South Central Australia And The Great Central Desert - Adelaide
( Originally Published 1904 )
WE have returned to Sydney and are now on our way to Adelaide, the capital of South Australia. The trip is a long one, but we have sleeping cars and can spend day and night comfortably in the train. The weather is warm, and the dust makes us thirsty. We ask for a drink, and are told to go to the water bag on the platform of the rear car. Some of the Australian cars carry no ice, but instead have canvas bags about two feet square filled with water, so hung on the platform outside that the wind strikes their wet surface, keeping them cool. There is a spigot at the bottom of each bag to which a tin cup is fastened. Such water bags are often used in Australia, forming the cooler of many a home. When a man takes a long trip over the desert, he ties a water bag under his wagon or carriage, and if the wind is blowing, no matter how warm the weather, he is sure of a cool drink on the way. The canvas is so closely woven that the water does not run through.
We start from Sydney at night, and in the morning cross the Murray River, which forms the boundary between New South Wales and Victoria. The Murray is seventeen hundred miles long. It is the largest river of Australia, and with its tributaries drains the western sides of the mountains along the east coast. It is a sluggish stream, navigable for small steamers as far northeast as Albury, the place where we cross. The waters are dark, but they are fringed with trees ; and as the river winds about in its course, the Australians think it quite picturesque.
After leaving the border town of Albury on the Murray, we do not see that river again until we have crossed the whole of Victoria and traveled about a hundred miles through South Australia. The trip is delightful. The country is hilly, but there are fine farms on which are great herds of cattle and thousands of sheep.
Victoria is the smallest of all the Australian states. It is only a little larger than Kansas, but in proportion to its size it is far richer than any other state of the common-wealth. Nearly all of it can be used for farming or grazing, and about one half of it has gold, silver, or other minerals. It is better settled than other parts of Australia, and we pass through many fine towns on our way to Adelaide.
Adelaide is the capital of South Australia. By this you must not think that it is the capital of all southern Australia, for Victoria, New South Wales, and the southern part of Western Australia are as much in southern Australia as this state. South Australia includes only the south central portion of the continent, comprising about one eighth of Australia.
A great part of South Australia is desert, as is also most of the Northern Territory which lies to the north of it. The Northern Territory formerly belonged to South Australia, but in 1911 it was transferred to the control of the Commonwealth of Australia. In the great central basin of the continent there is no water except in the salt marshes, blind creeks, and rock holes occasionally met with. In this region Australian explorers encountered great hard-ships in their attempts to cross the continent.
Our Great Lake Region is one of rich farms, fine forests, and valuable mines. It is surrounded by cities and villages, and peopled by millions of happy men, women, and children. The great lake region of Australia is far different. It has no inhabitants and no vegetation of value. It belongs to the Australian Desert, one of the bleakest, dreariest, and most horrible parts of the globe. The great lakes here, such as Lake Torrens, Lake Gairdner, and Lake Eyre, are all salt. They are surrounded by flats of treacherous mud which have a salt crust over them so that they make your eyes sore to look at them. Lake Eyre is so dreary that it has been called the " Dead Sea of Australia."
The country about the lakes and on and on everywhere to the north and west of them is as thirsty as the Sahara. The greater part of the soil is composed of gray sand upon which the sun beats almost straight down for hours everyday during the hot parts of the year. Much of the sand is dotted with bunches of spinifex grass, which would tear our clothes if we tried to make our way through them, but would not shield us from the burning sun. In places the sand has drifted into hills and ridges, in which our feet and those of our horses or camels would sink as we crossed them. In other regions we should run into porcupine grass, each bunch of which is like a huge pincushion with sharp knitting needles sticking out on all sides. There are vast tracts covered with low trees, and also bleak and bare mountains and sandy plains filled with pink, gray, and purple bowlders which seem red hot under the sun.
This desert is perhaps the dryest region on the face of the globe, and explorers who have made their way through it have brought back strange stories of its terrible heat. Captain Sturt, who visited it some years ago, says that the mercury rose in his thermometer until it broke the tube, and that for three months it was more than one hundred degrees in the shade. It was so hot that his hair stopped growing, the ink dried on his pen when he tried to write, his comb split up into hairs, his finger nails became as brittle as glass, and the wood shrank so from the heat that the screws dropped out of his boxes and the lead became loose in his pencils.
This region is so vast that we can not describe it in detail. We could go northward or westward for months if we had any means of sustaining life, but day after day we should find only this same hot, thirsty land which is one of the driest regions on earth. But at times, except in the incurable desert region, good rains fall and vegetation is luxuriant. Pastoral settlement is gradually pushing out into the area of scanty rainfall.
The region near the Murray River where we are now is as beautiful as any we have seen in Australia, and the land is exceedingly rich. Adelaide is surrounded by good farms, gardens, and vineyards. It is a thriving city, and its people say that it is the most beautiful of all the towns south of the Equator or, as they say, " south of the Line." It is sometimes called the "White City" from the white stone which is used for its buildings.
Adelaide lies on the river Torrens about six miles by rail from the Gulf of St. Vincent, an excellent harbor. We stroll along King William Street, passing the magnificent public buildings of the city and state, walk through Rundle and Hindley streets, the chief business thoroughfares, and later on take a drive to the top of Mount Lofty for a view of the city and country about. On every side of us there are fine farms, gardens, orchards, and vineyards. There are rich pastures with cattle and sheep feeding upon them, and in the center the white city of Adelaide with the Torrens running on by it until it is lost in the sea in the distance. It is a beautiful view, and we do not wonder that the Australians are proud of this part of their territory.
We drive through farms on our way back to the city, and at the public departments learn that South Australia has some other rich lands in the far north. Just now we wish to see more of Victoria, and we take the cars through that state to the town of Ballarat in the gold-mining regions.