The timing of the arrival of Sturt’s orders meant that he could begin his expedition into the interior of Australia in mid-August of 1844 or he could wait until the following winter. Desperate to change his situation, anxious to claim what he saw as his rightful place as a man of substance, he chose to go in August. Which of course meant that he didn’t enter this country until the height of summer. Conditions can be simply brutal at that time in this place, but it appears that in some ways, Sturt had got extremely lucky.
The country Charles Sturt was travelling through, from the area around Broken Hill in the south through to corner country in the north and then north-west toward the centre is noted as having the most variable rainfall of any place on the planet. It is classic boom bust wilderness, country that really does experience drought and flooding rains with very little in between.
For example, the average rainfall here in Tibooburra is less than 180 mm per year. But that’s an average taken over a century. It can be dry for years out here and then almost out of nowhere, after years of prolonged drought a massive amount of rain can fall in a single event.
As Sturt and his party were about to leave the Darling at Menindee, they were beset by heavy rain and watched as the Darling broke its banks, flooding the surrounding area. We know that that meant heavy and persistent rain in the north of NSW and southern Queensland where that river has its headwaters and we also know that that can, at different times, mean widespread rainfall across this district.
And Sturt’s descriptions of the country he was passing through, of the green herbage and prolific wildflowers, of the abundant birdlife points to a good season. But even with good rain, finding standing water out here is never easy.
From the Darling they followed Stephen’s Creek, digging wells in its gravelly base and finding occasional pools sufficient to temporarily sustain them.
Sturt and his men had learned from the indigenous locals that, thankfully, because it had been a good season, if you dug down in the right places along these gravelly creek beds you would often find water just below the surface. It was enough to sustain them but it was nothing if not precarious.
In early November they camped by a substantial waterhole in the shadow of the Barrier Ranges approximately 30 kilometres north of present day Broken Hill. From that eastern side of the Barrier Ranges, they the passed through to the west after a scouting party had found water at Morphett’s Creek. From there they skirted the western side of the ranges arriving at Flood’s Creek on December 10th.
They had only been gone for 4 months but the temperature was rising alarmingly and already by mid-December 1844 the increasing severity of the conditions combined with the slow pace of travel and the uncertainty surrounding water, or rather the reality of the scarcity of it, was starting to take its toll and Sturt’s relief at arriving at Flood’s Creek, where they would get respite from the endless searching and digging in dry creek beds for water was palpable.
“The anxiety for the permanent safety of my party is at an end. I am truly grateful for this great boon which I could not reasonably have expected. The water, beautifully overshadowed by trees is clear and cool. It is undoubtedly the prettiest camp since we left the Darling.”
But Flood’s Creek was not the inland sea Sturt was searching for and he was desperate to push further north. With a relatively secure water supply offering some respite, he sent his second in command James Poole and the expedition Doctor John Browne scouting north.
The two men passed Mt. Arrowsmith, which they climbed, and continued on, finishing about thirty kilometres east of Tibooburra.
When they returned, they reported having found an abundance of water in a creek 120 kilometres to the north along with a pool of water half-way on what is now called Packsaddle Creek, a supply that was secure enough to allow them to safely make the journey.
On the 28th of December there was an unexpected cool change and Sturt made the decision to move north. Ass they did so they passed through an ever-changing landscape, from dry open plains to hills like these ones, strewn with quartz that on first impression, to men like Sturt’s armourer Daniel Brock, appeared like English hills dusted with snow at Yuletide.
On the 11th of January they camped by a waterhole on a creek Sturt named after his brother Evelyn near the present-day township of Milparinka and after exploring the creek system around the area, they managed, through a combination of good bushmanship and sheer luck, to find this place, a camp that would prove to be the most secure of the entire expedition. Depot Glen.
While they were camped on Morphett’s Creek, on the 15th of November in typical boom bust fashion, it had deluged. It rained constantly for three days and the creek had risen from a series of murky puddles to become a typical outback torrent. But within just two days of the downpour, much to Sturt’s dismay, that water had all but disappeared, seeping into the sandy soil that is characteristic of this country.
Sturt had led an expedition into the desert that included 32 bullocks, 11 horses and 200 sheep. By his own estimate, he required 4,500 litre of water a day simply to sustain the livestock who he recorded “drank a fearful quantity.” And, he hadn’t helped his cause by making a glaring oversight when he’d curated his list of supplies.
“I have extremely to regret the want of Casks to hold water. This fatal oversight may yet be of the most serious consequence, but we must endeavour to make up for it. I cannot but blame myself for this.”
Sturt went on to conclude that “Casks are an item I would strongly recommend on all future exploring expeditions in country such as this.” But at least here, for a time, he wouldn’t need them.
This area is one of those lucky accidents of nature. A creek in a cleft, surrounded by mature gums and fed by these rock-strewn hills. And the rock just happens to be shale. Sturt and his men had stumbled upon a natural-reservoirs with a shale and clay base, one of the few that exists out here, that in a good season, is capable of surviving a summer.
Sturt and his party remained here for six months enduring a wretched summer with daily temperatures often exceeding 45 degrees Celsius in the sun and 40 in the shade. From here they would make regular forays into the unknown, in search of water supplies that would enable them to continue their journey toward the centre, all to no avail.
On one of those trips to the north Sturt sat and wrote in his Journal.
“A dark and gloomy sea of scrub without a break in its monotonous surface met my gaze. I could not but think from the appearance of the country as far as we had gone that we could not be very far from the outskirts of an inland sea, it so precisely resembled a low and barren sea coast.”
It seemed nothing, not even the risk of death from thirst, would dent Sturt’s dream of discovering his inland sea.