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The indefatigable Mr Stuart

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If one man can be said to have put Northern Territory on the map it is John McDouall Stuart (1815–66). A diminutive Scottish surveyor with unlimited reserves of flinty perseverance, he led no less than six expeditions into the red centre, never losing a man in the process (a rare talent compared with his contemporaries). For the early British colonists the Territory was essentially terra incognita, a land of scorching desert that attracted only those willing to search for gold or ever-elusive grazing lands. However, in the late 1850s the need for a telegraph line to link Australia’s southern colonies to the rest of the Empire saw serious attention turn north. The government of South Australia offered £2000 to any man who could find a suitable route through to the north coast from where the line would be connected undersea to Java.

Stuart had a head start on many of his rivals, having already charted vast expanses of the desert by travelling light and relying on an uncanny ability to find water. He set out from Adelaide in 1861 leading a party of ten men on an expedition that would take a gruelling nine months to find a way through to the Top End. Along the way he suffered terribly from scurvy, was attacked by boomerang-wielding Aborigines, and had to be carried on a stretcher for the last few kilometres. On July 24, 1862 they finally reached their goal at Chambers Bay. Stuart’s journal records that when one of his men exclaimed “The Sea!”, they were so astonished, that he had to repeat himself, after which they gave “three long and hearty cheers”. Though he returned a hero to Adelaide, Stuart’s exertions had taken their toll and he died just four years later back in Britain. Today, along with statues in Adelaide and Darwin, he is remembered by the Stuart Highway and Central Mount Stuart as by well as the names he gave to features across the Territory from the Katherine River to the MacDonnell Ranges.

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