Level 3 Mortlock Wing State Library of South Australia North Terrace Adelaide SA 5000


The RGSSA sponsored colonial exploration that assisted in mapping the continent

The RGSSA involvement in early colonial exploration

Understanding a Continent. Following in the footsteps of its mentor the Royal Geographical Society in London, the South Australian Society actively encouraged exploration in the 1800s and 1900s of those parts of the state beyond the frontier of European settlement and previously known only by its Indigenous population. It was the close of the so-called ‘heroic’ age of Australian exploration. With its methodical and academic approach to the expeditions with which it became involved, the Society was instrumental in ushering in a European approach to exploration. Within a few months of its foundation in 1885, the Society assisted surveyor explorer David Lindsay’s journey through that portion of the Northern Territory north-east of Charlotte Waters unknown to Europeans, by providing plant and equipment to enable Lieutenant Dittrich to accompany him as naturalist and botanist. Over the years a number of expeditions, some of which are described below, were supported or conducted under the auspices of the Society and in addition, the Society acted as managers for the planning and operation of two major expeditions.

Central Australian Exploring and Prospecting Association’s expedition. In conjunction with the Victorian Branch of the Geographical Society of Australasia, the Society began to organise an expedition to explore the Lake Amadeus region of Central Australia in 1887. However, insufficient funds were raised and a private company, the Central Australian Exploring and Prospecting Association, was formed, raising the balance of the necessary £5,000 capital. The Expedition, led by Society foundation member William Henry Tietkens, set out from Glen Helen Station, west of Alice Springs, with 12 camels on 16 April 1889. On reaching the Western Australian border, Tietkens reconnoitred and named Lake Macdonald (Karrkurutinyja) after the Victorian Branch secretary. Returning east, the party determined the extent of Lake Amadeus, which Tietkens had first visited as second-in-command to Ernest Giles in 1874. They continued via Kata Tjuta (Mount Olga) and Uluru (Ayers Rock), arriving at Charlotte Waters Telegraph Station on 15 August 1889, where Tietkens telegraphed the Society after an absence of four months. The Expedition added further knowledge of the geography of Central Australia but the geological samples revealed no mineral prospects and the botanical specimens added little to the existing records of Central Australian flora.

Elder Scientific Exploration Expedition. Possibly the most ambitious European expedition of Australia was the Elder Scientific Exploration Expedition. Sir Thomas Elder financed the Expedition which was organised and run by the Society. Elder had maintained an active interest in exploration over many years and although he knew there was little prospect of finding good pastoral country, he was aware that very little scientific work had been done in the Australian deserts. Though many earlier expeditions into the interior had collected plant and animal specimens, and in some cases had naturalists in their parties, the rigours and demands of exploring had resulted in only limited scientific success. Elder believed that, properly organised and led, an expedition could successfully meet its objectives. The Expedition led by David Lindsay, left the railway at Warrina, south of Oodnadatta, on 2 May 1891 on a 6,886-kilometre journey that was to last twelve months. The party was one of the strongest and best equipped expeditions ever sent into inland Australia and consisted of 14 men (three of them scientists) and 44 camels. Conditions for travel were favourable at first, with abundant feed and, fresh water. However, in mid-July the Expedition crossed into Western Australia and experienced very difficult drought affected country. Many of the surface waters considered permanent by earlier European explorers like Giles, Gosse and Forrest had dried up. After a series of unsuccessful probes into the west and northwest, Lindsay decided to strike southwest to Giles’ Queen Victoria Spring. The Spring was reached on 23 September 1891 after one of the longest waterless forced marches in the history of Australian exploration, the camels having covered 868 kilometres on an allowance of only 36 litres of water per animal. They continued on to Fraser Range Station and recuperated before heading north to the Murchison River and the second phase of the Expedition. But the Expedition was dogged by psychological as well as physical problems and matters came to a head on 31 December with the resignation of the scientific officers. Lindsay went to Geraldton and telegraphed the Society for further direction and on 20 January 1892 he was recalled to Adelaide. The Expedition continued eastwards to the Lake Carnegie area under the command of the surveyor, Lawrence Allen Wells. They found traces of gold at Lake Way which was soon to be the scene of the Wiluna Goldfield. However, Elder decided to terminate the Expedition on 4 March 1892 and Wells, on reaching the Murchison District, was notified by telegram that the Expedition was to be abandoned.

The Elder Expedition has often been cited as a failure, but its achievements were not insignificant. The scientific results, though variable, were impressive in some disciplines. More than 150 species of insects, previously unknown to Western science, were collected and 19 unfamiliar species of plants were included in the 700 specimens collected by Richard Helms, the naturalist of the party. Collections of land and freshwater molluscs, lichens, fungi birds/mammals and reptiles (116 specimens) were also made. The mammals included several species now extinct in South Australia. Expedition geologist, Victor Streich, made a comprehensive collection of rocks and minerals and described in detail the geology of the country traversed. In addition, Helms made some important ethnographic notes on the Aboriginal communities encountered. The Expedition had also mapped over 200,000 square kilometres of country previously unknown to Europeans. The Society published a journal of the expedition and the scientific results. During its centenary year (1985) the Royal Geographical Society commemorated the Elder Expedition by erecting a cairn at Warrina on the Oodnadatta Track in May 1985 at the point where the cavalcade had disembarked from the train in 1891..

The Calvert Exploring Expedition. In 1896 Albert Frederick Calvert, a London mining engineer and author of two books on Australian exploration who had struck it rich in the Western Australian goldfields, sponsored an expedition into the regions of Central Western Australia left unexplored by the Elder Expedition. In the absence of a geographical society in that colony, the South Australian Branch was asked to organise and manage the expedition. Wells was appointed leader of the Calvert Exploring Expedition and setting out from Lake Way of his previous explorations, headed north towards the Fitzroy River. Amongst the party of seven men and twenty camels were Wells’ cousin, Charles Wells, second in command; George Lindsay Jones (a nephew of David Lindsay), mineralogist and collector of Indigenous vocabularies; and George Arthur Keartland, naturalist and botanist. On entering the Great Sandy Desert, Wells decided to split the party. His cousin and Jones left the main party at Separation Well to reconnoitre country to the west of the main party with the intention of a rendezvous at Warburton’s Joanna Spring. Warburton had named the Spring, which had saved the lives of the Iris expedition in 1873, after Joanna Barr Smith, the wife of his sponsor, Thomas Elder. The Spring, however, had been wrongly located on Warburton’s map, and Charles Wells and George Jones were lost trying to find it in the fearsome heat. The main party, with all Lawrence Wells’ surveying experience, were also unable to locate the Spring. Several camels died in the heat while searching for it and on 31 October 1896, with only 160 litres of water left Wells decided to make a dash for the Fitzroy River. On reaching Fitzroy Crossing, Wells immediately returned to the field in search of the lost explorers and on his second attempt located the elusive Joanna Spring, ascertaining it had been mapped 24 kilometres too far to the east. He failed to find any trace of his companions. Pastoralist and renowned bushman, Nathaniel Buchanan, led another search expedition and William Frederick Rudall, surveying in the vicinity of the Oakover River, was also diverted to the cause. Wells undertook another, the fifth search expedition, and eventually located the bodies on 27 May 1897. The author of the Society’s centenary history, Ken Peake-Jones, said in his book, The Branch Without a Tree, that the Society was ‘solemnly aware of having participated in a splendid failure, an honourable defeat by the desert’. Almost one hundred years later in 1993, a small party of Society members relocated Adverse Well in trackless, sand dune country, the campsite where Lawrence Wells was forced to abandon most of his equipment in his dash to the Fitzroy River. The members discovered cooking equipment, small arms and ammunition, fragments of scientific instruments, glass photographic plates and more than fifty geological specimens.

Crossing the Simpson Desert . “There is still one patch of Australia where the white man’s foot has never trodden, and that is the sand-ridge desert in the south east corner of the Northern Territory north of Lake Eyre.” These were the words of Dr Cecil Thomas Madigan when he addressed the Society in 1928. The following year the President, industrialist Alfred Allen Simpson (who had been Lord Mayor of Adelaide from 1913-15), contributed generously to the expenses of Madigan’s aerial reconnaissance over Kati Thanda (Lake Eyre) and the vast sand hill desert, previously unexplored by Europeans. After the flights Madigan considered that the desert and its endless parallel sand dunes “… must surely be one of the most uniform topographical areas in the world.” It was as yet unnamed and Madigan proposed calling it the ‘Simpson Desert’ after the President of the Society, to which Simpson replied that he ‘… would not object to having his name attached to so inhospitable a region’. Madigan, with Simpson’s financial assistance, led a camel-borne scientific expedition across the Simpson Desert in the winter of 1939. His major focus was obtaining information on the flora and fauna of the Desert, and the party included three scientists and 19 camels. Madigan’s route from Charlotte Waters crossed the northern half of the Desert to Birdsville. The arduous journey took over two months, with a waterless stretch of over 400 kilometres, and the scientific results, published by the Royal Society of South Australia, were of considerable importance. Several ABC radio broadcasts were made during the crossing, the link being made possible by a Traeger pedal wireless set. A call was also made to Simpson from near the centre of the Desert.

A modern expedition. A particular highlight of more recent years was the role the Society played in the Joint Army and Royal Geographical Society Great Sandy Desert Walk during May to July 1993. Five interstate Society members and the President of the Society formed the core of the walking party who traversed 880 kilometres with camels and travelled with a vehicular support team. Departing from Kintore on the Western Australian Northern Territory border, the expedition travelled across the Great Sandy Desert to Joanna Spring, a place carrying important links with the Society, and continued through to Broome. The support party had a measure of sophistication unimaginable to the Society’s earlier expeditions: six-wheel drive vehicles, refrigerators, high-frequency radios and satellite Global Positioning System navigation units. However, the desert was still as unforgiving as ever and two members had to be airlifted out in a medical evacuation.

Memorials to Colonial Explorers. As the age of Australian exploration by Europeans drew to a close around the end of the nineteenth century, the Society increased its interest in the exploits of past European explorers. In recognising the merits of these explorers who had gone before its foundation, the Society erected plaques and statues around Adelaide and South Australia to Matthew Flinders, Nicolas Baudin, John A. Horrocks, Edward John Eyre, Charles Sturt, John McDouall Stuart and, in recent years, to George Woodroffe Goyder.

Relics and Memorabilia of Colonial Exploration. A number of relics associated with early European exploration in Australia are held by the Society. Collected over the years, they include memorabilia such as compasses, expedition flags, guns, and swords attributed to a number of explorers. Colonel William Light’s levelling instrument is among the surveying and navigation equipment in the collection along with several compasses and Warburton’s box sextant. Of interest are two artificial horizons, used in conjunction with nautical sextants to determine inland positions by explorers and surveyors. The collection has such oddities as fragments of Captain Charles Sturt’s boat, carried on his northern expedition of 1844-45 in search of the mythical inland sea, and two slabs of regrowth from a tree blazed by explorer William Christie Gosse in 1873. Brought in by Tietkens from Glen Edith in 1889, they clearly show, in mirror image, the carved letters ‘GOS’.