Expeditions of John Stuart into the Flinders and beyond.

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Expeditions of John Stuart into the Flinders.

The Scottish explorer John McDouall Stuart was the first European to cross the Australian mainland.

John McDouall Stuart was born in Dysart, Scotland, the youngest of nine children of William Stuart, an army captain, and his wife Mary McDouall. Stuart graduated from the Scottish Naval and Military Academy, Edinburgh, and in 1838 decided to migrate to South Australia, then barely more than an outpost of tents and thrown-up wooden shacks. Stuart soon found employment with the Surveyor’s Department, surveying and marking out lands for farmers to settle in the semi-arid scrub of South Australia.

John McDouall Stuart, c. 1860

In 1844, Stuart had the opportunity to join an exploring party led by Captain Charles Sturt. Sturt was already a legend, as he had solved the mystery of the inland-flowing rivers of New South Wales, reaching the Darling River, mapping the Murrumbidgee, and following the Murray to the sea.

Unfortunately, Sturt’s 1844 expedition in search of the hoped-for inland sea proved a disaster. The party hit two of the most arid points of the Australian landscape: the Sturt Stony Desert and the Simpson Desert. A number of the men, including the second-in-command James Poole, died of scurvy, while Sturt never really recovered from his experiences, and returned to England soon after. Stuart himself was unable to work or travel for a year.

His experience with Sturt’s party had educated Stuart of the problems with leading large groups of men into arid landscapes where there was no water. Aiming for maximum speed on his explorations, he brought small groups of men, travelling only on horseback, which eradicated the need for slow-moving wagons or travelling stock for rations. Eradicating the military barriers of rank that marked Sturt’s expeditions, he considered his men his companions, and though his men suffered great hardships, nobody ever died on one of Stuart’s missions.

From 1846-1859, Stuart worked as a surveyor, before settling in the northern Flinders Ranges where he worked for wealthy pastoralists, exploring, prospecting for minerals, and surveying pastoral leases.

Stuart’s First Expedition (1858):

In 1858, Stuart was financed by the Flinders Ranges pastoralist William Finke to head into north-western South Australia to find new grazing land, minerals, and a mysterious land which Aboriginal Australians called Wingillpin. Stuart left with only an assistant, Forster, and an Aboriginal teenager whose name does not appear in the records. They took five or six horses and provisions for a month, were guided by a pocket compass and a watch.

On this expedition, he discovered a creek (south of Lake Eyre) which he named Chambers Creek – now renamed Stuart Creek. Around what is now Coober Pedy the party turned south-west, not realising the wealth of opals below ground! After a hard trek through the fringes of the Great Victoria desert, Stuart reached the coast at Miller’s Water. Suffering from scurvy, he rested ten days at Mount Arden station, before returning to Adelaide.

The trip established Stuart’s reputation as an explorer of great ability. He had discovered extensive tracts of new pastoral land for the colony. The London Royal Geographical Society honoured him with a gold watch, and Stuart was granted a pastoral lease by the South Australian government.

Stuart’s Second Expedition (1859):

However, Stuart’s sought after pastoral lease exceeded the dimensions that he was strictly entitled to as explorer. In order to ‘fast track’ his application, Stuart offered to survey his chosen blocks himself, rather than wait for the government surveyor. After surveying his land, he aimed to reach the border with the Northern Territory (then a part of New South Wales), but fell short by several miles. However, he had discovered a ‘beautiful spring’ fed by the then-unknown Great Artesian Basin, which he called ‘the Spring of Hope’, which could enable further travel into the desert.

Stuart’s Third Expedition (1859 – 1860):

Stuart returned to Adelaide ‘fired up’ to cross the continent. The colony had reached a peak of exploration fever: at ‘home’ (Britain), public attention was fixed on attempts to find the route of the Nile, while colonial governments in Australia sought to use the telegraph (invented by Samuel Morse in 1838) to link the colonies with the wider world. In 1859, the South Australian government announced a prize of 2000 pounds to the first person to cross the Australian continent.

Stuart set out, exploring the regions around Lake Eyre and mapping the northern boundaries of the lake. He discovered new springs fed by the Great Artesian Basin, many good creeks and lakes. The party returned to Chambers Creek in 1860.

Stuart’s Fourth Expedition (1860):

In March 1860, Stuart set out from base camp at Chambers Creek for his fourth expedition. Accompanied by William Darton Kekwick, Benjamin Head, and thirteen horses, they became the first Europeans to cross the northern boundary of South Australia, entering the Northern Territory from the south. For the first time, Europeans gazed upon the ‘red centre’, discovering geographical features including the Chambers Pillar, Finke River, and the James, Waterhouse and McDonnell Ranges.

Stuart
Chambers Pillar, first identified by Stuart.

On Sunday April 22, 1860, Stuart used astronomical observation to conclude that he was in the centre of Australia. The next day, he and his companions climbed a nearby mountain, raised the Union Jack, and declared it Mount Sturt, after his former mentor. (The mountain has since been renamed Mount Stuart).

Despite their dwindling resources and failing health, they managed to pass north of what is now Tennant Creek, but were repelled by well-armed Warramunga men at a place now known as Attack Creek. Stuart and his companions returned to Adelaide, half-starved. On return, he was acclaimed as a hero, receiving the Patron’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, and was honoured with a breakfast at the White’s Rooms in Adelaide.

Stuart’s Fifth Expedition (1861):

Stuart’s next expedition was powered by intercolonial rivalry. Victoria, by far the richest of the colonies, had financed the expedition led by Burke and Wills to cross the Australian continent, north to south. They had spared no expenses, with Burke and Wills’s expedition (equipped with camels, horses, and six wagons of supplies) costing over 9000 pounds.

Time was short for South Australia. Burke and Wills had already left Melbourne in August 1860, when Stuart was at Attack Creek. The South Australian government voted 2,500 pounds to finance a mission to reach the northern coast of Australia. Stuart left on January 1, 1861, with twelve men and forty-nine horses, the first time he had led a large expedition.

On February 11, 1961, Burke and Wills reached tidal waters on the estuary of the Bynoe River, near the Gulf of Carpentaria. At that point, Stuart was near the South Australia/Northern Territory Border. He then encountered problems passing Attack Creek, but was able to circumvent this by crossing waterless scrubby country to the northwest.

Burke and Wills.
Edward Jukes Greig, Arrival of Burke & Wills at Flinders River, 1962. State Library of New South Wales.

Provisions soon dwindled and Stuart almost declared defeat – naming a newly discovered watercourse ‘Burke’s Creek’, in honour of his ‘brother explorer’. On July 1, 1861, Stuart admitted defeat, and his team returned to Adelaide.

Later years:

On his return to the city, Stuart learnt about the disaster that had struck Burke and Wills. No less than seven members of Australia’s best-funded expedition had disappeared completely.

Stuart remained convinced that he could cross the continent. Yet public interest in exploration had waned rapidly, and the South Australian government was reluctant to fund further expeditions. They were finally convinced by the prospect of building the telegraph line, and gave Stuart a further 2000 which he supplemented with private funds.

Stuart set out again in October, 1861. Passing slowly through the centre, the expedition again suffered from lack of provisions. However, this final expedition would prove successful: Stuart reached the Indian Ocean at Chambers Bay (near present-day Darwin) on July 24, 1862. He marked a tree with his initials, JMDS.

On the return journey, Stuart was so weak from scurvy that he had to be carried on a stretcher. He arrived in Adelaide on 17 December. On a public holiday on 21 January 1863, banners hung from buildings and crowds filled the streets to celebrate Stuart.

The Sixth Stuart Expedition, 1861. Stuart himself is not pictured.

Stuart never recovered from his last journey. White-haired, exhausted and nearly blind, he decided to return to Scotland to visit his sister. He set sail in 1864, and remained in the United Kingdom for the rest of his life – only two years.

Stuart would not receive credit for his accomplishments for a number years. His character – fiercely independent, with few friends – and penchant for heavy drinking led many to suspect that he had not really reached the Indian Ocean. These suspicions were furthered when the surveying party sent to find Stuart’s tree was unable to locate it. Stuart had estimated his longitude incorrectly, and had followed the Mary River rather than the Adelaide River to the coast.

In 1883, Stuart’s tree was located, and photographed in 1885, verifying his claims. The route he established through the centre of Australia became the basis of the Australian Overland Telegraph Line. In 1942, the principal road from Port Augusta to Darwin was named the Stuart Highway in his honour. As the latter day explorer and historian, Ernest Favenc, wrote:

Stuart’s victory was all his own; he had followed in no other persons footsteps: he had crossed the true centre, and he had made the coast at a point much further north than his rivals.

If you’re interested in exploration, you may want to also read our article on Five Female Explorers. 

Flinders Ranges.
Flinders Ranges, South Australia.

Odyssey Traveller delves into the history of Stuart’s explorations on our Tour of the Flinders Ranges and Outback South Australia. Beginning and ending in Adelaide, our tour stops in Port Augusta on the Spencer Gulf before heading into the outback, with a stop at Woomera and Coober Pedy. From Coober Pedy, we explore Lake Eyre National Park, taking a scenic flight over the desert landscape of Lake Eyre.

We then head back to Adelaide through the rugged mountains of the iconic Flinders Range. In the northern Flinders we visit Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary. We then head to Ikara Flinders Ranges National Park, where we see the iconic Wilpena Pound, a natural amphitheatre with its highest point at St Mary’s Peak, which has spiritual significance to the local Adnyamathanha people. We then explore the geology of the area on the Brachina Gorge Geological Trail. This walk may also give us the opportunity to see the elusive yellow-footed rock-wallaby! Ikara Flinders National Park is also home to a number of stunning gorges, including Bunyeroo Gorge, Parachilna Gorge (near the historic Prairie Hotel), and Alligator Gorge, in the Southern Flinders.

Returning to Adelaide after our Australian outback tour, we head through the Southern Flinders Ranges. We then conclude our tour with a night’s accommodation in Adelaide, though we encourage you to prolong your stay and explore the many fascinating sights of the Adelaide region: Kangaroo Island, the Barossa and McLaren Vale wine-growing regions, and the beautiful Fleurieu Peninsula.

If you’re interested in truly experiencing outback Australia, an Odyssey Tour is ideal for you. Our tours are designed especially for mature and senior travellers. While we take in the main tourist sites – Wilpena Pound, Lake Eyre, Coober Pedy – we also get off the beaten path. In the Flinders Ranges National Park we explore the rich Aboriginal heritage of the region, seeing ancient Aboriginal art on walking trails through the park. We also learn about the settler history of the region at Old Wilpena Station, a pastoral station now converted into a museum telling the Aboriginal and colonial histories of the area.

Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to the Flinders Ranges and South Australia: 

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