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Taking it to the edge: Land: John McKinlay - Northern Territory expedition

Northern Territory Expedition: setting out

Boyle Travers Finniss was appointed first Government Resident and ordered to explore and survey a site for the new settlement in the Northern Territory.  The site he selected was at Escape Cliffs near the mouth of the Adelaide River, overriding the objections of some of his staff. 

Surveys and explorations continued, with men contending with the conditions of the wet and dry seasons and not fully understanding them.  JT Manton replaced Finniss in 1865 and John McKinlay arrived from Adelaide to explore the region, to seek a better site than Escape Cliffs.  He was to examine the country to the east of the Adelaide River in the direction of the Liverpool River, and then south to the Roper.  By using a different route for his return it was hoped that he would cover more country.  The survey schooner Beatrice was to deposit additional supplies for the expedition at the mouths of the Liverpool, Roper and Victoria Rivers - the planners obviously expected McKinlay to cover a huge area, as these rivers are hundreds of miles apart. McKinlay delayed his departure waiting for the Beatrice to return from Timor.  This delay would cost him dearly, as the wet season would soon arrive.  As a southerner McKinlay did not understand just what this would mean to his plans.  He would soon find out.  Finally on 14 January 1866 he set out.  His party consisted of Robert Edmunds, surveyor and second in charge, Thomas Glen, Fred Thring (one of Stuart's men) George Mayo, Thomas Crispe, T Gilbanks, John Horner, Jerry Ryan, Owen Morris, J Young, David Collier, Charles Hulls, Sam Watts and Edward Tuckwell.  They were equipped with 45 horses and a number of sheep. McKinlay made the first part of the journey by boat up the Adelaide River, while most of the men went overland with the horses and sheep.

Already the country was flooded and the animals made heavy work of the boggy ground.  For a month McKinlay and his party were trapped but eventually were able to move forward through a wilderness of flooded rivers and swamps, and labyrinthine hills.  For every mile in the right direction, the party travelled 10 miles the wrong way.  The horses were dying, worn out by the trying conditions.  Edmunds and McKinlay were in almost continual disagreement, with Edmunds finding fault with the Government sending McKinlay north at the wrong time of the year, and with McKinlay for the unnecessary delays he had made.

By late April they had crossed the upper reaches of the Mary River and made camp near the headwaters of the South Alligator River and beneath the escarpments of Arnhem Land.  Realising that the severely weakened horses would be unable to climb these, McKinlay headed north for the Liverpool River. The party's route was punctuated by a continuing succession of boggy ground in which the horses became stuck.  More and more horses were killed, and the men resorted to walking while the horses carried the packs of those killed.  McKinlay and Edmunds continued to disagree, at least according to Edmunds' diary.

Meanwhile the Beatrice had left her waiting post at the mouth of the Liverpool River.  Returning a week later the captain found that the provisions he had buried on 18 May had not been collected and decided to wait another 18 days.  McKinlay's party was miles away and approaching the East Alligator River, not the Liverpool which was much further east.  McKinlay was however impressed by the country, and considered it could be suitable for a settlement of some size.  McKinlay and Edmunds agreed on the beauty and grandeur of the area (it is now part of Kakadu National Park).  However beauty and grandeur was not enough.  McKinlay knew the expedition was failing in its purpose, but fate in the form of the wet season was against them.

Grave of a white man found
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McKinlay decides to build a punt
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McKinlay finds other traces of Burke and Wills
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McKinlay's route from Adam Bay to the East Alligator
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The expedition reaches Escape Cliffs
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