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First Report, 1857.

Progress Reports and Final Report of the Exploration Committee of the Royal Society of Victoria.
Melbourne: Royal Society of Victoria. Mason & Firth Printers.

Drawn up by Drs Wilkie, Mueller and Macadam.
Adopted by the Exploration Committee.
Received at an ordinary meeting of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria
22nd December 1857.

The Committee appointed at an Ordinary Meeting of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria, held on the 11th of November 1857, for the purpose of inquiring into the practicability of fitting out in Victoria an expedition for traversing the unknown interior of the Australian Continent from east to west, beg to offer to the members of the Institute this, the First Report of their Proceedings, and the results arrived at in their enquiries; and beg likewise to suggest such a modification in the plan originally proposed as a careful investigation of the evidence and opinions of former Australian travellers has induced them to adopt.

At the first meeting of the Committee, held on the 14th of November, a strong desire manifested itself to foster, and that speedily, and with all means within their reach, the project brought under their consideration. The desirability of Victoria taking, a share in the labors of revealing the unexplored portion of the interior of Australia was unanimously acknowledged, and many members of the Committee supported on that occasion the motion of Dr Wilkie, namely, to adhere to the line of the tropic of Capricorn as far as the nature of the country and other circumstances would permit. A resolution was adopted to the effect that an appeal be made for pecuniary support, both to the Government and the public, as also that a meeting of the colonists should be held in furtherance of the project. Mr Bonwick was instructed to apply to A C Gregory Esq, the commander of the North Australian Expedition, for the opinion of that gentleman on the proposed route, and generally to request the advice, which his valuable experience would dictate.

At the second meeting of the Committee, held on the 23rd of November, the business was, on the, motion of Edward Wilson Esq, postponed, in order that the members might have the opportunity of hearing Dr Mueller's forthcoming paper before the Institute, on the subject of Australian Exploration.

At the third meeting of the Committee, held on 30th November, Dr Mueller moved, pursuant to previous notice, that the starting point, originally fixed to be Port Curtis should be changed for the Darling, because it seemed unadvisable to send almost simultaneously an expedition from Victoria to the subtropical east coast, whilst the New South Wales Government had already intrusted to Mr Gregory the command of all expedition in search of Dr Leichhardt, which is to proceed from Port Curtis, to the westward. He pointed also to the additional chance which would thereby offer itself of gaining information as to the fate of Dr Leichhardt (who, it was said, had fallen, with his party, into the hands of the natives, near the sources of the Maranoa). By adopting the Darling as a starting point, Dr Mueller said, a new and large portion of country in close proximity to the northern goldfields of the colony of Victoria, and probably in part available for pastures, would be opened. Further, it seemed preferable to explore a new tract of country, on the route to the Victoria River, (of Sir Thomas Mitchell), and situated between the Darling, Grey Range and the Warrego, than proceeding over the well-known country to the Victoria River from the eastward.

Mr Blandowski objected to this alteration in the proposed route on account of the greater distance to be traversed ere a position on the Victoria River would be reached. He explained the difficulty of obtaining horses fit for an exploring party in the northern parts of this colony, and referred to the existence of poisonous herbs on the Darling as dangerous to such animals.

Dr Mueller contended that poisonous herbs were not restricted to some portions of the country near the Darling, but had proved destructive to horses and other animals near Lake Torrens in Western Australia, Arnheim's Land, and other parts of this continent, and would probably be encountered on many other lines of the country.

Dr Mackenna, considering that already New South Wales and South Australia were engaged in new enterprises of a kindred nature, moved that Victoria, should carry out the objects in view without the cooperation of the neighboring colonies. This proposition received the sanction of the Committee. It was also agreed to establish, in the event of the plan of the exploration, in its fullest extent, meeting with the approbation of the Government and the colonists, a Depot as had been previously urged by Edward Wilson Esq. on the junction of the Thomson with the Victoria River, in lat. about 25° S, and long 143° E, and to convey provisions &c-, to that locality, sufficient for the party during the space of two years. The decision on the best route for accomplishing this object was postponed on the motion of the Hon. John Hodgson MLC, until a reply could be received from Mr Gregory.

At the fourth meeting of the Committee, held on the 7th December, the Hon. Secretary, Dr Macadam, read the answer in reply to the communication to Mr Gregory, which the Committee deem it necessary to insert verbatim in this report as an important document based on unrivalled experience.

66 Macquarie street, Sydney,
25th November 1857.

Dear Sir, - I had the pleasure of receiving your letter of the 16th inst, referring to the proposal of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria to initiate proceedings for the formation of an exploring expedition, having for its object the determination of the character of that portion of the Australian interior which has yet baffled the attempts which have been made to penetrate it.

With reference to the line suggested, simply viewing it on the map, no line could appear better chosen than that proposed, viz- the line of the tropic from E to W. The question, however, is, can this be effected with the means at present available ?

Now, it has been demonstrated that a party, well equipped can perform a journey of equal length with that contemplated; but it is not the number of miles, but the character of the country to be traversed, in which the real difficulty consists, and we should, therefore, inquire what is the probable nature of the country under consideration.

First. The principal tract which is unexplored is comprised between the meridians of 115° and 140° and the parallels of 20° and 32° of latitude, or 1,600 miles. long by 800 miles wide. Its circumference is 4,500 miles, of which only 800 miles (on the NW.) remain unexamined. Along the whole line examined (extending 3,700 miles) the universal character of the country along the boundary is level sandy desert or worthless scrub, without any sign of change in advancing into the interior beyond that of increasing sterility, caused by the greater aridity of the climate, while not one single stream emanates from this inhospitable region, to indicate ranges of hills, better soil or climate, beyond the limits of actual examination.

At what conclusion can we therefore arrive, from a consideration of the premises, except that the interior is equally barren and forbidding with its exterior limits ?

I therefore consider that it is almost hopeless to attempt to traverse this tract of country from east to west, and that the only prospect of success would be to penetrate it in the direction of its shorter diameter (north or south).

But at what point is this practicable ? The whole coast of the Australian Bight, from Streaky Bay to Cape Arid, is so barren that neither sufficient water nor grass exist at any spot for the formation of a Depot, from which a party could start, and the result of the expedition from Streaky Bay is very discouraging. Thus it only remains to attempt to penetrate on the northern side. But even here there is scarcely ally prospect of success until that coast shall have been settled, when by forming a Depot on the border, or rather on some of the creeks within the limits of the desert, early in the season, light parties might be pushed a considerable distance into it during the short continuance of the rains.

This is certainly a somewhat gloomy view of the subject, but it is, I conceive, our duty to ascertain, as far as possible, the nature, of the difficulties to be met before encountering them, as failure must be the result unless judicious preparations are made to overcome the obstacles which interpose.

Thus reduced to the alternatives of either awaiting the sure but slow development of Australian geography, which must result front a steady adherence to keeping the explorations 400 or 500 miles ahead of the settlements, and gradually reducing the the Australian terra incognita, or else to resort to the very doubtful, but if successful, more brilliant mode of making energetic endeavours to accomplish the result without delay, prudence would teach us to pause, where undue haste may be disastrous.

Now, as regards the route of any party which might start, under present circumstances, from the east coast, they must of necessity be prepared to return to it, as it is only for a few weeks ill each rainy season that they could approach the colony of Western Australia, as it is bounded on the east by a waterless scrub, which has been penetrated at several points some 200 miles; and this tract of country, which perhaps extends as much further into the interior, call only be traversed in the wet when a little water collects on the bare rocks which exist at wide intervals, there being no watercourses, and the lower parts of the valleys occupied by salt marshes and lakes of brine. Even in following the coast to Shark's Bay, I was nearly four days without water while crossing the scrubby plains north of the settlement, and only found one well of water during a search of thirteen days' duration.

Moreton Bay thus becomes the most eligible, point for the organization of an exploring party, and by following down partially the Victoria River of Sir T Mitchell, a good position for a Depot could be selected, from which a lightly equipped party could push to the westward by taking a sweep to the north of Sturt's furthest point.

I expect shortly to visit the country to the NW of Moreton Bay, with a view of searching for traces of Dr Leichhardt and his party, and, if possible, to ascertain the fate of that unfortunate explorer: and should any important features of the country be discovered, a knowledge of which might be of use to the exploring party, I shall feel pleasure in communicating all information relative thereto, as I apprehend that, if the Expedition is undertaken it could not start before the period of my return, as the preliminary arrangements and organisation of the party would occupy several months.

An opinion is prevalent that the range of hills which gives eastern Australia the singular character of large streams descending into a depressed interior, will be found to extend along the north and west coasts. This is not the case, as the mountains range terminates at Cape York, and, except the small tract of hills in South Australia, no ranges exist to the west of the 142° meridian, the whole of the western portion of the continent being only a sandy tableland, the edges of which are serrated by small watercourses which descend its slope to the coast. Thus, in forming an estimate of the difficulties to be in that portion of Australia, we must not adopt any experience of the country within the occupied portion of it. Were the obstacles so insignificant, Australia, ere this, had ceased to be a field for exploration.

In conclusion, I beg to assure you that I shall ever feel a warm interest in whatever may tend to the development of the resources of this continent.

And believe me to remain,
Yours very truly,
A C Gregory.

In reference to the statement made by Mr Gregory as to the prevalence of salt water in many districts, particularly of the western interior, Mr Blandowski expressed an opinion that this should not of itself deter an explorer, since in other districts of Australia fresh and salt water lakes were frequently found in proximity to each other.

Dr Mueller explained that under the rapid evaporation in the dry atmosphere of the desert, combined with the solution of salt particles from the soil, stagnant water became entirely undrinkable, and this even after heavy thunder showers. Such waters might be comparatively fresh, and he deduced in illustration the experience in this respect of Mr Oakden in the country west of Lake Torrens. Dr Mueller at the same time admitted that drainage water collecting in a sandy or not saline ground might always afford a supply of fresh water, as in the instance of Lake Benanee. From previous experience, however, large depressed tracts of saline country of recent formation might be expected in the interior desert, which, it might be anticipated, would be but scantily provided with fresh water.

Dr Mueller thought that the "Second Darling" (The Paroo) described by the natives to Mr Blandowski, as existing to the north of the River Darling would probably prove to be a continuation of the Warrego Creek, and, if so, would greatly facilitate an expedition northward from the Darling. Such, at least, would yield an oasis in the desert, similar to those on Eyre's Creek, Cooper's Creek, and Sturt's Creek, and which will always be of the highest importance to travellers proceeding towards central Australia.

Dr Wilkie and Mr Blandowski urged that the route selected should be that from Port Curtis, proceeding to the junction of the Victoria and Thomson Rivers, at or near the junction of which a Depot should be established.

Dr Mueller, in supporting the amendment to this motion, contrasted the facility for the transit of stores furnished by the Murray steam navigation, almost to the point of unexplored country, with the difficult and partially mountainous route to be traversed when transporting, under not less expense, large quantities of stores from the east coast to the junction of the rivers named. He pointed out, also, that in selecting the Darling route, a direct line of communication would most probably be established between our own colony and the Victoria River.

The amendment was supported by the Hon. John Hodgson, in consequence of Mr Blandowski's remarks on the existence of permanent water not far north of the Darling, which seemed to augur so favorably for that route. Mr Hodgson expressed himself as influenced, also, in his decision, by Mr Gregory's communication. The amendment was carried.

On the motion of the Hon John Hodgson, it was unanimously resolved to organise at once a light party for the exploration of the country from the Darling to the junction of the Victoria and Thomson Rivers. Mr Blandowski, in reply to a question from the Hon Captain Clarke R E, stated that, in his opinion, a period of eight months (five of which to be employed in actual exploration) would be sufficient for this purpose. He adverted to the necessity of immediate despatch in the necessary preparations, in order to reap the full advantage of the next rainy season. The sum of two thousand pounds was deemed sufficient for efficiently carrying out this exploit.

Your Committee having thus reviewed the evidence that was before them, with respect to the practicability of fitting out in Victoria a geographical expedition to traverse this continent from east to west, as near the tropic of Capricorn as the features of the country would permit, have to state that they are unanimous in opinion that the route indicated is, without doubt that which would prove in even point of view the most valuable in its results, if it could be accomplished.

In order to make the attempt however, with any prospect of success, it would be necessary to form, at or near the junction of the Thomson and Victoria Rivers, a Depot amply furnished with stores and cattle sufficient for a period of at least two years. The expedition would necessarily be a costly one, and your Committee fear that even under the most favorably, circumstances it would be a hazardous undertaking. For these reasons your Committee are not prepared to recommend that immediate steps should be taken to organize an expedition for this great line of exploration, but they entertain the confident hope that the time is not far distant when this desirable object may be undertaken by an expedition fitted out in Victoria.

In recommending a less important and a less expensive expedition to be first undertaken, your Committee have had in view, first, the fact that Mr Gregory is at present engaged in organising an exploring party in search of Leichhardt, and that he will in all probability traverse the country between the east coast and the proposed Depot on the Victoria River, and on his return may be able to furnish important information for guiding us as to the future exploration of the interior; secondly, that it is at present uncertain whether it would be better to reach the proposed Depot from Victoria by the Darling or from the east coast, as considerable difficulties would have to be encountered in either case.

Your Committee have, therefore, arrived at the conclusion that, under all the circumstances, it would be better that a preliminary exploring expedition should be undertaken by Victoria, for the purpose of opening up, if practicable, a line of communication between the Darling and the Victoria Rivers. They recommend that the expedition for this purpose should consist of a light party, and that their primary objects should be firstly, to discover any available country for depasturing stock, secondly, to examine the nature of the country near the junction of the Thomson and Victoria Rivers, with a view to determine the practicability of forming a suitable Depot, with permanent water, for ulterior exploration.

Your Committee recommend that the exploring party should reach the Darling River before the beginning of March and according to the evidence stated, they hope that the party will be able to accomplish this route to the Victoria River and back in less than five months. By that time, Mr Gregory will most likely have returned from his expedition in search of Leichhardt and we should also be in possession of important information respecting the country to the north-west of Lake Torrens, the exploring of which is at present engaging the attention of the South Australian Government. We shall thus it is hoped, be in a much better position to undertake the more difficult and hazardous expedition afterwards through central Australia. In recommending to the Institute the shorter and less expensive expedition, preparatory to the more important exploration of the interior, your Committee hope that the Institute will thus more readily obtain the support of the Government; nor can they feel indifferent to the advantage of leading the path of civilisation into a portion of the interior which, although politically belonging to New South Wales, may commercially be regarded as an enlargement of the Victorian territory.

Your Committee would also express the hope that the proposed expedition may possibly gain from the natives some traditional information respecting Leichhardt's fate and would recommend that the expedition be specially instructed to embrace every opportunity of searching on their route for traces of that ill-fated explorer. Your Committee are of opinion that in the proposed expedition from the Darling, the number of the party should be limited to four and a leader, in order to secure a more certain and speedy progress and that the pack horses may be safely reduced to twelve with two saddle horses which, with judicious arrangements, would carry an ample supply of provisions and all the requisites for an exploration of this tract of country during one rainy season; and as Victoria is now for the first time invited to take part in the honorable task of exploration, your Committee, indulge the hope that the liberality of the colonists of Victoria, aided by a grant from the Legislature, will enable the Philosophical Institute to take immediate steps to carry out the object contemplated.

Your Committee refer with pleasure to Mr Gregory's letter, which they have embodied in their report, and they are desirous to express their acknowledgment of the valuable information which it has afforded them. While Mr Gregory from long practical experience as an explorer, takes a somewhat desponding view of the probable nature of the unexplored country in Australia and of the difficulties and dangers that would have to be encountered in any attempt to penetrate the great interior desert from east to west, your Committee are glad that he does not altogether dissuade them from making the attempt. On the contrary, he suggests Moreton Bay as the most eligible place, under existing circumstances for fitting out an expedition for this purpose, and recommends that a Depot should be formed at an advanced point on the Victoria River from which a light party might be pushed to the westward, shaping their course to the northward of Sturt's furthest point; thus strengthening the opinions already adopted by your Committee on the best mode of exploring the vast interior of this continent.

The uncertainty and scarcity of water is the grand obstacle to all future exploration; but even if it should be impossible to penetrate the desert to any great distance from the Depot on the Victoria River, from the total want of surface water, Your Committee think it would perhaps be practicable for a light party to discover some favourable spot for securing permanent water from the tropical rains by artificial means, and thus to form more advanced outposts in the desert, from which further explorations could be made, with the hope of ultimately succeeding in penetrating through the whole continent from east to west.

However discouraging the exploration of this desert may appear, your Committee attach great importance to the information communicated by Dr Mueller, that there, are in these inhospitable regions occasional heavy falls of rain, and the salt lake in lat. 20° south, into which Sturt's Creek empties itself, although dry when discovered by Mr Gregory, indicates by its immense size (being thirty miles in circumference) that a very large body of water must flow into it at certain times. From the general nature of the surface, the rain water is very rapidly lost by absorption and evaporation; but there are reasons for believing that it will be possible in some grassy flats and in some clay soils to secure for the purposes of outposts an artificial supply of permanent water.

Your Committee have had under their consideration a lengthy communication from Mr Belt, a member of the Institute, who proposes to undertake alone an expedition from the Gulf of Carpentaria to Adelaide. All that he requires is to be landed at the mouth of the Albert River, with five horses, provided with waterbags, and a small supply of provisions and oats. He expects to be able to reach Sturt's furthest point without difficulty, and then to follow his track to Adelaide.

Your Committee need only observe that the hostility and rapacity of the natives would render it extremely hazardous for one man to undertake such all expedition, not to mention the impossibility of one man leading or driving five horses through a scrubby and it may be a waterless country. They cannot, however, withhold their admiration of the zeal and courage displayed by Mr Belt in thus offering, single handed, to undertake so difficult and hazardous an expedition.

It only remains for your Committee to recommend the appointment of an Exploration Committee, with full powers to carry out the proposed object, and with the authority to make all immediate application on behalf of the Institute to Her Majesty's Government to place the sum of £2,500 sterling on the estimates to aid the expedition.

A list of articles required for the expedition has been kindly furnished to your Committee by Dr Mueller, and is appended to this report.

David E Wilkie, MD.
Chairman of the Exploration Committee.

List of Articles recommended for the Expedition
by Dr Mueller.

5 Saddle Horses,
12 Pack Horses,
12 Pack Saddles,
5 Saddles,
17 Saddle Cloths,
24 Saddle Bags,
5 Revolvers,
5 Carbines,
1 Sextant,
1 Artificial Horizon,
Nautical Almanac,
1 Telescope,
34 pairs of Hobbles with nails,
34 sets of Horse Shoes,
2 Aneroid Barometers,
2 Thermometers,
1½ tons Provisions (one years provisions for five - sugar,tea, flour, meat),
2 very light Canvas Tents,
Straps and spare Saddlery,
Hammer and other implements for shoeing horses,
A few thin iron pots, pannakins,
Waterproof bags for carrying water,
Spare boots (a pair for each individual),
Material for preserving skins of animals,
Paper for drying plants (half a ream),
Spring Scales,
Fish hooks,
Writing paper,
Note books &c-,
Spade and pick,


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