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2010-06, 365, 366, History, John R Newland

John Oxley, Journals of Two Expeditions

I BROUGHT THIS book to the December 2008 Show & Tell Meeting and I could have spoken longer had time permitted. I once possessed several original accounts of voyages and travels around earlier Australia and its interior but have downsized my collection in recent times though I still have this item.

This edition, titled Journals of Two Expeditions into the Interior of New South Wales undertaken by Order of the British Government in the Years 1817–18, was published in London by John Murray, Albemarle-Street [sic] in 1820 and had a print run, so I am led to believe, of only 420 copies, some 200 of which were for the author. Such a small print run would make the book by now very scarce. Apart from some facsimile reproductions (notably from the Libraries Board of South Australia), no further editions seem to have been produced.

The edition was written in two parts but bound within the same volume. Part I was dedicated to Lachlan Macquarie, Esq. and Part II was dedicated to the Right Hon. Robert Peel, MP. Each part had its own preface. The book is complete with five fold-out charts and maps (a map of the 1817 expedition, a tabulation of temperature ranges, a map of the 1818 expedition, a map of Port Macquarie, and a tabulation of the population muster in NSW); and five other engraved plates of scenes and one portrait, two of these plates being hand-coloured and one a fold-out. The book concludes with some eight appendices and 16 pages of index.

In Part I, Oxley and party arrived in Bathurst (founded 1815) on 14 April 1817 to finalise stores and provision arrangements and then departed in a westerly direction on the 22nd to reach a depot previously set up at the Lachlan River. They proceeded downstream along the Lachlan River until they reached an extensive wetlands area now known as The Lowbidgee, where further progress was impossible. Not knowing that these wetlands were the backup of waters from the confluence of the Murrumbidgee and Lachlan Rivers, Oxley surmised that they had reached an “inland sea”.

Abandoning their journey through The Lowbidgee, the party retraced their steps, then turned due south. They had not travelled all that well since leaving Bathurst as the party was unable to “live off the land”; there was also insufficient feed for their horses, and with the extremely cold overnight temperatures everyone was suffering extreme privation; some of the horses had simply dropped dead with exhaustion. To add to their woes, there was no potable water to be found and they had not seen any of the local inhabitants. When they reached the southernmost part of the Peel Ranges, Oxley wrote in his journal on 3 June:

“Set forward on our route, passing over a rugged, barren, and rocky country . . . interspersed with more of those dreadful scrubs . . . the country is so impracticable, and so utterly destitute of the means of affording subsistence to either man or beast; water is so precarious . . . which under different circum- stances would be rejected equally by horses and by men.”

(What Oxley would not have known at the time was that 100 years later, this very same spot where he recorded that entry would become the future town of Griffith and the site of one of the largest government-sponsored irrigation schemes in the world.)

Oxley then altered course to the north-east, crossing the Lachlan River to reach the Macquarie River at Wellington Vale and thence went on to Bathurst.

Part II of Oxley‘s Journal describes his journey downstream along the Macquarie River. Passing through the areas of present-day Wellington, Dubbo and Narromine, he describes it as being “excellent country”, till he reached Mount Harris, Mount Forster and the Macquarie Marshes, which, like the Lowbidgee of the previous year, were quite impenetrable. Despite his having a boat, this was found to be useless due to the thick growths of cumbungi water reeds. The view from Mount Forster showed extensive water areas to the north from which Oxley concluded that he had reached the fringes of some inland sea.

While Oxley continued to push through the Macquarie Marshes, he sent his second-in-command, George Evans, in a north-easterly direction, then south-easterly to a range of mountains situated between present-day Coonamble and Coonabarabran; after that he returned to Mount Forster via the south-west, then north-west. This took Evans only 10 days. On 19 July 1818, Oxley and Evans abandoned the Macquarie River and headed due east to where Evans had reached, only there were more wetlands and that journey took a longer time of 17 days. The range of mountains sighted by Evans was named the Arbuthnot Range (in honour of one of Oxleys friends), to be renamed The Warrumbungles in later years.

Oxley and party continued easterly over some very rough terrain, passing along the Peel River (and the site of present-day Tamworth), Cockburns River, more mountainous country in heavy rainfall to Mount Seaview, so named as the Pacific Ocean could be sighted from there. They descended along the Hastings River (named after the Governor-General of India, Warren Hastings) to Port Macquarie, named by Oxley after Governor Macquarie on 8 October 1818. The journey to reach the new coal-mining settlement of Newcastle was even more arduous in their having to bypass the several lakes and rugged mountains and to ford many coastal river estuaries. The local natives along the coast were not very friendly and the party was ever under harassment. One of the party members was wounded from a spear attack.

The party duly arrived at Port Stephens, and on 5 November Mr Evans and three men set out by boat for the last 36 miles to Newcastle and arrived that evening. The commandant, Captain Wallis of the 46th Regiment, “lost not a moment in despatching a large boat with an abundance of every comfort that could be acceptable to travellers in our situation”.

The question of the “Inland Sea” formulated by Oxley continued as theory. The expedition in 1828 of Hamilton Hume (of Hume and Hovell fame) and Charles Sturt (Journal of Two Expeditions into the Interior of Southern Australia 1828–1831, 2 Vols, London, 1833) travelled down the Macquarie River and, it being a very dry season, was able to pass through the Macquarie Marshes to reach the Barwon River and New Year‘s Creek (now the Bogan River). It was then proved that there was no “Inland Sea” and that all NSW interior rivers flowed instead to the Barwon/Darling Rivers system.

Oxley‘s journal of exploration published in 1820 was the first by one of the early Australian explorers to be issued in print. (The journal of the journey by Gregory Blaxland, William Lawson and William Charles Wentworth over the Blue Mountains in 1813 was eventually published in 1823 as a small booklet in paper wrappers – which is extremely scarce – with a second edition in 1870 and a third in 1895. The account of Francis Barrallier‘s journey in 1804 around the southern part of the Blue Mountains to reach the western plains never progressed beyond his diary and notes; moreover, because he was allegedly of French descent, in that political environment his efforts were utterly rejected by the local administration.)

Oxley‘s journal is of particular interest to me as, having been a civil engineer with the NSW Department of Water Resources, I had worked at some of the places mentioned by him: the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Areas, and, especially, the Macquarie Marshes. Despite the multitude of bird life, wild pigs and snakes living in those wetlands, that place was in my day every bit as difficult to traverse and to construct works on as Oxley had described it. Unless one treats those places with respect, they can be very harsh and unforgiving.




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