Edward John Eyre

(guess what you missed in the previous chapter?... Queensland 1823-1876)

Edward John Eyre

The first on this roll of gallant discoverers was Edward John Eyre, who, in 1840, offered to conduct an expedition to the interior. He himself provided about half the money required , the South Australian government ( which was then in difficulties) gave a £100, and a number of Eyre's personal friends made up the remainder. With five Europeans, three natives , thirteen horses and forty sheep to serve as food on the way, he set out from Adelaide and travelled to the head of Spencer's Gulf, where a small vessel lay waiting to supply them with provisions sufficient for three months. Having traversed forty or fifty miles of desert land, he turned to the west and came in sight of Lake Torrens. It was now dried up, so that in place of a sheet of water twnety miles broad, he saw only a dreary region covered with glittering salt. When he entered upon it the thin crust of salt broke and a thick black mud oozed up. The party plunged onward for about 6 miles , the mud becoming deeper and deeper, till at length it half covered the saddles on their horses. He was then forced to turn back and to seek a passage around the lake of mud; but, having followed its shores for many miles, there seemed to be so little prospect of reaching the end of the obstacle, that he was forced again to turn his course to the north. After travelling about 200 miles through a very desolated country, he was once more arrested by coming upon Lake Eyre, a similar sheet of salt encrusted mud. Again there appeared no hope of either crossing the lake or going around it; no water was to be found and his supplies were fast failing, so that he was forced to hasten back a long distance to the nearest stream. Setting out once more, he twice essayed to penetrate eastward into the interior, but, on each occassion, the salt lake barred his progress; as a last effort,he urged his failing party towards the north-east. Here the country was the most barren and desolate that can be imagined. His supplies of water ran short, and frequently the explorers were on the point of perishing. When they approached the Frome River ( a creek which flows northward into Lake eyre) they were inexpressibly delighted to view from afar the winding current; but its waters were found to be as salty as the sea. After a long and dreary journey, Eyre ascended a hill, in order to see if there was any hope of finding better country; but the view was only a great barren level, stretching far away to the horizon on every side. He had now no water and his only course was to turn back, so leaving this place (which he called Mount Hopeless) he retraced his steps to the head of Spencer's Gulf.

Australian Bight

Here he changed the object of his journey and made efforts to go along the shores of the Great Australian Bight, in order to reach West Australia. Three times he rounded Streaky Bay; but in that bare and desert land the want of water was an insuperable obstacle and each time he was forced to retreat to less desolate country. Governor Gawler now sent word to return to Adelaide, as it seemed madness to make further efforts; but Eyre replkied that , to go back without having acccomplished anything, would be a disgrace he could never endure. Seeing that his only chance of reaching West Australia was to push rapidly forward with a simple and light equipment, he sent back the whole of his party except Mr Baxter, his black servant Wylie and the other two natives; and, taking with him a few horses, carrying a supply of water and provisions for several weeks, he set out to follow the coast along the Great Australian Bight. His party had to scramble along the tops of rough cliffs, which everywhere frowned from 300-600 feet above the sea; and, if they left the coast to travel inland, they had to travese great stretches of moving sand, which filled their eyes and ears, covered them when asleep,and, when they sat at meals, made their food unpleasant. But they suffered most from want of water; for often they were obliged to walk day after day beneath a broiling sun when all their water was gone, and not a drop to be seen on the boiling soil beneath them. On one occassion, after they had thus travelled 110 miles, the horses fell down from exhaustion and could not be induced to move. Eyre and a native hastened forward; but, though they wandered for more than 18 miles, they saw no sign of water, and, when darkness came on, they lay down, with lips parched and burnign, and tossed in feverish slumber till morning. At early dawn they perceived a ridge of sandhills not far away, and, making for them, they found a number of little wells (places where the natives had dug into the sand 6-8 feet and so had reached fresh water. Here Eyre and his blck companion drank a delicious draught and hastened back with precious beverage to revive the horses. The whole party was then able to go forward; and there, around these little waterholes, Eyre halted for a week to refresh his men and animals before attempting another stretch of similar country. They saw some natives, who told them that there was plenty of water further on, and, when Eyre set out again , he carried very little with him, so as not to over burden the horses. But, after 60 miles of the desert had been travesed without meeting any place in which water was to be found , Eyre became alarmed, and sent back Baxter with horses to bring up a better supply, whilst he himself remained to take charge of the baggage. When Baxter returned , they all set forward again and reached a sandy beach, where they had great difficulty in preventing the horses from drinking the sea-water, which would certainly have made them mad. As it was, two of them lay down to die and part of the provisions had to be abandoned. Baxter now grew despondent, and wished to return; but eyre was determined not yet to give up. Onward they toiled through the dreary wilderness, amd two more horses fell exhausted; 126 miles from the last halting place, and still no sign of water. Still onward, and the horses continue to drop by the way, Baxter constantly entreating Eyre to return. It was only after a journey of 160 miles that they came to a place, where digging, they could obtain fresh water in very small quantities. They were now forced to eke out their failing provisions by eating horse flesh. Baxter was altogether disheartened; and, if to return had not been as dangerous as to go forward, Eyre himself would himself have abandoned the attempt. The three natives, however, were still as light hearted and merry as ever: whilst the food lasted, they were always full of frolic and laughter.

Death of Baxter

Each evening Eyre formed a little camp, loaded the muskets and laid them down ready for use in case of an attack by the blacks; the horses were hobbled, and set free to gather the little vegetation they could find. But this forced Eyre and Baxter to keep watch by turns, lest they should stray so far as to be lost. One evening when Eyre had taken his first watch, the horses, in their search for grass, had wandered about a quarter of a mile from camp. He had followed them and was sitting on a stone beneath the moonlight, musing on his gloomy prospects, when he startled by a flash and a report. Hastening to the camp, he was met by Wylie, who was speechless with terror, and could only wring his hands and cry, "Oh, massa." When he entered, he saw Baxter lying on his face, whilst the baggage was broken open and scattered in all directions. He raised the wounded man in his arms, but only in time to support him as his head fell back in death. then placing the body on the ground, and, looking around him, he perceived that two of his natives had plundered the provisions, shot Mr Baxter as he rose to remonstrate with them, and had then escaped. The moon became obscured and in the deep gloom, beside the dead body of his friend, Eyre passed a fearful night, peering into the darkness lest the miscreants might be lurking near to shoot him also. He says, in his diary: " Ages can never efface the horrors of that single night, nor would wealth of the world ever tempt me to go through a similar one." The slowly spreading dawn revelaed the bleeding corpse, the plundered bags , and the crouching form of Wylie, who was still faithful. The ground at this place consisted of a great hard sheet of rock, and there was no chance of digging a grave; so eyre could only wrap the body in a blanket , leave it lying on the surface and thus take farewell of his friend's remains.

Arrival at King George's Sound

Then he and Wylie set out together on their mournful journey. They had very little water and seven days elapsed before they reached a place where more was to be obtained. They could at intervals see the murderers stealthily following their footsteps, and Eyre was afraid to lie down lest his sleep should prove to have no awaking; and thus, with parching thirst by day, and hours of watchfulness by night, he slowly made his way towards King George's Sound. After a time the country became better; he saw and shot two kangaroos and once more approached the coast. His surprised was great on seeing two boats some distance at sea. He shouted and fired his rifle, without attracting the attention of the crews. But on rounding a small cape, he found the vessel to which these boats nelonged. It was a French whaling ship; and the two men having been taken on board, were hospitably entertained for 11 days. Captain Rossiter gave them new clothes and abundance of food; and when they were thoroughly refreshed, they landed to pursue their journey. The country was not now so inhospitable; and three weeks afterwards they stood on the brow of a hill overlooking a little town of Albany, at King George's Sound. Here they sat down to rest; but the people, hearing who they were, came out to escort them triumphantly into the town, where they were received with the utmost kindness. they remained for 11 days and thn set sail for Adelaide, which they reached after an absence of one year and 26 days.

This expedition was, unfortunately, through so barren a country that it had but little practical effect beyond the additions it made to our geography, but the perserverance and skill with which it was conducted was worthy of all honour; and Eyre is to be remembered as the first explorer who braved the dangers of the Australian desert.

(Explorers continue ...Charles Napier Sturt)


History of Australia