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Tracks of McKinlay and party across Australia/Recent Australian exploratory expeditions

< Tracks of McKinlay and party across Australia

TRACKS OF McKINLAY AND PARTY ACROSS AUSTRALIA.

INTRODUCTORY VIEW

OF THE

MORE RECENT AUSTRALIAN EXPLORATORY EXPEDITIONS AND THEIR RESULTS.


The present work records one of several successful expeditions that have lately resolved for us the long standing problem of Central Australia. "Who shall cross this great 'Terra Australis' from sea to sea?" was a question so long before our eyes, and so long unanswered, that we did not expect so overwhelming a response as the last three years have given. And yet, within that brief interval, this previously unattainable result has been accomplished no less than six times over, if we regard Stuart's first two journeys as a virtual crossing of the country; a distinction we can hardly withhold from them, although neither of them quite crosses Australia, as was the case with the third. So much for a bold pioneering, and the confidence that arises from some little experience of the way. So far these preliminaries may serve to show how imaginary are many difficulties, even those of a long standing, and how often the "will makes the way." Who, for instance, that read in times gone by of Commodore Anson's disastrous experience in rounding Cape Horn, would ever have anticipated a time like our own when "the Horn," with its awful region of eternal storm would be as familiar to every ordinary merchantman as the seas of Europe? And now it seems quite likely that in a few more years the once mysterious interior of Australia will be but a great public highway for the commerce and enterprise of the colonists.

We propose here to glance at the results of these later exploring expeditions. They throw much new light on the character of Inner Australia. Having, in this attempt, sketched out briefly the route and main incidents of each expedition across the country, we shall sum up the varied information given by the explorers, and thus endeavour to arrive at a conclusion as to what that vast interior, hitherto so little known, really consists of, and what to our practical colony-making people it is really worth. The question involves no less than a million of square miles of the earth's surface, and if we add to the account the northern coasts, which although not so known are also still uncolonized, we must increase this area by at least one-half as much more. The latter territory comprises the tropical region, which, with its comparative regularity of climate and generally better soil, is no doubt to prove much the most productive and valuable of the two. The other, with its more precarious features, is, however, on the whole more tolerable to the European constitution. Truly we have for our subject a magnificent domain, well worthy of many such exploratory efforts, and of all endeavours to ascertain with increasing accuracy what are its physical and climatic features, and to what varied purposes it may be applied!

The honour of being the first to accomplish the journey across Australia from sea to sea is due to Burke and Wills, the leaders of an expedition fitted out in the year 1860 by the colony of Victoria. The reading public have just been occupied with their sad fate. The most fortunate of explorers in accomplishing their object, they were surely the most unlucky of men in the way in which the personal fruits of their victory were snatched from them; for, by a series of contre-temps, grievous and almost incredible, they lay down to die of fatigue, exposure, and starvation, when they had well-nigh returned home, and were almost within hail of the friends and supplies that would have ensured safety.

This unfortunate issue however, was fruitful in results to the cause of Australian discovery. After an interval sufficiently long to arouse alarm as to the fate of the explorers, the Victoria Government despatched its armed steamer "Victoria" to the Head of the Carpentarian Gulf with suitable supplies, and organized two further expeditions, in the hope that Burke and Wills might be assisted, or at least that their fate might be ascertained. One of these parties, under Walker, proceeded from Rockhampton in Queensland to the Head of the Gulf of Carpentaria; the other, under Landsborough, landed in the Gulf itself, and beginning from the north, made a successful and very important journey southwards across Australia. The South Australian Government came also to the rescue, and equipped McKinlay and his party, whose journey across Australia northwards, equally successful and not less important, is the subject now before us. Indefatigable in his own exertions, and successful in the order and discipline of his party, Mr. McKinlay seems to have been eminently suitable for the mission entrusted to him.


STUART'S EXPEDITIONS, 1858—1862.

While McKinlay was proceeding north, in a direction suited to the special object of his expedition, the Government of South Australia had
Tracks of McKinlay and Party Across Australia 0024, John McDougal Stuart.jpg

JOHN McDOUALL STUART.

also despatched another exploring party, which, in an independent track of their own, proceeded in parallel steps somewhat to the west of McKinlay. This was the expedition under Stuart, and the third which that veteran explorer had led across Australia. Stuart took the path that he himself had discovered, and that, after so many crossings and recrossings, he may be said to have already beaten to his own use.

Stuart's expeditions mark an era in Australian discovery. All that activity of the last two or three years to which we have alluded, and which has made us now almost as familiar with central as with sea-coast Australia, is really due to him and to the success and importance of his earlier journeys. Commencing in the year 1858 by making a comparatively short expedition to the north-west of the colony, he made known, for the first time, that a very extensive country suitable for colonization existed in that direction, diversified with numerous lakes and running creeks, and comprising millions of acres of land available and ready for pastoral occupation. These unexpected results supplied a timely counterbalance to accounts of a very different tendency received from Gregory, who, in the very same year, had descended upon the colony from its opposite or north-east corner, in following the course of the Victoria or Barcoo into the Cooper. This considerable length of river system, whose head waters—discovered and traced by Mitchell twelve years before far into the northern interior—were sanguinely conjectured to be the Victoria of North-west Australia, were now traced southwards, emerging through Strzelecki Creek and Lake Torrens into the sea at Spencer Gulf. Here was a pretentious river system truly, if estimated by the length of its course, and the capacity and depth of its rocky and rugged bed. But, like the mineral that had all the characters of coal excepting combustibility, the Barcoo wanted the one element of water, and the traveller experienced difficulty at times in finding in its spacious channel enough to sustain his party in existence.

Stuart's first success emboldened him to deeds of higher daring. In the year 1860, assisted mainly by private friends, he set forth to make the traverse of Australia. This was an exploit requiring at that time rare nerve and courage. Fifteen years had elapsed since Sturt, the experienced and indefatigable Australian traveller, had been baffled in the same attempt, Stuart himself having been one of his party. The sterile desert which Sturt then described as hopelessly interrupting his progress—an arid, burning, lifeless waste, from which he with difficulty extricated himself, and which has since borne his name—had given a very problematical aspect to the great Australian journey. Then, again, Gregory's expedition, in the year 1856, to explore the river Victoria of North Australia, had been brought to an end by apparently another portion of the same desert, equally dried up, and equally destitute of life. The fate of the gallant Leichhardt, too, some years before Gregory, seemed a climax of discouragement to Stuart's project. After his successful and highly important journey, in 1844-5, through the north-eastern districts of Australia to Port Essington, Leichhardt entered upon the bold project of an expedition across Australia, east and west, from the present colony of Queensland to that of West Australia. With characteristic ardour and resolution, he plunged with his party into the trackless bush, but he never emerged from its then unexplored and unknown expanse.

Stuart, then, in the year 1860, resumed this forlorn hope. He passed the centre in a line about five degrees to the westward of Sturt. He encountered no great desert, but on the contrary much good country, watered by many springs, ponds, and running streams. Well grassed plains and forest lands were intermingled with tracts of poor and sterile soil. On the whole, his entire route presented a fair average of the Australian soil as already known in the settled parts and their explored vicinities. Stuart had made for the dynamic centre, if we may so speak, of Australia, and he had the good fortune both to step through the mystical region and to find in its immediate vicinity a hill of destinctive appearance, to bear the name of Central Mount Stuart. This was in south latitude about 22°. Proceeding successfully northwards, he made latitude 18° 40', when his further progress was stopped by the numbers and threatening aspect of the aboriginal natives, with whom his very small party, consisting only of two persons besides himself, was quite inadequate to cope. His position was provokingly tantalizing. He had made a point about equidistant between that which Gregory had reached southwards from the Victoria River on his left, and the head of the Gulf of Carpentaria on his right. In point of latitude he had surpassed Gregory's position above a hundred miles, and was short of the Gulf by about seventy, while he was about two hundred and fifty miles from the nearest part of its shores. There was now no resource but that of returning by the way he had come, that he might the sooner organize a more suitable force for another expedition.

The second expedition was undertaken in the following year, and after reaching successfully the position of the previous journey, and about one hundred miles in advance, Stuart was once more foiled. This time it was an impenetrable scrub and forest that barred his way. Failing supplies of food compelled his return a second time, but, nothing daunted, the year 1862 sees him for the third time traversing what had become to him a familiar road. The impenetrable scrub once more opposes. It is tried here and tried there, and long in vain for a practicable passage. This search embraces a detour of sixty miles to the westward in hopes of a more open country in that direction, by which he might accomplish one great object of his journeys, namely, a practicable passage from South Australia to the river Victoria, of the north-west. In this particular object he was defeated, but he did at length find a passage northwards through the forest barrier, and continued his march in that direction. He had in this last stage entered upon the finest and most interesting country of the journey. Amidst plains covered with luxuriant grass, which sometimes rose above the heads of the party, amidst picturesque diversities of hill and dale, woodland and river scene, where a profuse tropical vegetation showed generally the rich character of the soil, Stuart pursued his way until he emerged upon the Indian Sea.

He did actually emerge upon the northern ocean, and in having thus seen its waters and trodden its shore, he was more fortunate than his competitors. They had only witnessed its tides near the mouth of one of the northern rivers, and tasted its salt waters. The low, swampy surface at the head of the Carpentarian Gulf had, unfortunately, denied the longed-for and final triumph to the other weary travellers from the south. Landsborough, by taking his start from Carpentaria itself, had certainly defeated this difficulty, but the parties both of Burke and McKinlay were unable to advance further than within some four or five miles of the coast. Their further course was arrested by boggy ground and deep mangrove creeks, impassable to the travellers, with the few means at their command. The sea was not visible when they were compelled to turn from it, but its near vicinity was amply indicated by the tidal rush of sea-water, and by a rise and fall of from ten to eleven feet.

Indeed, to say the truth, neither this muddy shore nor yet that of the Van Diemen's Gulf trodden by Stuart, at all satisfy the demands of poetry or imagination, when these fanciful impersonations will roam over the sparkling waters and pebbly beaches of an Indian clime, or through far-off scenes which arouse hope and expectation in proportion to the difficulty of reaching them. Stuart seems to have paced along a very ordinary sea-beach. Swamp and bog combined their obstacles to arrest him also, and decided him not to waste the remaining strength of his party in an effort to proceed coastwise westerly to the mouth of the important river Adelaide, although distant only about fifty miles beyond his furthest seacoast progress. Here he halted, reared the flag of his country, and drank to the health of his sovereign. And yet, even minus the poetry, we must envy Stuart the luxury of his rare triumph.

Let us recall his account of the day on which the party reached the sea. Preserving his reckoning, Stuart was aware that the coast must at last be close at hand, but with the view of giving his party a pleasant surprise, he had withheld the information from nearly all. Already his attentive ears had detected the low boom of the still ocean in front. But the sounds are lost upon his unwitting comrades, and little do they anticipate what is to greet their eyes when they have stepped through that coast fringe of scrub that now confronts them. The narrow belt is soon passed, and to their surprise and delight, the great Indian Ocean, the object of their constant thought for months previous, is expanded before them![1]

Stuart's third expedition acquires additional importance, from his having been accompanied by a naturalist, Mr. Waterhouse, whose observations upon the various regions passed through give us a very clear idea of Australia along its central line. Unfortunately the expedition was disappointed of its thermometers, so that we have no thermometric data of the peculiar and precarious climate. Probably so delicate an instrument could not have long survived the rough horseback travelling, the expedition having had no vehicles. From this cause a number of the collected specimens—shells and novel small fish—could not be preserved. Mr. Waterhouse divides the country passed through into three great regions, which differ in soil and other features as well as in latitude and climate. The first extends from the outside settlements of the north-west to between 27° and 28° of south latitude, and is a country watered by springs and available for pastoral use, although subject to great heat and drought in summer, and in many parts sandy and with but little vegetation. The second division comprises Central. Australia, extending for 700 miles to the southern part of Newcastle Water. The soil here changes, generally, for the worse; it is "somewhat sandy, and occasionally sandy and loamy," and the water supply seems more precarious. The third division extends from Newcastle Water to the sea at Van Diemen's Gulf, and is of a most superior character. It is generally well watered and grassed, having valleys of rich black alluvial soil, and a beautiful and luxuriant vegetation on the banks of the rivers.

The first region extends from Gooloo Springs to about 27° 18' of latitude, and may be distinguished as the country of springs and "saltbush." As cattle can live upon the salt-bush, this country is thus suitable for pastoral pursuits, and is being occupied by squatters. The springs by which it is characterized are very remarkable features, as they are found issuing forth from the surface of plains, or from the very top of little conical hills, which are evidently volcanic, and through which the water seems to find its way upwards by the direction once taken by the lava.[2] These waters, however, are mostly impregnated with certain gases which give them an unpleasant flavour, usually that of a hard-boiled stale egg, but by pouring the water several times from one vessel to another the gases pass off, and the water is improved. The settlers have opened some of these springs, and on one occasion they dug up some huge fossil bones of an animal, which proved, by reference to Professor Owen, to be the Diprotodon Australis, an extinct quadruped of the huge pachydermatous order, but also of marsupial character, whose remains had already been found in New South Wales. In many places of this country even salt-bush is so scanty that the plains can maintain but few live stock, and the heat in summer on these plains is so intense, and the air so arid, that thirst is almost insatiable. Such areas, Mr. Waterhouse says, may well be regarded as the source of the well-known hot winds.

The second region extends from lat. 27° 18', a little north of Hanson's Gap, to Newcastle Water, in latitude 17° 36'. The vegetation that characterizes this vast area is chiefly a coarse grass of a pungent flavour, having very sharp prickly-pointed leaves, and therefore called by the settlers the porcupine grass. There are several species of this grass, It is the spinifex of Stuart's journal, the Triodia pungens of Gregory. The cattle will eat its tall thin seed stalks. It grows usually in the scrubs, and is always the indicator of a poor soil. Good grass is to be found only in the hollows of creeks, and rarely beyond these limited spaces do we find the few gum trees of this country. These trees, reared in precarious climes, are seldom large, or straight or well grown in the stem. The country is characterized by some hill ranges, the chief of which, however, are not more than from 3,500 to 2,000 feet above the plains. The culminating height is Mount Hay, in south latitude 24°, but the country had the appearance of gradually rising towards this point for several hundred miles southwards. Chambers' Pillar, in this part of the country, is a remarkable natural object, resembling a monument, with perpendicular sides, 105 feet in height, and surmounting a small hill, the whole elevation being about 250 feet. There were others near it similar but of less striking appearance, and on examination they proved to be eminences composed of soft argillaceous rock, capped by a thin silicious stratum. The sides were shelving away causing the flinty top gradually to break off, and thus to cover the surface of the country around with small flint stones.

The supply of water seemed to be precarious in both of these regions, but especially in the second. The season of 1861-2, that in which the expedition started, had evidently enjoyed a better rain fall than the following season, when the party returned. All along the route, as far into the tropics as even Newcastle Water, the ponds, creeks, and rivers were found greatly reduced in their contents on the party's return, as compared with the supply they presented on the outward journey, and this, too, notwithstanding that the summer was less advanced when the expedition re-passed homewards. Even the Bonney, in latitude 20° 24', a fine running river as seen in March, was by September following dried up into a few long shallow water holes. The Hamilton, with its long deep ponds, was all but dried up on the return, with many dead fish floating on the diminished surface, while the water of the Lindsay stood six feet lower in level. There was no water in the bed of the Upper Neales, and as the tracks of the previous year's expedition were still visible, there would seem to have been no rain in that part since that expedition passed. Most of the water courses, in fact, had the appearance of not having had water in them for many years. All these indications tend to show that there are no general rains or settled rainy season, and the great defect of these vast areas of the interior seems to be that the evaporative power is greater than the supply of moisture.

The third region extends from the north end of Newcastle Water, in latitude 17° 16', to the sea at Van Diemen's Gulf, in latitude 12° 12'. "This country," says Waterhouse, "comprises (1) an extensive portion of Stuart Plains, the soil of which is of a fine lacustrine deposit, and is well grassed (the timber on these plains is generally of a very stunted species of swamp gum); (2) the Roper River and some of its tributaries—the valleys of which are of a fine rich black alluvial soil, well timbered and grassed, and with a tropical flora growing on the banks of the river of a most beautiful appearance and luxuriant growth; (3) from thence to the Adelaide River and the sea coast, comprising a considerable extent of well wooded and watered country, with a very varied vegetation."

Stuart states that in this fine country fires were very frequent around the party; the long, close, dry grass burning with great fury. The natives must be numerous in this country, judging from the frequent smoke of their fires, although few of them presented themselves to view. The constant firing of the grass by these natives, a custom also observed by McKinlay, in Northern Australia, seems to have had, for one object at least, to frighten and repel the white intruders from the country. Many of the beds of the creeks were dry, and there was a continuous absence of rain, indicating in a country still so full of vegetation, that the time of the party's visit, June to August, was the dry season of the tropical climate. The weather was exceedingly hot in the day time, as much so as if in the middle of summer, but the nights were cool. On 25th June the party came upon the Roper, a copious and beautiful river, and so deep as to cause much trouble and delay in finding a crossing place. On 10th July they struck the Adelaide, after enjoying, from a rocky and precipitous platform, a magnificent prospect of the luxuriantly wooded and grassed vale through which it flows. But these pleasures of the day were marred by the torment of mosquitoes at night. On the 24th July they reached the sea, as has been already related.

These exploits of Stuart exceed, alike for their extent of travel and adventure as for the importance of their results, those of all preceding Australian explorers. Of the very considerable legion that now claims to have aided the cause of Australian discovery, Stuart is indisputably the prominent figure. He has disencumbered the vast interior of Australia of its repelling awe and mystery; and he has shown that it is not only readily accessible to the colonists, but to a large extent available for immediate colonization. And towards facilitating this colonization, he has shown how little of all those costly paraphernalia of vehicles, baggage, and retinue that were deemed unavoidable for previous government expeditions, is really necessary to a good Australian bushman. If the "through route" of central Australia is some day to be Bradshawed after its own fashion, and to be accounted as the easily accomplished business or pastime of a well-mounted party of hardy colonists; we must never forget how difficult, nay, even impossible, the feat was long held to be, until Stuart's pioneering journeys practically demonstrated its facilities.


BURKE AND WILLS, 1860-61.

Stuart had aroused a general attention towards Australian discovery. While upon his first great expedition in 1860, a movement was made in the adjacent colony of Victoria with the view of fitting out another with the same object as that of Stuart. A private colonist, who concealed his name for some time, but who proved to be Mr. Ambrose Kite, of Melbourne, offered £1000 towards this object. Others of the public, and subsequently the Government, assisted, and a large and well-provided expedition was the result. Amongst other adjuncts of the party were a number of camels, which the Victoria Government had shortly before
Tracks of McKinlay and Party Across Australia 0042, R. O'Hara Burke.jpg

R. O'HARA BURKE.

imported from India, and which were thus promptly to be put upon trial as to their merits for Australian purposes. They have well stood this trial, both in this expedition and in the subsequent journey of McKinlay, in which they also formed a part of the stock. They are therefore already a feature associated with Australian travel. They are, at all events, indelibly so associated in the minds of the aboriginal natives, who everywhere beheld them with alarm and astonishment in their unexpected irruption into the solitudes of the interior.

The command of the expedition was given to Burke. It had swelled out into large dimensions, and formed quite a public spectacle as its numerous and varied components poured forth from Melbourne upon the long journey. But delays had occurred, and the season was advanced beyond the most favourable time for action. Leaving Melbourne on the 20th August, 1860, it was the middle of December, that is to say, almost the middle of summer, ere Burke found himself on the foreground at Cooper's Creek ready to start for Carpentaria. Difficulties had already arisen; the company was too large and too much encumbered. Burke had early pushed on with a section of it, leaving the remainder to follow. At Cooper's Creek he still further reduced this party, taking only Wills, his second in command, and two others with him, and leaving the rest to await his return from the north. Taking with them six camels, one horse, and twelve weeks' provisions, the little party sallied forth on the 16th December. They took a direction mainly north, and nearly on the 140th degree of east longitude, arriving at the mouth of the Flinders River on 11th February, 1861, without, however, being able to get a glimpse of the sea.

After a wearisome march, in the later stages of which one of the party sank through fatigue and want of sustenance, they made the Cooper's Creek depôt again on the evening of the 21st April, in the joyful anticipation of finding at last all their troubles at an end. The camp, however, was deserted, and although they looked yet again for some indications that the absence must surely be but temporary, they looked in vain for any such symptom. An adjacent tree was marked "Dig," and on digging at the foot they found a small supply of provisions, and with them a note to the effect that the party in waiting had left for the River Darling, homewards. The note was dated the 21st April, at noon; the same day on which it was read by Burke, and only seven hours previously!

What was to be done? Attempt in their worn-out state to follow this fresh party for 400 miles to the Darling! There was a difference of opinion on this point, but Burke's view was that they should make for the nearest pastoral station of South Australia, which he had understood was at Mount Hopeless, about 150 miles to the southward, and accordingly they started in this direction the next day. Mindful of exploratory discipline, they place a note in the cache at the foot of the tree, stating their arrival, and their proposed route, and their inability, in their exhausted state, to make more than four or five miles a day. They also take the provisions left for them, but they do not deem it necessary to leave any external indications of their visit. Slowly they toil along in the new direction. Two of the six camels had survived hitherto, but they also sink early in these renewed labours. Their flesh is carefully preserved as a last addition to the scanty stock, but no water can be met with on the new route after they have turned off southward from the main bed of the Cooper. They struggled forward in vain hope, but were at last compelled to return. They believed they had made only about forty-five miles, but they were in reality much further on. " They decided to return at a point where, though they knew it not, scarce fifty miles remained to be accomplished, and just as Mount Hopeless would have appeared above the horizon, had they continued their route for even another day."[3]

There is yet the climax of mishap. Brahe and the Cooper's Creek party, after eight days' march, met Wright with the rest of the expedition, coming on at last from the Darling. The two leaders agree to return to Cooper's Creek, as a last chance for the missing travellers, and they arrive there on the 8th May, but, unable to detect any change in appearances at the depot, after remaining a few minutes, they return to Melbourne.

With still a very small remnant of provisions, including a little dried camel's flesh, Burke and his party had yet a faint hope of saving themselves, and they even contemplated a second attempt towards Mount Hopeless. They eked out their stores of food by a seed called "nardoo," which, following the natives' example, they ground with a stone and baked. But even this operation required more strength than they had left, and the only resource appeared to be to find a camp of natives, who are in considerable numbers on the Cooper, and to trust to their precarious hospitalities until assistance might arrive from the colony.

Getting feebler and feebler in this final march, Wills first lies down to die, requesting the others to go on. This was on the 28th June. Burke was similarly exhausted the second day after, and died the following morning. Four days after leaving Wills, King, now the sole survivor, returned to ascertain his fate. He had been left in a native "gunyah," with a small supply of nardoo, but poor Wills, too, had expired.

King succeeded in reaching the natives, by whom he was kindly received and cared for during two months and a half, until rescued on the 15th September, by the party under Mr. Alfred Howitt, despatched in search of the missing expedition by the Victoria government. King's narrative is favourable to the natives, who gave him regularly food and shelter, and even showed him acts of kindness. At first, indeed, they seemed to get soon tired of him, and made signs for him to be off. But King was not disposed to take these hints, and when they themselves decamped, with the view of being rid of him, he followed them.

At last they looked on him as one of themselves, sharing with him their fish and nardoo, while he on his part would amuse and gratify them by shooting crows occasionally, cooking the birds, and sharing the repast. Their kindly disposition was shown when King having, at their request, conducted them to the spot where Burke's body lay, they all shed tears, and covered the body over with bushes. He made them understand that the white people would come for him shortly, and would give them tomahawks and other good things. They were impatient for these promised presents, and when Howitt and his party approached they informed King, and went themselves readily to meet the party.

The records of this important journey are scanty and imperfect, but sufficient to guide us as to the character of central Australia, in the particular direction that was taken. Burke passed through some good and grassy country north of the Cooper, and before entering "the Desert." From the Desert to the tropic was generally stony and poor, but from the tropic to the Gulf there was a large proportion of richly grassed and well watered land, interspersed with hill ranges. In the dry central region, the party noticed in repeated instances that there were marks of flooding along the banks of creeks, and over parts of the country they passed through, although at the time of their visit everything was burnt up. Their experiences of the Desert were of a less inhospitable kind than those of Sturt. A week after leaving the Cooper they are within its limits, and they thus describe it:—

"Sunday, Dec. 23rd.—At 5 a.m. we struck out across the Desert in a west-north-west direction… We found the ground not nearly so bad for travelling on as that between Balloo and Cooper's Creek; in fact I do not know whether it arose from our exaggerated anticipation of horrors or not, but we thought it for from bad travelling ground, and as to

Tracks of McKinlay and Party Across Australia 0050, William John Wills.jpg

WILLIAM JOHN WILLS.

pasture, it is only the actual stony ground that is bare, and many a sheep run is in fact worse grazing than that."[4]

This view agrees with that of Howitt, who went into the "Stony Desert" from Cooper's Creek, in July, 1862. He describes the sand and stones as diversified with remains of grass, and with many pools of rain water. He says that on the whole, "the celebrated Desert" is very little different from large tracts in the colony of South Australia known as the "Far North," and "North West."


LANDSBOROUGH, 1861-2.

Landsborough's expedition was despatched in the year 1861, by the Government of Victoria, with the view of affording aid to the missing party of Burke and Wills. He was to proceed from the Gulf of Carpentaria southwards, while another expedition under Walker, was appointed to go overland from Rockhampton in Queensland, to the Gulf. A small brig of 200 tons, the "Firefly," was sent round from Melbourne to Queensland with supplies for the two expeditions of Landsborough and Walker, and after embarking a number of horses at Brisbane, sailed with Landsborough and his party for the Gulf. At Hardy's Islands the little brig was driven upon the rocks, adding one to the many previous casualties of the ill-reputed Torres Straits. The timely arrival of the "Victoria," however, enabled the "Firefly" to get afloat again, and she was taken round to the Albert. Ascending that river twenty miles to a convenient landing-place, a depôt was formed, and the horses, by this time reduced to twenty-five by the loss of some of their number in the late mishap, were safely unshipped, and the expedition was begun on the 17th October.

Landsborough's instructions had been that ho should proceed in a south-westerly direction towards Stuart's Central Mount, and accordingly he makes a start upon that course, following up the Albert to its head. Thence diverging a little more to the westward, passing through a very dry country, and over a number of creeks, most of them waterless, as it was far on in the dry season, he is at last arrested by a total failure of water. Leaving this country, which he named Barkly's Tableland, and turning more towards the south along the river named the Herbert, he is compelled by the threatening indications of the natives, to return with his small party to the depot. His company consisted but of two colonists besides himself and two aborigines. He had succeeded in attaining to about 210 miles from the coast, and had passed through what was, on the whole, a most promising country, well deserving the name of one of its districts, the "Plains of Promise." "The character of the country is," he says, "plains, with the best grasses on them." At Barkly's Tableland he seemed to have come upon the upper waters of a considerable river, or rather what would have been a river at the opposite season of the year, for at this time it was merely a chain of ponds. The ponds were full of fish. The channel took a south-westerly course. The Albert proved to be a fine running stream for 100 miles up to its source, where it gushed forth in a copious spring. About eighty miles from the sea a branch went off from the Albert to join the Nicholson. During the passage up and down the Albert, from October to January, or during the first half of summer, the temperature varied between 74° and 94°, and was usually about 80° in the daytime. The nights were agreeable, more especially as the travellers were not troubled by either mosquitoes or sandflies.

Commencing his return march on the 30th of December, Landsborough made the depôt on the 19th of January. Here he found that Walker had safely arrived from the east coast during his absence. He had made the depot on the 7th of December, bringing the interesting intelligence that he had come upon the tracks of Burke's party at the River Flinders. This information induced Landsborough to alter the course originally laid out for him, and on the 10th of February, 1862, he started on a course across Australia by way of the Flinders.

Reaching the Flinders on the 19th of February, he was disappointed in finding all tracks obliterated by the rains that had fallen since Walker's visit. This fine river, which was struck at about 100 miles from the sea, he followed further upwards in a south-easterly direction for 280 miles, where it still presented a bed 120 yards wide, with a shallow stream flowing over it. He estimated the Flinders to be 500 miles long, which makes it probably the most considerable of the rivers of Northern Australia. From this fine stream a short journey of twenty miles across a low dividing range, brought the party to the head waters of the Thompson, where they found that some colonists from the Queensland settlements had preceded them, in search of suitable pastoral stations. Following this river for the greater part of its course, they crossed from it eastwards to the upper part of the Cooper or Barcoo, and thence to the Warrego. Here a change in the features of the country takes place. While the north, under the influence of genial rains, has been covered with verdure, this more southerly district has been suffering from a rather long continued drought, and all the fine grass has disappeared. An effort is made to maintain a southerly course to Cooper's Creek, in order to reach the depôt established there by Burke; but this endeavour is unsuccessful, owing to the want of water, and in the vain attempt the horses undergo the severe ordeal of being seventy-two hours without drinking. Landsborough therefore makes for the settlements on the Darling, and on the 1st of June arrives at the station of the Messrs. Williams on that river, where he learns for the first time of the sad fate of the expedition under Burke. His own expedition is finished by his arrival in Melbourne in August following.

Landsborough's description of the country between the gulf and the Thomson presents to us a new world. This extensive area he describes as magnificent, consisting of basaltic plains of good soil, very thickly grassed. There is no mention of any alloy of desert so common further south and west, so that we infer that this fine country prevails over the large area between 20° and 25° of latitude. A practical confirmation of its qualities appears in the fact that a foal which had been born at the Flinders, had followed its mother with the expedition to the station on the Darling. One of the most conspicuous of the grasses had a resemblance to sorghum, and the horses fed upon it with great avidity. With rare exceptions water was always abundant, and the climate was healthy as far as the brief experience of the travellers could decide. The whole country, however, was exceedingly flat—the highest land along the Flinders being not more than from 1000 to 1500 feet in elevation, while the dividing range itself was not of greater height.

The rainy season of this promising country was found to begin in January, and end in April or the beginning of May; and as there had been considerable rainfall prior to the expedition's visit, everything looked to great, and, perhaps, more than usual, advantage. Leichhardt, who about seventeen years before, traversed all the country bordering on the Gulf of Carpentaria, gave a less favourable account, as he saw it during the dry season. He alludes to the creeks as being salt, and to the vast plains as imperfectly supplied with fresh water; remarking, however, at the same time, that the indications of a numerous aboriginal population would augur better for the country's qualities. The drought which Landsborough found prevailing at the Warrego and Darling rivers had extended eastwards into those parts of the settled territory of Queensland and New South Wales that were situated in the same latitudes.

Landsborough speaks rather more disparagingly than his fellow-travellers of the aborigines, regarding them as alike insatiably greedy and incurably treacherous. While the expedition was at the Herbert, about a hundred of them came swarming around the camp, all fully armed after their own style, and all apparently so bent on mischief that the leader deemed it imprudent, with his very small party, to persist in going farther. Fortunately there was a great awe inspired by the horses. Again, at the Barcoo, he was compelled to use fire-arms to repel the furtive attacks of the natives; and it would appear that about this place they had tried similarly to surprise Gregory several years before. Landsborough found that the best plan was to give them nothing, in which case they seldom troubled him with their presence. When presents were given them, the more they got the more they wanted. They did not seem to be numerous in the districts passed through.

The kangaroo were seen to be numerous near Carpentaria, and emus were chased on the banks of the Flinders, one of their number having been caught and dressed as food. As McKinlay's party observed a Platypus (Ornithorhyncus paradoxus) in the water of the Upper Burdekin, we have thus the remarkable fact that the three distinguishing types of Australian fauna range through the widely-separated latitudes of the country, from Carpentaria and its vicinity far into the tropics in the north, to the southern extreme of the colony of Victoria, extending to south latitude 39°. The typical vegetation, too, seems equally pervasive. Dr. F. Mueller of Melbourne, in giving, by way of appendix to Landsborough's account of his expedition, a list of the plants known to exist at the Gulf of Carpentaria, remarks upon the general similarity of these intra-tropical productions to those of the extra-tropical part of Australia. He says, "that a vast predominance of phyllodinous acaciæ, and especially of eucalypti (gum-trees) impress on the vegetation a character by no means dissimilar to that of the extra-tropical tracts of Australia; that plants indicating a high mountainous character of the country are absent; and that amongst grasses and other herbaceous plants, very many occur of nutritious property, and of perennial growth, readily renewed by judicious farming, when, after the rains of the summer months, a fresh pastoral green will be desired for the future herds and flocks of the gulf country during the cool and drier season of the year."

Mr. Landsborough's successful journey, more, perhaps, than that of any other before him, will stimulate pastoral colonization, already advancing with a wonderful progress from the southern settlements towards the north and west, into that vast and vacant expanse of a pastoral empire through which the explorer passed. The herbage and the climate are found suited to the sheep even in these low latitudes; nor is the Australian squatter much disturbed by the assertions of scientific theory that the close fine warm fleece cannot continue upon the sheep under a tropical sun. The Australian colonists have had many years' experience of wool-growing in latitudes close to the tropics; and latterly they have passed with their fine-woolled sheep several hundred miles within the tropical boundary. And yet they shear annually a fleece of the finest quality from the still healthy and thriving sheep.

Mr. Landsborough is not less impressed than his fellow-colonists that the pastoral empire of the future is to be projected yet much further into tropical Australia. Science, sitting at home, speaks in one way on this subject; experience, working upon the actual scene, speaks in another. The following passage-of-arms between these two opponents occurs at a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society, held in London on the 11th May last (1863), at which Mr. Landsborough was present, and it is quite a refreshing variety to the monotonous dignity of more ordinary procedure:—

"Mr. Landsborough stated that, from his experience of sheep-rearing, Queensland was eminently adapted for the growth of wool, and the climate suitable for European constitutions; the Plains of Promise (part of the fine country above spoken of) were as fine a pastoral country as he had seen.

"Mr. Crawford was of opinion that wool could not be grown in the tropics; sheep were intended for a temperate climate, and the fleece was given to protect them from the cold. In the tropics the fleece was not required.

"Mr. Landsborough.—'You are theorizing. Who, of all the human race, have the most wool on their heads—is it not the inhabitants of the tropics?' (Roars of laughter.)"

As to this difference of opinion, Australian experience has amply shown what can be done for a sheep and its fleece, within or without the tropics, by strict attention to breeding, regular shearing of the fleece, and careful shepherding. How a flock would fare in tropical Australia, if left for some time to its own shepherding, and if its breeding incidents were consigned to Mr. Darwin's general provision of "natural selection," is a question we have no data to answer. But in truth our data on Mr. Crawford's question are still less complete, for the region of Australia in which we have as yet experimented upon these pastoral problems is really not a tropical country in the climatic sense of the words. Far within the tropical boundary the country still retains the peculiarities of its extra-tropical features. Waterhouse, as we have seen, pushes the line of central non-tropical Australia northwards as far as 17° of latitude—that is, six and a half degrees within the tropical limit. Although in the parts of this immediate region near the sea, there seems a somewhat regular rainy season, as Gregory inferred at the River Victoria (North-west Australia), and as Landsborough observed towards the Gulf of Carpentaria, yet, on the whole, there is a general resemblance throughout in climate and physical features to the more southerly districts, a resemblance extending even to the irregular and rather scanty rain-fall. There is the dry atmosphere that results from this imperfect rain supply. There are heavy dews, with chill and even frosty nights, McKinlay, for instance, in descending the Burdekin, found ice on three different mornings, while the other nights or mornings were also mostly very cold. This was in July, mid-winter, no doubt, but in a latitude between 19° and 20°. Arnhem's Land, forming the west shore of the Carpentaria Gulf, and the Cape York peninsula, forming the opposite shore, have alone decidedly tropical features; and even in these comparatively restricted areas, it is not improbable that we may discern something of the "Australian feature" still imparting its peculiar expression to the tropical countenance.


McKINLAY—1861-2.

McKinlay left Adelaide on the 16th August, 1861. Proceeding in a direction due north, it was not until the 24th September that he had passed the furthest settlements of the colony, then extending in that direction to upwards of 400 miles from Adelaide. Some interest attaches to these remoter parts of the colony, as exhibiting extremes of flood and arid sterility. Twenty years before, Eyre had seen and described a kind of inland sea, shallow apparently, but of vast expanse, being twenty miles wide, and extending, in a horse-shoe or serpentine form, 400 miles into the interior. He named this watery expanse Lake Torrens, and Lake Torrens has ever since figured upon our maps with a vague and mysterious outline that has been gradually softening into those uncertain marks that may represent the traditionary and mythic. The sea in question was the sudden effect of heavy rains, such in fact as McKinlay's party encountered further on in the journey, and disappearing perhaps as suddenly as it came. On the present occasion there was nothing but a dry desert. "Got all safe across the Lake Torrens," says the explorer on 27th September, "no water being at our crossing nor in view." Indeed, the next fifty miles was the most veritable desert that was experienced on the journey.

Lake Hope succeeded, and the expedition entered a country remarkable for many such sheets of water, and for a soil clothed with luxuriant grass whenever the supplies of rain gave support to vegetable life, but at other times parched and waste with the excessive heat of summer. Here, at Lake Buchanan, the expedition halted for some time, until its leader had explored this lake district, and in particular had followed up the traces afforded to him by the reports of natives of the missing party under Burke. In the midst of his researches, he received intelligence that the fate of the party had been ascertained. He resolved, however, still to pursue the journey across Australia, a contingency for which the expedition had been fully fitted out.

Amongst the lakes and creeks of this country, the natives were found to be, comparatively speaking, exceedingly numerous; as many as from 200 to 300 would be found around some one of the lakes, and from 400 to 500 upon a creek, all being in good physical condition, and apparently amply supplied with food, chiefly the fish of these waters. There seemed to be large numbers to the eastward, upon the Cooper and in its neighbourhood, some of whom on one occasion, during McKinlay's search at Lake Massacre, were disposed to be hostile. In estimating numbers some allowance must be made for the fact that these natives were not stationary at the places where they were respectively seen. They doubtless wandered freely about over a certain range of country occupied by tribes mutually friendly, or connected with each other; so that bodies of natives successively met with may have consisted to some extent of those who had been previously seen. Thus at Lake Jeannie many "old friends" came about, whose acquaintance had been made at Lake Buchanan, fifty miles away. We must also bear in mind that Stuart in his preceding expedition in these latitudes could see no aborigines, a circumstance alluded to by Mr. McKinlay as most unaccountable. On the whole, however, these later Australian expeditions warn us that we must extend somewhat our estimates, vague as they previously were, of the Australian aboriginal population, and no longer imagine that an area equal to two-thirds of that of Europe, had contained, before the inroad of our colonization, no more than about 200,000 human beings.

Quitting the lake region, the party had to pass through Sturt' s Desert, lying north and west of their position. Explorers since Sturt have successively contracted the dimensions, and mitigated the bad repute of this region. While Eyre, in 1841, witnessed the effects of deluge, Sturt, four years afterwards, encountered the opposite extreme of drought; and again, in a region where the latter had nearly perished with thirst, McKinlay and his expedition were all but swept away by a flood. Had these, in their turn of incident, been floated safely down for 300 or 400 miles, they might have witnessed Lake Torrens once more, assuming its impromptu existence; only, however, to suffer an equally rapid disappearance under that extraordinary evaporative power of the Australian atmosphere alluded to by both Waterhouse and McKinlay. The flooded state of the country on the left compelled the party to make a considerable detour to the eastward or right of the intended direction, which they had afterwards to rectify as they proceeded northwards.

Emerging from this region of inundation in about 25° south latitude, an extensive country of high promise was passed through, consisting in a great degree of grassy plains, intersected by rivers, and bounded by hilly ranges. The abundance of water, indeed, suggests that this particular season may have been one of unusual moisture. The travellers were impeded by swamps, and while in the daytime the air was perfumed by the odour of innumerable flowers, in the night it was infested by still more numerous mosquitoes. Patches of scrub, too, were not unfrequent, and the ever-recurring spinifex grass indicated its accompanying poor soil. What appeared to be the dividing range of the country was passed about latitude 22°, a little further north than Stuart found it in his line of march, seven or eight degrees to the westward.

After passing the tropical line, and entering what is geographically tropical Australia, the aspect of the country does not greatly vary until quite near to the gulf. No country perhaps retains its similarity of feature throughout so great an area, and through so many degrees of latitude, as Australia. A change of country begins where the regular rains of a tropical season call forth a profuse vegetation, and create a more uniformly good soil than is found under the precarious climatic conditions of the rest of Australia. The River Leichhardt was struck on the 6th of May, in about 19° south latitude, and at a distance of a hundred miles from its mouth. The stream was at this point only from twenty to thirty yards wide, but about thirty miles from the gulf the bed was from 500 to 600 yards wide, and about half of this space was filled by the water. There was a large sand-spit at this place, a feature that indicated the tidal influence, and a tidal rise of four feet was observed. McKinlay proceeded northwards as far as the state of the country would allow, but was at length arrested by interposing deep and broad mangrove creeks, and boggy flats. At this point he judged the sea to be still from four to five miles distant, and observed a tidal rise and fall of from ten to eleven feet. This was on the 19th of May, and on the 21st the party commenced the return homeward, which the leader had already decided should be by way of Port Denison and the eastern colonies.

For nearly 150 miles eastwards the country preserves the general Australian character. Beyond that distance and nearly to the sea-coast it presents almost a continuous succession of hill ranges, forming a country most difficult for locomotion, and where the remaining bullocks, horses, and camels of the expedition rapidly sank under their increased toils. The fine River Burdekin was made on 5th July in about 19° south latitude and 145° east longitude; at which point it presented a fast running stream twenty yards wide, and knee-deep of water. Following its course, a party of natives are disturbed in the act of cooking food, which consisted of roasted roots and a kind of fruit. The deserted board was promptly cleared by our travellers, who, by this time reduced to horse and camel, found the native larder fully as attractive as their own.

The marks of dray-wheels and bullocks' feet—those sure indications of pastoral settlement, were repeatedly passed as the travellers descended the Burdekin; but, although cheered by the knowledge that they were once more amongst the habitations of their countrymen, they were never fortunate in coming upon any station, and they were unwilling to deviate from the direct course for any special search. It was only after leaving the river at the point where it makes its great sweep from a south-east to a north-east direction, that in their course for Port Denison they at length descried one of the pastoral homesteads. This station was about seventy miles from the port, and belonged to Messrs. Harvey and Somers, who received the party with the full measure of squatting hospitalities. The new seaport settlement of Bowen, upon Port Denison, is for the present the frontier township upon the advancing wave of colonization northwards. From this remote outport McKinlay and his party gradually made their way southwards through the three intervening colonies of Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria, with little other impediment than the repeated gratulations and fêtes awarded them by the colonists.

  1. On the interesting question of actually reaching and be holding the opposite sea, we deem it worth while to cull the following extracts bearing on the point from the journals of the expeditions of Burke and Wills, McKinlay, and Stuart. The subject is matter of history. Stuart's achievement is not merely his having stood upon the northern beach, viewing the sea at his feet, but his having reached the veritable outer ocean, while his competitors made for the head of the great inlet of Carpentaria.

    BURKE AND WILLS NEAR THE MOUTH OF THE FLINDERS.

    "At the conclusion of report, it would be well to say that we reached the sea, but we could not obtain a view of the open ocean, although we made every endeavour to do so."—Expedition by Jackson, p. 223—Burkes' notes.

    "Proceeding on our course across the marsh, we came to a channel through which the sea-water enters. … We moved slowly down about three miles, and then camped for tho night. … Next morning we started at daybreak."—Ibid, p. 91—Wills' Diary. The Diary has no further allusion to the sea.


    McKINLAY NEAR THE MOUTH OF THE LEICHHARDT.

    "Sunday, May 18th. (Camp lix.) Crossed, the sea running in through mangrove creeks into the flats like a sluice. … We are now perfectly surrounded by salt water, the river on one side and the mangrove creeks and salt flats on the other. I question much whether we shall be able to get to the beach with the horses. …

    "19th. Started out this morning, with the intention of going to the beach … but was quite unsuccessful, being hindered by deep and broad mangrove creeks and boggy flats, over which our horses could not travel. I consider we are now about four or five miles from the coast; there is a rise here in the river of ten and two- thirds feet to-day, but yesterday it was a foot higher."—Official Report, p. 40.

    "19th. Mr. McKinlay, Middleton, Poole, Wylde, and Kirby, started very early to get to the sea-shore, but found it quite impossible. … The horses got up to their bellies in the swamp.

    "20th. Mr. McKinlay said that any of us who liked to try on foot to get to the sea could do so, but none of us did, as we all thought if it had been practicable, that he would have done it himself."—Davis's Journal.


    STUART AT VAN DIEMEN'S GULF.

    "July 24th. At eight and a half miles came up in a broad valley of black alluvial soil covered with long grass; from this I can hear the wash of the sea. On the other side of tho valley, which is rather more than a quarter of a mile wide, is growing a line of thick heavy bushes, very dense, showing that to be the boundary of the beach. Crossed the valley, and entered the scrub, which was a complete net-work of vines. Stopped the horses to clear a way, whilst I advanced a few yards on to the beach, and was gratified and delighted to behold the water of the Indian Ocean in Van Diemen's Gulf, before the party with the horses knew anything of its proximity. Thring, who rode in advance of me, called out, 'The Sea!' which so took them all by surprise, and were so astonished that he had to repeat the call before they fully understood what was meant, hearing which, they immediately gave three long and hearty cheers."—Official Report, p. 24.

  2. These are Mr. Waterhouse's remarks. Sir R. G. MacDonnell, the late governor of South Australia, who has also personally examined these curious cones, gives another view of their origin. He regards them as the successive deposit of the waters of the springs rising from the plains, and charged with soda and lime. Their size is from that of a beehive to that of a large hill.
  3. Governor Barkly to Duke of Newcastle, 20th Nov., 1861.
  4. Expedition by Jackson, Diary of Wills, pp. 72, 73