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Taking it to the edge: did you know? The motor vehicle in Australian exploration: First south/north crossing

The first south/north crossing of the continent

In the late 1890s Australians began to experiment with the concept of the horseless carriage, and by the early 20th century the motor car was an established fact, although the network of roads and highways that we are familiar with today was still a long way into the future. By 1907 Henry Hampden Dutton a wealthy landowner near Kapunda in South Australia, realised the potential of the motor car for outback Australia and determined to drive from Adelaide to Darwin. With Murray Aunger a talented mechanic and motoring enthusiast, he purchased a 20 HP Talbot (3.7 litre, 4 cylinder engine with 4 speed gearbox), and set out in November 1907. The country was difficult with gibbers, rocky gorges, rivers and sandhills. Near Tennant Creek the car became bogged in heavy mud, and despite the best efforts of Dutton and Aunger, was unable to be freed. Reluctantly they abandoned it, and made their way back to Adelaide.

Dutton determined to try again, and this time bought a car with some extra power - 4.15 litre capacity and a low axle ratio, to assist with hill climbing. This time Dutton arranged for fuel and supplies to be sent ahead by rail to Oodnadatta and on to Charlotte Waters by camel. Included among the supplies were the tools and parts to repair the bogged and abandoned car. They left Adelaide on 30 June 1908. Marree was reached in four days. Sandy conditions were mastered with special 'Stepney wheels' that Aunger had placed on the car, and coir matting. Rough creek beds were sometimes chosen over the sandhills - on good days they travelled over 100km, and then there were days when only 16kms were travelled. The Neales River presented a potential disaster in the early stages- however this was overcome by building a ramp of sand and a causeway across the river. From Charlotte Waters to Alice Springs there were 49 sandhills, some 60 feet high, to be crossed. At Alice Springs they serviced the car and rested.  Here also they agreed to take the local policeman, Sergeant Allchurch, with them. 

The rocks of the MacDonnell Ranges impeded their passage, and they resorted to pushing them out of the way before progressing. The grass got tangled in the wheels and the engine, anthills had to be chopped down. Their route (it could never be called a road) got worse, but fortunately they were able to locate the bogged first car, just 30 days after leaving Adelaide. Successfully repaired, Dutton and Aunger, with Sergeant Allchurch, now had the luxury of two cars. From Newcastle Waters they encountered the worst country yet, with fissures, creeks and rocks predominating. They were also now in the tropics and forced to hack a way forward with shovels and axes. A bushfire was their next problem - but they dashed through this 'the fastest run of the whole trip.' From Pine Creek the original car - 'Angelina' - was sent ahead by train, because of severe flooding, while the second car continued alone through dripping dense tropical vegetation. At last Darwin was reached. Dutton and Aunger had taken 51 days to get there, of which 42 were spent driving. They had anticipated they would take a month. 

They returned to Adelaide by boat and were hailed as heroes. This was 'the most important event in automobilism in Australia'. While Dutton and Aunger's feat was not exploration as such, it was an expedition that tested the capacity of the motor vehicle to cope with all that the Australian environment could throw at it - sandhills, gibber plains, flooded rivers, rocky fissured ground, anthills and more. 

 

Further reading:

Davis, Pedr Wheels across Australia: motoring from the 1890s to the 1980s. Hurstville, N.S.W.: Marque Publishing, 1987

Aunger drives a Dort across river
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Car climbing the Depot Sandhills, 1907
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Car descending a sandhill, 1907
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Deep river crossing
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Dutton and Aunger leave Alice Springs, 1907
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Motoring in the Northern Territory
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