John McDouall Stuart’s Exploration into the Heart of Australia

Portrait of John McDouall Stuart. Dated 1860.

Australia’s inland exploration really began in 1813 when three pioneers, Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth, managed to find a path through the Blue Mountains west of Sydney and discovered new pastures on the far side. As in the exploration of the United States much of the subsequent exploration was done by settlers who spread out over the country with their flocks and herds. But instead of Mountain Men acting as scouts, the British sent out officially sponsored expeditions led by army officers, colonists or surveyors. The explorer’s greatest enemy was lack of water. Expedition after expedition had to turn back in the drought-stricken plains of Central Australia

John McDouall Stuart 1815 – 1866

Like many of Australia’s explorers Stuart had emigrated to make his life in the new country. Intrigued by the mystery of Australia’s unknown heartland, he made several trips on horseback into the interior looking for new pasture and a transcontinental route. Despite waterless desert and hostile Aborigines, Stuart finally reached the centre of Australia and placed the British flag on Mount Stuart in the John Range.

Stuart nearly lost his eyesight when, weak and exhausted, he rode across the stony desert near Lake Eyre. Conditions were so difficult that in the early days convicts were offered their freedom if they would accompany expeditions. Flocks of sheep were herded along as mobile food supplies; oxen, horses and even camels were used as transport and the explorers learned to depend upon the Aborigines to show them where to dig for water. In 1861 when an expedition led by policeman Robert O’Hara Burke perished for lack of supplies at Cooper’s Creek, the rescue party found the sole survivor living with the Aborigines, helping them by shooting for game while his ammunition held out.

The explorations of Stuart eventually resulted in the Adelaide-Darwin telegraph being built and the main route from Port Augusta to Darwin being established, which is now known as the Stuart Highway in his honour. There are many constructed monuments and statues affiliated with Stuart and his expeditions – Stuart Terrace, Stuarts Well, Stuart Town, Stuart Park, Stuart Caravan Park and Central Mount Stuart are all named after John McDouall Stuart.

Whilst Captain James Cook will forever be famous for his pacific voyages and discovery of the East coast of Australia, Stuart was the first European to discover the true nature of the centre of the continent. The difficulties of his several journeys cost him his health, but not before he had proved himself one of Australia’s hardiest explorers.


  1. Balchin, J (2005) To the Ends of the Earth : Journeys of the Great Explorers: From the Equator to the Poles. Arcturus Publishing.