CHAPTER XI. THE PROBLEM OF THE RIVERS
Oxley's explorations on the Lachlan and the Macquarie - Immigration policy - Oxley in Moreton Bay - Foundation of Brisbane - Lockyer explores the Brisbane River - Explorations of Hume and Hovell - Alan Cunningham explores the Liverpool Range - Sturt's explorations - He discovers the Darling - Discovery of the Murray - Its exploration to the sea - The naming of the Murray - Mitchell discovers Australia Felix - The Hentys at Portland.
The discovery of a practical route across the Blue Mountains opened the interior of Australia, first to exploration and secondly to settlement. Often the early settler was himself an explorer; for, whilst the names of some men who undertook long and hazardous journeys with the specific object of investigation stand out on the records of history, there were hundreds who contributed to the work of discovery by the process of seeking for good pasturage and watercourses. A great void continent wherein there was not a yard of cultivated land beyond the limits of the small east-coast colony and its few offshoots, awaited revelation. That it was a continent was now known; Flinders had shattered the theory that it was a group of islands. But little more than that was known till after 1813. An area of 2,983,200 square miles, full of incalculable possibilities, lay, as it had lain for an eternity, remote and unavailable, the inviolate sanctuary of 'cenotaphs of species dead elsewhere.'
George Evans, the Deputy Surveyor-General, showed what might be expected when, following up the path cleared by Blaxland, Lawson, and Wentworth, he discovered the Macquarie and Lachlan Rivers watering the rich Bathurst Plains. In 1815 the town of Bathurst was founded, the first inland town in Australia. Governor Macquarie utilised convict labour to construct a good road across the mountains to this new centre of activity.
From this time commenced a series of explorations which rapidly revealed the inland geography of the continent. The first important name in the story is that of John Oxley. He was a naval officer who had secured the Surveyor-Generalship on the recommendation of Flinders, and who, being young and energetic, was not content to confine himself to his Sydney office, but desired to take the lead in discovery. The problem to which he directed his attention was the course of the two rivers which had been named after the Governor, the Lachlan and the Macquarie. They rose in the Blue Mountains; Evans, had traced them for a few miles; they ran westerly; but whither? It took over twenty years fully to discover that these, and a wonderful spread of watercourses of which they formed part, were contributors to the immense basin of the Murray, which, with its principal tributary the Darling, makes one of the great river systems of the world.
On his journey of 1817 Oxley followed the windings of the Lachlan for hundreds of miles over a dead level plain, through shallow, reedy lagoons, and finally to a point where the river became a succession of stagnant pools leading to a mere damp depression in the earth. The volume of water which had borne his boats in the upper reaches had been sucked up by the spongy soil before it reached the Murrumbidgee. Oxley had, in fact, made an astonished acquaintance with that strange phenomenon of Australia, where nature starts many a fine river but gives it no firm channel wherein to flow, so that the water evaporates from the intense heat of the plains, or percolates into the earth and perhaps helps to fill those subterranean cauldrons of rock which modern pastoralists have learnt to tap with artesian bores.
In the watershed of the Macquarie, which was explored after the baffling adventures on the Lachlan, Oxley found 'a country of running waters, on every hill a spring and in every valley a rivulet.' The prospects were so inviting that he led a second expedition to investigate this river in 1818. But here again a broad, deep, vigorously flowing stream flattered the travellers at the beginnings of their journey, and mocked them by disappearing after carrying their boats for about a hundred and fifty miles. It flowed over a great plain, maintained its current through a chain of sprawling pools, and then, as Oxley recorded, 'without any previous change in the breadth, depth, and rapidity of the stream, and when I was sanguine in the expectation of soon entering the long-sought-for lake, it all at once eluded our further pursuit by spreading at all points from north-west to north-east over the plains of reed that surrounded us, the river decreasing in depth from upwards of twenty feet to less than five feet and flowing over a bottom of tenacious blue mud.'
On his return journey to Sydney across the Liverpool Plains, Oxley and his party crossed twelve rivers, including the Castlereagh and the Namoi (or Peel). The whole of them had their origin on the west side of the mountains, and flowed inland. What became of them on occasions when their channels carried a full flood of water through their entire length, instead of losing it on the way, was still an unsolved enigma. Oxley, who had been accompanied by Allan Cunningham, the botanist, and by Evans, had completed the longest land journey yet achieved in Australia, a very adventurous and difficult piece of work, much of it in rough country, all of it in country previously untraversed by Europeans.