Early Overlanders – Edward John Eyre
Before there were Great Desert Tracks there were explorers who headed into the vast unknown of Australia's interior, discovering what lay beyond through courageous feats of navigation.
(Image: Edward John Eyre by Henry Hering, 1870.)
In 1838 an enterprising young stockman named Edward John Eyre arrived in Adelaide after travelling for more than six months from Monaro, in NSW. He had with him 1,000 sheep and 600 cattle. In the new state of South Australia, which was only three years old, Eyre sold his livestock for a handsome sum and repeated the enterprise once more shortly after. With his new fortune and experience in the Australian interior, the restless young Eyre decided to become an explorer, and his first objective was to reach the middle of Australia.
Soon, Eyre had recruited five men, two drays and 10 horses to accompany him north to inland South Australia, and they set off on May 1, 1839. After tracing their way along the flat coastal land beside the Spencer Gulf, the party discovered a permanent spring at Depot Creek, where they set up basecamp.
Eyre headed further north from Depot Creek, while his companion John Baxter set out to the south-east. From a hill north-west of modern-day Hawker, Eyre got his first glimpse of Lake Torrens, which he recognised as a “dry and glazed bed where water had lodged”. The expedition went as far north as Mount Eyre (later named by Governor George Gawler). Without much to report, they headed back to Adelaide via the Murray River.
Eyre set out on a second 1839 expedition, this time via the Eyre Peninsula, Port Lincoln and the Gawler Ranges. From the same base at Depot Creek, he travelled 140km north and from a high point near Leigh Creek he saw that Lake Torrens was filled with water.
The third and most ambitious of Eyre's northern expeditions departed in June of 1840. He carried with him an embroidered Union Jack that had been presented by Charles Sturt and was to be planted in the centre of Australia. From Depot Creek, Eyre headed north, before turning west to investigate Lake Torrens. Deep mud below the crusty surface rendered the Lake impassable, and he summited the nearby Mount Deception, it was only to discover that the Lake continued as far as he could see.
A series of pushes, followed by retreats caused by lack of water, until the expedition basecamp was moved to a newly found water source at Scott Creek, north of Mount Deception. Eyre's next northern push took him all the way to the southern end of Lake Eyre (which was named later on). With this discovery, Eyre surmised that he had encountered Lake Torrens again, which he imagined bent all the way around the top of the Flinders Ranges and back down the other side, like a huge impassable horseshoe.
Up until that point, the expeditions had stayed on the western side of the Ranges, but believing there was no way north or west, the party finally headed east. In August of 1840, Eyre climbed to the top of Mount Serle, catching a glimpse of Lake Frome to the east, which he believed to be the eastern extension of Lake Torrens as it wrapped around the ranges – he also thought he spotted the end of the ranges to the north.
In one last-ditch effort, they moved north as rains set in and the ground turned to mud. It's said that Eyre gave the gloomy name to Mount Hopeless before he'd even climbed to its peak, and when he reached the top he saw Lake Blanche and Lake Callabonna to the north east, once again believing he was looking at Lake Torrens. After this disappointment, Eyre had finished with the Flinders Ranges and after returning to Adelaide, set off toward Albany.
Though Eyre had faced plenty of adversity up to this point in his overlanding career, the trip to Albany was the most dramatic of all. Along the 3,000-or-so kilometre journey, two of the aboriginal members of the party killed John Baxter and left with most of their supplies. Eyre and his aboriginal companion Wylie would have been doomed were it not for a chance encounter with a French whaling ship near Esperance.
The fraught Albany expedition was the last chapter in Eyre's Australian overland travels, and he returned to England a few years later. He pursued a career in politics, which was fraught with colonial rebellions and legal challenges, though his Aussie exploits are what cemented his name in history.