Edward Eyre Explores the South and Western Territories of the Australian Interior and Helps Open the Territories to the Transport of Goods and Animals

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Edward Eyre Explores the South and Western Territories of the Australian Interior and Helps Open the Territories to the Transport of Goods and Animals


Australia during the nineteenth century was the site of extensive settlement and political and cultural expansion by the British colonial governments in the continent. In particular, the period between 1830 and 1860 saw a tremendous surge in the continent's population. One aspect of this expansion was the effort to explore the vast, sparsely populated land. Numerous explorers made arduous, brutal, and sometimes fatal efforts to explore Australia. Edward Eyre's 1840-41 journey through the South and Western territories of the Australian interior—a journey marked by thirst, starvation, freezing cold, and murder—epitomizes these expeditions. The journey assisted in opening up the South and Western territories to the transport of goods and animals.


Edward John Eyre (1815-1901) arrived in Australia when he was 17 years old. He was born in England, where his father was a minister and had the benefits of classic schooling. Early on, he showed an interest in both government affairs and the businesses that were beginning to flourish in the newly colonized continent. When he was only 31 he served as lieutenant governor of New Zealand and held this post for seven years. (Later, he would serve as governor of Jamaica for one year in 1864-65.)

Eyre's main interests were sheep and cattle, and he spent much of his life not only building his flocks and herds of livestock but trying to find new ways of transporting them to the markets where his wool and surplus stocks could be sold. His primary interest was sheep, since they could survive more easily in sparse vegetation zones.

Eyre pioneered the government's efforts to open up South Australia for both settlement and agrarian development. Not content with limiting his business interests to the coastline, Eyre was determined to explore the possibilities of routes to the central part of the continent, where sheep stations would encourage depots or townships where settlers could migrate.

Accordingly, in 1839 he organized a group on his own to reach the center of the continent. When he encountered what he thought would be a likely refuge—Lake Torrens—he discovered that it was entirely covered with salty mud. Finding saline swamps on one side and insurmountable sandhills on the other, he took the only other route open to him: the Flinders Ranges, which lay approximately 250 mi. (400 km) north of Adelaide and covered about the same distance due north. He got as far as the aptly named "Mount Hopelee" before turning back.

While Eyre was eyeing central Australia, the government in Adelaide was planning an entirely different direction for new growth. It believed that staying fairly close to the coast, where it hoped to establish a cattle trail, would be the most practical move as well as the safest. There were other considerations as well. While exploring the terrain for movement of cattle and sheep, the explorers were to keep their eyes open for good land that could be profitably farmed. (Many still had visions of the lush English countrysides, where lots of water made for bountiful crops.)

Because of his personal skills in working livestock as well as surviving in the bush, the government selected Edward Eyre to lead the expedition. With an eye to the future, Eyre not only accepted the responsibility, he volunteered to pay half the cost of the venture.

The Eyre party, which left in June 1840, consisted of six men, including Baxter, his station manager, and an aboriginal friend named Wylie who recruited two other aborigines. They anticipated it would take three months to reach Spencer Gulf and loaded their supplies with that time frame in mind. In addition, they took 13 horses and 40 sheep. All this would be augmented by the government, which was to send a ship with the remaining supplies and would be found at anchor in Spencer Gulf.

As many intrepid adventurers have found, exploration on paper seldom translates into actual field reality. When Eyre traveled across what is now called the Eyre Peninsula, he stayed on the coastal edges as planned. The unbelievably harsh conditions were compounded (and probably caused) by a total lack of drinkable water in any direction. Eyre was a practical man. He sent most of the members of the party back to Adelaide and kept only Baxter, Wylie, and the other two aborigines. His thought was that a smaller group would have a better chance of moving more rapidly, needing fewer supplies and livestock. When the four remaining men left Fowler's Bay, they took only 11 pack horses and 6 sheep. They estimated a trek of approximately 800 mi. (1,300 km) through some extremely rough country. Crossing the Nullarbor Plain (another aptly named area where no trees could be found) was especially difficult, with absolutely no shade from the fierce rays of the sun. There was little water and, because of the huge cliffs, the trekkers couldn't cool themselves in the waters of the bay.

They were almost certainly doomed by the time they reached the top of the Great Australian Bight and would likely have perished but for some friendly aborigines who taught them how to dig behind the sand dunes and occasionally find water.

In spite of this advice and help, they went without water for five days. Finally, they were saved by chancing upon some wells that had been found and perpetuated by some aboriginal tribe at the present site of Eucla, which is on the border between South Australia and Western Australia. In an effort to restore themselves physically and mentally, they remained at the well for six days before resuming their arduous journey.

They continued to move westward, keeping as close to the beach as possible. Once again, water was next to impossible to find and they followed the example set by the aborigines in the party of breaking off the roots of the gum trees and sucking on them for drops of moisture.

Walking on the sand was difficult for the pack horses and, to lighten their burdens, Eyre abandoned firearms, horseshoes, spare water bags, and even clothing. In spite of these efforts, the horses had to be left behind, one by one. By this time the party was using sponges to collect early morning dew from leaves as their only source of water. Food was getting very low and when one of the horses was obviously sick, the party killed the animal for food. Both Eyre and Baxter became very ill from this desperate move and could not go any further. The aborigines went ahead but came back in a few days, almost starving.

At this point Eyre and his men were about halfway to the West Australian coast. The killing heat of the summer sun was replaced by the cold of winter—especially noticeable at night. Having left much of their clothing behind with the other items abandoned earlier, the travelers were unprepared for the winter conditions. One night while Eyre was on watch, he was surprised to hear a gunshot. Wylie came running back with the news that two of the disgruntled aborigines had shot and killed Baxter, stolen most of the supplies and firearms, and fled. Wylie refused to go with them and remained with his longtime friend, Eyre. The ground was solid rock and they could not even provide a decent burial for Baxter, only covering him with a blanket and leaving him on the surface.

Wylie and Eyre plodded on, going without water for three days, with very few supplies left and almost 600 mi. (1,000 km) in front of them. After seven grueling days they found a waterhole that had been discovered earlier by the natives. The only food they had was kangaroos, which they killed and ate—with absolutely no enthusiasm. Wylie even consumed a dead penguin he found on the shore.

The indomitable pair continued walking for over a month in the direction of Western Australia. Finally, in June 1841 they chanced upon a French whaling ship that lay at anchor in the bay. Thanks to its Captain Rossitor (an Englishman), Eyre and Baxter were given food, water, and even some wine and brandy.

Eyre and Wylie recovered their strength and fitness in about two weeks. Since they now had good clothing, plenty of food and water, and renewed enthusiasm, they pushed on to their goal. It was, by far, the easiest part of the whole expedition. Even though they still had to contend with heavy rains and cold weather, they reached Albany in July. The entire trip had taken more than a year.


Eyre's success was hailed by the government, and the expedition's impact was substantial. It furthered the goal of opening South and Western Australia to the transport of animals and goods and assisted with the expansion of colonial settlement into all parts of Australia. Although the various territories were not yet politically unified, the enormous expansion of settlements throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century would eventually lead to the country's political unification in 1901. Nonetheless, the difficulty of Eyre's journey is reflected in the fact that even today vast areas of arid, rocky plains in South and Western Australia remain virtually uninhabited.

Eyre received many honors during his long life, including a gold medal from the Royal Geographic Society for his incredible journey. The Australian government named a large lake above the Flinders Ranges and just southeast of Oodnadotta for him. Further, the peninsula that bears his name is strategically located west of Adelaide and, since it is triangular in shape, covers many square miles. Unlike many other fearless explorers, Eyre lived a long, prosperous life, eventually returning to England, where he remained until his death in 1901.

As for Wylie, he was awarded a government pension for life. He returned to Albany, where he lived among his own people until the end of his life. His contribution to the opening of the Western Australia Territory is highly regarded and valuable.

In retrospect Eyre, along with Robert O'Hara Burke (1820?-1861), Charles Sturt (1795-1869), and at least a dozen other Australian explorers all came to the same final conclusion: lots of land with very little water! Parts of the central lowlands find their way into the ocean—mostly through the Murray River and its tributaries. A large percentage of the pitifully small rainfall in much of the 65% desert or semi-desert areas evaporates or dissipates into such salty land depressions as Lakes Eyre, Torrens, and Gairdner. Fortunately for the Australians, they eventually found the largest artesian basins in the world beneath the arid lowlands. To this day, a limited amount of bore water is pumped to sustain grazing animals in the arid zone.

Thanks to Edward John Eyre and his stalwart companion Wylie, South and Western Australia were opened to the eventual successful transport of livestock and other goods overland. The horrors they endured (and survived) paved the way for the booming economic future of "the land down under."


Further Reading

Estensen, Miriam. Discovery: The Quest for the Great SouthLand. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Eyre, Edward John. Autobiographical Narrative of Residence and Exploration in Australia 1832-1839. Caliban Books, 1984.

Hughes, Robert. The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia'sFounding. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

Ryan, Simon. The Cartographic Eye: How Explorers SawAustralia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.