|„It is from the view of the adjacent country which I obtained from Mt Kosciusko that the source of the Murray was ascertained, its tributaries traced, the direction of my further progress to the south and further survey decided upon…” - Strzelecki wrote in his “Report”, on 26th June, 1840.
After the successful ascent of Mt Kosciuszko, Strzelecki, Macarthur and two Aboriginal guides returned to the Swampy Plains River, where James Riley had remained with the horses. The party went back to Welaregang. Here they returned their borrowed aboriginal guide Jackey, and picked up their two servants, supplies and gear and on March 16th started south.
On 26th or 27th of March, they stopped at Mr Macalister’s station Numbla-Mungie. Mathew, Macalister’s nephew, acted as host (Angus McMillan was away). Mathew provided them with new provisions and made them a gift of a camp kettle. He showed them some good fording places at the rivers, and showed Charley those small signs left by any party of white men, but, past the fording of the Riley River, on the 6th of April, they saw no further trace of any party having preceded them.
After travelling for some days on fine open plains, they came to the forests, and through that, to dense brush, which forced them to take to the ranges. With plains and valleys left behind, they were now on a rocky and mountainous path. They forced their way through this scrub for 14 days. When horses got bogged, they had to unload and carry all packs on their backs and, then, pull the horses out. At night they had to tie the horses to trees without a mouthful for them to eat for fear of them straying away.
The greatest impediment the travellers had to contend with was the exhausted state of their horses. Each day saw one or other of the party – unaccustomed to walking - dismounted. Strzelecki’s companions were as exhausted as the horses. And the horses were in such a state from starvation that it was madness to continue with them. They had to be left behind.
So the party descended again into the plain, which provided some grass and water. They left the horses, the packs with mineralogical and botanical collections, saddles, and took only clean shirt each, blankets, guns and observation instruments, which they were forced to carry.
The situation forced them to abandon their idea of extending their explorations as far as Wilson’s Premonitory. They decided to take the straight course for Western Port where fresh supplies could be obtained.
At this point they had no idea that ahead of them were 22 days of almost complete starvation.
Weather, terrain and equipment problems arose. Strzelecki, furnished with sextant and artificial horizon, only twice in 22 days was able to ascertain the latitude and azimuth due to weather problems. Strzelecki succeeded in taking latitude observations and from that was able to determine that they were, according to Mitchell’s maps, 25 miles away from Western Port. But by referring to the Navigation Book, they found some anomalies because some principal points did not agree. It looked as though they were 70 miles away from Western Port. They were not certain.
They dragged on through dense scrub almost impossible to penetrate. The party was in a deplorable condition. Strzelecki, more experienced than the others in pedestrian exploration and the fatigue that accompanies it, retained possession of his strength and continued to pioneer his exhausted companions through an almost impervious tea-tree scrub, closely interwoven with climbing grasses, vines, willows, ferns and reeds.
The Pole was breaking through the scrub, sometimes on his hands and knees, and sometimes using the full weight of his body to make a pathway for the others. They forced their way through inch by inch, the incessant rains preventing them for taking rest by night or day.
Strzelecki was then 42, Macarthur 26, Riley 19.
With all provisions of biscuits and bacon gone, they had to rely on a scanty supply of fresh meat. As Riley wrote to his mother, “we were never more than one day without food. In this country there was but one animal the size of a small dog and lives in trees and is called the monkey or native bear.” These were procured sometimes by shooting, or when the powder was wet, Charley climbed trees to catch them.
The starving team had to eat them raw as with dry fuel scarce, they could not make a fire to cook them. After their safe arrival at Western Port, The Port Phillip Herald paid tribute to Charley Tarra as the saviour of the expedition. “Charley catered for the larder sufficiency of wombat, or native bear to afford them a precarious sustenance”. As the legend has it, Tarra made efforts to cheer the party up. Seating himself on a log beside Macarthur he said, looking affectionately in his face “me neber leave you massa”.
Strzelecki later wrote to Adyna that his people were “reduced almost to extremity”. He had brought them to Port Phillip safe “but like skeletons”. He admitted to being like a skeleton, too, in rags, without shoes, almost without trousers.
While approaching Western Port on May 12th they stumbled upon Mr Alexander Berry’s tent. Thanks to his hospitality, they were soon on the road to recovery. Some two days later, Macarthur and Riley went to Messrs Massie and Anderson’s station, where they were supplied with boots and a few necessities. As R. Massie recollected , he had not the pleasure of seeing the Count as “he was being too ill from fatigue.” They spent a few more days with Alexander Berry, getting back their strength, and subsequently reached Melbourne on May 28th , 1840.
Their arrival caused a stir and attracted a good deal of public interest. Strzelecki’s expedition became famous not only because of the discoveries made but because of the extraordinary adventures. The wide publicity resulted in a rush of Port Phillip settlers to Gippsland, which was easier to access from Melbourne than from the Monaro.
And what about the horses?
In a short time James Riley organized a salvage mission to find the horses. He left for the plain with Mr John Rutledge, his faithful servant Charley, and another native man called Pigeon. They recovered only one horse, and three skeletons were found. Luckily, Strzelecki’s collections and other goods had been secured. Soon after, Strzelecki left for Tasmania.
1. L. Paszkowski, “Sir Paul Edmund de Strzelecki”, Melbourne 1997
2. Port Phillip Herald, The Progress of Discovery, 2nd June 1840
3. Port Phillip Herald, The Aborigines, 9th June, 1840
4. J. Riley, letter to his mother, Melbourne May 30th, 1840
5. C. Daley, “Count Paul Strzelecki’s Ascent of Mount Kosciusko and Journey through Gippsland, Victorian Historical Magazine, 19, no 2, December 1941.