European History

The First European Explorers

It wasn’t until the early 1870’s that the first Europeans starting venturing into Central Australia, primarily to find a route to the West Coast.

It was in 1872 that Ernest Giles first came to the area and, while heading southwest from Watarrka (Kings Canyon), sighted Kata Tjuta and Uluru further in the distance. As he tried to get closer to Kata Tjuta his attempts were thwarted by what is now Lake Amadeus, a giant saltpan. He tried going around the lake but it just kept on going and he was too far from a known water supply, his horses were tired and thirsty and so he had to turn back.

As Giles notes in his writings in ‘Australia Twice Traversed’, “I named this eminence Mount Olga and the great salt feature which obstructed me Lake Amadeus, in honour of two enlightened royal patrons of science”.

The First White Man to Climb Uluru

In 1873 William Gosse, a surveyor appointed by the South Australian government, was assigned to the Northern Territory in a bid to map a route from the newly opened Overland Telegraph Station at Alice Springs all the way west to Perth. Departing from the Finke River they headed west following in some of the tracks of Giles and another famous explorer Colonel Peter Warburton. They came to Lake Amadeus and managed to cross the swamps at its eastern end. From the top of a sand ridge he saw a flat-topped mesa tableland he named Mount Connor (Atila) after a South Australian politician. Also from this lookout he spotted another rock formation in the distance which he set off to.

Quoting Gosse from ‘The explorers of Australia and their life-work’ by Ernest Favenc, “When I got clear of the sand hills, and was only two miles distant, and the hill, for the first time coming fairly in view, what was my astonishment to find it was one immense rock rising abruptly from the plain; the holes I had noticed were caused by the water in some places causing immense caves.” And so William Gosse named the rock Ayers Rock after the then Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers. He became the first European to climb the rock which he did with one of his Afghan camel drivers Khamran.

Ernest Giles on his later expedition had a lovely way of describing the differing beauty of Uluru and Kata Tjuta. “Mount Olga is the more wonderful and grotesque; Mount Ayers the more ancient and sublime”.

Opening Up the Interior

It was the opening of the overland telegraph line in the early 1870’s that prompted settlement of what is now Alice Springs. It grew as a direct result of the influx of pastoralists, miners and church missions that sprung up in the region such as the Lutheran Mission at Hermannsburg.

Large parts of the Northern Territory were taken up by pastoralists under pastoral leases issued by the South Australian Government which administered the Northern Territory from 1870 until 1911. By the 1880’s it was estimated that virtually the whole of Central Australia was under lease or lease application. Many of the runs taken up were immense in size, most running in the thousands of square kilometres. Generally it was sheep that were initially adopted but cattle later replaced them as the main produce.

For Aboriginal people this was a story of invasion and dispossession of their lands and water holes. This led to an uneasy relationship between them and the pastoralists that often ended in violence and the killing of cattle. Strangely enough, it was Aboriginals that became an important part of the pastoral industry as labourers and farm hands until equal wages were introduced in the late 1960s and a little later, aerial mustering. This led to a large drop in numbers from that point.

Pastoralism on Marginal Land

Pastoralism was originally one of the great industries of the Northern Territory and still plays a part today, although much reduced. The story of pastoralism in the Territory has generally been one of boom and bust due to the holdings being too small and unsustainable (bizarre that a couple of thousand square kilometres might be unsustainable), long periods of drought, the great depression, wars, the harsh environment, etc. Many of the runs have been consolidated into even bigger holdings to make them sustainable and large tracts have simply been abandoned. As part of the 1976 Land Rights Act, large parcels of land have been returned to the Aborigines with more to come as pastoral leases expire.

Today many of the cattle stations in Central Australia have been in the family for many years and it is not uncommon to find 3 – 4 generations living and working on the same station. Some like Kings Creek Station and Curtin Springs were originally started as cattle stations (plus live camel exports in the case of Kings Creek) but the boom in tourism and their proximity to Kings Canyon and Uluru provided the opportunity to diversify into tourism to supplement income, which now plays a major part in their operations.

The spectacular growth in Alice Springs from approximately 950 in 1939 to over 25,000 today can be directly attributed to the rise in tourism and associated industries. To give an idea of just how fast tourism has grown in Central Australia, the Severins of Curtin Springs Station reputedly only saw 6 people in their first year living on the station in 1956. Today they host up to 40 tour coaches a day that stop for food and refreshments. Always good to be in the right place at the right time.