Unchartered Territory

Scott Heiman — 5 September 2019
Follow the footsteps of Captain Charles Sturt, who in 1844 led a question where no European had ever been

Climate change has captured the public’s attention only recently. But there is ample proof that Australia has been affected by climate change in the past. Consider the factors that led to the extinction of our mega-fauna and the fact that Lake Eyre was once a permanent body of water 25m deep and holding up to seven Sydney Harbours.  

And that 60,000 years ago Lake Mungo was some 15m deep, with a surface area of about 200sq km. The climate in this region remained stable for around 20,000 years supporting an abundance of biological diversity.


Early European explorers to Australia were confident they would find a vast inland sea in the middle of our continent. Many went searching for it, and many died in the process. But why was it that so many believed in an inland sea? Birdwatching accounts for their confidence. 

By 1803 Captain Matthew Flinders had circumnavigated Australia’s mainland. So the educated classes understood how vast Australia was. But, in the early 1800s, much of the inland of the Australian continent had not yet been mapped. Sitting in the comfort of places such as Adelaide, people noticed that birds headed north every autumn and returned, in good condition, the following spring. 

Drawing on their experience in Europe, it was reasonable to conclude that there must be good feeding grounds to the north.  After all, if water birds flew towards the centre of the continent, there must be water there. Right?

It was confidence in this proposition that led many a would-be explorer to head north in search of his fortune. After all, if there was a permanent water source inland, then there was likely to be land suitable for agriculture. And so the prospect of an inland sea looked like a get-rich-quick scheme.

In 1840, Edward John Eyre was the first European to lay eyes on the 9500sq km lake, which now bears his name in one of the driest desert regions of South Australia. Lake Eyre was bone dry when he arrived. That’s because the lake fills only about four times a century. Interestingly Lake Eyre is Australia’s biggest lake and is also the 13th biggest lake in the world when full.  Being 15m below sea level, it’s also the lowest geographical point in Australia.


Even though Lake Eyre was already known to be dry, Captain Charles Sturt remained confident that an inland sea lay at the heart of the continent. He also wanted to be the first European explorer to reach the centre of Australia. So much so that, on 10 August 1844, he left Adelaide to explore north-western NSW and to advance into Central Australia. Underscoring his confidence in the existence of an inland body of water, he took with him seven tonnes of supplies, 15 men, 11 horses, 30 bullocks, four drays, 200 sheep, six dogs — and a boat. 

And this wasn’t just any boat. It was an 8m-long whaleboat that the expedition party carried with them by wagon. To put this in context: the typical ‘tinnie’ that many of us today strap to the top of our tow tugs averages a mere 3m long. 

Captain Sturt (which — by the way — was his Army Rank, not a Navy category) took with him a navy Coxswain to pilot the vessel if — and when — he found water to navigate. There is a replica of the boat located at Pioneer Park in Tibooburra, Outback NSW. It’s here at Tibooburra, which marks the gateway to Sturt National Park, where the modern traveller can best visualise the effort it must have taken to drag a massive whaleboat through uncharted virgin arid scrubland.

Sturt’s expedition party travelled along the Murray and Darling Rivers before passing the future site of Broken Hill. From here, they became stranded for several months by the extreme summer conditions near the present site of Milparinka. When the rains eventually came, Sturt moved north and established a depot at Fort Grey in today's Sturt National Park. With a small group of men, including John McDouall Stuart as his draughtsman (who was to go on to become an explorer of note himself), Sturt pressed on. 

When he finally transited the Stony Desert and entered the Simpson Desert he was only 240km from the centre of Australia. But, with conditions remaining dry and the party’s health deteriorating from scurvy, Sturt was forced to turn back to Fort Grey — now convinced that there was no inland sea.

At just 51 years of age, Sturt’s own health was on the decline. John Harris Browne, a medical officer on the expedition, took over leadership of the party and — after travelling 4800km — brought the expedition back to the safety of Adelaide.


It’s easy to forget the enduring legacy of explorers such as Charles Sturt. Without Sturt having traversed the Barrier Ranges, perhaps the mineral deposits at Broken Hill may not have been discovered as quickly. 

Forty years after Sturt passed this way, young German boundary rider Charles Rasp discovered the rich ore body, that became later known as the Line of Lode, in 1883. The mineral discoveries, in turn, connected known locations such as Menindee which serviced travellers from further south by means of the paddle steamers that worked their way up the Darling River from Wentworth.  

There is, in fact, an unsigned route called Sturt's Steps Touring Route linking Broken Hill with Tibooburra. It follows (approximately) the route taken by Captain Charles Sturt in 1845 but it commences considerably further north than Sturt’s stepping-off point — and to the west.

Sturt had commenced his effort over 500km away from Broken Hill at Adelaide. From the Barossa region, Sturt’s route took him through country that he’d traversed during earlier expeditions:  to the point where the Darling meets the Murray at Wentworth (which he’d discovered in 1830).  

From there he headed straight up the Darling River to Menindee. Today, you’ll get a good sense for the country covered by Sturt by taking the A20 from Adelaide to Blanchetown then heading north to Morgan before following the B64 and the River Murray as best you can to Wentworth. From there, turn north and follow the Darling to Menindee and then on to Broken Hill. Here you’ll find the Sturts Steps tourist route.

While not visited by Sturt, a stop at Mutawintji National Park is a must for travellers through these parts. Accessed via the Waterbag Road east of Little Topar near Broken Hill, Mutawintji is associated with its Aboriginal heritage, early mining efforts and was a stop-over for the ill-fated Burke and Wills 1860 expedition to the Gulf.

Once you leave Mutawintji National Park, the Silver City Highway follows close to Sturt’s route. He trekked across the Barrier Ranges and sent a recon party from Morphett's Creek across onto the red sand plain adjacent to the wild dog fence, where Sturt saw Mt Searle before linking the main party back to the north-east and on to Milparinka. 

Today, Milparinka is a great spot to get a sense of the isolation of this part of the world. The Milparinka Courthouse Interpretive Centre and the Heritage Precinct have recently received a spruce-up. Informative signs give a sense of the deprivations suffered by early settlers led by those chasing gold in the early 1800s. 

Today, weary travellers can call into the ‘New’ Albert Hotel. Originally built in 1882, this place has had a revival in recent years (thanks to publicans Phil and Beckie). When we last called through, it was Spit Roast night — with second helpings! There’s accommodation at the pub or the opportunity to camp by the river or in the patch behind the courthouse that is sparsely serviced, but is close enough to the pub’s amenities that it really doesn’t matter!


Around 16km west of Milparinka along the Hawker Gate Road, you’ll find signage to a permanent waterhole on Preservation Creek known as Depot Glen. This is the site where Sturt was virtually imprisoned for nearly six months with the waterhole (that was pretty empty when we visited) supporting the expedition party’s requirements for around 4500L of water a day on account of the number of livestock.  

While the modern traveller doesn’t need anything like these reserves, we shouldn’t take our survival for granted. Even with the support of modern technology, if something goes wrong in these parts, it can go badly wrong very quickly — so ensure that you have at least three days’ water on-board your rig at all times. 

Sturt lost the first and only member of his team and his second in command, John Poole, here at Depot Glen and you can visit Poole’s grave marked by a blaze on a tree near the creek. His death was memorialised by Sturt’s party who built a cairn in his honour at a nearby highpoint — quite an effort when you consider the terrain and the hot conditions. It’s a testament to how affected Sturt was by Poole’s death.  

From Milparinka, it’s up the Silver City Highway to Tibooburra. This township offers the opportunity to refuel, top up water and enjoy what the place has to offer — including a couple of very nice pubs. Visit the replica of Sturt’s whaleboat at the Tibooburra Pioneer Park and then decide if you want to travel north to pick up Middle Road Drive through Sturt’s National Park.  This road offers some great desert vistas and camping options as well as keeping you close to Sturt’s route.  

Alternatively, Cameron Corner Rd takes a more direct route to the junction of South Australia, Queensland and NSW and it’s here that you will start your roller coaster ride across the dunes of the Strzelecki Desert that run north-south across your path. Either way, you’ll find yourself at Fort Grey, another landmark on Sturt’s expedition and a site of significance in its own right.

Fort Grey has a campsite with excellent amenities (for such a remote location) including covered picnic areas, gas BBQs, loos with solar lights and spacious sites. It’s also well serviced by a formed walk that ventures across Lake Pinnaroo and offers interpretive signage covering the area’s history from paleo-Australian, ancient aboriginal and European exploration. So you’ll learn about things such as bush tucker, ancient history and the pioneer’s struggles. It’s all here.  

And if you were doubting what we said before about making sure you carry enough water, this place will probably hammer the issue home. It’s hard to walk the track and read the signs without being struck by how important water is to our way of life and survival. 


Having arrived at Fort Grey on 28 July 1845, Sturt moved through the Strzelecki into the Great Stony Desert, sometimes called Sturt’s Stony Desert or the Gibber Plains. He took with him Browne, Flood, Lewis and Cowley and struck out for the north-west. This region is known for the rounded stones (gibber) that cover the ground and that fracture over time producing very sharp edges. So sharp that they were prized by Aboriginals for their utility in tool-making.  

But they played havoc with the hooves of Charles Sturt's horses. By the time Sturt’s party crossed the Great Stony Desert and reached the edge of the Simpson Desert on 8 September 1845, the expeditioners were suffering from fatigue, malnutrition, scurvy and dehydration. 

When travelling this way, make sure you spend some time out of the comfort of your vehicle walking on the stones and on the adjoining sand dunes. There’s nothing like it to get a sense of the rhythm of this part of the country. 

Look closely, and you’ll see that it’s far from bare and uninhabited. There’s an amazing array of wildlife and flora that calls this arid landscape home. And it’s time spent in this environment that really brings home the enormity of the task facing the early explorers.

Regrettably for Sturt, he was unable to come to terms with the conditions under which he found himself. Suffering from scurvy, and convinced that his travel party couldn’t continue toward the centre of Australia, he directed a retreat to Fort Grey. However, after just days of rest at the depot, he decided to take fresh men to scout out to the north and east in search of easier ground. This time he took just three men – Stuart, Mack and Morgan – and followed their old course to Strzelecki Creek and on to Cooper Creek. 

While, in modern days, Cooper Creek is most closely associated in popular imagination with Burke and Wills, in fact Sturt was the first European explorer to sight it, on the 13 October 1845.  Sturt’s route passed some 50km west of the ‘Dig Tree’ — 15 years earlier than Burke and Wills arrived at Cooper Creek. Indeed, the ill-fated duo used Sturt’s knowledge of this permanent water course to guide them as they headed north to the Gulf.  

When Sturt travelled this way in 1845, he had originally planned to go east along the Cooper.  But rainfall in the area encouraged him to try pushing north again. Unfortunately – as had been the case several weeks earlier – the Sturt expedition soon found itself once more isolated and surrounded by seemingly endless desert.  

Finally accepting the futility of his efforts to reach Central Australia – sick, and almost blind – around 3 November 1845 Sturt turned south to retreat again to Fort Grey before beginning the long trek home to Adelaide.


10 August 1844 – Sturt’s expedition leaves Adelaide.  

18 August 1844 – The party reaches Moorundie before following the Murray River to its junction with the Darling River, and then up the Darling to the vicinity of Lake Cawndilla and Menindee.  The party camped here for two months making several scouting expeditions into – and beyond – the Barrier Range.

December 1844 – The expedition was short of water and some members were showing signs of scurvy.  Nevertheless, they moved further north in the Grey Range. Here they made camp at a  permanent water source located at Depot Glen on Preservation Creek (near modern day Milparinka). 

27 January to 16 July 1845 – By this time, the summer heat had dried up all other water within reach and the expedition was trapped at Depot Glen. Sturt's second-in-command, James Poole, died of scurvy. Today, the inscription JP 1845 can still be seen inscribed into a beefwood tree at the Depot Glen site.

July 1845 – Sturt’s party was released from its imprisonment at Depot Glen by heavy rain. Sturt moved his party in a north-westerly direction to Fort Grey. From here, Sturt made a series of reconnoitring expeditions culminating in a 724km journey towards the centre of the continent. He was repulsed by the sand dunes of the Simpson Desert and returned to Fort Grey.

9 October to 17 November 1845 – Sturt took one final trip to the Cooper Creek area but found that water was rapidly drying up.  Sturt proposed that the main party go home and that he and John McDouall Stuart make a do-or-die trip towards the centre. This plan was canned at the recommendation of Sturt’s surgeon Browne. Sturt succumbed to a serious attack of scurvy meaning that Browne was forced to take command of the party as it retreated south.

19 January 1846 – Having used Aboriginal foods on the homeward journey, Sturt’s health improved. He arrived back at Adelaide on 19 January 1846 a few days ahead of the main party.


Travel Destination Australia Historical European Explorer


Scott Heiman