Exploring Tropical Territory.
The Walker Expedition.
Fate of Burke and Wills.
Among those who may truthfully be described as Rockhampton explorers, having started on expeditions from its centre, and being to a considerable extent identifies with the town and district, must be included Frederick Walker, not so well known by people of a later generation and W. H. Gaden, the Pioneer from this neighbourhood, and the Jardine Brothers, who explored the Cape York Peninsula from its southern base to its most northern point. Another genuine Rockhampton explorers who did not to go so far afield as those mentioned was the late Peter Fitzallan MacDonald, who made one or two trips that not only resulted in valuable discoveries but were carried out at great risk to life. Unfortunately when approached by the writer, some years ago, Mr MacDonald intimated that a prior promise to someone else precluded his giving the notes to the writer for publication. A few others, to a lesser extent, did good work discovering and opening up big districts in Central Queensland.
In consequence of nothing having been heard of the famous Burke and Wills expedition for about eight months after is started in 1860, concern was felt throughout Australia, and several parties were sent out in the hope of finding them or at least learning what fate had befallen them. Among those was Frederick Walker, who knew something of the country-or a portion of it-Burke and Wills intended to explore. It may be stated that Burke and Wills left Cooper's Creek on December 14, 1860, and sent a message to Melbourne that they expected to be back in three months. After such a confident message it is no wonder alarm was felt when twice that time had passed and no tidings had been obtained of their whereabouts.
Walker was considered to have special qualifications for an undertaking of this kind as he was a splendid bushman, understood several aboriginal dialects, and had black troopers with him whom he could trust. Prior to this period it had been Mr. Walker who had been chiefly instrumental in inducing the New South Wales Government to establish the Native Police Force, which eventually became a splendid force to protect the outlying districts in the early days of settlement.
In 1860, the year Burke and Wills set out on their fatal expedition, Frederick Walker had taken up Planet Downs in the Springsure district, but he readily left his new home to lead an expedition to search for the missing explorers, who were supposed to be lost in the northern part of Queensland, somewhere in the neighbourhood of the Flinders River.
Start of Walkers Party.
The Queensland Government aided in the search for Burke and Wills to the extend of sending Landsborough by steamer to the mouth of the Albert River in the Gulf of Carpentaria, to search its shores for traces of the missing men, and the vessel was to meet Walkers party at the Gulf and to give what food they might require.
Though Walker practically had a free hand as to where he should go, his general instructions were to make for the Albert River, on which Burketown is now situated, with all the speed he could manage consistent with a thought search for the explorers. Signals were agrees on so everything was ready for a start. Though ostensibly Walkers duty was to endeavour to find Burke and Wills and to obtain tidings of them, it was none the less an exploring expedition, for he was going into country much of which was at that period quite unknown.
Walker and his party left Rockhampton on August 25, 1861, and consisted of the following:=F. Walker leader; McAllister?, second in command; Richard Houghton and John Hoizfeldt, in charge of the horses and stores respectively, and seven native troopers, most of whom had been with Walker on previous trips and where known to be staunch and dependable. They were armed with Perry rifles, double barrelled shot guns, and other weapons, with a good supply of ammunition.
From Rockhampton the party headed straight for Mr. Dutton's Bauhinia Downs Station, where the horses were loaded with the heavier portion of the stores and provisions for the enterprise. Walker said that he expected to average about fifteen miles per day after leaving Bauhinia Downs. Walker first directed his course to a place on the Barcoo River, where a tree was marked 29 over a Maltese Cross. This would probably be somewhere in the neighbourhood of Aramac. After that they travelled to the north-west crossing the head waters of the Alice and Thomson rivers. Crossing to the northern water-shed a river was struck, which was named Barkley, though is was subsequently proved to be the Flinders River.
Traces of Lost Explorers.
Walker got onto the pains country and crossed the Flinders again without knowing it. He kept to the north following a somewhat parallel course to the Flinders. The country was very rough, covered with basaltic rocks and heavy timber. Still fair progress was made, and as they drew nearer to the Gulf coast a bend in the Flinders River brought the party onto its banks again. Here Walker found traces of the camel tracks of the Burke and Wills expedition which showed him that those explorers had reached the Gulf of Carpentaria safely.
This caused Walker to hasten to the Albert River, where he met Captain Norman and the steamer Victoria on December 7, 1861. He had taken 104 days to travel from Rockhampton to the Albert River, which was fairly good travelling.
After spelling till December 29 Walker decided to follow Burke and Wills's homeward and tracks in order to endeavour to ascertain their fate. Walkers party were all in good health, and from the steamer Victoria a fresh stock of provisions was obtained for the journey I front of them. Hoizfeldt returned to Rockhampton by the steamer and Arthur Moore, from the steamer, took his place.
By the returning Victoria Walker sent back a fine account of the country he had discovered on the Flinders and near the Gulf. He stated that the Flinders, Albert and Leichhardt rivers were fine watercourses, and that the land in proximity to those streams consisted of rich black soil of considerable depths.
Captain Norman's Discovery.
Captain Norman, skipper of the Victoria, made a discovery of his own account. He found that there was only one tide in twenty-four hours in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The tide, he stated, rose to its maximum at 10 pm and then later and later each day till 3 am was reached and then it suddenly chopped back to 10pm again and went over the same course as before. Captain Norman also told Walker that Landsborough had decided to follow the track and Wills back from the Gulf, and would start on February 10 from the Albert River.
The Victoria called into Keppel Bay for the purpose of obtaining fuel on her return, and thus Rockhampton people were early in possession of the fact that Walker had safely got to the Gulf, that Burke and Wills had safely got to the Gulf and started on the return journey, and that Walker was also to follow Burke and Wills back. There were no telegraphs in those days but foregoing satisfactory information got spread throughout the country.
Walker in Difficulties.
Naturally it is much easier to mentally lay out a route to follow in an unknown and uninhibited country than to carry it into effect. This Walker soon found out, for after following Burke and Wills's tracks for eight or nine camps, he struck a piece of rocky country where all traces were obliterated by the long grass. The men searched all around in every direction, but failed to obtain the slightest trace.
In this dilemma Walker came to the conclusion that Burke and Wills had turned off the eastward, and he accordingly turned eastward and so got entirely off the trail of the unfortunate explorers. At this period Bowen was the most northern town and port, and Walker apparently headed almost due east to Port Denison.
Though the news conveyed by Captain Norman to Rockhampton from Walker who was expected to turn up in Melbourne, what was the surprise of everybody when at the end of March, word was received that Macalister and Houghton, with two blackboys, had arrived at Bowen, and Walker and the rest of the party were camped on the Upper Burdekin River.
Walker found his provisions were getting short and the horses footsore so he sent off to Bowen for assistance. Macalister and Houghton having given their message and obtained provisions, hastened back to Walker and the others. Once more they proceeded south, but Macalister and others of the party were sent off to Rockhampton with despatches.
Walker and the others arrived in Rockhampton on June2, all well. The leader explained the difficulty of following Burke and Wills' tracks back, and having heard from the wild blacks that a party of explorers had gone to the south east, which, in the absence of any indication of their having gone in any other bearing, decided him to turn in the direction indicated.
What Walker had taken to be a branch of the Flinders River he named the Norma River, but I was subsequently proved to be an independent stream which emptied itself into the Gulf to the east of the Flinders. A glance at the map with its many rivers all flowing northerly to the Gulf of Carpentaria will show how easily it would be for a stranger to mistake one river for another. Extracts from Walkers Diary.
Some extracts from Walker's journal will better explain some of his difficulties than the foregoing brief resume. The first date is October 26, when Walker was in unknown country between Richmond and Gilberton. That day the explorer got to converse with some blacks to whom presents were made. The blacks gave some information about the country to be traversed, but nothing of much value. They had superior spears which they threw with a woomera.
On October 30 the party crossed a red sandstone range, and reached a large river, in a bed of which a black fellow was digging for water, the surface being dry. Walker named this the Stawell. They followed the river to the north-west for two miles, when one of Walker's troopers found a beautiful spring of water, and they camped for the night. The saddles were hardly off the horses before some wild blacks appeared, and told the traveller to be off and not to camp there. The troopers who understood a little of the language said the wild blacks were "coola," and soon after the blacks began to collect others who where way hunting, as answering calls could be heard from several different directions. Preparations were made to meet the attack from these different parties, and soon the Terry rifles opened fire. The blacks were not allowed to get near enough to do much damage with their spears, and about a dozen of them were killed and others wounded. The sears could be thrown 150 yards. The blacks evidently did not like the explorers camping at the water.
Nothing of moment occurred subsequently for some time during which the explorers crossed some rough country, where they had to dig for water. At length they came to level ground, and followed the course of a river supposed to be the Flinders. On November 26 Walker cut the returning tracks of Burke and Wills presumably having seen the Gulf of Carpentaria.
On December 1, some of the troopers tried to get some ducks, but when crossing the plain they saw blacks approaching, and they returned. The horses were saddled, and one of the troopers climbing a tree was the blacks forming in a half moon in three different parties. Macalister was instructed to charge the left wing which quickly crumpled up and fled, and the centre and left wing suffered severely.
A few days passed and on December 4 several variously marked trees were found, during the forenoon, down the river. Walker and a trooper returning to the camp from an observation trip, saw blacks endeavouring to cut them off from the river. The trooper's horse gave in, and he was short of cartridges. Walker feared they were done for, but they both managed to reach a bolt of timber. Then the trooper, whose name was Jingle, abandoned his horse and proceeded on foot at a great pace for two hours, so much so that Walker had to canter every now and again to keep pace with him. Walker gave Jingle spells of riding and at 8.30 pm the river was reached, but they had struck it too far up. They were so exhausted that they camped thoroughly tired out.
The next day, in three miles, they reached the rest of the party, and on the seventh they all reached the depot and met Captain Norman, of the Victoria.
December 21, started on the return journey, having loaded up with fresh provisions, intending to follow Burke and Wills route. Camped early. Mosquitoes terrible. On December 31 came to a sandstone hill 300 ft. high. A mob of blacks was camped on the river, and another crowd was watching from a creek the explorers had crossed. A couple of shots were fired to frighten these blacks, who then retired. Some time was lost in waiting for Captain Norman to appear at an appointed rendezvous, and in endeavouring to get information as to the direction taken by Burke and Wills. There were repeated heavy rain storms and myriads of mosquitoes proved most exasperating, giving the travellers no peace. The remaining portion of the diary was unimportant, as the reason for turning to the east has already been explained.
Value of the Explorations.
It is difficult for some people to imagine that so late as 1861 and 1862, the greater portion of the state of Queensland was either quite unknown, or only partially so. Two or three explorers had gone thru parts of the State, and made it known that good land existed a few hundred miles from the coast, but there was a very wide spread belief that the more western portion of the State was really desert country, waterless and valueless. It was largely thru Burke and Wills' expedition in spite of its disastrous results, that the desert idea began to be abandoned. Then came supplementary information from the trips of Walker, Landsborough, and M'Kinlay. Burke and Wills went from Cooper's Creek to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Walker traversed a route north west from the Barcoo River to the Albert River, Landsborough travelled from the Gulf between the routes taken by Burke and Wills and Walker, and so these three parties covered a considerable portion of the supposed useless territory. Instead of such country being valueless, as we all now know, some of it is ideal country for the pastoralists, thanks largely to artesian bores.
With regard to Walker's expedition great interest was manifest in it by the Rockhampton people of that period, not only from the hope that he might succeed in clearing up the mystery attending the Burke and Wills's enterprise, but because so many people were on the lookout for fertile areas that could be utilised as squattages.
That the early explorers made mistakes in placing rivers and creeks on the map in the wrong places occasionally is by no means surprising, for they always had to contend with the disadvantages of incomplete and damaged instruments and outfits, droughts, floods, and the most incessant conflicts with the wild blacks. On the whole the present generation owes much to these early explorers, all of whom risked their lives and health for totally inadequate compense.
Gave His Life For Queensland.
Fred Walker was one of those of whom very little is ever heard in those days, but for all that fairly died in harness and left behind him a record many might be proud of. Subsequently to the exploring trip here referred to he was appointed by the Queensland Government to find a track for the telegraph line from Cardwell to the Norman River, on the Gulf of Carpentaria, and from Burketown to Townsville. These difficult undertakings he carried out successfully. When returning from Burketown, which had meanwhile been established as a port on the Albert River, Mr. Walker contracted the dreadful malarial fever, which in the early days of the settlement fairly raged at times in all the country surrounding the Gulf of Carpentaria. Enervated by the many hardships he had encountered in his explorations, he succumbed to the fever, dying at Floraville on the Leichhardt River on the 15th of November 1866. He was a tall, vigorous man, when in health, and was about 60 years of age at the time of his death. As a bushman he had no superior, and he undoubtedly rendered invaluable services to the State in assisting to open up the Central and Northern division. Instead of being forgotten this State were worthy of high honours and emolument.