Australian explorers

Key points

  • When Australia was colonised in 1788, little was known about the inland areas.
  • To understand the country, explorers were sent out in search of rivers and land suitable for farming.
  • Expeditions were documented in reports and journals.
  • Explorers like Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth helped open up Australia for further exploration and farming.
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Australian explorers Burke and Wills walking through the desert with a camel.Nicholas Chavalier, Return of Burke and Wills to Coopers Creek. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia Picture Collections.

Early exploration

When Australia was colonised, little was known about the inland areas. The imagination of those among the colony prompted ideas of a paradise existing just beyond the settlement, of being able to walk to China and the presence of an inland sea. In search of a better life, many convicts escaped only to find themselves lost in the dense, rugged and seemingly never-ending bushland.

To understand the country, explorers (generally professional surveyors) were officially sent out in search of rivers and land suitable for agriculture, to survey the land and to later source routes for lines of communication. They were often accompanied by convicts, Aboriginal trackers or those who had developed strong bush survival skills.

Major expeditions were documented through reports and journals, which were made up of sketches and maps noting rivers, mountains, plains and deserts, and sometimes information about Aboriginal groups the explorer came across.

One of the first major expeditions took place in 1813, led by Gregory Blaxland, William Lawson and William Charles Wentworth. Unable to travel west into the country's interior because of the Great Dividing Range, the party found a way to cross the Blue Mountains, opening up the rest of the continent for further exploration and farming.

Noted explorers

  • George Bass and Mathew Flinders (Bass and Flinders) are recognised for proving there was a channel of water (Bass Strait) between the Australian mainland and Tasmania.
  • Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills (Burke and Wills) were the first Australian explorers to cross Australia from south to north at the expense of their lives.
  • Edward John Eyre and Wylie: Eyre and his Aboriginal companion Wylie became the first men to cross South Australia from east to west when they trekked the Nullarbor Plain from Adelaide to Albany.
  • Ludwig Leichhardt was a Prussian (now Germany) born scientist, who found a new route between the Darling Downs in southern Queensland and Port Essington near Darwin. His party mysteriously disappeared when it later attempted to cross from Brisbane to Perth.
  • Scottish-born Major Thomas Livingstone Mitchell was the NSW surveyor-general for 27 years. He led four expeditions, carrying out most of his surveys in eastern Australia. 
  • Charles Sturt was born in India and discovered the Darling and Murray rivers. His explorations led England to establish a colony in South Australia. Sturt also dispelled the myth that there was an inland sea in the middle of Australia through his journey to the Stony and Simpson deserts.
  • John McDouall Stuart crossed Australia from south to north, passing through the centre of the continent. His journey mapped out the route which was later followed by the Overland Telegraph.



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