Charles Sturt.

Two Expeditions into the Interior of Southern Australia — Volume 2 online

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but the greater number retired at sunset.

On the following morning, they accompanied us down the river, where we
fell in with their tribe, who were stationed on an elevated bank a
short distance below - to the number of eighty-three men, women, and
children. Their appearance was extremely picturesque and singular. They
wanted us to land, but time was too precious for such delays. Some of
the boldest of the natives swam round and round the boat so as to
impede the use of the oars, and the women on the bank evinced their
astonishment by mingled yells and cries. They entreated us, by signs,
to remain with them, but, as I foresaw a compliance on this occasion
would hereafter be attended with inconvenience, I thought it better to
proceed on our journey, and the natives soon ceased their
importunities, and, indeed, did not follow or molest us.


The river improved upon us at every mile. Its reaches were of noble
breadth, and splendid appearance. Its current was stronger, and it was
fed by numerous springs. Rocks, however, were more frequent in its bed,
and in two places almost formed a barrier across the channel, leaving
but a narrow space for the boats to go down. We passed several
elevations of from 70 to 90 feet in height, at the base of which the
stream swept along. The soil of these elevations was a mixture of clay
(marl) and sand, upon coarse sandstone. Their appearance and the manner
in which they had been acted upon by water, was singular, and afforded
a proof of the violence of the rains in this part of the interior. From
the highest of these, I observed that the country to the S.E. was
gently undulated, and so far changed in character from that through
which we had been travelling; still, however, it was covered with a low
scrub, and was barren and unpromising.

About noon of the 18th, we surprised two women at the water-side, who
immediately retreated into the brush. Shortly after, four men showed
themselves, and followed us for a short distance, but hid themselves
upon our landing. The country still appeared undulated to the S.E.; the
soil was sandy, and cypresses more abundant than any other tree. We
passed several extensive sand-banks in the river, of unusual size and
solidity, an evident proof of the sandy nature of the interior
generally. The vast accumulations of sand at the junctions of every
creek were particularly remarkable. The timber on the alluvial flats
was not by any means so large as we had hitherto observed it; nor were
the flats themselves so extensive as they are on the Morumbidgee and
the Macquarie. Notwithstanding the aspect of the country which I have
described, no POSITIVE change had as yet taken place in the general
feature of the interior. The river continued to flow in a direction
somewhat to the northward of west, through a country that underwent no
perceptible alteration. Its waters, confined to their immediate bed,
swept along considerably below the level of its inner banks; and the
spaces between them and the outer ones, though generally covered with
reeds, seemed not recently to have been flooded; while on the other
hand, they had, in many places, from successive depositions, risen to a
height far above the reach of inundation. Still, however, the more
remote interior maintained its sandy and sterile character, and
stretched away, in alternate plain and wood, to a distance far beyond
the limits of our examination.

About the 21st, a very evident change took place in it. The banks of
the river suddenly acquired a perpendicular and water-worn appearance.
Their summits were perfectly level, and no longer confined by a
secondary embankment, but preserved an uniform equality of surface back
from the stream. These banks, although so abrupt, were not so high as
the upper levels, or secondary embankments. They indicated a deep
alluvial deposit, and yet, being high above the reach of any ordinary
flood, were covered with grass, under an open box forest, into which a
moderately dense scrub occasionally penetrated. We had fallen into a
concavity similar to those of the marshes, but successive depositions
had almost filled it, and no longer subject to inundation, it had lost
all the character of those flooded tracts. The kind of country I have
been describing, lay rather to the right than to the left of the river
at this place, the latter continuing low and swampy, as if the country
to the south of the river were still subject to inundation. As the
expedition proceeded, the left bank gradually assumed the appearance of
the right; both looked water-worn and perpendicular, and though not
more than from nine to ten feet in height, their summits were perfectly
level in receding, and bore diminutive box-timber, with
widely-scattered vegetation. Not a single elevation had, as yet, broken
the dark and gloomy monotony of the interior; but as our observations
were limited to a short distance from the river, our surmises on the
nature of the distant country were necessarily involved in some


On the 19th, as we were about to conclude our journey for the day, we
saw a large body of natives before us. On approaching them, they showed
every disposition for combat, and ran along the bank with spears in
rests, as if only waiting for an opportunity to throw them at us. They
were upon the right, and as the river was broad enough to enable me to
steer wide of them, I did not care much for their threats; but upon
another party appearing upon the left bank, I thought it high time to
disperse one or the other of them, as the channel was not wide enough
to enable me to keep clear of danger, if assailed by both, as I might
be while keeping amid the channel. I found, however, that they did not
know how to use the advantage they possessed, as the two divisions
formed a junction; those on the left swimming over to the stronger body
upon the right bank. This, fortunately, prevented the necessity of any
hostile measure on my part, and we were suffered to proceed unmolested,
for the present. The whole then followed us without any symptom of
fear, but making a dreadful shouting, and beating their spears and
shields together, by way of intimidation. It is but justice to my men
to say that in this critical situation they evinced the greatest
coolness, though it was impossible for any one to witness such a scene
with indifference. As I did not intend to fatigue the men by continuing
to pull farther than we were in the habit of doing, we landed at our
usual time on the left bank, and while the people were pitching the
tents, I walked down the bank with M'Leay, to treat with these
desperadoes in the best way we could, across the water, a measure to
which my men showed great reluctance, declaring that if during our
absence the natives approached them, they would undoubtedly fire upon
them. I assured them it was not my intention to go out of their sight.
We took our guns with us, but determined not to use them until the last
extremity, both from a reluctance to shed blood and with a view to our
future security. I held a long pantomimical dialogue with them, across
the water, and held out the olive branch in token of amity. They at
length laid aside their spears, and a long consultation took place
among them, which ended in two or three wading into the river,
contrary, as it appeared, to the earnest remonstrances of the majority,
who, finding that their entreaties had no effect, wept aloud, and
followed them with a determination, I am sure, of sharing their fate,
whatever it might have been. As soon as they landed, M'Leay and I
retired to a little distance from the bank, and sat down; that being
the usual way among the natives of the interior, to invite to an
interview. When they saw us act thus, they approached, and sat down by
us, but without looking up, from a kind of diffidence peculiar to them,
and which exists even among the nearest relatives, as I have already
had occasion to observe. As they gained confidence, however, they
showed an excessive curiosity, and stared at us in the most earnest
manner. We now led them to the camp, and I gave, as was my custom, the
first who had approached, a tomahawk; and to the others, some pieces of
iron hoop. Those who had crossed the river amounted to about
thirty-five in number. At sunset, the majority of them left us; but
three old men remained at the fire-side all night. I observed that few
of them had either lost their front teeth or lacerated their bodies, as
the more westerly tribes do. The most loathsome diseases prevailed
among them. Several were disabled by leprosy, or some similar disorder,
and two or three had entirely lost their sight. They are, undoubtedly,
a brave and a confiding people, and are by no means wanting in natural
affection. In person, they resemble the mountain tribes. They had the
thick lip, the sunken eye, the extended nostril, and long beards, and
both smooth and curly hair are common among them. Their lower
extremities appear to bear no proportion to their bust in point of
muscular strength; but the facility with which they ascend trees of the
largest growth, and the activity with which they move upon all
occasions, together with their singularly erect stature, argue that
such appearance is entirely deceptive.


The old men slept very soundly by the fire, and were the last to get up
in the morning. M'Leay's extreme good humour had made a most favourable
impression upon them, and I can picture him, even now, joining in their
wild song. Whether it was from his entering so readily into their
mirth, or from anything peculiar that struck them, the impression upon
the whole of us was, that they took him to have been originally a
black, in consequence of which they gave him the name of Rundi. Certain
it is, they pressed him to show his side, and asked if he had not
received a wound there - evidently as if the original Rundi had met with
a violent death from a spear-wound in that place. The whole tribe,
amounting in number to upwards of 150, assembled to see us take our
departure. Four of them accompanied us, among whom there was one
remarkable for personal strength and stature. - The 21st passed without
our falling in with any new tribe, and the night of the 22nd, saw us
still wandering in that lonely desert together. There was something
unusual in our going through such an extent of country without meeting
another tribe, but our companions appeared to be perfectly aware of the
absence of inhabitants, as they never left our side.

Although the banks of the river had been of general equality of height,
sandy elevations still occasionally formed a part of them, and their
summits were considerably higher than the alluvial flats.


It was upon the crest of one of these steep and lofty banks, that on
the morning of the 22nd, the natives who were a-head of the boat,
suddenly stopped to watch our proceedings down a foaming rapid that ran
beneath. We were not aware of the danger to which we were approaching,
until we turned an angle of the river, and found ourselves too near to
retreat. In such a moment, without knowing what was before them, the
coolness of the men was strikingly exemplified. No one even spoke after
they became aware that silence was necessary. The natives (probably
anticipating misfortune) stood leaning upon their spears upon the lofty
bank above us. Desiring the men not to move from their seats, I stood
up to survey the channel, and to steer the boat to that part of it
which was least impeded by rocks. I was obliged to decide upon a hasty
survey, as we were already at the head of the rapid. It appeared to me
that there were two passages, the one down the centre of the river, the
other immediately under its right bank. A considerable rock stood
directly in own way to the latter, so that I had no alternative but to
descend the former. About forty yards below the rock, I noticed that a
line of rocks occupied the space between the two channels, whilst a
reef, projecting from the left bank, made the central passage
distinctly visible, and the rapidity of the current proportionably
great. I entertained hopes that the passage was clear, and that we
should shoot down it without interruption; but in this I was
disappointed. The boat struck with the fore-part of her keel on a
sunken rock, and, swinging round as it were on a pivot, presented her
bow to the rapid, while the skiff floated away into the strength of it.
We had every reason to anticipate the loss of our whale-boat, whose
build was so light, that had her side struck the rock, instead of her
keel, she would have been laid open from stem to stern. As it was,
however, she remained fixed in her position, and it only remained for
us to get her off the best way we could. I saw that this could only be
done by sending two of the men with a rope to the upper rock, and
getting the boat, by that means, into the still water, between that and
the lower one. We should then have time to examine the channels, and to
decide as to that down which it would be safest to proceed. My only
fear was, that the loss of the weight of the two men would lighten the
boat so much, that she would be precipitated down the rapid without my
having any command over her; but it happened otherwise. We succeeded in
getting her into the still water, and ultimately took her down the
channel under the right bank, without her sustaining any injury. A few
miles below this rapid the river took a singular bend, and we found,
after pulling several miles, that we were within a stone's throw of a
part of the stream we had already sailed down.

The four natives joined us in the camp, and assisted the men at their
various occupations. The consequence was, that they were treated with
more than ordinary kindness; and Fraser, for his part, in order to
gratify these favoured guests, made great havoc among the feathered
race. He returned after a short ramble with a variety of game, among
which were a crow, a kite, and a laughing jackass (alcedo gigantea,) a
species of king's-fisher, a singular bird, found in every part of
Australia. Its cry, which resembles a chorus of wild spirits, is apt to
startle the traveller who may be in jeopardy, as if laughing and
mocking at his misfortune. It is a harmless bird, and I seldom allowed
them to be destroyed, as they were sure to rouse us with the earliest
dawn. To this list of Fraser's spoils, a duck and a tough old cockatoo,
must be added. The whole of these our friends threw on the fire without
the delay of plucking, and snatched them from that consuming element
ere they were well singed, and devoured them with uncommon relish.


We pitched our tents upon a flat of good and tenacious soil. A brush,
in which there was a new species of melaleuca, backed it, in the
thickest part of which we found a deserted native village. The spot was
evidently chosen for shelter. The huts were large and long, all facing
the same point of the compass, and in every way resembling the huts
occupied by the natives of the Darling. Large flocks of whistling
ducks, and other wild fowl, flew over our heads to the N.W., as if
making their way to some large or favourite waters. My observations
placed us in lat. 34 degrees 8 minutes 15 seconds south, and in east
long. 141 degrees 9 minutes 42 seconds or nearly so; and I was at a
loss to conceive what direction the river would ultimately take. We
were considerably to the N.W. of the point at which we had entered it,
and in referring to the chart, it appeared, that if the Darling had
kept a S.W. course from where the last expedition left its banks, we
ought ere this to have struck upon it, or have arrived at its junction
with the stream on which we were journeying.


The natives, in attempting to answer my interrogatories, only perplexed
me more and more. They evidently wished to explain something, by
placing a number of sticks across each other as a kind of diagram of
the country. It was, however, impossible to arrive at their meaning.
They undoubtedly pointed to the westward, or rather to the south of
that point, as the future course of the river; but there was something
more that they were anxious to explain, which I could not comprehend.
The poor fellows seemed quite disappointed, and endeavoured to beat it
into Fraser's head with as little success. I then desired Macnamee to
get up into a tree. From the upper branches of it he said he could see
hills; but his account of their appearance was such that I doubted his
story: nevertheless it might have been correct. He certainly called our
attention to a large fire, as if the country to the N.W. was in flames,
so that it appeared we were approaching the haunts of the natives at

It happened that Fraser and Harris were for guard, and they sat up
laughing and talking with the natives long after we retired to rest.
Fraser, to beguile the hours, proposed shaving his sable companions,
and performed that operation with admirable dexterity upon their chief,
to his great delight. I got up at an early hour, and found to my
surprise that the whole of them had deserted us. Harris told me they
had risen from the fire about an hour before, and had crossed the
river. I was a little angry, but supposed they were aware that we were
near some tribe, and had gone on a-head to prepare and collect them.


After breakfast, we proceeded onwards as usual. The river had increased
so much in width that, the wind being fair, I hoisted sail for the
first time, to save the strength of my men as much as possible. Our
progress was consequently rapid. We passed through a country that, from
the nature of its soil and other circumstances, appeared to be
intersected by creeks and lagoons. Vast flights of wild fowl passed
over us, but always at a considerable elevation, while, on the other
hand, the paucity of ducks on the river excited our surprise. Latterly,
the trees upon the river, and in its neighbourhood, had been a tortuous
kind of box. The flooded-gum grew in groups on the spaces subject to
inundation, but not on the levels above the influence of any ordinary
rise of the stream. Still they were much smaller than they were
observed to be in the higher branches of the river. We had proceeded
about nine miles, when we were surprised by the appearance in view, at
the termination of a reach, of a long line of magnificent trees of
green and dense foliage. As we sailed down the reach, we observed a
vast concourse of natives under them, and, on a nearer approach, we not
only heard their war-song, if it might so be called, but remarked that
they were painted and armed, as they generally are, prior to their
engaging in deadly conflict. Notwithstanding these outward signs of
hostility, fancying that our four friends were with them, I continued
to steer directly in for the bank on which they were collected. I
found, however, when it was almost too late to turn into the succeeding
reach to our left, that an attempt to land would only be attended with
loss of life. The natives seemed determined to resist it. We approached
so near that they held their spears quivering in their grasp ready to
hurl. They were painted in various ways. Some who had marked their
ribs, and thighs, and faces with a white pigment, looked like
skeletons, others were daubed over with red and yellow ochre, and their
bodies shone with the grease with which they had besmeared themselves.
A dead silence prevailed among the front ranks, but those in the back
ground, as well as the women, who carried supplies of darts, and who
appeared to have had a bucket of whitewash capsized over their heads,
were extremely clamorous. As I did not wish a conflict with these
people, I lowered my sail, and putting the helm to starboard, we passed
quietly down the stream in mid channel. Disappointed in their
anticipations, the natives ran along the bank of the river,
endeavouring to secure an aim at us; but, unable to throw with
certainty, in consequence of the onward motion of the boat, they flung
themselves into the most extravagant attitudes, and worked themselves
into a state of frenzy by loud and vehement shouting.


It was with considerable apprehension that I observed the river to be
shoaling fast, more especially as a huge sand-bank, a little below us,
and on the same side on which the natives had gathered, projected
nearly a third-way across the channel. To this sand-bank they ran with
tumultuous uproar, and covered it over in a dense mass. Some of the
chiefs advanced to the water to be nearer their victims, and turned
from time to time to direct their followers. With every pacific
disposition, and an extreme reluctance to take away life, I foresaw
that it would be impossible any longer to avoid an engagement, yet with
such fearful numbers against us, I was doubtful of the result. The
spectacle we had witnessed had been one of the most appalling kind, and
sufficient to shake the firmness of most men; but at that trying moment
my little band preserved their temper coolness, and if any thing could
be gleaned from their countenances, it was that they had determined on
an obstinate resistance. I now explained to them that their only chance
of escape depended, or would depend, on their firmness. I desired that
after the first volley had been fired, M'Leay and three of the men,
would attend to the defence of the boat with bayonets only, while I,
Hopkinson, and Harris, would keep up the fire as being more used to it.
I ordered, however, that no shot was to be fired until after I had
discharged both my barrels. I then delivered their arms to the men,
which had as yet been kept in the place appropriated for them, and at
the same time some rounds of loose cartridge. The men assured me they
would follow my instructions, and thus prepared, having already lowered
the sail, we drifted onwards with the current. As we neared the
sand-bank, I stood up and made signs to the natives to desist; but
without success. I took up my gun, therefore, and cocking it, had
already brought it down to a level. A few seconds more would have
closed the life of the nearest of the savages. The distance was too
trifling for me to doubt the fatal effects of the discharge; for I was
determined to take deadly aim, in hopes that the fall of one man might
save the lives of many. But at the very moment, when my hand was on the
trigger, and my eye was along the barrel, my purpose was checked by
M'Leay, who called to me that another party of blacks had made their
appearance upon the left bank of the river. Turning round, I observed
four men at the top of their speed. The foremost of them as soon as he
got a-head of the boat, threw himself from a considerable height into
the water. He struggled across the channel to the sand-bank, and in an
incredibly short space of time stood in front of the savage, against
whom my aim had been directed. Seizing him by the throat, he pushed
backwards, and forcing all who were in the water upon the bank, he trod
its margin with a vehemence and an agitation that were exceedingly
striking. At one moment pointing to the boat, at another shaking his
clenched hand in the faces of the most forward, and stamping with
passion on the sand; his voice, that was at first distinct and clear,
was lost in hoarse murmurs. Two of the four natives remained on the
left bank of the river, but the third followed his leader, (who proved
to be the remarkable savage I have previously noticed) to the scene of
action. The reader will imagine our feelings on this occasion: it is
impossible to describe them. We were so wholly lost in interest at the
scene that was passing, that the boat was allowed to drift at pleasure.
For my own part I was overwhelmed with astonishment, and in truth
stunned and confused; so singular, so unexpected, and so strikingly
providential, had been our escape.


We were again roused to action by the boat suddenly striking upon a
shoal, which reached from one side of the river to the other. To jump
out and push her into deeper water was but the work of a moment with
the men, and it was just as she floated again that our attention was
withdrawn to a new and beautiful stream, coming apparently from the
north. The great body of the natives having posted themselves on the
narrow tongue of land formed by the two rivers, the bold savage who had

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Online LibraryCharles SturtTwo Expeditions into the Interior of Southern Australia — Volume 2 → online text (page 7 of 18)