CHAPTER XX. THE HEART OF THE CONTINENT
Flinders's plan - George Grey's journeys - Eyre's journey to Central Australia - His tramp across the desert - Sturt's journey to the interior - McDouall Stuart reaches the centre - He crosses the continent - Leichhardt's explorations - His fate - Mitchell and the Barcoo - Death of Kennedy - Burke and Wills - Angus Macmillan in Gippsland - Strzelecki - The Forrest brothers - Ernest Giles.
The inland exploration of Australia so far described has chiefly related to the discovery of the great river system. The finding of a route across the Blue Mountains, the tracing of a number of vagrant streams to the Darling, the connection of that far-reaching river and its tributaries with the Murray, and the following of the main trunk of the whole concourse of waters to the sea, forms a distinct chapter in the story, complete in itself. A separate series of inland explorations must now he related, which were concerned in large measure with waterless areas. What was the continent like at its centre? That was the problem which a succession of tough and courageous men set themselves to solve.
Flinders, during his captivity at Mauritius, drew up a plan for penetrating the interior from the head of the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north and the head of Spencer's Gulf in the south with five or six asses to carry provisions for two parties, who were to meet in the middle. He had no conception of what such an enterprise would entail, nor had anyone else. Whether there was a large inland sea, as some supposed, or a great mountain range, as appeared improbable, or a desert, as seemed more likely, were questions upon which there was much speculation. The only way to tell was to go and see. And, apart from the problem of the interior, there was much work to do in the regions lying between established settlements, as between Adelaide and Perth, and Sydney and Melbourne. The traversing of the continent and its unoccupied fringes is, then, the theme of this chapter. We will group the principal expeditions according to the belts of territory with which they were concerned, instead of considering them in chronological order.
The journeys of George Grey, 1837-40, were confined to the western and north-western coastal regions, and did not penetrate far inland. Their chief result was the discovery of the Murchison and Gascoyne Rivers and eight other streams. But they were fine adventures, involving severe privations; and Grey's published narrative of them suggested that the mastering of this region would make high demands upon the skill and endurance of colonists. The distinction brought to Grey by his explorations induced Lord John Russell to confer upon him the governorship of South Australia.
Edward John Eyre was the first to make a considerable acquaintance with the parched belt wherein less than ten inches of rain per annum fall. He was but twenty-five years of age when he undertook on foot a tramp of a thousand miles across as barren a tract of country as the earth contains; but he had already made some difficult journeys with cattle, and his expedition to Lake Torrens in 1839 showed him to be a bold and resourceful explorer. In 1840 he resolved upon a larger enterprise. He would, if he could, penetrate to the heart of the continent.
With funds raised by a committee in Adelaide, Eyre fitted out an expedition. Some of the committee thought that his energies could be more profitably directed to finding a practicable route between Adelaide and King George's Sound, but Eyre's mind was set upon his own plan. He wished to plant in the very middle of Australia a silken Union Jack which had been worked for him by the young ladies of Adelaide.
That distinction was not attained by Eyre, but he did accomplish a very memorable achievement. First he penetrated the Lake Eyre basin till he reached the hill which he called Mount Hopeless. Ahead of him lay a wilderness of sand and salty swamp. His supply of water was exhausted, and no replenishment was to be had in this Lot's-wife country. So he toiled down to the sea coast to gather fresh stores; and from Streaky Bay on the Great Australian Bight he resolved to carry out the plan of his Adelaide friends, working his way westward along the coastal fringe to King George's Sound. It seemed a mad endeavour to make from that point, and when he sent for supplies and explained his plan his supporters begged him to return home. But Eyre, showing that dogged obstinacy which twenty years later, when he was Governor of Jamaica, got him into trouble there, would not he beaten. To return without a notable stroke of success to his credit was abhorrent to him. He knew that the danger was great, and ordered the whites in his party to return to Adelaide. But his overseer, Baxter, refused to leave him. So with his companion and three young aboriginals Eyre set out on his long march.