Into the wide, found land

Lee Atkinson traces six great journeys of six great Australian explorers across deserts, rivers and ranges.

In these days of Google maps, global positioning and in-car satellite navigation, it's easy to forget there was a time when much of Australia was yet to be drawn, where the map beyond the coastline was just white space. It was the job of a band of intrepid explorers, who boldly went where no Europeans had gone before, to fill in the blanks.

We follow in the footsteps of six of Australia's most famous adventurers.

Cooper Creek

EXPLORERS: Burke and Wills

Robert Burke and William Wills set off from Melbourne in a blaze of glory in 1860, intent on being the first to cross the continent from south to north. Six months later they made it to the Gulf of Carpentaria but never made it home, dying on the banks of Cooper Creek, near Innamincka in the far north-east of South Australia, and unjustly giving this beautiful watercourse a bad reputation.

You can follow the footsteps of Burke and Wills from Melbourne to Burketown but it's the area near Cooper Creek that is most fascinating. The quickest way to get there is via the four-wheel-drive-only Strzelecki Track through the desert to Innamincka, although if you head off from NSW you can spend a night at Maidens Hotel in Menindee, near where the explorers stayed at the beginning of their trip, too.

Burke and Wills left a back-up party at Cooper Creek, with instructions to wait for three months before leaving. The party gave up after 18 weeks, leaving a cache of food buried beneath what is now known as the Dig Tree and missing the exhausted explorers' return by just hours. It's a mystery why Burke and Wills starved here - Cooper Creek teems with life (Wills wrote in his journal that they "found themselves all very weak in spite of the abundant supply of fish") and is a beautiful place to camp, swim and paddle (you can hire canoes and kayaks at the Innamincka Hotel). Wills's grave is about 25 kilometres west of the town, a memorial to Burke is along the creek to the east and the Dig Tree is 55 kilometres from town.

MORE: You'll need a valid Desert Parks Pass to visit Innamincka Regional Reserve. Phone 1800 816 078, see www.parks.sa.gov.au.

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Adelaide to Darwin

EXPLORER: John McDouall Stuart

In 1862, Stuart became the first European to cross the continent from south to north, Adelaide to Darwin, and live to tell the tale. His nine-month journey through some of the harshest landscape in the country opened the way for the overland telegraph line to be built, which in 1872 linked South Australia with Britain and the rest of the world.

Follow the Stuart Highway, also known as the Explorers Way, or take The Ghan train. Whatever way you travel, it's an epic trip though the heart of Australia. Highlights include the craggy Flinders Ranges, where Stuart was a prospector before becoming an explorer, sleeping underground in a dugout motel and fossicking for opals at Coober Pedy and exploring iconic outback scenery around Alice Springs, which Stuart described in his journal as "wonderful country ... scarcely to be believed". Detour to Uluru and Kings Canyon, circle back through the West MacDonnell Ranges and stop at Ti Tree to climb Central Mount Stuart, which the explorer believed marked the centre of Australia, before reaching Darwin.

MORE: See explorersway.com; gsr.com.au.

Gulf of Carpentaria and Arnhem Land

EXPLORER: Ludwig Leichhardt

Another explorer more famous for dying - he disappeared without a trace in 1848 somewhere between Brisbane and Perth - Leichhardt was the first to map a route from Brisbane to Port Essington, near present-day Darwin, in 1845. It was an epic overland journey of more than 4800 kilometres. Retrace the section of his trip that skirts the edge of the Gulf of Carpentaria, now part of the Savannah Way, a transcontinental route across the top of Australia from Cairns to Broome.

From Cairns wind over the range to Mareeba (great coffee, there's plenty grown around here) and go caving at Chillagoe, then head west to the gulf, pausing along the way at Nassau River where the explorer's camp was attacked by Aborigines in the middle of the night, resulting in the death of naturalist John Gilbert. Watch the sun sink into the Gulf of Carpentaria at Karumba, catch a mud crab at Burketown (where Bourke and Wills hit the Gulf 16 years later), paddle the palm-filled oasis of Lawn Hill Gorge, check out the fossils of Riversleigh World Heritage site, wander among the towers of Limmen National Park's Lost City, have a soak in Mataranka's hot springs or take a cruise down Katherine Gorge.

Pick up the trail again in Kakadu, which Leichhardt described as "one of the most romantic spots I have seen in my wanderings" and make your way across Arnhem Land to Leichhardt's final stop, Victoria Settlement on the Cobourg Peninsula, where he was "deeply affected in finding myself again in civilised society and could scarcely speak". The settlement was abandoned a few years later; all that remains are some atmospheric ruins, half swallowed by swamp, now part of Garig Gunak Barlu National Park.

MORE: See savannahway.com.au; nt.gov.au/nreta/parks.

Blue Mountains

EXPLORERS: Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson

You didn't need to cross the country to attempt feats of exploration - sometimes just crossing a mountain range was monumental enough. A lot of people, including more than a few escaped convicts, tried to find a way across the Blue Mountains but it wasn't until 1813 that Gregory Blaxland, William Charles Wentworth and William Lawson managed to navigate their way across the labyrinth of sandstone ridges and canyons, countryside that Wentworth described as "perpendicular Walls of Stone".

It took them 21 days to cross the 80 kilometres of rugged terrain from the edge of Sydney town to a spot near present-day Hartley, a lovely little sandstone village held in an 1870s-style time warp. Today, you can retrace the explorers' steps in a few hours: the Great Western Highway pretty much follows the same route that the three men blazed almost 200 years ago. Along with the jaw- dropping views of the Three Sisters and Jamison Valley at Leura and Katoomba, you'll find plenty of reminders of the explorers, such as the art deco clock tower monument in Penrith, a cairn in Glenbrook, another monument in Lawson and the famous Explorers Tree near Katoomba, where the men carved their initials in 1813, or so the legend goes. It's a great place to start a bushwalking adventure but do stay on the track - beyond the B&Bs, cafes and art galleries, the bush is as wild and impenetrable as ever.

MORE: See bluemts.com.au.

Corner Country

EXPLORER: Charles Sturt

Having "found" the Darling River and mapped the course of the Murray in 1828-29 and 1829-30, Sturt was convinced the centre of Australia was a vast inland sea. In 1844 he set out to find it. He didn't but he did explore much of outback NSW and even got as far as the Simpson Desert before turning back.

Pick up his trail at Broken Hill. Nicknamed the Silver City, Broken Hill made its fortune on the wealth of silver and zinc buried beneath the surface - not that Sturt noticed; the mineral riches weren't discovered until the 1880s. Today, the city has a thriving arts scene. Follow the Silver City Highway north to Milparinka, now a ghost town of grand but empty buildings. Sturt and his men were trapped for six months near here, at a place he called Depot Glen, in weather so hot that "it made screws drop out of boxes, lead fell out of pencils and the men's nails became as brittle as glass". He kept his men busy by building a cairn on a hilltop; you can still see the grave of his second in command, James Poole, who died here.

Sturt eventually moved on and built a small stockade that he called Fort Grey, to house his stock and supplies. It's in Sturt National Park, near Tibooburra. You can camp there, although little remains today.

Sturt's route took him though inhospitable land, across the Strzelecki, Sturt Stony and Simpson deserts, these days navigable on the iconic Strzelecki and Birdsville four-wheel-drive tracks, the blood-red dunes still sweeping towards the horizon just as Sturt described in his journal: "In parallel lines beyond the range of vision ... like the waves of the sea."

MORE: See visitoutbacknsw.com; www.parks.sa.gov.au.

The Nullarbor

EXPLORER: Edward John Eyre

Before 1841 the only way to get from the east coast to the west was by sea. Edward Eyre changed that when he and his Aboriginal companion, Wylie, became the first to cross southern Australia, from Adelaide to Albany.

Eyre's journey took him along the coast of the triangular peninsula that now bears his name. If you like empty beaches, this is the place to go. Here you can dine in style on oysters and fresh seafood, unlike Eyre, who was desperately short of food and water for most of his trip. Don't miss the stunning cliff-top drive at Elliston, Lincoln and Coffin Bay national parks and swimming with sea lions at Baird Bay.

Eyre stuck mainly to the coastline but these days the only way across the Nullarbor, if you don't take the Indian Pacific train, is on the longest, straightest, flattest piece of road in Australia, where you can't actually see the coast. However, there are plenty of side tracks to lookouts at the dramatic line of cliffs of the Great Australian Bight. Go whale watching at Head of Bight, buy Aboriginal art from roadhouses along the way and if you think roadhouse food is pretty awful, spare a thought for Eyre, who was so desperate for food he had to kill and eat one of his sick horses.

MORE: See nullarbornet.com.au; www.southaustralia.com/EyrePeninsula.aspx; gsr.com.au.

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