| Port Augusta
Head of Bight
A good time
Edward John Eyre
EYRE'S JOURNEY ACROSS THE GREAT AUSTRALIAN BIGHT
Eyre's truly remarkable crossing of The Great Australian Bight and the Nullarbor Plain is the feat for which he is best remembered. In the full heat of summer and the depths of an Australian winter (1840-41), Edward John Eyre explored the rugged and unforgiving coastline between Streaky Bay on South Australia's west coast, and King George's Sound - present day Albany - in Western Australia. In all a distance of over 1200 miles.
An Auspicious Beginning
Eyre's westward journey accross the Australian continent began at Streaky Bay on 3 November 1841. With support and supplies from the sailing cutter "Waterwitch", Eyre and his men literally hacked their way through dense Mallee scrubland, heaving their axes from five in the morning until ten at night.
Within three days Eyre's expedition had met with a friendly group of aboriginal people at Smoky Bay. Led by an amiable old man named Wilguldy, Eyre's expedition was blessed in being able to rely on local aboriginal knowledge when digging for water in sandhills. Eyre was particularly impressed with the ease with which Wilguldy's people could live off the land, gathering food sources such as snakes, lizards, goannas, bandicoots, wallabies and a variety of native fruits.
Ably led by Wilguldy, Eyre's expedition made good progress and halted at Denial Bay where supplies were offloaded from the cutter "Waterwitch' Throughout the journey, Wilguldy's assistance was much appreciated and Eyre often rewarded Wilguldy with the privilege of riding on horseback - an event that never failed to impress Wilguldy's tribesmen!
By 17 November 1840 Eyre's expedition had reached Fowlers Bay - the next staging point in their crossing of the Nullarbor Plain and the Great Australian Bight. Fowlers Bay again saw the good ship "Waterwitch" replenish Eyre's expedition with supplies.
Eyre Discovers Water At Yeer Kumban Kauwe
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.
On his third attempt Eyre wisely resorted to a packhorse and finally reached the Head of Bight on 7 January 1841. Whilst camped at the Head of Bight friendly aborigines again showed Eyre a number of native waterholes located in a vast system of huge white sandhills. In Eyre's own words "... we were indebted solely to the good nature and kindness of these children of the wilds for watering our horses: unsolicited they offered us aid, without which we never could have accomplished our purpose."
In the local aboriginal language these waterholes were called Yeer Kumban Kauwe. Today, 160 years later, these amazingly beautiful sandhills can still be seen from the vantage point of the whale watching platform at the Head of Bight; and although the sandhills may have drifted, there's no doubt fresh water can still be found there.
To the west of Yeer Kumban Kauwe Eyre could see the enormous cliffs of the Great Australian Bight. Today we know them as the Bunda Cliffs. Eyre resolved to explore the area in the hope of pioneering an overland stock route to Western Australia. Eyre made a round trip along the cliffs for a distance of forty five miles. On 11 January Eyre headed back to his support depot in Fowlers Bay - a distance of 130 miles or more by horse.
Fireworks At Fowler's Bay and Unexpected Delays
Eyre and his party camped at their Fowlers Bay depot until the last week of February and on the evening of the 23rd Eyre treated Fowlers Bay to its very first fireworks display! As Eyre himself wrote "... on the afternoon of the 24th I intended finally to evacuate the depot, to amuse my natives, I had all the rockets and blue lights we had fired off."
The departure of Eyre's expedition was delayed a day however, with the unexpected arrival of the cutter "Hero". On board the "Hero" was Mr. Germain, a friend who earnestly advised Eyre against crossing the Great Australian Bight. Eyre also received letters from Governor Gawler and colonists in Adelaide begging him not to undertake such a perilous expedition - especially given that Eyre would be unable to rely on ship supplies farther west than Fowlers Bay.
The next day, 25 February 1841, Eyre continued his journey westwards to King George's Sound - still over 1000 miles away. Accompanying Eyre was his trusted friend, John Baxter, and teenage aboriginal boys Wylie, Joey and Yarry. Transport for the party consisted of 9 horses, a Timor Pony and one foal. Food supplies were calculated at an allowance of six pounds of flour per person per week - approximately 240 pounds of flour per person..
By 2 March Eyre's expedition had travelled over 120 miles and finally reached the Yeer Kumban Kauwe sandhills - a place where they knew water could be found by digging wells. Despite the constant torment of sand, wind, and the painful stings of large horse flies, Eyre rested for six days before pressing on to the west, beyond the Bunda Cliffs of the Great Australian Bight. From the accounts of the local Mirning people, Eyre knew that the next waterholes were well over 120 miles away to the west, beyond the Bunda Cliffs of the Great Australian Bight.
Eyre Crosses The Waterless Bunda Cliffs
On the 7th March Eyre's expedition again headed west, travelling both by day and night through the Nullarbor Desert. Travelling at a desperate pace of 25 miles per day both man and beast endured great suffering. Eyre's exhaustion was evident as he sometimes dozed off to sleep even as he walked. For 4 days Eyre's expedition battled their way through salt bush and tea tree scrub, trekking over the seemingly never ending limestone country to the north of the Bunda Cliffs.
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:
The Daunting Bunda Cliffs
A Brief Respite At Eucla
By the morning of 11 March Eyre had passed the Bunda Cliffs. Eyre's situation was still desperate however. During the previous night Eyre had unwittingly trekked many miles past some sandhills - possibly the very water bearing sandhills that the aborigines had mentioned at Yeer Kumban Kauwe. Eyre took a desperate gamble and pressed on, forlornly hoping to reach another set of sandhills he could see in the distance. Today these sandhills can be found near the township of Eucla, and they proved to be the expedition's salvation. Upon turning into the sandhills Eyre was fortunate to strike the very place where aborigines had dug little wells.
For a week Eyre and his expedition remained at the Eucla sandhills. Much time was spent attending the horses, and retrieving valuable stores that Baxter had been previously forced to abandon many miles away to the east. The 18th March saw Eyre and his party again heading west, but the horses were still in poor condition and in need of water. Eyre ordered Baxter to drop the expedition's stores and return to the Eucla sandhills, where the horses could rest and later return with a good supply of water.
Difficulties With Making A Cup Of Tea on The Nullarbor
By March 26 Eyre's expedition was travelling through dense scrub and over sandy ridges. Eyre realised that progress was still unbearably slow and that the pack horses loads needed to be lightened. Whilst the native boys were asleep, Baxter and Eyre set about throwing away items that could be dispensed with. In all a total of 200 pounds of items were discarded - including clothes, buckets, water kegs, pack saddles, some firearms and a quantity of ammunition.
In the days ahead the water situation continued to weigh heavily on Eyre's mind. As water dwindled the aboriginal boys showed Eyre how to obtain water from the roots of Eucalyptus trees. Eyre was impressed to note that the quantity of water contained in a good root would probably fill two thirds of a pint. His own boys, as inexperienced as they were, even managed to obtain one third of a pint in the space of 15 minutes.
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 in the remote Australian outback!
Eyre's Sandpatch and The Prospect of Starvation
Throughout the remainder of 29 March Eyre's party plodded along until they reached some huge white sand drifts. In great suspense members of the expedition frantically dug in the hope of discovering water. Six feet down and seven days from the last wells, Eyre's expedition had finally found another source of fresh water.
Today residents of the Nullarbor know the area as Eyre's Sandpatch, a site located 50 kiometres southeast of the present township of Cocklebiddy. As a site of historical significance Eyre's Sandpatch is of considerable importance. In the past Eyre's Sandpatch has been the site of a major repeater station for the telegraph line linking the eastern states and Western Australia. The old telegraph line was abandoned in 1927 however, and today the area is a major Bird Observatory and site for a remote meteorological station
For 29 days Eyre based the expedition at the "Sandpatch", hoping that his pack horses would regain some of their lost strength. Attempts were also made to retrieve stores that had been previously abandoned 47 miles to the east. Retrieving these stores proved to be difficult, and much to to Eyre's regret, one horse became blind and had to be abandoned, another perished from sheer exhaustion.
By April the expedition's food supplies were critically low and Eyre was forced to reduce meagre food rations even further. Two plain meals of tea and damper per day proved insufficient to sustain life however, and Eyre's party were forced to partially live off the land - hunting for fish, sting rays and wallabies. Faced with starvation Eyre's expedition even resorted to roasting bark from the roots of young Eucalyptus trees. Imitating the local aborigines, Eyre roasted the bark to a crisp, and then pounded it between two rocks before chewing it. Eyre believed the roots were quite nutritious, and according to his journal the roots ".. tasted rather sweet, somewhat resembling the taste of malt."
By April 16 the food situation was as desperate as ever, and Eyre ordered Baxter to butcher a horse that was more dead than alive. For a few days horse meat provided the expedition with its main source of food.
Seeds of Disunity
Throughout April seeds of disunity were beginning to appear within the expedition. John Baxter, the loyal overseer, was beginning to voice deep misgivings about continuing the journey to King George's Sound - still over 600 miles away. For Baxter, the expedition's best hope for survival lay in a swift retreat to Fowlers Bay. Eyre clearly thought otherwise, believing that the expedition had passed the point of no return.
The morale of the aboriginal boys was no better, and on 22 April Eyre discovered that they had been pilfering the expedition's meat rations. In response Eyre reduced the boy's meat rations and there was a rebellion of sorts. Both Wylie and Joey fled camp, probably believing that their best chance for survival lay in striking out to the west on their own, and fending for themselves.
Events were to prove otherwise however, and 5 days later Wylie and Joey returned to Eyre's Sandpatch in a state of near starvation. Despite the poisoned atmosphere the boys were welcomed back and they heartily ate an excellent stew - one made from an eagle that Baxter had shot.
The Tragic Death of John Baxter
April 27 saw Eyre's expedition again heading towards King George's sound. Eyre knew full well that the expedition would need to make another desperate push through 150 miles of waterless country. As the expedition headed west an abrupt line of cliffs met their gaze. From naval charts Eyre knew these were the great cliffs of the western escarpment, and they were just as threatening and imposing as those he had seen hundreds of miles away to the east. To make further progress Eyre's party resorted to walking along the immense clifftops, passing through dwarf tea tree scrub broken by limestone outcrops.
On the evening of 29 April Eyre's expedition camped for the night, hoping that a gale blowing from the southwest would bring rain. Whilst Baxter and the boys were asleep, Eyre attended to the packhorses which were grazing on patches of grass near camp. At about 10-30 pm tragedy struck. As Eyre was returning to camp he was startled to see a flash, one that was immediately followed by the sound of a gunshot.
Near camp Eyre met an agitated Wylie who cried out "Oh Massa, Oh Massa, come here." Upon reaching the campsite Eyre was horror struck to see his loyal friend Baxter lying face down covered in blood, in the last throes of death. Baxter never spoke another word, and Eyre noted the 2 boys Yarry and Joey had fled, taking with them 2 double barrelled shotguns. Baxter's death was definitely a case of murder.
For Eyre, Baxter's death was a personal tragedy and disaster of the greatest magnitude. The despair and anguish Eyre felt is best described in his journal where he wrote:
Baxter's Unusual "Burial" and Further Confrontations
By daybreak of 30 April Eyre had set to work surveying the situation and making preparations for departure. To Eyre's relief Joey and Yarry had left behind 40 pounds of flour, some tea and sugar, and 4 gallons of water. To be sure these were meagre rations, but they were all Eyre and Wylie could expect for the next 600 miles. By 8 O'Clock all that remained was for Eyre and Wylie to attend to Baxter's burial - if it could be called that.
For Eyre, this duty was more than ordinarily painful given the vast sheets of unbroken limestone rock that extended for miles in all directions. It was impossible to bury Baxter under such circumstances and all that could be done was to wrap the body in a blanket, leaving the body where it had fallen. Today the site of Baxter's death is dignified with a memorial located 60 kilometres south of Caiguna.
With their duty done, both Eyre and Wylie marched to the west, departing the grisly murder scene. Eyre's intention was to travel as quickly as possible in the hope of distancing themselves from Joey and Yarry.
Events were to prove otherwise, and the next morning Eyre observed both Joey and Yarry advancing towards him with firearms at the ready. It was clear to Eyre that the 2 boys were encouraging Wylie to accompany them. Wylie remained loyal to Eyre however, and the other two boys were given some stark choices. Yarry and Joey could either return to Fowlers Bay, or be shot if they continued to threaten Eyre.
Fortunately there was no bloodshed, and both Eyre and Wylie headed west. With the advantage of packhorses Eyre and Wylie soon outpaced Yarry and Joey, and the two boys were never seen again - by Europeans at any rate. In his journal Eyre expressed the view that even Yarry and Joey's indigenous hunting skills would not save them in this remote corner of the outback.
Spirits Rise and the Hope Inspired by a Trickle of Water
By May 1 both Eyre and Wylie had already travelled for 5 days without discovering fresh water supplies. Hunger, thirst and exhaustion continued to remain ever pressing problems for man and beast alike. As the pair walked to the west spirits rose when Eyre saw some stunted examples of Banksia plants - a species Eyre well knew to be commonly found within the vicinity of King George's Sound. Eyre also observed that after 148 miles from the last waterholes, the never ending cliffs of the western Nullarbor were finally coming to an end. Within a few miles of the cliffs terminating Eyre had discovered another set of native wells. Although still 450 miles from King George's Sound Eyre had good reason to believe that the last of the cruel waterless stages had been traversed.
By May 8 Eyre was forced to butcher another of his horses. Eyre's companion Wylie was ecstatic with delight, and that night he roasted and ate over 20 pounds of meat and entrails. For Wylie it was a veritable feast. Eyre was always astounded by Wylie's appetite and was moved to note that under normal circumstances he was quite capable of eating 9 pounds of meat per day.
For the next ten days Eyre and Wylie skirted the coastline travelling southwest towards Point Malcolm and Cape Arid. Just before Point Malcolm, Eyre was excited to note that the rocky limestone country was changing and giving way to a rough grey granite. Even better, some mountain ducks were seen aswell as a large tree trunk found washed up upon the beach. Eyre was firmly convinced the expedition's fate had taken a turn for the better.
Further proof came with the discovery of a few drops of water trickling down a granite outcrop. For Eyre, this was something of a miracle, and he was moved to write .. " .. this was the only running water we had found since leaving Streaky Bay, and though it hardly deserved the name, yet it imparted as much hope, and almost as much satisfaction as if I had found a river."
Wylie Eats A Penguin
By 18-19 May both Eyre and Wylie were reportedly suffering from a creeping apathy and torpor. Eyre perceived the condition to be life threatening and the daily chores of life proved to be a toil, especially digging for water twice a day. Unscheduled rest stops were frequent and it was difficult maintaining the motivation to continue. At times such as these, Eyre wrote, "... I could have sat quietly and contentedly, and let the glass of life glide away to its last sand."
For a few days Eyre and Wylie were forced to rest near Point Malcolm. At Point Malcolm the pack horses found good grazing, whilst Eyre and Wylie lived of the land - procuring kangaroos, possums, crabs and fish for their daily sustenance. As ever, Eyre remained fascinated by Wylie's appetite. On one occasion Eyre noted that Wylie had scoffed down " a pound and a half of horse flesh, some bread, then the entrails, paunch, liver, tail and hind legs of a kangaroo, followed by a penguin found dead on the beach."
Eyre Departs Point Malcolm
On 26 May Eyre broke camp with the intention of proceeding to Lucky Bay. Eyre left Point Malcolm in good spirits, knowing full well that the naval explorer Matthew Flinders had discovered abundant water supplies at Lucky Bay. For the very first time Eyre's expedition had no need to dig for precious water.
Whilst the water may have been abundant, food supplies continued to remain precarious however, with the expedition's flour provisions almost exhausted. As a substitute for flour, Eyre ground up and roasted the roots of flag reeds. In this form the Australian native flag reed provided a staple food to both Eyre and Wylie.
Rescued By a French Whaling Ship
Near Cape Arid Eyre trekked accross a headland, traversing granite rises and fording a number of brackish streams. By 2 June Eyre and Wylie had reached Lucky Bay - completely unaware that what was about to happen would be beyond their wildest dreams.
Hardly believing his eyes Eyre spotted two small sail boats. Eyre and Wylie frantically pushed on attempting to signal the sail boats. All their attempts failed, but there was still good reason for hope as Eyre spotted the masts of a ship poking above an island 6 miles away. The glorious sight of the ship so overwhelmed Eyre and Wylie that they both skipped about with cries of joy at the prospect of food.
Salvation was at hand, if only they could attract the attention of those on board. Eyre then mounted his fastest horse and galloped 6 miles to a clifftop, from where he could clearly see a French Whaling vessel moored in the Bay. Eyre and Wylie quickly made a large fire and successfully attracted the attention of some French sailors who were cleaning ship's cables. Within minutes Eyre was on board and enjoying the hospitality of Captain Rossiter, the English Master of the French Barque "Mississippi"
Eyre saved by Captain Rossiter
For 12 days Eyre and Wylie were treated as privileged guests. In a dazed state Eyre could not help but thank God " for the inexpressible relief afforded us when so much was needed and so little expected." Eyre's fate had changed immeasurably. No longer were he and Wylie subject to starvation, exposure to the elements, and the intense cold of an Australian winter. Eyre now knew that with replenished stores, and renewed physical vigour, the goal of King George's Sound was now assured - even if it was still 300 miles away.
For Wylie, life on board the "Mississippi" was no less gratifying. Biscuits were in abundance and at first the French crew were horrified to see Wylie's unbridled appetite in action. Eyre admired Wylie for making the most of the situation, and later Wylie's eating habits became a source of amusement to all on board.
The Final Push to King George's Sound
By 14 June Eyre had decided the time was right to push on to King George's Sound. Captain Rossiter again proved himself to be a "Good Samaritan of the Sea". Captain Rossiter's generosity knew no bounds, and Eyre's expedition departed with 40 pounds of flour, 6 pounds of biscuits, 12 pounds of rice, 20 pounds of pork, 2 bottles of brandy, mountains of tea, sugar and butter, and to cap it all off, 6 bottles of very drinkable French wine. Wylie too was presented with the fine gift of a pipe, and a large supply of tobacco - of which he was apparently very fond.
With renewed vigour Eyre and Wylie commenced their 300 mile trek to the west. Conditions were always difficult and Eyre and Wylie battled their way through thick scrub interspersed by stony ridges. For most of the next 10 days Eyre and Wylie had to bear with constant drenching rain and bitterly cold weather. To add to their miseries, occasional torrents of rain poured down, and for many days the ground beneath their feet was covered by sheets of water - sometimes several inches deep. The contrast with Eyre and Wylie's experience of the Nullarbor was total. It was impossible to sleep under such soaking conditions, and at night all that Eyre could do, was to walk around in order to remain warm.
Travel conditions proved to be energy sapping both for man and beast alike. For a number of days both Eyre and Wylie were forced to routinely detour around flooded streams - and when they weren't doing this, flooded rivers had to be forded. These misfortunes added many unwanted days and miles to their journey.
By 30 June 1841 Eyre and Wiley were within sight of the Stirling Ranges. Eyre knew that the destination of King George's Sound was near at hand. It was only a matter of days at most, and Eyre reported that Wylie too was very greatly cheered by the prospect of reaching home. Apparently for the first time in the entire expedition Wylie really did believe that he would live to see his kinsmen and tribal lands again. For the next few days the scrub lands gradually transformed into a finely wooded countryside, and Eyre noted the area as being eminently suitable for grazing.
As the expedition approached King George's Sound Wylie assumed the role of a guide. Signs of European settlement were present, and both Eyre and Wylie were spurred on by the sight of a horse's hoof marks - moreover, the tracks were only a few days old. The very next day excitement levels were wracked up a further notch when Wylie recognised a lake from his past travels.
By 6 July Eyre and Wylie had reached King's River - a few short miles from King George's Sound. One last obstacle arose for Eyre and Wylie however, the river was just too high. Eyre was unwilling to wait for the flood tide to recede and so he and Wylie abandoned their horses and crossed the river on foot - holding only the most precious of their possessions above their heads.
Eyre and Wylie then commenced the short walk to King George's Sound. Along the track Wylie met with one of his fellow countrymen who greeted him extremely warmly. Apparently the natives of King George Sound had given up Wylie for dead. Wylie was expected to have arrived 2 months earlier, and everyone had assumed the worst and already mourned his loss.
A short time later Eyre, Wylie, and his friend were standing on a hill, gazing down on the settlement of King George's Sound. Eyre stood there in torrential rain and wept at the sight. Wylie's friend then let loose with a series of wild joyous cries announcing Wylie's unexpected return from the dead. The streets of King George's Sound were abuzz and Wylie's people rushed to greet him. Understandably there were many deeply emotional reunions, and Eyre himself noted, even the strongest ties off affection could not have produced a more emotional and melting scene.
Eyre and Wylie Attend to Unfinished Business
Eyre's epic journey accross the Great Austrlaian Bight had now come to an abrupt end. A number of matters required Eyre's urgent personal attention however, and during the next week Eyre organized the recovery of his abandoned horses. Both he and Wylie also presented eye witness accounts to legal authorities regarding the tragic circumstances of Baxter's death. Surprisingly Eyre's feelings to Yarry and Joey had now mellowed - believing that under the same circumstances many Europeans would have behaved no better.
Farewells and Honours
13 July 1841 saw Eyre bid a final farewell to Wylie. Sadly, Eyre and Wylie were never to meet again, however to the end of his days Eyre always held the highest esteem for Wylie. A measure of this esteem is perhaps reflected in the fact that during his appointment as the Lieutenant Governor of New Zealand, Eyre sent Wylie the gift of a double barrelled shot gun. Wylie was apparently very pleased to receive this gift. On another occasion. Eyre also successfully interceded on Wylie's behalf when Western Australia's Colonial government attempted to renege on its commitment to provide Wylie with a monthly ration of flour and tobacco.
Upon returning to Adelaide Eyre was hailed as a hero, and given his deep humanity and respect towards aboriginal people, he was rewarded with a position as The Protector of Aborigines at Moorundie Reach, near Blanchetown on the River Murray. The Royal Geographic Society also recognized Edward John Eyre's feats in exploring remote areas of Southern and Western Australia. During these epic expeditions Eyre had proven there were few rich grazing lands in the areas adjacent to the Nullarbor, and that for all intents and purposes, there was no practical overland stock route between Adelaide and King George's Sound - or Albany as it is now known. For these trials and tribulations Eyre was justly rewarded with the Society's Gold Medal.
In the spirit of reconciliation this site is dedicated to the memory of Edward John Eyre and his companion Wylie.
"If there is any road not travelled then that is the one I must take."
Edward John Eyre