Sturt's Entrance to Hell

In the Simpson Desert, Australia

by Craig Robertson

May 2013

On 7 September 1845, Captain Charles Sturt (1795 - 1869) was camped in the Australian desert. He was on the last of his epic expeditions exploring the continent, this one from August 1844 to January 1846. He was close to the point of turning back for home, for the last time. His long-suffering wife Charlotte was in Adelaide and leaving her had severely troubled Sturt's conscience. It was a Sunday evening and according to his usual practice Sturt took up his pen to write her a letter outlining the previous week's events.

It had been a tough week, but they usually were. He had been two days ride out to the north-west from his camp by a waterhole on Eyre Creek, out among the great sand dunes that run for long distances across this desert in lines cast just off to the west of straight north-south. The horses had been without water and and feed; he was forced back to the waterhole. He wrote: "I cannot describe the ground so that you must assist me when I get back.The scene was awfully fearful, dear Charlotte. A kind of dread (and I am not subject to such feelings) came over me as I gazed upon it. It looked like the entrance into Hell." (See below [1]).

Simpson Desert on the way to Sturt's entrance to hell
The track across the southern edge of the Simpson Desert rises and falls over the dunes. There are 1100 if them, formed from alluvial deposits in the Lake Eyre Basin as far back as the Cretaceous seas, then shaped by the prevailing southerly winds during the Pleistocene. They can be over 30 metres high above the claypans in the valleys, and the longest run for over 300 kilometres. [2]

After an aborted attempt to reach the Burke and Wills dig tree in the wake of the 2011 floods in Queensland, I passed through Sturt National Park in northern New South Wales. There are a number of key locations regarding Sturt's expedition of 1844 - 1846 in the area, particularly his important base camps at Depot Glen and Fort Grey. But it was his "entrance to hell" that stuck in my mind. I wanted to know what it was like, to try and understand why he called it that. Four friends set out to find the answer.

Simpson Desert dune
Depending on the light conditions the dunes can appear almost incandescent. Dawn has just lit up this one.

It is tempting to attribute Sturt's somewhat melodramatic description to European eyes gazing on Australian harshness; the poor opinion of the landscape by many pioneers is well-known. However Sturt was no newchum. He was arguably the greatest of the nineteenth century explorers of Australia. Those 'first rank' explorers were all known for their achievement of what came to be called a 'major crossing', that is, they were the first to traverse large tracts of unknown territory. It is one of the themes I explore in my novel The Expedition. Sturt was the exemplar; he had done more major crossings than anyone. He was fifty years old and had seen more Australian deserts and more of the outback generally than most Australians ever have, even today. He had recently crossed the Stony Desert, about as barren as a landscape can be. His journals consistently describe the landscape, often in considerable detail. Sometimes he expresses his feelings about it, but he generally avoids hyperbole. This time was different.

The Stony Desert on the way to Sturt's entrance to hell
Now known as Sturt's Stony Desert, he crossed it not long before his furthest.

It is not a great mystery why Sturt made the analogy when one looks at his situation. He does describe a landscape that was particularly harsh at the time. When his party came to Eyre Creek (which he named a short time later) on their way into the desert he found salt encrusted everything along sections of the channel; there were pools of water with thick encrustations like ice. In nearby areas it had accumulated to such an extent it looked like snow drifts and blew into their eyes, adding to the discomfort from the heat. By September in that desert the daytime temparatures are already soaring into the forties - one hundred plus in the old Fahrenheit scale.

Simpson Desert: Eyre Creek on the way to Sturt's entrance to hell
Eyre Creek at Annandale ruins. When Sturt came here salt encrusted everything and lay thick on pools.
Simpson Desert: succulent in flower
This Frankenia groundcover may have given colour to Sturt's description of the entrance to hell. (More likely it was the succulent Parakeelyas (Calandrinia spp).)
After leaving the creek they were out in a vast stretch of very long parallel-running sand dunes that stretched as far as they could see in every direction. These dunes do not feature the sculpted beauty of other deserts, but stretch out in long tongues, their colour warming from yellow to a blazing red. As well, Sturt found a species of succulent in flower that added a 'purple and sulphurous tint between long lines of fiery red, whilst the valleys were occupied by dark masses of acacia trees'. Then there were of course the flies ever boring into their faces. But strangely, we can't be sure how much of this Sturt could actually see for himself as his eyesight was notoriously poor.
Simpson Desert: bones
Reminders of mortality are not hard to find in a hot desert.
Simpson Desert - almost to Sturt's entrance to hell
Looking northwest from our furthest, still many kilometres to Sturt's furthest out among the dunes.

Then there is Sturt's state of mind. James Poole, his personal assistant had already died at Depot Glen. His own health and that of other members of his party was becoming critical, not least from the threat of scurvy, which had killed Poole. Sturt felt a sharpened sense of his own mortality; he actually began to weigh up death against failure. His inland sea remained a pathetic dream; he was on the brink of defeat in life. In these circumstances, anyone might feel themselves at the gates of hell.

Waterhole in Simpson Desert on the way to Sturt's entrance to hell
A dingo searches for breakfast at the last waterhole (click the image to hear dingos among Pink-eared Ducks), on the Eyre Creek, on the way into the desert. It was from here that Sturt pushed on for two more days, crossing the dunes to his entrance to hell, and to here that he retreated in defeat.

When Sturt was mounting up to return from his furthest on 8 September 1845, a flight of Cockatiels flew overhead coming from the north, going toward Eyre Creek. He was struck with the thought that they may have come from some significant place he would never see. His dream died slowly. The urge to see around one more bend in the road may never have left him.

Simpson Desert: a dark valley on the way to Sturt's entrance to hell
One of Sturt's dark acacia valleys; it looks pretty with groves of gidgee trees, quite benign in the early morning sun - to someone who has arrived in an airconditioned four wheel-drive vehicle and camped overnight in a van with a fridge.

Sturt was to make one more attempt to find something, striking out more directly north from Fort Grey in October, 1845. He did not get as far as he had from Eyre Creek, reaching his final defeat somewhere at the north end of the Stony Desert, not quite as far as present day Birdsville where he would have seen the Diamantina River.

1. There are three published accounts by Sturt of the 1844-1846 expedition. The significant one for this page is:

Journal of the Central Australian Expedition 1844-5 by Charles Sturt; edited with an Introduction and Notes by Jill Waterhouse (Caliban Books, London, 1984). This volume contains the weekly letters to Charlotte; the quote is from the letter of 7 September 1845. Unfortunately the title 'journal' is a misnomer as his actual daily field journal has more recently been published as:

The Central Australian Expedition: The Journals of Charles Sturt edited by Richard Davis (The Hakluyt Society, London, 2002).

In the later 1840s Sturt had returned to England and the award of the Royal Geographical Society Gold Medal. He wrote an account of the expediton aimed at a general readership:

Narrative of an expedition into Central Australia, performed under the authority of Her Majesty's government, during the years 1844, 5, and 6: together with a notice of the province of South Australia in 1847 by Charles Sturt (T. and W. Boone, London, 1849; and a facsimile edition Corkwood Press, Adelaide, 2001, with an introduction by Nicholas Rothwell).

Both the daily journal and the narrative express Sturt's sense of revulsion at the Simpson Desert landscape, although he does not use the 'entrance to hell' simile in these accounts.

Note: The narrative contains colour plates, including an illustration of the Spinifex Pigeon Geophaps plumifera, described by John Gould in 1842. The explorers of the next generation, men such as Burke and Wills, and Alfred Howitt, would have read the Narrative and knew this species as Sturt's Pigeon; it plays a rather enigmatic role in the story of Burke and Wills.

2. C. T. Madigan The Simpson Desert Expedition, 1939, Scientific Reports: No. 6 Geology - the Sand Formations Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, 70 (1), 30 June 1946.

Madigan named the Simpson Desert after A. A. Simpson, president of the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia, during some early aerial surveying in 1929. He led the first expedition across the centre of it in 1939. Simpson personally financed the expedition and followed its progress from his death-bed in hospital via pedal-powered radio broadcasts. They crossed from west to east with camels and passed by Sturt's furthest location. Camels had not been available to Sturt. Madigan's accounts are in C. T. Madigan The Simpson Desert Expedition, 1939, Scientific Reports: Introduction, Narrative, Physiography and Meteorology Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, 69 (1), 27 July 1945 (which also contains a good map of the area showing his route), and a popular version: Crossing the Dead Heart (Rigby, Adelaide, 1946, 1974).

Many thanks to David and Nell Brook of Birdsville for permission to visit these historic localities.

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Text © Copyright Craig Robertson, 2013, except where otherwise attributed.

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