Discoveries in Australia, Volume 2
John Lort Stokes
Part 2 out of 8
Captain Wickham returned this morning, having discovered the river to be
fresh about seventy miles above the ship. For some distance it had not
decreased in size, which was very delightful news. I had been several
times on the point of inquiring on this subject; but fearing an
unfavourable reply, hesitated. Now my hopes were at their highest pitch,
and I was quite impatient to start on an expedition up the river.
On the 29th the ship was taken under my guidance up the river, as far as
the commencement of the long southerly reach. As the shoals in that part
had not been sufficiently examined, we proceeded to do so in the evening,
and two channels were discovered; one between a bank, dry at low-water,
and a covered patch of one and a half and two fathoms, and the other
between the covered bank and the east shore; the latter, although the
narrower, I found to be the better. The tides set direct through it, and
to keep close to the bank is a simple and sure guide. The least water is
four fathoms, half a fathom more than was found in the other, the
direction of which crossed the set of the tide when the bank on the west
side became covered.
THE BEAGLE TAKEN UP THE VICTORIA.
Next morning we moved the ship three miles further up into a bight on the
east side from which Endeavour Hill bore West 13 South two miles and a
The Beagle was now nearly fifty miles up the Victoria, and might have
gone seven miles further, but a valley holding out a hope that we might
find water by digging, and the distance at which the river was fresh
being too great for us to think of completing our stock from it, we
anchored abreast of it. Whilst on shore getting observations for the
errors of the chronometers in the afternoon, I could not avoid
soliloquising as I gazed on the ship lying surrounded by lofty rocky
heights, that towered above her masts till they appeared mere sticks. The
contrast forcibly presented itself between the comparative insignificance
to which she was reduced by the elevation of the hills around, and the
majestic appearance she was accustomed to bear when among the low lands
of which we had seen so much. The sight reminded me of early years of
wandering within the narrow arms of the sea in Tierra del Fuego, save and
except there were not the forests of ages to hide the nakedness of the
land, which even there was clothed to the water's edge.
My companion reporting the instruments in the boat broke the reverie I
was indulging in; and on returning on board I found everyone busily
preparing for the expedition up the river.
Exploration of the Victoria.
First appearance of Sea Range.
Appearance of Country from.
Encounter with an Alligator.
His capture and description.
Cross Whirlwind Plains.
White and black ducks.
Enter hilly country.
Meet the boats.
Carry boats over shoals.
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.
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.
Select position for night quarters.
Upward course of the Victoria.
Race was with a native.
Meet his tribe.
They make off.
Hard day's work.
Quarters for the night.
Return to Reach Hopeless.
EXPLORATION OF THE VICTORIA.
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
We passed the night in the end of a crooked reach, near the only rocky
islet in the river, lying four miles East-South-East 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 mosquitoes 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 degrees 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
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
East-North-East direction for nine miles, when it appeared to cross the
plain; a large island lying midway changed its course for a short
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 mosquitoes did not give us any peace again this
ENCOUNTER AN ALLIGATOR.
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
EFFECT OF A SHOT.
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.
THE ALLIGATOR ON SHORE.
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.
DESCRIPTION OF THE ALLIGATOR.
Length of Alligator, 15 feet. From base of head to extreme of nose 2 feet
2 inches. Across the base of head, 2 feet. Length of lower jaw, 2 feet.
Teeth in both jaws, vary in size, and are variously disposed, as will be
seen above; in upper jaw on each side of maxillary bone, 18, 2 incisors.
Ditto in lower jaw, 15, 2 incisors. The largest teeth are 1 1/2 inch in
length. The two lower incisors are stronger and longer than the upper,
and project through two holes in front part of upper jaw.
Breadth across the animal, from extreme of one fore foot, across the
shoulders to the other side, 5 feet 2 inches. The fore feet have each
five perfect toes; the three inner or first, have long horny nails,
slightly curved; the two outer toes have no nails, nor are they webbed.
The third and fourth toes are deeply webbed, allowing a wide space
between them, which is apparent even in their passive state. The hind
feet have four long toes; the first two are webbed as far as the first
joint, and the others are strongly webbed to the apex of last joint, the
last or outer toe has no nail.
From the apex of tail, a central highly notched ridge runs up about
midway of it, and there splits into two branches, which pass up on each
side of the spine over the back, as far as the shoulders, gradually
diminishing in height to their termination.
A central ridge runs down from the nape of the neck over the spinous
processes of the vertebrae (being firmly attached to them by strong
ligaments) as far down as the sacrum, diminishing to its termination
CONTENTS OF ITS STOMACH.
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.
(*Footnote. The writer supped off alligator steaks, and informs the
reader that the meat is by no means bad, and has a white appearance like
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
BANKS OF THE VICTORIA.
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.
(*Footnote. 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 South-East
and drew round by east to North-West, 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 degrees.
This change was so sudden, that it made those who felt it shiver as if it
were the depth of winter, and RUSH INTO THE RIVER WATER TO KEEP
Both boats proceeded up the river at daylight. We started from the end of
Short Reach, trending East-North-East, and about four miles within the
range of hills, on the South-East side of the Plains. The first reach led
us a mile and a half in a South-East 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 East-North-East 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
SHOALS IN THE RIVER.
There was now heavy work before us, with the thermometer at 93 degrees 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.
SCENERY ON ITS BANKS.
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.
PROGRESS OF THE BOATS ARRESTED.
Over this we got tolerably well, but at the end of two miles in an
East-South-East 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 North by West 1/2 West one mile.
The thermometer was 101 degrees 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
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 East-South-East
1/2 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
SINGULAR APPEARANCE OF THE RIVER.
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.
PROSPECT FROM VIEW HILL.
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 degrees at one P.M. 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.
PREPARATIONS FOR A PEDESTRIAN EXCURSION.
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
The wind as usual was East-North-East in the morning, and North-West in
the evening. The thermometer ranged from 97 to 112 degrees during the
day, and fell to 90 degrees at night; during which we noticed several
meteors in the north and north-west falling perpendicularly.
Our little band left the boats before daylight, the morning being
agreeably cool (temperature 85 degrees). 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
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
minutes 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 East 16 degrees South 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
degrees 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
COURSE OF THE VICTORIA.
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
degrees. 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 8-pound 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 longitude,
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 North 56 degrees East and
South 22 degrees West. 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
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 North-West for about a mile, and then turned off
North-North-East 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 degrees; 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
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
East-South-East about 8 o'clock this evening, darting perpendicularly
UPWARDS: it lasted for ten seconds: 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 degrees, and a
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
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.
DISCOVERED BY NATIVES.
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 North-North-West 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 degrees 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 North-North-East: 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 longitude,
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 East 1/2 North 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
FATIGUE OF THE PARTY.
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 East by South, 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 degrees. I had scarcely secured observations for latitude and
longitude, before a squall from the south-east, accompanied by heavy
rain, recalled the scene of last night.
CHARM OF DISCOVERY.
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 degrees.
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 latitude, I
worked the observations I had taken during the night. It placed the spot
of our bivouac in 15 degrees 29 minutes South. We estimated our distance
from the boats, having carefully timed ourselves each march, at 23 miles;
10 in an east, general direction, and 13 North-East by North.
We pushed onwards in the cool of the morning, taking a South 20 degrees
West 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.
ENERVATING EFFECT OF THE GREAT HEAT.
The cool north-west wind had now deserted us, and though yet scarcely
nine o'clock A.M. the thermometer stood at 105 degrees. 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 degrees. 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.
APPROACH OF NATIVES.
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.
PREPARATIONS FOR DEFENCE.
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
APPEARANCE OF THE NATIVES.
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
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.
UPWARD COURSE OF THE VICTORIA.
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 latitude 15 degrees 36 minutes and longitude 130
degrees 52 minutes East; 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 West 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.
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 degrees 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
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.
RACE WITH A NATIVE.
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
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
QUARTERS FOR THE NIGHT.
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 degrees, 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 latitude 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.
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?
RETURN TO REACH HOPELESS.
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!
CHAPTER 2.3. VICTORIA RIVER.
Proceed down the river from Reach Hopeless.
Meet watering party.
One of the men deserts.
The writer left to complete survey of river.
Fertility of Whirlwind Plains.
Attempt of one of the crew to jump overboard.
Reach the Ship.
Suffer from sore eyes.
Lieutenant Emery finds water.
Range of Barometer.
Accounted for by proximity of Port Essington.
Effects of the latter.
Dreary country behind Water Valley.
Fruitless attempt to weigh ship's anchors.
Obliged to slip from both of them.
Proceed down the river.
Complete survey of Main Channel.
Visit south Entrance Point of river.
Discover a number of dead turtles.
Cross over to Point Pearce.
Mr. Bynoe shoots a new finch.
The Author speared.
Pursued by natives.
Flight of natives.
Armed party pursue them.
Night of suffering.
General description of the Victoria.
Gouty-stem tree and fruit.
REUNION OF THE BOATS.
The day was devoted to fixing the position of several of the surrounding
hills; and in the afternoon we obtained observations for rating the
chronometers: I found that one by French, which I had worn in my pocket,
had gone most admirably. Captain Wickham joined us in the gig after dark.
The evening was cloudy, and we had a sharp squall at midnight from
Both boats were moved off down the river at daylight, and ere it had
passed away, the ford above Steep Head was left behind. We found that the
watering boats had not got over the shallow below, so that we spent the
night together; and a merry party we made. We talked over all we had
seen, and the hills that rose around echoed back for the first time the
laugh and the song of civilized man, and our strange language was
repeated as glibly by the rocks of Australia as if they were those of our
own native land. So true is it that nature is ever ready to commune
familiarly with us, whereas by our very brethren we are looked upon as
enemies to shun, and are incapable of making ourselves understood by
When the morning of the 15th broke it was discovered that one of the men
belonging to the watering party had deserted during the night. He had
been guilty of this offence once before, in order to steal the spirits
which had been buried for the use of my exploring party. What however
could have induced him to take this step a second time--risking, without
any apparent motive, the danger of being left on a strange, and almost
uninhabited coast, it would be difficult even to suggest. Parties were
immediately despatched in quest of him, and at length, after an arduous
search, he was found behind a large sandstone rock on the side of a hill;
having revisited the spot where the provisions had been concealed for the
use of my party, in the hope of obtaining possession of his god the
rum-keg. He had evidently prepared for desertion: clothing, biscuit, and
fishing-tackle being among the stores with which he had made off. This
despicable wretch--for such must everyone consider the man who would
steal his shipmates' provisions, when each had only his bare
allowance--had nothing to say, either in extenuation or explanation of
his conduct. Most fortunate for him was it that our humane exertions to
discover his retreat were successful; he could not long have subsisted by
himself, and even had he been so happy as to fall in with, and receive
hospitable welcome from the natives, he must of necessity have lingered
out a life of toilsome, cheerless hardship while a companion of their
wanderings, and when unfitted for this by old age, he would, according to
the custom of the country, have been left to die, unfriended and alone,
upon the spot where his last weary efforts failed. The delay occasioned
by this extraordinary and unlooked-for event, made it late by the time
all the boats were fairly on their way down the river. The wind was light
from the north-east, and the temperature about 90 degrees, at 9 o'clock.
I pushed on to gain a station at the commencement of the hills on the
eastern side of Whirlwind Plains, and also, if possible, to shoot a
kangaroo to send to the ship:* I was so fortunate as to secure two; one
of a new species, very small, and of a dark brown colour, with coarse
hair, I found in rocky land, which it appears solely to inhabit, as it
was also found near the ship. As, however, like the generality of
kangaroos, this species only move of their own accord in the night time,
they are rarely seen, and but one good specimen was obtained by
Lieutenant Emery, who brought it to England, and submitted it to Mr.
Gould, who has described it as Petrogale concinna. It is now in the
(*Footnote. I had now become quite an adept in this kind of sport. My
plan was to direct a man to walk along near the river, where they are
generally found, whilst I kept considerably above him and a little in
advance, so that all those that were started running up from the bank in
the curved direction, habitual with all kangaroos, passed within shot.)
The height we visited was of coarse sandstone formation, and attained an
elevation of 150 feet. As I was left to examine some parts of the river
which had been passed in the night, I had a further opportunity of
determining the value, and estimating the fertility of Whirlwind Plains.
My examination only confirmed my previous conjectures in favour of the
capabilities of the soil. From what I had seen at Port Essington, as
ground considered favourable for the growth of cotton, there can be no
doubt that on these plains it would thrive much better; but the soil on
the Victoria is of too fertile a character to bear any comparison with
that of Cobourg Peninsula.
At Reach Hopeless, and at other points of the important stream I am
describing we observed numerous specimens of a kind of silk cotton-tree
(Bombax): the diameter was sometimes as great as twenty inches; and it
not unfrequently rose to the height of twenty or thirty feet, though
generally shorter. The pods were of an oval shape, and about two inches
and a half in length; each pod was in three divisions and full of a silky
cotton, with the seeds not imbedded but held at the extremity of the
fibres. I brought home a specimen and presented it to Sir William Hooker,
of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, with whom I have since had some
correspondence on the subject. He informs me that the plant is one
hitherto undescribed; but that Sir Joseph Banks met with it in Captain
We continued our descent of the river: stopping from time to time to
complete the survey. In the end of Long Reach we noticed that the stream
ran up two hours after high-water. After securing some observations for
latitude under Station Peak in the early part of the night, we proceeded
further down the river, delighted to escape from that mosquito-haunted
EFFECTS OF DRINKING SALT-WATER.
At day-break I was very much distressed and astonished to see one of the
men on a sudden start up under the influence of delirium, and attempt to
throw himself into the water, from which the combined strength of three
or four of the crew with difficulty restrained him. He was one of the
best men I had with me; his sudden and serious illness had doubtless been
produced by the draughts of saltwater which he had swallowed during the
night. He had been accustomed to indulge in very liberal potations while
we were up the river, and now, when from necessity the allowance was
restricted to a gallon per day, he had most foolishly attempted in the
dark to quench his thirst with the salt waters of the advancing tide. In
the afternoon we rejoined the ship, and he was placed under the care of
Mr. Bynoe; but it was some time before he fully recovered from the
effects of his rash experiment. The day was very oppressive, the
thermometer being 105 degrees in the shade, and there was no wind. We
were cordially greeted by our shipmates upon our return, and both Mr.
Forsyth and myself enjoyed the luxury of a night's rest in our hammocks;
a most agreeable change after the hot stones upon which we had generally
been compelled to court repose during our exploration. We had both
suffered much inconvenience from the attacks of flies upon our visual
organs, necessarily exposed and undefended as they had been when we were
occupied during the observations and in viewing the strange scenes of the
last eighteen days. The irritation upon the lids produced a copious
discharge, which fairly sealed them up at night; so that, at last, in
order to have them ready for immediate use, I found it requisite to sleep
with a wet linen cloth covering each eye.
We heard with great satisfaction that Lieutenant Emery's search for water
had been completely successful, and that two large wells had been dug in
the valley, abreast of which the ship was anchored. During our absence
the barometer had ranged between 30.08 and 29.97; the minimum height
being always at noon. There had been several sharp squalls from the
eastward, beginning at south-east and ending at north-east, with a few
showers of rain. North-west, or seabreezes, were regular near the changes
of the moon, and of greater duration. No meteors were observed since the
16th, but between the 7th and 11th they were very numerous.
I went ashore to collect a few geological specimens: the sandstone which
prevailed everywhere was in a decomposed state, but there was a very
decided dip in the strata to the south-east, of about 30 degrees. On the
east side of Water Valley, I found the same kind of slate, noticed before
at Curiosity Peak: but what most interested me was a bituminous substance
found near the bottom of the wells recently dug, and 23 feet from the
surface of the ground. It was apparently of a clayey nature when first
brought up, but became hard and dark upon exposure to the air, and
ignited quickly when put into the flame of a candle. The sides of Water
Valley were very precipitous, and nearly 300 feet high: a growth of palms
marked the spot, and served to indicate our wells. We here saw also the
same fruit I had noticed on Curiosity Peak.
I found matter for conjecture in noticing a number of twigs with their
ends stuck into the ground, which was strewed over with shells, and their
tops brought together so as to form a small bower; this was 2 1/2 feet
long, 1 1/2 foot wide at either end. It was not until my next visit to
Port Essington that I thought this anything but some Australian mother's
toy to amuse her child: there I was asked, one day, to go and see the
bird's playhouse, when I immediately recognised the same kind of
construction I had seen at the Victoria River: the bird* was amusing
itself by flying backwards and forwards, taking a shell alternately from
each side, and carrying it through the archway in its mouth.
(*Footnote. Figured in Mr. Gould's work as Chlamydera nuchalis.)
The moon being full to-day we noticed that the tides were very strong:
particularly the flood-stream, which came in bores, and sometimes swept
by the ship at the rate of 6 1/2 knots, while the ebb did not exceed 4
1/2: the greatest rise also to-day was 24 feet.
SINGULAR CHANGE OF WINDS.
My journal of this day begins with remarking a very extraordinary change
that took place in the winds. Instead of the usual fresh North-West
breeze after ten A.M., there was a moderate one from East-South-East.
This drew round gradually by east to north. At sunset the weather was
very gloomy; but the barometer indicated nothing, ranging as usual. In
the early part of the night the wind was light from North-North-West,
changing suddenly at midnight to a fresh breeze from South-East with
rain. When the morning broke, it had veered to East-South-East with
squalls from East-North-East and heavy rain. Dense masses of clouds
covered the sky, enveloping everything in gloom; which, though so far
agreeable as to reduce the temperature to 75 degrees, had a most singular
effect after the constant bright sunny days we had experienced. There was
still no unusual change in the barometer, the maximum being 30.06, and
the minimum 29.98 at two P.M. The night was squally without rain.
HURRICANE AT PORT ESSINGTON.
The day broke with an appearance of fine weather; patches of blue sky
peeped between the heavy masses of clouds, and expanding as the day
advanced, left us at sunset with a cloudless vault of blue overhead. The
barometer was lower throughout the whole of this day than it had been at
all, being at two P.M. 29.91. When this strange weather first began I was
disposed to consider it to be of the same character as that which I had
before observed to occur within a few days of the change of the moon. But
its duration and occasional violence led me to think otherwise, and I
afterwards found my conclusions to be correct; as at this very time a
hurricane visited Port Essington, distant 270 miles, in a North 30
degrees East direction.*
(*Footnote. The following account of the effects of this hurricane at
Port Essington is from the pen of Captain Stanley, and has been published
in the Nautical Magazine for September 1841.
A strong breeze set in from the south-east with drizzling rain, but as
the barometer remained at 29.90, its usual point, and similar weather had
been experienced at the change of the monsoon in 1838, nothing was
apprehended, more particularly as the wind moderated (as had been
expected) at sunset. Between seven and eight o'clock the wind drew round
to the southward, and the barometer began to fall rapidly: at ten it blew
furiously from the same quarter, and the barometer was as low as 29.10;
many of the trees were blown down at this time. At midnight the wind drew
round to the eastward, and blew a perfect hurricane, before which nearly
everything gave way; the trees came down in every part of the settlement;
the marines' houses were all blown down; the church, only finished a
week, shared the same fate: the barometer fell to 28.52.
About two A.M. the wind shifted suddenly to the northward, from which
point for about half-an-hour, its fury was tremendous; the
government-house, built on stone piers, was blown away from them to a
distance of nine feet; the sea rose ten feet and a half, by measurement
afterwards, above the usual high-water mark. H.M.S. Pelorus, having
parted her cables, was driven on shore, and thrown over on her beam ends,
on the north-east point of the settlement, where heeling over 82 degrees,
her starboard side was buried nine feet in the mud, leaving the keel
three feet clear of the ground.**
At daylight the barometer rose slowly to 29.90, the gale moderated, and
the sea went down so fast, that between seven and eight we were able to
send a boat to the assistance of the Pelorus: after eight the breeze
continued to blow strong from the northward for two days, with heavy
The occurrence of such a hurricane must be very rare, as the natives were
as much astonished as ourselves, and came to beg for shelter: they have
no name for it, and no tradition of anything of the sort having happened
before: the state in which the very extensive fences at Raffles Bay were
in shortly before, must prove that the trees had never been blown down in
the way they were on the 25th of November, since that settlement was
abandoned in 1829.
The extent of the hurricane must have been very limited: at Coepang a
strong gale from the south-west was experienced, and also between Java
and Timor on the 26th, but the wind did not change. Even 18 miles north,
at Vashon Head, the change of wind must have been greater though equal in
force. There the first trees fell with the wind from West-South-West; a
few fell when the wind was east, and most when the wind was north-west.
The Malays have an idea that every fifth year the monsoon is stronger
than usual, but can give no reason for thinking so. According to them
this monsoon ought to have been a strong one.
(**Footnote. The Pelorus was dug out of the mud, and once more got afloat
towards the middle of February following. This immense undertaking was
accomplished by the indefatigable exertion and mechanical skill of her
commander, Captain Kuper, C.B., assisted by Captain Stanley. J.L.S.))
COURSE OF THE STORM.
The bad weather in the Victoria then would appear to have been caused by
the proximity of the southern edge of this storm as it passed to the
westward. The fact of the time when the weather was the worst, having
been the same at Port Essington, and in the Victoria; and of the French
discovery ships meeting it in Torres Strait first, shows the westerly
course of the storm. Its northern edge did not reach Coepang, but a
strong gale from the south-west on the 26th showed that it was passing.
Most probably it took a more southerly course before reaching Timor.*
(*Footnote. We were informed at Timor that hurricanes were never felt
there, but occur once in four or five years to the southward of it. It
may be added that a vessel lost her top-masts in the Port Essington
hurricane, near Sandalwood Island, and that to the southward of Java
hurricanes occur frequently.)
I passed the night on shore, making observations for latitude, and in the
hope also of being able to obtain another specimen of the new small
kangaroo, that being the time when it is generally to be found on the
move. But I did not succeed in this object; and failed also in my
expectation of knocking over one of a large kind seen in the interior. I
left the observation spot for this purpose with the first grey of the
morn, taking an East-North-East direction for about four miles.
The country was most dreary; vast ranges strewn over with huge blocks of
sandstone, rose in desolate grandeur around; chasms, ravines, and thirsty
stony valleys yawned on every side; all was broken, rugged, and arid, as
if the curse of sterility had fallen on the land; in short, the contrast
was complete between this desert place and the country we had so lately
traversed up the river. I was able, accordingly, to procure nothing in
the shape of a fresh meal, save a few black cockatoos and some of the
pigeons of a dark brown colour, with a white patch on the extremity of
the wing, which I have alluded to in the earlier part of the work
relating to King's Sound, as always inhabiting rocky districts and making
a whirring sound, like a partridge, on the wing.
LOSE TWO ANCHORS.
This afternoon and the whole of the next day, when the tide suited, we
were endeavouring to weigh the ship's anchors; but they were together
with the cables so imbedded in the bottom, which must have been a
quicksand, that this proved impossible. Had the ship been fitted with
Captain Charles Phillips', R.N., capstan, there would have been a better
chance of succeeding. As it was, after heaving down the ship nineteen
inches by the head, and splitting the hawse pipes, we were ultimately
obliged to leave both behind, and thirty fathoms of cable with one and
fifteen with the other. This circumstance suggested the appropriate name
of Holdfast Reach for this locality; and perhaps in some future
generations, when this part of the world has undergone the changes that
seems destined for it, the archaeologist of Victoria River may in vain
puzzle his wits with speculations concerning the Beagle's anchors.
Whilst at this anchorage, just after dark, flocks of whistling ducks were
constantly heard passing over our heads in a South-West by West
direction, or towards the head of Cambridge Gulf, which led to the
supposition that there was a river in that neighbourhood. We placed the
south point of Water Valley in latitude 15 degrees 13 3/4 minutes South
and longitude 2 degrees 22 minutes West of Port Essington, variation one
degree easterly. Our tidal observation made the time of high-water, at
the full and change of the moon, 9 o'clock, when the mean rise at springs
was sixteen feet, and at neaps ten. The duration of the flood-stream was
seven hours, being two greater than the ebb. The former ran 50 minutes
after high-water, and the latter 30 minutes after low-water. Before
leaving Holdfast Reach, Lieutenant Emery observed one or two natives,
opposite Water Valley, being the only ones that had been seen from the
ship. He endeavoured to obtain an interview, by going up alone towards
them, but they drew off when he got near.
DROP DOWN THE RIVER.
We slipped from our last anchor at daylight, and proceeded down the
river. After pirouetting through Whirlpool Reach, we got as far down as
the flats fronting River Peak, above which we anchored near noon. After
having been shut up among rocky ranges for a month, the sight of the sea
horizon was a novelty, and the cool, refreshing breeze, as it came
sweeping over the unbroken expanse of waters, created in us very pleasing
Next morning we beat down the main channel, which was called the Queen's,
the deep water varying from five to nine fathoms being on the west side.
Some shoal patches of a quarter and two fathoms, lying midway between
Observation Island, and the end of the long sand extending off its
northern side, prevented our proceeding further. The boats completed the
survey of the western side of the channel in the afternoon: the largest
creek examined by Mr. Forsyth received his name.
REACH THE SEA.
Dropping down the channel with a light air from the westward, and a boat
in advance sounding, no impediment occurred after passing the sands
extending off Observation Island, as a fine deep channel of six and eight
fathoms followed the western side of Quoin Island, and the long sand
stretching off its north end. When we had cleared this the anchor was
dropped in eight fathoms, and the boats were again employed in sounding.
That the Beagle was once more anchored outside all the banks--to have
touched on any of which, with the great strength of the tides that
hurried us along would have been fatal--was a great relief to all of us,
especially to me, in whom Captain Wickham had placed so much confidence
as to trust the ship to my guidance, whilst exposed to the dangers I have
Moved the ship within three miles and a half of the south extreme point
of the river, the highest part bearing South 40 degrees West. A party of
us visited it, and, from a rather extraordinary sight we there beheld, it
was called Turtle Point.
DEAD TURTLES ON THE SHORE.
Behind some very low scattered sandhills that form it, fronting a
mangrove flat, we beheld great numbers of dead turtles, that seemed to
have repaired thither of their own accord to die. They were lying on
their bellies, with their shells for the most part uninjured, though some
were turned over, and showed other signs of visits from the natives. A
few skeletons of a large bustard* were also seen there, so that the place
had quite the appearance of a cemetery, and reminded me of a spot on the
River Gallegos in Patagonia, where the guanacos (a kind of llama)
assemble to pay the debt of nature, and leave their bones to whiten the
surface of the plain. Never before, on any occasion, had we seen dead
turtles in any similar position; how they could have got there was a
mystery, unless we suppose them to have been thrown up by some earthquake
wave. They had evidently not been transported thither by the hand of man,
though, as I have observed, some of the natives who thinly inhabit this
district, finding them there, ready to their hand, had availed themselves
of the gifts of fortune. I could not help, as I gazed on this remarkable
scene, calling to mind the marvellous elephant cemetery described by
Sinbad the Sailor. It is possible that the observation of some similar
phenomenon may have suggested to the imagination of the authors of the
Thousand and One Nights their romantic fiction. At any rate an air of
mystery will always hang round Turtle Point until the facts I have
mentioned shall have been explained.
(*Footnote. A specimen of one of them was brought away and deposited in
the Museum at Sydney.)
The nature of this part of the country I have before described on my
visit to Indian Hill. A ridge of breakers ran off north a couple of miles
from our station; a low point, bearing West 16 degrees South about eight
or nine miles, with an opening trending in south intervening, with some
slightly elevated land bearing South 34 degrees West about four or five
leagues, terminated our view to the westward. We found the tide much
weaker on this side of the entrance, not exceeding three miles an hour;
the stream ran up three-quarters of an hour after high-water. The times
of high-water for the last three days had been most unaccountably the
Crossed over to Point Pearce at daylight, but the wind being light all
the morning did not reach an anchorage till the afternoon; the extreme of
the point bearing North 41 degrees West three-quarters of a mile. A line
of ripplings extended a couple of miles off to the south-west of it, in
which we found there was only four fathoms. In standing across the
entrance we passed first a bank of three fathoms, with six and seven on
each side; Turtle Point bearing South 45 degrees West 11 miles; then two
more, one of seven and eight fathoms, with twelve and seventeen on each
side, the other of only two fathoms with twelve on the south, and twenty
on the north side.
We subsequently found the latter to be a continuation of the bank on
which Captain King had five fathoms, Point Pearce bearing North 22
degrees East 5 miles; and in order to record his visit we named it, after
his vessel, Mermaid Bank.
VISIT THE SHORE FOR OBSERVATIONS.
I left the ship in the morning to make some observations at Point Pearce
for the errors of the chronometers. I was accompanied to the shore by Mr.
Bynoe, who was going on a shooting excursion. It being high-water, I was
obliged to select a spot near the cliffs forming the point, for carrying
out my intention. That selected was about 60 yards from the wood-crowned
cliff which rose behind; thinking such an intervening distance would
secure me from the spear of the treacherous native. This caution rather
resulted from what had before occurred at Escape Cliffs, where Messrs.
Fitzmaurice and Keys so narrowly escaped, than from any idea that natives
might be lurking about. Indeed, Mr. Bynoe had been shooting all over the
ground yesterday, and had neither seen nor heard anything to indicate
their existence in this neighbourhood; though doubtless, from what
followed, they had been very busily watching him all the time, and were
probably only deterred from making an attack, by the alarm with which his
destructive gun, dealing death to the birds, must have filled them.
Requiring equal altitudes, I was compelled to revisit the spot in the
afternoon for the corresponding observations. The boat in which Mr. Bynoe
returned to the ship, was to carry me on shore. We met at the gangway,
and in answer to my inquiry, he informed me that he had seen no traces of
the natives. He had shot a new and very beautiful bird of the finch
tribe, in which the brilliant colours of verdigris green, lilac purple,
and bright yellow, were admirably blended.* The time was short; half an
hour would have sufficed for the observations, and we should have left
the coast. As it was now low-water, and I had to traverse a coral reef
half a mile in width, I resolved to lighten myself of my gun, which I had
taken with me in the morning, that I might with greater safety carry the
chronometer. On landing I directed Mr. Tarrant and one of the boat's crew
to follow with the rest of the instruments. The walking was very bad, the
reef being strewed with coral fragments, and interspersed with large
pools. With my mind fully occupied by all we had seen of late, I hurried
on without waiting, and reached the observation spot, just glancing
towards the cliff, which presented nothing to the view except the silvery
stems of the never-failing gumtrees.
(*Footnote. Figured by Mr. Gould from this specimen as Amadina gouldiae.)
THE AUTHOR SPEARED.
I had just turned my head round to look after my followers when I was
suddenly staggered by a violent and piercing blow about the left
shoulder:* and ere the dart had ceased to quiver in its destined mark, a
loud long yell, such as the savage only can produce, told me by whom I
had been speared.
(*Footnote. See the view annexed. )
PURSUED BY THE NATIVES.
One glance sufficed to show me the cliffs, so lately the abode of silence
and solitude, swarming with the dusky forms of the natives, now indulging
in all the exuberant action with which the Australian testifies his
delight. One tall bushy-headed fellow led the group, and was evidently my
successful assailant. I drew out the spear, which had entered the cavity
of the chest, and retreated, with all the swiftness I could command, in
the hope of reaching those who were coming up from the boat, and were
then about halfway. I fully expected another spear while my back was
turned; but fortunately the savages seemed only to think of getting down
to the beach to complete their work. Onward I hurried, carrying the
spear, which I had drawn from the wound, and determined if, as I
expected, overtaken, to sell my life dearly. Each step, less steady than
the former one, reminded me that I was fast losing blood: but I hurried
on, still retaining the chronometer, and grasping my only weapon of
defence. The savage cry behind soon told me that my pursuers had found
their way to the beach: while at every respiration, the air escaping
through the orifice of the wound, warned me that the strength by which I
was still enabled to struggle through the deep pools and various other
impediments in my path, must fail me soon. I had fallen twice: each
disaster being announced by a shout of vindictive triumph, from the
bloodhounds behind. To add to my distress, I now saw, with utter dismay,
that Mr. Tarrant, and the man with the instruments, unconscious of the
fact that I had been speared, and therefore believing that I could make
good my escape, were moving off towards the boat. I gave up all hope, and
with that rapid glance at the past, which in such an hour crowds the
whole history of life upon the mind, and one brief mental act of
supplication or rather submission to Him in whose hands are the issues of
life and death, I prepared for the last dread struggle.
NARROW ESCAPE FROM DEATH.
At that moment the attention of the retreating party was aroused by a
boat approaching hastily from the ship; the first long, loud, wild shriek
of the natives having most providentially apprised those on board of our
danger. They turned and perceived that I was completely exhausted. I
spent the last struggling energy I possessed to join them. Supported on
each side I had just strength to direct them to turn towards our savage
enemies: who were hurrying on in a long file, shouting and waving their
clubs, and were now only about thirty yards off. Our turning, momentarily
checked their advance, whilst their force increased. During these very
few and awfully anxious moments, a party, headed by Lieutenant Emery,
hastened over the reef to our support. Another moment, and ours would
have been the fate of so many other explorers; the hand of the savage
almost grasped our throats--we should have fallen a sacrifice in the
cause of discovery, and our bones left to moulder on this distant shore,
would have been trodden heedlessly underfoot by the wandering native.
At the sight of Lieutenant Emery's party, the natives flew with the
utmost rapidity, covering their flight, either from chance or skill, by
my party; in a moment the air, so lately echoing with their ferocious
yells, was silent, and the scene of their intended massacre, as lonely
and deserted as before!
I was soon got down to the boat, lifted over the ship's side, and
stretched on the poop cabin table, under the care of Mr. Bynoe, who on
probing the wound gave me a cheering hope of its not proving fatal. The
anxiety with which I watched his countenance, and listened to the words
of life or death, the reader may imagine, but I cannot attempt to
describe. The natives never throw a spear when the eye of the person they
aim at is turned towards them, supposing that everyone, like themselves,
can avoid it. This was most fortunate, as, my side being towards them,
the spear had to pass through the thick muscles of the breast before
reaching my lungs. Another circumstance in my favour was that I had been
very much reduced by my late exertions.
NIGHT OF SUFFERING.
The sufferings of that night I will not fatigue my readers by describing;
but I can never forget the anxiety with which Mr. Bynoe watched over me
during the whole of it. Neither can I forget my feelings of gratitude to
the Almighty when my sunken eyes the next morning once more caught the
first rays of the sun. It seemed as though I could discover in these an
assurance that my hour was not yet come, and that it would be my lot for
some time longer to gaze with grateful pleasure on their splendour.
Several excursions were made during our stay in search of the natives,
but without success. An encampment was found in the neighbourhood, near a
small freshwater swamp, and by the things that were left behind it was
evident that a hasty retreat had been made. It would have been as well if
we could have punished these people in some way for their unprovoked
attack; but to have followed them far into the bush would have been quite
useless. A comparison of their conduct with that of the natives of Shoal
Bay, confirms what I have before stated of the extraordinary contrast
presented by the dispositions of the aboriginal inhabitants of Australia;
for in both instances we were the first Europeans they had ever
The observations, which nearly cost me my life in endeavouring to obtain,
placed Point Pearce in latitude 14 degrees 25 minutes 50 seconds, South
longitude 2 degrees 49 minutes West of Port Essington. The time of
high-water, at the full and change, was seven o'clock, when the tides
rose from twenty to twenty-six feet. The cliffs forming it are of a
reddish hue, from the quantity of iron the rocks in the neighbourhood
contain. To commemorate the accident which befell me, the bay within
Point Pearce was called Treachery Bay, and a high hill over it Providence
In the nights of the 10th and 11th we had sharp squalls from the
eastward, being early in the season for their repeated appearance. There
was the usual gathering of clouds, the hard edges of which were lit up by
the constant flashing of lightning. It is singular that all these
squalls, wherever we have met them, should happen within five hours of
the same time, between nine at night and two in the morning.
COURSE OF THE VICTORIA.
I have thus detailed the circumstances attending the discovery and
partial exploration of the Victoria, that new and important addition to
our geographical knowledge of one of the least known and most interesting
portions of the globe. Its peculiar characteristics--for, like all
Australian rivers, it has distinctive habits and scenery of its own--the
nature of the country through which it flows--its present condition, its
future destiny, are all subjects, to which, though I may have cursorily
alluded before, I am under promise to the reader of returning. Of that
promise, therefore, I now tender this in fulfilment.
The Victoria falls into the Indian Ocean in latitude 14 degrees 40
minutes South and longitude 129 degrees 21 minutes East, being at its
confluence with the sea, between Turtle and Pearce Points, twenty-six
miles wide. The land upon either side as you enter the river is bold and
well defined, but from the margin of the western shore, an extensive mud
and mangrove flat, not entirely above the level of high-water, and
reaching to the base of a range of hills, about seventeen miles from the
water's edge, seems to indicate that at one time the waters of the
Victoria washed the high land on either side.
For the first thirty miles of the upward course, the character of the
river undergoes but little change. The left side continues bold, with the
exception of a few extensive flats, sometimes overflowed, and a
remarkable rocky elevation, about twenty-five miles up, to which we gave
the name of The Fort, as suggested by its bastion-like appearance, though
now called Table Hill in the chart. To the right the shore remains low,
studded with mangroves, and still, from appearance, subject to not
unfrequent inundations: towards the mouth, indeed, it is partially
flooded by each returning tide. Thirty-five miles from its mouth its
whole appearance undergoes the most striking alteration. We now enter the
narrow defile of a precipitous rocky range of compact sandstone, rising
from 4 to 500 feet in height, and coming down to the river, in some
places nearly two miles wide, in others not less than twenty fathoms
deep, and hurrying through, as if to force a passage, with a velocity
sometimes not less than six miles an hour.
NATURE OF THE COUNTRY.
It continues a rapid stream during its passage through this defile, an
extent of some thirty miles, and beyond it is found slowly winding its
way towards the sea across a rich alluvial plain, fifteen miles in width.
Above this plain is found a second range of similar character and
formation to that before mentioned; the stream, however, having of course
somewhat less both of width and depth, and flowing with a decreased
rapidity. The elevation of the hills on either side was at first entering
considerably less than in the former range; they had also lost much of
their steep and precipitous appearance; but as we gradually proceeded up,
the former distinctive characteristics returned: the hills rose higher
and more boldly, almost immediately from the water's edge, and continued
each mile to present a loftier and more rugged front; never however
attaining the extreme altitude of the former or Sea Range. Above Reach
Hopeless the width of the alluvial land, lying between the immediate
margin of the river and the hills which bound its valley, considerably
increased; and just in proportion as the high bold land approached the
channel on one shore, it receded from it on the opposite, and left an
extensive alluvial flat between that bank and the retreating hills; the
whole valley, too, widened out, so that, supposing the stream at one time
to have filled it from the bases of the high land on either side, it must
have had a breadth above Reach Hopeless of from three to five miles, and
this still increased when I last traced its presumed course beyond Mount
The extreme altitude of Sea Range is from 7 to 800 feet, and of the hills
last seen, near Mount Regret, from 4 to 500. The distinctive formation
common to both consists in their level summits, within twenty feet of
which a precipitous wall of rock, of a reddish hue, runs along the
The upper portion of the valley through which the river passes varies in
its nature from treeless, stony plains to rich alluvial flats, lightly
timbered with a white-stemmed gum. The banks are steep and high, thickly
clothed with the acacia, drooping eucalyptus, and tall reeds. The various
lake-like reaches had, of course, no perceptible stream, but their banks,
no less than the dry patches in the bed of the river, satisfied us that
the Victoria had recently been, and in all probability would soon again
become, a large and rapid river.
Among the most curious vegetable productions along its banks are the silk
cotton-tree and the gouty-stem tree. The latter has been already
mentioned by Captains King and Grey, and here attains a great size: it
bears a very fragrant white flower, not unlike the jasmine; the fruit is
used by the natives, and found to be a very nutritious article of food,
something similar to a coconut. Not having previously noticed it in this
neighbourhood I conclude this to be the northern limit of its growth. The
reader will remember my having before alluded to seeing it near the mouth
of Fitzroy River, where I have also mentioned the extent of coast on
which we found it, and given the limits of its indigenous empire,
extending not quite over two degrees of latitude. The peculiar character
of the tree I leave the reader to learn from the woodcuts annexed.
That containing the fruit* is from a specimen obtained near the Fitzroy,
as it was in flower when I saw it in the month of November on the banks
of the Victoria.
(*Footnote. For description of this fruit, see Volume 1.)
I may here remind the reader, that among the results of our exploration
of the Victoria was the addition of a new species of kangaroo, a
freshwater tortoise, some fish, and several beautiful birds to the
domains of natural history.
CHAPTER 2.4. VICTORIA RIVER TO SWAN RIVER.
Leave Point Pearce.
Error in position of Cape Rulhieres.
Obtain soundings on supposed Sahul Shoal.
Discover a shoal patch on it.
Ascertain extent of bank of soundings off the Australian shore.
Strange winds in Monsoon.
See Scott's Reef.
Discover error in its position.
Make Depuch Island.
Prevalence of westerly winds near it.
Death and burial of the ship's cook.
Anecdotes of his life.
Arrival at Swan River.
Find Colony improved.
Hospitality of Colonists.
Lieutenant Roe's account of his rescuing Captain Grey's party.
Burial of Mr. Smith.
Hurricane at Shark's Bay.
Observations on dry appearance of Upper Swan.
Unsuccessful cruise of Champion.
Fix on a hill for the site of a Lighthouse.
Protectors of natives.
Trees of Western Australia.
On the safety of Gage Roads.
SAIL FOR SWAN RIVER.
By this day Mr. Bynoe thought I was sufficiently recovered to be able to
bear the motion of the ship at sea, and we accordingly sailed in the
morning for Swan River.
Standing out from Point Pearce we had a better view, than on our first
approach, of the coast to the north of it; trending in a North 11 degrees
East direction. It had a sandy appearance and was fronted with a rocky
ledge at low-water, with one or two remarkable bare sand patches, four or
five miles from the Point. We had a shoal cast of nine fathoms (eight at
low-water) ten miles west from Point Pearce. In the afternoon we stood to
the westward, in very even soundings of 15 fathoms.
On the 13th we saw the white cliffs of Cape Rulhieres, which, like Point
Pearce, we found to be four miles and a half west of its assigned
position. On the 14th and 15th we were beating to the westward with a
light and variable wind.
Our progress was slow, the monsoon being light; we therefore stood to the
northward, to find a more steady breeze, and in order, whilst making our
westing, to get some soundings over a large dotted space in the chart,
bearing the name of the Great Sahul Shoal. We desired also to ascertain
the extent of the bank of soundings extending off this part of the
Australian continent, which here approaches to within 245 miles of the
south end of Timor. The soundings varied, according to the boards we made
over it, from 30 to 60 fathoms; the bottom in the lesser depth being a
kind of coral, with bits of ironstone mixed with sand; whilst in the
greater depth, it was a green sandy mud.
On the 17th at 8 P.M., whilst standing on the north-west, near the centre
of the eastern part of the supposed Sahul Shoal, the water shoaled
suddenly to 16 fathoms, from 68, a mile to the south-east. The helm was
put down, and when in stays there were only 14 1/2. The position of this
patch is in latitude 11 degrees 8 1/2 minutes South, longitude 126
degrees 33 minutes East. Standing off South by East, in two miles the
water deepened to 72 fathoms. It was not until we had gone about ten
miles, that we again got into 60 fathoms, on the outer edge of the bank
of green sandy mud, fronting the Australian shore, and approaching within
a hundred miles of the south end of Timor. This bank appears to be
separated from the collection of coral patches, forming the Sahul Shoal
by a deep gap or gut, in which the depth generally was above 70 fathoms,
with a rocky bottom; though in part of it, in latitude 11 degrees 36
minutes South and longitude 124 degrees 53 minutes East, there was no
bottom with 207 fathoms.
Dr. Wilson, in his Voyage round the World, mentions that he crossed
several parts of the Sahul Shoal on his passage from Timor to Raffles
Bay, and never found less than 14 fathoms.
On the 20th, at noon, we had no bottom with 131 fathoms, latitude 11
degrees 34 minutes and longitude 124 degrees 52 minutes East. Our
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