CHAPTER 6. CHARLES STURT.
On the 7th of March the party struck camp and departed for the Castlereagh River. They found that the flooded stream, impassable by Oxley, had totally disappeared. Not a drop of water lay in the bed of the river. They commenced to follow its course down, and the old harassing hunt for water had to be conducted anew. No wonder that Sturt could never free himself from the memory of his fiery baptism as Australian explorer, and that his mental picture of the country was ever shrouded in the haze of drought and heat.
As they descended the Castlereagh into the level lower country, they were greatly delayed by the many intricate windings of the river and its multiplicity of channels. On the 29th of March they again reached the Darling, ninety miles above the place where they had first come upon it, and they observed the same characteristics as before, including the saltness. This was a blow to Sturt, who had hoped to find it free from salinity. Fortunately they were not distressed for fresh water at the time, and knowing what to expect if the river was followed down again, the party halted and formed a camp.
The next day Sturt, Hume, and two men crossed the river and made a short journey of investigation to the west, to see what fortune held for them further afield. Not having passed during the day "a drop of water or a blade of grass," they found themselves by mid-afternoon on a wide plain that stretched far away to the horizon. Sturt writes that had there been the slightest encouragement afforded by any change in the country, he would even then have pushed forward, "but we had left all traces of the natives behind us, and this seemed a desert they never entered - that not even a bird inhabited."
Back to Mount Harris once more, where they arrived on the 7th of April, 1829. On their way they had stopped to follow a depression first noticed by Hume, and decided that it was the channel of the overflow of the Macquarie Marshes.
6.3. THE PASSAGE OF THE MURRAY.
The mystery of the Macquarie was now, to a certain extent, cleared away, but the course and final outlet of the Darling now presented another riddle, which Sturt too was destined to solve.
The discovery of such a large river as the Darling, augmented by the Macquarie and Castlereagh, and (so people then thought) in all probability the Lachlan, naturally inflamed public curiosity as to the position of the outlet on the Australian coast. All the rivers that had been tried as guides to the hidden interior having failed to answer the purpose, the Murrumbidgee - the beautiful river of the aboriginals - was selected as the scene of the next attempt. There were good reasons for the choice: it derived its volume from the highest known mountains, snow-capped peaks in fact, that reminded the spectator of far northern latitudes, and thus it was to a great extent independent of the variable local rainfall.
Captain Sturt was naturally selected to be the leader of the Murrumbidgee expedition, and with him as second went George MacLeay, the son of the then Colonial Secretary. Harris, who had been Sturt's soldier-servant for nearly eighteen years, and two other men of the 39th, who had been with their Captain on the Macquarie expedition, also accompanied him, with a very complete and well-furnished party, including the usual boat rigged up on a carriage. This time, however, unlike the craft that had accompanied previous exploring parties, the whaleboat was destined to be immortalised in Australian history.
Settlement had by this time extended well up to and down the banks of the Murrumbidgee, and Sturt took his departure from the borders of civilisation about where the town of Gundagai now stands, almost at the junction of the Tumut River, at Whaby's station. The course for some time lay along the rich river-flats of the Murrumbidgee. The blacks, who of course from their position were familiar with the presence of white men, maintained a friendly demeanour. One slight excursion to the north was made to connect with Oxley's furthest south, made when on his Lachlan expedition; but though they did not actually verify the spot, Sturt reckoned that he went within twenty miles of it, showing how narrowly that explorer had missed the discovery of the Murrumbidgee.
As they got lower down the river they found themselves travelling through the flat desolate country that reminded them only too forcibly of late experiences on the Macquarie. Owing to some information gleaned from the natives, Sturt and MacLeay rode north to try and again come upon the Lachlan. They struck a dry channel, which Sturt believed was the drainage from the Lachlan into the Murrumbidgee. This proved to be correct, as natives afterwards testified that they had seen the two white men actually on the Lachlan.
On the 25th, which was an intensely hot day, MacLeay, who was on ahead, found himself suddenly confronted with a boundless sea of reeds, and the river itself had suddenly vanished. He sent a mounted messenger back to Sturt with these disastrous tidings. Sturt thereupon turned the drays, which were already in difficulties in the loose soil, sharp round to the right, and finally came to the river again, where they camped to discuss the untoward circumstance.
At daylight the next morning, Sturt and MacLeay rode along its bank, whilst Clayton, the carpenter, was set to work felling a tree and digging a sawpit. Progress along the bank with the whole party was evidently impossible. Sturt, however, had faith in the continuity of the river, and announced to MacLeay his intention to send back most of the expedition, and with a picked crew to embark in the whaleboat, committing their desperate fortunes to the stream, and trusting to make the coast somewhere, and leaving their return in the hands of Providence.