From July to November 1802, Flinders, now aged 28, decided to undertake further exploration of the east coast of Australia.
In August they made the significant discovery of Port Curtis, where the city of Gladstone was later established. When the local Aboriginal people resisted their intrusion, they fired muskets over their heads to disperse them.
At Broad Sound in September, Robert Brown came across the tree which he would later name after Flinders – Flindersia Australis – and Ferdinand Bauer made a detailed sketch of it.
Three hundred and twenty kilometres of the Barrier Reef were surveyed and named in October and not until the era of aerial photography would this survey be superseded. South of present-day Townsville, Flinders passed through the reefs and into the open sea to reach the Gulf of Carpentaria speedily. He navigated through Torres Strait in three days.
Flinders’ charting of the Gulf, commenced on 4 November 1802, would be used for the next 150 years.
The weather was oppressive, humid and wet, the landscape was monotonous, they were running low on provisions, and from mid-December an aggressive and continuous diarrhoea swept through the ship. Bush flies bothered them by day and mosquitoes attacked them at night.
They encountered indications of Asian visitors, an Aboriginal burial site and a magnificent set of cave paintings. There was a tragic skirmish at Morgan’s Island in January 1803 which resulted in the death of an Aboriginal man. His body was dissected for study, sketched by Westall, and his head preserved in spirits.
On 17 February 1803, off Cape Wilberforce, north-east Arnhem Land, they sighted six vessels. These were from Macassar and were on a regular visit for bêche-de-mer or trepang. Communication was possible because, fortuitously, the cook on Investigator, Abraham Williams, was Malay. We now know that these visits had been made for at least a century. Flinders’ encounter with these fishermen, which he wrote up in his journal, is the first documentary record of the earliest non-Aboriginal visitors to Australia.
In early March, after sailing through the Wessel Islands, Flinders was forced to abandon the survey owing to the condition of Investigator. He was utterly dejected and reproved himself for throwing in the towel but there was no alternative. He returned quickly to Sydney via the west and south coasts.
A visit to Timor to obtain supplies added dysentery to their problems and as they sailed along the south coast of Australia the body count began. Five men died before they reached Sydney on 9 June and another four after their arrival.