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Life went on for the Aboriginal people as it had for thousands
of years; hunter-gatherers, the bounty of the land provided all
Populations were larger in the higher rainfall areas of the Top
End where fish and game were plentiful. There was little need to go
far for food.
Further south and around Central Australia groups were
scattered over huge territories. Survival in these harsher regions was
dependant on waterholes and seasonal bush tucker. Desert people
needed great skill and knowledge of the land in all aspects of its
often meagre resources. Permanent waterholes were a focus for
people and animals during the severest droughts.
The men, with boomerangs, spears and traps hunted larger
game - kangaroos, wallabies and emus. Whilst a spear could be
hurled with great force using a spear-thrower or woomera, the skill
of the hunters was in getting close to the quarry. Fire was used to
generate new growth of valuable food plants and provide tender
new shoots to attract animals.
The women, accompanied by the children, provided the bulk
of the staple diet. They collected seeds for grinding into flour, also
fruits, bulbs, roots and smaller animals. Honey ants and plump
witchetty grubs were a favourite.
All food was taken back and shared among the group. To do
otherwise would be considered an intolerable act of greed and
The Aboriginal culture is enshrined within complex laws of
social, family and religious life and has been passed on generation
Ceremonies - An important part of Aboriginal culture.
The First Australians
after generation in ceremonies, songs and stories.
Central to Aboriginal religious beliefs are the Ancestral Creative
Beings. In the Dreamtime they journeyed over a featureless
continent, stopping at different places, forming rivers and billabongs,
rocks, hills, valleys and mountains, putting plant life, animals and
humans in place.
Aborigines were thus spiritually linked to the land and all it
contained. Territories were recognised by themselves and
neighbouring groups. Major land features were sacred and these sites
were sanctuaries, where only the initiated could go; plants were not
taken nor animals killed there. When droughts brought increased
human pressure, survival of flora and fauna species was ensured.
In Aboriginal society,
kinship ties are very close;
cousins are like brothers and
sisters, aunts and uncles are
other mothers and fathers.
Living with nature, they
knew intimately all
footprints made by their
group and every lizard,
animal and bird. When boot
prints and hoof marks were
discovered, they were
terrified; “.... what kind of
creatures could men be who
had broad flat toeless feet
and a heel that was a hard
lump? As for horse tracks,
we could tell that they must
have been made by huge
four legged creatures, larger
than we had ever seen
before...their heavy feet had cut their way even into hard clay
ground...Surely, we thought, both these creatures must be evil man-
eating monsters,” old men who had been boys at the time of Stuart’s
trip years later told Professor Strehlow.
Earlier too, Stuart had written an account of how, when riding
through sandhills he had come upon a hunter intent on his task. “I
called out to draw his attention; he turned around and saw me.
What he imagined I was I do not know, but a finer picture of fear
and astonishment I never saw. He stood riveted to the spot, mouth
open and eyes staring.” As the largest animal he had ever seen was a
kangaroo and all people
dark skinned, at first glance
Stuart on his horse must
have appeared to be an
apparition, perhaps a spirit.
This was the first sign
of changes that were to
Aranda family group. Central Australia 1890’s.
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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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