John Lort Stokes.

Discoveries in Australia, Volume 2 Discoveries in Australia; with an Account of the Coasts and Rivers Explored and Surveyed During the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, in The Years 1837-38-39-40-41-42-43. By online

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Online LibraryJohn Lort StokesDiscoveries in Australia, Volume 2 Discoveries in Australia; with an Account of the Coasts and Rivers Explored and Surveyed During the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, in The Years 1837-38-39-40-41-42-43. By → online text (page 17 of 35)
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assuming the same appearance as the one we were on, but higher. Our
game-bag was thinly lined with small curlews, oyster-catchers, and

A sandy spit connects Magnetical Island on the south side with the main,
and must be sufficiently shoal at low water to allow the natives to ford
over; for we found no canoes with those we met on the island, who were
numerous and apparently very well disposed. Although not a large race,
they were in very good condition; part of their food, is the native yam,
called warran in Western Australia. The birds on the island are common to
other parts; and the wallaby, of which Mr. Bynoe shot three, are light


On the evening of the 13th, we again proceeded on our passage; the night
was hazy, with a few slight squalls, much resembling the weather which we
had before experienced in the same place. Towards the close of the 15th,
we anchored eight miles from Cape Tribulation, bearing North 11 degrees
West. The summit of Snapper Island, bore South 7 degrees East six miles;
by which we found that both it and the coast are placed on the charts too
much to the eastward.

In passing Point Barrow I was very much struck with the similarity which
the low line of cliffs, running along the summit of the high land, bears
to that on the Victoria River.* We avoided the reef off Cape Flinders, by
following the directions given in the first volume, and by making a
detour to the southward round Princess Charlotte's Bay, were enabled to
keep underweigh all night.

(*Footnote. See Sketches.)


Continuing, we reached Restoration Island soon after dark on the 19th. It
was rather a confined anchorage, to be taken up at that hour with five
ships. Our arrival was under rather singular circumstances. The night
being dark, we could not make out even the outline of the high rocky
island, which appeared one dark mass; and the meeting of the land and sea
was only occasionally distinguished by patches of white, where the water
broke against the steep rocky sides of the island. Not a sound came from
the shore as we drew near our berth; but no sooner did the heavy splash
of the anchor, and the noise of the cable running out, resound among the
heights, than one loud yell of startled natives seemed to rise from one
end of the island to the other. The discharge of a signal rocket,
however, that curved its flight over the island, instantaneously quieted
the uproar, and a death-like silence succeeded.


In the morning we found that the island was occupied by a party of
natives from Torres Strait. Their canoes, which were furnished with
outriggers, were hauled up on the beach, and their spears were deposited
in the bushes around, ready for immediate use; but, although they seemed
to suspect our friendly intentions towards them at first, no disturbance
occurred, and some were prevailed upon to come on board. Their presence
forcibly reminded us of the melancholy fate of the crew of the Charles
Eaton; and no doubt they had come to the southward on a wrecking
expedition. They were a much finer race of men, than those met with on
the shores of the continent; their voices sounded softer, and their
language appeared quite different. They instantly recognized the drawing
of a Murray Island canoe, in Flinders' Voyage, and constantly kept
repeating the word toolic, meaning iron, in the Murray Island language.
The lobe of their ears was perforated with a large piece of bone; and
their hair was like that which I have before described as crisp. I
noticed that their spears were all pointed with bone, and that the shafts
in those used for fishing were large, with a coil of line attached, and a
string also connecting the head, which came loose when a porpoise or
turtle was struck; whilst the wood, floating, acted as a drag. At
daylight on the 21st we proceeded on our passage.

About four or five miles to the southward of Endeavour River, we passed
some discoloured patches near the shore; and thereabouts a shoal has
since been discovered. Having before expressed an opinion that there was
a safe passage through Endeavour Strait, I resolved to take this
opportunity of setting the question at rest. Before passing between the
Possession Isles, towards the entrance of it, I acquainted the rest of
the convoy with my intentions, to give them the option of taking the
chance of a passage with me, or of proceeding by the ordinary route. They
chose the former, and we accordingly entered the Strait, which we found
navigable for vessels drawing 18 feet, by passing about a mile and a half
to the northward of the Wallis Islands, steering a westerly course. In
crossing the ridge extending off Cape Cornwall, the least water was 3 1/2
fathoms at low tide; North Wallis Island bearing South 64 degrees East
seven miles. There still, however, appeared to be more water to the
southward, which determined me to examine this passage more minutely on
my return from the Gulf. A course was now held for Booby Island, where we
anchored in the evening (the 23rd).


It was my intention, in order that we might commence our exploration of
the Gulf with a good supply, to have searched for water in Port Lihou, on
the south side of Cook Island, in Endeavour Strait; but the ships in
company being able to supply us the delay was avoided. Since our last
visit, the book at the Post Office, on Booby Island, had been destroyed
by some mischievous visitors, and the box was in a very dilapidated
state. We repaired the latter, and left a new book with a supply of pens
and ink.

A ton or two of water was also procured from some holes in the rocks on
the island. I have before spoken of the heaps of stone which Captain King
concluded were erected by seamen; but Dr. Wilson, in his Voyage round the
World, mentions some cairns of stone on certain islands to the northward,
not previously visited by Europeans, and which must have therefore been
the work of natives.


Mr. Bynoe was fortunate enough to procure two pigeons of a new species
(Ptilinopus superbus) and of beautiful colours; the breast being dark
purple, the crown of the head red, and the other parts green; besides one
specimen of a bird, of the same genus as one on the Abrolhos, generally
called a quail, but with this difference, that it only lays four eggs,
whereas quails lay fourteen or fifteen. It is known to the colonists as
the Painted Quail; and has been called by Mr. Gould, from the specimen we
got on Booby Island, Haemipodius melinatus.


Leave Booby Island.
Eastern shore of Gulf.
Van Diemen's Inlet.
Exploration of.
Party of Natives.
Level country.
Visit Bountiful Islands.
Description of them.
Sail for Sweers Island.
Investigator Road.
Record of the Investigator's visit.
Dig a well.
Boats explore island and coast to the westward.
Sweers and Bentinck Islands.
Take ship over to the main.
Another boat expedition leaves.
Ship proceeds to the head of the Gulf.
Discovery and exploration of Disaster Inlet.
Narrow escape.
Description of Interior.
Wild Fowl.
Explore coast to the eastward.
Discover the Flinders.
The Cuckoo.
Ascent of the river.
Night scene.
Burial tree.
Return to the ship.
Exploration of south-western part of Gulf.
Large inlets discovered.

June 26.

The vessels forming our convoy departed this morning, and soon
disappeared in the western horizon, leaving the Beagle, that seemed
destined to be a solitary roamer, once more alone at anchor under Booby

On the same evening she was herself pursuing her lonely way towards the
Gulf of Carpentaria, the eastern shore of which we saw on the morning of
the 1st of July. In the afternoon we anchored in 3 1/4 fathoms; the north
end of a very low sandy piece of coast, which we found to be in latitude
16 degrees 13 1/2 minutes South, longitude 9 degrees 10 East of Port
Essington, bearing South 70 degrees East, six miles and a half. From this
place the coast trended South 10 degrees West, and was fringed with
mangroves; a few straggling casuarinas grew near the sandy parts, a
feature which we constantly afterwards found to recur; their tall
broom-like shapes form a remarkable element in the coast scenery of the


A fruitless attempt was made to visit the shore, which was fronted for
the distance of a mile by a bank of soft mud. We could therefore gain no
information respecting the interior; but from the numerous fires, it
appeared to be thickly inhabited. It was here that we first observed the
singular phenomenon of the tides ebbing and flowing twelve hours.


Next day the coast was examined for fifteen miles to the southward; its
general character has already been given, which renders it unnecessary to
dilate further here. North-east winds now forced us away from the land,
and we did not see it again till the morning of the 3rd; when, finding as
much as four fathoms within two miles and a half of a projection, we
named it, in consequence, Bold Point. It is in latitude 17 degrees 0
minutes South, longitude 8 degrees 48 minutes East of Port Essington, and
is rendered conspicuous by two clumps of trees. North 23 degrees West two
miles from Bold Point, we observed an opening, and after anchoring the
ship as near the entrance as possible, I left with the whaleboats,
accompanied by Messrs. Forsyth, Fitzmaurice, and Tarrant, to examine it,
early in the afternoon. The view annexed, taken by Lieutenant Gore, just
after the boats had shoved off, will give the reader an excellent idea of
the appearance of the south-eastern shore of the Gulf of Carpentaria,
from a distance of only two miles. In this view, a gull, resting on the
back of a sleeping turtle, will attract the attention of the reader.

Proceeding, we crossed the bar, extending three quarters of a mile off
the mouth of the inlet, on which we found only two feet at low-water. The
coast on each side was sandy, with clumps of trees, and to the northward
was fronted by an extensive flat of sand. The first reaches of the inlet
promised well, having a depth of from 1 1/2 to 3 fathoms, and a width of
from two to three hundred yards; but it ultimately became much narrower,
and so torturous that, after following its windings for twenty-seven
miles, we had only advanced eight miles in a South 60 degrees East
direction from the entrance. It then divided - one branch trending south,
and the other east; and each being only fifteen yards wide and two feet
deep, the water quite salt, and the mangroves on either side, moreover,
almost meeting, rendered it impossible to proceed further. Our hopes had
been buoyed up as we advanced, an impression prevailing that we had
discovered a river, from our finding that at low tide the water was
simply brackish. I can only account for this by supposing that there was
an imperceptible drainage of fresh water through the banks.

The highest part of the country we saw was on the south side of one of
the reaches, six miles from the mouth; but even there the utmost
elevation was only ten feet. This rise was marked by a growth of
tolerable-sized eucalypti. Elsewhere the banks were scarcely three feet
above high-water level, and generally fringed with mangroves, behind
which in many places were extensive clear flats, reaching occasionally
the sides of the inlet towards the upper parts, and forming at that time
the resort of large flights of the bronze-winged pigeon.

In many of the reaches we met with flocks of wild ducks, of the white and
brown, and also of the whistling kind. The birds we had not before seen
were a large dark brown species of rail, so wary that I could never get
within shot of it, and a rather small blackbird with a white crest. A few
of the large species of crane, called the Native Companion, were also
seen. The only kind of fish taken was the common catfish.


Alligators were very numerous for the first fifteen miles as we ascended;
and we saw a party of natives, but did not communicate with them. Their
astonishment at the appearance of such strange beings as ourselves must
have been very great. It could never before have fallen to their lot to
behold any of the white race; and until our presence undeceived them,
they must have been living in happy ignorance that they were not the only
specimens of humanity upon the face of the earth.

There was little to interest us in our examination of this inlet,
especially as the Dutch had probably visited it some two hundred years
before; thus destroying the principal charm it would have possessed,
namely, that of novelty. We inferred this from there being an opening
laid down in this neighbourhood by them as Van Diemen's River. I, in
consequence, continued the name, altering river to inlet; though,
probably, at times, it may deserve the appellation of a river, as after
heavy falls of rain it must contain fresh water. Our finding the water
only brackish near the head favours this supposition.

The habitations of the natives were of a more substantial kind than we
should have expected to meet with in these latitudes, being snug
oval-shaped huts, thatched with coarse grass. The extremely low level
nature of the country, the reader can imagine, as also how much it
surprised us to find that from the boat at high-water our eyes could
wander over miles. Occasionally on the plains, rendered warm from their
colour reflecting the powerful beams of the sun, were to be seen whirling
clouds of dust, towering upwards until their centrifugal force became
exhausted. The temperature, however, was lower about four in the morning
than we had noticed it since leaving Sydney, being only 65 degrees, when
easterly or land winds prevailed; those in the afternoon were generally
from seaward.

A slight rise, even of ten feet, in the water beyond the tidal change,
must overflow a vast portion of such very low country; many evidences of
this having taken place were observed.*

(*Footnote. At the entrance of Van Diemen's Inlet it is high-water on the
full and change of the moon at a quarter to seven; but in the upper part
the tides are three hours and a quarter later. The length of both flood
and ebb is twelve hours, and the direction of the former stream from the
northward, following the eastern shore of the Gulf.)


The formation of this part of the continent is of very recent date, as we
did not observe any rock; and the soil is chiefly alluvial. The only
fresh water found was at a native well, half a mile South-East from the
eastern entrance point of the inlet.

In the morning of the 5th, the boats reached the ship. During our absence
a few natives had made their appearance on the beach, attending some
fires, it seemed, on a hunting excursion. Several grampuses were seen at
the anchorage, also many dugongs and turtles.

In the evening the Beagle was standing across the Gulf towards Bountiful
Islands. I found that with the winds we had experienced the last few days
it would be the most expeditious way of completing our survey of the Gulf
to proceed at once to the head of it, as we should then have a fair wind,
to examine the coast back to Van Diemen's Inlet.

I also resolved to ascertain if the supply of water that Flinders found
on Sweers Island was still to be obtained; and on our way thither
determined on visiting Bountiful Islands, where we arrived accordingly on
the morning of the 6th. The greatest depth we had in crossing the Gulf
was 15 fathoms, the nature of the bottom being a fine dark sandy mud.

Bountiful Islands form the eastern part of a group called Wellesley
Islands, and were so named by Flinders from the great supply of turtle he
found there. As, however, it was two months before the season of their
visiting the shores, we only caught twelve, for the most part females.
Near the islands was noticed the same shrubby thick compact kind of
seaweed, that had previously been seen on the parts of the North-west
coast frequented by the turtle. Flinders speaks of finding here in one
turtle as many as 1,940 eggs; and such is their fecundity that were it
not for the destruction of the young by sharks and birds of prey, these
temperate seas would absolutely swarm with them.

Our anchorage was in 7 fathoms, three quarters of a mile South-East from
the highest hill, which I called Mount Flinders; it stands close to the
beach, near the east end of the island, and is in latitude 16 degrees 40
minutes 0 seconds South, longitude 7 degrees 45 minutes 25 seconds East
of Port Essington.


Bountiful Islands, two in number, are distant a mile and a half in a
North-East direction from each other. The northern and largest is two
miles and a half long, and three-quarters of a mile wide; whilst the
other is rather more than half a mile each way, and has at the northern
end a mound with a remarkable casuarina tree on its summit. Both are
fronted with coral reefs, particularly at the North-East extreme; there
are some cliffs on the south-east side of the large island of sand and
ironstone formation, the latter prevailing; and over the low
north-western parts a ferruginous kind of gravel was scattered. The
crests of the hills or hillocks were of a reddish sort of sandstone, and
so honeycombed or pointed at the top that it was difficult to walk over


Near the landing-place, at the foot of Mount Flinders, were a few
isolated gum-trees, and small clusters of the casuarina, which were the
only trees on the northern island. Some drift timber was on the
south-east and north-west sides. On the latter was a tree of considerable
size, doubtless brought from the shore of the Gulf by the North-West
monsoon. Its whole surface was covered with a long brown kind of grass,
interwoven with creepers. There were great quantities of a
cinnamon-coloured bittern seen, as well as quails, doves, and large
plovers, but not any of the bustards mentioned by Flinders. We saw no
traces of land animals of any kind; neither did we of the natives. A
flock of screaming white cockatoos had taken up their abode on the south
island, where also some bulbs of the Angustifolia were found. A few small
fish, besides sharks, were caught alongside the ship.

I was surprised to find the tides an hour later than at Van Diemen's
Inlet; their velocity, likewise, was increased to two knots; the
flood-stream came from the north-east at the anchorage.


July 7.

At daylight, we left for Sweers Island; but owing to light winds, chiefly
easterly, did not reach Investigator Road, between Sweers and Bentinck
Islands, before the afternoon of the 8th. The soundings on the way were
generally 9 fathoms, fine sandy mud. A small islet, lying off the
South-East side of Bentinck Island, and forming the immediate eastern
side of the Road, I named after the first lieutenant of the Investigator,
now Captain Fowler.

Under Mount Inspection, a hill 105 feet high, and the most remarkable
feature hereabouts, on the South-East extreme of Sweers Island, a party
of twelve natives was observed as we passed. They gazed silently at us,
making no demonstration of joy, fear, anger, or surprise. It is possible
they may have been stupefied by the appearance of that wonderful creation
of man's ingenuity - a ship; in their eyes it must have seemed a being
endowed with life walking the waters, for purposes to them
incomprehensible, on a mission to the discovery of which they could not
even apply the limited faculties they possessed. Fortunately or
unfortunately for them - according as we determine on the value of
civilization to the aboriginal races of the South - they did not possess
the fatal, or salutary, curiosity that prompts most men to attempt
fathoming the depth of whatever is mysterious. Restrained by their fears,
or by their ignorant, or philosophical indifference, they did not again
show themselves: and though when we landed we once or twice thought we
heard sounds of life in our vicinity, the natives of the island never
again came under our observation. It is remarkable that the same
circumstance happened to Flinders. He also perceived human beings at a
distance; but when he endeavoured to communicate with them, they retired,
as he mentions, to some of the caverns that exist on the island, and were
seen no more.


Sweers Island appeared to be very woody, and bounded by low dark cliffs
on the north-east side. We found a long extent of foul ground, with a dry
reef near its outer end, extending off two miles in a South 33 degrees
East direction from the South-East extreme. Our anchorage was in 5 1/2
fathoms, nearly abreast of a remarkable and solitary sandy point on the
above-mentioned island. As we beat up, the navigable width between this
and Fowler Island was found to be one mile, and the depth 4 and 5


A party was immediately despatched in search of the Investigator's well.
Previous to landing, the whole island appeared to be perfectly alive with
a dense cloud of small flying animals, which, on our reaching the shore,
proved to be locusts in countless numbers, forming a complete curtain
over the island. They rose from the ground in such prodigious flights at
each footstep that we were absolutely prevented from shooting any of the
quails with which the island abounds. This annoyance, however, was only
experienced for the first day or two, as the locusts winged their flight
to Bentinck Island, leaving the trees only laden with them; out of these
they started, when disturbed, with a rushing noise like surf on a pebbly


The Investigator's old well was discovered half a mile eastward of the
point, to which I gave the name of Point Inscription, from a very
interesting discovery we made of the name of Flinders' ship cut on a tree
near the well, and still perfectly legible, although nearly forty years
old, as the reader will perceive from the woodcut annexed. On the
opposite side of the trunk the Beagle's name and the date of our visit
were cut.

It was thus our good fortune to find at last some traces of the
Investigator's voyage, which at once invested the place with all the
charms of association, and gave it an interest in our eyes that words can
ill express. All the adventures and sufferings of the intrepid Flinders
vividly recurred to our memory; his discoveries on the shores of this
great continent, his imprisonment on his way home, and cruel treatment by
the French Governor of Mauritius, called forth renewed sympathies. I
forthwith determined accordingly that the first river we discovered in
the Gulf should be named the Flinders, as the tribute to his memory which
it was best becoming in his humble follower to bestow, and that which
would most successfully serve the purpose of recording his services on
this side of the continent. Monuments may crumble, but a name endures as
long as the world.

Being desirous of ascertaining if now, in the dry season, water could be
obtained in other parts of the island, I ordered a well to be dug on the
extreme of Point Inscription, a more convenient spot for watering a ship,
and at a depth of 25 feet met excellent water, pouring through a rock of
concreted sand, pebbles, and shells.

Our success may be attributed, as Flinders says, to the clayey
consistence of the stratum immediately under the sand, and to the
gravelly rock upon which that stratum rests; the one preventing the
evaporation of the rains, and the other obstructing their further


This was a very important discovery, as Investigator Road is the only
anchorage for vessels of all sizes at the head of the Gulf in either
monsoon, and possesses an equal supply of wood, fish, and birds, with
turtle close at hand on Bountiful Islands. Moreover, should an expedition
be formed for the purpose of exploring the interior from the head of the
Gulf, it is, as Flinders remarks, "particularly well adapted for a ship
during the absence of the travellers." In addition to this, it is a point
at which an expedition would first arrive to arrange plans for the
future; and lastly, I should observe that in case of our being fortunate
enough to find rivers or fertile country on the southern shores of the
Gulf, we at once saw that we might look forward to the time when
Investigator Road* should be the port from which all the produce of the
neighbouring parts of the continent must be shipped, and when it should

Online LibraryJohn Lort StokesDiscoveries in Australia, Volume 2 Discoveries in Australia; with an Account of the Coasts and Rivers Explored and Surveyed During the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, in The Years 1837-38-39-40-41-42-43. By → online text (page 17 of 35)