CHAPTER 18. A.C. AND F.T. GREGORY.
18.1. A.C. GREGORY ON STURT'S CREEK AND THE BARCOO.
The Imperial Government having long considered the feasibility of further exploration of the interior of Australia voted 5000 pounds for the purpose, and offered the command of the expedition to A.C. Gregory. As the inexplicable disappearance of Leichhardt was then exciting much interest in Australia, search for the lost expedition was to form one of its chief duties.
On the 12th of August, 1855, Gregory's party left Moreton Bay in the barque Monarch, attended by the schooner Tom Tough. There were eighteen men in all. H.C. Gregory was second in command, Ferdinand von Mueller was botanist, J.S. Wilson geologist, J.R. Elsey surgeon and naturalist, and J. Baines artist and storekeeper. They had on board fifty horses, two hundred sheep, and provisions and stores calculated to last them eighteen months on full rations.
They did not reach Point Pearce, at the mouth of the Victoria River, until the 24th of September. There they separated, the schooner taking the stores up the river, and the Monarch proceeding on her voyage to Singapore. The horses had been landed at Point Pearce, whence Gregory, his brother, and seven men took them on overland by easy stages. One night the horses were attacked by crocodiles, and three of them were severely wounded. They followed up the course of the Fitzmaurice River and then passed over rough country, not reaching the Victoria until the 17th. On the 20th they rejoined the members who had gone round by the schooner, and learned that she was aground in the river. A large part of their stores was spoiled; and the number of the sheep had also been reduced to forty, in consequence of their being foolishly kept penned up on board. These losses and accidents considerably weakened Gregory's resources, and it was not until the 24th of November that any excursion on horseback was undertaken. An attempt had previously been made to ascend the river in the portable boat with which the expedition had been supplied, but it was not successful, as the boat could not navigate the rocky bars in safety.
Gregory left camp accompanied by his brother, Dr. von Mueller, and Wilson, taking seven horses and twenty days' rations, his object being to examine the country through which the exploring party would have to travel on their route to the interior. On this preliminary trip, he penetrated as far as latitude 16 1/2 south, whence, finding the tributaries flowing from fine open plains and level forest country, all well-grassed, he returned to the main camp.
On the 4th of January, 1856, Gregory started with a much larger party on an energetic dash into the interior. He had with him six men besides his brother, Dr. von Mueller and Baines the artist, and thirty-six horses. He retraced his steps along his preliminary route, and on the 30th of January, thinking it wise judging from the rapid evaporation of the waterholes, to make his means of retreat secure, he formed a temporary camp, leaving there four men and all the horses but eleven to await his return, whilst he, his brother, Dr. Mueller, and a man named Dean, rode ahead to challenge the desert to the south. On the 9th of February, having run the Victoria out, he crossed an almost level watershed, and found himself on the confines of the desert. From a slight rise he looked southwards: -
"The horizon was unbroken; all appeared one slightly undulating plain, with just sufficient triodia and bushes growing on it to hide the red sand when viewed at a distance."
Gregory reviewed the problem from a logical standpoint. He decided to follow the northern limit of the desert to the westward, until he should find a southern-flowing watercourse which would afford him the opportunity to make a dash beyond its confines.
On the 15th of February he came to a small flat which gradually developed into a channel and ultimately became a creek, running first west, and then south-west. This gave him his desired opening, and he pursued the course of the creek through good open country, finding the water plentiful, though shallow. On February 20th, however, the channel of the creek was lost in an immense grassy plain. The country to the south being sandy and unpromising, Gregory kept westwards, and succeeded in again picking up the channel, now finding the water in it to be slightly brackish. That day he crossed the boundary of Western Australia. The creek now gave promise of continuity, the water-holes taking on a more permanent appearance. It was now pursuing a general south-west course, and Gregory, though still rightly anticipating that it would eventually be lost in the dry interior, determined to follow it as far south as should be compatible with safety. He named the creek Sturt's Creek, after the gallant explorer of that name, who was naturally then often in his mind. The creek maintained its southern course, until, on the 8th of March, it ran out into a mud plain and a salt lake.
"Thus, after having followed Sturt's Creek for nearly 300 miles, we have been disappointed in our hope that it would lead to some important outlet to the waters of the Australian interior; it has, however, enabled us to penetrate far into the level tract of country which may be termed the Great Australian Desert."
Gregory, convinced that no useful results could arise from any attempt to penetrate the inhospitable region to the south, determined to return before the rapidly-evaporating water on which they were dependent should vanish and cut off all retreat. He therefore retraced his steps up Sturt's Creek, and on the 28th of March arrived at his temporary depot, where he found the men all well and the horses much improved in condition.