Wednesday, November 26, 2008

across the nullarbor 1840-41

Having been rather stressed crossing the Nullarbor in a slightly broken van, it hardly compares with the difficulties faced by the first Europeans to make the attempt in 1840-41.

Edward John Eyre and his team, assisted by the ship 'Waterwitch' made several attempts to cross from east to west inland along the Great Australian Bight, a stretch of coastline unsafe for ships to come ashore. His attempts started in November 1841.

During the next two months Eyre made three attempts to round the Head of Bight. Water was always in critically short supply - particularly so on his second failed attempt when Eyre was clearly distressed to lose three of his best draught horses to exhaustion, thirst and the blistering Australian summer sun. After the second failed attempt to reach the Head of Bight Eyre realised that travelling with drays was impossible in such desolate country. There were just too many sandhills, and where there weren't sandhills, the scrub was too thick to make for rapid travelling.

He set off again at the end of February with John Baxter, an aborigine called Wylie, two native boys and packhorses.
They were all close to starvation and suffering the effects of lack of water by mid March.

By March 10 Eyre had scouted ahead of the main expedition party in the hope of discovering a break in the Bunda Cliffs that lined their route, but none were to be seen. Eyre was concerned for his pack horses which had been travelling for 4 days without any water whatsoever. The condition of Baxter and the aboriginal boys was hardly any better - with all suffering parching thirsts.

Despite the expeditions cruel lack of water and the real prospect of death, remarkably Eyre still possessed a romantic vision of the Australian wilderness. In his journal Eyre was moved to write:

"Distressing and fatal as these cliffs might prove to us, there was a grandeur and sublimity in their appearance that was most imposing, and which struck me with admiration. Stretching out before us in unbroken line, they presented the singular and romantic appearance of massy battlements of masonry, supported by huge buttresses, and glittering in the morning sun which had now risen upon them, and made the scene beautiful even amidst the dangers and anxieties of our situation."

By 29 March Eyre's expedition had consumed their very last drop of water. The situation was now very grave and required a desperate solution. Eyre's plan of action was carried out the next morning when he observed that there was a heavy dew hanging down from the grass and shrubs. With a sponge in hand Eyre dabbed at the dew and squeezed water into a quart pot. The aboriginal boys did likewise, gathering dew using a handful of grass instead of a sponge. Altogether Eyre's party had gathered 2 quarts of water. In the very best of British traditions Eyre's party then indulged in the luxury of brewing up some tea.

By April 7th Baxter became convinced that their only chance of survival was to turn back east the way they had come. Eyre noted in his journal:

"Finding that I have made little progress in removing his ( Baxter's ) doubts on the question of our advance, I resolved to pursue the subject no further,until the time for decision came, hoping that in the interim, his pinions and feelings might in some degree be modified, and that he might accompany me cheerfully..."

Unfortunately Baxter probably did not manage to modify his feeling towards cheerfulness as he was shot to death on April 28th by the fleeing two native boys who feared death by starvation should they remain.

Eyre and Wylie continued west, and in early June were rescued by a French whaling ship 'Mississippi' near present day Esperance.

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