Early explorers of Australia

When the first fleet arrived in Australia in 1788, little was known about the land that confronted the first settlers. It must have seemed alien to those early visitors from the northern hemisphere, and unimaginably harsh. And to its explorers it would have posed a monumental challenge. 

These pioneers travelled to unknown and hostile places mapping the world’s driest continent. They experienced extreme hardship and were faced with what D H Lawrence termed the land’s ‘lost, weary aloofness’. The oppressive heat and insects alone would have challenged the most resilient.

Many lost their lives, or like Leichhardt, simply disappeared. It was the efforts and sacrifices of these brave men that paved the way for settlement and allowed the colony to grow.

Burke and Wills – success at a cost

Burke and Wills were the first men 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.

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.

 

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 Carpenteria was successful, but at a high cost. Stranded at Coopers Creek with dwindling supplies and close to exhaustion, Burke, Wills and King realised they could not make the long trip back. They survived for a few weeks on nardoo seed and fish given to them by friendly aborigines, but Burke and Wills died at the end of June.

Their bodies were found by a search party and buried in Melbourne. King survived the trauma by living with a tribe of aborigines who gave him food and shelter. He 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 IncognitaThe Diary of William John Wills and Burke and Wills – From Melbourne to Myth have all sparked interest in these ill-fated adventurers.

Hume and Hovell

Hamilton Hume, an experienced explorer, and William Hovell, a merchant seaman and accomplished navigator, undertook a journey south from Lake George to the Port Phillip at the request of Governor Thomas Brisbane . During their expedition they became some of the first Europeans to see the Snowy Mountains.

With six servants and four months supplies, they departed from Hume’s station at Lake George on 17 October 1824.  On 22 October they crossed the Murrumbidgee River and ventured into mountainous country. The rough country necessitated leaving their carts behind and loading everything on the bullocks – a better option than the horses in the rough terrain. Almost a month after their departure from Lake George, they had reached the Murray River (which they originally called the Hume River).

They then headed southwest and discovered and crossed the Ovens and Goulburn Rivers (originally named the Hovell River). They ventured past Mt Disappointment and Mt Macedon, crossed the Werribee River, and by 16 December 1824 set up camp at the present site of Geelong. Due to their longitude calculations being around 40 miles out, they actually thought they were at Western Port, not Port Phillip.

Their three month expedition confirmed that the land between Sydney and Port Phillip was suitable for farming and grazing. The Governor, Sir Thomas Brisbane, described it as ‘new and valuable country’.

Mathew Flinders and George Bass

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 to first man to circumnavigate Australia and it was he who suggested the name Australia, which was adopted in 1824. Several places have been named after him such as Flinders Island.

Flinders was the first 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. They discovered and explored the Tamar River and mapped the north coast of Tasmania before sailing down the west coast and on to the Derwent River, where Hobart now stands.

Ludwig Leichhardt

Ludwig Leichhardt was a German explorer and scientist who explored parts of Queensland and the Northern Territory.

In October 1844, Ludwig left the Darling Downs on an expedition to find a new route to Port Essington, near Darwin. After a perilous journey of 15 months and over 5000 kilometres, his party finally reached Port Essington. They had travelled through good country, naming 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 search parties went out to try and find traces of the party. Some of these found bones, but they were not able to prove that it was any of Leichhardt’s party. 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.

Other pioneering explorers

There have been many other explorers whose bravery and pioneering spirit is central to our nation’s history.

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 Forrest made several expeditions into the centre of Australia. He and his brother, ‘became the best known explorers in Western Australia’ and later he became Western Australia’s first Premier.

Major Thomas Mitchell opened up new grazing lands in the southern parts of Victoria. These he named ‘Australia Felix’. He led four main expeditions. During these expeditions he often fought with aborigines, sometimes killing them and also losing some of his own men.

Edward John Eyre trekked across the Nullarbor Plain from Adelaide to Albany. In doing so he became the first man to cross southern Australia from east to west and was the recipient of a gold medal of the Royal Geographic Society for this groundbreaking journey.

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 our 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.