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The Interior

By the 17-18th century it was evident that European technology was now sufficient to command much of the world’s land and resources – but it was not certain which European powers would take the lion’s share. In the 19th century came the last desperate European land-grabs as new frontiers were being forged inland in America’s West, South America, southern Africa, Australia, India, and Oceania.

Once Britain had established its claim to New Holland the settlers needed to know what resources were available to them and to overcome the mysteries of unexplored terrain between the isolated maritime settlements.

Botanical explorers

A.C.Gregory (1855-1856, 1858), B.H. Babbage (1858), J. McD. Stewart (1860-1862), Burke & Wills (1860-1861), A.W. Howitt (1861-1862), J.& A. Forrest (1869-1871), W.E.P. Giles (1872-1875), W.H. Tietkens (1998), D. Lindsay (1891-1892).

The Land

Was there an inland sea that bisected the continent north-south and into which westerly-flowing rivers were flowing? Matters so easily resolved nowadays by the use of satellites and aircraft (and Google Maps) only 200 years ago left no alternative but dogged overland exploration in conditions hardly imaginable today – on foot and with horses, bullocks and camels.

As with the early maritime expeditions the risk of death was high, from thirst, hunger, scurvy, exhaustion, exposure or attack from Aborigines.

Following the example of maritime scientific voyages of discovery overland expeditions generally included scientists in their team, although they were not always welcome.

Arable agricultural land was always the priority: this could provide food and income while also being a long-term investment. Though their paths were a simple linear transect they were able to gain some idea of the broader landscape, their routes often becoming future tracks and roads, the crucial communication lines between major settlements along which vital resources would, in future, be transported as communication by sea became progressively less efficient.

With the perimeter of Australia accurately charted it was now up to intrepid land explorers to determine the main physical features of inland Australia and assess its resources. These adventurers were the celebrities of the day, entire populations turning out to cheer them on as they set out into the unknown: the race between Stuart and Burke and Wills to be the first to reach the north coast from the south and between Gosse and Warburton to reach the west coast starting from Alice Springs.

Pattern of exploration

At first there was the barrier of the Great Divide to the west, then the country to the north, followed by the creation of linking routes to the settlements in the south-east (Melbourne) and south (Adelaide).[24]

The explorers

It took over two decades for the first tentative steps to be taken out of Sydney: to the west with the crossing of the Blue Mountains and Great Divide (1813, Blaxland, Lawson, Wentworth); to the south-west and its westward flowing rivers the Lachlan, Macquarie and Castlereagh together with the Liverpool Plains and New England (Evans 1813, 1815; Evans and Oxley, 1817, 1818; Cunningham); to the north and the Damaresque River and Darling Downs (Cunningham, 1827); to the south and the Murray, Ovens and Goulburn (Hume& Hovell, 1824)

By the 1860s attention was passing to the west.

1813 – Gregory Blaxland, William Lawson, William Wentworth

Route across Blue Mountains 1813 (11May-6 June)
4 convict servants, 4 horses, 5 dogs. Crossed Blue Mountains opening route to the west. Followed ridges & plateaus not gulleys to view plains from Mt York on 28 May. By Jan 1815 a track was completed to Bathurst

1813 – George Evans

Bathurst 1813 (Nov.) Planning a road to the west, in 20 days arrived in Bathurst naming the Macquarie on the way

1817 (Apr. 20) – George Evans & John Oxley

Lachlan River 1815 (May 14) Travelled south-west to find and name the Lachlan

Allan Cunningham botanist Traced Lachlan to inland swamp

1818 (18 May) – George Evans & John Oxley

Traced Macquarie to reeds then going east found and named the Castelereagh River and named the Liverpool Plains being the first to cross the Great Divide from the west

1824 (Oct.) – Hamilton Hume & William Hovell

4 convicts,3 horses, 5bullocks, 2 carts Set out from Appin for Westernport. Found Hume’s River (Murray) crossing at today’s weir then crossed the Ovens and Goulburn Rivers arriving at Corio Bay assuming it was Westernport

1823 – Allan Cunningham

Liverpool Plains, pass to New England
5 men, 5 horses Found a route west from Sydney to the Liverpool Plains discovered pass to today’s New England

1827 – Allan Cunningham

Darling Downs 1827 (30 Apr.-28 July)
6 convicts, 11 horses Left Hunter Valley travelling north finding the Dumaresq River then the Darling Downs (richest agriculture in E Australia) – observed gap in the mountains

1828 – Charles Sturt & Hamilton Hume

Darling Downs 1828 (Juy-Aug) From Moreton Bay discovers a pass through the mountains into the Darling Downs, now called Cunningham’s Gap

1828-1829 – Charles Sturt

Darling 1828-Apr. 1829)
11 men, boat From Wellington extended Oxleys range of Macquarie continuing west to find the salty Darling

1829 – Charles Sturt

Murray from east to Southern Ocean 1829 (?-11 Apr.)
whaleboat Followed Murrumbidgee inland and on14 Jan met the Murray (Hume’s River) arriving Lake Alexandrina (empties into Southern Ocean) a month later

1844 – Thomas Mitchell

SW Qld
15 men, horses, bullocks, sheep, boat Adelaide to find inland sea. For 18 months travelled through south-west Queensland- squashing possibility of an inland sea

1831 – Thomas Mitchell

BarwonRiver, Orange, Darling 1831
17 men & packhorses Explored N-W of Sydney to the Barwon River, then Orange attempted to track the Darling
(Richard Cunningham killed)

1836 – Thomas Mitchell

Grampians, Victorian Western District 1836 – 29 Aug.
27 armed men Traced Lachlan River to Murrumbidgee River at junction with the Murray on to the junction with the Loddon heading into the Victorian Western District (noting its agricultural potential) to the Grampians, climbing Mt William then on, reaching Portland, encountering the Henty brothers

1845 – Ludwig Leichhardt

N Qld Seeking a river running north-south followed the Belyando River in N Qld and then the Barcoo which he thought was his goal but was proven wrong the following year as it was found to turn inland
Alpine explorers

Arnhem Tableland to Port Essington 1844 (1 Oct)
7 Englishmen, 2 Aboriginal stockmen, 17 horses & a few bullocks

1848 – Edmund Kennedy

6 men, 80 bullocks. Set out from Jambour. Named Roper River 19 Oct. Crossed Arnhem Tableland arriving at Port Essington 17 Dec.
1848 Explored Cape York but only Jackey Jackey reached Port Albany 23 Dec. Botanist William Carron one of only 3 men to survive
13 men, horses, sheep, 2 carts

Edmund Kennedy
Set out north of Brisbane to cross Australia east to west and never seen again

1848 – Edward Eyre

Cape York
13 men, horses, sheep, 2 carts Explored Cape York but only Jackey Jackey reached Port Albany 23 Dec. Botanist William Carron one of only 3 men to survive

1860 – Burke & Wills

1860 (20Aug.)
27 camels, 23 horses Melbourne to base at Coopers Creek.
16 Dec. Burke & Wills head north with 2 others, 6 camels and 1 horse
11 Feb. mangroves near mouth of Flinders River. Died near Coopers Creek on the return

1872 – Ernest Giles

From N/S telegraph line to Perth 1872(Aug.) after construction of N/S telegraph line

1873 (Aug.) with Tietkins

1875 with Tietkins
22 camels& Afghan camel driver
1876 returned (13 Jan.)
Charlotte Waters down Finke River to Palm Valley to desert and salt Lake Amadeus

From Alberga Creek a more southerly route but desert again reached

Beltana (N of Port Augusta) through the Great Victoria Desert. In Nov. reached WA sheep stations

Geraldton then NW to Ashburton River into Gibson Desert to the Overland Telegraph in August.

1873 – Gosse 1873

(15 Apr.)
7 men including Aboriginal tracker and 2 camel drivers, 17b camels

(23 Apr.) 4 Europeans, 3 Afghans, Aboriginal guide. Reached coast at De Grey in the NW by crossing the Great Sandy Desert

To Mt Squire and Uluru (named it Ayer’s Rock)
John & Alexander Forrest 1870

6 men, 21 horses

8 men Explored the SW before tracing the south coast to Adelaide
Perth to Geraldton then NE to the Murchison River to source through excellent pasture near the coast before entering spinifex country before reaching telegraph line at Peake Station
Coastal Roebourne to Beagle Bay inland to the Kimberley & Fitzroy River finding grazing land approaching the Ord River.

Botanical collections

Botanical collecting expeditions into inland Australia from Adelaide did not begin for several years. The early expedition of Edward Eyre in 1838 did not record any plant collection, and his second in 1840 went to Mt Serle in the Flinders Ranges, to Mt Hopeless and then on to the daunting prospect of Lake Torrens. He then moved to Port Augusta, Port Lincoln and Streaky Bay, reaching the Bight in January 1841 and Albany in July 1841. His plant collections are housed in Melbourne.

Edward Eyre

The expeditions to the Centre were inspired in part by rumours of a great lake or inland sea and rivers. This influenced expeditions of Sturt, Grey, Eyre, Mitchell and Leichhardt on which a few plant specimens were collected. In simple terms the explorers challenge was to cross the continent on its north-south and east-west axes.

Charles Sturt

By the end of the 19th century temperate Australia had been fairly well explored but the tropical and arid regions still had many undescribed species.Fifty six years after settlement the centre of Australia had still not been penetrated. Another epic journey was that of Captain Charles Sturt setting out in 1844 moving from the Murray to the Darling to Depot Glen near Malparinka in NSW sending parties our to Cooper’s Creek Queensland and border NSW. Sturt made these first botanical collections in Central Australia with the assistance of surgeon-naturalist J.H. Browne and these, numbering about 100 species, were sent to London’s Natural History Museum to be described by Robert Brown.[1]

Benjamin Babbage & Peter Warburton

After a successful expedition north of Mt Serle in the Flinders Ranges Benjamin Babbage was appointed by the Government in 1858 to explore areas north of Lake Torrens. Although he observed areas of the Gawler ranges , Lakes Gairdner, Macfarlane, Hart and Island Lagoon. He was considered dawdling by the impatient government and Peter Warburton was appointed in his place. Babbages botanical collections were returned to Melbourne where 13 new species were described among the 120 collected. Babbages plant specimens went to Kew and Melbourne. In 1858 Warburton discovered the Strangways, Coward and Finnis mound Springs and explored the Lake Gairdner region. He also made collections at the head of Spencer Gulf and at Venus Bay. Most of his collections in MEL come from the Mt Serle region of the northern Flinders Ranges.

Augustus Gregory

The second CA collections were by Augustus Gregory (assistant Government Surveyor in Perth) with a North Australian Expedition in Jan. 1856 starting from the mouth of the Victoria River to Sturt Creek and Lake Gregory. The expedition was accompanied by botanist Ferdinand Mueller whose collections went to Kew and Melbourne. Gregory returned to Brisbane and within a year he set out from NSW ( in Sept. 1857) to locate Leichardt who had disappeared without trace in inland Queensland in 1848. He arrived in Adelaide in July 1858 after following the Barcco to Coopers Creek.

It seems that only a few plant collections were made on this trip, mostly at Coopers Creek.[2] The ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition resulted in two relief expeditions from Victoria headed by Alfred Howitt and this explored Cooper’s Creek with botanical collectors Wheeler and James Murray with 114 species collected on Howitt’s second expedition (Willis 1962 p.253). Burke and Wills had not learned much Aboriginal botany and although they were well served by eating Purslane (Portulaca oleraceae) and Pigface (Mesembryanthemum) they had not learned the correct preparation of Nardoo (Marsilea spp.) which probably contributed to their demise. (Clarke P).

John Stuart

From 1858 to 1862 John Stuart completed five epic journeys from Adelaide in the north that included Lake Eyre, Neales River, Strzlecki Creek and Chambers Creek. Plants were retained and catalogued. Collecting plants all the time Stuart made three attempts at a transcontinental crossing, succeeding on the third attempt to break out into Van Diemen Gulf on 24 July 1862. He had suffered enormously on these trips and died within four years of his return to Adelaide from his final journey. Specimens were again returned to Mueller for processing and appear to include over 100 species of which 16 were new to science.[3]

Edmund Delisser & John Forrest

Expeditions to the West Australian border were successfully completed by Edmund Delisser in 1861 and 1865, while the reverse journey from Perth to Adelaide was completed by John Forrest in 1869-1870. All these expeditions yielded plant specimens albeit sometimes few.

Burke & Wills

Early on the agenda of the Victorian Philosophical Institute was the establishment of an Exploration Committee and the proposal for an expedition to the north of the continent primarily, it seems, to pre-empt a similar attempt by South Australia’s John Stuart although there were other goals that included the search for grazing land, river systems, and mineral resources like the gold that had already paid such dividends, as well as scientific collecting and observation, although the latter, and the possibility of shedding some light on the mystery of the Leichhardt’s disappearance, did not feature so highly. Stuart was in fact pre-empted in the first south to north traverse of the continent by the ill-fated Victorian Exploring Expedition of Burke and Wills whose extremely well equipped team (26 camels, 23 horses, 19 men, 6 wagons 20 tonnes of supplies. Dromedary camels could carry loads of well over 100 kilos for 30-60 km a day withstanding desert heat and cold while lasting for about 10 days without fresh water. Some of the camels had been on pubic display at George Coppin’s Cremorne Gardens menagerie, part of an amusement park established in 1853 on the Banks of the Yarra Riverat Richmond)[4] had left Melbourne in something of a carnival atmosphere on 20 Aug. 1860 reaching the Gulf of Carpentaria via the Darling River and Cooper Creek by 21 Feb. 1861. Hermann Beckler was the medical officer and botanist for the journey travelling as far a Menindee with the full party and to Koorliatto Waterhole with a supply team. He was the only scientist to survive the expedition. Beckler had been working as an assistant in Mueller’s herbarium and was appointed at Mueller’s recommendation. During the expedition Beckler collected over a period of about ten months from mid Sept. 1860 to the end of June 1861 accumulating about 1,000 specimens and well over 350 species. At least 45 new species were established, most described by Mueller in his Fragmenta and Bentham in Flora Australiensis, based on his collections.[5] With an eye to the future, and in a gesture reminiscent of New Holland’s first European maritime visits, Mueller also supplied seeds of culinary vegetables and other ‘useful’ plants adapted to arid conditions for dissemination through he interior.[6] the Of the six relief parties sent to search for missing men only those of Alfred Howitt were to collect many botanical specimens. ( and 300 specimens are stored at MEL.)

A decade later the Overland Telegraph from Adelaide to Tennant Creek was completed in 1871 and then through to Darwin in 1872 and this prompted a renewed spate of exploration, especially to the west of this line.[7]


Surveyor General Giles completed four inland forays. In 1872 was supported by Mueller and back to Adelaide. At the same time there was the Warburton Party and W Gosse expedition. In 1873 he set off again with financial backing from Mueller. For the first 2 expeditions of 1872-1874 Mueller published 274 species. His third expedition, with W.H. Tietkens, included 24 camels and set out from South Australia for Perth in May 1875, arriving in Perth in November. He had passed south of the Gibson Desert and passed north of the Nullarbor Plain. The return journey began in January 1876. (his specimens were described by Mueller?). In the later 19th century to about 1920 about 20,000 camels were imported found good use in carrying wool through the arid centre managed by moslem cameleers from Pakistan and Afghanistan known as ‘Afghans’

Later, less attention was devoted to collecting individual specimens and more to attention given to the patterns of distribution of vegetation types and the factors that controlled this distribution. This was evident in the expeditions of Tate, Spencer Moore, Diels and Pritzel who were anticipating the advent of the new science of ecology.[8] German Ludwig Diels was an accomplished taxonomist, a one-time Director of the Botanic Gardens and Museum in Berlin, and from 1921 Professor of Botany at Berlin University. He had studied with noted taxonomist Adolf Engler (1844-1930) and was an advocate of the natural system of classification. He collected with Ernst Pritzel in Western Australia in 1900-01 being able to do much of his travel by train: his several publications including Die Pflantzenwelt von West Australien were pioneering studies of plant evolution, ecology and phytogeography.[9] With Pritzel he published Fragmenta Phytographiae Australiae Occidentalis.[10]

Ecological work was also done by the Czech botanist Karel Domin, Professor of Botany at Prague University, who collected in New South Wales and Queensland in 1909-10 continuing to work on the Australian flora when he returned to Europe and publishing the important Beitrage zur Flora und Pflanzengeographie Australiens in 1915.[11]

Hermannsburg Mission

In 1876 the two founding missionaries of the Hermannsburg Mission, Kempe and Schwartz, established on the upper Finke were avid plant collectors for Mueller who, from their collections published 287 species, 219 of which were new to science. Kempe and Finke were the first of many collectors in the centre who returned specimens to Mueller.[12]


David Lindsay lead an expedition from East to West from 1891-2 with Richard Helms as botanists and naturalist accumulating 470 species of which 8 were new.[13]


In 1889 Aboriginal Protector Archibald Meston led a Bellenden-Ker range expedition accompanied by Queensland’s Colonial Botanist Frederick Bailey who did not join his second expedition in 1905: both expeditions use Aboriginal guides and collectors.Clarke:144


The Horn expedition of 1894 was probably the most scientifically rewarding of this period. This expedition led from Oodnadatta by wealthy pastoralist and mining magnate William Horn explored about 2,000 miles of the more wild country in the centre including the Finke River basin, oases of refugial vegetation at places like Palm Valley and the Macdonnel and James Ranges and general area south-west of Alice Springs. The team included anthropologist Prof. of Biology at the University of Melbourne Baldwin Spencer and Prof Ralph Tate as naturalist-botanist with Aboriginals used as guides and assistants for the collection of natural history specimens. Spencer edited the four volumes that recorded the expedition and Maiden reported on the resins and gums that had been returned among the collections. The expedition returned 494 species to the Adelaide Herbarium, 8 new to science.

Inland New South Wales

Spencer befriended the telegraph operator Francis (Frank) Gillen at Alice Springs who sent him large numbers of natural history specimens and in 1901-1902 they made an expedition together across the NT with two Aboriginal guides.

The first publications dealing with the indigenous plants of arid and semi-arid western New South Wales were those of Maiden (1889) and Fred Turner (1895) and later vegetation studies by Richard Cambage, Turner and Edwin Haviland published between 1900 and 1915. The most detailed recent study of these communities is that of Beadle (1948).[14]

By 1900 >700 species had been recorded for the Centre.[15]


Herbert Basedow

After the Horn expedition it was in 1903 that Dr Herbert Basedow led a prospecting expedition part of which included botanical specimens >420. Then in 1911 the Government’s Barclay Expedition continued the search for resources spending some time in the MacDonnell Ranges. Gerald Hill was the botanical collector provided material for the Flora of the Northern Territory by Prof. Alfred Ewart and Oliver Davies, it took more than 400 specimens, 11 new to the flora.[16]

Walter Hill, Frederick Bailey

Possibly Queensland’s most respected botanist, began his botanical career selling seed and herbarium specimens.[17] He was appointed Queensland Government Botanist in 1881 and producing the first and only Flora of Queensland: he followed Walter Hill who was also first Superintendent of the Brisbane Botanic Gardens. In 1890 his pay ceased as the government could no longer afford to pay him but he worked unpaid until 1902 when survived on half pay. He also encouraged the fine Italian botanist and parish priest Benedetto Scortechini in his Queensland botanising.[18][19]

1941 ->

Raymond Perry

After World war 2 the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research – which became CSIRO in 1949 – placed exploration an a more formal and organized footing with regional surveys in the NT and CA to map and describe the physiography, geology, soils, land systems, vegetation etc. From 1947-1954 Raymond Perry was the botanist on these excursions and his work on arid zone plant communities continued for many years. A herbarium had been established in Canberra in 1929 but so many specimens were pouring in that another was set up and the two only amalgamated into Herbarium Australiense (CANB) with the Chief Systematic Botanist for many years being Nancy Burbidge, much of whose work was based on these collections.[20]

Noel Lothian

Later collectors of note included Charles Gardner, Government Botanist of Western Australia in 1953, Noel Lothian Director with staff of the Adelaide Botanic garden in 1954 both in the McDonnell Ranges. Selwyn Everist in far Western Queensland.

Alex George & John Beard

In 1954 the introduction of four-wheel drive cars opened up access to studies of arid areas and this was followed in 1956 with Federal Government grading of the Gunbarrel and Gary Highways, especially the deserts, and in the same year a Botany Section and Herbarium was set up in Alice Springs with George Chippendale in charge, now located at the Arid Zone Research Institute.[21] From the 1960s many botanists have combed the Centre. Alex George made 9 productive excursions into sandy regions of the West collecting over 3,500 specimens.[22] John Beard,[23] one-time Director of both the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney and Kings Park in Perth, specialized in studies of desert areas and their ecology, surveying and mapping the desert vegetation to produce the Vegetation Survey of Western Australia (1964-1981) and serving horticulture by producing a Descriptive Catalogue of Western Australian Plants for SGAP. To these collectors must be added the botanical harvester from Portland, Cliff Beauglehole, twho on six major collecting trips collected many thousand specimens, generally replicates for distribution to different herbaria, and including cryptogams.

Much research remains to be done on the flora of CA, and novelties are still turning up, to await description by the appropriate specialists
James Willis CA, p. xx.

Page Menu
Blaxland map
1813 – Blaxland
Crosses the Blue Mountains
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Accessed 24 June 2020
Oxley Map
1817-1818 – John Oxley
Interior of New South Wales; discovered Lachlan River and Macquarie River
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Accessed 24 June 2020
1839-1841 – Edward Eyre
The Flinders Ranges and Nullarbor Plain
1845 – Ludwig Leichhardt
Northern Queensland
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Accessed 23-June-2020
1847-1848 – Edmund Kennedy
Queensland interior
Stuart map
1858-1860 – John Stuart
First successful continental crossing south to north. Found and named Finke River, MacDonnell Ranges, Tennant Creek.
1860 – Burke & Wills
Melbourne to Gulf of Carpentaria
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Rocketfrog – Acc. 25 June 2020
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