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Taking it to the edge: Land: Ernest Giles

First expedition

''… the hideous spinifex, which both we and the horses dread like a pestilence… all round the coronets of most of the horses, in consequence of their being so continually punctured with the spines of this terrible grass, it has caused a swelling, or tough enlargement of the flesh…' '
Giles, Ernest Australia twice traversed … London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1889 page 56

Ernest Giles led a number of expeditions in Central Australia, in particular searching for a viable route to Perth.  Ferdinand von Mueller, the eminent botanist supported him financially.  His first expedition set out on 11 August 1872 from Charlotte Waters on the Overland Telegraph Line.  The party travelled along the Finke River, north-west, and eventually it became a narrow passage through the Krichauff Range.  Here the vegetation was lush and varied, with vibrant bird life, and further along strange palm trees.  Giles named the gorge Glen of Palms.  Von Mueller later identified the tree as Livistona mariae, a rare and very old species, found only in some parts of North Africa.  Still following the Finke River the expedition next encountered the wall of the MacDonnell Range and instead followed a tributary of the Finke, Rudall's Creek to the west. When Rudall's Creek too turned north, they left it, continuing west and followed Carmichael's Creek through a gap.  The MacDonnell's seemed impassable at this point and they continued along the southern side, unable to rejoin the Finke.  Any rain that fell was immediately soaked up by the sand; the horses were footsore from the rocky gorges.  Dense mulga scrub also impeded their passage, tearing clothes and packs.  They retreated back to the east to Mount Uder, and then south to Glen Edith, and a water supply Giles named the Tarn of Auber.  With sufficient water and grass for his horses Giles rested most of them and the men and explored ahead with just one man, Carmichael.  On 13 October he saw a distant mountain - Mount Olga (Kata Tjuta), but turned back to his depot for more supplies.  He set out again a few days later expecting to reach it easily but he encountered Lake Amadeus - a vast sprawling salt lake, that with dense mulga scrub hindering their view they could see no way around - nor could they cross it, - the horses sank in the mire.  Giles explored west but was defeated by the extent of the lake. Disappointed, and with his horses severely weakened by lack of water and the extremely trying conditions, he returned to his depot and then along the southern side of Gill's and Krichauff's Ranges to Charlotte Waters arriving there on 1 December.

Second expedition

'The appearance of this mountain [Mt Olga or Kata Tjuta] is marvelous in the extreme, and almost baffles description.' '
Giles, Ernest Geographic travels in Central Australia from 1872 to 1874 Melbourne: Printed for the author by M'Carron, Bird, 1875 page 95

Giles set out on his next expedition 4 August 1873, again financed by Ferdinand von Mueller and Victorian pastoralists. He was accompanied by William Tietkens, Alfred Gibson and Jimmy Andrews. Again the destination was Perth. This time he followed a more southerly route through the Ayers and Musgrave Ranges. Giles was delighted with the Musgraves 'I never saw a more delightful and fanciful region than this'. From here Giles headed north to Mount Olga (Kata Tjuta): '... untold masses of rounded stones of all kinds and sizes mixed like plums in a pudding and set in vast and rounded shapes upon the ground.'

Giles then went north-west through the Tomkinson Range to the south of Lake Amadeus, along latitude 26 S. A base was established at Fort Mueller and from here they reconnoitred to the north, south and west. His most westerly point along this line was on 10 November past 126 E when the prospect ahead was spinifex and gravel. Giles turned back and struck north to the Rawlinson Range and also explored the Petermann Range. Finally on 20 April 1874 Giles and Gibson started to the west on a reconnaissance across sand-hills and undulating gravelly plains.

Some distance ahead they saw a range of hills which Giles named the Alfred and Marie Range; they were the same distance west as in November, just over one degree of latitude to the north. Again they were forced to turn back because of the lack of water. The horses were in desperate need, one died and that left one horse between the two men. In this situation they continued for some distance, alternately riding and walking. Finally Giles sent Gibson ahead on the horse, to some kegs of water that had been cached, and with orders to water the horse and then push on to the depot at Fort McKellar. Gibson agreed and was never seen again. He reached the kegs, but from that point had gone the wrong way and disappeared. Giles followed on foot, reached the kegs, drank then trudged on, carrying the remaining keg on his back. He averaged five miles a day, travelling by night and resting during the heat of the day. Giles reached water after six days, but was still 20 miles from the main camp. On reaching it the next day, he discovered that Gibson had never arrived. Giles was forced to rest for a day, while Tietkens got things ready for a search. The two men set out the next day with three packhorses, each carrying two 8-gallon water bags. With Giles still suffering from his ordeal, it took them four days to reach the cache of kegs (80 miles away). They then went to where Gibson had diverged from the main trail: they considered there was no chance of finding him alive as he had been missing for 12 days, but they hoped at least to find his body. For two days they followed the tracks and then were forced to return from lack of water. This effectively ended the expedition and Giles returned to Charlotte Waters, reaching there 13 July. Here he learnt that John Forrest had made a crossing from Western Australia to the Overland Telegraph Line. The Gibson Desert commemorates the loss of Alfred Gibson.

''I called this terrible region, that lies between the Rawlinson Range and the next permanent water, which may eventually be found to the west, "Gibson's Desert," after this first white victim of its horrors.''
Giles, Ernest Geographic travels in Central Australia from 1872 to 1874 Melbourne: Printed for the author by M'Carron, Bird, 1875 page 195
Australian exploring expedition in the scrub
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Conflict of interest with another expedition
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Gibson continues on alone
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Giles and Tietkens set out to look for Gibson
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Giles reaches safety after parting from Gibson
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Giles staggers on with a water keg
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Queen Victoria Springs discovered
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Search for Gibson continues
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The burden of leadership
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The explorers had a bath
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The last day Giles saw Gibson
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The search is called off
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