Little is known about the man for whom Australia’s Gibson Desert is named. Alfred Gibson was a member of the second Giles expedition seeking to journey from the line of the telegraph between Adelaide and Darwin, westward to the Indian Ocean. Ernest Giles had first attempted the crossing to Perth when he left Chambers Pillar just south of Alice Springs in 1872. Forced back by the imposing desert and vast salt flats of Lake Amadeus that lie some 50km north of Uluru (which Giles is believed to be the first European to have sighted), the explorer wasted no time in preparing for another attempt to cross the Red Centre.
The Ernest Giles Expedition of 1873
Giles was reluctant to take on the volunteer stockman who approached him in Adelaide about joining the expedition. His second in command was the experienced William Tietkins, whom Giles had known since 1865 when they worked together assessing the upper Darling River region for settlement. The two men knew well the rigors and perils associated with outback exploration, but they had trouble finding the right men to complete their team. The enthusiastic and self-confident Gibson, along with another volunteer Jimmy Andrews, would have to do.
The expedition struck west from Oodnadatta in August 1873, reaching the place Giles named Mt Olga on 14 September. Along the way the party was regularly confronted by belligerent Aborigines determined to keep the white man out of their territories. Finding water was also a constant problem. The cautious Giles would split the party in two, one pair scouting ahead to find the next waterhole before leading the others to it. Progress thus became slow, and some months were spent working through the region of the Cavanagh Ranges.
Lost in the Red Centre
By this time it was midsummer, the horses were beginning to die and the expedition had barely entered Western Australian territory. But rather than turning back as he had done the previous year, the normally prudent Giles was determined to press on, hoping rather than expecting to find water in the mountains ahead. As he considered the implications of once more splitting the group up, Giles agreed to take Gibson with him rather than the more experienced Tietkins. His subsequent record of the experience indicates that Gibson was not up to the job.
As Giles and Gibson travelled across the arid and rocky land, surviving on half rations and with no guarantee of water ahead, they were reduced to one horse between them. Forced to turn back, and now at serious risk of becoming stranded in the desert, Giles decided in accordance with his usual strategy that the pair would split. Gibson would take the horse back along their route to where water was known to be, and come back with fresh supplies to rescue Giles.
The Gibson Desert Gets its Name
As Gibson rode away from him, Giles trudged on, only to discover along the way tracks indicating that Gibson had turned his horse away from safety. Remarkably, Giles made it back to camp on foot, and after a short rest he set out in search of Gibson with the limited supplies available. The search for Gibson was to no avail, and Giles named the region Gibson’s Desert, “after this first white victim to its horrors.”
In 1785 Giles mounted a further expedition westwards from the centre of Australia. Again Tietkins was his second-in-command, and this time they succeeded in reaching Perth, using camels instead of horses. By then others had achieved the feat, in both directions in fact. But Giles was notable for making his a return journey, travelling back to the Overland Telegraph via the Gibson Desert.
- Wright, E., Lost Explorers, Adventurers who disappeared off the face of the Earth, Pier 9, Millers Point NSW, 2008