Sturt’s Stories – The Inland Sea – Episode 3

The Inland Sea

It’s hard to believe anyone could be convinced that somewhere out here, across this seemingly endless desert wilderness, there might be a vast inland sea, an Australian Caspian fed by majestic rivers and surrounded by an Eden of fertile, lush, productive pasture. But that’s exactly what Charles Sturt was searching for as he and his party continued their journey northwest from this spot, complete, naturally, with a boat.

Sturt was in search of utopian vision that had, over three decades, passed from being rather wishful fireside musings to becoming something of an incontestable fact. Which begs the question. Why?

The idea of an inland sea was first promoted by none other than Joseph Banks, botanist on Cook’s 1770 voyage who later became an influential government official and the de-facto expert on all things Antipodean. In 1798 he wrote to the colonial office stating that:

It is impossible to conceive that such a large body of land, as large as all of Europe, does not produce large rivers, capable of being navigated into the heart of the interior.

Bank’s assertion was somewhat confirmed by Matthew Flinders who, during his famous 1801 circumnavigation of Australia, observed that no river mouth of any consequence was visible anywhere on the southern edge of the continent.

So where was the water?

The plot thickened with the conquering of the Blue Mountains west of Sydney by Wentworth, Blaxland and Lawson in 1814 where they discovered two rivers, the Lachlan and the Macquarie, both named after the then NSW Governor Lachlan Macquarie.

That the rivers existed was a blessing and it led to the opening of rich pastural land around the location of what is now Bathurst, but it was what both the Macquarie and the Lachlan did that created more than just a little consternation and intrigue.

You see, somehow inexplicably both of these rivers flowed inland to the west. Now to a 19th century European that just didn’t make sense. I mean, don’t all rivers flow toward the sea? So it was that in 1817, Governor Macquarie commissioned the surveyor John Oxley to solve the riddle.

On that 1817 Lachlan River expedition, Oxley followed the river until he struck swamp and marsh land that he couldn’t penetrate. In his report to Governor Macquarie, he wrote

“It was with infinite regret and pain I was forced to conclude, that the interior of this vast country is bound by marshes which are, perhaps, the margin of a great inland sea.”

Ironically, if Oxley had managed to press on for two more days, he would have likely found that the Lachlan flowed into the mighty Murrumbidgee.  Similarly, his expedition the following year on the Macquarie River came to a halt at the Macquarie Marshes during a time when a good winter had the river flooding, replenishing the vital wetlands.

Oxley again tried to proceed through the reeds but again, he was defeated writing that

“If an opinion may be permitted to be hazarded from actual appearances, mine is decidedly in favour of our being in the immediate vicinity of an inland sea, most probably a shoal one, and gradually filling up by numerous depositions from high lands.”

And so, the myth of Australia’s inland sea was fed and perpetuated. Fast Forward to 1823 and on an expedition south toward what is now Canberra soldier explorers John Ovens and Mark Currie reached the upper reaches of the Murrumbidgee, again a river flowing away from the coast, this time to the south-west, which only succeeded in adding fuel to the fire.

So, in 1828, the new NSW Governor, Sir Ralph Darling, commissioned none other than our man, Charles Sturt to lead two expeditions to get to the bottom of it all.

On the first, he pushed through Oxley’s marshes and continued west where he wrote:

“I anticipate I shall come upon a Mediterranean Sea much nearer than has been imagined, on the whole I will not be surprised if I find water before I get many miles northward.”

And Sturt was right to some extent because in February 1829 he and his party fell upon the trickle of the Darling in drought near what is now Bourke.

Despite that river flowing in a southerly direction, he returned to Sydney undeterred, reasoning that somewhere in the interior there was a mountain range that acted as a watershed directing the Darling’s flows towards the centre.

“The impression on my mind is that the river empties itself into an inland sea.”

And a great many agreed with him. In fact, very few Europeans could come at the idea that the whole continent from east to west was barren. To them, that idea seemed as fanciful then as the notion of an inland sea seems to us today. Darling, however was less convinced than Sturt and set him on his second expedition, to trace the route of the recently discovered Murrumbidgee.

Sturt and his party disembarked the banks of the Murrumbidgee River in a stoutly built row-boat from near what is now Narrandera on the 7th of January 1830 and after only a week travelling quickly along what Sturt called “It’s gloomy contracted banks”, they found themselves at a junction.

“At 3 p.m., Hopkinson called out that we were approaching a junction, and in less than a minute afterwards, we were hurried into a broad and noble river … such was the force with which we had been shot out, that we were carried nearly to the bank opposite its embouchure, whilst we continued to gaze in silent astonishment on the capacious channel we had entered.”

Sturt and his party had entered the Murray. Upon which they sailed in a gentle north westerly direction raising Sturt’s hopes that the mighty channel they had discovered did in fact turn more northerly toward the centre of the continent. But on passing the mouth of the Darling on the 21st of January the river suddenly swung south west and finally south. Eventually, the party arrived at the river’s mouth at Encounter Bay east of what is now Adelaide in early February. And Sturt was devastated. His dream of discovering a vast inland sea dashed.

“I had unhesitatingly plunged into the morass, and traversed gloomy wilds, but Fortune has not led me to any rich lands or navigable waters.”

To add insult to injury he and his party then had to spend two months rowing back upstream against the current, and despite approaching utter exhaustion and facing dwindling supplies they reached their stepping off point at Narrandera in late April before returning to Sydney in late May.

Sturt was hailed a hero and yet, once he’d recovered from his arduous journey, he was rather unceremoniously shipped off to the notorious penal colony on Norfolk Island for a year where he was responsible for helping to put down a convict mutiny. Not exactly the reward he had anticipated.

In April 1832 Sturt, his health still poor as a result of the privations he’d suffered on his two expeditions, applied for leave and returned to England. When he got there, he was greeted by a letter from the author T.J Maslen congratulating him on his discoveries and offering him a copy of his new book “The Friend of Australia.”

In it were detailed diagrams and elaborate advice on the preparation and conduct of a proposed expedition to the centre of the continent, recommendations suggesting the use of elephants and camels to make the journey, plans and illustrations for the construction of special craft to navigate what Maslin predicted would be an inland sea and of course a map detailing ranges of mountains bordering that sea fed by a mighty river system, just as Sturt had dreamed.

Maslin’s book is a monument to the speculative and fanciful geography of the 1830s, a testament to the fascination the vast unknown interior of the continent had for contemporary Europeans, written by a man who’d never got closer to Australia than India. While it’s not possible to know what Sturt thought of it or even if he read it, it mattered little because Charles Sturt he had his own unshakable beliefs.

On his expedition to the Darling in 1829 Sturt had observed waterbirds flying inland to the north west. And at his home in Adelaide in the 1840’s he watched those same waterbirds flying directly north. To him it was proof positive that somewhere out here, in the vast interior of Australia, was an elusive body of water, a sea fed by a mighty river, one that on Maslen’s whimsical map was named The Desired Blessing.

Two months before he left Adelaide, Sturt wrote to his lifelong friend George MacLeay:

“I have a strange idea there is a central sea not far from the banks of the Darling at 29 degrees – and I shall go fully prepared for a voyage. You I am afraid will condemn this, but there is a destiny for all of us…”

In 1845, out here on the edge of a desert that would ultimately carry his name, Charles Sturt would risk his life to fulfill that destiny.


And when you stand here on the top of Mt Poole, you get an extraordinary sense of the risk he was taking to fulfill that destiny.