19.1. AUSTIN.

By 1854 the gold fever was running high in Australia, and each colony was eager to discover new diggings within its borders. Robert Austin, Assistant Surveyor-General of Western Australia, was instructed to take charge of an inland exploring party to search for pastoral country, and to examine the interior for indications of gold.

He started from the head of the Swan River on a north-easterly course, and on the 16th of July reached a lake, rumours of whose existence had been spread by the blacks, who had called it Cowcowing. The colonists had hoped that it would prove to be a lake of fresh water in the Gascoyne valley, but Cowcowing in reality was a salt marsh, no great distance from the starting-point of Austin's expedition.

The lake was dry and its bed covered with salt incrustations, showing that its waters are undoubtedly saline. Thence Austin made directly north, and passing through repellant country, such as always fell to the lot of the early western explorers in their initial efforts, he directed his course to a distant range of table-topped hills. Here he found both grass and water, and named the highest elevation Mount Kenneth, after Kenneth Brown, a member of his party. Thence he kept a north-east course, traversing stony plains intersected by the dry beds of sandy watercourses. Here the party met with dire misfortune. The horses ate from a patch of poisonous box plant, and nearly all of them were disabled. A few escaped, but the greater number never recovered from the effects of the poison, and fourteen died. Pushing on in the hope of finding a safe place in which to recruit, Austin found himself so crippled in his means of transit that he had to abandon all but his most necessary stores.

He now made for Shark's Bay, whither a vessel was to be sent to render him assistance or take the party home if required. The course to Shark's Bay led them over country that did not tempt them to linger on the way. On the 21st of September a sad accident occurred. They were then camped at a spring near a cave in the face of a cliff, in which there were some curious native rock-paintings. While resting here, a young man named Charles Farmer accidentally shot himself in the arm, and in spite of the most careful attention the poor fellow died of lockjaw in the most terrible agony. He was buried at the cave-spring camp, and the highest hill in the neighbourhood was christened Mount Farmer. His death and burial reminds one of Sturt's friend Poole, who rests in the east of the continent under the shadow of Mount Poole. Thus two lonely graves in the Australian wilderness are guarded by mountains whose names perpetuate the memory of their occupants. And who could desire a nobler monument than the everlasting hills?

Austin now came to the upper tributaries of the Murchison only to find them waterless. Even the deep cut channel of the Murchison itself was dry. They crossed the river, but beyond it all their efforts to penetrate westward were in vain. They had fought their way to within one hundred miles of Shark's Bay, but they had then been so long without water that further advance meant certain death. Even during the retreat to the Murchison, the lives of the horses were saved only by the accidental discovery of a small native well in a most improbable situation, namely, in the middle of a bare ironstone plain. Their only course now was to fall back on the Murchison, hoping that they would find water at their crossing. Austin pushed on ahead of the main body, and struck the river twenty-five miles below their previous crossing, to make the tantalising discovery that the pools of water on which they had fixed their hopes were hopelessly salt.

A desperate and vain search was made to the southward, during a day of fierce and terrible heat; but on the next day, having made for some small hills they had sighted, they providentially found both water and grass. The whole party rested at this spot, which was gratefully named Mount Welcome.

Nothing daunted by the sufferings he had undergone, Austin now made another attempt to reach Shark's Bay. On the way to the Murchison, they had induced an old native to come with them to point out the watering-places of the blacks. At first he was able to show them one or two that in all probability they would have missed, but after they had crossed the Murchison and proceeded some distance to the westward, the water the native had relied on was found to have disappeared, and it was only after the most acute sufferings from thirst and the loss of some more horses, that they managed to struggle back to Mount Welcome.

Austin's conduct during these terrible marches seems to have bordered on the heroic. Whilst his companions fell away one by one and lay down to die, and the one native of the wilds was cowering weeping under a bush, he toiled on and managed to reach a little well which the blackfellow had formerly shown him. Without resting, he tramped back with water to revive his exhausted companions.

At Mount Welcome they found the water on the point of giving out, and weak and exhausted though they were, an immediate start had to be made to the Geraldine mine, a small settlement having been formed there to work the galena lode discovered by Gregory. That they would ever reach the mine the explorers could not hope; they and their horses were in a state of extreme weakness, the distance to the mine was one hundred and sixty miles, and to the highest point on the Murchison, where Gregory had found water, their first stage was ninety miles. They began their journey at midnight, and by means of forced marches, travelling day and night, they reached Gregory's old camp on the river. Fortunately they had found a small supply of water at one place on the way. From this point the worst of their perils were passed. They followed the river down, obtaining water from springs in the banks, and on the 27th of November arrived at the mine, where they were warmly entertained. Thence they returned to Perth, some by sea and some overland.

Austin's exploration had led to no profitable result. Cowcowing had proved only a saline marsh similar to Lake Moore, the large lake which had haunted Gregory; the upper Murchison was not of a nature to invite further acquaintance or settlement; and the whole of the journey had been a disheartening round of daily struggles with a barren and waterless district, under the fiery sun of the southern summer.

Austin thought that eastward of his limit the country would improve; but subsequent explorations have not substantiated his supposition. He had had singularly hard fortune to contend against. After the serious loss he sustained by the poisoning of his horses, a risk that cannot be effectually warded off by the greatest care, he had been pitted against exceptionally dry country, covered with dense scrub and almost grassless, in which the men and horses must assuredly have lost their lives but for his dauntless and heroic conduct.

Austin afterwards settled in North Queensland, and followed the profession of mining surveyor.


John Forrest, the explorer who ultimately succeeded in crossing the hitherto impassable desert of the western centre, now made his first essay. An old rumour that the blacks had slain some white men and their horses on a salt lake in the interior was now revived, and gained some credence. A black who stated that he had visited the scene of the incident was interviewed, and Baron von Mueller wrote to the Western Australian Government offering to lead a party thither and ascertain if there was any truth in the report. The Government favourably considered the offer, and made preparations to send out a party. Von Mueller was prevented from taking charge, and the command was given to John Forrest, then a surveyor in the Government service. Forrest was born near Bunbury, Western Australia, on the 22nd of August, 1847, and entered the Survey Department of West Australia in December 1865.

On the 26th of April, 1869, Forrest left Yarraging, then the furthest station to the eastward. When camped at a native well, visited by Austin thirteen years before, he says that he could still distinctly see the tracks of that explorer's horses. Past this spot he fell in with some natives who told him that a large party of men and horses had died in a locality away to the north, and that a gun belonging to the party was in possession of the natives. On closer examination this story was proved to have its origin in the death of Austin's horses.

Forrest continued his journey to the east, and on the 18th came to a large dry salt lake, which he named Lake Barlee. An attempt to cross this lake resulted in the bogging of the horses, and it was only after strenuous exertions that the horses and packs were once more brought on to hard ground. Lake Barlee was afterwards found to be of considerable size, extending for more than forty miles to the eastward.

The native guide Forrest had with him now began to express doubts as to his knowledge of the exact spot at which he saw the remains. After considerable search, Forrest came across a large party of the aborigines of the district. These men, however, proved to be anything but friendly; they threw dowaks at the guide, and advised the whites to go back before they were killed. Next morning they had speech with two of them, who said that the bones were those of horses, some distance to the north; they said they would come to the camp the next day and lead the whites there, but they did not fulfil their promise. No other profitable intercourse with the blacks was possible. One old man howled piteously all the time they were in his company, and another, who had two children with him, gave them to understand most emphatically that he had never heard of any horses having been killed, though some natives had just killed and eaten his own brother.

After vainly searching the district for many days, Forrest determined to utilise the remainder of the time at his disposal by examining the country as far to the eastward as his resources would permit. It was now clear that the story of the white men's remains had originated in the skeletons of the horses that perished during Austin's trip. No matter how circumstantial might be a narration of the blacks, they invariably contradicted themselves the next time they were interrogated, and it was evident that no useful purpose would be served by following them on a foolish errand from place to place. Forrest therefore penetrated some distance east, but was not encouraged by the discovery of any useful country. Nevertheless, he started on a solitary expedition ahead, taking only one black boy and provisions for seven days. He reached a point one hundred miles beyond the camp of the main body, to the eastward of Mount Margaret on the present goldfields. He ascended the highest tree he could find, and found the outlook was dreary and desolate. The country was certainly slightly more open than that hitherto traversed, but it was covered with spinifex, interspersed with an occasional stunted gum-tree. Rough sandstone cliffs were visible about six miles to the north-east, and more to the north appeared a narrow line of samphire flats with gum trees and cypress growing on their edges. Of surface water there was no appearance.

On his homeward route Forrest kept a more northerly and westerly course, and crossed Lake Barlee and examined the northern shore; but he found nothing to induce him to modify the unfavourable opinion pronounced on the country by other explorers. He returned to Perth on the 6th August.

Forrest was next placed at the head of an expedition which was to cross to Adelaide by way of the shores of the Great Australian Bight, along the same ill-omened route followed by Eyre, and never trodden since his remarkable journey. This time the historic cliffs were to be traversed with but slight privation and no bloodshed. Though the information supplied by Eyre was considered to be thoroughly trustworthy, it was recognized that with the scanty means of observation at his command and his famished condition, a few important facts might have escaped his notice, and that if his route were followed by a well-equipped party, the terrors of the region might assume less gigantic proportions.

Forrest's company was to consist of the leader and his brother Alexander, two white men, and two natives, one of whom had accompanied Forrest on his former trip. A coasting schooner, the Adur, of 30 tons, was to accompany them round the coast, calling at Esperance Bay, Israelite Bay, and Eucla, supplying them with provisions at these depots.

On the 30th of March they left Perth. The first part of the journey to Esperance Bay was through comparatively settled and well-known country, so that no fresh interest attached to it. They arrived at Dempster's station at Esperance a few days before the Adur sailed into the Bay, and on the 9th of May, 1870, they started on their next stage to Israelite Bay.

[Map. Forest's Route 1869; Forrest's Route 1870; Forrest's Route 1874; Giles's Route 1873; Grey's Route 1836 and 1837 and 1839.]

From Esperance Bay to Israelite Bay the journey lacked incident, and it was not until Forrest again parted from his relief boat that he had to encounter the most serious part of his undertaking. He had now to face the line of cliffs which frowned over the Bight, behind which he had, as he knew, little or no chance of finding water for 150 miles. Having made what arrangements he could to carry water, he left the last water on the 5th of April. About a week afterwards he reached the break in the cliffs, where water could be obtained by digging in the sandhills. Luckily they had found many small rock-holes filled with water, which had enabled them to push steadily on. Forrest says that the cliffs, which fell perpendicularly to the sea, although grand in the extreme, were terrible to gaze from: -

"After looking very cautiously over the precipice, we all ran back, quite terrified by the dreadful view."

While resting and recruiting at the sandhills, he made an excursion to the north, and after passing through a fringe of scrub twelve miles deep, he came upon most beautifully-grassed downs. At fifty miles from the sea there was nothing visible as far as the eye could reach but gentle undulating plains of grass and saltbush. There being no prospects of water, he was forced to turn back, fortunately finding a few surface pools both on his outward and homeward way.

On the 24th they started from the sandhills for Eucla, the last meeting-place appointed with the Adur. During this stage he kept to the north of the Hampton Range, and through a country well-grassed but destitute of surface water. The party reached Eucla on the 2nd of July, and found the Adur duly awaiting them. Whilst at Eucla, Forrest, in company with his brother, made another excursion to the north; he penetrated some thirty miles inland, and found as before boundless plains, beautifully grassed, though destitute of any signs of water.

After leaving Eucla, the explorers had a distressing stage to the head of the Great Bight, where they finally obtained water by digging in the sand. On this stage the horses suffered more than on any previous one, having had to travel three days without a drink. From this point they soon reached the settled districts of South Australia in safety.

Although this journey of Forrest's cannot strictly be called an exploring expedition, inasmuch as he repeated the journey made under such terrible conditions by Eyre travelling in the opposite direction, yet it is of first-rate importance, inasmuch as, owing to the greater facilities he enjoyed, he was able to pronounce a more final verdict than Eyre was able to give. Forrest found that the gloomy thicket was a fringe confined to the immediate coast-line. On every occasion that he penetrated it, he came on good pastoral land beyond. He writes: -

"The country passed over between longitude 126 degrees 24 minutes and 128 degrees 30 minutes East as a grazing country far surpasses anything I have ever seen. There is nothing in the settled portion of Western Australia equal to it, either in extent or quality; but the absence of permanent water is a great drawback...The country is very level, with scarcely any undulation, and becomes clearer as you proceed north."

On his arrival in Adelaide he received a hearty welcome, and a similar reception was accorded him on his return to Perth. Unfortunately this expedition destroyed all hope of the existence of any river, the mouth of which might have been crossed unwittingly by Eyre.

We now come to that exploit which gained for Forrest a place in the foremost rank of Australian explorers. The western central desert had long defied the explorers in their attempts to cross its dread confines. But the young West Australian took his men and most of his horses through the very heart of the terrible desert. We have seen how three expeditions had started from the east for the purpose of making this continental traverse, all differently composed - one with the aid of camels only, one with a composite equipment of both horses and camels, and the third with only horses. The successful expedition to be now recorded travelled from west to east, and crossed the desert with horses only.

On the 14th of April, 1874, Forrest left Yuin, then the border of settlement on the Murchison, accompanied by his brother Alexander, two white men, and two natives, to endeavour to cross the unknown stretch of desert country that separated the colonies of eastern Australia from the western settlements. Their route at first lay along the Murchison River, following the upper course, which they found to run through well-grassed country, available for either sheep or cattle. From the crest of the head watershed they had a view of their future travelling-ground to the eastward. It appeared level, with low elevations, but there was a lack of conspicuous hills, which did not promise favourably for water-finding, though good pasture might be obtainable.

For the next few days the party were dependent for water on occasional springs and scanty clay-pans. On the 27th, when following down a creek, they suddenly came upon a fine spring, apparently permanent, which is described by Forrest in his journal as one of the best he had ever seen, both the grass and other herbage around being of fine quality. This place he named Windich Springs, after Tommy Windich, one of the blacks who had now been with Forrest on three expeditions. To the north-west was a fine range of hills, which he named the Carnarvon Range. On leaving this oasis, the explorers found themselves in less attractive country; spinifex and sand became more frequent features of the landscape, and the occasional water-supply became precarious.

On the 2nd of June, Forrest discovered the spring which aided them so greatly in their efforts to cross. This he called Weld Springs, and he describes it as unlimited in supply, clear, fresh, and extending down its gully for over twenty chains. At this relief camp they halted in order to rest the horses.

On the 8th Forrest started on a scouting expedition ahead, taking only a black boy with him. He fully anticipated finding water, for as yet they had not reached a waterless region, and he left instructions for the rest to follow in his tracks in a day's time. He was unfortunate in his selection of a course, for it led them for more than twenty miles over undulating sand-ridges, without a sight of any indication of the presence of water. At daybreak, from the top of a low stony rise, he obtained an extensive outlook. Far as he could see to the north and east, nothing was visible but the level unending spinifex; not a watercourse or a hill in sight. Evidently they were trespassing on the edge of the central desert.

Turning back they met the remainder of the party about twenty miles from Weld Springs; and the whole body retreated to their lately deserted camp. After a day's rest, Alexander Forrest and a black boy started to the south-east searching for water. At one o'clock sixty or seventy natives appeared on the brow of the rise overlooking the camp. They were painted and dressed in war costume, and evidently planning an attack. After some consultation they suddenly descended the slope and dashed at the camp. Fortunately the whites were on the alert, and a well-directed volley sent them in head-long retreat to their vantage-point on the brow of the ridge, where they held a fresh council of war. Presently they renewed the assault, but a rifle-shot from Forrest put an end to the skirmish. That evening Alexander and the boy returned, and were much surprised to hear of the adventure with the blacks. They had been over fifty miles from camp and had passed over some well-grassed country but had found no water. As their detention at Weld Springs promised to be indefinite, the party then built a rough shelter of stones in order to ensure themselves some measure of protection against night attacks. When this small defence work was finished, Forrest again reconnoitred ahead for water accompanied by one black boy, and found some clay waterholes, of no great extent, but sufficient for camping purposes. Thither the camp was shifted.

On the 22nd the leader made another search in advance, and in thirty miles came to a fine supply of water, in a gully running through a well-grassed plain whereon there was abundance of good feed for the horses. To the south of this spot there was a small salt lake, which he named Lake Augusta. Another good spring in grassy country was also found. On the 30th of June Forrest made a scouting excursion to the eastward, but experienced ill fortune; for having penetrated as far as possible into the spinifex country, his horses gave out. By the aid of some scanty pools of rainwater trapped in some rocks, he succeeded in getting a short distance farther on foot, and in reaching a low range. From its summit he obtained an extensive but depressing view, such as too often greeted the explorer at that time and in that part of Australia. Far away to the north and east, the grey horizon was as level and as uniform as the placid sea; spinifex everywhere, unbroken by ranges or elevations within over thirty miles.

He was now worried and perplexed as to the direction of his future movements. The main party were following up his tracks; but to plunge unthinkingly into such a desert as lay in front of them were sheer madness. Fate relented, however, and after much toilsome search Forrest found a small supply of water, enough for a few days, where he gratefully awaited the approach of his companions.

During the short respite thus accorded them, a diligent search for water was made amongst the low ranges, the only alternative being a retreat of seventy miles. A little more water was found to the south-east, and, as there was coarse rough grass around the well, it helped to prolong their rest and afforded more time for further search. This time Alexander Forrest went ahead, and twenty-five miles further to the eastward found a spring, which was named after him, the Alexander Springs.

Another scouting excursion to the east was likewise fortunate, as far as water was concerned, but the feed for the horses was very poor indeed, and they were suffering greatly. They were now within one hundred miles of Gosse's furthest point west, but that hundred miles was one long line of desert perils. Repeated efforts to traverse it only reduced the little remaining strength in the horses, leading to no discovery of water. But at length a kindly shower filled some rock holes to the north-east of their camp, and after much exertion and hardship they reached the old camp that Giles had named Fort Mueller, and were able to congratulate themselves upon having been the first to bridge the central gap of desert that separated the two colonies.

As the course of Forrest's party from Fort Mueller to the telegraph line was more or less the same as that pursued by Gosse, it is unnecessary to follow the journal to its end. It is enough to state that on Sunday, the 27th of September, the telegraph line was reached at a point some distance to the north of the Peake station. Thus safely concluded an expedition that makes a mark in our geographical history, although it was accompanied by no notable discovery. Central Australia had now been crossed in the same zone that had turned back the explorers from the east, and the fact that Forrest got through, equipped with only the ordinary outfit of horses stamped him as a leader of unusual foresight and judgment.

Forrest's last expedition was rather a survey than a journey of discovery. In 1883, in company with several other surveyors, he landed at Roebuck Bay, and examined a large portion of the Kimberley Division. He proceeded from Roebuck Bay to the Fitzroy River, which his brother had lately explored, and examined the intermediate country as far as St. George's Range, reporting that it consisted mainly of rich elevated grassy plains with abundance of water. He also investigated Cambridge Gulf and the lowest part of the Ord River.

After quitting the field of exploration, John Forrest entered the wider arena of politics, in which his reputation was enhanced. He held the office of Premier of Western Australia continuously for ten years, and he still fills a distinguished position among the public men of federated Australia. He was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1876, and is now a G.C.M.G. and a Privy Councillor.


Alexander Forrest was born in 1849, and died in 1901. He accompanied his brother, as we have already noted, in two important expeditions, and in 1871 he took charge of a private expedition to the eastward in search of pastoral country. Owing to a late start, he and his party were compelled to make for the coast when they had reached latitude 31 degrees south, longitude 123 degrees east. This course led them to Mount Ragged, whence, proceeding westerly, they returned to Perth by way of Esperance, having penetrated inland six hundred miles and found a considerable area of good country.

In 1879, Alexander Forrest led an expedition from the De Grey River to the now customary goal, the overland telegraph line of South Australia. He left the De Grey on the 25th of February, and reached Beagle Bay on the 10th of April, the country passed over being like most land in the immediate neighbourhood of the coast, poor and indifferent.

From Beagle Bay he followed the coast round to the Fitzroy, and proceeded up that river until he encountered a range, which was named the King Leopold Range. Here the party left the Fitzroy, of which river Forrest speaks very highly, and struck north, looking for a pass through the range. It proved to be very rough and precipitous, and when at last they reached the sea, they found themselves in an angle, wedged in between the sea and the range, romantic and picturesque, according to Forrest's description, but quite impassible. Here, too, the natives approached them in threatening numbers, but through the exercise of tact, peace was preserved. On the 22nd of June they attacked one tier of the range, and after a steep climb, which caused the death of one horse, they reached the height of 800 feet and camped. Finding it so hard upon the horses, Forrest left them to rest, and went on foot to discover a road. But he came upon endless rugged zigzags, which so involved and baffled him that he gave it up in despair, and returned. He had now, most reluctantly, to abandon the idea of surmounting the range, and to make for the Fitzroy once more. Following up the Margaret, a tributary of the Fitzroy, he managed to work round the southern end of the range, which still frowned defiance at him, and at last reached the summit, the crest of a tableland, whence he saw before him good grassy hills and plains. Of this country, which he called Nicholson Plains, Forrest speaks most enthusiastically, and doubtless, after the late struggle with the range, it must have appeared a perfect picture of enchantment.

On the 24th they reached a fine river, which was then running strong. They named it the Ord, and followed its course for a time. Thence he continued his way to the line, and on the 18th of August came to the Victoria River. From the Victoria, Forrest had a hard struggle to reach the telegraph line. The rations being nearly exhausted, and one man being very ill, the leader started for Daly Waters station, taking one man with him. After much suffering and privation they at last reached the line, and obtained water at some tanks kept for the use of the line repairers. The absence of a map of the line led Forrest to follow it north, away from Daly Waters, and it was four days before they overtook a repairing party and obtained food.

Alexander Forrest was afterwards for many years a member of the Legislative Council of West Australia, was for six years Mayor of Perth and a C.M.G. He died on the 20th June, 1901. A bronze statue was erected to his memory in Perth, Western Australia, by his friends.