CHAPTER 3. JOHN OXLEY.

3.1. GENERAL BIOGRAPHY.

Oxley was born in England in the early part of 1781. In his youth he entered the navy, saw active service in many parts of the world, and rose to the rank of Lieutenant. He came to Australia in January, 1812, and was appointed Surveyor-General.

Throughout his career in Australia, Oxley would seem to have won the friendship and respect of all he came in contact with. Captain Charles Sturt, in the journal of his first expedition, wrote of him as follows: -

"A reflection arose to my mind, on examining these decaying vestiges of a former expedition, whether I should be more fortunate than the leader of it, and how far I should be able to penetrate beyond the point which had conquered his perseverance. Only a week before I left Sydney I had followed Mr. Oxley to the tomb. A man of great quickness and of uncommon ability. The task of following up his discoveries was no less enviable than arduous."

These thoughts were suggested to Sturt when standing at one of Oxley's old camps, and coming from such a man carry great weight.

The following obituary notice of Oxley appeared in the Government Gazette of May 27th, 1828.

"It would be impossible for his Excellency, consistently with his feelings, to announce the decease of the late Surveyor-General without endeavouring to express the sense he entertains of Mr. Oxley's services, though he cannot do justice to them.

"From the nature of this colony, the office of Surveyor-General is amongst the most important under Government; and to perform its duties in a manner Mr. Oxley has done for a long series of years is as honourable to his zeal and abilities as it is painful for the Government to be deprived of them.

"Mr. Oxley entered the public service at an early period of his life, and has filled the important situation of Surveyor-General for the last sixteen years.

"His exertions in the public service have been unwearied, as has been proved by his several expeditions to explore the interior. The public have reaped the benefit while it is to be apprehended that the event, which they cannot fail to lament, has been accelerated by the privations and fatigues of these arduous services. Mr. Oxley eminently assisted in unfolding the advantages of this highly favoured colony from an early stage of its existence, and his name will ever be associated with the dawn of its advancement. It is always gratifying to the Government to record its approbation of the services of meritorious public officers, and in assigning to Mr. Oxley's name a distinguished place in that class to which his devotion to the interests of the colony has so justly entitled him, the Government would do honour to his memory in the same degree as it feels the loss it has sustained in his death."

Oxley died at Kirkham, his private residence near Sydney, on the 25th of May, 1828. Though his judgment was at times at fault, as will be seen later on, he was essentially a successful explorer; for, although he did not in every case achieve the object aimed at, he always brought back his men without loss, and he opened up vast tracts of new country. John Oxley's personality is not very familiar, but the portrait presented to the reader in this volume was taken in the prime of his life, before he suffered the scars of doubtful battle with the Australian wilderness. It has never been published before, and is taken from the original miniature that he presented to Mrs. King, widow of Governor King, in 1810.

3.2. HIS FIRST EXPEDITION.

On this, Oxley's first journey of exploration, Evans accompanied him as second in command, and another man who has left an immortal name was also with him - Allan Cunningham, officially known as King's Botanist. Charles Fraser, well-known in connection with the early history both of New South Wales and of Western Australia, accompanied Oxley under the title of Colonial Botanist. There were nine other men in the party - boatmen, horse-tenders, and so forth; they had with them two boats and fourteen pack and riding-horses. A depot was first formed at the junction of the small creek whence Evans had turned back, and where he had marked a tree with his initials in 1815. There the boats were launched and preparations completed for the final start. On the 6th of April, 1817, Oxley left Sydney and joined his party at the depot on the 1st of May. Thence he soon commenced this most momentous journey in Australia's early annals, eager to penetrate into the unknown, and inspired with hopes of solving the mystery of the outlet of this inland river.

Disappointment marks the tone of Oxley's journal from the start; the exceeding flatness of the country, the many ana-branches of the river, the low altitude of its banks, and the absence of any large tributary streams, above all, the dismal impression made by the monotony of the surroundings, seem to have depressed Oxley's spirit. He appears to have formed the idea that the interior tract he was approaching was nothing more than a dead and stagnant marsh - a huge dreary swamp, within whose bounds the inland rivers lost their individuality and merged into a lifeless morass. A more melancholy picture could not be imagined, and with such an awesome thought constantly haunting his mind there is no wonder that he became morbid, and that the dominant tone of his journal, whilst on the Lachlan, is so hopelessly pessimistic.

"These flats," he says, "are certainly not adapted for cattle; the grass is too swampy, and the bushes, swamps, and lagoons are too thickly intermingled with the better portion to render it a safe or desirable grazing country. The timber is universally bad and small; a few misshapen gum trees on the immediate banks of the river may be considered an exception."

The channel of the river now divided, and Oxley followed the channel on the northern side, which they were skirting. But before they had progressed a mile beyond the point of divergence, they reached the spot where the river overflowed its banks and its course was lost in the marshes. It was on the 12th of May that they received this check to their as yet uninterrupted progress.

"Observing an eminence about half-a-mile from the south side, we crossed over the horses and baggage at a place where the water was level with the banks, and which, when within its usual channel, did not exceed thirty or forty feet in width.

"We ascended the hill, and had the mortification to perceive that the termination of our research was reached, at least down this branch of the river. The whole country from the west, north-west, round to the north, was either a complete marsh or lay under water."

The country to the south and south-west appearing more elevated. Oxley determined to return to the place where the branches separated, and to try his fortune on the other one. This, after a while, proved as unsatisfactory as the one they had abandoned. Bitterly disappointed, Oxley altered his plans entirely. He resolved to cease trying to follow the river through this water-logged country, and determined to strike out on a direct course to the south coast in the neighbourhood of Cape Northumberland. In this way he hoped to cross any river that these dreary marshes and swamps gave birth to, and that found an outlet into the Southern Ocean, between Spencer's Gulf and Cape Otway.

This resolve was at once carried out. The boats were hauled up and secured together; all unnecessary articles were abandoned to suit the reduced means of transit; and at nine o'clock on May 18th they said farewell to this weary river and started to encounter fresh troubles under another guise. Instead of travelling in a superfluity of water they now found themselves straitened by drought, and the work began to tell upon the horses. Scrub, too, that besetting hindrance of so many Australian explorers, began to impede their onward path. Eucalyptus brush overrun with creepers and prickly acacia bushes united to bar the way, and when, after much toil and suffering, they at last reached the point of a range, which Oxley named the Peel Range, the leader had reluctantly again to change his mind and to abandon the idea of making south-west to the coast. Sick at heart of this sequence of disastrous happenings, he confided his feeling of sorrow to his journal.

"June 4th. Weather as usual fine and clear, which is the greatest comfort we enjoy in these deserts abandoned by every living creature capable of getting out of them. I was obliged to send back to our former halting-place for water, a distance of near eight miles; this is terrible for the horses, who are in general extremely reduced; but two in particular cannot, I think, endure this miserable existence much longer.

"At five o'clock two of the men whom I had sent to explore the country to the south-west and see if any water could be found, returned after proceeding six or seven miles; they found it impossible to go any farther in that direction, or even south, from the thick bushes that intersected their course on every side; and no water (nor in fact the least sign of any) was discovered either by them or by those who were sent in search of it nearer our little camp.

"June 5th. From everything I can see of the country to the south-west, it appears, upon the most mature deliberation, highly imprudent to persevere longer in that direction, as the consequences to the horses of want of grass and water might be most serious; and we are well assured that within forty miles on that point the country is the same as before passed over...Our horses are unable to go more than eight or ten miles a day, but even they must be assured of finding food of which in these deserts the chances are against the existence."

On the following day, June 6th, Oxley, having changed his course to the west and north-west, made another effort to escape from the surroundings that so disheartened him. On the 4th of June, before leaving, Allan Cunningham planted some acorns and peach and apricot stones in honour of the King's birthday. Upon this episode Oxley remarks, that they would serve to commemorate the day and situation, "should these desolate plains be ever again visited by civilised man, of which, however, I think there is very little probability." All this only shows how the lack of experience of the paradoxical nature of the Australian interior induced Oxley to form an absurdly erroneous idea of the country in its virgin state. His observations read almost like a present-day description of the sandy spinifex desert of the north-west of Western Australia, and, in fact, the very same remark was made by Warburton in 1873, when traversing that awful desert. He confessed his uncertainty about the longitude of Joanna Spring, and says that it did not matter, as no white man would ever come into the desert again in search of the oasis.

But Oxley's troubles were increasing, and on June 8th he wrote: "The whole country in these directions, as far as the eye can reach, was one continued thicket of eucalyptus scrub. It was impossible to proceed that way, and our situation was too critical to admit of delay: it was therefore resolved to return back to our last station on the 6th, under Peel's Range, if for no other purpose than that of giving the horses water."

Forced to return once more, Oxley became thoroughly convinced of the inhabitability of the country, and it is no wonder that his condemnation was so sweeping and hasty. He wrote on June the 21st: -

"The farther we proceed westerly, the more convinced I am that for all the practical purposes of civilised man the interior of this country westward of a certain meridian is uninhabitable, deprived as it is of wood, water and grass."

Unfortunately for his fame, he then relinquished all thoughts and hopes of a southward course; for had he pushed on, posterity would have hailed his memory as the discoverer of the Murrumbidgee. But Fate decided otherwise, and dejected and baffled, he turned to follow the Peel Range north, making for the part he had left, where at least he was sure of a supply of water. The expedition suddenly came upon the river again on the 23rd of June, and hoping to find that it had modified its nature, they commenced to run it down again. The 7th of July they were forced to halt once more, when Oxley gave up all idea of tracing the Lachlan. He began his return journey, making this last desponding entry: -

"It is with infinite regret and pain that I was forced to come to the conclusion that the interior of this vast country is a marsh and uninhabitable...There is a dreary uniformity in the barren desolateness of this country which wearies one more than I am able to express. One tree, one soil, one water, and one description of bird, fish, or animal prevails alike for ten miles and for one hundred. A variety of wretchedness is at all times preferable to one unvarying cause of pain or distress."

On the 4th of August, the leader, knowing the repellant nature of the river and its swamps and morasses that lay ahead of their returning footsteps, determined to quit the Lachlan altogether, and steering a northern course, to abandon the low country, reach the Macquarie River and follow it up to the settlement at Bathurst.

The boats having been long since abandoned, it was necessary to build a raft of pine-logs wherewith to transport the baggage over the stream. They crossed in safety, and we can imagine that it was with no feelings of regret that they finally lost sight of the stream that had so persistently baffled them in all their attempts to traverse its banks.

For some days they had to struggle against the many obstacles of a new and untrodden land, but they at last emerged on to the Macquarie country, which made a pleasant and welcome contrast with the detested Lachlan.

It may be thought that too much stress has been laid upon Oxley's opinion of the Lachlan, but it was this pessimistic report that dominated the public mind for many years in its speculations as to the character of the interior.

To Oxley himself, the first glimpse of the Macquarie came like a ray of sunshine on his harassed feelings. Was he not to reap some reward for his heroic efforts along the Lachlan, to enjoy the realisation of some of his ambition as geographical discoverer? The Macquarie seemed a favourable subject for the exercise of his talents. Would it not lead him westward to the conquest of that mysterious inland country which had hitherto guarded its secrets with an invincible obstinacy? Poor Oxley, who can help rejoicing with him in his short-lived joy? Without knowing it, he was the first of a long line of brave spirits who were doomed to lose health and life in carving their way into the heart of Australia.

As they returned homeward up the bank of the Macquarie, the river seemed to him to glitter with the bright promise of a crown of success. For almost the first time the entry in his journal has a cheery ring of hope: -

"Nothing can afford a stronger contrast than the two rivers - Lachlan and Macquarie - different in their habits, their appearance, and the source from which they derive their waters, but, above all, differing in the country bordering on them; the one constantly receiving great accession of water from four streams, and as liberally rendering fertile a great extent of country, whilst the other, from its source to its termination is constantly diffusing and diminishing the water it originally receives over low and barren deserts, creating only wet flats and uninhabitable morasses, and during its protracted and sinuous course is never indebted to a single tributary stream."

3.3. THE LIVERPOOL PLAINS.

The disappointment occasioned by Oxley's return to Bathurst and his failure to trace the course of the Lachlan was in part atoned for by the high opinion he had formed of the Macquarie. A second expedition was planned, and the command again offered to the Surveyor-General.

Evans was again second, and Dr. Harris, a very able man, accompanied the party as a volunteer. Charles Fraser was botanist, but Allan Cunningham did not go. The expedition was on a slightly larger scale, there being, besides those already mentioned, twelve ordinary members, with eighteen horses and provisions for twenty-four weeks. A depot was formed at Wellington Valley, and men sent ahead to build two boats.

On June 6th, the start was made from the depot, and for the first 125 miles no obstacles nor impediments were met with. Elated by this, Oxley sent two men back to Bathurst, in accordance with instructions, bearing a favourable despatch to Governor Macquarie. But Fate was again deriding the unfortunate explorer. No sooner had the two parties separated, one with well-grounded hopes of their ultimate success, the other bearing back tidings of these confident hopes, than doubt and distrust entered into the mind of the leader. Twenty-four hours after the departure of the messengers, Oxley wrote in his journal: -

"For four or five miles there was no material change in the general appearance of the country from what it had been on the preceding days, but for the last six miles the land was considerably lower, interspersed with plains clear of timber and dry. On the banks it was still lower, and in many places it was evident that the river-floods swept over them, although this did not appear to be universally the case...These unfavourable appearances threw a damp upon our hopes, and we feared that our anticipations had been too sanguine."

And still, as Oxley went on, he found the country getting flatter and more liable to inundation, until at last, with a heart nearly as low as the country, he found himself almost hemmed in by water. In fact, it was necessary to retrace steps in order to find a place where they could encamp with safety. Upon this emergency, Oxley held a consultation with Evans and Harris, and it was decided to send the baggage and horses back to a small and safe elevation that stood some fifteen miles higher up the river, thus making a subsidiary depot camp. Oxley himself, with four volunteers in the largest of the two boats, would take a month's provisions and follow the stream as long as there was enough water to float their craft. Meanwhile, Evans, during Oxley's absence, was to make an excursion to the north-east, and return by a more northerly route, this being the direction the party intended to take, should the river fail them as the Lachlan had done on the previous journey.

It was a wet and stormy day on which Oxley started on the river voyage. For about twenty miles there was, as Oxley expresses it, "no country." The main channels being in an overflow state, the flat country which surrounded them could be recognised only by the timber growing on the banks. The clear spaces whereon no trees grew were now covered with reeds, which stood at the height of six or seven feet above the surface. That night they took refuge on a piece of land which was so nearly submerged that there was scarcely enough space on which to kindle a fire. In the morning the violence of the storm had somewhat abated, and as soon as the grey light was strong enough for them to recognise their way, they resumed their dreary journey.

Oxley still contrived to keep to what he took to be the main channel, although, as it now pursued its course amid a dense thicket of reeds, it was becoming more difficult with every succeeding mile. Oxley's seamanship, however, stood him in good stead, and although fallen logs now began to obstruct their passage, they kept doggedly on for another twenty miles. There was no diminution in the volume of the current that was now bearing them onward, and Oxley felt confident that he was approaching that hidden lake, wherein the inland waters mingled their streams, and of whose existence he thought he had now every reason to rest assured. Just as he was buoying his spirits up with these hopes, dreaming that in future he would be able proudly to say,

We were the first that ever burst Into that silent sea,

the river eluded all further pursuit by spreading out in every direction amongst the ocean of reeds that surrounded them.

Wounded to the heart at this unlooked-for disappointment, Oxley, after vainly seeking for some clue or indication by which he could continue the search, had to 'bout ship and return to the camp of the night before. He says: -

"There was no channel whatever amongst these reeds, and the depth varied from five to three feet."

Although he was still convinced that the "long sought-for Australian Sea" existed, he recognised the futility of continuing this search to the westward, in which direction some malignant genius seemed ever to persist in thwarting him; and so he regained the shelter of the depot at Mount Harris, with another tale of frustrated hopes.

Evans, on his return from his scouting expedition to the north and north-east, had a more cheerful story to tell. The weather had been wet throughout, and the impassable nature of the country occasioned thereby had hampered him greatly; nevertheless he had struggled across the worst of the flat country, and in the north-east had come to a new river, which he named the Castlereagh. He was absent ten days, and on his return Oxley determined to abandon the Macquarie, which had proved even more deceptive and elusive than the Lachlan, and to strike out for the higher lands which Evans reported having seen.

He left Mount Harris on July 20th, first burying a bottle there containing a written scheme of his intended movements, and some silver coin. Ten years afterwards, Captain Sturt made an ineffectual search for this bottle. Oxley had also buried a bottle at the point of his departure from the Lachlan. Mitchell search for it without success, and learned afterwards that it had been broken by the blacks.

On July 27th, the party reached the bank of the Castlereagh, after fighting their way through bog, quagmire, and all the difficulties common to virgin country during continued wet weather. As the direction they were steering was towards a range seen by Evans, and named Arbuthnot Range, their march was again interrupted by finding the new-found river this time running bank-high, having evidently risen immediately after Evans had crossed it on his return journey. Here, perforce, they had to stay until the water subsided, and it was not until August 2nd that the river had fallen enough to allow them to cross. The ground was still soaked and boggy, and the horses having had to carry increased pack-loads since the abandonment of the boats, the party suffered great toil and hardship in their efforts to gain Arbuthnot Range. The Range was reached, however, and rounding one end of it by skirting the base of a prominent hill which they named Mount Exmouth, the harassed explorers at last emerged upon splendid pastoral country.

As Oxley, from a commanding position, surveyed the magnificent scene spread out beneath him - gentle hills separating smiling valleys, which in their turn merged into undulating plains all ripe for settlement - he must have felt that Fate had at length relented, and granted him a measure of reward as the discoverer of this beautiful land. He called the locality Liverpool Plains, and the name has long been synonymous with pastoral prosperity. Their journey to the eastward, which carried them through the heart of this rich and highly-favoured country, was now less arduous; and though the ground was still wet from the late soaking rains, the sun shone cheerily overhead, and the horses, revelling in the abundant rich grass and succulent herbage, began to recover their strength. On September 2nd, they came to a river, which Oxley named the Peel; and here the expedition narrowly escaped the shadow of a fatality, one man being nearly drowned whilst crossing. After leaving the Peel, Oxley still continued easterly, traversing splendid open grazing country. He was now approaching the dividing water-shed of the Main Range, to the northward of that portion of it which is known at the present day as the Liverpool Range. Here the deep glens and gullies with which the seaward front is serrated, began to interfere seriously with the direct course of travel, and at the heads of many of them there were cataracts and waterfalls which compelled the wanderers to turn away to the south; and on one occasion to revert almost to the west. One of these striking natural features received the name of Becket's Cataract, and another was christened Bathurst's Falls. Once again tempests and storms beset them, and this wild weather found them wandering amongst the steep ravines and dizzy descents of the mountainous range, seeking a way leading to the lowlands.

It was on September 23rd that Oxley and Evans, while searching for a practicable route, climbed a tall peak, and from the summit caught a glimpse of the sea. It seems to have greatly impressed Oxley, and he writes in his journal of his emotions on the occasion: -

"Bilboa's ecstacy at the first sight of the South Sea could not have been greater than ours when, on gaining the summit of this mountain, we beheld Old Ocean at our feet. It inspired us with new life; every difficulty vanished, and in imagination we were already home."

The descent was attended with many perils: Oxley says that at one period he would willingly have compromised for the loss of one-third of the horses to ensure the safety of the remainder. But the men with him were tried and steady, and the thick tufts of grass and the loose soil afforded them help in securing a surer footing, of every chance of availing themselves of which the men skilfully took advantage, so that both men and horses reached the foot of the mountain - now called Mount Seaview - without mishap.

They had reached the head of a river running into the Pacific, and proceeded to follow its course down with more or less difficulty until they reached the mouth, when Oxley, judging the entrance to be navigable, named it Port Macquarie, though one should imagine that he had become tired of that name. The river was named the Hastings.

On October 12th, a toilsome march commenced, following the shore to the southward. The wearisome interruptions of the many inlets and saltwater creeks greatly fatigued and distressed his men. But at last they came upon a boat, half-buried in the sand, which had been lost some time before from a Hawkesbury coaster. This they cleaned and patched, and carried with them, utilising it during the latter stages of this weary journey to facilitate the passage of the many saltwater creeks and channels that impeded their progress. It is owing to the possession of this derelict boat that Oxley crossed the mouth of the Manning without identifying it as a river. The blacks now harassed them greatly, and it was during one of the attacks made upon the party that one of the men, named William Black, was dangerously wounded, being speared through the back and the lower part of the body. The care and conveyance of this invalided man was now added to Oxley's other anxieties, and it was with feelings of great satisfaction that on November 1st they caught sight of the rude buildings of Port Stephens. Through much hardship and privations he had brought his party back without loss.

Oxley sent Evans on to Newcastle with despatches to the governor, in which he alluded to his sanguine anticipations at the time he had sent in his last report, and their almost immediate collapse. But the discovery of Liverpool Plains compensated in some degree for the disappointment caused by the renewed failure that had attended Oxley's efforts to trace an inland river.

In the following year, 1819, the Lady Nelson, with the Surveyor-General on board, visited the newly found Port Macquarie and the Hastings River, to survey the entrance; in which task he was assisted by Lieutenant P.P. King in the Mermaid. On his return to Port Jackson, in the same year, he made a short excursion to Jarvis Bay with Surveyor Meehan, when they were accompanied by the explorer who was to win fame as Hamilton Hume. Oxley returned by boat, his companions overland.

3.4. THE BRISBANE RIVER.

It was in October, 1823, that Oxley left Sydney on the expedition that resulted in the finding of the Brisbane River, and the foundation of the settlement at Moreton Bay. He was despatched on a mission to examine certain openings on the east coast, and report on the suitability of them as sites for penal establishments. Moreton Bay, Port Curtis, and Port Bowen were selected; and Oxley left in the colonial cutter Mermaid, with Uniacke and Stirling as assistants.

As the cutter went up the coast, she called at Port Macquarie, and Oxley had the pleasure of noting the rapid growth of the settlement that had been built upon his recommendation. Further along the coast, Oxley discovered and named the Tweed River. The Mermaid reached Port Curtis on the 6th of November, and cast anchor for some time, during which Oxley made a careful examination of the locality, his opinion of it as a site for a settlement being decidedly unfavourable. He however discovered and named the Boyne River.

It being considered too late in the season to proceed and examine Port Bowen, the Mermaid went south again, and entering Moreton Bay, anchored off the river that appeared to Flinders to take its source in the Glass House Peaks, and which he had called the Pumice Stone River.

They had scarcely anchored when several natives were seen at a distance, evidently attracted by their arrival, and on examining them with the telescope, Uniacke was struck with the appearance of one of a much lighter colour than that of his companions. The next day Oxley landed and discovered that the man they had noticed was in reality a castaway white man of the name of Pamphlet. He told a singular tale.

He had left Sydney in an open boat with three others, intending to go to the Five Islands and bring back cedar. A terrible gale arose, and they were blown out to sea and quite out of their reckoning, Pamphlet being under the impression that they had come ashore south of Port Jackson. They had suffered fearful hardships in the open boat, being at one time, he averred, twenty-one days without water, during which time one man died of thirst. The boat was at last cast up on an island in the bay (Moreton Island) where they had joined the blacks, and lived amongst them ever since, a matter of seven months. The other survivors were named Finnegan and Parsons. Pamphlet informed Oxley that not long before the Mermaid arrived, the three of them had started to try and reach Sydney overland, but when they had got about fifty miles, he had turned back and the next day had been rejoined by Finnegan, who stated that he had quarrelled with Parsons. The latter was never heard of again.

Finnegan put in an appearance the next day, and Oxley naturally took the opportunity to question them as to the knowledge they had gained of the surrounding country during their enforced stay in it. On one important point both of them were confident, and this was that, in the southern portion of the bay, a large river was to be found which appeared navigable, having a strong current.

Taking Finnegan with them, Oxley and Stirling started in the whaleboat the following morning to verify this information. They found the river and pulled up it about fifty miles. Oxley was greatly pleased with such a discovery, and landing, ascended a hill which he named Termination Hill. From the top he obtained a view over a wide extent of country, through which he was able to trace the river for a long distance. Strangely enough, the hasty glimpse he thus caught of a new and untrodden part of Australia seemed to confirm his fixed belief in the final destination of the Lachlan and the Macquarie as an inland sea.

"The nature of the country and a consideration of all the circumstances connected with the appearances of the river, justify me in entertaining a strong belief that the source of the river will not be found in mountainous country, but rather that it flows from some lake, which will prove to be the receptacle of those inland streams crossed by me during an expedition of discovery in 1818."

Oxley named the river the Brisbane, and, taking aboard the two rescued men, the Mermaid set sail for Port Jackson, where she arrived on December 13th. This ended the chapter of Oxley's discoveries in the field of active exploration.