John McDouall Stuart
by Mal Hughes
I think it’s time we got off the tack of worrying about our future and do some stocktaking of the past. Some amazing men and women did great things for Australia. This is the first in a series, and is appropriately about an explorer.
Greatness is in the eyes of the beholder. Naturally I will pick Australians who seem to me great. This series is also open to your contributions. The person you celebrate can be living or deceased and may have worked in any field of endeavor.
We now know that the continent of Australia is a very large land mass of 7,692,024 square kilometres, compared to the area of the British Isles of 315,159 square kilometres.
Most of our early explorers originated in Britain, so to them this one country was enormous.
Because of its size and position on the planet in regard to the equator, Australia has large expanses of desert areas, having harsh climatic conditions (and flies) which any inland explorer and animal had to endure.
Some other deserts of the world also have permanent flowing watercourses, which can be harvested for stock and crops, but inland Australia has none.
Thanks can be given to our early day explorers for the lifestyle that we can appreciate today. The river systems discovered, that now supply our food and water, artesian springs,the areas of fertile soil and the mineral ores which generate most of our wealth, are the result of their providence.
One such person was John McDouall Stuart.
John McDouall Stuart was born in Fife, Scotland in 1815. At the age of 23 years he decided to migrate to South Australia.
John Stuart was the son of an army captain. He was educated at the Scottish Naval and Military Academy to be a civil engineer. Appropriately, he found employment as a surveyor under the Surveyor-General, Captain Charles Sturt.
Sorry, but there is inevitable confusion of names here. The dates for the British explorer Charles Sturt are 1795-1869, while the dates for the younger man, John McDouall Stuart, are 1815-1866. He died at age 50.
Captain Charles Sturt was involved with several exploratory expeditions into the dry interior of Australia
Charles Sturt had followed the rivers that flow westward in NSW, hoping to find an in-land sea. Of course that discovery did not eventuate, but important knowledge of some of the interior was recorded.
Charles had discovered that most of the westward flowing rivers flowed into the Darling River (which until then was unknown), and then onward into the Murray River. From there, they enter the sea, by way of South Australia’s Lake Alexandria.
John Stuart was involved with seven exploratory expeditions into the dry interior of Australia, overall. The first was under the leadership of his boss, Captain Charles Sturt, with John being engaged as a draughtsman.
They headed into the arid country of South Australia in an attempt to find that theoretical inland sea, but instead found the Sturt Stony Desert and the Simpson Desert.
After the second-in charge of the group died of scurvy, Stuart was promoted to that position. Both Sturt and Stuart suffered scurvy, but survived, however Charles Sturt never really recovered and returned to England.
The various adventures of John McDouall Stuart
After this expedition, John was employed as a surveyor on the Eyre Peninsula where he met William Finke. They both moved to the Flinders Ranges where he met up with the Chambers brothers, James and John.
The expedition’s mission under Stuart’s leadership was to find minerals and new grazing land to the northwest of South Australia on behalf of the Chambers brothers.
They took two other men, one of whom was Aboriginal. They had six horses and provisions for six weeks and a compass and a watch.
They found an isolated chain of tree-lined semi-permanent water holes, which he named Chambers Creek — a very important finding as these became water localities for later expeditions.
From here they travelled northwest to what is now known as Coober Pedy. They dealt with an unrelenting harsh landscape, coming out at Denial Bay, then went along the coast to Streaky Bay and back to Adelaide.
Stuart’s second expedition was to survey, himself, a pastoral lease granted to him by the state for the achievement of his first expedition, and extra land requested by him.
There are different versions of the reason for this venture, but it appears that supplementary finance was supplied by both Chambers and Finke. This allowed for a larger team to accompany him and supply more instruments to establish bearings.
After the survey work he decided to travel to the South Australian border with what is now known as the Northern Territory. Along the way they found reliable water at a group of springs named Hergott Springs.
They then headed west following Warburton’s track to Finniss Springs and on to their previous locale, Chambers Creek.
On the next stage they encountered a succession of good springs: Elizabeth Springs, Hawker Springs, and Beresford Springs, all fed by the Great Artesian Basin. The group travelled to as far as 27 degrees north, where John considered the country to be as good as that around Chambers Creek.
From here, although 100 miles short of the border, he decided to turn back as they were down to the last set of horseshoes!
The water supplies discovered were Stuart’s most valuable knowledge so far obtained, for the expansion of the pastoral industry in South Australia.
Governor MacDonnell sent a report to London that he thought that this country would serve as “ the most practicable route for the Electric wire intended to unite the continent with India and Europe.” He was of course referring to the Overland Telegraph Line, to be erected in the near future.
The government offered a 2,000-pound reward to
“the person who shall succeed in crossing through the country lately discovered by Mr Stuart either to the north or northwestern shores of the Australian continent.”
On Stuart’s third expedition, he had as a companion William Darton Kekwick.
The partnership with Kekwick was to be vital in all future expeditions. They spent the spring and summer exploring the area west of Lake Eyre, finding several more artesian springs. Stuart started to experience eye problems due to the glare of the sun. This, with a lack of provisions, forced the party to return.
The fourth expedition was to pinpoint the centre of Australia. Stuart had always insisted on travelling light, so as to cover the ground more quickly than better-equipped groups. This party was made up of Stuart, Kekwick and Benjamin Head.
By the time they got to what is now known as Oodnadatta, unexpected rains had spoiled much of their stores, but they continued on, using half rations.
Water became hard to find and scurvy reared its head again, while Stuart’s right eye was giving him trouble. They discovered a watercourse, which Stuart named The Finke River, after one of his sponsors.
They followed this river in a north-west direction across the South Australian border and came to the MacDonnell Ranges (so named by Stuart) — thus becoming the first white fellas to cross South Australia’s northern border.
By Stuart’s calculations they reached the “centre” of Australia on 22nd April 1860 – but it is no longer regarded as the true centre.
On this trip they also discovered the large feature shown below, which Stuart named “Chambers Pillar” after one of his sponsors.
Note: my uncle, John Hamersley guided me and a doctor friend of his, Geoff Wearne, on a Stuart-like adventure in 2008, which is when I took this photo. Our trip covered the Gun Barrel Highway, then Coober Pedy, Alice Springs, Finke River and Chambers Pillar.
When the Stuart party was about to turn back, heavy rains provided relief and they carried on to a riverbed which they named Tennant Creek. They were now only 800 miles from the northern coast of Australia.
They decided to travel on, but again lack of water and thick scrub — as well as attacks by Aboriginals of the Warramunga tribe — caused them to turn back. The creek nearby was named appropriately by Stuart as, Attack Creek. This was the first time that Stuart had not been able to bargain with the local inhabitants.
The South Australian Government voted to put up 2,500 pounds for Stuart to lead a party to find a route for the overland telegraph line from Darwin to Adelaide.
This fifth expedition was his largest, having a party of twelve men and forty-nine horses. (Can you imagine looking after that many animals!) Stuart took off again for the northern coast. This time when they reached Attack Creek, there were no hostile Aboriginals.
From there, Stuart intended to continue in a northwesterly direction to Victoria River which entered the sea. However, once again thick scrub and a lack of watering places hindered their progress.
Travelling directly north from Attack Creek they came upon a body of water that they named Newcastle Waters. After having no success in penetrating the bushland from there, and more problems with Aboriginals tribesmen, he had to turn back.
The sixth and final expedition to cover the continent, south to north, was undertaken in October 1861. This trip was once again financed by the government with a suggestion that instead of attacking the final stage via Victoria River, Stuart should advance to Newcastle Waters and thence to Adelaide River and follow this to the sea.
An injury to Stuart’s hand, caused by a horse, nearly requiring amputation of a finger, had to be dealt with before he got under way. This must have created some frustration to a man like Stuart, especially when he knew that others may be competing for the prestige of being the first to cover the continent south to north after he had put so much previous personal effort into the project.
The main body of the expedition left in October 1861 and he caught up to them after 5 weeks at Moolooloo station. This time 10 men and 71 horses made up the party. They had a good trip to Newcastle Waters, but once again had trouble with the locals.
Five more times – talk about perseverance — Stuart attempted the northwesterly direction to Victoria River, but was rebuffed by the vegetation. He turned north and eventually came across a series of small water holes leading to Daly Waters and to the northern coast.
After Stuart’s hard work, the much vaunted telegraph line was eventually erected.
2008, Modern day adventurers, ahem, bogged in the bed of the Finke River.
— Mal Hughes is a regular writer for GumshoeNews.com
Updated corrections 3/11/2016
Photos and Sources: The John McDouall Stuart Society. Australian Dictionary of Biography Online, and Wikipedia.