Page images
PDF
EPUB

years. For a moment we shall gaze on those vast ruins of nature— lifeless among the tropics, blasted amid perpetual sunshine; and then all is conjecture-how far do they extend ? What lies beyond them? Where have they entombed the lost expeditions which ventured into them? Through all these changing scenes we shall find a great empire growing up. We shall see it occupying new territories ; and we shall pass through great territories which it is yet to occupy: Not indeed that the explorer is far ahead of his fellow-colonists. Australian occupation has kept close on the heels of Australian discovery. If we find the explorer much in advance of the settler, we may be sure that the way is too difficult, or the information too scanty for immediate pursuit. Since the Australian colonist took to flock-keeping, there never was a time when he did not want more land. He would have explored for himself, but that the discovery of secure halting-places- sometimes few and far between-made absolutely necessary this division of labour. The occupation of the Australian colonies has been entirely peaceful, but it has never been continuous. From time to time, settlers suddenly poured into new districts, while all beyond seemed a desert. Then, while flocks and herds were multiplying and demanding new pastures, again commenced the task of the explorer. Thus, while the Australian colonist was obliged to leave the management of exploration mainly in the hands of his Government, he watched the proceedings of the Government exploring expeditionis pretty closely. Not seldom, he was tending his flocks and rearing his homestead on the scene of some discovery before the Governor's despatch had reached England. Great and prosperous cities, too, we leave on the route behind us. We pass through a wilderness, and, in a few years, it is an independent colony, constructing its roads and its railways, making its own laws, and astonishing us by its wealth. On the future of these colonies we have not now to speculate. However closely commerce and politics have pursued the Australian explorer, his duties are clear and distinct; and at present we propose merely to trace the progress of geographical discovery through the great continent which it has recently added to the four quarters of the globe.

Some fifty years ago, a thriving English town had grown up on the shores of Port Jackson. The Governor's house was of stone. The judge and a few government officers had brick; but the main portion of the inhabitants were content with plastered logs and shingled roofs. Yet the people of Sydney felt no small pride in their town. They would have liked a

little more land for their few sheep and cows. But the flocks on which they relied roamed through far different pastures. When the season came round, they sailed away down the great Southern Ocean, and came back laden with black oil and sperm. Their harbour was the finest in the world, sending its arms in among their cottages and town gardens, and capable of containing the whole British navy; their log huts were bathed in everlasting sunshine, and business was good. From the sparkling waters of the Bay to the Blue Mountains behind, all was bustle and activity – whalers from Europe and America refitting, immigrants landing, new houses building, and vineyards and orange-groves creeping round the Bay. Such as it was, it comprehended all the English in Australia. Through those Blue Mountains no man could find a way to the boundless regions which lay beyond. Rewards were offered for the discovery of a mere sheep-track. The more adventurous citizens risked life and limb - not always without fatal results-in clambering up and down their craggy sides, and peeping into their black fissures. At length, the long-sought pass was discovered. In 1813, Mr. Evans, a Government surveyor, found himself, after repeated attempts, on the other side of the Blue Mountains, and, with care and great labour, retraced his steps to Sydney. Immediately the pent-up flocks and herds of the colonists poured themselves out over Bathurst Plains and the western districts of New South Wales; and the people of Sydney began to desert their town gardens for sheep-feeding and wool-growing.

But a new impediment arose. Land was to be had for the taking of it, but there was scarcely any water. Ruin hung over the head of the flockowner who was not within reach of a permanent stream. An unusually dry summer left him a beggar. In vain he hurried his flocks to the nearest watering-place. They strewed the way with their carcasses. All the permanent streams were quickly occupied. New South Wales was not to be a great wool-growing country after all, unless more rivers could be discovered. To little purpose they had searched Europe for the sheep most famous for their wools, if these priceless animals were now to die of thirst. . The Government surveyors were instructed to be always on the look-out for rivers. mised to be the death of the Government surveyors. Such rivers no man ever heard of before. They all ran inland. They stopped when least expected, leaving no visible channel or watercourse. Sometimes they were as salt as the waters of the ocean; at another period of the year they contained excellent drinking water. Now they formed merely a chain of ponds;

Rivers proand now, in a perfectly dry season, they boiled over their banks, filling whole valleys with crashing timber, and sweeping away the apparently secure homesteads which had sprung up on their shores. In 1818, Mr. Oxley, the Surveyor-General, on a river exploration, was surprised to find the Lachlan and the Macquarie, the most important rivers then known, ending in vast reedy marshes. What did become of the rivers had already been repeatedly discussed. The records of Cook, and the Dutch and French maritime discoverers, had been searched; but they contained no notice of any considerable stream finding its way to the ocean - certainly none within thousands of miles along the sea-coast from Sydney. Mr. Oxley's discovery now appeared to bring the discussion to an end. It was now laid down, as beyond all doubt, that the interior was an immense sea, into which all the rivers emptied themselves, either by ordinary channels or by underground passages.

In 1828, Captain Sturt, an officer of the 39th Regiment, then stationed at Sydney, set out, with the approval of the Colonial Government, to explore Mr. Oxley's inland sea. But, on sailing down the Macquarie to the point marked on Mr. Oxley's chart, all trace of sea or lake had disappeared. • The channel, which had promised so well, without any

change in its breadth or depth, ceased altogether, and, while * we were yet lost in astonishment at so abrupt a termi* nation, the boat grounded.' The reeds were still there, but the whole country beyond, as far as his party could travel, contained not a drop of water. Abandoning all hope of taking up the Macquarie again, Captain Sturt struck into a more northern course, and came upon the Darling — a river far exceeding in size the Lachlan or the Macquarie. From a sloping bank on which his party stood, stretched, some forty feet below them, a magnificent stream, seventy or eighty yards broad, evidently ' very deep, and literally covered with pelicans and other wild • fowl.' Eagerly the men, parched under an almost tropical sun, and after several days' toil, rushed down its green bank to taste its waters. Nor shall I ever forget the cry of amazement that • followed their doing so, or the looks of terror and disappoint* ment with which they called out to inform me that the water

was so salt as to be unfit to drink.' Further search was now impossible, and a hasty retreat was made to Sydney.

It was not quite so certain now that there was an inland sea. Many abandoned the theory altogether. Yet how was a district, larger than Spain and Portugal put together, drained ? Every settler could tell of the mighty foods which had swept away his sheep, his cattle, his farmyards, and, not seldom, his farm

was salt.

servants and shepherds. Where did these mighty floods go to, or bow were they carried off? The freshwater streams had been found to disappear altogether, after a short course inland. The Darling, which was quite large enough for a main drain,

Yet whole seas went somewhere, for Mr. Oxley's sea had disappeared before Captain Sturt could overtake it. Nothing was to be discovered by following the course of the ordinary sluggish freshwater streams. Creeping through a vast extent of level country, more like canals than rivers, they were stopped by the first impediment that came in their way. Captain Sturt, whose arguments we are repeating, could trace their cessation to nothing stronger than a bank of more than ordinarily stiff soil. To solve the mystery, it was necessary to follow the course of some more impetuous stream. The Australian Alps, lying to the south of the Settlement, supplied such a stream. A thousand rills, fed by its snows, joined themselves into one impetuous torrent, and dashed down a steep and rocky channel. No ordinary impediment was likely to stop the Murrumbidgee, and Captain Sturt determined to trace its stream whither it might lead. The settlers who had already secured its green banks reported that it made directly for the interior, and showed no signs of abated strength. They would have followed its course themselves but that it exhibited unmis.takeable symptoms of leaving behind it the rich fertility which marked its early progress. In 1829, Captain Sturt started on a journey with which may be said to commence the history of the Australian colonies.

Striking the Murrumbidgee at Yass Plains, about 300 miles from Sydney, he proceeded along its banks with a large and well-equipped party. The stream continued to gain in breadth and body of water, but all appearance of fertility was fast disappearing from its course. In little more than a week after its departure from Yass Plains, the expedition found itself in an absolute desert. The drays, loaded with provisions and other necessaries, bad caused immense labour to the men from the shifting sandy nature of the soil and the dense patches of scrub' which grew down to the water's edge; but now neither horses nor men could bring them any further. Yet a stream so impetuous in its course was not to be abandoned. A friend, who still held fast to the theory of an inland sea, had prevailed on the leader of the expedition to add the timbers of an old whaleboat, which had already seen service at the South Pole, to his equipments on leaving Sydney. They were nailed together, and a small raft, capable of carrying a few bags of flour, was constructed from the fallen timber on the river's

The re

bank. Half a dozen picked men were retained. mainder, with the drays, were sent back to Sydney. And, next morning, at break of day, this small boat's crew dropped down the stream, bound for that mysterious and unknown Interior, which, alike, the European and the savage of the coast regarded with curiosity and awe.

The Murrumbidgee is composed of alternate deep and broad reaches of water, and steep rapids. In these rapids, the stream, contracted within a narrow channel, hurries through a dark and gloomy gorge, deep down between frowning and precipitous rocks, hid from the sun by dense overhanging woods. Successive ages had almost choked up these sunless chasms with fallen trees, whose branches, pointing up stream, threatened to rip up the boat. On the seventh day of the voyage, from one of these sunless rapids the boat unexpectedly shot out into a broad and noble river, running at right angles to its tributary, the Murrumbidgee. In a country singularly deficient and uncertain in its means of communication by water, they had discovered a river not unworthy to be classed with the great watercourses of Europe, and doubtless owing its broad stream to the unfailing snows of the Australian Alps. Wherever the Murray might lead them, at least it solved a very important portion of their inquiry. It was certainly the main artery of New South Wales.

I directed,' says Captain Sturt, the Union Jack to be hoisted, and, giving way to our satisfaction, we all stood up in the boat, and gave three distinct cheers.'

More safely the whaleboat now dropped down the even tide of the Murray, and on the thirty-third day of the voyage on its stream, the banks retired on each side, and then were lost in the distance. The explorers found themselves floating on the bosom of an extensive lake, becoming slightly brackish as they advanced, while over its waters was borne the distant thunder of the great Southern Ocean. To this was given the name of Lake Alexandrina, and Sturt's observations showed him that he had cut off the south-eastern corner of the continent. Indeed, Lake Alexandrina is separated from the Southern Ocean merely by a narrow bar of shifting sand. The shores of the lake were clothed with green pastures, and the whole surrounding country seemed excellently adapted for agriculture - a want beginning to be severely felt by the colonists of New South Wales, who were already getting their wheat and potatoes from Van Diemen's Land, and even from New Zealand. It is almost unnecessary to say that the Adelaide district has since become the granary of Australia, producing the finest wheat in the world,

« PreviousContinue »