The expedition of Edward John Eyre, 1841
In 1841, the explorer Edward John Eyre made one of the great treks across the Australian continent, passing from Port Lincoln, South Australia, to Albany, Western Australia through the arid expanses of the Nullabor Plain.
Edward John Eyre was born in Whipsnade, Bedfordshire, on 5 August 1815, to Anthony William Eyre, vicar of Hornsea and Long Riston, and his wife Sarah. After a childhood defined by “restless energy”, he emigrated to Sydney at the age of 17, with his father’s blessing and a small sum of money.
Eyre used the money to take up farming in New South Wales, relinquishing his property to overland sheep and cattle to Port Philip in 1837, with John Baxter, who would later become his exploration companion. Later that year, he was among the first to overland stock from Sydney to the new colony of Adelaide, selling cattle for a huge profit.
With the money, he bought land in South Australia, but soon became restless yet again. In 1839, Eyre explored the arid mallee lands of what would later be named the Eyre Peninsula after him. The following year, he made a sea journey to King George’s sound, Albany, Western Australia, with sheep and cattle that he then brought to Perth.
In the meantime, prominent South Australians became anxious to promote further exploration. They proposed an expedition to Western Australia, linking the two states overland for the first time. Eyre suggested that the organising team look to the north, as having explored the Eyre Peninsula, he felt it unlikely that a useful stock route existed to the west. The mouth of the Victoria River, on the north coast of Australia, had recently been found, and some believed that it might connect to the longed-for inland sea. On 18 June, 1840, Eyre’s expedition rode northwards, to explore Australia’s red centre. At the time, the explorer was just 25 years of age.
The party reached the Flinders Ranges in early July, staying there until mid-September. Salt lakes appeared to ring the Flinders in every direction. Looking at the bed of Lake Torrens, he wrote,
“The whole was barren and arid-looking in the extreme, and as I gazed on the dismal scene before me I felt assured, I had approached the vast and dreary desert of the interior, or, it might be, was verging on the confines of some inland water, whose sterile and desolate shores seem to forbid the traveller’s approach”
The group then turned around, despairing of finding a route to central Australia. Yet – instead of heading back to Adelaide, Eyre made an extraordinary decision: to journey around the vast Great Australian Bight to Albany.
His choice remains perplexing. If Eyre had been so put off by the relatively well-watered Flinders Ranges, why did he decide to head into even more arid and unwelcoming territory? Having argued against the route to the west, what made him seek it out?
Edward Stokes has suggested that Eyre’s English upbringing meant that he struggled to understand the Australian landscape: he looked for major features, and when none eventuated, he jumped to conclusions. Looking at the vast salt pans of the Flinders Ranges, he concluded that the lakes were “one and the same”, forming a vast barrier that could not be pushed through.
He was also likely guided by the assumption of an inland sea. Matthew Flinders had mapped the southern coastline in 1802, and his charts had given Eyre precise figures to fix on as he passed over land. Unable to see over the cliffs, Flinders had wondered whether they were “a narrow barrier between an interior, and the exterior sea”. Only a land explorer could prove or disprove this assumption.
Eyre quit the Flinders Ranges, picked up supplies in Port Lincoln, reaching Streaky Bay on the Eyre Peninsula in November, 1940. He left Streaky Bay with a large party of Aboriginal and European men. The party had provisions, two drays and a cart, 13 horses, and a small flock of sheep. They were accompanied by Waterwitch, a government cutter following along the coast, that Eyre hoped might be of use “for inland explorations, should it be necessary”.
The daily stages across scrub-covered sandhills exhausted the men, who cursed the sand, drifting in from the windy Southern Ocean. Luckily, however, the Aboriginal men were able to lead the team to wells each night, that would have easily been missed by the European explorers. By 11 November, the expedition was camped thirty kilometres west of Ceduna, the gateway to the Nullabor Plain. In the area, freshwater existed, formed by rainwater percolating through dunes, but thanks to the fine sand constantly drifting in, could get lost over night. It was a long way between permanent waterholes.
On 17 November, Eyre reached Fowlers Bay, South Australia’s western-most coastal settlement. With the South Australian border terminating only 50 kilometres west of Fowler’s Bay, Waterwitch could go no further. As the ship had taken all the heaviest supplies, Eyre recognised that he could only press on with a small party.
At Fowler’s Bay, the Aboriginal members of the party departed. Eyre nonetheless pushed on. Failing to discover water, Eyre retreated after only 70 kilometres.
Within days, he made a second move from Fowler’s Bay, this time taking a dray-load of water-filled casks and trudging 100 kilometres, almost reaching the Head of Bight. Three of his best horses perished on the return journey through the December heat.
Eyre still believed he might find a way north, but only with a smaller party. On the 18th of December he dispatched the Waterwitch to Adelaide with two men and an urgent request for food for the increasingly gaunt horses. Meanwhile, he rode west with a drayload of water kegs to fill en route, but the horses collapsed four days into the journey.
Eyre pushed on, reaching the Head of Bight on 7 January 1841. An Aboriginal group camped there escorted him to Yeer comban cowie, a permanent well among the sand drifts, while warning him that the next permanent water lay 10 days journey to the west, beyond the cliffs’ end. Inland, there was no water whatsoever. Flinders’ hoped-for “Inland Sea” did not exist. Moreover, there was no watered route northwards to central Australia. He returned to Fowlers Bay knowing that his expedition was in vain.
Yet, pride made him push on yet again. He was driven by a personal quest, “to attempt to force a passage around the Great Bight”. With minimal provisions, he was accompanied by only four men: Baxter, his old partner; Neramberein and Cootachah, two teenagers from the Flinders Ranges who had travelled with him before; and Wylie, likely a member of the Menang group of Noongar people from around Albany, who came ashore from the Hero, a government cutter that had replaced Waterwitch.
Five days later the Hero returned to Adelaide. “The bridge was broken down behind us, and we must succeed in reaching King George Sound or perish”, Eyre wrote in his journal. He set 24 February for their departure, but was interrupted when the Hero returned that morning. His decision to push westward in the summer heat was deemed “madness”; the cutter contained letters from Adelaide begging him to return.
Eyre pressed on. The weather was surprisingly cool, and helped by water casks buried en route, they reached Yeer comban cowie on the 2nd of March. Soon afterwards he reached the end of the cliffs, where the town of Eucla would be established as a repeater station on the East-West Telegraph Line in 1877. Here, Eyre found Aboriginal soaks containing fresh water.
On the 25th of March the crew pushed on, discarding about 90 kg of supplies to lighten their load. Four days later, the men drank their last water, and the following morning they sponged up dew to eat their last tea and eat their last damper. They were now 230 kilometres from the soaks at Eucla, facing the possibility of starvation. Luckily, they were able to find a soakage, leading to a deep well. Local Mirning people told him of another, better well, only a few kilometres to the west.
They were roughly at the half-way point from Fowlers Bay to Adelaide. “We had advanced into a country through which we could never retreat.” Half-starved, they trudged 120 kilometres in three and a half days, shooting and eating the weakest horse of their party.
Three days later, likely believing that Eyre’s mania would lead them to their deaths, Wylie and Neramberein deserted the group. They came back three days later, finding little available foods in the area.
Facing more waterless cliffs, the group hoped for the prospect of rain. On the 29th of April thunderclouds swept in, and Baxter urged Eyre to camp. It was the wrong decision. The clouds dispersed before dark. Disappointed, they camped for the night.
At around 10.30pm that night, Eyre heard a gunshot. Neramberein and Cootachah had shot Baxter and fled. Baxter had likely came across them as they were taking food from the stores, likely hoping to abandon what they saw as a hopeless journey. Eyre was devastated:
“The horrors of my situation glared upon me with such startling reality, as for an instant almost to paralyse the mind.”
Wylie decided to stay with Eyre, perhaps hoping to return to his family in Western Australia. The two men pressed on another 400 kilometres, reaching Israelite Bay a fortnight later. They were utterly worn out, the horses having gone six days without water.
After Israelite Bay, the landscape finally changed. Limestone gave way to granite, and the horses fed on the best grass they had encountered since Fowlers Bay. On 17 May, they saw water trickling over a granite slab – “the only approximation of running water we have found since Streaky Bay”, Eyre noted. Finally, they were able to ride horses again, but Eyre and Wylie still went hungry.
On the 2nd of June, slightly east of today’s Esperance, they saw an incredible sight: a ship at anchor, barely 10 kilometres away. It was a French whaler, the Mississippi. The ship’s captain, Rossiter, allowed them aboard for two weeks. “It seemed more like a dream than reality”, Eyre marvelled of their sudden change of fortune. Rossiter pressed supplies on them – cognac and Dutch cheese – and they continued the 450 kilometres to Albany.
The last part of their journey was made in torrential rain and cold. Streams and swamps were swollen by winter rain. Finally, Eyre and Wylie reached Albany on 7 July, where Wylie found that his family and people had assumed that he was lost or dead.
For his trek, Eyre was awarded the Royal Geographic Society gold medal and has had a number of geographical features named after him, including Lake Eyre and the Eyre Peninsula. Despite his crucial role, Wylie has not been so recognised, though he received a medal from the Western Australia Agricultural Society and a lifelong government pension. Eyre went on to become a colonial administrator, eventually returning to England, where he died in 1901.