In the footsteps of Carnegie - An introduction to our 2013 Expedition

Tuesday, Jul 23, 2013 at 12:05


David Carnegie successfully led a party of four - Joe Breaden, Charles Stansmore, Godfrey Massie and Aboriginal companion Warri, across the Great Sandy Desert over five months in late 1896. From Coolgardie in the south to Halls Creek in the north, they were the first Europeans to do so. The arduous crossing was not without tragedy with the accidental death of Charles Stansmore fatally wounded whilst hunting only a few days short of their triumphal arrival in Halls Creek.

Arriving at Halls Creek in early December, the party recuperated during the hot summer and resupplied themselves for a planned return back through the fearsome desert country. After nearly 4 months at Halls Creek , Carnegie and his party left the settlement at noon on the 22nd March, 1897. With Carnegie as leader, the three remaining members of the northward expedition: Breaden, Massie and Warri set off on a southerly route across the continent a good deal east of the route they had taken on their northward journey. Leading eight camels, three horses and a dog, Carnegie followed the route of only a few before him along the semi-permanent waters of the Sturt Creek and onto the vast plains of the Tanami Desert just east of Lake Gregory. Arriving at Mount Wilson Carnegie had reached the southerly most point of the route taken by Augustus Gregory in 1856. The view from Mt Wilson across the dry, unrelenting country would have been enough to melt even the sternest resolve but Carnegie did not falter opting to begin his trek to the east and into country that had been visited only by the explorer Warburton before him, in 1873;

"From the summit of the hill (Mount Wilson) nothing was visible but one unbounded waste of sandy ridges and low, rocky hills, which lay to the South-East of the hill. All was one impenetrable desert; …the vegetation on this part of the country was reduced to a few stunted gums, hakea bushes, and Triodia (spinifex), the whole extremely barren in appearance… The remaining portion of the horizon was one even, straight line: not a hill or break of any kind, and except the narrow line of the creek, was barren and worthless in the extreme, the red soil of the level portions of the surface being partially clothed with Triodia and a few small trees, or rather bushes, rendering the long, straight ridges of fiery-red, drifting sand more conspicuous."

The journal of Augustus Gregory, 1856.

Carnegie knew a suspect timepiece had caused significant inaccuracy in Warburton’s navigation and that locating any of Warburton’s water sources along this route would be problematic.Carnegie opted to do it ‘his way’ and headed off largely into the unknown. For survival, Carnegie relied upon the cooperation of the local inhabitants to identify water sources in their country. In many cases this cooperation was coerced or forced. Although considered inappropriate by some, it proved a successful methodology and allowed Carnegie to move with good speed through the country relying largely on the collective wisdom of a thousand generations to draw subsistence from.

So how does this affect we modern day explorers? So much has changed in the century since Carnegie’s expedition. The country no longer sustains the desert nomads the way it once did. The original custodians of the land are now infrequent visitors to the more remote areas of their country. Camels have been replaced with four wheel drive vehicles and diesel quad bikes, the sextant with computer based navigation systems and space borne positioning satellites. Despite these advances, much remains the same. You are reliant on your own skills and on that which you can carry. Water and food are still finite commodities. Poison bush won’t kill your modern mechanical pack animal but a spinifex fire or mechanical mishap stops it just as dead and leaves you in the same predicament as the earlier explorers. In a country where even in the last throws of winter, the day time temperature soars to the mid 30’s and the stark radiance of the sun bores through you as if standing by a blast furnace, water is precious. The relentless easterlies are a blessing and a curse, cooling and constantly evaporating valuable moisture from you. Finally, as it has been for time immemorial, there are any number of mishaps waiting to rear up and bite the unwary, the careless or the plain unfortunate. Some things never change!

2013 saw our group of intrepid adventurers gather together at Halls Creek in late July to retrace as faithfully as possible, the southerly route taken by David Carnegie across the Tanami, Great Sandy and Gibson deserts. Our leader and instigator of this modern day expedition was the irrepressible Alan ‘Equinox' McCall. He would be joined on the quads by John “Jaydub” Whithorn, a man who’s mechanical and problem solving skills are second to none. I was to be the final member of the tripartite filling the role of camp jester and chief cordial mixer. Using Carnegie’s own journals, jottings and maps, we sought to enhance our chances of success using satellite images and maps, tools that our predecessors could only dream of, to identify possible locations of Carnegie’s landmarks. Our three diesel all terrain vehicles (ATV) or ‘quads’ as we Aussies like to call them, would take the place of camel and horse as we tracked across harsh, inhospitable country. Our support crew, Suzette, Alan 'The Dingo' Kennedy, Big John McCall, Petey and Larry P would bring on a convoy comprising 4 vehicles and a Unimog truck tracking us from the west using a combination of known and not so well known tracks, meeting us at various rendezvous points along the way and dodging hazards of their own. In many cases we would be the first to follow sections of Carnegie’s route since he did, and one of very few sets of European eyes to gaze across the country.

We left Halls Creek on the 23rd July and after days spent wending our way south along the many fine pools of the Sturt Creek, we three found ourselves atop Mount Wilson staring pensively south east, the quiet moment spent reflecting on the task ahead of us broken by a shout;

”Hey knackers, these sand dunes aren’t going to cross themselves. Let’s get moving!”

Authors Note; Our group are indebted to the Walmajarri People, Tjamu Tjamu People and Parna Ngururrpa People for their consideration and understanding in providing us access to their lands. We also thank Jim and Sarah from Sturt Creek Station for allowing access to their property.

Here is a fantastic "teaser" or trailer put together by Peter Blakeman. Hopefully between his full time job, his photographic interests and a bit more travel, he will produce a full scale documentary.

The following photos by M. Olsen, J Whithorn, S. Cooke, A. McCall.

''We knew from the experience of well-known travelers that the
trip would doubtless be attended with much hardship.''
Richard Maurice - 1903
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