Australia's last explorer: Ernest Giles by Geoffrey Dutton
Adelaide: Rigby, 1974 ISBN 0851797091
(First published 1970 by Faber and Faber)
"Of all the great unexplored regions of the world, none subjected explorers to more consistent humiliation than Central and Western Australia. An area the size of the whole of Western Europe lured these fly-tormented men on from waterhole to water soak with promises of an inland sea, of great rivers, of plains where millions of sheep and cattle could run,but in most cases nothing more was achieved than a connection between existing settlements. Unlike North America, Australia was settled around its edges, a nibbling, heartless approach to living that has persisted to the present day. Most modern Australians have never been inland except as tourists, insulated from the shocks of dust and distance. The myth of the outback is the heart of the country's identity, while the citydwellers look outwards to the sea. There is no Chicago, Kansas City or Dallas in the middle of Australia, only a small town called Alice Springs, and five hundred miles in any direction much the same emptiness that engulfed the first explorers. West of Alice Springs, despite all the excitements of mineral discoveries, there is still a thousand miles of red emptiness."
So begins Australia's last explorer. From the first lines we know that, in the tale here written of the explorations of Giles, that we will be subjected to stories of heat, thirst, and bare survival, without the great pot of exploration gold of a great new discovery. As Giles wrote of his greatest journey, from the line of the Overland Telegraph to Perth and back, crossing the Nullabor Plain and both the Great Victoria and Gibson Deserts; "I have travelled during the expedition 2,500 miles, and unfortunately no areas of country available for settlement were found. The explorer does not make the country, he must take it as he finds it; and though to the discoverer of the finest regions the greatest applause is awarded, yet it should be borne in mind that the difficulties of travelling such a country cannot be nearly so great as those which confront the less fortunate traveller who finds himself surrounded by heartless deserts. Still, the successful penetration of such a region has its value, both in a commercial and scientific sense, as it points out to the future emigrant or settler those portions of our continent which he should most religiously shun."
This quote gives us some insight into the character of Ernest Giles - realistic in his appraisal of what he had achieved, at ease with what he had achieved, stoic, and an experienced bushman. Like many of our country's greatest explorers, Giles was English born, emigrating just before the great Victorian Gold Rush, which he joined without success. He ended up at Melbourne working for the Post Office, but city life was not for him, and he ended up working up and down the Darling River for various station owners, work that included looking for new grazing land. He became more and more interested in finding out what lay to the west of the great Overland Telegraph line, and having secured some funding from Baron Von Mueller, he set out on his first expedition in 1872, starting at Chambers Pillar in Central Australia.
This expedition traversed much of the Finke River, and came to grief when Giles tried to cross Lake Amadeus in an attempt to get to the Olgas, which he could see on the horizon. He was eventually driven back by lack of both water and the desire of his companions to continue. He soon tried again, this time travelling south of Lake Amadeus. He was shattered to find that Forrest, who was the first to travel from West to East, had reached the Olgas before him and so Giles wasn't the first to set foot there. This second expedition almost brought his downfall, as he and one of his party, Gibson, ventured too far out into the desert that was to bear Gibson's name, Giles' horse died and Gibson got lost on the return and was never seen again - Giles barely made it back to base camp alive. The irony was that when he and Gibson decided to return to the base camp they were only 30 miles from permanent water that would have enabled them to continue West.
Still determined to get to the West, and to make a meaningful discovery, Giles re-equipped himself with Camels, and some new companions, and finally completed the epic trek to the coast of the Indian Ocean. He then marched back again. For his troubles, he got a rousing round of receptions in both Perth and Adelaide, but he never received the package of land that he so desired. He ended up in the Western Australian Goldfields - eventually dying in Coolgardie.
Dutton, mostly using Giles own books, the most famous of which is Australia twice traversed, not only describes the explorations, but delves into Giles' character - inclined to versify and see the best in a situation, he named many of his discoveries for classical characters or for whatever took his fancy at the time - Vale of Tempe, Glen Thirsty, Tarn of Auber and Champ de Mars give some idea of the turn of his mind. Given his classical education and seeming gentle nature, it seems odd that he had no fellow feeling for Aboriginal Australians, continually denigrating their artistic achievements and their degeneracy. He had several run-ins with local tribes, mostly after his camels had drunk the local water supply dry. While, like other explorers, he failed to have the wit to rely on Aboriginals to find food and water in places that he found barren, he is partly excused by the fact that many of the places he traversed were in fact avoided by the local inhabitants as wasteland. It's not made clear in his writings, but it seems that Giles killed several natives in the course of his explorations.
One thing that struck me particularly was how recent these explorations were - we tend to think of the ground-breaking journeys across our continent as happening in the dim reaches of the past, but Tietkens, Giles second-in-command for some of his expeditions, died in 1933, four years after the birth of my father-in-law and four years before the birth of my father....
Dutton has made a good job with this short book, taking the reader into the life-and-death trials of one of Australia's last, and perhaps forgotten, explorers. I for one will be following this up by reading Giles' own works.
I've mentioned in another review that Dutton was one of the founders of Sun Books: he was a poet in his own right, and a big man in the Australian literary scene of the 60s and 70s (this book is dedicated to Randolph Stow). This book was published by another great little imprint emanating from Australia in the 70s - Seal Books. Somewhat in the same vein as Sun, but more concerned with Australian history and folklore, it was yet another imprint that helped Australia find out more about itself. I've been lucky enough to inherit quite a little collection of these titles....there will be more reviewed on this blog as time moves on.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell