Ernest Giles

The Australian explorer Ernest Giles (1835-1897) was the first man to cross the desert wilderness between central and western Australia both ways.

Ernest Giles was born in Bristol, England, on July 20, 1835, and educated at Christ's Hospital, London. In 1850 he followed his parents, younger brother, and five sisters who had migrated to South Australia in 1848. An adventurous young man, he was unable to settle for long in one place and after trying his hand on the Victorian goldfields and working in Melbourne as a post office clerk, he eventually found employment as a stockman on the Darling River in New South Wales. The constant need to find additional pasture took him on several expeditions, aroused his interest in exploration, and developed his knowledge of bushcraft.

The late 1860s was a period in which growing interest was being shown in the region between central and western Australia. Although the coastal route around the Great Australian Bight had been traversed, no one had yet crossed the inland wilderness.

On Aug. 4, 1872, Giles set out from the Charlotte Waters Telegraph Station, but the harshness of terrain and climate, combined with the uncooperativeness of one of his colleagues, forced him to abandon the attempt in late October. A second expedition organized a year later ended in failure and the death of his companion, Alfred Gibson, whom he commemorated in naming the Gibson Desert. To make matters worse, a party led by Peter Warburton succeeded in crossing the desert, winning a race that Giles had hoped to win.

Giles was determined to persevere even though yet another explorer, John Forrest, also preceded him. In 1875 Giles organized a third expedition, this time starting farther south and using camels instead of the horses that had not stood up to dry conditions. Leaving from Beltana on May 6, 1875, he arrived at Perth, after a harrowing journey, on Nov. 10, 1875. Not content with this achievement, he determined to become the first to cross both ways. The more northerly route he selected was one that would take him through the Gibson Desert, which had previously defeated him. On Jan. 13, 1876, he left Perth and headed northeast before striking inland. On this occasion he crossed the desert and accomplished his goal by reaching the telegraph line on Aug. 23, 1876.

This was the peak of Giles's life. He carried out no further major explorations, though in 1882 he did carry out some investigations near the Musgrave Ranges. In the 1890s he found employment at Coolgardie on the Western Australian goldfields as a clerk in the mines office. Wealth eluded him, and he died a man of no material substance on Nov. 13, 1897.


Further Reading on Ernest Giles

For Giles's account of his work see his Geographic Travels in Central Australia (1875) and Australia Twice Traversed (2 vols., 1889). A useful brief biography is Louis Green, Ernest Giles (1963). Interesting accounts of Giles's work are in J. H.L. Cumpston, The Inland Sea and the Great River (1964), and in William Joy, The Explorers (1964).

Additional Biography Sources

Dutton, Geoffrey, Australia's last explorer, Ernest Giles, Adelaide: Rigby, 1974.

Ericksen, Ray, Ernest Giles: explorer and traveller, 1835-1897, Melbourne: Heinemann Australia, 1978.