J. C. Armytage, Return of Burke and Wills to Coopers Creek, engraving, in Australia by Edwin Carton Booth, opp. p. 182. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
When the English colonised Australia in 1788, little was known about the land by the colonists. Many explorers were sent, or volunteered to travel north and south along the coast, and west into the inland, seeking to cross the Great Dividing Range.
Most expeditions were officially sponsored, but some were commissioned by private investors. Explorers set out to discover rivers and land suitable for agriculture as well as to survey the land. Later, it was important to discover the best routes for lines of communication.
A major expedition usually produced a published report, known as a 'journal', and a map showing geographical features such as rivers, mountains, plains and deserts, and sometimes information about Aboriginal groups the explorer encountered. The maps named the country they described. Occasionally Aboriginal names were used, for example, Murrumbidgee. Usually, though, the explorers named places after people, such as members of the British royal family, politicians or expedition members. Other names were coined to describe geographic characteristics, such as 'Tidal River', or a place in the story of the expedition, such as Mount Disappointment.
Exploration parties always consisted of a team of men. The smallest groups numbered just two or three, while the best-equipped included gentlemen, Aboriginal guides and negotiators, smiths, carpenters, shipwrights, horsemen, labourers, horses, sometimes camels or bullocks, and scores of sheep and cattle. In either case, it became customary to speak of an expedition as if it were the work of a single man or partnership - as if the white 'explorers' were somehow alone and transcendent in the midst of their men.
Davison, G, Hirst, J and MacIntyre, S (eds.), The Oxford Companion to Australian History, Revised Edition, Oxford University Press, 2001
This exploration posed monumental challenges.
Some successful inland explorers like Major Mitchell and Edward John Eyre, who survived their journeys, travelled lightly, had good knowledge of 'the bush' and bushcraft, and were often accompanied by Aboriginal trackers and 'diplomats' in order to seek information from the local inhabitants. Others, like Burke and Wills, who refused to trade or deal with the local Aborigines of the Darling River, did so at their own peril. In between there were other explorers like John Oxley, whose expedition of men travelled independently. Oxley acknowledged, however, that his expedition's survival depended upon access to native wells and at times, the Oxley expedition's fell in with a native family'.
The explorers experienced extreme hardship and were faced with what D H Lawrence termed the land's 'lost, weary aloofness' - whether this was the impenetrable mountains or the oppressive heat and insects of tropical Australia. The efforts and sacrifices of these both brave and sometimes foolhardy men paved the way for English settlements beyond the early-settled areas of Port Jackson, Port Phillip, Moreton Bay, Adelaide and Perth.
South to north
Burke and Wills - success at a cost
Burke and Wills were the first colonists to traverse the continent from south to north. Their 1860 journey of exploration was the largest and most costly ever mounted in Australia. It was also one of the worst failures, with many men needlessly losing their lives.
Ludwig Becker, Aborigines at Menindee, col sketch, [sketched on the Burke and Wills expedition]. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.
Burke and Wills travelled from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Their 28 horses and wagons and 24 camels carried, among other things, two years supply of food and around six tones of firewood. Their expedition caravan was observed by local Aborigines who were alarmed at the damage to their water-holes. When offered baskets of fish by large family groups, Burke and Wills refused to barter their trade goods.
Burke should never have led the expedition. His impatience, questionable decision-making and leadership skills, and lack of bushcraft knowledge meant the expedition was, from the beginning, fatally flawed.
Burke's objective of reaching the Gulf of Carpentaria was successful, but at a high cost. Stranded on the way back at Coopers Creek with dwindling supplies and close to exhaustion, Burke, Wills and John King realised they could not make the long trip back. They lived for some time on locally stored nardoo seed, gradually getting weaker.
Nardoo stones used by Burke, Wills and King. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria (mp003447).
Both Burke and Wills died about the end of June 1861. King was befriended by Aborigines who gave him food and shelter. King was rescued by the relief party, which had been sent out under A W Howitt on 15 September. The relief party also removed the nardoo stones used by King. Burke and Wills were buried in Melbourne. King died nine years later at the age of 31.
The fascination with these explorers has never dwindled. The 1985 film Burke and Wills with Jack Thompson and Nigel Havers was widely seen and exhibitions such as Burke and Wills - Terra Incognita, The Diary of William John Wills and Burke and Wills - From Melbourne to Myth have all sparked interest in these ill-fated adventurers.
John McDouall Stuart
John McDouall Stuart was based in Adelaide, from where he embarked on his explorations of the most arid regions of the continent. In 1862, Stuart succeeded in crossing Australia from south to north, passing through the centre of the continent. Stuart's journey mapped out the route which was later followed by the Overland Telegraph.
Australian mainland and Tasmanian coastlines: Mathew Flinders and George Bass
Portrait of Matthew Flinders, colour glass lantern slide, ca 1910. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria (b13758).
Matthew Flinders met George Bass, a ship's doctor, when they sailed to Australia on the Reliance. It was the first of many journeys of exploration they undertook together.
Flinders was the first colonist to prove that Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) was an island. In 1798, Bass and Flinders sailed the Norfolk through Bass Strait and around the southern island. This was the last voyage Bass and Flinders undertook together as Bass mysteriously vanished somewhere in the Pacific.
After returning to England and marrying, the British government asked Flinders to circumnavigate Australia. In 1802, he sailed north from Sydney in the Investigator, passing through Torres Strait and across the Gulf of Carpentaria. On the 1802 voyage from Sydney, Flinders recruited two Aboriginal people, Bungaree, who had sailed with him on the Norfolk, and Nanbaree. The visit of Flinders and other mariners to the coast of Arnhem Land is recorded in the paintings of 'praus' and European ships at rock art sites.
Queensland to the Northern Territory: Ludwig Leichhardt
Ludwig Leichhardt was a German born explorer and scientist who led an expedition to find a new route to Port Essington, near Darwin. Ludwig left the Darling Downs in October 1844, and after a perilous journey of 15 months and over 5000 kilometres, his party finally reached Port Essington. They named the Dawson, Mackenzie, Isaacs, Suttor and Burdekin Rivers, as well as Expedition Range and Peak Range. One of his party, John Gilbert, was killed by Aborigines.
On a journey from Moreton Bay to Perth, his party disappeared. Many reasons, from mutiny to floods, have been put forward to explain the disappearance. It still remains a mystery today.
Leichhardt's expedition and disappearance inspired Patrick White to base his great novel Voss on the explorer. The broad outline of the narrative is based on Leichhardt's expedition from Sydney to Darwin.
East to west: Edward John Eyre and Wylie
Edward John Eyre, together with his Aboriginal friend Wylie, trekked across the Nullarbor Plain from Adelaide to Albany becoming the first men to cross southern Australia from east to west.
The expedition hoped to find good land and to open up a route to take cattle overland from Adelaide to Western Australia. In 1840, Eyre set out from Adelaide with six white men, and three Aborigines. They took with them 13 horses, 40 sheep and supplies to last them 3 months.
The harsh conditions and lack of water on what is now known as Eyre Peninsula, forced Eyre to send all of the members of his party back to Adelaide, except for Baxter (his station manager), Wylie and 2 other Aborigines. Eyre realised that a smaller party might have more chance of success. Their route from Fowler's Bay across the Nullarbor Plain was 1300 kilometres through harsh desolate country with little shade from the fierce heat of the sun. There was little water and very few ways to reach the sea because of the huge cliffs.
The expedition around the Great Australian Bight was defined by their desperate search for water and learning how to find it by local Aborigines on route. Aborigines showed Eyre how to find water by digging behind the sand dunes on the shore, how to break off the roots of gumtrees and suck them to relieve their thirst, to collect early morning dew from leaves and to recognise, use and look after native wells.
After Baxter was murdered and the two other Aborigines disappeared with most of the supplies, clothes and firearms; Eyre and Wylie survived by killing and eating kangaroos. In June 1841, they came upon a French whaling ship anchored off the coast at Rossiter Bay (near Esperance) where they rested for two weeks before reaching Albany in July. Their journey had lasted four and a half months.
Eyre was awarded a gold medal of the Royal Geographic Society for this incredible journey, and in 1846, he was made Lieutenant-Governor of New Zealand before retiring to England, where he lived until his death in 1901. Wylie was rewarded with a pension, and he remained in Albany, amongst his own people.
West to north-west: Gregory and the Forrest brothers
As an assistant surveyor, Augustus Charles Gregory's resource, bushcraft, facility for invention and technical expertise won him the confidence of his superiors and in 1846 he was given command of his first expedition; travelling north of Perth. In 1848 he led a settlers' expedition to map the Gascoigne River and seek more pastoral land, charted part of the Murchison River and found traces of lead which led to the opening of the Champion Bay district centred on Geraldton.
In 1855, with 18 men, including his brother Henry, botanist Ferdinand Mueller and other scientists he sailed from Moreton Bay, Queensland in August 1855 and in September reached the estuary of the Victoria River, Northern Territory. After initial set-backs Gregory led several forays up the Victoria River. 'Gregory's tree' (a boab - Adansonia gregorii ) marks the area of Gregory's 'entrenchment camp' from October 1855 to July 1856 and still bears inscriptions noting the date of arrival and departure from the camp.
Turning east the party explored the Elsey, Roper and Macarthur Rivers, crossed and named the Leichhardt and then travelled to Brisbane by way of the Flinders, Burdekin, Fitzroy and Burnett Rivers. In sixteen months the expedition had journeyed over 2000 miles (3219 km) by sea and 5000 (8047 km) by land. Gregory was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society.
John Forrest worked in the Surveyor-General's Office from 1863 to 1890 and made several expeditions into the centre of Australia with his brother, Alexander Forrest. In March 1869 he led an expedition from Perth in search of clues to the fate of Leichhardt. From 15 April until 6 August he successfully led six men and sixteen horses over 2000 miles (3200 km), inland almost as far as the site later known as Laverton. While he found neither Leichhardt nor any good pastoral land, Forrest systematically surveyed his route using the most up-to-date methods of stellar observation, and he brought back specimens for botanists and geologists.
Forrest and his brother Alexander later surveyed the route between Western Australia and South Australia taken thirty years earlier by Edward John Eyre. A telegraph line was completed in December 1877 which put Perth into telegraphic contact with London. In 1883 Forrest, as surveyor-general and commissioner of Crown lands, organized the first large-scale survey of the Kimberley district, which had been explored earlier by his brother Alexander in 1879 and Gregory.
Forrest was appointed K.C.M.G. in May 1891, the first Australian born to be knighted, and held office as premier and treasurer until 15 February 1901.
Other pioneering explorers - eastern Australia
William Nicholas (1807-1854), Portrait of Edmund B. Kennedy. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
Many other explorers opened up the country for colonial expansion.
Edmund Kennedy made many expeditions into unexplored areas of Queensland, opening up many new areas, before being speared to death while trying to open up a route to the tip of the Cape York Peninsula.
John Oxley surveyed and described the country by following the Lachlan River and across to and down the Macquarie River. Oxley then proceeded north-east, discovering the Castlereagh River, finding the rich Liverpool Plains, and followed the Hastings River to its estuary at Port Macquarie.
Charles Sturt undertook explorations of the Macquarie, Lachlan, Murrumbidgee, Darling and Murray River system. Of his commitment to exploring, Sturt's own words speak for many of the nation's explorers:
I sought that career, not, I admit, without a feeling of ambition as should ever pervade a soldier's breast, but chiefly with an earnest desire to promote the public good, and certainly without any hope of any other reward than the credit due to the successful enterprise.
Explorers' notebooks and journals
- Surveyor's notebooks - Discover Collections, State Library of New South Wales
- Journals of Australian Land and Sea Explorers and Discoverers - Project Gutenberg Australia
- John Oxley, Journals of two expeditions into the interior of New South Wales, by order of the British Government in the years 1817-18. - ebook
- John Oxley notebook and letters, 1815-1823, 1888, 1895 - State Library of New South Wales
- Lawson's journal - Discover Collections, State Library of New South Wales
- Sir Thomas Mitchell - Papers, 1708-1855 - State Library of New South Wales
- Australian Explorers - written for primary school children
- George Bass
- Flinders' journeys - Discover Collections, State Library of New South Wales
- Hamilton Hume
- Ludwig Leichhardt
- Major Thomas Mitchell
- E.V. Crampton, +20 ... remembering the forgotten: the untold stories of John Oxley's 1817 & 1818 expeditions (PDF)
- John Oxley
Last updated: 18th December 2008