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Exploring the country

Exploring the country

Examines places encountered, investigated and documented by colonists and adventurers as they sought to know and claim the continent.

As soon as Europeans established their first camps on the Australian continent they set out to explore the country. Men, and sometimes women, traversed oceans, mountains, forests, swamps and deserts, mapping the land, recording unfamiliar plants and animals, and claiming vast regions for Crown and commerce.

They discovered a continent inhabited by Indigenous people who knew, tended and used the landforms, species and pathways of their country, though the newcomers often failed to recognise this as ownership.

Recherche Archipelago, Western Australia

Investigator's stream anchor

The Recherche Archipelago is a group of hundreds of islands and rocky outcrops in dangerous waters off the south coast of Western Australia. It was named by French explorer Admiral Bruny d'Entrecasteaux, after one of his ships, in 1792.

Aerial image showing a group of vegetated islands surrounded by blue ocean.
Middle Island, Archipelago of the Recherche.
Graham Gath Surveys, Western Australia.

Matthew Flinders, a skillful sailor and mathematician arrived there on board Investigator in 1801. He knew d'Entrecasteaux had viewed the islands from a distance. Flinders took on the challenge to navigate through the Archipelago.

Flinders reached Middle Island, the largest island near the centre of the group, on 15 January 1802. Here the ship's botanist and artists collected and documented the landscape, flora and fauna.Water and salt were collected and Cape Barren geese were a welcome addition to the crew's diet. After three days Investigator sailed east and completed its circumnavigation of Australia.

In May 1803, after long months of restricted diet, Flinders and his crew were ailing. On his way from Timor to Port Jackson, Flinders remembered the haven from the previous year and stopped again at Middle Island hoping to replenish fresh food, water and supplies. However, they found no salt, only a few geese and were forced to leave. While setting sail, the ship's anchors did not hold in the gusty conditions and the cables had to be cut to stop the Investigator being pulled towards the rocks. Flinders lost two anchors and barely avoided shipwreck.

A wrought iron anchor with a long, straight shank which has the remains of a ring at one end, and two curved arms at the other end. The surface is corroded.
The Investigator's stream anchor, recovered after 170 years on the seabed.
Photo: Dragi Markovic.

The Investigator's stream anchor lay in the relatively undisturbed waters off Middle Island for 170 years.

It was recovered in 1973 by an expedition from the Underwater Explorers Club in Adelaide, led by Doug Seton. Bad weather hampered the search for the first week. In the second week the 2.5 metre anchor was sighted.

The Cape Don lighthouse ship raised the 400-kilogram anchor from the sea bed on 19 January, 1973. The anchor then became part of the National Historical Collection.


Collection database record

Recherche Archipelago field trip Flickr images

audio_w15 Download 'Matthew Flinders in the Recherche Archipelago' curator's talk


Blue Mountains, New South Wales

View of the Blue Mountains with trees in the foreground
The Blue Mountains. Photo: Pip McNaught.

The Blaxland clock

Jackey Lewis' breastplate

The sandstone cliffs of the beautiful but immensely rugged Blue Mountains were a barrier to the expansion of Sydney in the early days of the colony.

In 1813 landholder Gregory Blaxland sought Governor Lachlan Macquarie's approval for an exploring expedition to find a route across the Blue Mountains. Blaxland was accompanied by fellow landholders William Lawson and William Charles Wentworth. They found a way across and surveyor George Evans mapped their track and continued to the Macquarie River.

In 1814 Governor Macquarie commissioned the construction of a road through the steep and rocky terrain. Convicts supervised by William Cox took just six months to complete the road. Those who worked hard were rewarded with their freedom. The following year Macquarie travelled along the road and founded the town of Bathurst. This settlement was the first established west of the Great Dividing Range.

Late in the 19th century the Blue Mountains became a desired location for holiday homes, health resorts and hotels – for people seeking an escape from Sydney. Later, tourists took in the fantastic views from Echo Point at Katoomba and visited the cascading waters of Wentworth Falls. The wild sandstone gorges and their eucalyptus forests became popular bushwalking destinations.

Landmarks features objects which belonged to early Blue Mountains bushwalker and environmental campaigner Myles Dunphy, including his hiking boots and a coat worn by his dog, Dextre.

Dunphy dog boots collection highlight

The Blaxland clock

This black slate mantel clock was brought to New South Wales from by the Blaxland family. It was made in 1718 by London clockmaker Devereux Bowly. Gregory Blaxland arrived in the colony in 1806, and his brother, John, followed a year later. 

A mantelpiece clock, showing the face and one of the sides. The clock is made from dark material and has carved decorations.
The Blaxland clock. Photo: Lannon Harley.

The Blaxlands' move was assisted by the British Government, under a scheme encouraging educated and prosperous migrants.In return for investing capital in the colony they were promised land grants, convict workers and free passage. A

In 1812 Governor Lachlan Macquarie awarded Blaxland 500 acres of land at the foot of the Blue Mountains. This land was not enough to accommodate Blaxland's stock and the next year he departed on his quest to find new pasture.

Blaxland clock collection highlight


View timelapse photography of the clock being reassembled after repair: Part one (MPEG4 2.2mb) duration 0:50; Part two (MPEG4 1.7mb) duration 0:39. Photos: George Serras.

See the reassembled clock working: Blaxland clock in motion (MPEG4 4.2mb) duration 1:06. Video: Jeffrey Gear.

Blaxland clock conservation slideshow

View the 1812 Blaxland land grant
(Requires Flash - download Flash)


Breastplate presented to 'Jackey Lewis'

A gold crescent-shaped gorget imprinted with the words 'JACKEY LEWIS, Chief of the Bathurst Tribe'.
Breastplate presented to Jackey Lewis. Photo: Jason McCarthy.

A brass breastplate helps to illustrate the consequences for the Indigenous people of the inland slopes, of the first European crossing of the Blue Mountains and the road that soon followed.

An early settler presented the breastplate to a senior Wiradjuri man known as 'Jackey Lewis'. According to a Sydney newspaper, Lewis was 'an active and zealous partisan of the authorities … distinguished by an odd admixture of military finery, which with his brass Macquarie medal, is worn with all beseeming importance. "Jacky" looks the "chief," and strides over the plains with all the air of regal superiority, conversing in an uninterrupted flow of English, unbroken and amusing … [H]is prowess is undisputed, and in his occasionally assumed capacity of bush constable he carries his acuteness to considerable extent.'

A collection of stone tools arranged and framed by Percy Gresser, a Bathurst shearer with deep interests in Aboriginal history and archaeology, is also on show.

Read the full report on the 'Bathurst native tribes' on Trove

Aboriginal Breastplates online feature

Sturt Creek, Western Australia

The Leichhardt nameplate and medal 

The disappearance of scientist Ludwig Leichhardt's expedition party has been one of the great mysteries of Australian exploration. The group began its journey from Moreton Bay to Swan River (or Brisbane to Perth) in 1848 and was last seen leaving Cogoon Station, near Roma in south western Queensland. It was never heard of again.

Leichhardt planned to cross the continent in an arc to the north, rather than a straight east-west line, which would have taken him into the desert. Trees marked with the letter 'L' along parts of the proposed route strongly support the thesis that Leichhardt stuck to his plans.

A boab tree surrounded by grassy scrubland
A boab tree in Sturt Creek country. Photo: Darrell Lewis.

Sturt Creek, in Western Australia near its border with the Northern Territory, is between the Tanami and Great Sandy deserts. This is the area where the first authenticated relic of Ludwig Leichhardt's last journey, the Leichhardt nameplate, was found. The nameplate reveals nothing about where Leichhardt died, but helps to prove that he made it at least two-thirds of the way across the continent.

Leichhardt was the best-trained scientist to explore Australia at the time and his observations and scientific contribution continue to be recognised today.

The Leichhardt nameplate and medal

The National Museum holds two objects linked to Leichhardt – a brass nameplate though to have been in his possession on his final expedition – and a medal awarded to the German-born explorer by London's Royal Georgraphic Society in 1847.

A gold medal in a presentation box. The medal shows an image of a woman holding a wreath and a scroll, with the text 'OB TERRAS RECLUSAS / ROYAL GEOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY OF LONDON'. The case is lined purple velvet, and white satin on the lid.
The Royal Geographical Society of London medal awarded to Leichhardt. Photo: Jason McCarthy.

This nameplate was discovered attached to a partly burnt firearm in a tree near Sturt Creek, inscribed with the letter 'L'. It measures 15cm x 2cm and is marked 'LUDWIG LEICHHARDT 1848'. The plate was discovered around 1900 by an Aboriginal man, Jackie, working for a drover.

Exhaustive investigations into the plate and its place of discovery were carried out by various South Australia institutions in the early 20th century.

These investigations concluded the plate was genuine. The National Museum of Australia recently conducted more extensive scientific tests which further proved the authenticity of the plate.

The Royal Geographical Society medal was awarded in recognition of Leichhardt's contribution to geographic and scientific knowledge from the overland voyage between Moreton Bay (Brisbane) and Port Essington (Darwin) in 1844–5. It was never held by Leichhardt, though he knew it has been bestowed. It came to the National Museum directly from descendants of the Leichhardt family in Mexico. 


Collection database record

The Leichhardt nameplate and medal collection highlight


Narrow, roughly rectangular-shaped metal plate with a pitted surface, small hole centre top and marked 'LUDWIG. LEICHHARDT. 1848'.
The Leichhardt nameplate. Photo: Dragi Markovic.

Cooper Creek, Queensland

Water bottle and breastplate

Cooper Creek is one of the major rivers of the Lake Eyre Basin. It begins in Queensland and its flow is variable, influenced by tropical rains. The Cooper was named by explorer Charles Sturt after judge Sir Charles Cooper of South Australia. Sturt called the water course a creek because the water level was low when he visited in 1845. At other times the Cooper can flood the country and is a picturesque haven for wildlife.

In 1860 the Exploration Committee of the Royal Society of Victoria directed Robert O'Hara Burke to make a depot at Cooper Creek and leave from there to complete the crossing of Australia from south to north.

The Dig Tree, with decking around the base, beside Cooper Creek
The Dig Tree at Cooper Creek. Photo: Pip McNaught.

Burke left Melbourne in August 1860. He divided his party at Menindie and pressed on to Cooper Creek where he left a depot party, waiting for more supplies. Burke, William John Wills, John King and Charley Gray then set out north for the Gulf of Carpentaria. They crossed the continent but Gray died on the return journey and Burke, Wills and King returned to Cooper Creek weak and starving. They expected help and a rousing welcome but the depot was deserted. They found some meagre supplies and discovered their depot companions, tired of waiting for supplies, had left only hours before.

Unable to sustain themselves, Burke and Wills died a few kilometres apart on the banks of Cooper Creek. King was cared for by the Yandruwandha people and he returned to Melbourne with Alfred Howitt's relief party, which was sent to search for the explorers.

More on Burke and Wills in the exhibition Not Just Ned

Water bottle and breastplate

This tear-drop shaped leather water bottle was brought back from Cooper Creek by Howitt's party.

A tear-dropped shaped leather water bottle.
Burke's water bottle.
Photo: Dean McNicoll.

It was collected with other objects found near Burke's body and sent to his family in Ireland.

The water bottle returned to Australia in 2005 and is now part of the National Historical Collection.

It is on show in Landmarks.

A breastplate presented to the Yandruwandha people is also on display in Landmarks. Three breastplates were commissioned by the Exploration Committee of the Royal Society of Victoria and inscribed 'for the Humanity shewn to the Explorers Burke, Wills & King 1861'. Howitt presented the breastplates when he returned to retrieve the bodies of Burke and Wills for burial in Melbourne.

A breastplate inscribed with the word 'Presented to ... by the Exploration Committee of Victoria for the Humanity shewn to the Explorers Burke, Wills & King 1861'
A breastplate from the Victorian Exploration Committee presented to the Yandruwandha people of Cooper Creek as
a token of appreciation for the care they extended to Burke, Wills and King. Photo: Lannon Harley.