Sturt's Desert Drama by Ivan Rudolph

Sturt's Desert Drama


Sturt's Desert Drama

by Ivan Rudolph


It was explorer Charles Sturt who discovered the River Murray which eventually gave birth to South Australia. Within a few years he was in the young colony and contributing to its development. One of his greatest contributions was his further exploration, which at the time may not have appeared as significant or important but would later help with the opening up and development of the north of South Australia.

In Sturt’s Desert Drama, Ivan Rudolph takes us on a journey of adventure and discovery with Captain Charles Sturt and his men as they thrust into the Australian desert trying to find answers for many of questions, in particular those relating to its geography, which were still unresolved.

Explorers were prominent, although few became well known. Those who did, because of their spectacular success or failure, in many ways epitomised what was admirable in the Australian spirit. Their reserves of moral and physical courage were inspiring and challenging. Many possessed a faith that sustained them in extremes. Charles Sturt was perhaps the greatest of these men and we have much to ponder as we re-examine his tilt at the desert.

Settlement of Australia began on the coastal fringes but as population increased settlers wanted to know whether productive country lay towards the Centre. A number of explorers had penetrated beyond the coastal regions to some extent, but the majority of the inland remained unknown. Was it mainly scrub and desert or did a huge lake or sea exist there?

South Australia in the early 1840s teetered on the edge of economic collapse and it was hoped Sturt might find rich agricultural lands to save it. Sturt was also passionately interested in science and geography and wanted to investigate the interior in the hope of unravelling all these unanswered questions and mysteries.

Sturt, like Edward John Eyre, had noticed many birds migrating to the north west when he was near the Darling River in 1828 and others migrating north from Adelaide in more recent years. He deduced that where the two paths of migration intersected, deep in the inland, there should be good country and perhaps a huge body of water. He believed that if he could travel far enough into the desert ‘sooner or later I should be stopped by a large body of inland waters’.

Naturally Sturt hoped for personal gain and reward from his efforts to find good country for future settlement and extend geographical and scientific knowledge. When he was appointed at short notice to lead an expedition to achieve these aims he assembled a large number of men, 17 Officers and men, ex-convicts among them, animals, such as bullocks, horses, sheep and dogs and equipment, including a whale boat and a sailor, for an expected duration of a year. The expedition left Adelaide on 10 August 1844 after a good breakfast and many speeches.

With the help of some of the expedition members’ diaries, official reports and newspaper articles written at time, Ivan Rudolph has flushed out a story which is almost beyond belief. The suffering, both mental and physical, isolation, loneliness, thirst, hunger, sickness and infighting of the men amongst themselves had such a dramatic impact that it is a wonder they achieved what they did. What Rudolph has produced is a nail-biting story which is impossible to put down before we know for sure that they made it back.

When they left in August, Sturt was already 49 years old, not exactly the best age for a trip like this. However to everybody’s surprise he did much better than some of the younger members. His elasticity of movement when climbing was amazing. He was mobile, strong and lithe. It was a challenge to keep up with him.

The first stop was made at Eyre’s place at Moorundi on the Murray. From there they moved to Lake Bonney where some surveying was done. Already by this time personal dislikes, bickering and disunity had set in. One of the problems was travelling on a Sunday.

A month after leaving Adelaide they reached the Rufus where some 50 Aborigines were killed by police and volunteers three years before. By the end of September they were at the Darling, where they noticed the stark contrast of the desolate and sterile country they had crossed with that of the beautiful park-like scenery they now enjoyed. Here Sturt encountered some Aborigines who recognised him from his trip down the Murray nearly 15 years ago.

When they reached the Williorara they were in for a shock as it was not the big river they had hoped to find. So far they had experienced few major problems. Relations with the local Aborigines were good and their peaceful passage contrasted starkly with a report of the death of John Charles Darke, a young explorer who was speared three times while investigating country on Eyre Peninsula.

With the disappointing Williorara some members of Sturt’s party started to express personal doubts regarding an inland sea. Even his Aboriginal guides would not venture away from the Darling. Sturt had no doubts whatsoever. On 17 October they left the river for the Barrier Ranges. About 20km north east of present day Broken Hill they noticed a profusion of that beautiful flower later known as Sturt’s Desert Pea, which was later adopted as the floral emblem of South Australia.

On 27 November they reached the foot of the Barrier Ranges and turned north to head towards the pools of Campbell Creek Gorge and the wilderness. They were now without Aboriginal guides, short of water, suffering in stifling conditions of 44 to 47 degrees and dust which were aggravated by millions of flies and mosquitoes. Having come this far, young doctor John Harris Browne had serious doubts about Eyre’s horse shoe lake. He thought it more likely that there existed a chain of smaller lakes. It was not until 1858 that he was proved correct when the Gregory brothers penetrated between Lakes Blanche and Callabonna.

The party was now experiencing temperatures of up to 65 degrees in the sun. Stones on the ground were often too hot to handle and the horses’ shoes had worn through the centre after which the horses became lame. Their feet often bled and average speed of the vast column was just over 2 km per hour. On 21 December the thermometer recorded 55 degrees in the shade and 68 degrees in the sun.

Prospects started to look dim. So far Sturt’s frantic searching for an inland sea had resulted in crushing failure. Some of the men were affected by dysentery and the bickering among them was as bad as ever, if not worse. Finally on 27 January 1845 they reached Depot Glen, about 16 km west of present day Milparinka, which contained a series of pools which could support them for several months.

It proved the one place in a dismal region where they could survive for some months until the rains came and temperatures would be much lower. It was now time to update journals, make maps, write letters, stuff birds, collect mineral and biological specimens, mend carts and wagon wheels and if at all possible do some exploring of the neighbourhood. On 10 February Sturt and Joseph Cowley left the depot to explore further north in 48 degrees. They pushed 200 km north from Depot Glen but all they found were sand dunes.

While at Depot Creek the men suffered from scurvy, lead dropped from their pencils, teeth from their combs fell off, razor handles split, boxes warped, nails loosened, tyres fell off the wheels, shoe soles burnt off, ink dried in the pen before it could reach the paper, stirrups were too hot to keep the feet in, hair ceased to grow, heat ruined everything. The highest temperature recorded was 57 in the shade and 69 in the sun.

During May Sturt ordered they built a pyramid on Red Hill of 18 feet height to keep the men occupied. He also started preparing to leave as soon as the rains came. They had been at the Depot for several months unable to move either north or south. Sturt described the country as something that had no parallel on the earth's surface. On 2 July it rained but not even enough to wet the tents. Ten days later it did! With it came flooding and they had to break camp after six months to face the cold and mud. On 16 July James Poole died. He was buried at the Depot which he had discovered.

Sturt decided to move to Lake Pinnaroo, a distance of nearly 100 km North West. They arrived on 14 August, established another base camp and Sturt continued his search further north for the inland sea taking 15 weeks supplies with him. On their first day the party crossed 61 dunes in a 10 mile stretch. Some of these, and those on earlier occasions had caused enormous problems for the bullocks with their heavy loaded wagons when wheels would sink deeply in the loose sand.

On 25 August they attacked Sturt’s Stony Desert followed by Eyre Creek ten days later. After pushing still further he decided on 7 September to turn back. He felt utterly defeated being on the edge of the Simpson Desert and only 150 miles from the centre of Australia. Later calculations would suggest that it was almost 300. Whereas he had hoped at the start to be stopped by a large body of water, he was stopped by sand and a lack of water.

Finding the centre would be left to one of his party’s members, John McDouall Stuart. While Sturt considered crossing the Simpson or not his sunburnt men waited expectantly and wordlessly, prepared to follow his orders to the death. Despite their bickering they were very brave men, gaunt as scarecrows, ill from exposure, scanty food and muddy water and astride horses that were leg-weary and reduced to skeletons.

It would take 90 years for the Simpson to be crossed by Edmund Colson in 1936. On 13 October they found a fine and broad creek which Sturt named Cooper Creek, about 15 km from Innamincka. For nearly a month sorties were made in all direction in an effort to find a way to the centre but to no avail and on 6 November Sturt called it quits and headed back.

This was easier said than done. Temperatures were rising steadily once again and above 40 degrees for days on end. Sturt, Browne, Stuart and some of the other men all suffered from scurvy. Water and food were in short supply and equipment in poor condition. They really could not move but to remain was to die slowly.

In a last desperate effort they killed some of their bullocks to use the hides for making bottles. They would be filled with all the available water for a dash to Floods Creek and eventually the Darling River. The whale boat was left behind, after having been pulled or dragged for thousands of kilometres through creeks, sand and mud and over hundreds of dunes. The biggest irony being that they stood on the world’s biggest inland sea – only it was underground. Had he been there in 1983 he would have seen a small inland see when Lake Eyre was flooded. Unfortunately for Sturt he came a million years too late.

All the men did make it back without further loss of life. Sturt arrived home to his wife Charlotte and children on 19 January 1846 after an absence of 18 months. The remainder of the men arrived in Adelaide on 28 January. The rest is history, or is it? In a short review like this it is impossible to do justice to an incredible story. Ivan Rudolph has excelled again and his 320 pages will give a far better, more interesting and fuller analytical account of this heroic attempt to find an inland sea, which turned out to be a real drama, than this reviewer can.

Review by Nic Klaassen

Sturt's Desert Drama, by Ivan Rudolph,
is available at $29.95 from
Ivan Rudolph


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