WELLS EXPLORING EXPEDITION
The first news that we heard was of the disaster that the expedition
under Mr. L. A. Wells had met with. Two of his party were missing, and it
was feared that they had met with some serious mishap. Fortunately Hall's
Creek can boast of telegraphic communication with Derby and Wyndham on
the coast, and from thence to Perth; so that I lost no time in letting
Wells know of our arrival, that we had seen no traces of the lost men,
and that we were ready to do whatever he, who knew all particulars of the
matter, should think best. When I told Breaden that I had put my camels
and party at Wells' disposal, he said at once that he was ready to go,
but that in his opinion the camels were not fit to do another week's
journey; Godfrey, too, was as ready. Indeed it would have been strange if
we, who had so lately come through the desert, and knew its dangers, had
not been eager to help the poor fellows in distress, although from the
first we were morally certain there could be no hope for them; the only
theory compatible with their being still alive, was that they were camped
at some water easy of access, and were waiting for relief, keeping
themselves from starvation by eating camel-flesh.
For many reasons, that need not be gone into, it was thought best by the
promoters of the expedition in Adelaide that we should remain where we
were; and, thanking me very heartily for our proffered assistance, they
assured me they would be very glad to avail themselves of it should the
search-parties already in the field meet with no success. Had we felt any
hope whatever of the men being alive we should certainly have started off
then and there; since, however, the chances of finding any but dead men
were so very infinitesimal, I agreed to wait and to put myself at their
command for a given time. It will be as well to give here a short
account, as gathered from letters from Wells and others to the
newspapers, of the unfortunate expedition.
This expedition, fitted out partly by the Royal Geographical Society,
South Australia, and partly by a Mr. Calvert, was under command of L. A.
Wells, who was surveyor to the Elder Expedition (1891-92). The party,
besides the leader, consisted of his cousin, C. F. Wells, G. A.
Keartland, G. L. Jones, another white man as cook, two Afghans, and one
black-boy, with twenty-five camels. The objects of this expedition were
much the same as those of my own, viz., to ascertain the nature of the
country still unexplored in the central portions of West Australia,
"hopes being entertained of the possibility of opening up a valuable
stock route from the Northern Territory to the West Australian
Goldfields, and of discovering much auriferous country" (vide ADELAIDE
OBSERVER, June 6, 1896). A collection of the flora and fauna was to be
made, as well as a map of the country passed through. The expedition
started from Cue, Murchison district, left civilisation at Lake Way,
and travelled in a North-Easterly direction from there to Lake Augusta,
thence in a Northerly direction past Joanna Springs to the Fitzroy River.
Thus their course was almost parallel to our upgoing journey, and some
150 to 200 miles to the westward, nearer the coast. The class of country
encountered was similar to that already described by me--that is sand,
undulating and in ridges.
A well, since called "Separation Well," was found in long. 123 degrees
53 minutes, lat. 22 degrees 51 minutes. At this point the expedition
split up: Charles Wells and G. L. Jones, with three camels, were to make
a flying trip ninety miles to the Westward; then, turning North-East,
were to cut the tracks of the main party, who were to travel nearly due
The rendezvous was fixed at or near Joanna Springs--which place, however,
the leader failed to find (until some months afterwards, when he proved
them to have been placed on the chart some eighteen miles too far West by
Colonel Warburton in 1873, who in his diary doubts the accuracy of the
position assigned to the spring by himself, and remarks, "What matter in
such country as this?"). When the latitude of the spring was reached,
about a day and a half was spent in searching to the east and west
without result. A native smoke was seen to the eastward, but the leader
failed to reach it.
The camels were on the brink of collapse, many had already collapsed, and
the leader considered that by further search for the spring he would be
bringing almost certain death on the whole party. Therefore, abandoning
all collections, and in fact everything except just enough to keep him
and his companions alive, he pushed on for the Fitzroy River--travelling
by night and camping in the day--a distance of 170 miles. They arrived at
the Fitzroy River after the greatest difficulties, with one bucket of
water left, and only two camels fit to carry even the lightest packs.
The flying party were daily expected, for the arrangement had been that,
failing a meeting at Joanna Springs, both parties were to push on to the
Fitzroy. Days passed, however, and no flying party appeared.
Before long fears as to their safety began to grow, and Mr. Wells made
numerous attempts to return on his tracks. The heat, however, was too
much for his camels, and he was unable to penetrate to any distance. Mr.
Rudall in the meantime, who had been surveying in the Nor'-West, was
despatched by the Western Australia Government to make a search from the
West. He had a good base in the Oakover River, and pushed out as far as
Separation Well. Nothing, however, came of his gallant efforts, for he
was misled, not only by lying natives, but by the tracks of camels and
men, which subsequently turned out to be those of prospectors. His
journey, however, had many useful results, for he discovered a new creek
running out into the desert (Rudall River), and the existence of
auriferous country north of the Ophthalmia Range, besides confirming
Gregory's account of the country East of the Oakover.
It was not until April, 1897, that Mr. Wells found the bodies of his
cousin, Charles Wells, and George Jones. From their diaries (so much of
them at least as was published) the dreadful tale of suffering can be
traced. It appears that on leaving the main party they travelled westward
as directed, and started to turn North-East to cut the tracks of the
others. Before many miles on the fresh course, however, they for some
reason changed their minds and retraced their steps to Separation Well.
From this point they started to follow the main party, but before long
they seem to have become sick and exhausted, and the camels to show signs
of collapse. Later we read that, exhausted from heat, hardship, and
thirst, they lay down, each in the scanty shade of a gum tree; that the
camels wandered away too far for them to follow; efforts to recover the
stragglers only ended in their falling faint to the ground, and so,
deserted by their means of transport, without water, without hope, these
two poor fellows laid down to die, and added their names to the long roll
of brave but unfortunate men whose lives have been claimed by the wild
bush of Australia.
What a death! Alone in that vast sea of sand--hundreds of miles from
family or friends--alone absolutely! not a sign of life around them--no
bird or beast to tell them that life existed for any--no sound to break
the stillness of that ghastly wilderness--no green grass or trees to
relieve the monotony of the sand--nothing but the eternal spinifex and a
few shrunken stems of trees that have been--no shade from the burning
sun--above them the clear sky only clouded by death! slow, cruel death,
and yet in their stout hearts love and courage! Poor fellows! they died
like men, with a message written by dying fingers for those they left to
mourn them--a message full of affection, expressing no fear of death, but
perfect faith in God. So might all mothers be content to see their sons
die--when their time comes.
They had died, it appears, too soon for any aid to have reached them.
Even had Mr. Wells been able to turn back on his tracks at once on
arrival at the Fitzroy, it is doubtful if he could have been in time to
give any help to his suffering comrades.
The bodies were taken to Adelaide, where the whole country joined in
doing honour to the dead.