Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

Through the Great Unknown

Up to the time when Macquarie came to govern New South Wales nothing at all was known of Australia inland. The Blue Mountains, beautiful and rugged, defied every attempt to cross them. Among others, gallant George Bass had tried. But he was less successful by land than by sea and he discovered nothing.

But now the colony was growing larger, and the settlers began to feel themselves cramped between the mountains and the sea. They had need of larger pastures to feed their sheep and grow their corn, so three young men determined to find out what lay behind the mountains. And, taking with them food enough to last six weeks, they set out.

They had a hard task before them. They had to cut their way through woods where no white man at least had ever passed before. Across dark valleys, up and down steep cliffs, now crawling along narrow ledges, now clambering up rocky heights, they reached at last the western side of the hills. There they saw the land open out in rolling, fertile plains, and knew that they had found what meant new life and wealth to the colony.

"The dauntless three! for twenty days and nights

These heroes battled with the haughty heights;

For twenty spaces of the star and sun

These Romans kept their harness buckled on;

By gaping gorges, and by cliffs austere,

These fathers struggled in the great old year;

Their feet they set on strange hills scarred by fire;

Their strong arms forced a path through brake and briar;

They fought with nature till they reached the throne

Where morning glittered on the great UNKNOWN.

There, in the time of praise and prayer supreme,

Paused Blaxland, Lawson, Wentworth, in a dream;

There, where the silver arrows of the day

Smote upon slope and spire, they halted on their way.

Behind them were the conquered hills—they faced

The vast green West, with glad, strange beauty graced;

And every tone of every cave and tree

Was as a voice of splendid prophecy."

Returning home, the three told the governor of their discovery, and he, after making sure that what they said was true, set convicts to work to make a broad road across the hills. It took two years to make. Many a valley had to be bridged over, the solid rock had to be blown up. But at last the great work was finished. Then the colonists led their flocks and herds along the road to the grassy plains beyond, which were soon dotted with homesteads, and the town of Bathurst was founded.

After this many travellers set out, eager to fill the great blank of the map of Australia, and it would take many books to tell of all their adventures. With patient courage and wonderful endurance they found, and marked, and named tract after tract of the vast island, each man stealing his little corner from the Unknown and adding it to the Known. To the great work these pioneers gave their health and money and all that they had. Some of them even gave their lives, and lie lost for ever in the great, silent land, no man knowing to this day where their bones rest. Australia has no battlefields. Its peaceful soil has never been soaked in the blood of thousands, its blue skies have never been darkened with the smoke of war. No heroes have fallen to the sound of trumpet and of drum fighting for King and Country. But the men who fought with nature, who suffered hunger and thirst, and all the woes of the desert, who day by day, and hour by hour, showed the courage of endurance, are as well worth remembering as those who, in one quick moment of fervour, thought life well lost for the sake of some great cause. And the names of Hamilton, Hume, Sturt, Eyre, Leichardt, Mitchell, Kennedy and many others stand out in the story of Australia as men who were not afraid to suffer and to die.

We cannot follow all these explorers, you must read their stories elsewhere. But I will tell the story of two, not because they were the greatest or did most, but because they are among the best known, and because they were the first to cross the island-continent from south to north all the way from sea to sea. For when the island had once been crossed from shore to shore there was an end to the wonderful stories that had grown up about the marvels to be found in the middle of it. Some said that there was to be found a great and fertile land, where white people lived in the wealth and luxury of a sort of fairyland; some again said there were great inland seas, boiling rivers, and mountains of fire to be found there. But when the land had been crossed, these stories were at an end, although there was then, and is still, much to be learned.

By the year 1860 the fringes of Australia had been peopled, and although little was known of the interior, the land was divided into five colonies, broken off from the mother colony of New South Wales. Each of these colonies had a capital and a governor of its own. Victoria had its capital, Melbourne; South Australia its capital, Adelaide; Western Australia its capital, Perth; Queensland its capital, Brisbane.

Now the Colony of Victoria decided to send out an expedition to cross the continent As its leader, an Irishman named O'Hara Burke was chosen. No expense was spared to make the expedition a success. Camels were brought on purpose from India, for they, as is well known, can go for a longer time without water than perhaps any other beast of burden. And one of the worst dangers and difficulties in Australian exploration was the want of water. It is to-day the greatest drawback to Australia.

The expedition set off from Melbourne in high spirits. Crowds of people turned out to see it start The mayor made a speech, Burke made another, and amid a storm of good wishes and cheering the long procession of men, laden camels, and horses wound out of sight.

But the expedition which had begun so brightly was soon overshadowed. The leader of the camels quarrelled with Burke, and went back to Melbourne saying that no good would ever come of the expedition under such a leader. And indeed, brave though he was, Burke was not a good commander.

A man named Wills was now made second in command, and the expedition continued its way.

When Menindie on the Darling river was reached, it was found that some of the men and camels were already knocked up and unable to travel fast. But instead of waiting here to rest for a short time, or going on slowly, Burke, who was hot-headed and eager, divided his party into two. Leaving one half under a man named Wright to come on slowly, he pushed on quickly with Wills and six other men to Cooper's Creek. It is not easy to see what Burke hoped to gain by this, for at Cooper's Creek he arranged to wait for the others.

Here there was plenty of grass and water, and while waiting for Wright and his party to arrive, Burke and Wills made many short expeditions, exploring the country round. They found stony deserts and waterless tracts, and nothing very encouraging.

In this way a month went past. Then Burke, impatient at the slowness of Wright, decided to again divide his party. Leaving four men under a leader named Brahe to await Wright, he, with Wills and two others, again set out northward. The men left behind were told to wait three months, and if Burke and Wills did not return they might then give them up as lost and go home.

Having made all their arrangements, the little party set out. On and on, day after day, they trudged. Sometimes they met with bands of natives who, however, were friendly enough. Sometimes the way lay through stony desert, sometimes through fertile plains, or swamps and thick forest. At last they reached the seashore. But a forest of trees and a thick undergrowth of bushes lay between them and the sea, and although Burke and Wills made gallant efforts to struggle through it, they were obliged to turn back without having really seen the water or having stood upon the northern shore.

It was now two months since they had left Cooper's Creek. They were weary and worn. Their food was nearly at an end. And so they made haste to return, lest the men left at Cooper's Creek should, as they had been told, go home believing their leader to be lost in the wilds.

The way northward had seemed hard and long, the way back seemed yet harder. Soon there was nothing left to eat. One camel after another had to be killed for food. The men fell ill, and worn out with hardships, one died.

The three remaining gaunt, lean skeletons struggled on. At last they, with two skinny camels, arrived at Cooper's Creek.

There was no one there.

Upon a tree was a note telling the wretched, weary travellers that the others had left that very morning, and that Wright, who had been left behind at the Darling, had never arrived at all.

It was heart-breaking. Sick and hopeless were the men who that night lay down to sleep in the deserted camp. Burke had mismanaged the expedition badly. Perhaps he knew it, and that made the hardships no easier to bear.

Fortunately Brahe and his party had left some food behind them. They had marked a tree with the word "Dig," and here the travellers found the buried stores.

Now that they had food enough, Wills and the other man, who was called King, proposed that they should rest for a few days until they had regained some strength. But Burke with his impatient spirit would not listen. He proposed to start off again and try to reach home by going through South Australia instead of back as they had come. He wanted to go by way of Mount Hopeless, which had been reached by another explorer some years before.

There was now a sheep farm there, and Burke thought it could not be more than one hundred and fifty miles off.

It seems to us, reading of it long after, a mad and foolish idea. And so it seemed to Wills and King. But they gave way to their leader and the journey began. It was a dismal failure. They lost their way and, at last worn out and once more starving, were obliged to go back. On this return journey Burke and King became so weak that they could go no farther, and alone, Wills returned to Cooper's Creek to bring food to his dying comrades.

Meanwhile, had they only known it, help had been very near. For Brahe, having at last met with Wright, had returned to Cooper's Creek. But finding no one there, and believing that no one had been there in their absence, they all started homeward with the news that the others had perished.

The news was true enough. But it need not have been true if only things had been better managed.

Now, of the three left alone in the wilderness. Wills was the first to die. A few days later Burke followed him, and King alone was left. He kept himself from utterly starving by eating the seeds of a plant called Nardoo. Then he fell in with some friendly blacks who had already helped the forlorn party. With them he stayed until he was found and rescued, for he was not left to die unaided. When Wright and Brahe reached home with their sad news, search parties were at once sent out to find the bodies at least of the brave, misguided men. So King was found. But he was pale and thin, more like a skeleton than a living man, and so weak that he could scarcely speak. But after a few days of care and nursing he grew much better, and was able to tell the sorry story of all his pains and hardships.

The dead bodies of Burke and Wills were found where they had died, and were buried in the wilds. But afterwards they were brought to Melbourne, where they were buried with great ceremony and a monument in their memory was raised.

King received a pension, and the relatives of Burke and Wills were cared for. It is pleasant, too, to know that the kindly blacks were rewarded, although it was only with beads and ribbons, looking-glasses and sugar. To them such things seemed very precious, and they were well pleased.

"Set your face toward the darkness—tell of deserts weird and wide,

Where unshaken woods are huddled, and low languid waters glide;

Turn and tell of deserts lonely, lying pathless deep and vast;

Where in utter silence ever Time seems slowly breathing past—

Silence only broken when the sun is necked with cloudy bars,

Or when tropic squalls come hurtling underneath the sultry stars!

Deserts, thorny, hot and thirsty, where the feet of man are strange,

And eternal Nature sleeps in solitudes which know no change.

Weakened with their lengthened labours, past long plains of stone and sand,

Down those trackless wilds they wandered, travellers from a far-off land,

Seeking now to join their brothers, struggling on with faltering feet,

For a glorious work was finished, and a noble task complete;

And they dreamt of welcome faces—dreamt that soon unto their ears

Friendly greeting would be thronging, with a nation's well-earned cheers;

Since their courage never failed them, but with high, unflinching soul

Each was pressing forward, hoping, trusting all should reach the goal.

Ye must rise and sing their praises, O ye bards with souls of fire,

For the people's voice shall echo through the wailings of your lyre;

And we'll welcome back their comrade,though our eyes with tears be blind

At the thoughts of promise perished, and the shadow left behind;

Now the leaves are bleaching round them—now the gales above them glide,

But the end was all accomplished, and their fame was far and wide.

Though this fadeless glory cannot hide a nation's grief,

And their laurels have been blended with a gloomy cypress wreath.

Let them rest where they have laboured! but, my country, mourn and moan;

We must build with human sorrow grander monuments than stone,

Let them rest, for oh! remember, that in long hereafter time

Sons of Science oft shall wander o'er that solitary clime!

Cities bright shall rise about it. Age and Beauty there shall stray,

And the fathers of the people, pointing to the graves, shall say:

Here they fell, the glorious martyrs! when these plains were woodland deep;

Here a friend, a brother, laid them; here the wild man came to weep."

H. C. Kendall

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