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Edward Eyre – the overlander who helped map a continent

Posted in Australia, Exploration, Geography, Historical articles, History, Travel on Friday, 31 January 2014

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This edited article about Australia first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 535 published on 15 April 1972.

Edward Eyre,  picture, image, illustration

Edward Eyre and his aboriginal companion by Ron Embleton

Edward Eyre lay back in his tent and forced his tired brain to think back over his expedition which was fast becoming a disaster. Where had he gone wrong? There had to be a route between South Australia and the rich, virgin pastureland in the west. Rumours abounded of the fortunes that could be made by stock farmers but none of these dreams would come true unless a way could be found of driving the animals there. He had started from Adelaide in June 1840, determined to push inland, then strike due west.

The choice of route was a disaster. Forcing their way inland Eyre, his overseer and their three aboriginal guides came to the area now known as Lake Torrens. At that time, anything less like a lake would have been difficult to imagine. Flat desolate countryside with a curious dried crust that was firm enough for a man to walk on but which was treacherous for the horses. In less than a minute the horses had sunk over their knees in hot, salt mud. As they struggled, so they sank further until it seemed as if they must drown in the quagmire. Eyre and his companions eventually managed to calm the animals but it was hours before they could be half-dragged out of the mud. Heads, backs, saddles were covered with blue mud, their eyes and mouths filled with salt and mud also. Baffled, Eyre looked for an alternative route and then started a sorrowful retreat.

The “straight” route was just not possible then, with bogs, waterless deserts, and fierce aboriginals waiting for the unwary traveller. Eyre decided that following the coastline was the only feasible way across and his disconsolate party re-traced their steps and started the long drag round the Great Australian Bight. Not only was this uninhabited country but it was and still remains, one of the most desolate areas in the world.

They were still engaged in crossing the Great Nullarbor Plain – a 400 mile stretch of land that is treeless, waterless and so level that the railway which now crosses it has the longest straight track in the world – 300 miles. Edward Eyre was uncomfortably aware that there was just as bad country to cross, but at this stage he was too exhausted to worry about the following day. He slipped quietly into sleep until suddenly the absolute peace of the outback was spectacularly shattered.

Shouts, oaths, pistol shots and the frightened cries of the horses were rising to a crescendo as Eyre crawled to the door of the tent. Then . . . nothing but the sound of horses’ hooves. Eyre found his overseer murdered and two of his aboriginals gone. Most of his supplies had disappeared too, and somewhere in the night were two frightened, angry natives who now had an interest in seeing that Eyre did not reach safety. To go on was now doubly dangerous; to stay suicidal. But to go back was unthinkable. He crawled back into the tent and postponed all his decisions to the morrow.

Edward Eyre was just 25 years old but he had already packed plenty of adventure into his life. The son of a Yorkshire clergyman, he had finished school with every intention of joining the Army and indeed his parents had set aside £150 in order to buy him a commission. But bureaucratic machinery moves slowly – far too slowly for a 17 year old boy – and, consumed with impatience, Eyre got back his £150, borrowed some more and set off for Australia. The land to which he was going was still virtually an unknown continent, settled in small coastal patches and with much of the interior unexplored. Edward went first to New South Wales, the most populated area simply because the land there was fertile enough to support the settlers. It was the colonists in South Australia who were in real difficulty, with drought and supply problems threatening their very existence.

One of the measures needed to relieve the distress was to tranport large numbers of animals to help re-stock the farms. But who was going to accept this responsibility? The countryside was mountainous, uncharted and dangerous but it was a challenge Edward Eyre could not resist. He became one of the pioneer drovers, or “overlanders,” climbing unknown peaks followed by hundreds of beasts, crossing deserts and pitching his tent on the vast green prairies that now support thousands of cattle and sheep.

Arriving at his destination, he was so impressed by the air of green lushness which came with the rain that he stayed on and farmed some land himself. He still found time to explore the interior and indeed penetrated as far north as the huge salt lake which now bears his name. In between he became a magistrate and was soon recognised as a staunch friend and defender of the aborigines.

But still the lure of the lush green pastures in the west grew and eventually after much preparation he had set off. Now the effort the time and the dreams seemed to have been wasted.

The morning sun shone bright and clear, prelude to another scorching day. Edward Eyre chewed the dried meat and biscuit that formed his breakfast and silently came to a momentous decision. He would press on.

He had little idea of the hardships to come. His aboriginal guide was expert at finding waterholes but there were many days when there were, simply none to be found. Of all their problems – and there were many – lack of water loomed larger than any. Flies, sandhills, salt pans, heat and the sharp needles of the spinifex thorn could be borne but when a desperate all consuming thirst was added the countryside seemed to progress from the difficult to the impossible.

The horses had to be led rather than ridden when the lack of water became too acute and when the men could drink only one third of a pint of water their mouths became too dry to eat. The relief at finding a waterhole was extraordinary:

“No one who has not experienced it can imagine the pleasure which the finding of such a treasure confers on the thirsty, hungry and weary traveller; all his troubles for the time are at an end. The horses are allowed to roam and graze at will, free from the encumbrance of hobbles and thirst and hunger can both be appeased. This is truly a mental and a bodily relief.”

There were all too many times, however, when death seemed close. Once or twice they braved the cliffs to climb down on to one of the most inhospital beaches in the world – all 500 miles of it. The discovery of the whitened bones of shipwrecked sailors did little for their morale. Yet it was a ship which eventually saved their lives. After a month spent staggering across uninhabited country they were out of supplies, exhausted and almost ready to welcome death. Then they caught sight of a whaling ship, and after frantic signs they made contact. The captain, distressed at their appearance, provided food, water, beds and blessed shelter. He was astonished when Eyre calmly announced that he was going to complete his journey.

Despite protests, Eyre insisted. But now he had fresh supplies and his confidence was restored. Finally, in July 1841, over a year after his original start, he arrived at King George Sound and the small settlement of Albany. He was just over 200 miles from what is now Perth, the largest and most prosperous city in Western Australia, and his epic journey was over.

In many ways Eyre did not achieve his original objective and the “overlanders” could never have taken their flocks over such torrid and desolate country. But the coming of the great Trans-Australia railway could and did open up this vast, fascinating and frightening country, and Eyre has an important place in the history of Australia.

Eyre himself went on to a number of appointments in other parts of the British Empire, becoming a fiercely controversial Governor of Jamaica. But his name still lives on principally in the maps of the great continent he helped to discover. Lake Eyre, an important landmark in a featureless landscape, is a curious place. It stretches 110 miles by 40 miles and the salt crust is often so hard that a truck can be driven across it. Only two or three times each century does it fill, spectacularly with water. For a few brief months Lake Eyre finally and proudly lives up to its name.

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