At the time of the first fleets arrival in Australia, not much was known of this strange, vast, hostile country. The government of those early days, encouraged explorations. These explorers were brave and courageous men who undertook the task of mapping this great unknown land. That these explorations were very dangerous is somewhat of an understatement with many of the early explorers dying on their journeys or disappearing in the desert, never to be seen or heard of again. Expansion of the colonies and further settlements owe their existence to these brave men. Listed here are some of the most courageous and famous of Australia's early explorers.
George Bass (1771-1803?) and Matthew Flinders (1774-1814) were responsible for exploring the coastline of Australia and proving that Tasmania was, in fact, an island. Flinders named the strait of water separating Tasmania from the continent, Bass Strait, after his companion who was the first to imagine it existed. Flinders later circumnavigated Australia in 1802-1803, proving that Australia was not a series of islands and his charts were extremely accurate, being used for many years.
In 1813, three explorers by the names of Gregory Blaxland, William Lawson, and William Wentworth set off to find a way through the Blue Mountains. At this time, the colony of Sydney was continuing to grow and it was urgent that new farming lands be found. Other explorers before them had failed to cross the mountains. Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson succeded on finding that route through the Blue Mountains west of Sydney and settlers could now farm there.
Hamilton Hume and William Hovell travelled south, over the Great Divide, reaching Port Phillip Bay in 1824. This bay later became the home of Melbourne.
John Oxley (1785?-1828) set off in 1817 to explore the country west of Bathurst and decided to learn more about the Lachlan River but instead, his journeys misled others into believing there was a vast inland sea. He later conducted coastal surveys which led to the discovery of the Brisbane River in 1824. This area impressed Oxley who recommended settlement at Moreton Bay as there was fertile soil and plenty of fresh water and timber.
Indian born Captain Charles Sturt (1795-1869), who fought against Napoleon at Waterloo, was responsible (along with Hume) for proving that there was no giant inland sea in northern New South Wales. Sturt discovered the Murray River and the lower reaches of the Darling. Adelaide was settled as a result of Sturt's expeditions. Sturt later explored north of Adelaide, finding an overland route to the centre of Australia.
The multi-talented Major Thomas Mitchell (1792-1855) was not only an explorer and surveyor, but also a poet, author, artist, and botanist. He was knighted in 1837. Mitchell conducted four expeditions in the 1830's. On his third journey he explored western Victoria and his last journey was a 12 month expedition into central Queensland. That last expedition opened up the rich pastoral areas of central Queensland. One of his sons also mapped large areas of New South Wales.
The very courageous Edward John Eyre (1815-1901) was the first man to cross the great Nullabor Plain, accompanied by his Aboriginal friend Wylie. His expeditions opened up much of South Australia for settlement and sheep farming. He discovered Lake Eyre in 1839 which was named after him. Eyre was appointed leader of an expedition from South Australia to Western Australia in the hope of finding good sheep country. This journey turned into an epic nightmare for which Eyre was awarded a gold medal from the Royal Geographic Society.
Ludwig Leichardt (1813-1848?) was a German explorer and scientist who explored parts of Queensland and the Northern Territory. Leichardt explored and named several rivers in these two states and he also travelled along the Gulf of Carpentaria. In 1848, Leichardt went off in another attempt to find a route from Brisbane to Perth. His party disappeared and were never heard of again. Leichardt had never been a good bush man, continuously getting lost on expeditions. Many theories have guessed at the fate of the party over the years and nine major expeditions to solve the mystery over a period of 90 years, also failed to yield any light.
Edmund Kennedy (1818-1848) made many expeditions into unexplored areas of central Queensland. He was also second in charge of the expedition in which Mitchell discovered Queenslands rich grasslands. In 1848, Kennedy set off in search of a route to Cape York Peninsula (the northern tip of Queensland). While 13 men left on this journey, only Kennedy and and Aboriginal by the name of Jacky Jacky would see the final stages. Along the way, three men went missing and another six died of hunger. Two men were left behind during the journey and managed to survive. Kennedy, however, did not survive. He was speared by hostile Aboriginals just 20km from Cape York Peninsula. His body was never found.
The story of Burke and Wills is legendary in Australia. These two explorers were the first to cross Australia from South to North but they also both perished on this fateful journey. Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills travelled from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Of the party that set out from Melbourne, only Burke, Wills, and two other men named King and Gray, left Coopers Creek to reach the Gulf. This proved to be a long, hard journey, however, they finally made it. The trip back to Coopers Creek was even harder and along the way, Gray became so weak, he died. Finally, the other three men made it to Coopers Creek but the rest of their party had given up and left. The worst part is they found supplies and a note left and it said they had missed the others by only hours. Burke and Wills both died several weeks later while waiting to be rescued. King lived with Aboriginals for a while until being found by a search party. There are a lot of "ifs" that could have prevented the events unravelling as they did but instead it has become one of Australia's great tragedies.
John Forrest (1847-1918) and his brother were two of the great explorers. Their first expedition was into previously unexplored central Western Australia in search of Leichardt. While they found no trace of Leichardt, this expedition led to the opening of some of the world's richest mines. The following year, Forrest became the first to cross from Perth to Adelaide. A later troubled expedition saw him travel from Perth to central Australia and miraculously survive to arrive back in Adelaide.