The Desert Coast, Edward Eyre’s Expedition 1840 – 41

Photographer and Author: Edward Stokes
Publisher: The Five Mile Press (Melbourne), 1993
Format: Hardback, 280mm x 250mm, 132pp.
Photos: Colour
ISBN: 0-86788-691-9


The Desert Coast recounts, with photos linked to the explorer’s journal, the single-minded drive, and bitter hardships, of the Australian explorer Edward Eyre. During the years 1840 – 41 Eyre made an almost entirely forced march around the southern coast of Australia.

Eyre, a young Englishman, rode out from the new settlement of Adelaide. He had resolved to be the first explorer to cross the continent from south to north, ‘across the centre’. The country beyond the settled districts was, except to its Aboriginal peoples, ‘un-penetrated, mysterious and unknown’. But despite his remarkable stamina and bravery, Eyre’s quest was to end in failure.

North of Adelaide, beyond the Flinders Ranges, Eyre was baffled, and he wrongly thought encircled, by dry salt lakes. Reason demanded a retreat to Adelaide. But Eyre was resolute. Instead, with a tiny vulnerable party, he planned to force his way along the southern coast of the Great Australian Bight. From navigators’ accounts the coast was known to be barren and waterless. Yet, Eyre hoped that he might discover a river, or fertile country, leading northwards towards the centre.

Cheerless and hopeless indeed was the prospect before us. The view was now extensive and decisive: for three-quarters of the compass, for as far as the eye could see, the horizon was one unbroken level.

Photographing The Desert Coast at the Head of the Bight, along the middle southern coast of Australia. There Eyre and his tiny band endured life-or-death marches between scarce waters. Roz Keep (now Roz Forestal), a Hong Kong friend, was my co-driver.

Eyre’s hopes were not to be. He and his few men barely survived. One man was killed. With a lone Aborigine, Eyre finally reached the western coast – and safety at a whaling settlement, Albany. Yet Eyre’s courage, and his forced marches between waterholes, gripped the contemporary Australian imagination. Known for his sympathy for the natives, Eyre later became an Aboriginal ‘Protector’ along the Murray River.

Edward Stokes’ evocative photographs of Eyre’s route take the reader on an exciting visual journey. The photos, taken at the sites of Eyre’s key journal entries, together with historical narrative texts and Eyre’s journal writings, tell the story. The landscape, as it was in 1840 – 41, remains waterless, dangerous – and beautiful.

The Desert Coast was the third book in Edward Stokes’ Australian exploration trilogy. It was completed by him in 1988. However, given colour production budget problems with interested publishers, the book’s publication was greatly delayed. The book was finally released in 1993, after Stokes had gained funding support for its production.