I confess that of the European explorers of Australia, the one I’ve least found fascination for is John McDouall Stuart. I can’t fully explain why this is the case, maybe it’s his surly Scottishness (the word dour is even hidden in his name) or the fact that his exploits came from South Australia and not the east coast which I’m more familiar with. Whatever it was, I admit I have underestimated his greatness after reading John Bailey’s Mr Stuart’s Track.
Stuart was a loner who battled alcoholism and ill-health due to stomach ulcers to become the first European to cross Australia from south to north and then back again. His exploits ensured Adelaide was the base of the Overland Telegraph to the East Indies. It was a journey a long way from Dysart, north of Edinburgh, where Stuart was born in 1815 and was orphaned by age 10. After a difficult youth he enrolled at the Scottish Naval and Military Academy and graduated as a surveyor. Career options were limited due to his short stature and his chronic stomach ulcers and he sailed to Adelaide in 1838 where he joined the South Australian survey department.
Here he learned the rudiments of bushcraft travelling to the edge of settled regions for weeks at a time dividing the bush into squares for settlement. He quickly became an accomplished bushman, learning self reliance and outlasting most others on long rides, often 50km or more a day. But he lost his job after the economic depression of the early 1840s. In 1844 he heard his former surveyor-general boss and explorer Charles Sturt was launching a new expedition to the still unknown centre of Australia. Sturt believed the birds he saw flying north were heading to an inland sea and he was determined to find it.
Stuart signed on to Sturt’s expedition as a draughtsman and they left Adelaide for Menindee. Despite several sorties west from the Darling, the party found no waterholes and they were trapped for months at Depot Glen near Milparinka. After the death of a fellow traveller, Stuart was promoted to chief draughtsman and he led several sorties to find Sturt’s phantom lake. But all they found was Sturt’s Stony Desert (SA) and the Simpson Desert (Qld) and the expedition returned to Adelaide after 18 month feeling it was a failure.
Stuart’s stomach ulcers flared up on his return home and out of action for 12 months, his doctor feared he would not recover. He slowly recovered and worked as a surveyor in the outback. In the Flinders Ranges he took on engagements for wealthy business partners and landholders William Finke and James Chambers. Finke took Stuart into uncharted regions to find copper and gold. While out prospecting, Stuart would tell Finke about the Sturt expedition and his belief in Wingillpin, supposed well-watered country known to Aborigines beyond the frontier.
In 1858, Finke decided to fund Stuart’s first expedition as leader to find Wingillpin and its treasured grazing lands. Setting out from Chambers’ Oratunga mine they went clockwise around Lake Torrens and then north-west, 50km a day, heading wherever he thought he could find water. The sight of ducks was cheery and he arrived at a place he named Chambers Creek, which would become crucial in the journeys to follow. After another 12 days he was surrounded by sandhills, which gave way to bare stony plains, quashing his hopes of finding Wingillpin. He headed south low on water past where Coober Pedy would be founded, through stony plains, mulga scrub and sandhills before arriving at the Great Australian Bight and eventually finding a settler’s outstation supplied by sea.
Stuart’s three month journey was the talk of Adelaide on his return. He was a hero and a battling bushman who made great discoveries without any government assistance. Finke and Chambers studied Stuart’s map and journal with particular interest in Chambers Creek. Under Chambers’ direction Stuart applied for 1500 square miles of land but the government demanded a fresh survey to clear up inconsistencies in maps. In 1859 Chambers and Finke charged Stuart to take Chambers’ cattle to the creek and see what else of value he could find in the region. The second expedition was born.
The squatters were particularly interested in the possibility of finding gold, which had transformed the next door colony of Victoria. Stuart set off on April 2, taking a new route between Lake Torrens and Lake Eyre. He named Herrgott Springs for David Herrgott, the Bavarian artist commissioned by Chambers, who found the new water source. A week later Stuart was back at Chambers Creek where he named a hill Mount Polly after his faithful horse. After completing a survey his party headed north-west and found Elizabeth Springs named for Chambers’ daughter. They found no gold but came upon a spring of water gushing from a creekbed he called the Spring of Hope. Further springs fed by the Great Artesian Basin took them north of present day Oodnadatta but Stuart’s flaring ulcer and the lack of horse shoes forced him to retreat just 160km from the border of the Northern Territory, then administered by New South Wales.
On his return to Adelaide Stuart went immediately to Chambers’ house and gave him the new maps. Chambers retraced the maps, removed the locations of good lands and possible golds and renamed many of Stuart’s features in favour of local politicians. Mount Polly was one of the few features to survive the cull and the new sketch map was sent to Governor Richard MacDonnell, who, while angry at the missing bits, was even more galled at having nothing named for him.
The government remained reluctant to issue Stuart his permit and instead sold some of it at auction. But there was a new consideration. The rival colony of Victoria had announced a transcontinental crossing using camels and South Australia needed to send its own exploring hero to win the race. Nevertheless Chambers had already Stuart north – to find what lay north of Lake Eyre and also see where gold might lie.
Barely a month after the second expedition and not fully recovered, Stuart was off on his third in November 1859. This time his second-in-command was William Kekwick, whose quiet ways suited Stuart. They followed the Lake, even finding fish. However Stuart could not solve its mystery and it wasn’t until 1897 that its massive basin was fully mapped. Stuart meanwhile was suffering with the eye infection trachoma but still found springs he named for Kekwick. They found no gold and returned to Chambers Creek where he sacked his team except for his loyal deputy.
There at Chambers Creek he decided on his fourth expedition to find a way through to the centre with the help of Kekwick. They found only one other taker, an 18-year-old youth named Ben Head. They started in a rare downpour, floundering in mud and high creeks. Three week out from Chambers Creek they were in new country and west of Oodnadatta they named Mount Ben and Heads Range for their new companion. Heading North West they moved into the Territory where they threw their hats into the air and cheered. Stuart found central Australia’s largest river (though it was only a few pools) which he named the Finke for his sponsor.
They then found a sandstone monolith they called Chambers Pillar for his other sponsor and a week later a high broken range that finally got the governor on to the map – the MacDonnell Ranges. Heading north they found no water so they headed back but continued their hunt for the centre which Stuart judged to be his camp site at 111° 00′ 30″. A few kms north Stuart named a high mount Mount Sturt “after my commander” (though it was later renamed Central Mount Stuart by Chambers). They planted a flag in the cairn and gave three cheers as “a sign to the natives that the dawn of liberty, civilisation and Christianity is about to break on them”.
They continued north, Stuart aiming for the Victoria River, 800km away. Headed for the harsh Tanami Desert they found a spring and then a native well but then nothing. After three dry days Stuart knew he had to turn around and began a desperate journey back in thirsty ill-health. As well as scurvy, Stuart had his ulcers and severe shoulder pain when Polly dismounted him when frightened by a wallaby. Yet back at Mount Sturt they headed north again finding water and helped by thunderstorms. They found Bonney Creek, Tennant Creek and Bishop Creek but ended up back in the Tanami stuck in heavy scrub. At another creek he encountered the Warumungu people who were initially friendly. Then suddenly they had 30 warriors blocking their path screaming and holding raised spears. The three white men retreated showered in boomerangs, their way confused by deliberately lit grass fires. Stuart and Kekwick fired shots at them and they dispersed with Stuart not giving much away about how many he killed, “coming near us we gave them another reception.” He named the site Attack Creek they arguably the Warumungu were defending their scarce water supply.
They whites headed for home, an agonising slow journey 1900km to the steamer at Port Augusta. When finally back in Adelaide on October 7, 1860 everyone knew he had solved the mystery of the inland, but he rushed to Chambers who again changed names on Stuart’s maps (including Central Mount Stuart). The newspapers however were more worried about a race to the north as Victoria had mounted the Burke and Wills Expedition. South Australia was in doubt their hero could beat them if given the chance.
The South Australian government gave £2500 to outfit the expedition and offered another £2000 if successfully completed. Stuart was still weakened from his fourth expedition but interviewed nine men to join him on the fifth as well as Kekwick and Head. Stuart arrived at Chambers Creek on December 12 and set off north on New Year’s Eve with 11 men and 49 horses, his biggest and best equipped expedition. In intense heat they travelled north to the Finke River finding little water and the tracks from his previous trip to the MacDonnell Ranges were still visible. They marched on through the ranges to Bonney Creek which he hoped would lead to the Victoria River and the north coast but it dribbled away to nothing.
They headed north into the Sturt Plains and found an important new reach of water. A jubilant Stuart named it Glandfield Lagoon after the mayor of Adelaide though Chambers would again have the last word later changing it to Newcastle Waters for the British secretary of state for the colonies. Attempts to reach the Gulf of Carpentaria from here were thwarted by deep holes in the black alluvial soil which trapped the horses. Other sorties north ended in dry scrub. In nine weeks he made 11 failed attempts to break through Sturt Plains and he retreated back to Adelaide feeling he had let his men down.
Despite failing to reach the sea, his support remained overwhelming. With no news of Burke and Wills, a telegraph line that needed laying and barely 100 miles to the Victoria, the state parliament was keen to fund a sixth expedition. As that prepared in November 1861 news came through Burke and Wills were dead. Stuart was more determined than ever to finish the job. He set off from Chambers Creek in January 1862 without Head but with Kekwick and others.
They rode hard through the summer heat heading north through the MacDonnell Ranges. By mid march they were at Bonney Creek, the first running water they had seen in 1500km. Back at Newcastle Waters Stuart considered how to bypass the Sturt Plain. In the next five weeks, he led sorties until one day he found an open grassy plain fed by natural basin. He called it Frew’s Ironstone Pond after a man in his party and later found Howell Ponds. He had found a path north.
Here they were stuck for a while before they found King’s Chain of Ponds and then McGorrerey Ponds. They followed the ponds which turned into a broad and deep creek he joyfully named Daly Waters for new governor Sir Dominic Daly who replaced MacDonnell. Stuart continue to go where the water led him. They followed a mostly dry riverbed he called the Strangways and was now in lands Europeans had travelled before (Leichhardt in 1845 and Augustus Gregory in 1856). The Strangways emptied into the fast flowing Roper River which they crossed with difficulty.
Here Stuart diverged from Gregory’s track to the Gulf to find a direct route to the top of the top end. They followed a Roper tributary he called the Chambers River through Arnhem Land into a lush tropical forest and landed on the Adelaide River which had been surveyed by British sailor Ben Helpman in 1839. They moved to a parallel river called the Mary for one of Chambers’ daughters and followed to the coast where it disappeared among the mangroves. The men sloshed through water for 10 kms before they cut their way through bushes and saw the waters of Van Diemen Gulf (east of Darwin) on 24 July, 1862. “The sea! the sea!” they cried in disbelief. Stuart took off his boots and lit his pipe, having satisfied a life dream. His travelling days were over.
Except of course, he needed to get home. They had a 3100km ride to do and dwindling supplies. Stuart’s comrades noticed the life seemed to have gone out of him and he no longer led from the front. On the Roper River, Stuart was seized with shoulder pain and had trouble breathing. Though he later resumed riding, it was in constant pain and his eyesight worsened.
Heading south through Sturt Plains was just as hard as heading north and the need for water was always desperate. Stuart was afflicted with scurvy and severe malnutrition and his men thought he would die. The journey was slow and difficult with Stuart needing to be lifted onto his horse. Eventually they constructed a stretcher for him to be carried between two horses. By November the emaciated party were spotted by a South Australian herdsman who told them Chambers had died three months earlier.
With Stuart fragile, Kekwick raced on to Adelaide to deliver the news. Stuart was mobbed in every town and his train finally arrived in the city on 17 December, greeted by a huge crowd. A doctor prescribed immediate rest and Stuart lay low until planned celebrations in the new year. On 21 January Adelaide’s biggest ever crowd gathered to watch the cavalcade as Stuart formally presented his journals and maps to governor Daly. It was the same day as 40,000 people attended Burke and Wills’ funeral in Melbourne.
Stuart took to the drink afterwards, to ill to travel bush again. He retired to Cobdogla station on the Murray then back to Adelaide before quietly sailing back to Britain in 1864. There he presented papers to Royal Geographical Society but lived in straitened circumstances until he died on 5 June, 1866, aged 50. He was buried at Kensal Green with seven mourners including his sister.
Stuart’s legacy was immense. Port Darwin was established in 1869. The international telegraph line followed his route within 10 years, linking Australia with news of the world. The railway line followed the track of his second expedition and the second world war saw the need for a highway to replaced the rutted telegraph track between Alice Springs and Darwin. In 1943 it was sealed and named for Stuart though only the central sections follow his route.
John Bailey calls Stuart Australia’s greatest explorer. He spent more time in the field and travelled further than any other taking part in Sturt’s exploration and leading six expeditions of his own. He revealed Central Australia in all its rugged glory, though his promised “dawn of liberty, civilisation and Christianity” was never delivered to the original inhabitants who mostly lost their land and the lives to the settlers that followed Stuart.