A military station having been fixed by the British government at Port Victoria, on the coast of Arnheim Land, for the protection of shipwrecked mariners on the north coast, it was thought desirable to find an overland route Leichhardt. between this settlement and Moreton Bay, in what then was the northern portion of New South Wales, now called Queensland. This was the object of Dr Leichhardt’s expedition in 1844, which proceeded first along the banks of the Dawson and the Mackenzie, tributaries of the Fitzroy river, in Queensland. It thence passed farther north to the Burdekin, ascending to the source of that river, and turned westward across a table-land, from which there was an easy descent to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Skirting the low shores of this gulf, all the way round its upper half to the Roper, Leichhardt crossed Arnheim Land to the Alligator river, which he descended to the western shore of the peninsula, and arrived at Port Victoria, otherwise Port Essington, after a journey of 3000 m., performed within a year and three months. In 1847 Leichhardt undertook a much more formidable task, that of crossing the entire continent from east to west. His starting-point was on the Fitzroy Downs, north of the river Condamine, in Queensland, between the 26th and 27th degrees of S. latitude. But this eminent explorer had not proceeded far into the interior before he met his death, his last despatch dating from the Cogoon, 3rd of April 1848. In the same region, from 1845 to 1847, Sir Thomas Mitchell and Mr E.B. Kennedy explored the northern tributaries of the Darling, and a river in S. lat. 24°, named the Barcoo or Victoria, which flows to the south-west. This river was more thoroughly examined by Mr A. C. Gregory in 1858. Mr Kennedy lost his life in 1848, being killed by the natives while attempting to explore the peninsula of Cape York, from Rockingham Bay to Weymouth Bay.
Among the performances of less renown, but of much practical utility in surveying and opening new paths through the country, we may mention that of Captain Banister, showing the way across the southern part of Western Australia, from Swan river to King George Sound, and that of Messrs Robinson and G. H. Haydon in 1844, making good the route from Port Phillip to Gipps’ Land with loaded drays, through a dense tangled scrub, which had been described by Strzelecki as his worst obstacle. Again, in Western Australia there were the explorations of the Arrowsmith, the Murchison, the Gascoyne, and the Ashburton rivers, by Captain Grey, Mr Roe, Governor Fitzgerald, Mr R. Austin, and the brothers Gregory, whose discoveries have great importance from a geographical point of view.
These local researches, and the more comprehensive attempts of Leichhardt and Mitchell to solve the chief problems of Australian geography, must yield in importance to the grand achievement of Mr Stuart in 1862. The first Stuart. of his tours independently performed, in 1858 and 1859, were around the South Australian lakes, namely, Lake Torrens, Lake Eyre and Lake Gairdner. These waters had been erroneously taken for parts of one vast horse-shoe or sickle shaped lake, only some 20 m. broad, believed to encircle a large portion of the inland country, with drainage at one end by a marsh into Spencer Gulf. The mistake, shown in all the old maps of Australia, had originated in a curious optical illusion. When Mr Eyre viewed the country from Mount Deception in 1840, looking between Lake Torrens and the lake which now bears his own name, the refraction of light from the glittering crust of salt that covers a large space of stony or sandy ground produced an appearance of water. The error was discovered, after eighteen years, by the explorations of Mr Babbage and Major Warburton in 1858, while Mr Stuart, about the same time, gained a more complete knowledge of the same district.
A reward of £10,000 having been offered by the legislature of South Australia to the first man who should traverse the whole continent from south to north, starting from the city of Adelaide, Mr Stuart resolved to make the attempt. He started in March 1860, passing Lake Torrens and Lake Eyre, beyond which he found a pleasant, fertile country till he crossed the Macdonnell range of mountains, just under the line of the tropic of Capricorn. On the 23rd of April he reached a mountain in S. lat. nearly 22°, and E. long. nearly 134°, which is the most central marked point of the Australian continent, and has been named Central Mount Stuart. Mr Stuart did not finish his task on this occasion, on account of indisposition and other causes. But the 18th degree of latitude had been reached, where the watershed divided the rivers of the Gulf of Carpentaria from the Victoria river, flowing towards the north-west coast. He had also proved that the interior of Australia was not a stony desert, like the region visited by Sturt in 1845. On the first day of the next year, 1861, Mr Stuart again started for a second attempt to cross the continent, which occupied him eight months. He failed, however, to advance farther than one geographical degree north of the point reached in 1860, his progress being arrested by dense scrubs and the want of water.
Meanwhile, in the province of Victoria, by means of a fund subscribed among the colonists and a grant by the legislature, the ill-fated expedition of Messrs Burke and Wills was started. It made for the Barcoo (Cooper’s Creek), Burke and Wills. with a view to reach the Gulf of Carpentaria by a northerly course midway between Sturt’s track to the west and Leichhardt’s to the east. The leading men of the party were Mr Robert O’Hara Burke, an officer of police, and Mr William John Wills, of the Melbourne observatory. Leaving the main body of his party at Menindie on the Darling under a man named Wright, Burke, with seven men, five horses and sixteen camels, pushed on for Cooper’s Creek, the understanding being that Wright should follow him in easy stages to the depot proposed to be there established. Wright frittered away his time in the district beyond the Darling and did not attempt to follow the party to Cooper’s Creek, and Burke, tired of waiting, determined to push on. Accordingly, dividing his party, leaving at the depot four men and taking with him Wills and two men, King and Gray, with a horse and six camels, he left Cooper’s Creek on the 16th of December and crossed the desert traversed by Sturt fifteen years before. They got on in spite of great difficulties, past the McKinlay range of mountains, S. lat. 21° and 22°, and then reached the Flinders river, which flows into the head of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Here, without actually standing on the sea-beach of the northern shore, they met the tidal waters of the sea. On the 23rd of February 1861 they commenced the return journey, having in effect accomplished the feat of crossing the Australian continent. Gray, who had fallen ill, died on the 16th of April. Five days later, Burke, Wills and King had repassed the desert to the place on Cooper’s Creek (the Barcoo, S. lat. 27° 40′, E. long. 140° 30′), where they had left the depot, with the rest of the expedition. Here they experienced a cruel disappointment. The depot was abandoned; the men in charge had quitted the place the same day, believing that Burke and those with him were lost. The men who had thus abandoned the depot rejoined the main body of the expedition under Wright, who at length moved to Cooper’s Creek, and, incredible to relate, neglected to search for the missing explorers. Burke, Wills and King, when they found themselves so fearfully left alone and unprovided in the wilderness, wandered about in that district till near the end of June. They subsisted miserably on the bounty of some natives, and partly by feeding on the seeds of a plant called nardoo. At last both Wills and Burke died of starvation. King, the sole survivor, was saved by meeting the friendly blacks, and was found alive in September by Mr A. W. Howitt’s party, sent on purpose to find and relieve that of Burke.
Four other parties, besides Howitt’s, were sent out that year from different Australian provinces. Three of them, respectively commanded by Mr Walker, Mr Landsborough, and Mr Norman, sailed to the north, where the latter two landed on the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria, while Mr Walker marched inland from Rockhampton. The fourth party, under Mr J. McKinlay, from Adelaide, made for the Barcoo by way of Lake Torrens. By these means, the unknown region of Mid Australia was simultaneously entered from the north, south, east and west, and important additions were made to geographical knowledge Landsborough crossed the entire continent from north to south,