer at 93° in the shade:– we had to drag the boats over the large flat that impeded our progress. The way was made as smooth as possible, and plenty of rollers laid, but an unlucky stone found its way through the thin plank of the gig. Captain Wickham acted as head carpenter in repairing the damage, which occupied so much time that it was dark before the boats were floated in the deep water beyond. We dined on the bank, by the light of a lantern hung on a tree. The tide at this place only rose two feet.
November 5.—Taking advantage of the cool of the morning, we moved off with the early dawn. A fine sheet of water lay before us, and everything promised well. The vegetation looked stronger and richer. Above the growth of acacias and drooping gums, that leant over the banks kissing their reflection in the limpid waters, rose on each side high broken ranges. Their heights had round summits, just beneath which, in some, could be traced a low line of cliffs, so singularly characteristic of Sea Range. The very marked dip in the strata did not extend beyond the latter, and here I could not detect any. Flights of large vampires, whistling ducks, many-coloured parakeets, and varieties of small birds, made the river quite alive, and their continued cry of alarm gave vivacity to the scene, and disturbed the stillness that had reigned there for years. Every living thing is terrified at the sight of man. This reach of the Victoria enabled Mr. Bynoe to add two new birds to his collection; one, a species of pigeon, but resembling a small quail in its habits and size; the cerae of the nose, the beak and the feet, were a pigeon's, but the flight and the manner of running along the ground, where it kept, were those of a quail. It was found in small families of eight or a dozen, very wild and scarce, and was only seen in this part of the river. The only one we were able to get, had a very long pointed crest. The colour was a light red, with a white chin and a black band across the throat; the tips of the wings were slightly bronzed. It is figured in Mr. Gould's work, from this specimen, as Geophaps plumifera.
The other bird was of a species, that at first sight appeared to be a teal. It went in small flocks, and as it got on the wing made a long shrill plaintive kind of note. The deep glossy rifle-green colour of their back, and the transparent streak of white across the wing, gave them a most beautiful appearance, as the sun's rays lit up their rich plumage in their circuitous flight round the boat. Their number did not exceed twenty, and they too were only seen on this part of the river. They were also very wary, which is singular in the inhabitants of a wilderness, almost totally unfrequented by man. We only got one specimen, by which we found that it had the head and bill of a goose. It was indeed quite a goose in miniature. Although we never before or afterwards met with this bird, it was seen at Port Essington, though of inferior plumage, some time in 1840, and a specimen was obtained, from which Mr. Gould has named it Nettapus pulchellas. The whistling duck of the Adelaide River, was also only seen on this part of the Victoria.
After proceeding north-east one mile and a half, and east two miles, we came to a pretty little islet covered with palms and acacias, and rich long grass. Numbers of large white waterlilies grew on its banks. The river was now only an eighth of a mile wide, and two fathoms deep. This still promised well. Scarcely, however, had we indulged in the hope that the Victoria might yet convey the boats many miles into the interior, when a shoal appeared.
Over this we got tolerably well, but at the end of two miles in an E.S.E. direction from Palm Island, all hopes were at an end of proceeding farther in the boats, as for a great extent the river was impassable for them. We found there was a large sheet of water beyond, and then another dry patch. It would therefore have been useless labour to attempt dragging the boats over any more of the dry parts. Two conical-shaped hills, so much alike that we called them the Brothers, bore N. by W. ½ W. one mile.
The thermometer was 101° at noon in the shade. I shot some very large dark-coloured ducks in the afternoon. Kangaroos were numerous. The water was fresh soon after passing Palm Island.
That we were thus finally deterred from proceeding farther with the boats, was a source of deep mortification. Since the great flat we had experienced so much difficulty in getting over yesterday, all had gone well. Each turn in the river appeared more beautiful, and brought something new to increase our interest; and we fondly imagined that great discoveries were in store for us. But the fates had decreed otherwise, and we were compelled to pause, after having ascended in the boats from the ship above 75 miles. We named this reach, in consequence, Reach Hopeless.
November 6.—It being evidently impracticable to proceed higher up in the boats; a small party of us landed at daylight, in order to ascend a neighbouring height, and thence to trace as far as possible the upward course of the river, preparatory to a pedestrian excursion along its banks. Before sunrise we reached the summit of a narrow ridge, trending E.S.E. ½ a mile east, from where the boats were lying: in this singular ridge I again noticed the dip to the south-east: it was composed of a variety of rocks, jasper, a greyish kind of flinty indifferent limestone, and greywacke.
The view from it was very limited, the valley of the river turning short to the northward, two miles east by south of our position, to which we gave the name of Station Hill. Before I had finished my round of angles, the heat had become so great that some of our party were compelled to return to the boats, whilst myself, with two of the men, pushed on for nearly two miles in an easterly direction, along the foot of some table-topped hills, and were then gratified with another peep at the river, which had a very singular appearance, in some places nearly dry, discovering a wide bed of large pebbles: long narrow islands, whose shape attested the former rapidity of the currents, covered with reeds and acacias, and deep pools of standing water, were its most characteristic features. Several kangaroos, alarmed by our approach, hastily quitted their cool hidingplaces, presenting beautiful shots; but as the traces of natives were both recent and numerous, we thought it most prudent to reserve our fire, and shortly after, upon finding a native fire still alight, to keep the open ground as much as possible. We travelled for a long mile over a level flat of good soil, though now quite destitute of vegetation, save some beautiful specimens of the truly evergreen gumtree.
At length we reached the summit of View Hill, and no effervescing draught could have proved more really refreshing than the south-east breeze which greeted us there. It is separated from the ranges to the southward by a deep narrow valley. We noticed from it that the river evidently increased in size, as traced upwards, and I was very glad to find that the delight I experienced in making this discovery, was shared by my companions. We traced it east for two long miles—a deep broad and picturesque stream: beyond that limit it took a more southerly direction, apparently behind some high tableland (Table Hill) 200 feet high. Beyond, and on the eastern side of the valley of the river, rose a high peak, crowned by a remarkable block of stone, to which we gave the name of The Tower. I made a sketch of the scenery, and took a round of angles, and then we returned to the boats. On our arrival we found the thermometer had been as high as 110° at one <smallcaps>p.m.</smallcaps> The afternoon was occupied in selecting a party of five out of the boats' crews, for a pedestrian excursion; and at night, jaded as we were, it was almost impossible to sleep, owing to the screeching noise of the vampires, and the howling of the native dogs.
November 7.—Making slings and packing provisions for an early start to-morrow morning occupied the greater part of the day. Mr. Bynoe, as he had done yesterday, added to his valuable collection a few rare birds, and strange plants; while I took several readings of the barometer, morning and evening, for the elevation of the bed of the river: the mean gave a resulting height of thirty feet.
Our bivouac at Reach Hopeless, was under the shade of a cluster of drooping gumtrees, which secreted in their thick foliage, numbers of a bird figured by Mr. Gould as Tripidorhynchus argenticeps. These kept up a constant amusing chatter, in which we could frequently detect an exact imitation of the words Walk Up, when spoken sharply. A kangaroo Mr. Bynoe had shot, and hung on a tree, drew the attention of birds of prey, consisting of two kinds of hawks, one of a dark brown, almost black, and another a lighter shade of the same colour, resembling copper, with a great deal of white about the head; so that we were surrounded with feathered companions.
The wind as usual was E.N.E. in the morning, and N.W. in the evening. The thermometer ranged from 97 to 112° during the day, and fell to 90° at night; during which we noticed several meteors in the north and north-west falling perpendicularly.
November 8.—Our little band left the boats before daylight, the morning being agreeably cool (temperature 85°). Captain Wickham had intended heading this most interesting expedition himself, but feeling indisposed, the party was eventually placed under my command, and in addition to myself, consisted of Mr. Bynoe, surgeon; Mr. Forsyth, mate; George Knox, Robert Gower, and William Willing, seamen; John Brown, and Richard Martin, marines. Besides provisions for six days, and arms, we had with us the following instruments: large sextant, small sextant, artificial horizon, chronometer, two compasses, spyglass, watch, lantern, and measuring tape.
Our route was that of yesterday to View Hill, and we reached the river a mile to the eastward by half-past seven a.m. We halted here for ten' to skin a kangaroo, which I had shot as we crossed the plain; a piece of good fortune that induced me to determine upon leaving a part of our provisions at the first convenient spot. We found the banks of the river thickly clothed with tall reeds, through which with some difficulty we forced our way. To the north-west the high land receded from the river, having an extensive, and apparently alluvial flat between its base and the course of the stream.
After a brief halt, we proceeded in an E. 16° S. direction. Two miles good walking brought us to the head of a deep gully, the banks of which were covered with tall reeds; we followed its course nearly due north to the river, which it joined near the foot of the high land I have before spoken of. The bed of the stream was dry here in patches for half a mile. As none of our party had been recently accustomed to much pedestrian exercise, and we had been travelling for nearly five hours over a broken country, and in a temperature varying from 87 to 100° in the shade, I thought it time to halt and dine. While dinner was being prepared, Mr. Bynoe and myself shot three brace of rare ducks, of a small light grey kind, in the pools near. I afterwards accompanied Mr. Forsyth to get some bearings from an elevation on the north side of the river. Towards the south-east we perceived a very decided break in the hills, through which I hoped to trace the course of the Victoria, that being the direction of the centre of this vast continent: in this however we were disappointed, for the river turned short round to the north-east. The banks were so high, and so thickly covered with tall reeds, that it was only by the very green appearance of the trees about its banks that its course could be made out. The temperature at one p.m. in the sun was 127°. Knowing how impossible it was to avoid being tracked by the natives, should they wish it, even upon the hardest ground, and that in the event of their doing so any buried stores would be forthwith discovered, and yet anxious to disencumber the party of any superfluous load, I directed one of the men to take the 8lb canister of preserved meat and throw it into a thick cluster of reeds and palms, about thirty yards distant; and after taking a set of sights for long., recommenced our journey to half-past three P.M. in a north-east direction; passing through a lightly timbered plain, that had been evidently at no distant date exposed to the ravages of fire. At half-past four we came to a bend of the river, trending N. 56° E. and S. 22° W. Passing several trees still on fire near the river, after another short halt, which the state of the atmosphere no less than the nature of the ground rendered desirable, we resumed our north-east course, but were compelled to make a considerable westerly detour, in order to clear the deep watercourses intersecting the banks at this place, and which, extending nearly to the base of the hills, rendered the fatigues and labours of the march additionally and needlessly heavy. Just before dark we came upon a native village, near the foot of a bare rocky hill, having a northern aspect, and lying about one mile south-west of the river. It contained thirteen huts of paper-bark, standing in a bare stony plain, and with no signs of being at this time inhabited. We found here considerable difficulty in forcing our way through the tall and thickly growing reeds which lined the bank. The next reach in the river trended N.W. for about a mile, and then turned off N.N.E. at the foot of a high rocky range. The next turn in the course brought us upon a yet burning native fire. Under ordinary circumstances such an indication of the near presence of natives, of whose intentions, whether hostile or otherwise, I had no means of judging, would have induced me to take up open quarters for the night, which was now closing in upon us; but the threatening aspect of the sky to the south-east led me to prefer a spot sheltered by the luxuriant foliage which here fringed the river's banks.
The squall reached us at seven. The wind, which had been at south-east, veering to north, and the thermometer falling five°; it lasted for about an hour, during which time the harsh screams of the affrighted birds — the moaning of the wind — the awful roll of thunder, and the fearful brilliancy of the lightning, combined to supply all the terrible beauty which invests such scenes; especially when they surprise the startled adventurer upon his unknown path, and add their hostile influence to the unreckoned dangers that await his progress. The only means we had of preserving our only suit of clothes dry from the drenching showers of rain was by taking them off, and stuffing them into the hollow of a tree, which in the darkness of the night we could do with propriety.
Within an hour the weather had cleared up, and was as fine as before the squall. The change came just in time for me to secure a meridian altitude of Achernar, which, with a set of sights for time, completed the requisite observations. We noticed a singular meteor in the E.S.E. about 8 o'clock this evening, darting perpendicularly UPWARDS: it lasted for ten": between the hour mentioned and midnight, we saw a great many, passing chiefly from south-east to north-west. At nine, having set the watches for the night, we lay down to sleep, and passed a quiet night with a temperature of 85°, and a north-west wind.
November 9.—We started early the following morning, after having obtained a set of bearings, and followed the bank of the river to the north-west for half a mile, then forded it and took a north-easterly direction, passing close to the foot of some hills forming the south side of the valley of the river, which at this place is scarcely a mile wide. High tableland formed the west side of it, and low broken ranges trending east, bounded it in that direction.
The bend above where we slept we called Mussel Bend, from our finding several there: they appeared similar to those found by Oxley in the Macquarie. The country over which we travelled the first part of the day was exceedingly stony, and wore a most uninviting appearance.
While the party halted to skin a kangaroo I had been so fortunate as to shoot; I ascended the top of a neighbouring hill to make a sketch, and get some bearings. From this elevation I traced the river in a north-west direction for three miles, and I gazed with rapture, only known to the discoverer, upon a clear and magnificent expanse of water, yet greatly dismayed at its northerly direction. To the north-east was an extensive and apparently alluvial flat; while to the westward, the high land approached the river. It is worthy of remark, that so far as our observation extended, wherever the hills approach the river on one side they recede from it on the other.
Continuing in a more easterly direction in order to avoid the deep watercourses near the banks, we found the country wore a much less arid appearance, and changing our direction to N.N.W. in order to ascend some high ranges distant two miles and a half, overlooking the east bank of the river, we came suddenly upon some native tracks, and presently surprised two children, who scampered down the bank in very natural alarm, and were soon lost among the tall reeds. A little further on we passed within 200 yards of three women carrying bundles of bark at their backs; their anxiety for their children had allowed us to approach thus close unseen; but no sooner were we discovered, than they raised a shout which was answered from the heights on our right, and from the banks of the river on our left, by parties evidently too numerous to render it prudent to attempt a nearer meeting. We therefore held on our way without appearing to notice them. They were quite naked, with the exception of a slight covering of bark round their waists. We halted at half-past ten A.M. in an open spot in the dry bed of the river, overlooked by a high table hill. Our party looked very much distressed from their half-day's work. The weather had been very close, and a good deal of the walking over broken ground; and these circumstances, coupled with the fact that the thermometer stood at 107° in the shade, and that all had been for a long time cooped up in a small vessel, will fully explain and account for the general fatigue.
In a pool of the river near our resting place, I caught, within an hour, some dozen good-sized fish: using a bait of kangaroo flesh. There were two sorts, one of the shape of a trout, and ten inches long; it had a dirty orange-yellow belly, and a muddy bronze back; the lower hole of the nose had a raised margin. The other measured seven inches, and resembled in shape a small fish at home, known to all schoolboys as the prickle-back; it was curiously marked, having five spots nearly black on each side, near the ridge of the back; the ground around them was a dark glossy brown; the belly was a slightly shining white, reaching as far up as the lower line of the eye and the margin of the spots.
While Mr. Bynoe was occupied in making sketches of them, which have been transmitted to Dr. Richardson, Mr. Forsyth and myself ascended a neighbouring hillock, and traced the river in a westerly direction for two miles; it then turned round to N.N.E.: a deep narrow valley separated it from the higher land to the eastward. The bed of the river at this place, though partly dry, was wider than we had hitherto seen it, and the trees upon its banks still showed evident signs of being washed by a mountain torrent. After making a set of observations for long., we started again at 3 o'clock p.m. taking a north-west direction over a flat of tolerably fine light mould. Near here a party of natives crossed the river, in the direction of those we had first seen: perhaps to effect a junction of forces and demand the meaning of our strange intrusion. We took an E. ½ N. direction across the flat, but finding the ground very broken and stony, intersected by deep watercourses, and rendered additionally impracticable by high grass and thick reeds, we were compelled, after getting half across, to make the best of our way to the river.
It was intensely hot, not a breath of air stirring, and to add to our misfortunes, we had inadvertently dined off the contents of a canister of salt meat. We reached the river at half-past five, being all of us pretty well knocked up with heat, fatigue, and thirst: one of our party, I heard afterwards, drank nearly two quarts of water at a draught.
Further on in this reach, I determined to occupy quarters for the night; it was wide and deep, trending E. by S., but shut in about a mile above our present position by a dry patch of stones, with clear banks on either side. As we were now in what appeared to be a rather thickly populated district of the country, it was requisite to choose a position beyond the reach of sudden attack. Having consulted our security as much as possible in this particular, I took, before dark, the necessary bearings and angles for the survey, and was delighted to observe that the valley of the river again trended away to the southward. We had a cool breeze after dark from the north-west, and the thermometer went down to 90°. I had scarcely secured observations for lat. and long., before a squall from the south-east, accompanied by heavy rain, recalled the scene of last night.
The same screams from the same kind of birds, disturbed in their roosting places, and the same mournful howling of the wind, as it swept fitfully through the trees that overshadowed us, broke the silence that had reigned around our solitary fire, and exercised their wondrous power over the imagination. In a few moments my thoughts were borne on to the very heart of this mysterious country, over many a dreary plain, where thirst, fatigue, and hunger were all forgotten. It is impossible to define the exact nature of the charm which particular minds find in the perils and adventures of discovery, whether on the shore or over the wave. Certain, however, it is, that scarce any motive of human exertion can compete with it in the powers of endurance it supplies to its votaries.
The squall served to clear the air, and was succeeded by a cool breeze from the north-west. The thermometer down to 87°.
Yet cool, as comparatively speaking, the nights are here, still I could not but remark that the ground never became so; and this I imagine to be one of the principal causes of that fatigue from which some of our party suffered so much: during my watches I invariably noticed some poor fellow or another vainly trying to secure the rest of which he stood so much in need: rolling with restless anxiety from side to side, and sometimes in absolute despair, starting up on his feet: neither could I fail to note the wearying effect these broken slumbers produced, symptoms of which showed themselves more plainly each morning.
Having provided myself with the means of calculating the lat., I worked the observations I had taken during the night. It placed the spot of our bivouac in 15° 29' S. We estimated our distance from the boats, having carefully timed ourselves each march, at 23 miles; 10 in an east, general direction, and 13 N.E. by N.
November 10.—We pushed onwards in the cool of the morning, taking a S. 20° W. direction, for three miles, crossing the eastern part of the flat to which we yesterday gave the name of Thirsty Flat, and found the soil a light mould, covered with long dry grass. This brought us to a bend in the river, trending in rather a tortuous manner east, and passing through a wide valley, with table ranges, varying from 5 to 600 feet on either side. Towards their summits there were perpendicular cliffs of some 30 or 40 feet, similar to the high land of Sea Range. The country just here was so thickly wooded that I was obliged to climb a tree in order to get the bearings. We noticed some very curious black horizontal streaks on the hills in our immediate vicinity. We crossed the river, or rather over its bed—a patch of stones—and found some shells of the water-tortoise at the remains of a native fire on the bank: we named the reach Tortoise Reach, in consequence. Here too Mr. Bynoe added some rare and beautiful specimens of finches to his collection.
The cool north-west wind had now deserted us, and though yet scarcely nine o'clock a.m. the thermometer stood at 105°. I had again the good fortune to shoot a kangaroo: it was a long cross-shot, the animal going at speed. Our route now lay across a barren stony plain, of which the vegetation it might once have boasted had been burnt off: the blackened ground, heated by the fierce rays of the sun, seemed still to us on fire. In crossing a creek which lay in our path, and which we managed to do by means of a fallen tree, Mr. Forsyth showed symptoms of being struck with the sun, but a little water, which I was happy enough to get from the creek, revived him. Several others of the party also complained of the trying effects of the great heat; after a short rest, I therefore determined on making for the river, which we arrived at in half an hour, near a bed of dry rocks, but with the reaches on either side wide and deep, and shut in by steep banks. By this time one of the men was seriously indisposed; all hopes, therefore, of proceeding much further upon this most interesting expedition I was compelled, though very reluctantly, to abandon. This was still the more a subject of deep regret, because the present width, and the south-easterly direction which the river now appeared to take, gave me just hopes that great progress might be made in the desired direction in the course of another day: while I felt satisfied that we were abandoning the course of a river whose undiminished magnitude made each mile's journey along its banks of increased interest, and which I felt convinced would, if followed out, conduct us far towards the heart of this "terra incognita".
The weather continued calm and close; temperature at noon, in the shade 110°. I noticed a difference in the bed of the river at the place where we prepared dinner: hitherto the dry spots, which from time to time we passed over, or halted upon, were strewn about with large boulders; here, however, we were encamping near a very remarkable rocky ledge, dipping to the south-east, and of the same character as the rocks on the sea coast, when seen at low-water.
Scarcely had we disposed of our invalid as comfortably as circumstances would admit, under a bank overshadowed by acacias and gumtrees, when we heard the shrill voices of an evidently large body of natives, concealed by the foliage on the opposite bank of the river, which was just here quite dry, and not more than eighty yards across.
As I had no means of knowing either their number or intentions, it was necessary to make the best preparations that time and place would allow for defence, should it unhappily become necessary: a contingency which, in the debilitated condition of all the party, now too deprived altogether of the aid of one of its members, I could not contemplate without some anxiety. I directed the men to occupy such situations in the long grass as would give the most deceptive appearance to our numbers, and stationed Mr. Bynoe, Mr. Forsyth, and myself where, if required, we could act most effectually. These preparations were hardly complete, when two natives, accompanied by a large cream-coloured dog that howled mournfully, came down suddenly, shouting "Ho! ho!" upon the opposite bank, as though more clearly to reconnoitre our position. They were fine looking men, with bushy hair and spare limbs, quite naked, and apparently unarmed—a usual indication among the aborigines of Australia that their intentions are peaceful. They amused themselves for a time by making all sorts of gestures, shouting still "ho! ho!" to those of their body in concealment, from whom they had probably been detached for observation. What they thought of us, strange intruders as we must have appeared to them, it is not possible fully even to imagine; at any rate they seemed impressed with some sort of respect either for our appearance, jaded as we were, or our position, and forbore any nearer approach. I was of course very glad that no appeal to force was necessary: in the first place I should very reluctantly have resorted to it against those to whom we appeared in the character of invaders of a peaceful country, and in the second, had one of our party been wounded, the consequent delay would have rendered our return to the boats certainly a work of great difficulty, perhaps wholly impossible; for no considerations of expediency would in my mind have justified the abandonment of a defenceless comrade, wounded in the common cause, either to the natural dangers and privations of the country, or the barbarous revenge of its inhabitants. They continued in force, upon the opposite bank, for some time, and then gradually withdrew. I may remark that the condition and appearance of the two who made themselves visible, indicated their residence in a country fitted to supply abundantly all natural wants. I should also state that I could not perceive that extraordinary exaggeration of a certain Jewish ceremony, that prevailed in one part of King Sound.
It is to be regretted that our position would not allow us to seek the acquaintance of these people. I could not help comparing the bold, fearless manner in which they came towards us—their fine manly bearing, head erect, no crouching or quailing of eye—with the miserable objects I had seen at Sydney. I now beheld man in his wild state; and, reader, rest assured there is nothing can equal such a sight. Before me stood two of the aboriginal inhabitants of Australia who had never, until then, encountered the hitherto blighting look of a European.
After a long rest, we were enabled to move on again slowly in the cool of the evening, along the south bank of the river, followed by one of the native dogs, that differed only from those I had seen on other parts of the coast, in being rather larger.
Two miles further brought us into a fine open plain, over which two emus were going best pace; we therefore named it in their honour: while the valley to the southward was christened after the Beagle, and the ranges on either side bore the names of her former and present commander: those to the north-east and south-west were called, after the officers who accompanied me, Forsyth and Bynoe Ranges. The soil on Emu Plains was far superior to any we had seen since leaving the boat, and was lightly and picturesquely timbered with the white gum. We were very cautious in choosing our sleeping berth for the night, to avoid a surprise during the dark; we therefore selected a friendly hollow beneath the stem of a straggling and drooping old gumtree, large enough to conceal the whole party, near the centre of a great patch of pebbles, with the river, on one side, within a hundred yards of us, and on the other, distant about three hundred.
Those who are practically conversant with such positions as this, will readily call to mind what a safeguard from any nightly approach was afforded by the loose pebbles that surrounded us, upon which not even the unshod foot of a native could fall without so much of accompanying noise as would serve to put the watch with his ear to the ground upon the qui vive: this was proved to be the case during the night, when we distinctly heard the footsteps of the prowling savages. We had no squall, and except this interruption, the howling of native dogs, and the shrill peculiar whistle of a flock of vampires constantly flying backwards and forwards over our heads, we slept in peace in our comfortable little retreat.
Our last regretful view of this part of the Victoria—for every member of our little band seemed to feel an equal interest in the subject—was taken from a position in lat. 15° 36' and long. 130° 52' E.; 140 miles distant from the sea: but still 500 miles from the centre of Australia. Its apparent direction continued most invitingly from the southward—the very line to the heart of this vast land, whose unknown interior has afforded so much scope for ingenious speculation, and which at one time I had hoped, that it was reserved for us to do yet more in reducing to certainty. And though from the point upon which I stood to pay it my last lingering farewell, the nearest reach of water was itself invisible, yet far, far away I could perceive the green and glistening valleys through which it wandered, or rather amid which it slept; and the refreshing verdure of which assured me, just as convincingly as actual observation could have done, of the constant presence of a large body of water; and left an indelible impression upon my mind, which subsequent consideration has only served to deepen, that the Victoria will afford a certain pathway far into the centre of that country, of which it is one of the largest known rivers.
When I had at length most reluctantly made up my mind that all further progress along the banks of the Victoria must be abandoned, I left the spot of our temporary encampment, and proceeded alone a short distance in the direction of the interior; as though partly to atone, by that single and solitary walk towards the object of my eager speculation, for the grievous disappointment I experienced at being compelled to return. It was something, even by this short distance, to precede my companions in the exciting work of discovery—to tread alone the solitary glades upon which, till now, no native of the civilized W. had set his foot—and to muse in solemn and unbroken silence upon the ultimate results of the work to which the last few days had been devoted—to mark the gradual but certain progression of civilization and christianity—and to breathe forth, unwitnessed and uninterrupted, the scarce coherent words of thankful adoration for the providential care which had hitherto sustained and directed us.
November 12.—I found our invalid so much recovered to-day, that I determined on making a short march homewards in the cool of the early morning. We reached Tortoise Reach by 8 o'clock a.m. where we passed the day. During our morning's walk I again had the luck to knock over a kangaroo. It was a female, and had a very young one in its pouch. It is worthy of remark that most of those I killed were does, with young ones of different ages, which afforded Mr. Bynoe the means of making some interesting observations on the manner in which they are brought forth, which will be found further on in the part of the work relating to Houtman's Abrolhos, where more opportunities occurred of arriving at a satisfactory result. Mr. Bynoe added here to his collection of birds, to which also, I was so fortunate as to be able to contribute a beautiful specimen of a rifle-green glossy ibis, common in Europe. I tried the water with a very roughly manufactured fly: the fish rose repeatedly at it, though there was scarcely a ripple, and notwithstanding my own want of success under these unpropitious circumstances, I feel perfectly satisfied that with proper tackle, and on a favourable day, this prince of sports might be enjoyed on the Victoria.
I availed myself of the opportunity of our halt at this place to wash my only suit, piece by piece, and afterwards made a sketch of the north-eastern part of Wickham Heights from the dry flat in the reach. The woodcut annexed will convey at once to the reader, those singular features in the hills—the low line of cliffs resembling fortifications near their summit, and, still more remarkable, the horizontal black streaks near their base.
We here found the back-shell of one of the largest of the water-tortoises, from which the reach was named. It measured ten inches, was very narrow at the fore part, where the continuous line of the margin was broken by an arch where the head protrudes, and was much expanded posteriorly. It resembled greatly the Chelidona oblonga, inhabiting Western Australia, with the exception of the arch and its more oval shape; and as in that kind, the last vertebral plate was divided by a suture. A shell of a Victoria River tortoise has been deposited in the British Museum. We here noticed many varieties of turbinated shells, and among them a small buccinum; beside mussels. At a native fireplace I saw heaps of the latter, as well as the bones of young alligators; portions of the jaws with teeth were picked up.
The temperature during the day ranged from 90 to 105° in the shade. A light breeze from north-west in the evening succeeded a long calm. Before sunset I got a peep at the eastern side of a valley, before noticed, in the direction of our route back, and felt convinced that by crossing it we should avoid Thirsty Flat, and shorten the route to the boats.
November 13.—Our walk this morning fully realized all my expectations of the preceding evening, for by 8 o'clock a.m. we reached the dining place of the second day. To record the satisfaction we felt in escaping a second journey over Thirsty Flat, by following the valley we had seen yesterday evening, we named it Lucky Valley. After a brief halt, we pushed on, and by eleven, were at our old quarters in Mussel Bend. We heard the voices of natives in all directions, far and near, and as I found the party still astonishingly fresh, and eager to proceed, I thought it best to keep going. We therefore continued our journey, and just before dark reached the spot where we had dined the first day. Here, however, the cheerful excitement of our pleasant and shady walk through Lucky Valley having gone off, the men felt the effects of their long day's march, and were all more or less knocked up.
Near the river, as we were approaching our intended bivouac, we came upon a native walking leisurely across the plain, and so intently occupied in poising and straightening his spear, and fixing it in the throwing stick, that he allowed me, being in advance of the rest, to get within sixty yards of him: I then loudly hailed him. He cast one look of utter and indescribable astonishment at the strange being who thus interrupted his pathway over his native soil, and was off at the top of his speed. Little anticipating that I should soon have to test in earnest the fleetness of these people, I tried rates with him for a short distance, and remarked, with surprise, that he had not that superiority of speed which might have been expected. Perhaps fright deprived him of his full powers, for what must have been his sensations on finding himself almost cut off by a party of beings whose very existence was till then unknown to him? I have since half regretted that I did not see how much nearer I could have approached without discovery, but at the time I did not wish to frighten him too far. To have got so near as I did will seem almost incredible to those who recollect the wary character, and the peculiarly restless and vigilant eye of the savage: some strong emotion of love or hate had for the time perhaps rendered him quite unconscious of all surrounding objects!
We came on the river over a steep bank covered with high reeds, and as a party of natives were distinctly audible below, myself, Mr. Forsyth, and Mr. Bynoe led the way. The natives crossed immediately, and were visible for a few moments through the foliage on the other side: however, they appeared but to wait in order to verify the astonishing report just brought in by their breathless countryman; for as the foremost of our party emerged from the tall reeds, our opposite neighbours slowly drew off, and were soon hid in the dense obscurity their position afforded. They had evidently examined our old fireplace very minutely, but the precaution taken to preserve the meat canister had luckily been successful.
I selected the quarters for the night not without some anxiety, for the natives were evidently in force in our immediate neighbourhood, and their shrill cries kept us all awake, though the day's march had been an arduous one. We had made good upwards of twenty miles: the ground, except in Lucky Valley, was of a most trying character: the thermometer at noon 102°, and with nearly 150 pounds weight among seven of us, for the sick hand was of course relieved as far as possible. I got the requisite observation for lat. during the night; and since necessity is ever the mother of invention, read off my sextant by a torch made for the occasion from pieces of paperbark. It will easily be believed, that I did not needlessly prolong the work; for the light of the torch rendered me a prominent mark for any prowling savage to hurl his spear at: however, His Eye, to whom the darkness and the light are both alike, watched over our safety, and we spent the night in security if not in silence.
November 14.—The morning broke, and we found ourselves apparently alone in the solitudes of the forest: no sound or sign indicated the presence of its more rightful proprietors. Did the savage so soon prepare to yield to the advancing movement of that hitherto fatal civilization before which his name, his race, nay, all traces of his rude existence may ere long pass into oblivion? or did the gathering of the night, and the apparent peaceful aspect of the morn, denote that one gallant struggle would be made ere a strange shout of triumph woke the silent echoes with the glorious name with which we had dignified our new discovery, and which throughout the world sounds as the appropriate title of the fair sovereign of its mightiest people?
A rapid walk brought us to our old bivouac by ten o'clock, without anything of particular interest having occurred upon the route. We found only one boat at Reach Hopeless, Captain Wickham having gone down the river with the others in order to hasten the watering party. In another chapter will be found some more detailed remarks upon the peculiar and distinctive character of the Victoria; they will not be uninteresting to the reader who feels any of that curiosity which is in part an incitement to the discoverer.
We learnt from the party at the boat that a large body of the natives had been down watching their movements, and apparently intending if possible to surprise them. Though they had approached very near, they would not have been seen but for a shooting party, which got a view of them from an overlooking height, crawling along the ground with evident caution. They were probably the same party we had encountered higher up, and had traced our trail backwards, in order to see whence, and in what force we had entered their territory. Little did they imagine, as they gazed upon our small party and its solitary boat, that they had seen the harbingers of an approaching revolution in the fortunes of their country!