Courage and Tragedy in Exploration

By A Staff Correspondent

The Sydney Morning Herald

4 February 1954

From the tiny foothold of the first settlement to a nation sprawling over the whole Australian continent was a matter of 100 years. By the 1870s the age of Australian exploration was drawing to its close as the Forrest brothers and Ernest Giles were striding backwards and forwards to show that even the huge expanse from the centre westward could be crossed.

But that first 100 years of exploration was a test of man's curiosity, courage, and ability to endure.

The remembered names among the exploring expeditions, the leaders whose names are left now on deserts and ranges, on town-ships and electorates, on wildflowers and cockatoos, are only a couple of dozen.

They were reinforced by the hundreds of unremembered individuals moving out quietly beyond the limits of settlement to find new cattle and sheep runs for themselves.

Some of the exploring expeditions were out after that reward, too. Some were doing a surveying job for the Government. Some were selflessly helping science, and others were greedily out for fame.

Their rewards were varied.

Thomas Mitchell was knighted for his travels. Successful exploration started young John Forrest off on a lifetime of public activity crowned by his becoming Australia's first peer.

But that reward came to the old statesman, and not to the young, tough, strong man whose magnificent physique and feats of endurance made him known throughout the colony as 'The Young Explorer."

George Grey, also knighted, had a distinguished career as Governor of South Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, in which his discoveries of the Glenelg Murchison, Gascoyne and other rivers in the west in 1837-39 are submerged, though it was his skill and resource as an explorer that first brought him into official notice.

A. C. Gregory ended his life as Sir Augustus but that was 50 years after his major explorations and after he had settled down to more routine work as Queensland’s Surveyor-General and then as a member of its Legislative Council.

Edward John Eyre crowned his career by being appointed Governor of Jamaica and passed into a wider world history when he hanged a Negro agitator and precipitated a celebrated investigation. It is only Australians who remember his fight with the desert country north-west of Adelaide.

But on the other side are two of the Geographical Society's gold medallists, Ernest Giles, spending his last years as a minor clerk, and John McDouall Stuart, arriving home from his last expedition blind and paralysed and struggling only partly back to health on his Government's £2,000 prize.

Above all, the explorers whose names are most vivid in the public imagination are the men whose only reward was death. The glory of Burke and Wills was the glory of a splendid failure of unequalled chances thrown away, of courageous but headstrong and blundering leadership that led only to martyrdom, a sort of Charge of the Light Brigade of our interior.

The glory of Leichhardt was that he disappeared and so set a mystery that romance has been able to speculate on ever since.

Robert O'Hara Burke and Ludwig Leichhardt were in some respects two of the more inept Australian explorers, but their fame will remain, among the greatest.

Death was never far away from any expedition. Mostly it was from hunger and thirst, but occasionally hostile blacks cost lives, too, just as friendly ones saved others.

But the story of Australian exploration opens not with blood and the jungle, but with the first crossing of the Blue Mountains by pastoralists in search of pasture. This search was itself an act of faith. The colony was still an intrusion into an inhospitable land, of which Sir Joseph Banks had written: "A soil so barren and at the same time entirely void of the help derived from cultivation, could not be disposed to yield much to the support of man."

The early settlers had found it rather more hopeful than that, but the Blue Mountains seemed a permanent barrier.

Then the drought of 1813 made it necessary to find whether there was fodder and water to the west.

Gregory Blaxland put to the test his belief that the way over the mountains was not along the valleys but along the top of the ridges. With William Lawson, a surveyor, the youthful William Charles Wentworth, and four convict servants, he set out from his farm on May 11 and after 14 days of strenuous effort reached the western edge of Mount York and looked down on the Bathurst plains.

Less than two years later there was a road over the Blaxland route, making good his claim that his discovery' had "changed the aspect of the colony from a confined, insulated tract of land to a rich and extensive continent."

Or as Ernest Scott says, it changed the aspect of a convict settlement into a colony. "Gregory Blaxland killed the convict system by breaking down the gaol walls."

Macquarie's deputy Surveyor-General, George William Evans, who was sent on the tracks of Blaxland, found the Macquarie and Lachlan rivers and noted that the flow was "near due west." It became the preoccupation of explorers to discover what happened to these and other westward-flowing streams.

Any geographical puzzle is bound to give rise to guesswork and myth. The weird flattened shape of the continent of medieval cartographers, the dolphins and the mermaids, find their 19th century equivalent in Australia's vast inland sea, which was one way of explaining the end of these rivers. John Oxley, the Surveyor-General, in two expeditions in 1817, found a dozen of these west-ward flowing streams, but in following the Lachlan and Macquarie he discovered that each of them petered out in bog.

The man who solved the problem was Captain Charles Sturt - "the intrepid, chivalrous, gentle, patient Charles Sturt." Born in Bengal and educated at Harrow, Sturt had come to Australia in 1827 as a captain with the 39th Regiment, but routine garrison duty gave no scope for his eager intelligence. He became fascinated with the problems of the settlement and a desire to perform some useful service. He gravely noted: "I should exceedingly regret if it were thought I had volunteered for these undertakings for the love of adventure alone."

Sturt's first expedition, of 1828, brought him to the Darling River, in a year of drought when the river was salt. For his next, in 1829, he determined to navigate the Murrumbidgee, which cattlemen had discovered more than eight years before.

At the Murrumbidgee he fitted a whaleboat together and decided to send back the bullocks, drays and stores that had brought them overland.

"It is a magnificent stream," he wrote. "I do not know its rate, but I am obliged to abandon my cattle and have taken to the boats. Where I shall wander to. God only knows. I have little doubt, however, that I shall ultimately make the coast."

On January 14, 1830, the river suddenly swept round the curve in a southerly direction, the boat was carried along "at a fearful rate" and Sturt and his companions were shot into a broad and noble river, 350ft wide, which he named the Murray.

A few hours later he passed the junction of the Darling. "I directed the Union Jack to be hoisted, and giving way to our satisfaction we all stood up in the boat and gave three distinct cheers," he wrote. "It was an English feeling, an ebullition, an overflow."

Sturt reached the mouth of the Murray, but then had to face the long 1.000 mile pull back upstream. They had to row 10 and 12 hours at a stretch to get clear of hostile blacks, and the men's fidelity and endurance were a tribute to Sturt's leadership. When they reached Sydney, a period of bad health and blindness followed for Sturt himself.

It is not fair to group these pioneers into degrees of merit, but if we may quote the late Professor Scott again, Sturt's two journeys were the most important pieces of inland exploration in Australian history.

They laid down on the map the main arteries of an enormous spread of rivers and opened a new rich province for colonisation. "Withal, he was a kind and considerate! Gentleman, brave as a paladin, gentle as a girl, a leader of men who was followed by his chosen band in any risk because he was trusted and beloved."

Meanwhile, a variety of other explorations were opening up other rich lands in eastern Australia. If Sturt's expedition was largely responsible for the beginning of a colony in South Australia, Hume and Hovell must have the credit of leading John Batman to believe that a good settlement could be founded in Victoria.

Hamilton Hume, a man of 27, born in New South Wales, combined a love of discovery with an ambition to own more land for himself. William Hilton Hovell was a retired sea captain. They struck south from Hume's station at Lake George on October l8, 1824, found a succession of beautiful rivers flowing through fertile valleys, and reached Corio Bay.

On the north of the Sydney settlement, rich lands opened up after Allan Cunningham, a botanist sent to Australia to collect plants for Kew Gardens, had first led an expedition north from Bathurst and discovered Pandora's Pass to the Liverpool Plains (1823) and then led an expedition to the north with which he penetrated to the Darling Downs (1827). He went on to discover the Condamine, Dumaresq, Gwydir, and Macintyre Rivers and Cunningham's Gap, the pass from the Darling Downs to Moreton Bay.

Cunningham was an earnest man, with a methodical mind and a selfless love of science. His route maps were always carefully drawn and his diaries written up unfailingly. His discoveries enriched the colony immensely.

His reward later was the post of Colonial Botanist which, he found, included the responsibility of growing vegetables for the higher ranks of the Civil service in a patch of ground in the Botanic Gardens, "the Government Cabbage Patch," as he called it.

A far more flamboyant personality of the time was Major Thomas Mitchell, who became Deputy Surveyor-General in 1827 after a period in the Army in Europe, in which he specialised in mapping.

Mitchell's expeditions were different from any others because he used to go into the wilderness to fight a battle with it. His parties, 20 to 30 strong, marched out in military order, dressed in grey trousers and red woollen shirts, which, he said, "when crossed by white braces gave them something of a military appearance."

His most important journey was in 1836, when he crossed the Murray and made south for the coast. Great plains, rich with grass, well watered and fertile delighted him.

He reached the sea at the mouth of the Glenelg and turned eastward to Portland Bay.

Two other names prominent in Victorian discovery a little later make strange bedfellows. They were Angus McMillan, a Scottish highlander working for a squatter near Goulburn, and Count Strzelecki, a Polish nobleman and geologist. McMillan's journeys of 1839 and 1840 took him through Gippsland to the coast at Port Albert. Strzelecki in 1840 also followed McMillan's tracks to some extent. Starting from the upper Murray, he crossed the Alps into Gippsland and emerged at Western-port.

It perhaps indicates Strzelecki's quality as a bushman that he was frightened of losing his way if he diverged from a straight line, so he insisted on plunging through every obstacle rather than go round it. In the end, he and his party were wearily hewing their way through the bush at the rate of two miles a day and living on koalas.

Both men earned fitting rewards of a sort. Strzelecki had a gold medal from the Geographical Society and McMillan found a site for his employer's new station.

Turning from the friendly richer areas to the inhospitable centre, the story of exploration starts with Edward John Eyre, an adventurous young Yorkshireman who in 1841, accompanied by one white man named Baxter and three aborigines, struck west-ward into the desert from Fowler's Bay.

For three months they were in an almost waterless waste, where their lives depended on digging a little water from the sand or collecting dew in a sponge. Two of the aborigines murdered Baxter and deserted. Eyre and the third black survived to be rescued by a French whaler near Esperance.

An expedition by Charles Sturt, this time his last, located the Stony Desert and earned him an invalid's retirement. Then in 1848 Ludwig Leichhardt vanished into the desert while trying to cross Australia from Moreton Bay to the Swan River.

Leichhardt, a German botanist, had four years earlier taken an expedition successfully from the Darling Downs to the Gulf country, reaching Victoria on Port Essington. On another attempt at crossing the continent, starting from Condamine, he was thrown back without success in six months.

There will always be disputes about his abilities. Ernest Favenc, himself an explorer, described Leichhardt as "a man whose character, to judge from his short career, was largely composed of contradictions and inconsistencies. Eager for personal distinction, with high and noble aims, he yet lacked that sympathy and feeling of comradeship that attracts men. Leichhardt's followers never desired to accompany him on a second expedition . . . The journal of the (1844) trip reads to a man accustomed to bush life like the tale of the Babes in the Wood, yet he managed to blunder through."

Equally unsuited temperamentally was Robert O'Hara Burke, the Victorian police inspector who led Australia's most lavish expedition in an attempt to cross the continent from south to north.

The air of excited accomplishment of those days is hard to recapture now, but for some years culminating in this expedition the colonies had found a challenge in the still unexplored interior.

South Australia had found that it was not hemmed in by a great crescent Lake Torrens, which was the early hypothesis.

A man such as A. C. Gregory was coming into the field. Gregory, it has been said, "inaugurated a new epoch in the field of discovery. No one had as yet shown such peculiar ability and ingenuity. Economy marked his progress: skill and humanity were conspicuous in his conduct."

Eventually he was to traverse great sections of Australia, but one of his important journeys now took him through from Queensland to Adelaide along the route Leichhardt had started. John McDouall Stuart had failed in his attempt to drive north from sea to sea across the centre but he had reached the geographical centre of the continent and raised a cairn and planted a flag there.

In this atmosphere philosophical societies were taking up exploration enthusiastically. In Sydney one lecturer suggested a quasi-military expedition convoying great herds and flocks and preceded by an organised force of black trackers. Another suggested balloons.

So the Royal Society had in hand £12,000 of Government and private money by the time it was ready to dispatch Burke and Wills. Ten thousand citizens of Melbourne cheered as the party started its triumphal progress.

But Burke was too reckless. The final dash did bring the leaders to the tidal swamps at the Gulf of Carpentaria. To that extent he accomplished his aim (the last words of I his scrappy notebook were, "I hope we shall be done justice to. We have fulfilled our task, but we have been abandoned").

But the late return to Cooper's Creek depot, the late arrival of Wright with supplies, the foolish thrust towards Mount Hopeless Station, the death of Burke, Wills and Gray, and the survival of John King with friendly blacks, all these are matters now of our national tradition.

There were some incidental results of the expedition. One was that the relief expedition led by John McKinlay, working north-east from Adelaide towards the Barcoo and Diamantina and then to tidal waters of the Gulf and back to Queensland, discovered a valuable stock route. "To him," wrote Sir Dominick Daly to the Secretary of State, "belongs the credit of having demonstrated the practicability of driving sheep and horned cattle across the continent."

Eighteen months after Burke and Wills, John McDouall Stuart made a south to north crossing alone a line which the South Australian Government was able to use in 1870 when it built the overland telegraph.

In that same year the Government of Western Australia sent John and Alexander, Forrest eastward to try to find a practicable route for a telegraph line to South Australia. That was the start of several expeditions in which John Forrest became the first to cross from the west coast to the centre and established that there was some reasonable grazing land north of the desert route which Eyre had taken.

Further north still the tireless Ernest Giles, after several expeditions, undertook one in which he covered 5,000 arid miles in a round trip from Adelaide to Perth and back.

This western area covered by Forrest, Giles, and the courtly Colonel Egerton-Warburton (who was doing his desert journeys at the age of 61) was the last large blank space on the map.

To-day we can still find employment for our explorers in one or two corners of Tasmania so far untrod, but the heroic era of exploration is over. Like the men of that other heroic age of discovery of the 15th and 16th centuries, these men proved that there is "no land uninhabitable, nor sea innavigable"

Australia may have some useless areas, but at least we know more about them, and in the tracks of those men now we grow or mine or shear our wealth.