EJ Eyre and his arrival in Albany
A little over 171 years ago on July 6, 1841, explorer Edward John Eyre (1815-1901) and his Aboriginal companion Wylie camped on the eastern side of the King River at sunset. On the following day, they entered Albany to be warmly welcomed by residents somewhere in the vicinity of the Soldiers' Memorial in lower York Street, close to St John's Anglican Church.
Eyre's arrival was the consummation of a journey which started at Fowler's Bay, South Australia, four-and-half months earlier, on February 25, 1841 and which saw his name written into history as the first European to cross southern Australia from east to west travelling across the Nullarbor Plain.
Prior to his groundbreaking journey, Eyre had conducted a number of small expeditions in New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia, combining sheep and cattle droving with exploring. He was hoping to discover good sheep country and opened up much of South Australia for settlement.
During 1839 plans were being made to form an expedition to discover land which could be opened up for a cattle route from Adelaide to Western Australia. Eyre volunteered to lead the expedition and pay half its costs. His party consisted of six Europeans, including his station manager John Baxter, Wylie, two South Australian Aboriginals, Yarry and Joey (aka Nerambereen and Cootachab), 13 horses, 40 sheep and three months supplies.
The explorers travelled westward across what is now known as the Eyre Peninsula and along the coast, but the harsh conditions and lack of water forced Eyre to send some of the men back to Adelaide. Eyre decided to continue with Baxter, Wylie, Yarry and Joey, as he thought a smaller party would have more chance of success. On March 12, the group left Fowler's Bay with 11 pack horses, six sheep and a 1,300km journey through scorching heat and the treeless Nullabor Plain ahead of them.
They discovered water in wells dug by Aboriginals at Eucla, on the border of SA and WA. The party camped there for six days days, then travelled on, keeping close to the beach. However, the packhorses found it difficult travelling across sand and Eyre was forced to leave behind firearms, horseshoes, spare water bags and clothing. One by one the packhorses had to be left behind - shortly after the group's water rations were gone.
For hydration, the party used natural sponges to collect the early morning dew from leaves, but food was becoming scarce, so they killed and ate a sick horse which made Eyre and Baxter extremely ill. The Aboriginals attempted to continue the journey alone, but returned starving a couple of days later.
Winter had now begun to set in and the cold nights became unbearable. Yarry and Joey refused to work and on the night of April 29, while Eyre was keeping watch at a site near present-day Caiguna in the Nuytsland National Park, he heard a gun blast and found Wylie running towards him in alarm. Yarry and Joey had murdered Baxter and disappeared with most of the supplies and firearms. Eyre wrote in his memoirs; At the dead hour of night, in the wildest and most inhospitable wastes of Australia, with the fierce wind raging in unison with the scene of violence before me, I was left, with a single native, whose fidelity I could not rely upon, and who for aught I knew might be in league with the other two, who perhaps were even now, lurking about with the view of taking away my life as they had done that of the overseer'.
Wylie and Eyre were now desperate - they had seen no water for three days and ahead lay almost 1,000km of unknown barren country, also, they could not bury Baxter because the ground was solid rock, so his body was wrapped in a blanket.
Eyre and Wylie trudged on for another seven days before finding a waterhole. They killed kangaroos for food and Wylie even ate a dead penguin he found on the shore. For more than a month Eyre and Wylie struggled on to the west, until on June 2 at Thistle Cove, near Esperance, they sighted the French whaler Mississippi which picked them up, gave them several days hospitality and replenished their stores.
Moving on through heavy rains and cold weather, they reached Albany on July 7. Eyre was awarded the founder's gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1847 and lived to be 86. He was made Lieutenant-Governor of New Zealand and later became a governor in Jamaica. Wylie was rewarded with a pension and remained in Albany.
Eyre also bought two Albany town blocks - S109 in York Street and B95 with a water frontage to Princess Royal Harbour.
In the late 1920s, the Western Australian Historical Society organised an expedition to locate Baxter's remains. His scattered bones were discovered approximately 3km from some cliffs. His memorial is a concrete pillar erected in 1930 with a brass plaque reading "John Baxter, (explorer), the companion of John Edward Eyre, was killed here by natives, April 29th 1841".
Three days after his arrival in Albany, Eyre sent Western Australian Governor John Hutt this brief report of his trip via Government Resident JR Phillips.
Albany, King George Sound, July 10, 1841.
I have the honour to report to you, for the information of His Excellency the Governor, my arrival in the colony of Western Australia, overland from Adelaide and though I regret exceedingly that my labours have not been productive of any discovery likely to prove beneficial to either colony, I am induced to hope that a slight outline of my route, and of the country I have been traversing, may not prove uninteresting to His Excellency in a geographical point of view.
On the 25th February last, I left Fowler's Bay with a party consisting of an overseer and three native boys.
I was provided with 10 horses and provisions calculated to last nine weeks. Upon entering upon the limits of Western Australia I found the country extending round the Great Australian Bight for upwards of 500 miles, to consist entirely of the fossil formation, with a considerable elevation above the level of the sea, varying, perhaps, from 200 to 600 feet and forming for the most part, a country which presented the appearance of an elevated and almost level table land.
This extensive region was of the most desolate and barren character imaginable, almost entirely without grass, destitute of timber and in many parts covered by an impenetrable scrub. There was no surface water, neither were there creeks or water courses of any description. The only supply of water procured by the party throughout this dreary waste was obtained by digging in the drifts of pure white sand found along the coast at places where the great fossil bank receded a little from the margin of the sea.
The supply thus obtained was very precarious and during the progress of our journey, we crossed over, at various times, intervals of 60 and 100 miles in extent throughout which it was impossible to procure a drop of water in any way. In this fearful country our horses suffered most severely and on two different occasions, were seven days at a time without water and almost without food also. From this cause we lost many valuable animals, and our progress was impeded by the frequent and long delays necessary to recruit those that were still left alive.
Our journey thus became protracted to a period far beyond what had been calculated upon, and it became necessary, I not merely to economise most strictly the provisions we had brought with us, but eventally to destroy two of our horses, as an additional supply of food to the party. In the midst of these difficulties and when half way across the Great Australian Bight my very small party was broken up by an event as distressing as it was tragical, and I was left alone with a native of King George Sound.
Note: The brief reference in this report of the murder of John Baxter by the aborigines Nerambereen and Cootachab is accounted for by the fact the tragedy was the subject of an enquiry before Peter Belches, JP on Eyre's arrival in Albany. The lengthy affadavits of both Eyre and Wylie had already been forwarded to Governor Hutt in Perth.
This unfortunate occurrence added to the weak and jaded condition of the few remaining horses, effectually prevented my examination of the country beyond the line of my immediate route. In fact, from the time of our entering the colony of Western Australia, such was the dreadful nature of the country that the whole party had been obliged to walk and it was only on our arrival at East Mount Barren, that myself and the native boy could venture to ride. The first improvement in the face of the country was the finding of a narrow strip of grassy land immediately to the eastward of Point Malcolm, but it was not until we had passed to some distance beyond Cape Arid, that we met the first permanent surface water in the shape of a small freshwater lake.
The character of the country was now changed and consisted of open elevated sandy downs, covered by scrub and underwood and generally based upon an oolitic foundation, with a few granite bluffs at intervals. We crossed in our route many saltwater creeks or inlets, most of which received a drainage of either brackish or fresh water from the interior. The first of these occurs immediately east of Cape Arid, but it is very small and separated from the sea by a bar of sand, others, as we advanced further to the westward, were of a more considerable size and bore the appearance of being connected with the sea.
These might possibly afford secure harbours for boats, but the circumstances under which I was travelling did not admit of any delaying to examine them, and for the convenience of crossing I usually kept so far inland to intercept them above the termination of the saltwater reaches. The streams of brackish, or sometimes fresh water connected with these creeks were, however, usually very small, nor did we pass a single one of importance. The high downs upon which these watercourses wind are, as I before remarked, sandy, and covered with shrubs and the soil poor and destitute of grass, but the valleys themselves and on small portions of the slopes immediately above them, we found some patches of good and occasionally, rich soil, upon which the herbage was abundant and luxuriant.
These tracts however, as far as I could judge, were of very limited extent, nor was there any timber in their vicinity beyond the few small stunted tea-trees growing along the banks of the water courses. At intervals, between the various creeks, we met with many lakes, sometimes of salt and at others, of fresh water. A few tea-trees and occasionally, a few straggling eucalypti, grew around their margins, but I seldom succeeded in finding any grass. Passing behind Curby Bay to the lagoons west of Esperance Bay, I traversed a considerable extent of grassy land, consisting for the most, part of sandy undulations, but with many patches of rich soil in the flats and valleys.
Water appeared to be abundant, but there was still a total absence of all timber but the tea-tree. From the salt lagoons we crossed a very barren country and had much difficulty in procuring any grass for our horses. The water was generally very brackish and there was much scrub. The rock formations consisted principally of quartz, ironstone and sandstone, with much grit on the surface. About 16 miles north-east of Cape Riche we fell in with a considerable saltwater river from the north-north-west which appears to join the sea at a gap left by Flinders in the coast line and marked as "a sandy bight not perfectly seen." We found several permanent pools of fresh water not very far distant, in deep narrow gullies, by which the country hereabouts is much intersected.
From the depth of this river and the boggy nature of its bed, we were obliged to trace its course for about 10 miles from the sea before we could cross. Here the water course was obstructed by a ledge of rocks and its channel appeared to become more contracted and rocky. The water was, however, still brackish and the soil for the most part of an inferior description, along its banks there was a little grass and more wood than we had previously seen anywhere. The trees were tea-tree, easuarini and eucalypti. Beyond the point at which we crossed the river, the country (as far as I was enabled to judge from a distant view) appeared to improve somewhat. Many clear and seemingly grassy patches were seen on the slopes towards the river and good runs for cattle and sheep might probably be found in this direction.
After crossing the river, we met, for the first time, with stunted trees of the kind called mahogany, but it was not until we had passed some miles to the westward of Cape Riche that we saw any large trees, or entered upon a country that could be properly called a timbered one. Here the mahogany, red gum, casuarina, and other trees common at King George Sound, abounded and formed a tolerably dense forest nearly all the way to that settlement. From the head of Doubtful Island Bay, I had kept some distance from the coast, cutting off the various corners as circumstances admitted and I cannot give an opinion therefore of the country immediately upon the coast line. That portion, however, which lies between Cape Riche and King George Sound is, I believe, already too well known to require any further examination.
On the 2nd of June I met with a French whaler, the Mississippi of Havre, commanded by Captain Rossitre. To this gentleman I am much indebted for the very kind and hospitable reception I experienced during a residence of 12 days on board, whilst my horses were recruiting after their severe toils, and for the very liberal manner in which I was furnished with supplies upon prosecuting my journey to King George Sound.
At the latter place I arrived on the 7th July instant, after having travelled over an extent of country which from sinuosities of the coast line and other obstructions had exceeded upwards of 1,040 miles in distance from Fowler's Bay and for the last 590 miles of which, I have been unaccompanied by any but a native of King George Sound, known by the name of Wylie and whom I would respectfully recommend to His Excellency the Governor as deserving of the favour of the government for services rendered under circumstances of a peculiarly trying nature. I regret exceedingly that the very limited time of my stay in Albany has not permitted me to prepare a copy of the chart of my line of route for the information of His Excellency the Governor.
I have omitted to state that, during the progress of our journey, we met with very few natives, and those for the most part were timid, but very well disposed. The language spoken by them is exactly similar to that of the natives of King George Sound as far as the promontory of Cape Le Grand and this similarity may probably extend to the commencement of the Great Cliffs, in about longitude 124 degrees east. A little beyond this point the language is totally different and the boy Wylie could not understand a word of it.
I have the honour to be, your very obedient servant,
EDWARD JOHN EYRE