Stuart reaches the centre of Australia [chapter 29 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton]

[Editor: This is chapter 29 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton. Published in The Sunday Mail, 13 January 1935.]

The story of Australia — XXIX

Stuart reaches the centre of Australia

In the history of Australian exploration the name of John McDouall Stuart stands in the front rank. He had received his early training under a great master, Captain Sturt, whom he had accompanied in the expedition which had been organised in 1844 to reach the centre of Australia.

That expedition had returned baffled and exhausted, and it seemed as if the rugged wilderness and scorching plains, which extended across the continent, were going to prove an insuperable barrier to further progress. But the indomitable spirit of Stuart would not admit defeat, and, as we shall see, his work of exploration covering a period of 20 years, was excelled by none and equalled by few.

In 1858 he began his work as an independent leader, being employed by W. Finke and J. Chambers to search for suitable pastoral lands to the west and north-west of Lake Torrens. He made some important discoveries of good pastoral lands west of Lake Torrens, but the chief value of these expeditions may be looked upon as fitting him for the great task which he was about to undertake.

In 1859 the South Australian Government offered a reward of £2000 for the man who should first cross the continent of Australia from south to north. Stuart immediately made preparations to attempt the exploit.

Important discovery

On March 2, 1860, the expedition, consisting of three men in all, and 13 horses, started from Chambers’ Creek, which had been discovered by Stuart in 1858. Passing through country already well known to Stuart, the party reached the Neale, which they followed until it brought them into the unknown country. Several important creeks were discovered, which were respectively named the Hamilton, the Stevensen, and the Finke.

On April 6 there came in sight a hill which excited their attention by its remarkable shape. It was a few hundred feet in height, but the sandstone column that surmounted it was 150 feet in height, quite perpendicular, and 20 feet in width. It presented the appearance of a locomotive engine with its funnel. Stuart named this curious formation, Chambers Pillar, in honour of James Chambers, who had already assisted him in all his explorations.

Pastoral country

The country through which they were travelling came as a surprise to them. Instead of a barren wilderness, the land was well watered, and there was abundance of grass for their horses. They followed a creek named the Hugh for some time, and on April 9 they sighted a mountain chain. This was called the James, and on April 12 they came in sight of others, which were named the Waterhouse and MacDonnell ranges. The latter was named in honour of the Governor of South Australia, and is now well known as a leading geographical feature of Australia.

Stuart thus describes the view which he obtained from these mountains:— “From the foot of this for about five miles is an open, grassy country, with a few small patches of bushes. A number of gum-tree creeks come from the ranges and seem to empty themselves in the plains. The country on the ranges is as fine a pastoral hill country as a man could wish to possess — grass to the top of the hills, and abundance of water through the whole of the ranges.”

Centre of Australia

On April 22 the expedition reached a position which is very memorable in the history of Australia. On that date Stuart camped in the centre of Australia, on the spot which his former leader, Sturt, had vainly attempted to reach.

This is how he describes the proud moment of his life:— “To-day I find by my observation of the sun — 110deg. 0min. 30sec. — that I am camped in the centre of Australia. I have marked a tree and planted the British flag there. There is a high mount about two miles and a half to the north-north-west. I wish it had been in the centre; but on it to-morrow I will raise a cone of stones and plant the flag there, and name it Central Mount Sturt.”

This mountain is now wrongly called Stuart, owing to a mistake being made in transcribing his diary.

The next day the ceremony was carried out, and a fine view was obtained from its summit. The mystery of the interior had been solved at last, and it disclosed the fact that the centre of Australia was not a land of desolation, but a country abounding in grass and fairly supplied with water.

Hostile Blacks

After a short period of rest Stuart pushed steadily on to the north. So far he had done well, but now he was faced with difficulties which threatened the undoing of the party. Sickness broke out, and Stuart himself was attacked with scurvy, from which he could find no relief. To make matters worse the blacks became very hostile the farther the expedition advanced. The climax was reached when the natives set fire to the grass with the intention of separating the explorers from their horses. Failing in the attempt, they assembled their forces, and attacked the party, but fortunately they were driven off. Stuart now thought it advisable to fall back, as they had penetrated far enough to prove that the journey to the north could be completed with more men. On June 27 he commenced his homeward journey, and on August 26 he reached Bradie’s camp at Hamilton Springs.

Stuart arrived in Adelaide in October, 1860. Great enthusiasm prevailed when it became known that he had encamped in the centre of Australia, and his achievement received merited reward. The Government again came forward and voted £2500 to equip a second expedition, which was speedily organised with Stuart as leader.

The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 13 January 1935, p. 29

[Editor: Corrected: “trining” to “training”.]

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