The Last Explorer: Michael Terry

Michael Terry on his first motorised trip in 1923

Michael Terry mightn't be as well-known to four-wheel drivers as Len Beadell, but he pioneered the use of vehicles for exploring remote desert country. Ron tells his story.

When Michael Terry died in Sydney in 1981 his autobiography, The Last Explorer was yet to be finalised. His sister, Charlotte Barnard, compiled the work and it was published in 1987. In 1990, as part of a group led by television host, Glenn Ridge, we travelled to one of Terry’s greatest discoveries and later interviewed Charlotte for the subsequent documentary.

During the course of the filming expedition, we were also lucky enough to interview a great Central Australian character; bush millionaire, long time station owner/manager (including Tempe Downs (1930) and Glen Helen (1940)) and historian, the legendary Bryan Bowman. He had met Terry a number of times, but his opinion of him was diametrically opposed to Charlotte’s.

But I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself.

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Terry was born in England in 1899 and as soon as he was 18 and old enough to join the military he enlisted in the Royal Naval Air Service Armoured Cars unit. He served in Russia, was gassed and received a medical discharge at the end of 1918 with a pre-paid ticket to Western Australia.

Arriving in Perth just before he turned 20, Terry got a job as a car delivery driver but soon ended up working on Cardabia Station, on the Coral Coast of the North West Cape, when there wasn’t a tourist to be seen up that way. When that work fell through he bummed his way south and then east on a troop ship to Sydney where he was soon selling cars. After a stint founding and owning a transport company carrying goods in northern NSW, in mid 1922 he headed north to Longreach where he worked in a woolshed before going droving. Soon afterwards he found himself in Winton with, as he said in his biography, “nothing to do”.Terry2

Attracted to the vast untracked country to the west he and a mate, Dick, bought a 1913 Model T Ford, overhauled it and in February 1923 set off on an adventure that was to be the first ever crossing of northern Australia by motor vehicle. Working for food and fuel at isolated properties along the way their luck ran out as they approached the WA border.

With no fuel in the Ford, they shouldered their swags and set off to find the nearest homestead. Two days later and near dead from thirst they stumbled onto a small soak that quenched their ravenous needs. After wandering for a couple of days, they realised they were lost and retreated back to the soak where they split up, Dick taking water and the last of the food to make a dash for the homestead somewhere ahead. Dick was later found by some Aboriginal stockmen, and as the police report stated, “In state of collapse. Nearly perished”.

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On Dick’s advice a party was dispatched and a patrolling policeman found Terry in a similar state, who was then reunited with his friend. Without any further major mishap they reached Broome on October 4, “giving vent to hearty yells for very joy”.

Back in Sydney, a couple of months later, Terry recounted the story over drinks to a friend. Next day she introduced Terry to the editor of The Sun newspaper ... and Terry’s literary career began.

Taking a trip to the USA in 1924 he met Henry Ford seeking some funding for his past adventure and was quickly sent packing. Disenchanted a little he continued to the UK where he lectured to the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), which resulted in him winning a major award from the RGS the following year as well as a grant from the National Geographical Society. That same year he wrote and published Across Unknown Australia. 

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Back in Australia in July 1925 he and a small party of men headed out of Darwin driving two Guy Roadless Vehicles with trailers and riding an AJS motorbike and sidecar.

The British-made Guy vehicles were powered by a four-cylinder petrol engine with inclined valves and an inclined, detachable cylinder head (in two parts) and were known for easy servicing.  A four-speed gearbox – with reverse – was standard but down the back the trucks were fitted with factory optioned caterpillar tracks. While those tracks improved traction they were prone to serious wear of the track pins, bushes and seals and were a serious headache for the party.

Another problem was keeping the vehicles cool in the slow tough going, their speed by Terry’s own account not exceeding 20mph and more often, much slower in that the, “machines were coaxed every mile of the way, so as to give them the greatest opportunity of performing in true British style.”  They sorted their cooling problems by shipping-in and fitting an extra radiator to each of the trucks at Gordon Downs Station, just west of the WA/NT border.

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The five-man party had aimed south-west from Katherine towards Wave Hill and then followed Sturt Creek deep into the desert, past Lake Stretch, and Billiluna Homestead and onto Gregory’s Salt Sea, as Lake Gregory was called then. Then they headed along a completely untracked and little used Canning Stock Route (CSR) to Well 48 and to the now well-visited spots for CSR travellers of the Breaden Hills and Breaden Pool. They were the first people to travel any of the northern section of the stock route with motorised vehicles. 

Heading west the short distance to Mt Cornish, they turned back from their goal of Joanna Spring and retraced their steps north to Billiluna. From there they headed on through Ruby Plains HS to the small outpost of Fitzroy Crossing and then followed the Fitzroy River downstream to near Yeeda Homestead, south-east of Derby.

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From Yeeda they headed due west, crossing the Fitzroy River before pushing on quickly to Broome and the Indian Ocean, arriving there in late November.

In 1927 the book, Through a Land of Promise, was published, while the movie of the expedition, The Grip of the Wanderlust, shown by private audience to the then Prince of Wales, (later King Edward VIII), has since been lost.

Terry’s third expedition started in Port Hedland in early May 1928, with four men, driving two six-wheel Morris trucks. They headed via De Grey, Pardoo and Wallal homesteads north to Broome, finding and naming a remote spot along the way, about 175km inland from the coast which they called Mt Morris.

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From Broome they quickly pushed on to Fitzroy Crossing and then Halls Creek where they searched for gold before heading to the Tanami Goldfields via Flora Valley and Gordon Downs stations. Between Tanami and the Lander River they searched extensively for gold, visiting remote Brooks’ Soak in the process. Fred Brooks had been killed here by Aboriginals just a couple of weeks previously and this led to what was to be called the Conniston Massacres where many, possibly a hundred or more, Aboriginal people were killed in retribution.

Terry and his men didn’t linger and with their gold searching over they pushed on to Alice Springs and then followed the Finke River south to Horseshoe Bend, then Oodnadatta, Hawker, Adelaide and finally, in late December, to Melbourne.

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Terry couldn’t enthuse enough about the Morris trucks he’d used and included in his book of the expedition, Hidden Wealth and Hiding People (1931), lots of facts and figures that remain of interest to today’s cross country desert travellers. For instance, fuel consumption of the trucks varied between 5-18mpg while oil consumption was ‘only’ a gallon (4.5 litres) every 250 miles or so. They changed engine oil every 300 to 500 miles, oiled the chassis every 250 to 400 miles and greased the rear suspension every 40 miles when travelling cross country.

Tyre pressure on the 32x6-inch Dunlop tyres was kept at 80psi on the road while through trackless country, 50psi was found to be “the best compromise between maximum adhesion and resistance to stumps”. Even so, the lead truck suffered 41 punctures; many modern-day desert and remote area travellers can relate to all that!

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Between 1929 and 1931, in the gloom of the Depression, Terry led a number of expeditions in Central Australia looking for minerals. These included three trips back to the Tanami as well as through the Tomkinson and Blackstone Ranges, the Warburton Ranges and a long traverse north west of Mt Olga to Ernest Giles’s Schwerin Mural Crescent, that majestic sweep of desert ranges just north of todays Great Central Road, east of Warakurna. His book Untold Miles, published in 1932, recounts those adventures in Morris trucks.

In 1932 he led a camel only expedition west from Alice Springs in the company of legendary bushman, Ben Nicker. It was during this trip that he met Bryan Bowman when Bowman owned and was running Tempe Downs.

Bowman, like many central Australian bushies, didn’t have much time for the Englishman and when we interviewed him much later in life, Bowman compared Terry very unfavourably with most bushmen and especially, Ben Nicker. But then again, few people could hold a candle to Nicker when it came to living and surviving in the bush, and Terry himself was glowing in his praise of Ben (for Nicker’s biography read: Bushman of the Red Heart, by Judy Robinson, 1999).

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During that 1932 expedition the party covered more than 3000km without meeting another white man, the group unloading their camels for the last time near Laverton, WA. On that trip they discovered a deep and well-worked Aboriginal well that Terry called O’Grady’s Well, just east of the northern end of Lake MacKay. In his book, Sand and Sun (1937) Terry alludes to the theory, that is repeated throughout his writings, that this water point was so well constructed and deep that he believed other beings – from Egypt or beyond – had been instrumental in its construction. In 2014, I visited the remote O’Grady’s Well; it’s a deep Aboriginal watering hole.

The following year Terry and the same small group of men headed out from Alice, again on camels, and rode and walked north west to Vaughan Springs homestead and onto Surprise Well – now full to overflowing from recent widespread rains, unlike the previous year – and then onto O’Grady’s Well. Pushing west they passed around the northern end of Lake MacKay and travelled through the Alec Ross Range before coming to Carnegie’s Bluff and turning north.

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Here he was to make, what he considered later in life, his greatest ‘discovery’. Over the years he had heard about a fabled valley, much talked about by Aboriginals over vast areas of Australia. Chugga Kurri was a verdant oasis and in 1933 it lived up to its name when Terry’s party became the first Europeans to visit. Tucked into a great dip in the desert plateau, Terry named the verdant creek he first discovered Brookman Waters and then the depression itself, the Hidden Basin. Later he named Lake Hazlett and Nicker Creek and while he mentioned a number of rockholes and streams trickling water from the cliffs, he never mentioned Labbi Labbi, one of the most permanent water points in the whole region.

Only a couple of other white men have visited this spot, the most notable being the great anthropologist, biologist and photographer, Donald Thomson, in the 1950s and ’60s. Glenn Ridge and I visited this remote basin in 1990. Then, this ‘oasis’ was ravaged by drought and hungry and thirsty camels. Today, each year, possibly one small 4WD group seems to make it to this remote refuge and in 2014 a mate of mine found lakes of fresh water and thick green vegetation out that way, much as when Terry had first seen it.

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Terry was in the UK when WWII broke out but quickly found his way back to Australia where numerous attempts to join-up were knocked back because of his health. Commissioned into the Dept of Main Roads he wrote about the history of the Department and the construction of the Stuart Highway in his book Bulldozer (1945).

In 1961, after numerous trips to bolster his freelance writing, Terry set off on yet another mineral quest to the Cleland Hills in the NT. He had been there before and while the area had been found by William Tietkens in 1889 and others had also visited it, it was Terry on this second trip who found the many ancient rock engravings, including stylised faces, that Cleland Hills has become famous for.  

These faces had Terry convinced that there had been some foreign contact in the distant past and from then on ‘secret visitors’ became somewhat of an obsession with him and he travelled widely and wrote avidly about it. That work is carried on by others (whether you believe it or not) and can be most easily viewed at: http://secretvisitors.wordpress.com.

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In 1974, still sprightly but in too poor a health to do much long distant travelling, he wrote and published War of the Warramullas an insightful and sympathetic account (especially for its day) of his dealings and experiences with the Aboriginals he had met during his many expeditions.

Michael Terry passed away in September 1981 in Sydney, his place in Australian history well recorded, but nearly forgotten these days. Of all the places he named, he named none after himself, saying it wasn’t the way a member of the RGS behaved. Still, in 1957 the Terry Range in WA (south of the Gary Junction Rd and west of Jupiter Well) had been named after him.

In 1988 he and his camel, Dick, featured on the bicentennial commemorative $10 note. While that is as close as the general public got to remembering this great explorer and motor vehicle pioneer, as four-wheel drivers we can visit and revel in many of the places he found and named.

When you do, just remember to touch your hat and pay a silent tribute to this extraordinary explorer.

(Photos from the Michael Terry Collection; National Library of Australia)

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