Ernest Giles and Queen Victoria Spring

Ernest Giles’s discovery of Queen Victoria Springs is a remarkable tale. Whether foolhardy, brave, lucky or calculated is a question to be determined. Giles’s writing is different to modern prose and may not be that easy to read. However, his description of a 17 day gamble for life makes it compulsive fare and recommended reading. Persevere and enjoy!

3 September 1975

We had generally very cloudy mornings; the flies were particularly numerous and troublesome, and I became convinced that any further travel to the west would have to be carried on under very unfavourable circumstances. This little dam was situated in latitude 29° 19´ 4´´, and longitude 128° 38´ 16´´, showing that we had crossed the boundary line between the two colonies of South and Western Australia, the 129th meridian. I therefore called this the Boundary Dam.

… between the 9th of June, to the 3rd of September, entirely enveloped in dense scrubs, and I may say that very few if any explorers have ever before had such a region to traverse. I had managed to penetrate this country up to the present point, and it was not to be wondered at if we all ardently longed for a change. Even a bare, boundless expanse of desert sand would be welcomed as an alternative to the dark and dreary scrubs that surrounded us.

However, it appeared evident to me, as I had traversed nothing but scrubs for hundreds of miles from the east, and had found no water of any size whatever in all the distance I had yet come, that no waters really existed in this country, except an occasional native well or native dam, and those only at considerable distances apart.

Concluding this to be the case, and my object being that the expedition should reach the city of Perth, I decided there was only one way to accomplish this—namely, to go thither, at any risk, and trust to Providence for an occasional supply of water here and there in the intermediate distance.

I desired to make for a hill or mountain called Mount Churchman by Augustus Churchman Gregory in 1846. I had no written record of water existing there, but my chart showed that Mount Churchman had been visited by two or three other travellers since that date, and it was presumable that water did permanently exist there. The hill was, however, distant from this dam considerably over 600 miles in a straight line, and too far away for it to be possible we could reach it unless we should discover some new watering places between.

I was able to carry a good supply of water in casks, water-beds and bags; and to enable me to carry this I had done away with various articles, and made the loads as light as possible; but it was merely lightening them of one commodity to load them with a corresponding weight of water.

Where the next favoured spot would be found, who could tell? The last water we had met was over 150 miles away; the next might be double that distance. Having considered all these matters, I informed my officers and men that I had determined to push westward, without a thought of retreat, no matter what the result might be; that it was a matter of life or death for us; we must push through or die in the scrubs. I added that if any more than one of the party desired to retreat, I would provide them with rations and camels, when they could either return to Fowler’s Bay by the way we had come, or descend to Eucla Station on the coast, which lay south nearly 170 miles distant.

I represented that we were probably in the worst desert upon the face of the earth, but that fact should give us all the more pleasure in conquering it. We were surrounded on all sides by dense scrubs, and the sooner we forced our way out of them the better. It was of course a desperate thing to do, and I believe very few people would or could rush madly into a totally unknown wilderness, where the nearest known water was 650 miles away. But I had sworn to go to Perth or die in the attempt, and I inspired the whole of my party with my own enthusiasm. One and all declared that they would live or die with me.

I have never visited any part of Australia so devoid of animal life.

On the 10th of September everything was ready …

We had no notion of how far we might have to go, or how many days might elapse before we came to any other water, but we left our friendly little dam in high hopes and excellent spirits, hoping to discover not only water, but some more agreeable geographical features than we had as yet encountered.

I had set my own and all my companions’ lives upon a cast, and will stand the hazard of the die, and I may add that each one displayed at starting into the new unknown, the greatest desire and eagerness for our attempt.

On leaving the depot I had determined to travel on a course that would enable me to reach the 30th parallel of latitude at about its intersection with the 125th meridian of longitude; for I thought it probable the scrubs might terminate sooner in that direction than in one more northerly. Our course was therefore on a bearing of south 76° west; this left the line of salt lakes Alec Ross and I had formerly visited, and which lay west, on our right or northwards of us.

Immediately after the start we entered thick scrubs as usual; they were mostly composed of the black oak, casuarina, with mulga and sandal-wood, not of commerce.

Camels will not eat anything from which they cannot extract moisture, by which process they are enabled to go so long without water. The recent rain had left some sheets of water in the lake-bed at various places, but they were all as salt as brine—in fact brine itself.

The country we passed through to-day was entirely scrubs, except where the salt basins intervened, and nothing but scrubs could be seen ahead, or indeed in any other direction.

The latitude of the camp on this lake was 29° 24´ 8´´, and it was twenty-two miles from the dam. We continued our march and proceeded still upon the same course, still under our usual routine of steering. By the fifth night of our travels we had met no water or any places that could hold it, and apparently we had left all the salt basins behind. Up to this point we had been continually in dense scrubs, but here the country became a little more open; myal timber, acacia, generally took the places of the mallee and the casuarinas; the spinifex disappeared, and real grass grew in its place.

I was in hopes of finding water if we should debouch upon a plain, or perhaps discover some ranges or hills which the scrubs might have hidden from us. On the sixth day of our march we entered fairly on a plain, the country being very well grassed. It also had several kinds of salsolaceous bushes upon it; these furnish excellent fodder plants for all herbivorous animals. Although the soil was not very good, being sand mixed with clay, it was a very hard and good travelling country; the camels’ feet left scarcely any impression on it, and only by the flattened grass and crushed plants trodden to earth by our heavy-weighing ships, could our trail now be followed. The plain appeared to extend a great distance all around us.

A solemn stillness pervaded the atmosphere; nobody spoke much above a whisper. Once we saw some wild turkey bustards, and Mr. Young managed to wing one of them on the seventh day from the dam.

On the eighth we had cold fowl for breakfast, with a modicum of water. On the ninth and tenth days of our march the plains continued, and I began to think we were more liable to die for want of water on them than in the dense and hideous scrubs we had been so anxious to leave behind. Although the region now was all a plain, no views of any extent could be obtained, as the country still rolled on in endless undulations at various distances apart, just as in the scrubs.

It was evident that the regions we were traversing were utterly waterless, and in all the distance we had come in ten days, no spot had been found where water could lodge. It was totally uninhabited by either man or animal, not a track of a single marsupial, emu, or wild dog was to be seen, and we seemed to have penetrated into a region utterly unknown to man, and as utterly forsaken by God.

We had now come 190 miles from water, and our prospects of obtaining any appeared more and more hopeless.

And now, when days had many of them passed away, and no places had been met where water was, the party presented a sad and solemn procession, as though each and all of us was stalking slowly onward to his tomb. Some murmurs of regret reached my ears; but I was prepared for more than that. Whenever we camped, Saleh would stand before me, gaze fixedly into my face and generally say: “Mister Gile, when you get water?” I pretended to laugh at the idea, and say. “Water? pooh! There’s no water in this country, Saleh. I didn’t come here to find water, I came here to die, and you said you’d come and die too.” Then he would ponder awhile, and say: “I think some camel he die to-morrow, Mr. Gile” I would say: “No, Saleh, they can’t possibly live till to-morrow, I think they will all die to-night.” Then he: “Oh, Mr. Gile, I think we all die soon now.” Then I: “Oh yes, Saleh, we’ll all be dead in a day or two.” When he found he couldn’t get any satisfaction out of me he would begin to pray, and ask me which was the east. I would point south: down he would go on his knees, and abase himself in the sand, keeping his head in it for some time. Afterwards he would have a smoke, and I would ask: “What’s the matter, Saleh? what have you been doing?” “Ah, Mr. Gile,” was his answer, “I been pray to my God to give you a rock-hole to-morrow.” I said, “Why, Saleh, if the rock-hole isn’t there already there won’t be time for your God to make it; besides, if you can get what you want by praying for it, let me have a fresh-water lake, or a running river, that will take us right away to Perth. What’s the use of a paltry rock-hole?” Then he said solemnly, “Ah, Mr. Gile, you not religious.”

On the eleventh day the plains died off, and we re-entered a new bed of scrubs—again consisting of mallee, casuarinas, desert sandal-wood, and quandong-trees of the same family; the ground was overgrown with spinifex. By the night of the twelfth day from the dam, having daily increased our rate of progress, we had traversed scrubs more undulating than previously, consisting of the usual kinds of trees. At sundown we descended into a hollow; I thought this would prove the bed of another salt lake, but I found it to be a rain-water basin or very large clay-pan, and although there were signs of the former presence of natives, the whole basin, grass, and herbage about it, were as dry as the desert around.

Having found a place where water could lodge, I was certainly disappointed at finding none in it, as this showed that no rain whatever had fallen here, where it might have remained, when we had good but useless showers immediately upon leaving the dam. From the appearance of the vegetation no rains could possibly have visited this spot for many months, if not years. The grass was white and dry, and ready to blow away with any wind.

We had now travelled 242 miles from the little dam, and I thought it advisable here to give our lion-hearted camels a day’s respite, and to apportion out to them the water that some of them had carried for that purpose. By the time we reached this distance from the last water, although no one had openly uttered the word retreat, all knowing it would be useless, still I was not unassailed by croakings of some of the ravens of the party, who advised me, for the sake of saving our own and some of the camels’ lives, to sacrifice a certain number of the worst, and not give these unfortunates any water at all. But I represented that it would be cruel, wrong, and unjust to pursue such a course, and yet expect these neglected ones still to travel on with us; for even in their dejected state some, or even all, might actually go as far without water as the others would go with; and as for turning them adrift, or shooting them in a mob—which was also mooted—so long as they could travel, that was out of the question.

So I declined all counsel, and declared it should be a case of all sink or all swim. In the middle of the thirteenth day, during which we rested for the purpose, the water was fairly divided among the camels; the quantity given to each was only a little over four gallons—about equivalent to four thimblesful to a man. There were eighteen grown camels and one calf, Youldeh, the quantity given was about eighty gallons.

To give away this quantity of water in such a region was like parting with our blood; but it was the creatures’ right, and carried expressly for them; and with the renewed vigour which even that small quantity imparted to them, our own lives seemed to obtain a new lease.

The position of this dry basin is in latitude 30° 7´ 3´´, and longitude 124° 41´ 2´´. Since reaching the 125th meridian, my course had been 5° more southerly, and on departing from this wretched basin on the 22nd of September, with animals greatly refreshed and carrying much lighter loads, we immediately entered dense scrubs, composed as usual of mallee, with its friend the spinifex, black oaks, and numerous gigantic mallee-like gum-trees.

It seemed that distance, which lends enchantment to the view, was the only chance for our lives; distance, distance, unknown distance seemed to be our only goal. The country rose immediately from this depression into high and rolling hills of sand, and here I was surprised to find that a number of the melancholy cypress pines ornamented both the sandy hills and the spinifex depressions through and over which we went. Here, indeed, some few occasional signs and traces of the former presence of natives existed. The only water they can possibly get in this region must be from the roots of the trees.

Two wild dog puppies were seen and caught by my black boy Tommy and Nicholls, in the scrubs to-day, the fourteenth from the dam. Tommy and others had also found a few Lowans’, Leipoa ocellata, nests, and we secured a few of the pink-tinted eggs; this was the laying season. These, with the turkey Mr. Young had shot on the plain, were the only adjuncts to our supplies that we had obtained from this region.

After to-day’s stage there was nothing but the native poplar for the camels to eat, and they devoured the leaves with great apparent relish, though to my human taste it is about the most disgusting of vegetables.

The following day, fifteenth from water, we accomplished twenty-six miles of scrubs. Our latitude here was 30° 17´. The country continued to rise into sandhills, from which the only views obtainable presented spaces precisely similar to those already traversed and left behind to the eastwards …

At twelve o’clock on the sixteenth day some natives’ smoke was seen straight on our course, and also some of their foot-marks. The days throughout this march had been warm; the thermometer at twelve o’clock, when we let the camels lie down, with their loads on, for an hour, usually stood at 94, 95, or 96°, while in the afternoon it was some degrees hotter.

On Saturday, the 25th of September, being the sixteenth day from the water at the Boundary Dam, we travelled twenty-seven miles, still on our course, through mallee and spinifex, pines, casuarinas, and quandong-trees, and noticed for the first time upon this expedition some very fine specimens of the Australian grass-tree, Xanthorrhoea; the giant mallee were also numerous.

This night we reached a most abominable encampment; there was nothing that the camels could eat, and the ground was entirely covered with great bunches of spinifex. Before us, and all along the western horizon, we had a black-looking and scrubby rise of very high sandhills; each of us noticed its resemblance to those sandhills which had confronted us to the north and east when at Youldeh. By observation we found that we were upon the same latitude, but had reached a point in longitude 500 miles to the west of it. It is highly probable that no water exists in a straight line between the two places.

Shortly before evening, Mr. Young was in advance steering, but he kept so close under the sun—it being now so near the equinox, the sun set nearly west, and our course being 21° south of west—I had to go forward and tell him that he was not steering rightly. Of course he became indignant, and saying, “Perhaps you’ll steer, then, if you don’t think I can!” he handed me the compass. I took it in silence and steered more southerly, in the proper direction of our course; this led us over a long white ridge of sand, and brought us to the hollow where, as I said before, we had such a wretched encampment.

We had come 323 miles without having seen a drop of water. There was silence and melancholy in the camp…

Every man seemed to turn his eyes on me. I was the great centre of attraction; every action of mine was held to have some peculiar meaning. I was continually asked night after night if we should get water the following day? The reply, “How can I tell?” was insufficient; I was supposed to know to an inch where water was and exactly when we could reach it. I believe all except the officers thought I was making for a known water, for although I had explained the situation before leaving the dam, it was only now that they were beginning to comprehend its full meaning.

Towards the line of dark sandhills, which formed the western horizon, was a great fall of country into a kind of hollow, and on the following morning, the seventeenth day from the dam, Mr. Tietkens appeared greatly impressed with the belief that we were in the neighbourhood of water.

I said nothing of my own impressions, for I thought something of the kind also, although I said I would not believe it. It was Mr. Tietkens’s turn to steer, and he started on foot ahead of the string of camels for that purpose. He gave Tommy his little riding-bull, the best leading camel we have, and told him to go on top of a white sandhill to our left, a little south of us, and try if he could find any fresh blacks’ tracks, or other indications of water.

I did not know that Tommy had gone, nor could I see that Tietkens was walking—it was an extraordinary event when the whole string of camels could be seen at once in a line in this country—and we had been travelling some two miles and a half when Alec Ross and Peter Nicholls declared that they heard Tommy calling out “water!” I never will believe these things until they are proved, so I kept the party still going on. However, even I, soon ceased to doubt, for Tommy came rushing through the scrubs full gallop, and, between a scream and a howl, yelled out quite loud enough now even for me to hear, “Water! water! plenty water here! come on! come on! this way! this way! come on, Mr. Giles! mine been find ’em plenty water!”

I checked his excitement a moment and asked whether it was a native well he had found, and should we have to work at it with the shovel? Tommy said, “No fear shovel, that fellow water sit down meself (i.e. itself) along a ground, camel he drink ’em meself.” Of course we turned the long string after him.

Soon after he left us he had ascended the white sandhill whither Mr. Tietkens had sent him, and what sight was presented to his view! A little open oval space of grass land, half a mile away, surrounded entirely by pine-trees, and falling into a small funnel-shaped hollow, looked at from above. He said that before he ascended the sandhill he had seen the tracks of an emu, and on descending he found the bird’s track went for the little open circle. He then followed it to the spot, and saw a miniature lake lying in the sand, with plenty of that inestimable fluid which he had not beheld for more than 300 miles. He watered his camel, and then rushed after us, as we were slowly passing on ignorantly by this life-sustaining prize, to death and doom.

Had Mr. Young steered rightly the day before—whenever it was his turn during that day I had had to tell him to make farther south—we should have had this treasure right upon our course; and had I not checked his incorrect steering in the evening, we should have passed under the northern face of a long, white sandhill more than two miles north of this water.

Neither Tommy nor anybody else would have seen the place on which it lies, as it is completely hidden in the scrubs; as it was, we should have passed within a mile of it if Mr. Tietkens had not sent Tommy to look out, though I had made up my mind not to enter the high sandhills beyond without a search in this hollow, for my experience told me if there was no water in it, none could exist in this terrible region at all, and we must have found the tracks of natives, or wild dogs or emus leading to the water.

When we arrived with the camels at this newly-discovered liquid gem, I found it answered to Tommy’s description. It is the most singularly-placed water I have ever seen, lying in a small hollow in the centre of a little grassy flat, and surrounded by clumps of the funereal pines … The water is no doubt permanent, for it is supplied by the drainage of the sandhills that surround it, and it rests on a substratum of impervious clay. It lies exposed to view in a small open basin, the water being only about 150 yards in circumference and from two to three feet deep. Farther up the slopes, at much higher levels, native wells had been sunk in all directions—in each and all of these there was water. One large well, apparently a natural one, lay twelve or thirteen feet higher up than the largest basin, and contained a plentiful supply of pure water. Beyond the immediate precincts of this open space the scrubs abound.

It may be imagined how thankful we were for the discovery of this only and lonely watered spot, after traversing such a desert. How much longer and farther the expedition could have gone on without water we were now saved the necessity of guessing, but this I may truly say, that Sir Thomas Elder’s South Australian camels are second to none in the world for strength and endurance. From both a human and humane point of view, it was most fortunate to have found this spring, and with it a respite, not only from our unceasing march, but from the terrible pressure on our minds of our perilous situation; for the painful fact was ever before us, that even after struggling bravely through hundreds of miles of frightful scrubs, we might die like dogs in the desert at last, unheard of and unknown.

On me the most severe was the strain; for myself I cared not, I had so often died in spirit in my direful journeys that actual death was nothing to me. But for vanity, or fame, or honour, or greed, and to seek the bubble reputation, I had brought six other human beings into a dreadful strait, and the hollow eyes and gaunt, appealing glances that were always fixed on me were terrible to bear;

Mount Churchman, the place I was endeavouring to reach, was yet some 350 miles distant; this discovery, it was therefore evident, was the entire salvation of the whole party.

During our march for these sixteen or seventeen days from the little dam, I had not put the members of my party upon an actual short allowance of water. Before we watered the camels we had over 100 gallons of water, yet the implied restraint was so great that we were all in a continual state of thirst during the whole time, and the small quantity of water consumed—of course we never had any tea or coffee—showed how all had restrained themselves.

Geographical features have been terribly scarce upon this expedition, and this peculiar spring is the first permanent water I have found. I have ventured to dedicate it to our most gracious Queen. The great desert in which I found it, and which will most probably extend to the west as far as it does to the east, I have also honoured with Her Majesty’s mighty name, calling it the Great Victoria Desert, and the spring, Queen Victoria’s Spring.

On our arrival here our camels drank as only thirsty camels can, and great was our own delight to find ourselves again enabled to drink at will and indulge in the luxury of a bath. Added to both these pleasures was a more generous diet, so that we became quite enamoured of our new home.

There seems to be very little native game here, though a number of bronze-winged pigeons came to water at night and morning. There are, however, so many small native wells besides the larger sheet, for them to drink at, and also such a quantity of a thorny vegetation to screen them, that we have not been very successful in getting any. Our best shot, Mr. Young, succeeded in bagging only four or five.

It was necessary, now that we had found this spring, to give our noble camels a fair respite, the more so as the food they will eat is very scarce about here, as we have yet over 300 miles to travel to reach Mount Churchman, with every probability of getting no water between.

After resting under the umbrageous foliage of the cypress-pines, among which our encampment was fixed for a week, the party and camels had all recovered from the thirst and fatigue of our late march, and it really seemed impossible to believe that such a stretch of country as 325 miles could actually have been traversed between this and the last water. We found the position of this spring to be in latitude 30° 25´ 30´´ and longitude 123° 21´ 13´´.

On leaving a depot and making a start early in the morning, camels, like horses, may not be particularly inclined to fill themselves with water, while they might do so in the middle of the day, and thus may leave a depot on a long dry march not half filled. The Arabs in Egypt and other camel countries, when starting for a desert march, force the animals, as I have seen—that is, read of—to fill themselves up by using bullocks’ horns for funnels and pouring the water down their throats till the creatures are ready to burst. The camels, knowing by experience, so soon as the horns are stuck into their mouths, that they are bound for a desert march, fill up accordingly.