John McDouall Stuart was one of the most accomplished and famous of all Australia’s inland explorers. Stuart led the first successful expedition to traverse the Australian mainland from south to north. despite poor backing from the Government of South Australia. He never lost a man even though he encountered some of the harshest conditions on the continent.

The explorations of Stuart eventually resulted in the Australian Overland Telegraph Line being built and the main route from Port Augusta to Darwin being established, now called the Stuart Highway in his honour. He was born in Scotland, the youngest of nine children. His father was a retired army captain serving as a customs officer. His parents died when he was in his early teens and he came under the care of relatives. After graduating from the Scottish Naval and Military Academy as a civil engineer, the young man emigrated to Australia in 1838. He was a delicately built man, only 5′ 6″ tall (168 cm) and 121 pounds (55 kilos).

John McDouall Stuart

It was on his fourth expedition, in the Spring of 1860. that Stuart came across the rugged region now called the MacDonnell Ranges. He and two other men had departed from Chambers Creek, South Australia on horseback, intending to find the centre of Australia. Unexpected rain soon ruined half their supplies, then, ironically, water holes seemed to disappear. Scurvy set in among the small group and Stuart’s right eye began to fail.


Nevertheless, they found a major watercourse in early April which Stuart named the Finke River, and they followed it north-west to some rugged hills, which Stuart named after Sir Richard MacDonnell, Governor of South Australia. On 22 April 1860, according to Stuart’s calculations, the party reached the centre of the continent. Geographers no longer regard it as the exact centre, but that has done nothing to lower Stuart’s reputation.

Despite his many accomplishments, to say that Stuart discovered this area is like saying Columbus “discovered” America. The Arrente people had lived in the area for more than 30,000 years when the Europeans put in an appearance. They were desert people, constantly walking the country to gather food from underground larders, picking fruits and seeds, hunting animals and birds. Steep narrow chasms and gorges cut into the hills, some retaining pools of water throughout the year.


This is a refuge for some rare and threatened plants; it is home to the smooth, white-barked ghost gum, the desert she-oak, river red gum, corkwood and coolibah. Twelve mammal species have disappeared since European contact, but there are still Red kangaroos, bilbies, mulgaras, and the black-footed rock-wallaby, although they are endangered. Goannas and a variety of other reptiles are still common, as well as 160 species of birds.


Unlike Stuart, we are traveling in style on a trusty steel steed capable of carrying all sixteen of us, our gear, water and food to boot. Our fourth day takes us from Glen Helen Resort to Ormiston Gorge, the Ochre Pits, Serpentine Gorge and Ellery Creek Big hole before we launch well off the beaten path, heading into the back of beyond– Owen Springs Reserve.


For thousands of years, Aboriginal people gathered ochre from the banks of a sandy creek site about 110 kms west of Alice Springs. The pits consist of several layers of multi-coloured, layered rock used by Australian Aborigines in ceremonies and played an important role in the Aboriginal economy, being traded with neighbouring clans and “countries”, in every direction on the continent. Prior to European settlement of the area in 1880, only certain Arrente men were allowed to collect the ochre.


It was considered some of the choicest ochre – soft to touch, vivid, with a slight sheen to it. The colours range from gold to crimson. After the ochre was mined by the Western Arrernte, it was ground and mixed with Emu fat for ceremonial body adornment.



If you want to get a 4 wheel-drive bus stuck in the middle of nowhere, you could hardly do worse than head across a dry river bed at the end of a long, hot day. We were following the meandering path of Hugh River, heading for what promised to be one of the only places in the area with any water left. It would be our campground for the night, a paradise for birds.


Within ten to fifteen minutes of getting “bogged,” we had an audience, a truck full of Aboriginal men, who seemed amused at our plight and not particularly interested in getting their hands dirty. Our fearless guide and leader had no such qualms. She was soon digging out loose gravel from around the tires and directing us to unload the trailer. Snooty was well and truly stuck.


After watching us awhile, the Ute full of husky men simply drove around us and disappeared. It is at times like this that your brain flashes back to all those missed opportunities to sign up for road service. Tamara was nonplussed. What is an outback adventure without the adventure? As it gradually dawned on us that we really were going to have to do this ourselves, the group gradually stopped throwing out questions and suggestions, and put minds and muscle behind the effort.


Despite some serious reservations about our ability to push the trailer out of the creek bed and up the other side, it seemed like the only way to get Snooty unstuck. After a handful of frustrating attempts, Snooty finally got the traction it needed and came free. We followed this with a concerted push and the trailer followed the bus up the dry river bank traveling on human power alone.


Stuart would have been proud. It was a day to remember, and a night to celebrate.