(This article was originally published in Bobby Dazzler Newsletter #6.)
A persistent puzzle for the early European explorers of Australia was the destination of the inland rivers which flowed away from the coast. A logical theory was that they flowed into an inland sea. The possibility of discovering large tracts of well-watered farming land in the interior of the continent was a strong incentive to further exploration.
In 1844, Captain Charles Sturt led an expedition from Adelaide, with a major goal being to resolve the inland sea question. The party was very well equipped, with 16 men, 30 bullocks, 200 sheep, 11 horses, 6 dogs, and (naturally) a boat in which to explore the inland sea. Sturt had already established, through journeys of exploration in western New South Wales, a reputation as a capable and determined leader.
They headed north east, and followed the Darling River to Laidley’s Ponds (now Menindee Lakes). By January 1846, they got as far as present-day Milparinka, where there was a good supply of water at a spot they called Depot Glen. Despite repeated forays further north and north-west, they could find no more reliable water. They were caught in a time of severe drought, and even to return to Laidley’s Ponds was prevented by lack of water along the way.
For six months, they were virtually imprisoned at Depot Glen. They recorded temperatures of 69°C in the sun and 55°C in the shade in the summer. Their hair stopped growing and their nails became “as brittle as glass”. James Poole, the second in command, contracted scurvy and died. His grave under a beefwood tree can still be visited at Depot Glen.
Ivor Hele’s painting showing Sturt making his reluctant decision to retreat when faced with the waterless desert in 1845.
Eventually, in July, rain fell, and they were able to head back to Adelaide. Sturt was too weak to walk and had to be carried all the way. His eyesight had deteriorated dramatically. Most members of the party were in poor health.
The puzzle of the rivers remained. It wasn’t until many years later that the rather complex picture was pieced together:
- Some of the rivers follow roundabout routes to the coast. Others continue towards the centre of the continent, but due to soakage and evaporation in the intense heat, eventually peter out in the desert.
- In times of heavy rainfall in the distant catchment areas, some streams do reach the centre, and normally-dry lakes such as Lake Eyre and Lake Blanche spring to life (whereupon fish and water birds amazingly appear).
- The massive artesian basin (1,500,000 square kms) is slowly replenished, thus providing a water supply for parts of Outback Australia.So Sturt’s theory of an inland sea was sort of correct, but almost all of it is a long way underground. So the boat wasn’t much use. And who can imagine the energy involved in dragging it more than 1000 kms through rough unexplored country! It wasn’t your modern aluminium dinghy, either—it was a 12-foot clinker-built wooden vessel, and was left at Depot Glen (now part of Mount Poole Station). The story goes that it remained there until sometime in the 1940s, when it was broken up for firewood! A full-size replica has been installed in the main street of Tibooburra.
- Many Australian maps show inland rivers which simply end in the desert, without emptying into another river or a lake. In effect, they are long very narrow lakes which seldom have water in them.
- If you’re near Milparinka, take the time to visit Depot Glen and Poole’s grave. Not far away is the three-metre high cairn of stones which Sturt had his men build on the top of a nearby hill as a memorial to Poole and a kind of occupational therapy(!) during their six-month stay at Depot Glen.
- The National Parks & Wildlife office in Tibooburra has a fine display about Sturt’s Expedition, with a model of the whole party. One can but stand in awe of the toughness of these people who challenged the Outback to give up its secrets, and suffered so terribly in the process.
- Seeing Lake Eyre (with or without water) is always a startling experience!