Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Edward John Eyre: the Man Who Found Nothing

“The frightful, the appalling truth now burst upon me, that I was alone in this desert…”– E J Eyre

Eyre and Wylie going through hell
IT’S EASY TO UNDERSTAND why a smart young bloke like Edward John Eyre would want to explore Australia two centuries ago. No white man had yet ventured across the vast, mysterious island-continent. Who knew what secrets it held, what treasures lay hidden within?

Why he continued exploring once he’d seen the stark reality, however, is another matter. Eyre learned quickly what Aborigines have known for millennia: the Aussie outback can be a dead zone. He found nothing but emptiness and desolation on his travels. He endured pulverising heat and near-starvation. Yet this stubborn, dogged man was incapable of abandoning an expedition. Defeat wasn’t an option.

Edward John Eyre grew up in a vicarage, the son of a Yorkshire parson. He sailed to Sydney in 1833 as a gangly youth of seventeen. Within a couple of years he was a tough bushman, baked hard by the Australian sun.

He worked as one of the new “overlanders” who drove sheep and cattle into unknown parts of the colony. Their job was to clear trails and find fresh grazing grounds. Eyre was among the first to bring stock overland from Sydney to the new settlement at Melbourne. In 1837 he went one better and drove three hundred cattle all the way to Adelaide in South Australia, a marathon trek that took more than six months.

It was all a far cry from tea-time at the vicarage. Overlanders spent months in the wilderness, surviving on bush tucker and pushing ever deeper into the blank spots on the Australian map. Cockatoos screeched overhead, kangaroos and emus darted about, flies buzzed at their ears and eyes and mouth.

They were the original bushwhackers, often hacking their way through the dense scrub with heavy axes and machetes. Water was always scarce. Temperatures soared. And there was the constant danger of being speared like a cocktail sausage.

Aborigines didn’t always take kindly to strange white blokes appearing from nowhere with great flocks of sheep that drained their precious waterholes. In the early days, the native Australians tried waving their spears and looking fierce to scare off the intruders. When the whites responded with bullets, Aborigines learned to chuck the spears first and ask questions later.

One of Eyre’s men was attacked while bringing in some cattle. The poor guy, an American called Berry, walked back into camp one day with a twelve-foot javelin sticking out of his back. The weapon had gone up under a shoulder-blade and penetrated to just below his chin. It was vibrating torturously with every step he made.

Bush surgery was the only hope and Eyre didn’t hesitate. First he cut the spear off at the wounded man’s back. Then he got to work on trying to extract the embedded part, the barbed tip and stump, as swiftly as possible – and without anaesthetic.

“Putting two or three men to hold him I made a good large opening in the front of the neck with my penknife…” Eyre writes in his journal, “then pushing the neck back upon [the tip of the spear] until the point protruded I caught hold of it firmly with a pair of pincers.” Eyre yanked hard at the pincers. Another man pushed the spear from behind. And between them they pulled the weapon out through the front of Berry’s throat.

The American, Eyre notes, endured the operation “without a murmur”. And, incredibly, he was back at work in a fortnight. That’s how tough those pioneering bushmen were.

Eyre might have made a fortune if he’d stuck to driving stock. There was good money in it and he could have got himself a farm, found himself a wife, settled down to a comfortable life raising sheep or cattle. But the vicar’s son was incapable of staying put. By 1839 he’d quit overlanding and turned instead to all-out exploring. And two years later he’d pulled off one of the most amazing journeys in history – the first east-west crossing of Australia.

Eyre didn’t set out to walk across the Red Continent. And he certainly didn’t plan to do it on starvation rations with just an Aborigine lad for company. When he left Adelaide in the summer of 1840 he headed north, not west. His original goal was to be the first man to reach the centre of Oz.

He began with five other white blokes and two Aborigine lads. They took thirteen horses, forty sheep to eat on route and several months’ supplies piled onto two wagons. The expedition had public money behind it and cheering crowds gathered to wave the men off. Eyre was given a Union Jack to plant at the heart of Australia. Then the expedition rolled out of town, heading into two thousand miles of mystery.

The going was rougher than expected, and then it got worse. Eyre found no grasslands, no rivers, no fresh water at all – nothing but thousands of acres of thirsty country. After two month’s hard slog he reached Lake Torrens, a massive salt lake flanked by swamplands one way and parched sand-hills the other. There was no way forward for carts or horses. The route north was blocked.

Eyre climbed a mountain and looked down on the desolate landscape stretching as far as he could see. “Cheerless… indeed was the prospect before us,” he notes in his journal. He named the peak Mount Hopeless. Then he turned his back on the centre of Australia.

A more sensible man would have headed home after that. Progress was impossible. What was to be gained from exploring dead swamps, salt lakes and stony desert? But Eyre felt he owed his cheering supporters in Adelaide more than Mount Hopeless. So instead of going home, he changed tack. He decided to try to force his way overland to the new British colony of Western Australia.

It was November now, the start of the Australian summer. As his men hacked their way through the dense, tough scrub that blocked their path westward, they found not a single spring or stream. The hot winds pelted sand painfully into their faces. Three horses collapsed and died in their tracks. One man fell to the ground, crushed by the heat.

Three times the party hurled themselves at the barrier of tangled bush in their path; three times they stuttered to a halt. Trying to get wagons and thirsty men and animals across this burning land was clearly mad. But Eyre just wouldn’t give up. He refused to surrender. Instead he came up with a new plan: he’d ditch the carts, send most of his team back - and try to make a dash for it with a smaller, fast-moving party.

He kept just four men with him – three Aborigine lads called Joey, Yarry and Wylie, and John Baxter, his faithful sidekick who’d worked with him for years. Baxter was given the chance to bail out if he wanted. It was death or glory time, Eyre told him – they’d either succeed or “perish in the attempt”. He chose to stay with his stubborn boss. It was the worst decision he ever made.

The five men stocked up on flour, tea and sugar rations from a ship at Fowler’s Bay, a few hundreds miles west along the coast from Adelaide. They piled the gear on packhorses, not wagons. They kept six sheep for meat. And on 25 February 1841 the small band or adventurers fixed their eyes west once more – and strode back into the fiery hell.

Swarms of large, grey horse flies – known as kangaroo flies in Oz – stung their hands and faces. Ants tormented them at night. They were soon desperately short of water. Hot winds continually blew sand and grit into their mouths and eyes.

But by travelling light the five tough bushwhackers moved more quickly. Within a week they’d covered a hundred miles and reached an open area of sand hills called Yeer Kumban Kauwe. They found Aborigine waterholes among the dunes. They rested, ate a sheep. Then they marched onwards – up onto the vast and terrifying Nullarbor Plain.

Take down an atlas, turn to Australia and have a look for the Nullarbor. You can’t miss it. It’s an enormous desert just above that huge curved bay on the south coast known as the Great Australian Bight. They say exploring one thousand miles in Australia is equal to ten thousand miles anywhere else in the world. Make that twenty thousand around the Bight.

The Nullarbor is dead flat and bone dry. There are no trees for shade, no mountains, no hills – nothing at all apart from endless waterless horizons, the odd bit of scrub and wombat holes. It’s a vast limestone plateau running all the way to Western Australia. Where it reaches the coastline it ends abruptly in three-hundred foot cliffs that tower over shark-filled seas. Eyre and Baxter were the first white men to step onto the Nullarbor – and they knew next to nothing about the place.

Eyre, Baxter, Joey, Yarry and Wylie marched day and night across the burning plateau, just behind those dramatic cliffs. The heat was ferocious, water nowhere to be found, thirst a constant torture. Eyre got so exhausted he dozed as he walked. By 10 March the animals had gone four days without a drop. If they didn’t find a waterhole soon, the packhorses would perish. And if the horses died, the men knew they would quickly follow.

But for Eyre there was no turning back. And on the fifth day, his unshakable belief was rewarded – the parched travellers found some more Aborigine wells at a small palm-less oasis called Eucla. They rested here a week, tried to rally their strength. Then they got on the move again. Albany – the closest town in Western Australia – was still an eight-hundred mile walk away.

Another week went by. They found no water, no grass, no nothing. The horses got so weak Eyre had to throw away all the expedition’s spare clothes, medicines and ammunition to lighten their loads. The desperate explorers were reduced to pulling up scrub and sucking moisture from its roots, an old Aborigine survival trick. On 28 March the animals had walked for five days without a drink. The next evening the men squeezed the last drops from their canteens.

At dawn on 30 March, Eyre and the Aborigine lads used sponges to collect heavy dew that had collected on the leaves of desert shrubs – they got just enough for a pot of tea. But as the men broke camp that day, they knew they could be facing death from thirst. The Nullarbor Plain stretched before them as far as they could see – miles of barren country lying dead flat beneath a shimmering heat haze. It was one hundred and fifty miles back to the last waterhole.

But on they marched, the lion-hearted Eyre driving the party forward. And again their prayers were answered – the hard limestone plateau suddenly dipped down to an area of white sand dunes by the sea, a potential place to open a well. Picking a likely looking hollow, the men dug. Six feet down they found water. Eyre tasted it. Then he tasted it again in disbelief. Salvation: the water was fresh.

That spot is now called Eyre’s Sandpatch, and the nutter it’s named after spent nearly a month here with his men and animals. They did their best to recoup and recover. Attempts were made to go back and retrieve some of the gear that had been slung away - two exhausted packhorses died doing that. A third horse was so weak it was killed and eaten.

Thirst now gave way to hunger. Their stocks of flour were dwindling fast. The men tried living off the land, hunting wallabies, catching fish and roasting plant roots. Eyre shot an eagle; one of the lads speared a stingray. The two white men’s stomachs rebelled and both got badly sick.

On top of the hunger, the weakened travellers faced a new torture – the cold. Winter was approaching. Days were still volcanically hot but the desert nights had become freezing. And they had to be endured without coats or warm clothing.

Soon even tough old Baxter had had enough. He tried to persuade Eyre to turn back – no chance. Joey and Wylie voted with their feet and deserted, disappearing for forty-eight hours. But on 25 April, the lads returned, half-starved and wholly sorry. And two days later all five men were once again walking side by side towards Albany, still more than six hundred miles away.

The new-found unity didn’t last long. Just three nights later, Eyre was watching over the horses when he heard a gunshot and saw Wylie running towards him in terror. Rushing back to camp he found the expedition’s supplies strewn around and Baxter lying in a pool of blood. He’d been shot in the chest.

Either Joey or Yarry had done it – probably because Baxter had caught them stealing meat. Now both lads were missing along with most of the food and water and all but one of the firearms. Eyre watched Baxter die without a word. Then he stood on guard till sunrise, his gun over his arm, wondering if the murderers would return for him and the rest of the supplies.

It must have been a long night. With most of the food gone, Eyre was now facing starvation. He’d last seen water three days ago and had no idea when he’d find more. His only companion was an Aborigine boy who had already deserted him once. And his oldest friend in Australia was lying dead at his feet.

“The frightful, the appalling truth now burst upon me, that I was alone in this desert…” Eyre writes. “The horrors of my situation glared upon me in such startling reality as for an instant almost to paralyze the mind.”

The next morning Eyre found he couldn’t bury his friend – the ground was solid rock for miles in every direction. So he wrapped Baxter in a blanket and left him where he’d fallen. Then he rallied his strength, saddled up what little food and water remained and resumed his gruelling walk across no-man’s land.

Wylie came too. And for the next month the pair trudged on together into the burning wind and merciless sun, their jaded horses staggering along beside them, barely alive. It was seven days before they found their first waterhole. Heat and exhaustion threatened to overwhelm them like a drug. Eyre had to fight the urge to surrender – to lie down and, in his words, “let the glass of life glide away to its last sand”.

There’s a famous old engraving showing the Englishman and the Aborigine plodding along during those terrible four weeks. Wylie is shirtless, hunched and carrying a small pale of water. A bearded Eyre places a fatherly hand on the boy’s bony shoulder. Both figures are gaunt and in rags. They look like Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday, only skinnier.

But little flashes of luck kept them alive. They found waterholes at crucial moments. They shot a kangaroo which Wylie stripped to the bone, eating not only its meat but its entrails, paunch and, after singeing off the hair, even its skin. They lad also roasted witchety grubs and scoffed a penguin he found dead on the shore. Another dying horse was slaughtered and shared.

The landscape started to improve, slightly. In mid-May they reached an area of rough grass where their surviving packhorses grazed. At the end of the month they came upon pools in the rocky ground – the first water that they hadn’t had to dig for in seven hundred miles. And then, on 2 June, a miracle: looking out to sea, they spotted a ship.

Eyre could barely believe it. The vessel - a French whaler – was anchored just offshore. The ragged wanderers got its attention by yelling, waving their tattered shirts above their heads and jumping around on the cliffs like maniacs. And soon they were aboard, enjoying what Eyre describes as “a change in our circumstances so great, so sudden, and so unexpected, that it seemed more like a dream than a reality”.

The Mississippi was under the command of an Englishman, Captain Rossiter. And Rossiter proved to be a lifesaver. For nearly a fortnight he looked after the piteously weak travellers, feeding them, sheltering them and giving them new clothes.

Another explorer might have counted his blessings and stayed on the Mississippi till it sailed back to civilisation. Not Eyre. After just twelve days’ rest, he and Wylie set off again on foot. They still had three hundred miles to walk.

And then, bizarrely, it started lashing down. Winter was upon them. It rained day and night, turning the hard-baked land into a giant puddle. The two wanderers were permanently soaked, permanently cold; their teeth chattered so hard they could barely speak. Unable to sleep in wet clothes, they quickly became exhausted. They’d survived thirst and starvation – now they feared dying of pneumonia.

But their appalling trial was coming near the end. Wylie had grown up in Western Australia and he knew his home turf when he saw it. The hoof-marks of a horse told them other humans were nearby. They waded chest-high across a swollen river – their final obstacle. Then they splashed onwards more quickly, ankle-deep in water.

The next day they met an Aborigine man. He instantly recognised Wylie, who’d been given up for dead by his tribe, and an impromptu knees-up ensued. Then the two shattered travellers found themselves on a hill overlooking a tiny, rain-sodden town, the first human settlement they’d seen in more than four months: Albany, Western Australia.

Four months and one thousand miles: Eyre and Wylie had just walked across Australia. They’d discovered nothing of promise on the way – nothing but heat and suffering and disappointment. But through sheer dogged determination and a stubborn refusal to admit defeat, they’d made it. They were alive. And Edward John Eyre – veteran overlander and twenty-five-year-old hard man of the Australian bush – quietly began to weep.

Two decades after Eyre and Wylie’s epic walk, Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills attempted to match the feat by crossing the continent from south to north. The explorers left Melbourne with dozens of camels and horses and enough food to last two years. They pulled it off, reaching the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north on 9 February, 1861. But both men starved to death on the return journey.

* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post here but have started a new blog called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with much shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow @historynuts on Twitter or via my facebook.com/historynuts. Thanks again!

Dutton, Geoffrey, Edward John Eyre: the Hero as Murderer (Sydney, 1967)
Hogg, Gary, Overlanders (London, 1961)
Fitzpatrick, Kathleen, Australian Explorers (London, 1958)
Uren, Malcolm and Stephens, Robert, Waterless Horizons (Melbourne, 1945)
Kerr, Colin and Margaret, Australian Explorers (Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, 1978)


Anonymous said...

Figures the people that would try to complete the trip after eyre, would put in that preparation, waste it and fail... Well written though.

Roger of Echunga said...

He was a brilliant, resourceful and resilient man and South Australia owes him a great deal. His overland trips from Sydney to Port Phillip Bay (Melbourne) and Adelaide with stock were commercially successful and an amazing achievement. He showed great courage and intelligence at such a young age, and developed great respect for Aboriginal people which served him well. When others would slake their thirst when coming across a waterhole, Eyre, despite being stricken by thirst, would boil a cup of tea and avoid illness. He had the great adventure of travelling into the unknown more than once, and saw extraordinary things, and helped open up the interior of South Australia and establish the colony and the nation. A great Brit and a great Adelaidean.

Simon Bendle said...

Belated thanks for your great comment, Roger - much appreciated! If I can find the time to add to this little series of biographies, next time I'd like to write something on another great traveller in Australia, John McDouall Stuart. Thanks again and all the best.

Unknown said...

A thrilling story and strangely, I have always felt a closeness to Australia. Best wishes from John (Edmund) Eyre!