Home' Stuart Highway Guidebook : Stuart Highway Contents 10 The Stuart Highway
Melbourne once the submarine cable reached Australia.
The South Australian Government was anxious it should be
via Adelaide and voted a reward of £2000 for “the first
person who shall succeed in crossing through the country
lately discovered by Mr Stuart”.
March 1860 saw them again heading north, Stuart, his
tried second in command Kekwick and a third man, Ben
Head. The party passed over familiar territory from spring
to spring, through sand hill country, grassland and spinifex .
Finally Stuart writes “April 22 Today I find from my
observations of the sun LL 111° 00’ 30” that I am camped
in the centre of Australia.” Next day “Took Kekwick and the
flag and went to the top of the Mount but found it to be much
higher and difficult of ascent than I supposed; built a cone of
stones, in the centre of which I placed a pole, with the British
flag nailed to it. On the top of the cone I placed a small bottle
in which is a slip of paper stating by whom it was raised with
our signatures to it. On finishing we gave three cheers for the Flag the
emblem of civil and religious liberty and may it be a sign to the natives
that the dawn of liberty, civilisation and Christianity is about to break
upon them. I then named the mount Sturt after the father of Australian
Exploration for whom we also gave three hearty cheers.” (Later renamed
Central Mount Stuart).
It must have given Stuart great satisfaction to be the first
European, looking at the view from the top of the mount. It was not
an arid desert nor an inland sea, but a beautiful country with red
sandstone hills, grasslands, gum trees and creeks.
The goal being the northern sea, they pushed on. There were
many groups of natives in this country. Many times on approaching
water, they came to hastily abandoned camps. On 26th June, near
dusk, the party was retracing their tracks along the creek “when
suddenly up started three tall, powerful men, fully armed, having a
number of boomerangs, waddies and spears; their distance from us being
about 200 yards,..I then faced them, making all sorts of signs of
friendship I could think of. They seemed to be in a great fury, moving
their boomerangs about their heads. They were now joined by a number
more...upwards of 30 - every bush seemed to produce a man. ...we
received a shower of boomerangs,..they then commenced jumping,
dancing, yelling...and setting fire to the grass...Still I felt unwilling to fire
upon them, and tried to make them understand that we wished to do
them no harm; they now came within forty yards of us and again made a
charge, throwing their boomerangs which came whistling and whizzing
past our ears. One spear struck my horse. I then gave orders to fire...Our
pack horses took fright when they heard the firing and fearful
yelling...sent Ben after the horses...while Kekwick and I remained to cover
“We soon got in advance of our enemies, but they kept following...
numerous, bold and daring. Their arrangements and manner of attack
were as well conducted and planned as Europeans could do it”.
Being such a small party and with the possibility of further
hostilities ahead, Stuart reluctantly decided to turn back. By this time
food was short and men and horses were weak and very much feeling
the effects of deprivation. They reached Adelaide in October and
were greeted with great enthusiasm. The courage and skill of John
McDouall Stuart was acknowledged by the Royal Geographic
Society’s highest honour, the Patron’s Gold Medal for his
discovery of the centre of Australia.
There was news of a Victorian Expedition led by Robert
O’Hara Burke with William Wills as surveyor. The Royal
Society of Victoria had raised £12,000 for a well-organised
expedition; twenty-seven camels, specially imported from
Peshawar, twenty-eight horses, several wagons, tents and
provisions for seventeen men for eighteen months. It was a gala
day when they left Melbourne on 10th August, 1861 and a
crowd of ten thousand had farewelled them. They were to
proceed along a route similar to that which Captain Sturt had
taken to Cooper Creek, and then on to the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Note left on Central Mount Stuart.
Burke and Wills
Stuart was urged to go back out there and be the first to cross
the continent. Rivalry between the Colonies was strong.
So far, all of Stuart’s expeditions had been privately funded.
After it was seen that inadequate means alone had led to his retreat,
a larger, Government-backed expedition was planned. The outlay of
£2500 was modest compared to the Victorian Expedition; however
this time, the party consisted of ten men with forty-nine horses.
At the beginning of January 1861, Stuart’s expedition was on the
way and travelled through the full brunt of the summer sun. Around
the Neales area, the natives set fire to grass around their camp.
Further on, although there was permanent water, the MacDonnell
Ranges were very dry and they were delighted when heavy rain fell
which made the creeks run. They passed Tennant Creek, then Attack
Creek without incident. The party travelled on through country
with stony rises, spinifex and gum, on past the Ashburton Range,
across Sturt Plain. The horses were constantly stumbling into holes
and cracks concealed under the long grass and men and horses
became “quite worn out”.
Sturt Plain had once been a freshwater lake, but now finding
water was a difficult task. The main party camped at Hawkers
Creek while Stuart with two men went out on a series of scouting
trips searching for water. In May they discovered “a splendid sheet
of water” now known as Newcastle Waters and the main party
Eleven trips, Stuart persisted with, pushing the horses’
endurance to the limit, but try as he might, the hot dry waterless
plain, bordered by thick impenetrable lancewood scrub could not
be overcome. The furthest point reached was “Burke Creek”. They
proceeded back through the bitterly cold nights of the Centre and
reached Adelaide towards the end of September. Disappointed at
being unsuccessful, there was no time for rest or recuperation.
Meanwhile, there was news that the Burke and Wills
Expedition was causing concern; the party had divided and the
leaders had not returned. Search parties had been sent out.
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