- Hordern, Marsden
- Biographies and personal histories, Ship histories and stories, History - pre-Federation
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2003 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The early naval surveyors were pioneers of a special breed facing the hazards of an unexplored coastal wilderness. This extract details the lucky escapes of Leut J.L. Stokes RN of HMS Beagle off Northern Australia in 1839.
Extract from ‘Mariners are Warned – John Lort Stokes and HMS Beagle in Australia 1837-1843’
By kind permission of the author, Marsden Hordern
WITH THE EXPLORATION OF THE VICTORIA RIVER behind them, Wickham now planned to sail direct to Swan River to refit before continuing the survey of the still unexplored parts of the Western Australian coast. Before they left, however, Stokes had to complete his examination of the river’s mouth. This work was in no way exceptional, but over the next three days it brought him twice to within an inch of death.
His first narrow escape – like so many of Stokes’s predicaments – resulted from his carelessness in ignoring the warning given by the tides in King Sound. Another warning, when he had been hunting curlews near Fossil Head, had also gone unheeded. There were some lessons Stokes could never learn.
He had landed at low tide on a sandy point to the west of Quoin Island and, after sending the boat off to gather driftwood and cook dinner, had set up his theodolite to take angles. Engrossed, he forgot both time and tide and, looking around at last, he was astonished to see that his vantage point had become an island, separated from the mainland by a channel several yards wide, running like a mill-race, and growing wider and deeper by the minute. The land on which he stood would soon be immersed.
Alarmed, he scanned the shore for a boat. Not a sign. He looked again at the channel, and his alarm turned to chill. Lying in its shallows was a large dark shape: an ‘alligator’ waiting for him.
Stokes summed up this now all too familiar situation quickly. He could not afford to wait for the boat, he had to cross the channel. And to do this he must be rid of his clothes. He tore them off, tied them to his head, and ran to the far end of the bank. But the crocodile, like Stokes, was a shrewd hunter, and when Stokes reached the water’s edge it was again waiting for him. He turned and ran to the other end, his feet sinking in the soft sand. The crocodile met him there. Now panting, Stokes ran back once more. And once more it had reached the end before him.
By now Stokes’s alarm was subsiding, and he began to think more clearly. Both he and the crocodile were flagging, but he noticed that while it could still outpace him in the water, it was taking a long time to turn. ((‘It should be emphasized, however, that like most other reptiles, crocodillans tire very quickly and . . . maximum speed either in water or on land could not be sustained for very long.’ (Letter from Dr. Allen E. Greer, Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians, Australian Museum, Sydney, to the author, 17 July 1980.))) He must take advantage of that.
Again he ran along the channel with the crocodile swimming beside him. Again he stopped. The crocodile also stopped. Stokes turned. The crocodile began to turn and, while it was manoeuvring itself around, Stokes dodged back, threw himself into the water behind it, plunged across its tail, and scrambled out on the opposite bank.
By the time the boat returned, Stokes had recovered from his fright and, as they were able to retrieve the theodolite which he had left behind, no harm had been done. But the incident embarrassed him – as well it might – for he did not mention it in his journal. Fortunately Pasco, in whom he confided, recorded it for posterity.
Stokes’s next brush with death happened only three days later, and again on land. Shore excursions in this hostile country were proving perilous for him: already its tides had almost drowned him and its creatures had nearly devoured him. Now its men were waiting for him, and this time he was not to escape so lightly.
Next day several parties went ashore early: Helpmann to make tidal observations; Bynoe, Tait and Dring to shoot; and Stokes to check his chronometer. The cliff here was wooded on top and, realizing this could screen lurking blacks – as it had screened those who had menaced Fitzmaurice and Keys at Escape Cliffs – Stokes chose a spot about sixty yards from it. From such a distance, he thought, he would be safe from spears.