Michael Terry - Australia's Last Explorer

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

Feb 1919 Perth - Michael Terry wearing armoured cars jacket.

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 TV host, Glenn Ridge, we travelled to one of Terry's greatest discoveries and later interviewed Charlotte for the subsequent TV documentary.

And, 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.
Preparing to cross one of the channels of the Diamantina River in 1923.
1st camp on the Murranji Desert & typical of the nightly camps on the 1923 expedition.
Trucks, trailers & bike at the start of 1925 expedition.
Terry had been 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 says in his biography, 'nothing to do'.

Attracted to the vast untracked country to the west he and a mate 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. 
Crossing the Katherine River at start of trip from Darwin, 1925.
Tracked Guy vehicles at full speed across flat plains 1925.
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. A couple of days of wandering later they realised they were lost and retreated back to the soak where they split up, Terry's partner 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'. On Dick's advice a party was dispatched and a patrolling policeman found Terry in a near similar state, who was then reunited with his friend. Without any further major mishap they reached Broome on October 4th, '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 had begun!

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

Back in Australia in July 1925 he and a small party of men driving two Guy Roadless Vehicles and towing trailers, along with an AJS motorbike and sidecar, headed out of Darwin in the NT.
Track maintenance was a very regular thing on the Guy vehicles 1925.
Track maintenance was a very regular thing on the Guy vehicles 1925.
The British made Guy vehicles were powered by a 4-cylinder petrol engine with inclined valves and an inclined, detachable cylinder head (in two parts) and were renown for their easy servicing.  A 4-speed gearbox – with reverse (wow!) – was standard fare but down the back end 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 while at Gordon Downs station, just west of the WA/NT border. 

The five-man party had struck southwest from Katherine towards Wave Hill and then followed Sturt Creek deep into the desert, past Lake Stretch, and Billiluna HS and onto Gregory's Salt Sea, as Lake Gregory was called then. They then 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 vehicles.  
Truck in Breaden Hills on 1925 expedition.
Amongst the Breaden Hills.
Terry's party in 1925 met many Aboriginal people still living a harsh life - this man is making string from wife's hair.
Group @ Gregory's Tank in Breaden Hills.
Terry and his party on top of Mt Cornish, 1925.
Making a track for the trucks thru the rugged hills on the 1925 expedition.
The trucks underway again after a patch of roadbuilding thru the rugged hills on the 1925 expedition.
Meeting with mule train on way to Yeeda Station, 1925.

Filming during the 1925 expedition.

Heading west the short distance to Mt Cornish, they then 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 HS, southeast of Derby.

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 shot of the expedition, 'The Grip of the Wanderlust', and which was shown by private audience to the then Prince of Wales, (later King Edward V111), has been lost to time.

Old and new meet on Terry's 1928 expedition.

Terry's third expedition started in Port Hedland in early May 1928, with four men, driving two 6-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.
Old and new meet on Terry's 1928 - expedition-note the small animals on his belt.
Refuelling the trucks on the 1928 - with an obvious sponsors sign in the foreground and the bloke smoking the pipe.
Terry's expeditions were mainly searching for minerals - 'Dry blowing' Mt Dotteral 1928.
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 onto Oodnadatta, Hawker, Adelaide and finally to Melbourne where they arrived in late December.

Terry couldn't enthuse enough about the Morris trucks and included in his book of the expedition, 'Hidden Wealth and Hiding People' (1931), lots of facts and figures still of interest to today's cross country desert travellers.

For instance, fuel consumption of the trucks varied between 5-18mpg (15-56L/100km) while oil consumption was ‘only’ a gallon (4.5 litres) every 250 miles or so! They changed engine oil every 300–500 mile on top of that, oiled the chassis every 250–400 mile and greased the rear suspension every 40 miles when travelling cross-country.

Tyre pressures on the 32x6-inch Dunlop tyres were 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; modern-day desert travellers can relate to all that.
Trucks on the 1928 expedition crossing the sand dunes to Horseshoe Bend on the Finke River.
Terry's 1930 expeditions took him past Mt Olga.
Terry and his favourite Camel, 'Rocket'.
In the 1930 Terry made a number of remote cross country expeditions with camels.
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', Schwerin Mural Crescent, that majestic sweep of desert ranges just north of today’s Great Central Road, east of Warakurna.

His book, 'Untold Miles' published in 1932 recounts his adventures during those days in Morris trucks. 
During Terry's 1931 expedition to the Warburton Ranges they were bogged over 85 times.
Approaching Mt Connor in 1930.

Camp chores ... with a handgun on the hip.

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).

During that 1932 expedition the party covered over 3000km without meeting another Whiteman, 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. Terry in his book, 'Sand and Sun' (1937) 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 and thought it nothing more than a man-made, albeit deep, Aboriginal watering hole.
Terry's 'Hidden Basin', part of the legendary 'Chugga Kurri', is extremely remote, even these days.
Nicker Creek (named after Ben Nicker) is at the heart of Terry's, 'Chugga Kurri'.
Most of today's Canning Stock Route travellers experience the highlight of the Breaden Hills.
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 HS 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.

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 find it. 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 Whitemen have visited this spot, the most notable being the great anthropologist, biologist and photographer, Donald Thomson, in the 50s and 60s. When Glenn Ridge and I visited this remote basin in 1990 it was an 'oasis' 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 Terry had first seen it.
Getting to Mt Connor today is easier, albeit with permission and a key from the station owner.
The 'faces' Terry found in the Cleland Hills convinced him Australia had been visited by 'other civilizations'. (Pic by W Kempen).
The 'faces' Terry found in the Cleland Hills convinced him Australia had been visited by 'other civilizations'. (Pic by W Kempen)
Terry was in the UK when WW2 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 the history of the Department and the construction of the Stuart Highway in a book titled, 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 discovered by William Tietkens in 1889, and others had also visited it, it was Terry on this second trip who discovered the many ancient rock engravings and the 'faces' that the Cleland Hills have become famous for.  

These stylised faces had Terry convinced, if he hadn't been before, 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 still carried on (whether you believe it or not) and can be most easily viewed at: http://secretvisitors.wordpress.com.

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.

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 remember 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 Australian.

​Copyright Ron & Viv Moon