John McKinlay’s 1866 search for a suitable site for the Northern Territory’s new capital became a harrowing ordeal that ended in a 200-kilometre flight to safety in a boat made from saplings, a canvas tent and rotting horsehides.

Story By Denis O'byrne

Britain had made several unsuccessful attempts to settle the north coast of Australia before 1863, when South Australia annexed what is now the Northern Territory. Fired by optimism, the South Australian Government began selling agricultural blocks even before it had established a settlement at Escape Cliffs, on the Adelaide River about 60 kilometres north-east of present-day Darwin. However, it soon became apparent that the Escape Cliffs site was a dud – among other shortcomings, there was no land suitable for agriculture anywhere nearby. Another site was needed and veteran explorer John McKinlay was appointed to lead an overland expedition in search of one. McKinlay arrived at Escape Cliffs from Adelaide in mid-November 1865, at the start of the wet season. He had earned accolades for his performance as leader of the Burke Relief Expedition of 1861–62 but, skilled bushman though he was, he had no experience of what a big wet over the Top End was like. He had no inkling of the serious difficulties he would face – the torrential rains, the flood-swollen rivers, the vast boggy wetlands and the lack of suitable feed for horses, not to mention the voracious hordes of mosquitoes and sand-flies that are such a torment for man and beast during the wet season. If he had known, he may well have stayed in Adelaide. McKinlay’s brief was to examine the country from Escape Cliffs eastwards to the Liverpool River, thence south to the Roper River before returning via the Victoria River. Despite warnings not to delay his departure, he opted to remain at Escape Cliffs until sailing schooner HMS Beatrice, which would be leaving ration dumps for him en route, had returned from a trip to the north. The Beatrice duly arrived on December 28 and a fortnight later the party of 15 men, 45 horses and 80 sheep left Escape Cliffs and headed south along the western side of the Adelaide River. On the first night out the heavens opened and the men, who had not bothered to erect tents, were drenched by more than 150 millimetres of rain. This, the season’s first significant rainfall, was a harbinger of things to come. On the fourth day came the first of the unexplained horse deaths that were to plague the expedition. No one realised that the tall, luxuriant grass covering much of the country during the wet was almost entirely lacking in nutrients. “I cannot imagine what it is that keeps the horses so weak and out of heart,” a frustrated McKinlay wrote some weeks later. He was convinced that the animals had been eating poisonous plants.

This story excerpt is from Issue #57

Outback Magazine: Feb/Mar 2008