By Tim Bowden
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Extra info for PENELOPE GOES WEST: On the Road from Sydney to Margaret River and Back
Their bodies were never recovered. Flinders named the site Cape Catastrophe, and a large island nearby Thistle Island after his valued sailing master. So Flinders must have felt sad and depressed as he stood on the cliff near where Ros and I had parked Penelope, and looked over a stretch of country that can only be described as desolate. Not only would he still have been grieving for John Thistle and his crew, but the miserable estuary below finally scotched any suggestion of a major waterway into inland Australia and robbed him of a significant geographical discovery.
It did rain in the night, and we woke to an overcast, drizzling morning — an uncharacteristic environment in which to visit Port Augusta’s excellent Arid Lands Botanic Gardens, first established in 1984. As we parked Penelope there was a minor cloudburst and we ran into the visitors’ centre with our rain jackets streaming. Still, even arid land plants need to have a drink occasionally. The visitors’ centre is a smart modern building with rammed-earth walls, and the Gardens — we were told — are supported by the Western Mining Corporation as well as the South Australian Government and other sponsors.
Such humane and tolerant dealings with Aborigines were to be the hallmark of all Eyre’s exploratory journeys. Sadly, many other early English travellers and settlers were not so enlightened with their first-contact experiences. After selling his cattle in Port Phillip, Eyre took a boat back to Sydney in October 1837. He was aware of Sturt’s epic voyage down the Murray River in 1830, and that no European had yet travelled overland from New South Wales to South Australia. Sturt was planning to take stock to Adelaide himself, but generously gave him good advice on navigation and how to deal with hostile blacks.