Sturt’s Stories – The Retreat – Episode 6

The Retreat

During the months they were effectively trapped at Depot Glen, Sturt and his men had conducted numerous sorties into the wilderness to the north and north west in search of a water supply that might allow them to continue their journey toward the centre. On one of those mini expeditions, they had found this place, 90 kilometres north of Depot Glen, a site Sturt felt that, in the event of rain, would hold water. Lake Pinnaroo.

And when in July 1845 they had their first real downpour in eight months he immediately launched a drive north arriving here on the 29th.  And one of the first orders Sturt gave when they had established camp at what would come to be known as Fort Grey was to paint the boat. That’s right, they may have had no water barrels onboard their drays, but they did have marine paint.  Whatever the case, it was a decision that had been preceded by several much more difficult ones.

The expedition had been underway for almost a year and supplies were running short. Worse still, most of the men were suffering from scurvy to some degree most particularly Sturt’s deputy James Poole who had for months been almost totally incapacitated. Sturt made a decision to split the party sending half the men back to Adelaide under Poole’s command with orders to follow the route they had taken months previous. For Sturt it was a difficult decision.

“Poor Mr Poole left me at 12. We have of late been placed in a most painful situation, and have been severely tried but these are dispensations we must make.”

Although Poole would in many ways not be missed.

“He was a mischief maker in every sense of the word, and had caused ceaseless disturbances in the camp.”

Two days after Poole’s departure news came that he had breathed his last. The expedition regrouped, Poole was laid to rest and still half the party continued to Adelaide while Sturt proceeded north.

Freed from the imposed prison of Depot Glen the expedition gained a renewed vigour and Sturt wasted little time. Not long after arriving here the men moved to the north west and within a week, they had discovered the Strezlecki Creek 120 kilometres inland. To the west of the Strezlecki lay a series of white dunes that Sturt likened to those around his home in Adelaide. Surely an inland sea was within striking distance.

Sturt had calculated the location of the inland sea to be at the intersection of the routes taken by the birds he had observed flying north west from the Darling and due north from his wetland home in Adelaide and that day he calculated that he was just 50 kilometres from that intersecting point. What he was convinced he’d find was an estuary that would lead to a greater body of water.

“We ought to be on its shores tomorrow. He wrote. I hope we may find it has communion with a large body of water to the north.”

The next day Sturt, attended by the boat carriage, climbed the last in that series of white dunes with great anticipation only to be utterly dumbfounded by what he saw. Not water as he had expected but instead, an immense, featureless, shimmering sea of sand.

“The most sanguine hopes have been entertained that we should float the boat, wrote Daniel Brock, but there is not even water to float a duck. This scene is the climax of desolation. No trees, no shrubs, all bleak, barren undulating sand. Miserable, horrible.

It was a savage blow. Sturt’s orders stipulated that the expedition be concluded within a year. That year had passed and he nothing to show for 12 months of abject hardship but barren wilderness. Then there was the correspondence he had sent to Adelaide with the returning half of his party, accounts of his forays toward the centre during that long six months at Depot Glen, letters that would be published in the Adelaide newspapers in which he had confidently predicted that he was close to his goal.

“I am of the full conviction that I had twice been within fifty, perhaps thirty, miles of an inland sea. It was, in truth, impossible, that such a country as that into which I had penetrated, from which the very birds shrank away, should continue much further.”

The truth was it did. But Sturt was no quitter. Too much was at stake and so over the next 3 months he would make repeated attempts to find his beloved inland sea, pushing himself, his men and his horses relentlessly. And each one of those attempts to drive to the centre of the continent ended in a bitter defeat

During that time, he and his small band traced the complex web of the Cooper for 300 kilometres in search of a mountain range that might feed it. To no avail. From there they crossed the endless gibber plain that is now called Sturt’s Stony Desert and followed it north west only to again be turned back by the harsh conditions. Finally, in one last push they entered the Simpson Desert, and just 500 kilometres from the centre point of the continent, confronted by endless waves of sand dunes twenty to thirty metres high that stretched for an eternity, there again they were forced to retreat through thirst and exhaustion. Sturt had discovered, to his cost and that of his loyal followers, that the interior of Australia was not a vast sea, but a pitiless and inhospitable desert. 

“I had ridden more than 1600 miles and had worn out all the men who formerly attended me, Sturt wrote, I could do no more, my strength and my sight I felt were fast going. Under such circumstances, I determined on returning to the Depot, satisfied that no exertion of mine would enable me to cross the heartless desert in which I was”.

Sturt returned to Depot Glen on November 17th.  As he dismounted, his legs moved convulsively and he later wrote that at first, he “felt as if one of the party’s dogs had put his head between my legs and was welcoming him, pushing me forward.”

But there was no dog. Gaunt and emaciated, Sturt was experiencing an involuntary jerking of the muscles in his thighs. he was now deep in the grip of scurvy, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin c, that same disease that had claimed the life of his second in command James Poole just months earlier. Almost immediately, Sturt collapsed.

Over the next weeks, as Sturt lay in his tent unable to move, Dr Browne, on Sturts instructions, set about making ready for a dash to the Darling.

On the Darling, Sturt had witnessed two young aboriginal men create water bottles by skinning possums, turning the skin inside out so that the fur was on the inside and then filling the skin with water. Together with Dr Browne they elected to try their own version. With a bullock.

A bullock was shot and drawn up by its neck, wrote Daniel Brock, and carefully skinned from the neck downwards, the skin being drawn back over the carcass, leaving the hairy side inwards. It is lashed on a dray, the water poured into the neck, and the huge bottle filled and the orifice was carefully sewed up.

Sturt was still unable to move and he would be carried out on the light carriage, and his men were adamant that if they themselves stood a chance of making it to safety, they would make sure that Sturt was with them.

Again, Daniel Brock wrote:

“He cannot help himself. The plan was at once decided upon, at whatever cost we would drag him through in the light cart. This being settled among ourselves; it was to remain a secret.”

At 8pm, under a full moon and with the constant flash of lightning illuminating the skies to the south they started for the Darling.

Sturt and Browne both thought it unwise to test a direct route and so they elected to retrace their steps from a year previous. From Depot Glen they moved to Packsaddle Creek. And on to Floods Creek. There they found water just as they had on the inward journey. From Floods Creek they moved to Morphett’s Creek. From there they crossed through the Barrier Ranges to begin a one-hundred-kilometre dash to the Darling.

With the daytime temperatures exceeding 125 degrees on the old scale, the days heat, made all the more unbearable by a howling, dust laden wind that refused to abate meant that most of the journey was taken at night. And it was during the day’s rest at Morphett’s Creek that again Sturt’s observations of the indigenous locals proved telling. Both he and Browne noticed the locals collecting and eating the small yellow berries of the Ruby Saltbush. High in acid and rich in vitamin C, the men collected and ate the berries as they continued toward the east, the effect being that by the time they reached a parched Lake Cawndilla by the Darling River on Dec 19, Sturt, previously crippled with muscular cramp, was able to stand unassisted.

After a week’s recuperation they began the descent down the Darling on Boxing Day and again they chose the Anabranch. Letters made it ahead of them to Adelaide and newspapers rejoiced at the “safety of the beloved Captain Sturt and his adventurous band”.

To Camera, Adelaide

At midnight on January 19th 1846, 17 months after his celebrated departure Sturt arrived back at his home the Grange. The drays would arrive 9 days later.

Reports have it that his wife, Charlotte, took one look at the emaciated figure standing in the doorway and promptly fainted.

Gaunt indeed were the wanderers, their skin burnt to the swarthy hue of the natives, their horses like living skeletons.

Sturt and his party had gone to the centre of Australia in search of a dream. The last months of that search had proved a nightmare, but against the odds, he had survived. And he and his men, and indeed our conception of this continent, would be changed forever.