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Taking it to the edge: did you know? The motor vehicle in Australian exploration: White and Terry

Samuel White - 1922 trip by Dort cars

The 1920's provided other men prepared to tackle the outback with motor vehicles. This was the decade of SA White and Michael Terry - not pioneers or adventurers, but collectors and explorers. SA White had done most of his collecting trips using camels but in 1922 he travelled by car. The expedition was to assess a route for the north/south railway and in addition to White, there were Murray and Cyril Aunger as the mechanics, Thomas McCallum a South Australian politician and H Crowder. They left Adelaide on 9 May, bound for Darwin in three Dort cars. It was predicted that they would only get as far as Horseshoe Bend. The Alberga River tested the cars, but not severely and Horseshoe Bend and the Depot Sand Hills were crossed without many problems and Alice Springs was reached on 18 May. White could marvel at the speed of their travel in comparison with earlier expeditions by camel. After a three day break in Alice, they reached Barrow Creek on 23 May and White made ornithological and botanical collections. The men had arranged for supplies to be sent ahead by camel but these were offloaded earlier than requested with the result that the cars carried additional weight and experienced difficulties in the heavy sand and high sandhills. They also had trouble when grass seeds choked the radiator. Heavy rains and mud were the next problem and at Newcastle Waters the cars were taken across completely submerged. Murray Aunger incredibly had the three cars running smoothly within thirty minutes. They reached Darwin on 7 June. The return trip to Adelaide was in a long arc via Camooweal, Cloncurry, Tambo, Bourke, down the Darling River, to Ararat and Mt Gambier. In all they covered 8,800 kilometres in 10 weeks.

Michael Terry

Michael Terry is probably the best known explorer using motor vehicles. He arrived in Australia from England in 1919 and during 1922 he travelled from Longreach to Katherine by car. His adventure in 1923 however really got him started. In that year with Dick Yockney he drove from Winton across the continent to Broome and nearly died in the effort. The trip took nine months so there was no attempt to either set or break records. They made no provision to arrange fuel in advance, scrounging supplies along the way. When they ran out of fuel entirely in Western Australia they set out to walk the 48 kilometres to the next station. They discovered their small supply of water contaminated with oil and when Terry collapsed, Yockney struggled on alone, and found help.

After this trip Michael Terry visited the United States and England and was invited to speak to the Royal Geographical Society in London. He must have impressed them, as they decided to sponsor him with a grant and the use of scientific instruments. It was also decided to make a film of the expedition. They set out from Darwin for Port Hedland with two Guy Roadless vehicles (half tracks) and an AJ Stevens motorbike with sidecar for scouting work. Trailers carried spare fuels in 8 gallon drums, and each car carried a 40 gallon water tank. As well the expedition was equipped with a 3-valve wireless receiving set for time signals for the survey work. Further into the expedition, additional radiators were shipped out from the Guy works in England, and the men experimented with fitting extra cooling for each car. The success of this expedition led to others; up the Western Australia coast and across to the Northern Territory and down to Adelaide, and numerous others. He was a strong advocate of motor transport, but warned 'should anyone desire to make a journey it is necessary to have petrol dumped months before, an uncertain procedure which deters all but the most determined travellers...'

Then in 1930 he led an expedition west from Horseshoe Bend, south to Lake Amadeus and into Western Australia. In addition to a Morris truck he used camels both as pack animals and for scouting ahead. In an interview in The Bulletin 18 November 1980 he recorded 'I switched to camels because they were slower, much better for mineral surveying. In a motor you might ride right over something interesting without seeing it.  Swaying along on a camel, you can see a reef, some interesting feature, quite readily.'  An interesting turn around!


Further reading:

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

Linn, Rob Nature's pilgrim: the life and journeys of Captain S.A. White, naturalist, author and conservationist Netley, S. Aust.: South Australian Government Printer, 1989

Terry, Michael Across unknown Australia London: Herbert Jenkins, 1925


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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