STURT CREEK AND "GREGORY'S SALT SEA"
The Sturt Creek presents many points of interest. It rises in the
Northern Territory, runs for nearly three hundred miles in a
South-Westerly direction, and comes to an end in a large salt-lake, across
the border, in the desert. It runs throughout its entire length once in
every three or four years, though each yearly rainy season floods it in
certain parts. In the dry season one might in many places ride right
across its course without being aware of it. In the wet season such parts
of it are swamps and marshes, over which its waters spread to a width of
five and six miles. Permanent pools are numerous, and occur wherever a
ridge of sandstone rock runs across the course of the creek. On either
side of the creek fine grass-plains spread East and West. The further
South the creek goes, the less good is the country on the East side;
presently there is no grass country except on the West side. Not far
below the station the creek is joined by the Wolf, which, like all
Kimberley creeks, is fringed with gums, Bauhinia, and Leichardt-trees.
From the confluence downwards a war between the grass-lands and the
desert is waged for the supremacy of the river-banks. For miles the sandy
channel, cut out like a large drain through the country, less than one
chain wide in places, is hemmed in on either side by desert gums and
spinifex, and once out of sight of the creek the surrounding land
receives no benefit from the water.
But lower down again, about the latitude of Mount Mueller, the grass plains
gain the day; and a very pretty bit of country they form too, especially
when the creek is running, as it was when we were there. In many places
its waters had overflowed the banks, expanding into clay-pans and lagoons
of beautiful clear water where teal and whistling duck disported
The Wolf rises on the opposite slope of the watershed to Christmas Creek
and the Mary River, and floods twice or thrice a year. Below its junction
with the Sturt the combined creek takes on itself the character of the
Wolf, and at the point of confluence the Sturt may be said to end. Seeing
how seldom the Sturt runs its entire length and how small its channel is
at this point, smaller than that of the Wolf, I think that it is to the
latter that the lakes (Gregory's "Salt Sea") chiefly owe their existence.
However that may be, the combined waters fill but an insignificant
channel and one can hardly credit that this creek has a length of nearly
three hundred miles.
On nearing the lakes the creek assumes so dismal an appearance, and so
funereal is the aspect of the dead scrub and dark tops of the "boree" (a
kind of mulga), that one wonders that Gregory did not choose the name of
"Dead" instead of merely "Salt Sea." A curious point about this lower
part of the creek is, that stretches of fresh and salt water alternate.
The stream, as we saw it, was only just running in the lower reaches; in
places it ran under the sandy bed, and in this part the salt pools
occurred. First we passed a stretch of clear, brackish water, then a
nearly dry reach of sand, then a trickle of fresh water lasting for a
hundred yards or so; this would again disappear, and be seen lower down
as another salt pool.
The creek enters the first lake in a broad estuary; this lake is some
four miles long by two miles wide, lying North and South. At the southern
end a narrow channel, 150 yards wide, winds its way into the large lake
beyond, a fine sheet of water, eight miles in diameter. A narrow belt of
open country, overgrown with succulent herbage, fringes the margin of the
lake; beyond it is dense scrub, with occasional patches of grass; beyond
that, sand, sandhills, and spinifex. In the distance can be seen
flat-topped hills and bluffs, and rising ground which encloses the hollow
of the lake. The lake has no outlet; of this Gregory satisfied himself by
making a complete circuit of it. At the time of his discovery the lakes
were dry, or nearly so, and doubtless had the appearance of being shallow
depressions, such as the salt lakes in the southern part of the Colony;
so that having followed the Sturt for so many miles--a creek which showed
every appearance of occasionally flooding to a width of five or six
miles--he must have been somewhat uncertain as to what happened to so
great a volume of water. However, the lake is nearly thirty feet deep in
the middle, and, from its area, is capable of holding a vast amount of
water. The creek, below its confluence with the Wolf, is continually
losing its waters, throwing off arms and billabongs, especially to the
west, which form swamps, clay-pans, and lagoons. So much water is wasted
in this manner that near the entrance into the lake the creek is of a
most insignificant size. The fall, too, is so gradual that the water runs
sluggishly and has time to soak away into the enclosing sand.
Mr. Stretch tells me that it takes eight days for the water from rain
falling at the head of the Sturt to pass his homestead, which gives it a
rate of one mile per hour. Heavy rains had fallen at its source about a
month before our arrival, and the water was still flowing. We therefore
saw the lakes as full as they are ever likely to be, except in abnormal
seasons. North of the lake are numerous large clay-pans which had not
been flooded, and the lakes could evidently hold more water, and had done
so in time past, so that it is pretty clear that the lakes are large
enough for ordinary flood waters, and, with the outlying clay-pans, can
accommodate the waters of an extraordinary flood.
I feel confident, therefore, that no outlet exists, and that beyond doubt
the Sturt ends at the Salt Sea, and does not "make" again further
South, as some have suggested. Standing on any of the hills which
surround the lake, some distance (ten miles or so) from it, one can look
down upon the water, certainly five hundred feet below the level of the
hills, which rise no more than eighty feet above the surrounding plain.
It seems most improbable, therefore, that a creek should break its way
through country of so much greater altitude without being seen by Colonel
Warburton or myself, or that any connection should exist between the Salt
Sea and Warburton's Salt Lakes to the South-East.
Had, however, the intervening country been of the same level as the lake,
and flat instead of formed into high sand ridges and hills, there might
have been a possibility of crossing a connecting creek of the same
character as the Sturt without noticing it. This question has been much
discussed by gentlemen interested in the geography of interior Australia,
and therefore I have dealt with it at some length.