John Forrest (1847-1918) was a surveyor who made several expeditions into the centre of Australia. Together with his brother, they became the best known explorers in Western Australia. Both John and his brother were born in Bunbury, Western Australia. Later, in 1890, John Forrest became the first Premier of Western Australia. He was later elected to the federal government in 1901 and was made Baron John Forrest of Bunbury in 1918. By now he was in bad health and on July 30, 1918 he sailed for England for medical treatment. However, he died on the voyage, before reaching England.
At the age of 22, John Forrest and his brother led an expedition to central Australia to explore the interior and to look for any traces of Leichhardt, a German explorer, who had vanished into the desert. Forrest and his men spent 19 weeks in the interior of Western Australia and they travelled over 3 200 kilometres of previously unexplored country. In this country there were dry salt lakes and red sandy desert. There were no permanent rivers and very few water holes. Each day, Forrest had to constantly search for water for his men and horses. When their supplies began to run out, they had no choice but to return, living on damper, tea and anything they could shoot. They at last arrived back in Perth on 6 August, , but had found no sign of Leichhardt's expedition. Forrest reported the likelihood of minerals in the region, and today some of the richest mines in the world are found there.
Across Western Australia: In 1870, the government decided to send Forrest on a new expedition to find a new route between Perth and Adelaide. Forrest took with him his brother Alexander and an aboriginal Tommy Windich to act as tracker.
The party left Perth and consisted of 6 men, 16 horses, several dogs and enough supplies to last them to travel the 720 kilometres to Esperance. Here they planned to meet a boat to obtain fresh supplies. Leaving Esperance they travelled on horseback and sometimes they walked. It was a constant battle to find feed and water before making camp at night. They slept in the open air with only 1 blanket for warmth at night. On this journey, water was always a problem. The horses were in poor condition and the men were exhausted.
They reached Fowler's Bay and continued on to Adelaide where they were given a warm welcome. After selling their horses, they travelled back to Perth by ship. They had discovered little useful land suitable for farming. However, they were the first to cross Australia from west to the east, having travelled overland from Perth to Adelaide, the opposite direction taken by Eyre some years earlier.
To Central Australia: Little was known about the centre of Australia, even though much of the rest of Australia had been explored. Part of the interior had been explored by Warburton, Giles and Gosse and they reported it as dry desolate land. In 1874, Forrest set off to travel from Western Australia to the centre of Australia. This expedition consisted of 6 men, 20 horses and enough food to last them 8 months. Again, John Forrest took with him his brother and Tommy Windich.
They left Geraldton, heading for the Murchison River. Each day, John or his brother would go ahead looking for a waterhole as the horses needed water every twelve hours. Forrest knew that he should have taken camels instead of horses. A horse needs water every 12 hours; a camel can go for 10 or 12 days without drink.
It was difficult walking through the heat, sand and deserts of spinifex grass. The grass was too dry for the horses to eat and it cut their legs. On June 2 they reached Weld Springs where they rested for a week because there was plenty of water and feed for the horses.
After leaving Weld Springs, they climbed high mountains overlooking the Gibson desert. While climbing a tree to look around, Forrest saw a war party of 40 to 60 aborigines, armed with spears and shields. The aboriginal party ran towards the explorers yelling and shouting with their spears ready. When they were 30 metres away, Forrest gave an order to fire. A native was badly wounded and the war party fled into the hills. It is thought that possibly the white men had camped on sacred ground. For protection they built a stone hut while they scouted around for water.
By August, they were in trouble. They were about 1 500 kilometres from the nearest settlement in Western Australia. They could not turn back, because they could not be sure that there would be water where they had found it previously. However, the land ahead was dry and waterless and both men and horses faced the risk of dying of thirst. Luckily for them it started to rain. This was very unusual in this country. The rain filled the rock holes ahead. However, the horses became exhausted and had to be left behind. One of the men had scurvy and his feet were so swollen, he could hardly walk. Their supplies of tea and sugar were all gone and they survived on flour-porridge three times a day.
On September 27, they reached the Overland Telegraph line. Three days later they reached the Peaks Telegraph station where they were given food and clothing. From here they were able to send news back to Adelaide and Perth. On November 3, they reached Adelaide where they were given a warm welcome by the crowds.
Forrest was rewarded with a land grant of 2000 hectares, which he farmed. A year later, even though he was only 28 years old, he was given the position of deputy surveyor-general. He later became the first premier of Western Australia.