CHAPTER 13. BABBAGE AND STUART.
13.1. B. HERSCHEL BABBAGE.
The unsolved problem of the extent and other details of that vast region of salt lakes and flat country then known under the generic name of Lake Torrens still greatly occupied the attention and excited the imaginations of the colonists of South Australia. And the accounts brought back by the different exploring parties were conflicting in the extreme. In 1851, two squatters, named Oakden and Hulkes, out run-hunting, pushed westward of Lake Torrens, and found suitable grazing country. They also discovered a lake of fresh water, and heard from the natives of other lakes to the north-west some fabulous legends of strange animals. Their horses giving in, Oakden and Hulkes returned, but although they applied for a squatting licence for the country they had been over, it was not then settled or stocked. In 1856, Surveyor Babbage made some explorations in the field partly traversed by Eyre and Frome. He penetrated through the plains that were supposed to occupy the central portion of the horseshoe formation at that time associated in the public opinion with Lake Torrens. More fortunate than his predecessors, he found permanent water in a gum-tree creek, and saw some fair-sized sheets of water, one of which he named Blanche Water, or Lake Blanche. Some further excursions led to the discovery of more fresh water and well-grassed pastoral country. The aboriginals, too, directed him to what they said was a crossing-place in that portion of Lake Torrens that had been sighted, in 1845, by Poole and Browne of Captain Sturt's party, when Poole thought he saw an inland sea. Their directions, however, proved unreliable, or Babbage failed to find the place, for he lost his horse in the attempt to cross the lake.
In 1857, another excursion to the westward of Lake Torrens was made by a Mr. Campbell, who discovered a creek of fresh water, which he called the Elizabeth. He also visited Lake Torrens, of which he reported in similar terms to those of previous explorers - that it was surrounded with barren country.
In April of the same year, a survey conducted by Deputy Surveyor-General Goyder, over the same country as that lately explored by Babbage, led to some absurd mistakes. A few miles north of Blanche Water he came to many surface springs surrounding a fine lagoon. To the north of them was an isolated hill, which he called Weathered Hill. From the summit of this hill he had a curious example of the effects of refraction in this region in a similar illusion to that which suggested Poole's inland sea. To the northward he saw a belt of gigantic gum-trees, and beyond them what appeared to be a sheet of water with elevated land on the far side. To the eastward was another large lake. But all this was but the glamourie of the desert - on closer examination the gigantic gums dwindled down to stunted bushes, and the mountainous ground to broken clods of earth.
But the greatest surprise reserved for Goyder was at Lake Torrens, where he found the water quite fresh. He described the Lake as stretching from fifteen to twenty miles to the north-west, with a water horizon, with an extensive bay forming to the southward; while to the north, a bluff headland and perpendicular cliffs were clearly to be discerned with the telescope. From the appearance of the flood-marks, Goyder came to the conclusion that there was little or no rise and fall in the lake, drawing the natural conclusion that its size was such as not to be influenced appreciably by flood waters, but that it absorbed them without showing any variation in its level.
Adelaide was overjoyed at the news. The threatening desert that hemmed in their fair province to the north was suddenly converted into a land of milk and honey. The Surveyor-General, Colonel Freeling, immediately started out, taking with him both a boat and an iron punt with which to float on these new waters. But there was a sudden fall to their hopes when a letter was received from him stating that the cliffs, the bay, and the head-lands were all built up on the airy foundation of a mirage. The elves and sprites of this desolate region had been playing a hoax upon Goyder's party. But it is no wonder that Goyder had been so open to deception after unexpectedly finding fresh water in the lake that had been so long known as salter than the sea.
On reaching the lake, Freeling found the water still almost fresh; but one of Goyder's men who accompanied him, told him that it had already receded half-a-mile since the latter's visit. An attempt to float the punt was made, but after dragging it through mud and a few inches of water for a quarter of a mile, the men abandoned the attempt as hopeless. Freeling and some of the party then started to wade through the slush, but after proceeding three miles, and then sounding only six inches of water, they returned. Some of the more adventurous extended their muddy wade, but only met with a similar result. Lake Torrens was re-invested with its evil name, only somewhat shrunken in proportions.
In the same year, 1857, Stephen Hack started with a party from Streaky Bay to examine the Gawler Range of Eyre, and investigate the country west of Lake Torrens. He reached the Gawler Range and examined the country very carefully, finding numerous fresh-water springs, and large plains covered with both grass and saltbush. He also discovered a large salt lake, Lake Gairdner. Simultaneously with Hack's expedition, a party under Major Warburton was out in the same neighbourhood; in fact, Hack's party crossed Warburton's tracks on one or two occasions. Strange to say, the reports of the two were flatly contradictory. Warburton described the country as dry and arid; but Hack's account was distinctly favourable. Of the two men, however, it is most probable that Hack possessed the more experience and knowledge of country, and, moreover, Time, the great arbitrator, has endorsed his words.