Australia's Pioneers, Heroes and Fools

ISBN 9781741960488, written by Peter Macinnis, published November 1, 2007 by Pier 9 in Australia

Note, added December 2009: I have also written on this subject for younger readers: the title is Australian Backyard Explorer.

For information from the publisher, see this PDF file.

Cover, Australia's Pioneers, Heroes and Fools This book is about Australia's colonial explorers and how they did things. In large part, it is the story of the unexpected explorers, the women, the teenagers, the convicts, the Aborigines, but it is also the story of how the early Australian explorers did things. It looks at what they took with them, how they planned their trips, how they navigated and surveyed and mapped, how they found food and water, how they managed their animals and their humans, how they mended the sick and broken, and how a few of them died when mending wasn't enough.

The book began as a more serious study of how Australia was mapped, starting in 1606 and coming up to the present, but in the end, I decided to stay mainly with the more personal stories of the 19th century explorers, though I make a few excursions either side, when there is a lesson to be learned, as in the strange case of Kenelm Digby's scientifically wounded dog. Oh yes, and there is some serious science and technology in there as well.

I started by reading the journals that are available in Project Gutenberg, then I excerpted almost a million words of relevant material for a database and added keywords under about 220 categories. As I went, I realised there was a tighter, more human story to tell. That dragged me off to the unpublished journals, mainly looking for targeted material on particular issues. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, lots of correspondence was found, copied and bound in now-rare printed volumes. Other stuff came from manuscripts, notebooks, and a few from the painstaking work of 1970s volunteers who mastered some of the ghastliest handwriting, and rendered it into copies, sadly with electric typewriters, so sometime soon, those need to be scanned and placed on the Web.

In the end, I only used about 80 quotes, mainly to give my readers the feel for the personalities of the explorers, but it is their story that I tell. Much of my narrative was typed with the relevant quotes pasted into the page to be used and then discarded. It is a book that could not have happened without computers and the Internet -- and the dedicated work of many people over more than a century.

In a sense, the book as it has been published began because I used to wonder, as a young bushwalker, just how those tracks got formed. Some, I knew were made by wombats, and somewhere along the way, I had what I considered an original thought: that most of the tracks followed by the explorers were Aboriginal tracks!

After I read some of the explorers' journals, I realised it was pretty obvious that they followed Aboriginal tracks, and I have since met a number of other people who hold the same opinion, and often beat me to it. I am driven to making defensive remarks about great minds, but really, anybody who reads the journals will reach the same conclusion, because the explorers made no secret of it. They refer to "native roads", "well-beaten native tracks" and the like, all over Australia.

The problem is that the textbook writers appear not to have noticed, or not to have looked at the original sources. I know this to be a problem in science education, where new discoveries take 30 years or more to make it into the front-line science texts used in high schools, and don't take my word for it: Thomas Kuhn said much the same. My book is not a textbook for schools, but I hope it may help to provoke a bit of ferment and digging.

Anyhow, for some odd reason, that insight about "native roads" is not one that we share with young people: rather we have daring young white males, dashing off into the uncharted wilderness to find what is there and map it for the first time.

This fanciful view is a pretty picture, a traditional one, and for the most part, a wrong one. The explorers still did amazing things, but we ought to apportion the credit properly, and in telling the stories of many of the explorers, from John Horrocks, who was shot by his camel, to Sahleh who was stung by a scorpion, and Ernest Giles who drank from his boot (and was later nearly killed by it), I hope to give my readers a better feel for what it was to be an explorer.

I hope they will also come to realise just how human the explorers were in their hopes, their aspirations and their failings, and how great their achievements were. But if you are looking for a listing of the usual suspects, please understand that I nearly called it Not the Usual Suspects.

In case you are curious, you can read about the making of this book.


To buy it, try the ABC shops or Dymocks. In Sydney, Abbeys have it.

And on steam radio

I talked on Perspective, on Tuesday December 11, 2007 -- an excellent quick bite, it used to go to air at 5:55 pm on weekdays on ABC Radio National. The transcript is still available through this link. The podcast was up for four weeks, but you have missed that. Here is a link to more information about Perspective.

On February 3, I was on Ockham's Razor. You can find the transcript (and for a limited time, the podcast) at

By the way, if you search around, you probably still would not find my views on literacy and literacy testing so here they are. I also have views on science literacy.

And if you want to know more about Teacher Librarians, go to The Hub and read on.

Latest news

I have just published a new book, a combination of science and exploration for the National Library of Australia, to be called Australian Backyard Explorer. In it, you will meet some of the familiar characters from Australia's Pioneers, Fools and Heroes, but you will also find some curious new stuff. The target audience is ages 10 to 14, but reviewers who are older have been enjoying it.

But wait, there's more!

I have now posted my zipped explorer quotes database online. This is the flatfile DB that I used to create both Australian Backyard Explorer and Australia's Pioneers, Heroes and Fools. This is in Excel format and draws widely on Project Gutenberg sources, as well as material that I laboriously transcribed by hand. It is available for use and sharing in all educational or self-educational contexts. It may be shared for free, but I claim compilation copyright and will pursue vigorously any person who tries to sell it, unless they have discussed the matter with me first and shown that they have added value to the product. I am always approachable to those who share my ethical standpoint.

The main advantage is that the quotes are sources and given keywords, so that references to caymans, caimans, crocodiles, saurians, alligators, allegators and alegators all show up if you search on the right key-word. It was created for personal use, so it's a bit idiosyncratic, but play with it!

This file is

It was created on October 22, 2007 and last revised on November 9, 2009 when I fixed a couple of dead links. I hate people who move things around!
If you email me at macinnis at, you will reach a spam trap, but be read, eventually. If you put my first name in front of that address, you will reach me direct. This low-tech solution is to make email harvesting difficult.

The home page of this set is here.

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