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The ‘romantic adventuring’ of Australian explorer Captain Charles Sturt

Posted in Australia, Discoveries, Exploration, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 31 July 2013

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This edited article about Australia originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 355 published on 2 November 1968.

Charles Sturt expedition, picture, image, illustration

Sturt at Depot Creek

Thirty-two-year-old Captain Charles Sturt was bored with life in the garrison town of Sydney, Australia. Having fought against Napoleon in the Peninsular War of 1808-1814, he found that he could not settle down again to a normal peacetime routine. He desperately needed adventure, and was convinced that he would not be happy until he had done something that men would remember.

His chance came in September, 1828, when Sir Ralph Darling, the Governor of New South Wales, asked him if he would journey inland and try to find the sources of the state’s uncharted rivers. At that time there was much talk of an “inland sea” which was believed to exist in the centre of Australia. And even if the sea proved to be a myth, the exploration of the land itself would be of immense value.

The mission meant that Captain Sturt would have to cross a vast swampland from which few travellers had ever returned, and since he had little experience as an explorer, no one thought much of his chances of survival.

He set out on horseback, on the first of three journeys which were to open up the continent of Australia, and gain him the title of “the father of Australian exploration.” He was accompanied by a small party of soldiers and convicts, and a bullock-drawn dray containing supplies. And Sturt himself confessed, “Where I shall wander to, God alone knows.”

He began by following the Macquarie River, and he and his companions soon found themselves beset by swarms of mosquitoes and flies. Christmas and New Year went by. Then, one night, the team of bullocks wandered away, and was not seen again. One of the men also became lost in the bush, and did not reappear until four days later, when he staggered into camp with his tongue purple from lack of water.

After this, Sturt insisted that the members of his party stayed closer together.

They pushed on for a further 500 miles, and came across a previously undiscovered river. Sturt named it the Darling, after the man who had commissioned the expedition.

Due to a lack of provisions, the expedition was now forced to return to Sydney. The exhausted men had to walk much of the way because their horses were too weak to carry them.

When, after an absence of three months, Captain Sturt presented himself to the Governor, Sir Ralph thought that the soldier would have had enough of “romantic adventuring.” But Sturt insisted on making a second journey into the interior.

“I am only just beginning my discoveries,” he declared.

A year later, in November 1829, the explorer again led an expedition westwards, this time along the banks of the Murrumbidgee River, where he and his companions rode through reeds that grew higher than the horses’ heads. After two months they came across another stretch of dangerous swampland. Sturt instructed his convict carpenter to build a small skiff, and on January 6th, 1830, the captain and six other men started off in the skiff down the river towards the distant coast.

Day after day they were swept swiftly along, always with the risk of the frail craft being smashed against sharp rocks or capsized in the many rapids through which they had to pass. Sturt felt sure that they would eventually reach the Darling River.

This they did, but only after passing through a part of the country inhabited by hundreds of fierce aborigines, none of whom had ever seen a white man before. The spear-brandishing natives surrounded the party and got great amusement out of touching their skins and blond and red hair.

To provide a diversion and prevent his men from being manhandled, Sturt gave orders for the Union Jack to be run up the skiff’s mast. The crowds of natives watched silently while this was done, and then gave a roar of approval!

Pressing on, the explorers had to drag their boat across miles of mud flats, until they finally came to a coastal lake, south of Adelaide, which Sturt named Lake Alexandrina.

Once again the soldier-explorer prepared to get his party back, this time by boat, to Sydney, a thousand miles away. But Sturt was now suffering from a painful eye infection and recurring dizzy spells. His men rowed like automatons until they fell asleep on their oars, and one of them went completely out of his mind. Their rations ran low. By April, 1830, they had rowed to within 300 miles of home. By dashing overland, it would be possible to reach civilisation within three days, but most of the men were in no condition to do so.

Sturt sent off a group of his fittest men, and a week later he and the remainder of the expedition were found, by a relief party, only hours away from death by starvation. Slowly they regained their strength, and then entered Sydney in triumph. Apart from the mud-flats and marshes, they had discovered hundreds of miles of rich grassland upon which cattle could feed, and had changed Australia’s whole view of itself.

“Until now, we’ve thought only of one small settlement,” Governor Darling told him. “A strip of land along the Pacific coast. Now we must see Australia as a continent.”

But, although he now doubted the existence of an inland sea, Sturt was still not satisfied with his achievements. He believed that he could reach the centre of the continent, and open the way for more farming and prosperity.

He had to wait another fourteen years before making his third and most important expedition of exploration. On August 10th, 1844, he set out from Adelaide to travel as far into the interior as he could possibly reach.

On this expedition, Sturt took with him sixteen men, a light boat, and the hopes of all Adelaide. Two weeks later he sent back his first dispatch.

“Tomorrow,” he wrote, “we start for the ranges. And then for the waters, the strange waters on which boat never swam, and over which flag never floated. But both shall ere long. We have the interior laid open to us, and shall be off with a flowing sheet . . . I cannot say when you will hear from me again.”

After a time the rivers dried up, and the boat could no longer be used. The party was forced to continue on horseback. Due to the multitude of flies, and the red dust which constantly blew into their mouths, the travellers found it almost impossible to eat. The temperature shot up to 133 degrees in the shade, and most of the men developed scurvy as their supply of fresh vegetables dwindled.

Despite this, Sturt forced his way over the dry, seemingly endless plains, until he was ready for the final push through the waterless Stony Desert. He and his followers rode steadily northwards, until in September, 1845, they passed the Simpson Desert, and found themselves in the centre of Australia. All around them the land was sandy, parched, and “as red-hot as a blast-furnace.”

The soldier-explorer had achieved his greatest ambition, and his only regret was that the land had not proved to be rich and fertile, but merely a “barren desert.”

Captain Sturt’s three expeditions cost him his good eyesight, and his health in general never completely recovered from the hardships he had undergone. But he had no regrets. He thought this was a fair price to pay for the satisfaction of having led the way in what was described as “one of Australia’s greatest epics of courage and endurance.”

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