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Mr Stuart’s Track

My pick of the non-fiction historical writing I have read this year is Mr Stuart’s Track by John Bailey . This is a gripping account of the life of perhaps Australia’s greatest explorer, John McDouall Stuart, in his efforts to explore some of the most arid and difficult country in Australia – namely our red centre. The first explorer to cross Australia north to south.

Stuart was a diminutive, tough-as-nails Scotsman who had a strong interest in liquor and the Australian outback. A taciturn character who never married, he disliked big cities and polite small talk – he was positively fearful of public speaking. Stuart was most at home in the harshest parts of the Australian outback relying on his wits to survive. He was a resilient ‘weed’ of a man.

Stuart arrived in Adelaide in 1839 when the settlement was only 2 years old. He quickly found that he enjoyed living in the Australian bush and he became smart in the ways of the bush. Most of all, he learnt self-reliance and the essential ability to find water in a parched landscape by observing birds, the tracks of aboriginals or by looking for gullies and cracks in rocks where water might collect. Water was the key to his survival and his exploration success

Post-1844 Stuart gained his exploration ‘work experience’ as a surveyor for the much more famous explorer Captain Charles Sturt in their futile search for Australia’s inland sea. Indeed, suffering from scurvy they all nearly perished in what is now called Sturt’s Stony Desert just south of what is now Birdsville.

In 1853 Stuart was employed as a surveyor with William Finke. They searched for copper and gold for many years in the Northern Flinders Ranges. Stuart was acquiring the reputation as the man who would go anywhere.

In 1858 Stuart searched (again in vain) for the aboriginal paradise, Wingillpin, with its promise of lush grazing lands at the country’s centre. The journey took him to the middle-of-nowhere town William Creek (a great pub stands there today!) and what are now the opal fields of Coober Pedy.

In 1859 Stuart undertook a major expedition to what is now Oodnadatta ,the place with the highest temperature ever recorded in Australia, 50.7 degrees C, and only 160 kilometres from what is now the Northern Territory border. The objective was to search for gold for the entrepreneurial James Chambers. Stuart desperately wanted to be the first to cross the territory line but, having run out of provisions, they had no water and, as the horses’ hooves were ‘weeping blood’ as their horse shoe supply was depleted, he had to turn back.

A few weeks after returning from this expedition Stuart ventured to Lake Eyre, paradoxically about the driest part of the Australian continent, where he suffered from trachoma so bad he could barely see. Eventually, admitting failure on 6 January 1860, he again turned back to Chambers Creek without getting to the centre of Australia.

But at Chambers Creek Stuart reassessed the situation and sent a colleague back for support to immediately launch another expedition directed straight towards Australia’s centre and, eventually, he hoped, to cross the continent. He discovered the Finke River and the McDonnell Ranges and did eventually make it to the geographical centre of Australia, the first white man to have ever done so.

After this Stuart’s group headed west directly into the Tanami Desert one of the most arid and isolated places on this planet. Surface water is almost non-existent and Stuart’s team almost perished. During one of his worst periods Stuart wrote that the muscles of his ‘limbs are changing from yellow-green to black’. He then sought to avoid the Tanami and proceeded more directly north to what is now called Tennant Creek but then, facing difficulties, headed north-west to again place himself in the Tanami. At one stage the horses went for more than 4 days without water during which time they travelled 180 kilometres through this terrible country. They were attacked by aboriginals and forced to retreat. Partly for this reason, and also because both men and horses were walking skeletons, they eventually again decided to admit defeat and to return the 2000 kilometres home to Adelaide.

Stuart had now cast aside all illusions – there was no inland sea and there were no great rich grassy plains. But his main sadness was that he had failed to cross the country.

On his return to Adelaide in 1861 the State Government encouraged Stuart to have another go. The impulse for this was a competing attempt to cross the continent by the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition that originated in Melbourne. Interstate rivalries mattered even then!

The Burke and Wills story is remarkable in itself for the focus it gives to the Australian love of heroic failure – Gallipoli and all that. All but one person in the B&W expedition that started from Melbourne died due to disastrous miscalculations by Burke who was, in reality, a madman who launched an impossible forced march. They made it to the Gulf but on their return towards Melbourne missed their contacts at Coopers Creek by a few hours – they had waited for them for 3 months. This led to further tragic mistakes and to the deaths of all but one of them, John King, who survived by living with local aboriginals.

Stuart, ‘the diminutive magician’, set off from Adelaide with 11 men in all. Relentlessly focused, Stuart too thought he knew what he was doing. But when his team got to the MacDonnell Ranges, near Australia’s centre, they came across the footprints they had left a year earlier – it had not rained in that time! Then it rained the next day! So the expedition had to push their horses through a gluey bog. They set off into new territory – the Sturt Plains – a fierce, hot waterless plain that really something like a continuation of the Tanami. No water for 2 days and no prospects of any – so a waterless retreat for another 2 days. Then again an alternative route north was attempted through a forest of bullwaddi bush – bushmen describe it as nature’s attempt to grow barbed wire! Again they failed so they headed north-east towards the Gulf where they again hit the waterless Sturt Plains, a forest of low eucalyptus and again failure.

In all Stuart made 11 failed attempts to cross this terrible north coast country and each time was defeated. With a terrible sense of failure Stuart again retreated the several thousand miles through desert back to Adelaide.

Finally in October 1861 Stuart started off again from Adelaide and this time, he did finally walk across the middle of Australia from south to north where he got to place a Union Jack on a northern beach. Their party’s departure was inauspicious – they got so drunk they fell of their horses – one stamping on Stuart’s hand, leaving it a bloody mess. Stuart became seriously ill and, for a time, it was feared his hand might need to be amputated. A month later Stuart led a group of 10 men and 70 horses northwards again.

As with the previous departure they left at the height of the summer heat. The conditions were tough – 8 horses were lost (died or had to be left) in the first 3 weeks and much of the provisions had to be left behind. The party was already on starvation rations. By February 1862 they were in sight of the MacDonnell Ranges – the fifth time Stuart had crossed this territory. By mid-April they had hit the Sturt Plains but this time, remarkably, they did find water. But moving beyond this point again seemed impossible – the same thick-thorned scrub seemed to bar further progress and they could not find water supplies further north. Eventually, after numerous failed attempts, they did find water and indeed, at Daly Waters, were surrounded by it. Once they made it to the Roper River they knew that victory was within their grasp. After more trial-and-error expeditions around the edge of what is now Kakadu National Park, they eventually saw the blue ocean in July. This was the highpoint of Stuart’s life though his physical and psychological health were fading with. He had scurvy and he was nearly blind – he doubted aloud that he would make it home to Adelaide.

After only 48 hours at this northern sea Stuart turned toward the 3,100 kilometre trip home. The horses were terribly weak – so many had died or had to be left behind that before they again entered Sturt Plains. A desperate scramble for water then ensued in the journey back towards the MacDonnell Ranges. Stuart was close to death and was now on a stretcher. But several months later they did make it back into South Australia. In December 1862 they arrived in a train at Adelaide station to a welcoming crowd. Stuart was a South Australian hero.

Stuart himself was close to death – these expeditions and particularly the last had taken a severe toll of him. Upon his return, Stuart began to drink heavily again. After a brief period of hero-worship in Adelaide, he became socially ostracised and deserted. His drunkenness meant Stuart was a poor candidate for a knighthood despite his celebrity. He was even denied the right to manage the £2,000 reward he had been promised for being the first explorer to cross the country. While the Northern Territory was given to South Australia as a dependency, and Stuart became regarded as a hero of mythic proportions, he had no friends and was broke. His health failed and, in 1864 he returned to Scotland where he lived with his sister in Glasgow. He died in 1866 an invalid.

In 1869 the South Australian Government established a settlement in Port Darwin and in 1870 began to establish a telegraph linkage between Darwin and Adelaide. Then came the pastoralist settlers to seize the fertile land from its aboriginal inhabitants. It would take another 130 years before a railway line would connect these cities but the start of a line from Port Augusta was made in 1876. This was extended to Oodnadatta in 1891 and became known as the Ghan because so many of its passengers were Afghans. Up to the end of WW1 camel drivers competed with the train as a form of transportation. In 2004 a rail link across the country was finally established – 141 years since Stuart walked onto a northern beach.

The planned commercial links with the northern province didn’t ever yield much for South Australia and, in 1911, it surrendered the lot to the Commonwealth Government for only £3.9 million.

Several times in the past few years I have travelled through outback South Australia. A few years ago I travelled to Lake Eyre while it was in one of its rare phases of actually being full of water and remember wondering how the early explorers could ever make it through such inhospitable country. It is terrifyingly barren country and the dryness of most of it is its overwhelming physical characteristic. I have some understanding of how one might successfully explore this country after reading this wonderful book! Stuart was a simple man who disliked big cities and small talk but who was at ease in the Australian dry country. He was bush-smart and, more than anything, was able to exercise his judgement to find water where it was hard to imagine any would exist. He also had vast supplies of guts and determination.

John Bailey makes a strong case for the claim that Stuart was Australia’s greatest explorer. This book is great writing too and was a pleasure to read. A standard literary review of Mr Stuart’s Track by Ben Russell is here.

2 comments to Mr Stuart’s Track

  • Jason

    Great review Harry. I’m about to read this book as I currently live in Kakadu National Park and have recently returned from Central Australia, so I have an understanding of the country Stuart travelled through. I, too, am amazed at how these explorers ever made it as far as they did, but I have more admiration and wonder for how the Aboriginals managed to live in these conditions for 30,000 years.

  • hc

    Thanks Jason, I really enjoyed this book and am sure you will too. He went through what is now called Kakadu.