Edward John Eyre (1815-1901), together with his aboriginal friend Wylie, was the first man to cross southern Australia from east to west, travelling across the Nullarbor Plain from Adelaide to Albany. Eyre was born in England where his father was a minister. He came to Australia when he was seventeen years old.
He conducted many small expeditions in New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia, combining droving sheep and cattle with exploring. Eyre was hoping to discover good sheep country. He opened up much of South Australia for settlement. Eyre wanted to open up a route to the centre of Australia.
In 1839, he set off to reach the centre. Lake Torrens was covered with salty mud. His way was blocked by swamps in one direction and by sandhills in another, so he followed the Flinders Ranges to Mount Hopeless, where he turned back.
Meanwhile, back in Adelaide, plans were being made to form an expedition to open up a route between South Australia and Western Australia. They were hoping to find good land and to open up a route to take cattle overland from Adelaide to Western Australia. Because of his skills in the bush, Eyre was made the leader the expedition. He volunteered to lead it and pay half the costs. In 1840, he set out from Adelaide. The party was made up of 6 white men, including Baxter, his station manager, an aboriginal friend called Wylie and 2 other aborigines. They took with them 13 horses, 40 sheep and supplies to last them 3 months. They planned to be met at Spencer Gulf by a government ship with more supplies.
Eyre travelled westward across what is now known as Eyre Peninsula and along the coast. The harsh conditions and lack of water forced him to send all of the members of his party back to Adelaide, except for Baxter, Wylie and 2 other aborigines. Eyre thought that a smaller party would have more chance of success. The 4 men left Fowler's Bay with 11 pack horses and 6 sheep. They would have to travel 1 300 kilometres through harsh desolate country. Because the Nullarbor Plain had no trees, there was no shade from the fierce heat of the sun. There was little water and very few ways to reach the sea because of the huge cliffs.
By the time the expedition reached the top of the Great Australian Bight, they were desperately short of water and were saved by friendly aborigines who showed Eyre how to find water by digging behind the sand dunes on the shore. For five days they travelled, but were unable to find any water. They travelled along the Great Australian Bight, suffering terrible hardship. To the north of them lay the Nullarbor Plain. Eyre was the first man to cross this plain.
Water was becoming very scarce when they came upon some wells dug by the aborigines at the present site of Eucla on the border of South Australia and Western Australia. They stayed here for 6 days. After resting for 6 days, they travelled on, keeping close to the beach. Water once again became scarce and the aborigines showed them how to break off the roots of gumtrees and suck them to relieve their thirst.
The pack horses found it difficult travelling through the sand and so Eyre was forced to leave behind their firearms, horseshoes, spare water bags and even clothing. One by one the packhorses had to be left behind. Soon their water was finished.
The party used sponges to collect early morning dew from leaves. Food was becoming scarce and so they killed a sick horse for food. It made Eyre and Baxter very ill. The aborigines tried to go on alone, but returned a couple of days later almost starving.
They were now about halfway to the West Australian coast. It was winter and because they had been forced to leave their clothes behind, they suffered from the cold at night. It was around this time that 2 of the aborigines started to cause trouble, refusing to work. One night while Eyre was keeping watch he heard a gun blast and found Wylie running towards him in alarm. Two of the aborigines had murdered Baxter and had disappeared with most of the supplies and firearms. Wylie, however, refused to go with them and stayed with Eyre. They were now feeling desperate. Eyre had seen no water for three days and ahead lay almost 1000 kilometres of unknown barren country. The aborigines, now armed, had taken most of their supplies. Eyre could not even bury Baxter as the ground was solid rock, so he wrapped him in a blanket and left him.
Eyre and Wylie trudged on and it was seven days before they found a native waterhole. They survived by killing and eating kangaroos. Wylie even ate a dead penguin he found on the shore. For over a month, Eyre and Wylie continued to walk to Western Australia. In June 1841, they came upon a French whaling ship anchored off the coast and were able to rest for a fortnight. The captain, an Englishman, named Rossiter provided them with food and even some wine and brandy.
After resting for two weeks, they were now both fit and strong, well clothed and had plenty of food. The journey became much easier. In July, they reached Albany, after travelling through heavy rains and cold weather. Their journey had lasted four and a half months.
Eyre was awarded a gold medal of the Royal Geographic Society for this incredible journey. Despite his hardship, Eyre lived to be 86. In 1846, he was made Lieutenant-Governor of New Zealand. He was also made governor in various parts of the West Indies. Eyre retired to England, where he lived until his death in 1901.
Wylie was rewarded with a pension, and he remained in Albany, happy to be among his own people once again.