The Inland Explorers: John McDouall Stuart

Simpson Desert. Photo: Kelly Theobald

Imagine setting out on an expedition to explore Australia in the 1800s. You leave your home and family for months to trek through the arid landscape, carrying all of your food and water on camels or horses and sleeping in swags beneath the stars. You don’t know what you’ll find, or even what you’re looking for. All you know is that there is barely a settlement between Adelaide and Darwin or Perth and Sydney. In the great, vast deserts of central Australia, there seems to be nothing. It’s your job to find out what’s there.

Without the brave explorers of the past, the outback wouldn’t be what it is today. They mapped the land, built roads, established towns and became heroes of the day. 

This year marks the 150th anniversary of one of the great inland expeditions – the first south-north crossing of Australia. It was John McDouall Stuart‘s sixth and final expedition that successfully reached the Gulf of Carpentaria from Adelaide, with the intention of establishing a telegraph line from Adelaide to Darwin. 

John McDouall Stuart

As early explorer Charles Sturt’s protégé, John McDouall Stuart completed Sturt’s Simpson Desert expedition in 1844 as second-in-command. Soon after, he led his own expedition to what is now the border between South Australia and the Northern Territory. It was on this trip that he was the first to discover a spring from the great Artesian Basin and was assured that it was a permanent water supply in the arid land.

On following expeditions, Stuart discovered and named the Finke River, the MacDonnell Ranges, Tennant’s Creek (now the site of the Tennant Creek township) and in 1862 was the first explorer to successfully cross the Australian mainland from South to North. His route can be retraced today via the Stuart Highway, named in his honour.

Present-day Stuart Highway

If you’re off road adventure inclined, the Simpson Desert lies between the Stuart Highway and Birdsville. It contains the world’s longest parallel sand dunes and is Australia’s fourth-largest desert. A number of tracks leading to Birdsville snake over the dunes and after three good years, the usually arid landscape is teaming with wildlife and colourful foliage. 

A number of convoys have already crossed the desert since it opened earlier this month and have reported safe tracks and great journeys. If you’re thinking of invoking some of the early explorers, read our Simpson Desert information page for pre-departure information. 

We’ll be sporadically posting information on other inland explorers on the Galah Session, including the ill-fated Burke and Wills.