Since the days of Flinders, much discovery had been done in the great new island-continent of Australia. The Blue Mountains had been crossed, and the river Macquarie discovered and named after the governor of that name. But Sturt's famous discovery of the river Darling and his descent of the Murray River rank among the most noteworthy of a bewildering number of lesser expeditions.
Captain Sturt landed with his regiment, the 39th, at Sydney in the year 1827, "to guard the convicts." His first impressions of Sydney are interesting. "Cornfield and orchard," he says, "have supplanted wild grass and brush; on the ruins of the forest stands a flourishing town; and the stillness of that once desert shore is now broken by the bugle and by the busy hum of commerce. It is not unusual to see from thirty to forty vessels from every quarter of the globe riding at anchor at one time."
Sir Ralph Darling, Governor of New South Wales, soon formed a high opinion of Sturt's ability, and when an expedition was proposed into the interior for further exploration, he appointed him leader.
There was a universal opinion in the colony that in the middle of the unknown continent lay a large inland sea. Oxley had made his way to a shallow ocean of reeds where the river Macquarie disappeared; natives spoke of "large waters" containing "great fish." To open up the country and to ascertain the truth of these rumours were the objects of this new expedition which left Sydney in November 1828. It consisted of Hamilton Hume, the first Australian-born explorer, two soldiers, eight convicts, fifteen horses, ten bullocks, and a small boat on a wheeled carriage. Across the roadless Blue Mountains they started, followed the traces of Oxley, who had died just a week before they started, and about Christmas time they passed his last camp and began to break new ground. Through thickets of reeds and marshy swamps they pushed on; the river Macquarie had entirely disappeared, but on 2nd February they suddenly found a large river some eighty yards broad enclosing an unbroken sheet of deep water. "Our surprise and delight," says Sturt, "are better imagined than described. Our difficulties seemed at an end. The banks were too steep to allow of watering the cattle, but the men eagerly descended to quench a thirst increased by the powerful sun. Never shall I forget their cry of amazement, nor the terror and disappointment with which they called out that the water was too salt to drink! Leaving his party, Sturt pushed on, but no fresh water was to be found, so he named the river the Darling, after the Governor, and returned, but not till he had discovered brine springs in the bed of the river, which accounted for its saltness. Sturt had found no inland sea, but in the Darling he had discovered a main channel of the western watershed.
He now proposed to follow the line of the Murrumbidgee, "a river of considerable size and impetuous current," and to trace it if possible into the interior. Several of his old party again joined him, and once more he rode out of Sydney on this new quest.
The journey to the banks of the Murrumbidgee lay through wild and romantic country, but as they journeyed farther, broad reed belts appeared by the river, which was soon lost in a vast expanse of reeds. For a moment or two Sturt was as one stunned; he could neither sleep nor rest till he had regained the river again. When at last he did so he found the water was deep, the current rapid, and the banks high. But he turned on all hands to build the whale-boat which he had designed at Sydney for the purpose. Early in January he writes home: "I was checked in my advance by high reeds spreading as far as the eye can reach. The Murrumbidgee is a magnificent stream. I do not yet know its fate, but I have taken to the boats. Where I shall wander to God only knows. I have little doubt, however, that I shall ultimately make the coast."
By 6th January the boat was ready and Sturt started on his memorable voyage. After passing the junction of the Lachlan, the channel gradually narrowed; great trees had been swept down by the floods and navigation rendered very dangerous. Still narrower grew the stream, stronger the current. "On a sudden, the river took a general southern direction. We were carried at a fearful rate down its gloomy banks, and at such a moment of excitement had little time to pay attention to the country through which we were passing. At last we found we were approaching a junction, and within less than a minute we were hurried into a broad and noble river. It is impossible to describe the effect upon us of so instantaneous a change. We gazed in silent wonder on the large channel we had entered."
The Murrumbidgee had joined the great Murray River as Sturt now called it, after Sir George Murray of the Colonial Department.
To add to the unknown dangers of the way, numbers of natives now appeared in force on the banks of the river, threatening the white men with "dreadful yells and with the beating of spears and shields." Firearms alone saved the little crew, and the rage of the natives was turned to admiration as they watched the white men paddling on their great river while some seventy black men swam off to the boat like "a parcel of seals."
The explorers now found a new and beautiful stream flowing into the Murray from the north, up which the boat was now turned, natives anxiously following along the grassy banks, till suddenly a net stretched across the stream checked their course. Sturt instinctively felt he was on the river Darling again. "I directed that the Union Jack should be hoisted, and we all stood up in the boat and gave three distinct cheers. The eye of every native was fixed upon that beautiful flag as it waved over us in the heart of a desert."
While they were still watching, Sturt turned the head of the boat and pursued his way down the great Murray River. Stormy weather at the end of January set in; though they were yet one hundred and fifteen miles from the coast, the river increased in breadth, cliffs towered above them, and the water dashed like sea-waves at their base.
On the 5th of February they were cheered by the appearance of sea-gulls and a heavy swell up the river, which they knew must be nearing the sea. On the twenty-third day of their voyage they entered a great lake. Crossing to the southern shore, they found to their bitter grief that shoals and sandbanks made it impossible for them to reach the sea. They found that the Murray flowed into Encounter Bay, but thither they could not pass. The thunder of the surf upon the shore brought no hope to the tired explorers. They had no alternative but to turn back and retrace their way. Terrible was the task that lay before them. On half-rations and with hostile natives to encounter they must fight their way against wind and stream. And they did it. They reached the camp on the Murrumbidgee just seventy-seven days after leaving it, but to their dismay it was deserted. The river, too, had risen in flood and "poured its turbid waters with great violence."
Captain Sturt at the junction of the rivers Darling and Murray.
"For seventeen days," says Sturt, "we pulled against stream with determined perseverance, but in our short daily journeys we made but trifling way against it."
The effects of severe toil were painfully evident. The men lost the muscular jerk with the oars. Their arms were nerveless, their faces haggard, their persons emaciated, their spirits wholly spent. From sheer weariness they fell asleep at the oar. No murmur, however, escaped them.
"I must tell the captain to-morrow," said one, thinking that Sturt was asleep, "that I can pull no more." But when the morrow came he said no word, but pulled on with his remaining strength. One man went mad. The last ounce of flour was consumed when relief arrived, and the weary explorers at last reached Sydney with their great news.
The result of this discovery was soon seen. In 1886 a shipload of English emigrants arrived off Kangaroo Island, and soon a flourishing colony was established at the mouth of the Murray River, the site of the new capital being called Adelaide, after the wife of William iv.
After this Sturt tried to cross Australia from south to north; but though he opened up a good deal of new country, he failed to reach the coast. He was rewarded by the President of the Royal Geographical Society, who described him as "one of the most distinguished explorers and geographers of our age."
The feat of crossing Australia from south to north, from shore to shore, was reserved for an Irishman called Burke in the year 1861. The story of his expedition, though it was successful, is one of the saddest in the history of discovery. The party left Melbourne in the highest spirits. No expense had been spared to give them a good outfit; camels had been imported from India, with native drivers, and food was provided for a year. The men of Melbourne turned out in their hundreds to see the start of Burke with his four companions, his camels, and his horses. Starting in August 1860, the expedition arrived at Cooper's Creek in November with half their journey done. But it was not till December that the party divided, and Burke with his companions, Wills, King, and Gray, six camels, and two horses, with food for three months, started off for the coast, leaving the rest at Cooper's Creek to await their return in about three months. After hard going they reached a channel with tidal waters flowing into the Gulf of Carpentaria on 28th March, but they could not get a view of the open ocean because of boggy ground.
The Burke and Wills expedition leaving Melbourne, 1860.
They accomplished their task, but the return journey was disastrous. Short rations soon began to tell, for they had taken longer than they had calculated, and no food was to be found by the way. Gray was the first to fail and to die. Heavy rains made the ground impossibly heavy, and the camels sank to the ground exhausted. Finally they had to be killed and eaten. Then the horses went. At long last the three weary men and two utterly worn-out camels dragged themselves to Cooper's Creek, hoping to find their companions and the food they had left there four months ago. It was 21st April. Not a soul was to be seen!
"King," cried Wills, in utter despair, "they are gone!
As the awful truth flashed on them, Burke—their leader—threw himself on to the ground, realising their terrible situation. They looked round. On a tree they saw the word "Dig." In a bottle they found a letter: "We leave the camp to-day, 21st April 1861. We have left you some food. We take camels and horses."
Burke and Wills at Cooper's Creek.
Only a few hours ago the party had left Cooper's Creek! And the explorers were too weak and tired to follow! They ate a welcome supper of oatmeal porridge and then, after resting a couple of days, they struggled on their way, three exhausted men and two tired camels. Their food was soon finished, and they had to subsist on a black seed like the natives called "nardoo." But they grew weaker and weaker, and the way was long. The camels died first. Then Wills grew too ill to walk, and there was nothing for it but to leave him and push on for help. The natives were kind to him, but he was too far gone, and he died before help could arrive. Burke and King sadly pushed on without him, but a few days later Burke died, and in the heart of Australia the one white man, King, was left alone. It was not till the following September that he was found "sitting in a hut that the blacks had made for him. He presented a melancholy appearance, wasted to a shadow and hardly to be distinguished as a civilised being except by the remnants of clothes on him."
So out of that gay party of explorers who left Melbourne in the summer of 1860 only one man returned to tell the story of success and the sadder story of suffering and disaster.