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Read THE WEST: CHAPTER 20 of The Explorers of Australia and their Life-work, free online book, by Ernest Favenc, on The American Day Tribune Library.


20.1. Cambridge gulf and the Kimberley district

The futile rush for gold to the Kimberley district had one good result a better appreciation of its pastoral capabilities, and numerous short expeditions were made in search of grazing country.

Amongst these was one by W.J. O’Donnell and W. Carr-Boyd, who explored an area extending from the overland line in the direction of Roebourne, and were fortunate in finding good country. Later, in 1896, Carr-Boyd, accompanied by a companion named David Breardon, who was afterwards out with David Carnegie, visited the country about the Rawlinson Ranges and penetrated to Forrest’s Alexander Spring. His name is also known in connection with exploration in the Northern Territory, and he has made several excursions between the Southern goldfields of West Australia and the South Australian border.

His experiences were not unlike those of the other explorers; he had to struggle on against heat, thirst, and spinifex, and found occasional tracts of pastoral land destitute of surface water.

In 1884 Harry Stockdale, an experienced bushman, started from Cambridge Gulf in order to investigate the country to the southward, and explore the land in its vicinity.

From the Gulf southward, he traversed well-watered and diversified country till he reached Buchanan’s Creek, which must be distinguished from the stream of the same name in the Northern Territory of South Australia. Having formed a depot there, he hoped to make further explorations, but owing to certain irregularities which had occurred among his followers in his absence on a flying trip, he was compelled to start immediately for his destination on the overland line. A very singular incident happened during this latter part of his journey. Two of the men, named Mulcay and Ashton desired, under the plea of sickness, to be left behind, and resisted every attempt to turn them from their purpose. Stockdale reached the line after suffering great hardship, but the fate of the two abandoned men eluded all subsequent search.

20.2. Linday and the elder exploring expedition

In 1891 Sir Thomas Elder of South Australia, who had already done much in the cause of exploration, projected another expedition on a large and most ambitious plan. It was called The Elder Exploring Scientific Expedition, and its main purpose was announced to be the completion of the exploration of Australia. A map was prepared on which a huge extent of the continent was partitioned off into blocks each bearing a distinctive letter, A, B, C, D, etc., quite irrespective of the fact that all these blocks had been partially explored and that some had even been settled.

The leadership of the party was offered to and accepted by David Lindsay, who had already won for himself a name as a capable explorer in South Australia. The second in charge was L.A. Wells. As the expedition was in the main destitute of any striking results, a short synopsis of the journey will satisfy our requirements.

Shortly after the expedition crossed the border-line between South Australia and West Australia, Mr. Leech, one of the responsible officers, was despatched on a fruitless trip northward to search for traces of the ill-fated Gibson, who had perished with Giles some seventeen years previously. The expedition then proceeded via Fort Mueller to Mount Squires, where water was obtainable. Thence a south-west course was taken to Queen Victoria’s Spring. In latitude 29 degrees, 270 miles south of Mount Squires, the eastern end of a patch of good pastoral country was observed. On reaching the springs they were found to be dry, and all the intended exploration which was to be effected from this base had to be abandoned, the party having to push on to Fraser’s Range; and this hasty trip through the desert comprised the only useful work done. Lindsay reported that, when half-way to the Range, they passed some good country consisting of rich red soil, producing good stock bushes but all exceedingly dry. A belt of country deserving the attention of prospectors was also noted. Having rested some time at the Range, they set out to examine, if possible, the western side of the desert they had just traversed, but lack of water compelled them to take an extreme westerly course to the Murchison by way of Mount Monger, passing through a country covered with miserable thicket on a sandy soil with granite outcrops. On the 1st of January, 1892, they reached their destination, when the majority of the members left the party, and the leader was recalled to Adelaide.

At the termination of the original expedition, or rather before its conclusion was absolutely determined on, L.A. Wells made a flying trip into the district lying between Giles’s track of 1876 and Forrest’s route of 1874. Starting from his depot at Welbundinum, he completed the examination of what was practically the whole of the still unexplored portion in about six weeks, between the 23rd of February and the 4th of April. During this expedition he travelled 834 miles, discovered some fine ranges and hills, a large extent of pastoral country, some apparently auriferous land, but no water of a permanent kind. The results were indeed very promising, more valuable than those of the original Elder Expedition, and Wells, whose hopes had risen with the success, was intensely disappointed to find on his return that the expedition had been disbanded. Both Lindsay and Wells were natives of South Australia, Lindsay having been born at Goolwa, and Wells at Yallum station in the south-east, which was owned by his father and uncle. Wells joined the Survey Department of South Australia when but eighteen, and at twenty-three was appointed assistant-surveyor to the North Territory Border expedition. On the settlement of the border question he returned to Adelaide, and is now engaged on the Victoria River.

20.3. Wells and Carnegie in the northern desert

By this time the gold rush to the southern portion of Western Australia had set in strong, and the country that had so long repelled the pastoral pioneer by its aridity was now overrun with prospectors, their camps supplied with water by condensers at the salt lakes and pools. At first the loss of life was very great; for it was not likely that a district that could be safely traversed only by the hardiest and most experienced bushmen would freely yield its secrets to untried men. Of the many deaths that occurred from thirst, no complete record will ever be available. Some unrecognisable and mummified remains may some day be found amid the untrodden waste; but few have yet been tempted to break in upon the solitude of the dead men of the desert.

As the southern goldfields spread and became thickly-populated, the food supply was an important question, and men’s eyes naturally turned to the well-stocked northern stations, from which many cattle were being sent south by steamer. Though the distance overland was not prohibitive, the belt of desert country that intervened, upon which Warburton to his sorrow was the first to venture, forbade the passage of stock. This belt of Sahara extended, roughly speaking, from the eastern border of the colony to the head waters of the western coastal rivers. North and south it lay between the parallels of 19 degrees and 31 degrees south. As yet no daring attempt had been made to traverse its barren confines from south to north. But, to the born explorer, difficulty and danger give an added zest to geographical research; and in the year 1896 two separate expeditions sought to cross this dreadful zone. Both left civilization within a few days of each other. The first to start was known as the Calvert Expedition, from its originator. It was under L.A. Wells, the South Australian surveyor who had been the energetic second of the former Elder Expedition. The other was equipped and led by the Honourable David Carnegie.

Wells formed a depot at a spot well provided with camel feed and water, at some distance to the south-west of Forrest’s Lake Augusta, which he found, at that time, dry. Here he left the main part of his caravan to await his return whilst he made a flying trip to the north. He was away from the 10th of August to the 8th of September, during which he found at his furthest point, a distance of two hundred miles, a good native well, which he named Midway Well. On the 14th of September the whole party made a start, and reached Midway Well on the 29th, all well. At Separation Well, another good well a little farther to the north, the party separated, C.F. Wells, a cousin of the leader, and G.L. Jones, intending to travel for about eighty miles in a north-west direction to examine the country, and then to return on a north-east course and rejoin the caravan at Joanna Springs, which had relieved Warburton in his extremity. About thirty miles south of Joanna Springs, where the leader expected the two men to cut his tracks, Wells found his camels suffering terribly from the extreme heat and their labours among the constantly-recurring sand-ridges, whilst the scanty native wells they found were insufficient to give their camels water. When at last they reached the latitude of Joanna Springs they had been obliged to abandon three camels and all their equipment except the actual necessaries.

It was also evident that the longitude of the springs given by Warburton was wrong, for all the country around was a sandy desert without the slightest indication of well or spring. To linger in such a spot was to court destruction, and they had to push on to the Fitzroy as fast as their worn-out camels could take them. The reader will remember that Warburton had failed to find A.C. Gregory’s most southerly point on Sturt’s Creek when looking for it, and it was afterwards proved that Joanna Springs had been charted by him about ten miles to the westward of its true position. On the 7th of November, in the darkness of morning they at last reached the Fitzroy, with the camels just at their last gasp.

On the 16th of December, Wells, accompanied by that veteran pioneer N. Buchanan, formerly of Queensland, started back with an Afghan, a native boy, and eight camels, to look for the two men, who he hoped had succeeded in finding Joanna Springs. He was absent until the 10th of January, 1897, when he was forced to return unsuccessful. At the beginning of April, taking with him his former companions of the expedition, Wells renewed the search, and on the 9th at last succeeded in identifying the Joanna Springs of Warburton. On the 13th some articles belonging to the lost men were found amongst the natives, but he did not at that time find the bodies. He started again with two members of the West Australia police force, Sub-Inspector Ord and Trooper Nicholson, and native trackers. This time they were successful in inducing some natives to guide them to the exact spot where the remains lay amongst the spinifex and sand. The bodies were within six miles of the place where, on the last search expedition, Wells had found articles of equipment with the natives.

G.L. Jones had kept a journal which supplied the clue to the cause of their death.

“He stated in his journal,” says Wells, “that they had gone west-north-west for five days after separating from the main party, then travelling a short distance north-east, and that both he and Charles felt the heat terribly and were both unwell. They then returned to the well (Separation Well) after an absence of nine days, rested at the water five days, and then started to follow our tracks northward. Afterwards one of their camels died, which obliged them to walk a great deal, and they became very weak and exhausted by the intense heat. When writing he says that two days previously he attempted to follow their camels, which had strayed, but after walking half-a-mile he felt too weak to proceed and returned with difficulty. There was at that time about two quarts of water remaining to them, and he did not think they could last long after that was finished.”

From the above extract from Wells’s Journal, it is evident that the unfortunate men lost their lives through a mistake in judgment in returning to Separation Well, the straying away of their camels, and the merciless rays of the desert sun.

The account of this, the first expedition to cross the great sandy desert from south to north, confirms in every particular Warburton’s experiences of the difficulties of exploration in that region. The intense heat of the sun, and its radiation from the red sand-ridges, the heat from both sky and earth, render it nearly impossible to travel during day, the only time when a man can perceive those slight indications which may eventually lead him to water. The traveller is therefore compelled to make night-stages, and frequently passes unheeding the very pool or well that would have saved his life. During the night not only are the natural physical features difficult to discern, but the birds, those water-guides of the desert, are sleeping.

As soon as the news that Jones and Wells were missing was wired to Perth, the West Australian Government promptly despatched W.P. Rudall in charge of a search-party, from Braeside station on the Oakover River.

Crossing into the desert country, Rudall, guided by blacks, came upon a camp in which footsteps, supposed to be those of the missing men, were traceable. His camels failing him, the tracks were lost, and he was obliged to return. A second search was likewise fruitless, but rumours brought in by the natives of straying camels, caused a third party to be organised. Rudall this time went south of the head of the Oakover, and penetrated the dry spinifex country below the Tropic. Here the bodies of two men, supposed to have been murdered by the natives, were found, but on further investigation it was decided that the remains were not those of the men they were searching for. On his return Rudall started out on a final trip, and penetrated to a point sixty miles south of Joanna Spring before returning. Though these journeys were not successful in attaining the initial object of their search, they were of great service in gaining much information concerning the hitherto unknown desert. Running easterly into this dry belt, Rudall found a creek, which is now known as the Rudall River.

Four days after Wells had started, the Honourable David Carnegie, fourth son of the ninth Earl of Southesk, born March 23rd, 1871, left an outpost of civilization called Doyle’s Well, some fifty miles south of Lake Darlot, intending to cross Warburton’s Desert on a north-easterly course, about two hundred miles to the east of the route pursued by surveyor Wells. The objects of this purely private expedition were (1) extension of geographical knowledge; (2) the desire to ascertain if any practicable stock-route existed between Kimberley and Coolgardie; (3) the discovery of patches of auriferous country within the confines of the desert. In the two last objects Carnegie was doomed to disappointment, but as a geographical contribution to our scanty knowledge of north-west Australia, the outcome of his repeated journey was distinctly valuable.

Carnegie started with three white men and a native boy, and for many days passed through country that afforded no water for the camels; of which they had nine. A native was induced to lead them to a singular spring situated in a cavern twenty-five feet underground. Though the water was not easy of access, having to be hauled up by bucket to the surface, there was an ample supply for the camels, and, as Carnegie considered the well to be permanent, he named it the Empress Spring.

The discovery of this subterranean spring was indeed a godsend, as when they eventually reached Forrest’s Alexander Spring they found it dry. A similar experience had befallen W.W. Mills who, after Forrest’s exploration, had attempted to take over a mob of camels in Forrest’s tracks.

Strangely enough a lagoon of fresh water was found at the foot of the creek in which the spring was situated, and this satisfied their wants. From this sheet, which was named Woodhouse Lagoon, the party kept a nearly northerly course across what Carnegie calls in his book “the great undulating desert of gravel.” Over this terrible region of drought and desolation the party made their painful way by the aid of miserable native wells, found with the greatest difficulty, and a few chance patches of parakeelia, until they were relieved by finding, through the good offices of an aboriginal guide, a beautiful spring which was named Helena Spring. They were then seven days out from Woodhouse Lagoon, and during the last days of the stage they had been travelling across most distressing parallel sand-ridges.

From Helena Spring Carnegie struggled on, intending to strike the northern settlements at Hall’s Creek where there is a small mining township. On the way there, while still in unexplored country, they discovered one more oasis, in a rock hole, which was called Godfrey’s Tank, after Godfrey Massie, one of the party. On November 25th, 1896, they congratulated themselves that they were at last clear of the desert and its desolation, having come out on to a well-watered shady river, running towards the northern coast. But a sad accident turned their rejoicing into mourning. Charles Stansmore accidentally slipped on a rock when out shooting, and his gun going off, he was shot through the heart and died instantly. His friend Carnegie speaks most highly of him, and his sudden death on the threshold of success was a sad blow to the company. Stansmore was the third explorer to lose his life from a gun accident.

At Hall’s Creek Carnegie heard of the misfortune that had befallen Wells, in the loss of two of his party, and he at once volunteered his assistance; but as search-parties had already started out, his aid was not required. He therefore rested for a short time before again trying conclusions with the desert on the return journey. Sturt’s Creek was by this time occupied and stocked, and the party followed it down until they arrived at its termination in Gregory’s Salt Sea. From this point Carnegie kept a southerly course to Lake Macdonald near the South Australian border, passing on his way a striking range which he named the Stansmore Range, after his unfortunate companion. Lake Macdonald was long thought to be a continuation of Lake Amadeus, until the exploration of Tietkins in 1889 proved its isolation. From Lake Macdonald, Carnegie, who had now three horses in his equipment, kept a more south-westerly course towards the Rawlinson Range, the endless sand-dunes still crossing his track in dreary succession. So persistently did they rise across his path that, on one day, eighty-six of them were crossed by the caravan during a progress of eight hours. From the Rawlinson Range they kept on the same south-west course until they struck their outward track at Alexander Spring. A fall of rain fortunately replenished the spring shortly after the arrival of the party. They reached Lake Darlot on the 15th of July, and their desert pilgrimage was ended.

Not only did Carnegie get safely across the dreaded desert, but he returned overland to his starting-point by a different route. He wrote a book, Spinifex and Sand, which contains a most interesting account of this journey, as well as a graphic and picturesque description of the physical features of the Great Sandy Desert.

Carnegie died before he had made more than this one contribution to Australian geography. Like the ill-fated Horrocks, he had the explorer’s ardent spirit. His restless and adventurous soul ever leading him onward to the frontiers of settlement and the outskirts of civilised life, he fell beneath a shower of poisoned arrows at Lokojo in Nigeria, on the west coast of Africa, on the 27th of November, 1900.

20.4. Hann and Brockman in the north-west

The isolation of that remote corner of the continent in which Grey had made his maiden effort at exploration, added to the discouraging and forbidding report brought back by Alexander Forrest of his repulse by the King Leopold Range, had deterred further exploration there. Frank H. Hann, who had been a Queensland pioneer, came over to Derby, and, after one or two tentative excursions into the desert country to the south, had his attention drawn to the unknown country to the north of the King Leopold Range. Hann crossed the range with difficulty; but after examining the country to the north and east on the coast side of the range, he was so well satisfied with its pastoral capabilities that he returned to Derby and applied for a pastoral lease.

Wishing to make a closer examination of the locality, he returned accompanied by Sub-Inspector Ord. Some of the tributaries of the Fitzroy were traced and named, and an extensive river, which Hann called the Phillips, was afterwards re-named the Hann by the Surveyor-General of Western Australia. One very rugged range could not be surmounted, and had to be skirted to the east, as the only apparent gap was an impassable gorge with precipitous sides, through which the Fitzroy River forced a passage. It was named the Sir John Range. After more good pastoral country was found, the party returned to Derby. Hann afterwards, in 1903, made the first of several trips from Laverton, Western Australia, to Oodnadatta in South Australia. He reported having found a practicable stock-route, of which he was chiefly in search, as far as the Warburton Ranges, and some pastoral land north and west of Elder Creek. Since then he made another journey with the same object in view, but encountered extremely dry weather and underwent many hardships. Hann was born in Wiltshire, in 1846, and came to Victoria with his parents at a very early age. He spent most of his life squatting in North Queensland, where he held several station properties.

In the first year of the present century the Western Australian Government followed up Hann’s explorations north of the King Leopold Range, by a larger and better-equipped party instructed to make a thorough examination of the region. It was placed in charge of F.S. Brockman, a Government surveyor, who had with him C. Crossland as second, F. House as naturalist, and Gibbs Maitland as geologist.

Brockman was born in Western Australia in 1857, was educated at Bishop’s College, and after a spell in the bush on his father’s properties, he joined a Government Survey camp, as cadet. In 1879 he started as surveyor on his own account. From 1882 to 1897 he was employed by the Lands and Survey Department in many parts of Western Australia from Cambridge Gulf in the north to the Great Bight in the south. At the time when he was selected to lead the Kimberley expedition, he was Controller of the Field Survey Staff.

Brockman was most successful in securing full information of this long-secluded region; of its geographical, geological, and botanical details. Many interesting photographs were obtained of the different physical features and of the aborigines and their modes of life; amongst them being views of rock paintings similar to the mysterious scenes noticed by Grey during his first expedition to the Glenelg River.

The party left Wyndham on Cambridge Gulf and proceeded first southwards and then to the westward to the Charnley River, which had been discovered by Frank Hann. The tributary waters of the Glenelg and Prince Regent Rivers, and the tidal rivers that flow into Collier and Doubtful Bays were also visited, and Brockman traced the Roe River from its source to its outflow in Prince Frederick Harbour. The Moran River was discovered, and its whole course traced to the mouth in the same inlet. The head waters of the King Edward River were discovered at the watershed; and this river was again met lower down and its course traced to its exit. Portions of the shores of Admiralty Gulf, Vansittart, and Napier Broome Bay were closely examined with a view to selecting a suitable port for the district. The most important practical result of the expedition was the discovery of an area of six million acres of basaltic pastoral country covered with blue grass, Mitchell and kangaroo grasses, and many varieties of what is known as top feed. No auriferous country was found, but some fine specimens of the baobab tree were seen, some of them averaging fifty feet in diameter.

We have now turned the last page of the story of those bold spirits who played no mean part in the making of Australasia by exploring the continent. For nearly a century and a quarter the white man had been restlessly searching out and traversing every square mile of the land, and now, at the beginning of the twentieth century, his work is finished. And throughout the long struggle it had ever been a stubborn conflict between the explorer and the inert forces of Nature. Through the weary toilsome years of arduous discovery, Man and Nature had seldom marched side by side as friends and allies. When Nature posed as the explorer’s friend and guide, it was often only to lure him on with a smiling face to his doom. From the days when the soldier of King George the Third went forth with his firelock on his shoulder, computing the distance he covered by wearily counting the number of paces he trudged, to the day when the modern adventurer aloft on his camel eagerly scans the horizon of the red desert in search of the distant smoke of a native fire, and then patiently tracks the naked denizen of the wilderness to his hoarded rock-hole or scanty spring, the explorer has ever had to fight the battle of discovery unaided by Nature. The aborigines generally either feigned ignorance of the nature of the country, or gave only false clues and misguiding directions. Even the birds and animals of the untrodden regions seemed to resent the advance of civilization, and to delight in leading the footsteps of the white intruder astray. Hence it was by slow degrees, by careful study of the work of his predecessors in the field, and often by heeding the warning conveyed in their unhappy fate, that the Australian explorer added to the sum of knowledge of his country, and step by step unveiled the hidden mysteries of the continent.