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Taking it to the edge: Land: John McDouall Stuart - fourth expedition continued

Fourth expedition: reaching the centre

He was rapidly approaching the centre of the continent, the point that his former leader Charles Sturt had struggled to reach on his expedition of 1844-46.  Stuart calculated the centre as half way between Shark Bay in Western Australia and Brisbane in Queensland, the most western and eastern points of the continent, or 133 degrees 30' E.  The latitude of the northern coast at 11 degrees 53' S and the south coast at latitude 32 degrees 07'S gave a latitude of 22 degrees S as the mid-point.  Using this rounded calculation, Stuart reached his determination of the centre on 22 April 1860.  [The modern scientific calculation of the Centre of the continent is at 25 degrees 36' 36"S - 134 degrees 21' 17"E and is called the Lambert Centre and is marked with a plaque.  It is at Finke, home of the Aputula Aboriginal Community.]

Stuart wrote 'I am now camped in the centre of Australia, I have marked a tree and planted the British flag in the centre, there is a high mount about two and one-half miles to the NNE [4 kilometres] which I hoped would be in the centre but on it tomorrow I will raise a cone of stone & plant the flag there and will name it Mt Sturt after my excellent and esteemed commander of the expedition in 1844 & 45 Capt Sturt, as a mark of gratitude for the great kindness I received from him during that journey.' The next day he went with William Kekwick and together they climbed the hill, raised the flag and buried a small bottle with a message in a large cone of stones.  The message read:  'John McDouall Stuart and party, consisting of two men and himself, arrived from Adelaide in the Centre of Australia on Saturday evening, the twenty first day of April, 1860, and have built this cone of stones and raised the flag, to commemorate the event, on the top of Mt Sturt.  The Centre is about two miles [3 kilometres] south-south-west, at a small gum creek, where there is a tree marked, facing the south.  John McDouall Stuart (leader), William Darton Kekwick, Benjamin Head.'

John Ross, one of the surveyors who later worked on the Overland Telegraph Line, subsequently retrieved this note and returned it to Adelaide.

Fourth expedition: north from the centre

From the centre, Stuart pressed on to the north-west, and found water at the base of a hill he named after the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt.  Water was becoming increasingly difficult to find, as he approached the edge of the Tanami Desert and he was concerned for the well-being of his horses.  He turned east and then north, naming hills and ranges as he went - Mount Browne, Mount Denison, Mount Strzelecki and Tennant Creek.  By now he was suffering from scurvy - brought about by the lack of fresh food - particularly fruit and vegetables.  (Scurvy is a Vitamin C deficiency). Kekwick as well was showing symptoms of the disease.  Both men had been in the field almost continuously for six months.  They persevered onwards.  A chain of ponds was named after Kekwick, but water was still their prime concern.  Many nights they camped without it and the horses suffered greatly.

Aboriginal men were encountered and although at first these meetings were apparently friendly, it became obvious to Stuart that they were competing for the same scarce water supplies.  On the 26 June about 30 Aboriginal men attacked them.  With odds of 1:10 against them Stuart and his men retreated. At this point he decided that the had to turn back to Adelaide - lack of water, the symptoms of scurvy now apparent in all of them, coupled with low supplies and the long return journey, and the hostility of the Aboriginal people were all that he needed to persuade him of the wisdom of returning.  He had reached 18 47'S, longitude 133 .  He was only 200 miles from the north coast! The return took over two months with surface water drying up along the way.  Some bush foods were also found which helped their scurvy.  By 16 August the party were back to more familiar ground with the mound springs providing good supplies of water.

The excitement in Adelaide was enormous and intercolonial rivalry to the forefront.  Victoria had sent out the Burke and Wills expedition in August in the chase to be the first to reach the north coast of Australia.  Their route would take them to Cooper Creek, well to the east of Stuart's route, and to the Gulf of Carpentaria. The South Australian government decided to finance Stuart's fifth expedition.  The prize for being the first colony to pioneer a route through to the north coast was to secure a route for the Overland Telegraph - both South Australia and Victoria were eager to claim this, and the benefits that would ensue. The Overland Telegraph Line would connect Australia to the undersea cable and almost instant global communications.

 

Central Mt Stuart
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Confrontation with Aboriginal men: diary 26 May 1861
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MacDonnell Ranges to Kekwick's Ponds
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Memorandum on Central Mount Sturt
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Planting the flag on the shore of the Indian Ocean
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Stuart continues to search for a path forward
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Stuart's Glandfield Lagoon: diary 25 May 1861
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Stuart's path is blocked by a marsh
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Stuart's route to the Hugh
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Stuart's route to the north
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The flag is raised at Chambers Bay
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The north coast of Australia is reached
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