The exploration of the centre of the continent was long retarded by the difficult nature of the country - by its aridity, its few continuously-watered rivers, and the supposed horse-shoe shape of Lake Torrens, which thrust its vast shallow morass across the path of the daring explorers making north.

For most of us of the present day, to whom Lake Torrens is but a geographical feature, it is hard to imagine the sense of awe it inspired in the breasts of the South Australian settlers, who appeared to be cut off completely from the north by its gloomy and forbidding environs of salt and barrenness.

In 1836, Colonel Light surveyed the shores of St. Vincent's Gulf, and selected the site of the city of Adelaide. Governor Hindmarsh and a company of emigrants arrived soon afterwards, and the Province of South Australia was proclaimed.

The very promising discoveries made to the south of the Murray by Major Mitchell soon induced an invasion of adventurous pastoralists bringing their stock from the settled parts of New South Wales.

Charles Bonney led the way across to the Port Phillip settlement in 1837 with sheep. G.H. Ebden accompanied him, and they were shortly followed by many more: Hamilton, Gardiner, Langbourne, and others, whose names are well-known in Australian history as the first Overlanders. Very shortly this overlanding of stock was extended to the newly-founded city of Adelaide, Charles Bonney and Joseph Hawdon being the first drovers on this long journey. Their Adelaide journey was in fact an exploration trip, and an important one, as they followed the bank of the Murray below its junction with the Darling; this part of the river having been followed down before only by Sturt, and then only by water.

It was in January, 1838, that Hawdon and Bonney left Mitchell's crossing at the Goulburn River with cattle as pioneers on the overland route to Adelaide. Unknown to them they were closely followed by E.J. Eyre, with another mob of cattle. Eyre, as we shall afterwards see, was thrown out of the race through trying to make a short cut to avoid the sweeping bend of the river. Bonney and Hawdon crossed the Murray above the junction of the Darling, and in places found the bed of the latter river dry. The natives, strange to say, were quite friendly; perhaps they had taken to heart the lesson Mitchell had read them. But their amiable demeanour did not last long. Bonney and Hawdon were almost the last overlanding party to proceed unmolested. Within a comparatively short time afterwards, an incessant war began to be waged between the blacks and every Overlander who passed down the Murray. It ended only with the sanguinary battle of the Rufus. More fortunate than Sturt, Hawdon and Bonney were able to cut off many of the wearisome bends that had so fatigued Sturt's crew. Sturt had had to follow every turn and curve, whilst the Overlanders avoided the bends of the Murray by following the native paths, which spared them in some cases a journey of one or two days. It was while following a native path that they discovered and named Lake Bonney. At last they sighted the Mount Lofty ranges, and after some difficulty in getting through some rough mallee-covered country, arrived at Adelaide, and gladdened the residents with the prospect of roast beef. "Up to this time," says Bonney in his diary, "they had been living almost exclusively on kangaroo flesh." Eyre, whose name was afterwards so closely allied with a famous story of thirst and hardship, narrowly escaped with his life during his overlanding trip.

It was owing to a very natural mistake that Eyre was led astray. He intended to try a straighter and shorter route than the one round the Murray, and for a time got on very well, but coming across a tract of dry country across which he could not take the cattle, he determined to follow Mitchell's Wimmera River to the north, naturally thinking that it would lead him easily to the Murray, and would probably prove to be identical with the Lindsay, as marked on Sturt's chart. From Mitchell's furthest point, he traced it a considerable distance to the north-west, and at last found its termination in a large swampy lake, which he called after the first Governor of South Australia, Lake Hindmarsh. From this lake he could find no outlet, so taking with him two men, he made an attempt to push through to the Murray, leaving his cattle to await him. He found the country covered with an almost impenetrable mallee scrub, and as there was neither grass nor water for the horses, he was forced to retreat. He reached his camp after a weary struggle on foot, the horses having died from thirst. Eyre was then compelled to return and gain the bank of the Murray by the nearest available route. The bitter disappointment of the trip was, that when forced to retreat by the inhospitable nature of the country, he was but twenty-five miles from the river.

Bonney, however, on another occasion, took a mob of cattle from the Goulburn River to Adelaide in almost a direct line. In February 1839, he left the Goulburn and steered a course for the Grampian Mountains, where he struck the Wannon, and followed it down to the Glenelg. Here he came upon one of the Henty stations, and was strongly advised not to persist in his attempt. Captain Hart, who had been examining the country with the same purpose in view as Bonney's, stated that it would be impossible to take cattle through and turned back with his own to follow the old route round the Murray bend. But Bonney was not to be daunted, and resolutely pushed on west of the Glenelg. He discovered and named Lake Hawdon, and also named two mountains, Mount Muirhead and Mount Benson. But at Lacepede Bay his most serious troubles commenced. The party had pushed on steadily to within forty miles of Lake Alexandrina when, in the middle of a sandy desert, the working bullocks failed. Bonney divided his party, and sending some of the men back to take the workers to a brackish pool which they had passed, he himself with the stockmen and two black boys, made a desperate effort to reach the Lake with the main mob. For two days they pushed steadily on, travelling day and night, until men and beasts were alike at their last gasp. Bonney then tried a desperate expedient: "I then determined," he says, "as a last resource, to kill a calf and use the blood to assuage our thirst. This was done, and though the blood did not allay the pangs of thirst to any great extent, it restored our strength very much."

The exhausted men then lay down to rest; but whilst they slept their thirsty beasts scented a faint smell of damp earth on a wandering puff of wind, and stampeded off to windward. Too weak to follow on at once, the men, after an hour or two, staggered after them and tracked them to a half-dry swamp, which still maintained a little mud and water. It was brackish, but palatable enough for men in their exhausted condition, and saved the lives of all. After some trouble in crossing the Murray, they reached Adelaide in safety with the stock.

When the news of their arrival reached Port Phillip, many other Overlanders were encouraged by Bonney's example to try the shorter route, and the trade in shipping cattle across the straits from Tasmania almost ceased.

Bonney had been born at Sandon, near Stafford, and educated at the Grammar School, Rugby. He had come out to Sydney in 1834, as clerk to Sir William Westbrooks Burton; but the love of adventure prevailed over his other inclinations, and in 1837, he joined Ebden in squatting pursuits, and eventually distinguished himself as one of the leading Overlanders. He subsequently settled in South Australia. From 1842 to 1857 he was Commissioner for Crown Lands, and he afterwards served the State as manager for railways, and in other capacities. Subsequently he returned to Sydney, where he died.


Edward John Eyre was the son of the Reverend Anthony Eyre, vicar of Hornsea and Long Riston, Yorkshire, and was born on August 14th, 1815. He was educated at Louth and Sedburgh Grammar Schools. He came to Australia in 1833, and immediately engaged in squatting pursuits, his enterprising spirit constantly leading him beyond the pale of civilization, where his natural love for exploration rapidly increased. His fortunes as an Overlander have already been noticed. On the 5th August, 1839, he left Port Lincoln, on the western shore of Spencer's Gulf, meaning to penetrate as far as he could to the westward. Some time before he had made an expedition to the north of Adelaide as far as Mount Arden, a striking elevation to the North-North-East of Spencer's Gulf. He had ascended this mount, and from the summit seen a depression which he took to be a lake with a dry bed. This lake afterwards played an important part in the history of South Australian settlement under the name of Lake Torrens.

Eyre's party on his westward trip consisted of an overseer, three men, and two natives. Twenty days after leaving Port Lincoln, they arrived at Streaky Bay, not having crossed a single stream, rivulet, or chain of ponds the whole distance of nearly three hundred miles. Three small springs only had been found, and the country was covered with the gloomy mallee and tea-tree scrub. Westward of Streaky Bay the country was still found to be scrubby; so Eyre formed a camp, and taking only a black boy with him, he forced a stubborn way onward, until he was within nearly fifty miles of the western border of South Australia. To all appearance the country was slightly more elevated than the level scrubby flats he had been traversing, but there was neither grass nor water, and an immediate return became necessary. Before he got back to Streaky Bay camp, he nearly lost three of his horses.

Leaving Streaky Bay again, he went east of north to the head of Spencer's Gulf, finding the country on this route a little better, but still devoid of water, the party getting through, thanks only to a timely rainfall. On the 29th of September, he came to his old camp at Mount Arden, where he wrote: -

"It was evident that what I had taken on my last journey to be the bed of a dry lake now contained water, and was of considerable size; but as my time was very limited, and the lake at a great distance, I had to forego my wish to visit it. I have, however, no doubt of its being salt, from the nature of the country, and the fact of finding the water very salt in one of the creeks draining into it from the hills. Beyond this lake (which I distinguished with the name of Colonel Torrens) to the westward was a low, flat-topped range, extending north-westerly, as far as I could see."

From this point Eyre returned, pursuing his former homeward route.

[Map. Eyre's Explorations, 1840 and 1841.]

The main objects that now attracted the attention of the colonists of South Australia were (1) discovery to the northward, regarding both the extent of Lake Torrens and the nature of the interior; and (2) the possibility of the existence of a stock route to the Swan River settlement. Eyre, however, after his late experience, was convinced that the overlanding of stock around the head of the Great Bight was impracticable. The country was too sterile, and the absence of water-courses rendered the idea hopeless. For immediate practical results, beneficial to the growing pastoral industry, Eyre favoured the extension of discovery to the north. This then was the course adopted, and subscriptions were raised towards that end. Eyre himself provided one-third of the needful horses and other expenses; and the Government and colonists found the remainder.

Meantime it was found that the country in the immediate neighbourhood of Port Lincoln was not altogether of the same wretched nature as that traversed by Eyre between Streaky Bay and the head of Spencer's Gulf. Captain Hawson, William Smith, and three others had made an excursion for some considerable distance, and found well-grassed country and abundance of water. From the point whence they turned back, they had seen a fine valley with a running stream. This valley they named Rossitur Vale, after Captain Rossitur of the French whaler Mississippi, the first foreign vessel to enter Port Lincoln. Rossitur was the man who was destined later to afford opportune aid to Eyre, without which he would never have reached Albany.

On the 18th of June, 1840, Eyre's preparations were complete, and he left Adelaide after a farewell breakfast at Government House, where Captain Sturt presented him with a flag - the Union Jack - worked by some of the ladies of Adelaide.

His party was not a large one considering the nature of the undertaking, consisting as it did of six white men and two black boys. At Mount Arden they formed a stationary camp. A small vessel called the Waterwitch was sent to the head of Spencer's Gulf with the heaviest portion of their supplies, and the party had three horse drays with them. Eyre trusted that a range of hills, which he had seen stretching to the north-east, would continue far enough to take him clear of the flat and depressed country around Lake Torrens - would, in fact, as he says, form a stepping-stone into the interior.

Taking one black boy with him, Eyre made a short trip to Lake Torrens, leaving the rest of the party to land the stores from the Waterwitch. He found the bed of the lake coated with a crust of salt, pure white, and glistening brilliantly in the sunshine. It yielded to the footstep, and below was soft mud, which rapidly grew so boggy as to stop their progress. In fact they had to return to the shore without being able to ascertain whether there was any water on the surface or not. At this point the lake appeared to be about fifteen or twenty miles across, having high land bounding it on the distant west.

There seemed no chance of crossing the lake; and following its shore to the north was impossible. There was neither grass nor water; the very rainwater turned salt after lying a short time on the saline soil. The only chance of success appeared to be to keep close to the north-eastern range, which Eyre named the Flinders Range, trusting to its broken gullies to supply them with some scanty grass and rainwater.

It was a cheerless outlook. On one side was an impassable lake of combined mud and salt; on the other a desert of bare and barren plains; whilst their onward path was along a range of inhospitable rocks.

"The very stones, lying upon the hills," says Eyre, "looked like scorched and withered scoria of a volcanic region, and even the natives, judging from the specimen I had seen to-day, partook of the general misery and wretchedness of the place."

He directed his course to the most distant point of the Flinders Range, but when he arrived there, he was obliged to christen it Mount Deception, as his hope of finding water there was disappointed. Subsisting as well as they could on rain puddles on the plains, Eyre and his boy searched about for some time and at last found a permanent-looking hole in a small creek. They then returned to the main party. Having concealed the supplies landed from the cutter, Eyre sent the vessel back to Adelaide with despatches, and moved the whole of the men out to the pool of water that he had just found. From this vantage point he made various scouting trips with the black boy, both to the eastward and westward of north. The 2nd of September found him on the summit of an elevation which he appropriately named Mount Hopeless, gazing at the salt lake that he now thought hemmed him in on three sides, even to the eastward. There was no prospect visible of crossing the lake, which seemed persistently to defy him, meeting him at every attempt with a barrier of stagnant mud. There was nothing for it but to leave the interior unvisited by this route, and to return to Mount Arden.

He divided his party, sending Baxter, the overseer, with most of the men and stores straight across to Streaky Bay, where he had formerly made a camp, while, with the remainder, he made his way to Port Lincoln. Having abandoned his intention to penetrate to the interior on a northern course, he now determined to push out westward, to King George's Sound, finding, perhaps, on the way across, some inducement that would lead him north.

At Port Lincoln he could not obtain the extra supplies he wanted without sending to Adelaide; it was therefore the 24th of October when he finally started for Streaky Bay. He found that Baxter had arrived there safely, and was anxiously awaiting him.

He now camped for many weeks at Fowler's Bay, which was as far as the cutter they now had, the Hero, could act as convoy, her charter not extending beyond South Australian waters. The Waterwitch having sprung a leak, the Hero had taken her place. During the time that they remained there, Eyre made many journeys ahead to estimate his chances of getting across the dry and barren country intervening between him and the Sound, but the outlook was disheartening. He met some natives, who all assured him that there was no water ahead; nor could he find any but some brackish water obtained by digging in some sandhills. Worse than all, he sacrificed three of his best horses during these fruitless attempts.

On the 25th of January, the Hero arrived with the oats and bran he had sent back for. So poverty-stricken was the country that Eyre, in the circumstances, resolved to send back nearly the whole of his expedition by the vessel, and then, with only a small party, to push through to King George's Sound or perish in the attempt.

Baffled successively to the north and to the west, Eyre had been put upon his mettle, and he could not endure the thought of returning to Adelaide a beaten man.

On the 31st of January the cutter departed, and Eyre, Baxter, and three native boys, one of whom had come by the vessel on her last trip, were left alone to face the eight hundred miles of desert solitude before them. Some time was spent in making their final preparations, but on the 24th of February they had actually begun their journey when, to their astonishment, they heard two shots fired at sea. Thinking that a whaler had put in to the bay, Eyre turned back, but found the Hero again in port with an urgent request from Adelaide to abandon his desperate project, and return in the vessel. Upon a man of Eyre's temperament, this recall could have only one effect, that of strengthening his resolve to proceed westward at all hazards. He did not emulate Cortez by burning his ship behind him, but he none the less effectually deprived himself of means of retreat by dismissing the little Hero.

It was at the close of a hot summer when Eyre started, and the nature of the sandy soil, combined with the low prickly scrub, soon began to hamper their progress and render the lack of water especially severe. On one side of them, flanking their line of march, were the cliffs of the Great Bight, against which thundered the ever-restless southern rollers; on the other there stretched a limitless expanse of dark, gloomy scrub. Their only hope of relief was the faint chance of striking some native path which might lead them to an infrequent soakage-spring. Even in these depressing circumstances, Eyre seems to have found time to express his admiration of Nature as she then revealed herself to him: -

"Distressing and fatal as the continuance of these cliffs might prove to us, there was a grandeur and sublimity in their appearance that was most imposing, and which struck me with admiration. Stretching out before us in lofty, unbroken outline, they presented the singular and romantic appearance of massy battlements of masonry, supported by huge buttresses, glittering in the morning sun which had now risen upon them, and made the scene beautiful even amidst the dangers and anxieties of our situation."

Five days of slow, dragging toil passed, until, with the horses at their last gasp, and the men baked and parched, they found relief in some native wells amongst the sandhills, at a point where the cliffs receded from the sea.

After resting for some days at this camp, Eyre, misled by a report he had obtained from the natives, again moved forward, taking with him but a small supply of water. When he had discovered the blunder, he had gone forty miles, and over this weary distance the horses had to return. It was one of those mishaps that helped so much to wear out his unfortunate animals.

Trouble after trouble now added itself to the burden of the explorers. Another five days had passed without water, and their only hopes rested upon some sandhills ahead, seen from the sea by Flinders, and marked by him upon his chart. Retreat was impossible, and with their horses failing one after another, they toiled on, desperate and well-nigh hopeless. Eyre's anxiety was increased by Baxter's growing despondency and pessimistic view of the issue of their enterprise. They were now travelling along the sea beach, firm and hard, and ominously marked with wreckage. Their last drop of water had been consumed, and that morning they had been collecting dew from the bushes with a sponge, as a last resource. When they reached the sand-dunes, they were almost too weak to search for a likely place to dig for water; but making a final effort, they discovered a patch whence, at six feet, they obtained a supply of water.

It was now that Eyre approached the grand crisis of his adventurous journey. According to the chart compiled by Flinders, he had another long succession of cliffs to encounter, and he knew that where these cliffs came in and sternly fronted the ocean, he need hope for no relief. Should this space be happily surmounted by a desperate effort, he hoped to reach a kindlier country. Disaffection appeared in his small camp. Baxter was always suggesting and even urging a return. Perhaps some shadow of his tragic fate overhung his spirit. The native boys were ripe for desertion, and two of them did desert, only to return in a few days, starving, and apparently repentant. Better for Eyre had they gone altogether. Amid such discouraging surroundings did Eyre commence his last struggle with the cliffs of the Great Bight.

The party had been tantalised by threatening clouds, which never broke in rain. When on the third day they gathered once more, black and lowering. Baxter urged Eyre to camp that night instead of pushing on, as rain seemed certain, and the rock holes by which they were then passing were well adapted to catch the slightest shower. Eyre consented, against his better judgment. It was necessary to watch the horses lest they should ramble too far, and Eyre kept the first watch. The night was cold, the wind blowing a gale and driving the flying scud across the face of the moon. The horses wandered off in different directions in the scrub, giving the tired man much trouble to keep them together. About half-past ten he drove them near the camp intending shortly to call the overseer to relieve him.

Suddenly the dead stillness of the night and the wilderness was broken by the report of a gun. Eyre was not at first alarmed, thinking it was a signal of Baxter's to indicate the position of their camp. He called, but received no answer. Hastening in the direction of the shot, he was met by Wylie, the King George's Sound native, running towards him in great alarm crying out: "Oh, massa, massa, come here!" and then losing speech from terror. Eyre was soon at the camp, and one glance was enough to see that his purpose must now be pursued grimly alone. Baxter, fatally wounded, was stretched upon the ground, bleeding and choking in his last agony. As Eyre raised his faithful companion in his arms he expired.

"At the dead hour of night, in the wildest and most inhospitable waste of Australia, with the fierce wind raging in unison with the scene of violence before me, I was left with a single native, whose fidelity I could not rely on, and who, for aught I knew might be in league with the other two, who, perhaps were even now lurking about to take my life, as they had done that of the overseer."

On examining the camp, Eyre found that the two boys had carried off both double-barrelled guns, all the baked bread and other stores, and a keg of water. All they had left behind was a rifle, with the barrel choked by a ball jammed in it, four gallons of water, forty pounds of flour, and a little tea and sugar.

When he had time to think the matter over calmly, Eyre judged, from the position of the body, that Baxter must have been aroused by the two natives plundering the camp, and that, getting up hastily to stop them, he was immediately shot. His first care was to put his rifle into serviceable condition, and then, when morning broke, he hastened to leave the ill-omened place. It was impossible to bury the body of his murdered companion; one unbroken sheet of rock covered the surface of the country for miles in every direction. Well might Eyre write, many years afterwards: -

"Though years have now passed away since the enactment of this tragedy, the dreadful horrors of that time and scene are recalled before me with frightful vividness, and make me shudder even now when I think of them. A lifetime was crowded into those few short hours, and death alone may blot out the impressions they produced."

The two murderers followed the white man and boy during the first day, evading all Eyre's attempts to bring them to close quarters, and calling to the remaining boy, Wylie, who refused to go to them. They disappeared the next morning, and must have died miserably of thirst and starvation.

Seven days passed without a drop of water for the horses, before they reached the end of the line of cliffs, and providentially came to a native well amid the sand dunes. From this point water was more frequently obtained, and what wretched horses they had left showed feeble symptoms of renewed life. At last, when their rations were completely exhausted, they sighted a ship at anchor in Thistle Cove. She proved to be the Mississippi, commanded by Captain Rossitur, the whaler already referred to as the first foreign vessel to enter Port Lincoln; and once more Eyre had to give thanks for relief at a most critical moment.

For ten days, in the hospitable cabin of the French whaler, he forgot his sufferings, and regained some of his lost strength. Then, provided with fresh clothes and provisions, and with his horses freshly-shod, Eyre recommenced his weary pilgrimage, and, in July, 1841, arrived at his long-desired goal, King George's Sound.

In reflecting upon this painful march of Eyre's round the Great Bight, one feels an exceeding great pity that so much heroic suffering should have been spent on the execution of a purpose the fulfilment of which promised but little of economic value. The maritime surveys had fairly established the fact that no considerable creek or river found its way into the Southern Ocean, either in or about the Great Bight. Granted that the outflow of some of our large Australian rivers had been overlooked by the navigators, the local conditions were such as to render it virtually certain that any such omission was not made along this part of the south coast. Here there was to be found no fringe of low, mangrove-covered flats, studded with inlets and saltwater creeks, thus masking the entrance of a river. In some parts, a bold forefront of lofty precipitous cliffs, in others a clean-swept sandy shore, alone faced the ocean. Flinders, constantly on the alert as he was for anything resembling the formation of a river-mouth, would scarcely have been mistaken in his reading of such a coast-line. And the journey resulted in no knowledge of the interior, even a short distance back from the actual coast-line. The conjectures of a worn-out, starving man, picking his way painfully along the verge of the beach, were, in this respect, of little moment.

Eyre, however, won for himself well-deserved honour for courage and perseverance, in as exacting circumstances as ever beset a solitary explorer. The picture of the lonely man in his plundered camp bending over his murdered companion, separated from his fellow-men by countless miles of unwatered and untrodden waste, appeals resistlessly to our sympathies. But admiration of Eyre's good qualities has blinded many to his errors of judgment.

He was accorded a generous public welcome on his return to Adelaide, and was subsequently appointed Police Magistrate on the Murray, where his inland experience and knowledge of native character were of great service. When Sturt started on his memorable trip to the centre of Australia, Eyre accompanied his old friend some distance. But his activities were exercised in other fields than those of Australian exploration during his after life. He was Lieutenant-Governor of the Province of New Munster in New Zealand under Sir George Grey from 1848 to 1853, when that colony was divided into two provinces. He was afterwards Governor-General of Jamaica, where the active and energetic measures he took to crush the insurrection of 1865 incited a storm of opposition against him in certain quarters, and he played a leading part in the great constitutional cases of Philips v. Eyre, and The Queen v. Eyre. He died at Steeple Aston, in Oxfordshire, in 1906.