The Australian explorers
by George Grimm
Chapter 14: John M'Douall Stuart's Expeditions in the South to the Centre, and Across the Continent
3815206The Australian explorers — Chapter 14: John M'Douall Stuart's Expeditions in the South to the Centre, and Across the ContinentGeorge Grimm



The brave adventurer who is next to engage our attention must be placed in the front rank of explorers. John M'Douall Stuart was excelled by none, and equalled by few, in the special qualities which command success in the arduous enterprise to which he devoted his life. As a practical bushman he probably stands without a rival. From first to last he spent over twenty years in the exploration of Australia, during which time he was the leader of six expeditions, in all of which he made important discoveries, and never failed to bring home his men, who had put their lives in his keeping. He first served under a great master. Captain Sturt, whom he accompanied in the capacity of draughtsman to the expedition which started for the centre of Australia in 1844. His own responsible and eminently successful labours in the same field will be sketched in the sequel. It is not too much to claim for M'Douall Stuart the palm of martyrdom in the cause which lay so near his heart. It is true that after his work was done he was not left without honours, and also rewards, both in land and money, but by that time he had lost the capacity for enjoying any of these things. From his last journey he returned, or rather was carried, more dead than alive, racked with the pains of scurvy, contracted in the centre of the continent, which he was the first to discover. He subsequently rallied a little, but never recovered his health, and died in England in 1869.


The first of Stuart's journeys was undertaken on the solicitation, and also at the expense, of his friend Mr. Wm. Finke, and had for its object the discovery of new pastoral country in the unknown territory to the west and north-west of Lake Torrens. On the 10th of June, 1858, Stuart started from Mount Eyre with only two men, a white man and a blackfellow, taking with him a small complement of horses and a too scanty allowance of provisions. The first section of the journey, which was rugged and sterile, lay to the west of Lake Torrens, whose surface was occasionally sighted. Water was found at moderate distances on this part of the route, but the rough and stony country proved a serious difficulty to the horses, which were imperfectly shod. This contingency had been strangely overlooked, and no shoes had been provided for the journey. The blackfellow, who was supposed to know this country intimately, soon got bewildered, and proved of no service for the purpose he was intended to forward. The leader, being thus thrown upon his own resources, was also greatly inconvenienced in shaping his course by the frequent and extraordinary illusions of the mirage of the desert. Referring to one of these perplexing occasions he says:—"I think we have now made the dip of the country toward the south, but the mirage is so powerful that little bushes appear like great gum-trees, which makes it very difficult to judge what is before us; it is almost as bad as travelling in the dark. I never saw it so bright or so continuous as it is now; one would think the whole country was under water." Failing to obtain the object of his search in the north-west, Stuart now directed his journey to the south and east, exploring the central region between Lake Torrens and Lake Gairdner. In this quarter some small patches of fairly good country were found, but the water, in the few places where it was met with, proved to be as bitter as the sea. The blackfellow now, thinking it time to shift for himself, took the way that pleased him best, leaving only the white man, Foster, to assist Stuart in the thick of his difficulties. Hope of a successful issue to their labours was now fast ebbing from the breasts of these indomitable adventurers. After journeying hither and thither for 1,000 miles, they had failed in the prime object of the expedition, their provisions were rapidly disappearing, and the horses were too footsore to travel an ordinary day's march. At this stage the monotony of the scene was broken by a high mountain coming into view, which Stuart named Mount Finke, and from the summit of which he ventured to hope for a better prospect, or, if not, to alter his course. "If I see nothing fom the top of the mount tomorrow," said he, "I must turn down to Fowler's Bay for water for the horses. … As I could not remain quiet, I got on one of the lower spurs of Mount Finke to see what was before me. The prospect is gloomy in the extreme. I could see a long distance, but nothing met the eye but a dense scrub, as black and dismal as midnight." From this mount, accordingly, a straight course was steered to the sea-coast, during which every camping-place is marked on the map by the name of "desert." In the matter of provisions, they had for some time been reduced to one meal a day, and toward the close of the journey it was found that only two more remained to carry them a distance of 100 miles. In this dire extremity they were glad to feed on kangaroo mice, which, happily, were here to be found in great abundance. They are described as elegant little creatures, about four inches in length, of the shape of a kangaroo, with a tail terminating in a sort of brush. By means of this resource against starvation the explorers were enabled to cross the remaining stages of the desert, and so reached the habitations of civilized men.


Mr. Stuart was the first explorer who reached the centre of Australia. The journey which led to this memorable achievement is worthy of detailed narration; but before entering upon this story it may be proper to say a few words on two preliminary essays in exploration, which, in some measure, opened the way to this much-desired result.

About six months after his return from his first expedition, this indefatigable explorer started on a new journey to examine the extensive territory lying to the north of Lake Torrens and the east of Lake Eyre. This country proved, in some respects, a surprise to Australian discovery. It turned out to be unusually well watered, being furrowed at moderate intervals by a series of creeks, some of which were entitled to the name of rivers. But its most astonishing feature consisted in the myriads of springs, in groups ranging from two or three to more than a dozen in number. Some of these sent forth a stream of water which might have turned a mill-wheel, and continued to run a mile from the source. From this circumstance the whole territory has, not inaptly, been called the "spring" country. Another dominant feature was seen in the extraordinary abundance of quartz reefs, many of which bore plain indications of being auriferous, but, of course, could not be fairly tested by any appliances which were then to hand. Towards the close of the same year (1859) another journey was made to this part of Australia, when more accurate surveys were obtained, and the boundaries of a number of squatting runs laid down. In both of these expeditions important service was rendered to the better knowledge of this country, but they were especially valuable as furnishing Stuart with an advanced starting-point for his heroic project of crossing the continent from south to north. This arduous, but happily successful, enterprise will now be described in its main outlines.

This expedition, which consisted of only three men and thirteen horses, set out on the 2nd of March, 1860, from Chambers's Creek, a valuable water supply which had been discovered by Stuart in 1858. For some time his course lay through an extensive tract of country which, though yet unoccupied, had become well known to this, its first explorer. Toward the northern part they followed the River Neale, which furnished plenty of water, and led them into the unknown country. The next important creeks to be discovered and crossed were the Hamilton, the Stephenson, and the Finke. After crossing the latter there began to heave into sight a strange and striking mountain structure, which presented the appearance of a locomotive engine with its funnel. "We proceeded," says the journal, "towards this remarkable pillar through heavy sand-hills covered with spinifex, and, at 12 miles from last night's camp, arrived at it. It is a pillar of sandstone, standing on a hill upwards of 100 feet high. From the base of the pillar to its top is about 150 feet, quite perpendicular, and it is 20 feet wide by 10 feet deep, with two small peaks on the top. I have named it Chambers's Pillar, in honour of James Chambers, Esq., who has been my great supporter in all my explorations." Much good country had been traversed before this point was reached; indeed, the whole of this route was a surprise in this respect, as it had been expected to land them in a great central desert. Instead of finding a barren wilderness, the continuation of the journey brought them into another splendid tract, watered by a creek named the Hugh, which, after being followed for a long distance, terminated in a high mountain-chain. To scale its rugged flanks and penetrate the dense thickets of mulga proved to be a most formidable task, their clothes and skin being torn in forcing a passage through the living and the dead timber. This range—the James—was succeeded by two other chains, which were named the Waterhouse and the M'Donnell Ranges, the latter of which have since become a well-known landmark in the history of more recent explorations. Stuart thus describes the view he obtained from the north gorge of these mountains:—"From the foot of this for about five miles is an open grassy country, with a few small patches of bushes. A number of gum-tree creeks come from the ranges and seem to empty themselves in the plains. The country in the ranges is as fine a pastoral hill-country as a man could wish to possess—grass to the top of the hills, and abundance of water through the whole of the ranges." Still heading northward, the expedition reached a position, on the 22nd of April, which is very memorable in the annals of Australia. The goal which had proved the incitement to so many sacrifices during a long period of our history was now reached at last. Mr. Stuart was standing in the centre of the continent. This achievement, of which he might well have been proud, is intimated by the following modest entry in his diary:—"Today I find by my observation of the sun—111° 0' 30"—that I am now camped in the centre of Australia. I have marked a tree and planted the British flag there. There is a high mount about two miles and a half to north-north-east. I wish it had been in the centre; but on it, tgmorrow, I will raise a cone of stones and plant the flag there and name it Central Mount Stuart." This ceremony was performed on the day following, when a fine view was obtained from the summit of this high mountain. The aspect of the central region of Australia must have been a surprise to the first discoverer, for it falsified the prophecies c>f half a century. The centre of Australia was as much a matter of curiosity and conjecture in our early history as the North Pole is at the present time. Oxley was first in the field, with his pet theory of an inland sea. This conjecture received its quietus from Sturt, but it was only to make room for the opposite fallacy of a stony desert. Now, at last, when the veil was lifted and the reality disclosed, it turned out to be just that which nobody had prophesied and few had ventured to expect. It was simply a fine country, abounding in grass, and fairly supplied with water. Both now and afterwards it was used by Stuart as a recruiting-ground for his toil-worn expedition. Leaving part of his little force here for the present, the leader made a tentative effort to ascertain whether there was any practicable route out west to the Victoria River. Finding none, he returned, and kept steering his former course. As if the centre had been the natural goal of the journey, he met with nothing but difficulties in the attempt to penetrate further to the north. He himself had fallen a victim to scurvy, which was only slightly relieved by the native cucumber, his only resource. Water became even harder to find. The horses, also, which were too much of the cart breed, did not well stand a hard pinch. Above all, the blacks, who had never been friendly, became the more hostile the further the expedition advanced. The crisis was reached when they made an encampment on Attack Creek. Here the aborigines set fire to the grass, and tried every stratagem to separate the explorers from their horses, after which there would soon have been an end to the expedition. Failing in this device, they next mustered their forces and attacked the strangers in the proportion of ten to one. Even so, they had to come off second best for the time being. Nevertheless, Stuart deemed it scarcely prudent to oppose himself to a tribe of warlike blacks in the centre of Australia, with an army consisting of two men, all told, himself being commander-in-chief. Nothing further remained but to submit to the inevitable, which he accordingly did, and returned to the most northern settlements of South Australia.


Mr. Stuart reached Adelaide in October, 1860. When it became known that he had encamped in the centre of Australia and pushed his way considerably further north, the public enthusiasm again rose to fever heat in the cause of exploration. The Parliament, which never failed in its duty in this business, again came forward with a vote of £2,500 to provide for another and a larger expedition, which was speedily organized, with the old and well-tried explorer for its leader. He took with him seven men, thirty horses, and thirty weeks' provisions. The former route was followed, with a little deviation, as far as Attack Creek, the scene of the previous repulse. In all his journeys Stuart had the shrewdness to search out and follow up mountain-systems, as being the physical conformation most likely to furnish the needful supply of water. Still on the look-out for this good fortune. Attack Creek had not been far left in the rear when an elevated chain—the Whittington Range—was discovered, and followed for a long distance. It led them on to Tomkinson's Creek, containing a large supply of water, which served as a base for immediate operations, and was afterwards turned to good account as a retreat in time of difficulty. Another mountain-system—named the Warburton—was met with in the next stage of the journey. Like the former, it was heading too much to the north to suit Stuart's intention of making for the Victoria River, on the western coast. Breaking away from the mountains, repeated attempts were made to find a route" in the required direction. The high lands soon shaded away into an interminable, but very fertile champaign country, which received the name of Sturt's Plains, in honour of the "father of Australian exploration." But it proved to be absolutely arid, and blocked on all sides by impenetrable scrubs, varied only by low red sand-hills. Through these impervious scrubs, on the west, a passage would have to be forced, or the expedition must end in failure. The latter alternative was not to be thought of till every expedient had been exhausted. Leaving a portion of his force in the depôt, Stuart, three several times, started with a light party to pierce his way through the most forbidding obstacles he had ever experienced in his journeys. It was with the greatest difficulty the horses could be brought to face this formidable barrier; and when forced to do so, the animals were injured and the explorers' clothes torn to shreds. It was hard to persevere in the face of such sacrifices; yet it was done manfully enough, and might have been crowned with success but for the absolute failure of water. The furthest point reached in these assaults on the impervious west was only a hundred miles distant from Gregory's last camp on the Camfield; and if this short space could have been bridged over the final aim of the expedition would have been easily attained. To accomplish this object, Stuart did all that man could do in such a situation. Nothing could be more admirable than the pluck and perseverance displayed in this conflict with the impossible. But he, too, like all mortals, had to yield to stern necessity. With a heavy heart he turned his back on the coveted north-west and retreated to the old camping-ground on the Tomkinson. Even yet unwilling to leave any alternative untried, he now modified his plan, and proposed to strike north for the Gulf of Carpentaria, if such a course might be possible. This, unhappily, it proved not to be. His path was effectually barred in this direction also. After the most desperate effort nothing remained but to abandon the enterprise and return to the haunts of civilization. The following entry in his journal shows with how much regret this retreat was forced upon him:—"It certainly is a great disappointment to me not to be able to get through, but I believe I have left nothing untried that has been in my power. I have tried to make the Gulf and the river (Victoria) both before rain fell and immediately after it had fallen, but the results were the same—unsuccessful. I shall commence my homeward journey tomorrow morning. The horses have had a severe trial from the long journeys they have made, and the great hardships and privations they have undergone. On my last journey they were one hundred and six hours without water." So ended this second heroic effort to cross the continent. Notwithstanding his defeat, Stuart had succeeded in penetrating one hundred miles beyond the furthest point reached on the previous journey. His most advanced position was lat. 17° long. 133°.


Now, at last, we are to see the reward of perseverance. If Fortune has any favour for the brave, it was time to smile on John M'Douall Stuart. Two noble efforts had ended in failure, but this third attempt was to be crowned with complete success, and land the explorer on the much-coveted shores of the Indian Ocean. A month had not elapsed since his return from the second journey when the Government of South Australia despatched him on his third and final expedition. Being provided with reinforcements, he left the settled districts in January, 1862, and by the 8th of April had reached Newcastle Water, the most northern camping-ground of the former journey. Without loss of time he made a renewed attempt to pierce the north-western scrub and carve his way to the Victoria River. But again his Herculean struggles proved to be only wasted effort. This route was accordingly abandoned, finally and for ever, as being absolutely impracticable. The line of march was now directed to the north, with a view of cutting the track of Leichhardt's and Gregory's discoveries, and thus gaining the Roper River, which enters the Gulf of Carpentaria. This new project proved more easy in the accomplishment than he had ventured to expect. There were, of course, stubborn obstacles to be overcome; but water, the great requirement, was found at manageable intervals, bringing the party on, by a succession of ponds, first to the Daly Waters, and thence to an important river, which was named the Strangway. This bridge over the wilderness conducted them to the much-desired Roper River. It is described as a noble stream, draining a magnificent country, and exceeding in volume any the explorers had hitherto seen. This clue having been followed in the direction of its source, led the expedition a long way towards its destination on the shores of the Indian Ocean. After it failed them by turning too far to the north, only a short intervening tract had to be crossed before the Adelaide River, one of the known western streams, was reached. Again the route lay through some of the finest country in Australia, containing much that was new both in flora and fauna. The valley of this river was constantly revealing to the eyes of the strangers some botanical surprise—giant bamboos, fairy-like palms, and magnificent water-lilies on the placid bosom of its longer reaches. There was only one drawback, a,nd that a rather serious one. It was the paradise of mosquitoes, which made a common prey of the intruders, allowing them no rest by night, and leaving mementos of their attachment that could not be forgotten during the day. But through pleasure and pain the expedition pushed on towards the attainment of its purpose. The leader so managed the last stage as to make the conclusion of the journey a surprise to his men. He knew the ocean to be near at hand, but kept the good news a secret till his party should be in a position to behold it with their own eyes. "At eight miles and a half," says he, "we came upon a broad valley of black alluvial soil, covered with long grass. From this I can hear the wash of the sea. On the other side of the valley, which is rather more than a quarter of a mile wide, is growing a line of thick heavy bushes, very dense, showing that to be the boundary of the beach. Crossed the valley and entered the scrub, which was a complete network of vines. Stopped the horses to clear a way, while I advanced a few yards on the beach, and was gratified and delighted to behold the waters of the Indian Ocean, in Van Diemen's Gulf, before the party with the horses knew anything of its proximity. Thring, who rode in advance of me, called out 'The sea!' which so took them all by surprise, and they were so astonished, that he had to repeat the call before they fully understood what was meant. They then immediately gave three long and hearty cheers. … I dipped my feet and washed my hands, as I had promised the late Governor, Sir Richard M'Donnell, I would do if I reached it. Thus I have, through the instrumentality of Divine Providence, been led to accomplish the great object of the expedition, and to take the whole party safely as witnesses to the fact, and through one of the finest countries man could wish to behold. From Newcastle Water to the sea-beach the main body of the horses have been only one night without water, and then got it the next day." The Union Jack was now hoisted, and near the foot of a marked tree there was buried, in a tin, a paper containing the following inscription:—"The exploring party under the command of John M'Douall Stuart arrived at this spot on the 25th day of July, 1862, having crossed the entire continent of Australia, from the Southern to the Indian Ocean, passing through the centre. They left the city of Adelaide on the 26th day of October, 1861, and the most northern station of the colony on the 21st day of January, 1862. To commemorate this happy event they have raised this flag, bearing his name. All well. God save the Queen!" Burke and Wills had crossed the same continent to the Gulf of Carpentaria nearly eighteen months earlier, but this achievement in no way detracts from the merit of Stuart's success, for his journey was entirely independent of their, or any other, expedition. The felicitous termination of this splendid enterprise marks a principal era in the history of Australian exploration. It led directly to three important results—the annexation of the northern territory to South Australia, the establishment of a colonial settlement at Port Darwin, and the construction of the transcontinental telegraph along almost the whole route of this expedition.