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  • Writer's pictureDigital Liz

Australia's Woman Explorer

And just who did explore great swathes of northern Australia? Burke and Wills? No. John McDouall Stuart then? Nope.

This explorer was a real rarity - a woman who trekked 1,980 kilometres through unwelcoming lands to chart western Queensland and eastern NT. At the time Darwin was of critical importance as the new Port from which telegraphs left our shores to communicate with the rest of the world. So the SA government was determined to maximise their investment in building the Overland Telegraph Line by finding a way to link it with the eastern half of the continent.

And that's where Australia's last and most remarkable female overland explorer stepped in!

Emily Caroline Creaghe, nee Robinson, later Barnett, was a founding and pivotal member of a tiny 1883 expedition that explored between Normanton in the Gulf of Carpentaria and Darwin.

Born on a Naval ship in the Bay of Bengal, raised in England, Caroline (as she was best known) was told at age 16 that the family was moving to a new colony called Queensland.

Once in Australia, the family settled at Goodna near Ipswich and that's where Caroline (pictured below, State Library of SA) fell for a station manager named Harry Creaghe.

The far north of the country was still largely unexplored back then and two years later, in 1883, the young couple set out on their expedition on behalf of the South Australian government^.

They met up with another expedition couple, Elizabeth (Bettie) and Ernest Favenco, on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait and sailed together to Normanton. That's when Bettie became ill and the Favencos turned tail immediately for Sydney. The Creaghes changed tack slightly, and with four men they started off heading south-west as the first leg of the expedition.

For the next six months they cut through the bush, often without sufficient food or water, in blistering heat, saddle sore on exhausted horses, and anxious about the welcome they'd receive from local clans along the journey. It was such tough going that after just 322 kilometres, nearing Carl Creek Station, the searing summer heat took its toll and one of the men died of sunstroke. You may know the Carl Creek area by another name - Lawn Hill Reserve and the Riversleigh Fossil Site.

It was at this station that the party backtracked north east to Gregory, where Ernest Favenco and another man joined them.

To add to Caroline's burden, she became pregnant soon after, suffering from likely morning sickness. That's why ‘the Little Explorer’, as husband Harry affectionately called her, chose to take a couple of days break at the Powell Creek Telegraph Station (pictured below, near what's now the NT town of Elliott). Part of the 3,000-kilometre-long Overland Telegraph Line, the heritage-listed Powell Creek site remains one of national significance. About halfway between Darwin and Alice Springs, there's still three buildings which were brand new when the Creaghes arrived, a grave and some telegraph poles. Back then, this was the only white settlement for 250 kilometres in any direction, and arriving at a station did not guarantee a big feed as these remote places only received supplies once a year by camel train.

From Power Creek Favenco and the four other men explored the Macarthur River while the Creaghes took the weaker horses north past Daly Waters Telegraph Station to the one at Katherine. It was a 480-kilometre journey of isolation that Harry and Caroline faced alone - a phenomenal feat!

They then met up with Augusta and Alfred Giles of Springvale Station, who travelled with them to Darwin.

Even now, 140 years later, the path this expedition took from Normanton to Lawn Hill, back to Gregory, across the Barkly Tablelands to Elliott and then onto Darwin is one that would require detailed planning, determination and numerous pack animals as there are no roads.

Caroline meticulously kept a daily diary, noting her impressions and experiences at the end of each day. The excerpts I've read hint at a woman who was very atypical. She was fascinated by nature, interested in adventure and dismissive of the usual homemaker activities. In her eyes, she certainly was not on that expedition to tend to the men in any way.

How could you settle down to everyday life after such a life-changing experience? I suspect she struggled. While the couple returned to their station, Harry died only five years later. Caroline remarried, and had another six children to add to the two she and Harry had.

And while she may have turned her back on adventure, fate was not ready to let Caroline be. In 1899 she decided to visit her sister in New Zealand. She boarded the SS Perthshire* in Sydney with her five youngest children and a home nurse in tow. They were the ship's only passengers. Well clear of shore the tailshaft snapped, kick-starting another dangerous adventure. A week after the ship was due to reach Wellington NZ it was reported missing, believed wrecked. For seven weeks in total Caroline and all others on the Perthshire (pictured below, CC) tossed and pitched at Neptune's will. It's disappearance made trans-Tasman news, but it's miraculous discovery made global news. Even the 18 June 1899 edition of The New York Times made a big splash about it.

What a ride!

I can only imagine that Caroline was a firm believer in the idiom "Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone". And in that way, Emily Caroline Creaghe lived a full and thrilling life indeed.

^ In 1863, the year after John McDouall Stuart succeeded in traversing central Australia from south to north, the NT was annexed by South Australia. That's how things stayed until 1 January 1911, a decade after Federation, when the NT was finally separated from SA and transferred to Australian government control.

* The SS Perthshire was acquired by the Australian Royal Navy during WWI to play its part in a clever case of subterfuge. Fourteen ships, from meat packers to cruise liners, were repainted and refitted with mock guns and turrets crafted from wood and canvas to look like a battleship. Only one was lost to enemy fire, but their success otherwise in fooling the enemy has never been proven.


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