Giles was born in Bristol, England, on 20 July 1835, the eldest son of William and Jane Giles. In 1850 he migrated to South Australia to join his family in Adelaide. They had made the trip a year before leaving Ernest to finish his education. Life in Adelaide did not appeal that much to young Ernest and when gold was discovered in Victoria, he soon was on his way to join the rush and make his money. Unfortunately for him he did not find any gold and had to look for other jobs to provide him with an income.
By the 1860s he had become an experienced bushman and travelled widely around Cooper's Creek and the Darling River. While employed at different stations he longed to discover new land but most of all he wanted to find a way, and be the first, to cross the continent from east to west. At the age of 36 he made his first attempt and set out from the Overland Telegraph Line with Samuel Carmichael and Alec Robinson.
They started from Chambers Pillar, discovered by John McDouall Stuart, on 23 August 1872 and discovered Palm Valley. Giles added many German names to the map in honour of his patron Baron Von Mueller. Luck was not with them and after suffering many hardships they returned, making for Charlotte Waters where they arrived on 1 December 1872.
Here he found Colonel P.E. Warburton who was trying the same as Giles had been. To make matters even worse he was later told that William Gosse was also trying to find a way to the west coast. Giles later wrote, 'I had failed certainly in my object,... but not through any fault of mine'. In January 1873 Giles was back in Adelaide organizing his second expedition. This time he took his old friend William Harry Tietkens with him as well as Jimmy Andrews and Alfred Gibson.
After leaving in March on his way north they set out from Alberga on 4 August and reached Mount Olga on 14 September 1873. Of Mount Olga he wrote that it was composed of several enormous rounded stone shapes, like the backs of several monstrous kneeling pink elephants. Once again he was unsuccessful as a result of heat and lack of water. They suffered from hunger and thirst, flies and ants and attacks from Aborigines and the dead of Alfred Gibson. They returned to Charlotte Waters which they reached on 13 July 1874.
As the trip had been a failure in not reaching the west coast there was no government reward for his efforts, or employment. Giles was able to secure a temporary job in Victoria while preparing his journals and maps for the South Australian government in return for their 'niggardly support'. Meanwhile he also looked for land in the centre and in 1875 applied for six leases near the Krichauff Ranges which he had named.
After some surveying work for Thomas Elder near Fowler's Bay, Giles planned his next attempt to find a way to the west coast from the centre. This time he was much better prepared and had a number of camels, supplied by Elder. On 6 May 1875 Giles' party, which included, W.H. Tietkens, J. Young, A. Ross, Peter Nicholls, Saleh, Jimmy and Tommy, left from Beltana Station for their trip north and across the Great Victoria Desert. This time he was successful and reached Perth on 24 November 1875.
After a spell at the Western Australia Capital the party returned to South Australia. They did not take the easy way and came by ship but went back via the Gibson desert finally arriving at the Peake on 23 August 1876. They had been gone for 15 months and travelled more than 8,000 kilometres. After returning the camels to Beltana Station they went on their way to Adelaide. They attended several parties in their honour at Beltana, Blinman, Burra, Gawler and Adelaide.
Giles later received a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society of London and a Knighthood from King Victor Emmanuel of Italy. From South Australia or any of the other colonies he received........nothing! The excuses being that he was not the first to achieve this, Warburton had done that, or that it had been a private party and had nothing to do with the government. After many unsuccessful attempts to obtain a reward, land or a job he was finally able to lead an exploring party to the Everard Ranges in 1882.
In 1889 his book 'Australia Twice Traversed' was published in London. It brought him neither fame nor money. During the 1890s Giles went to the Western Australian goldfields and again was unsuccessful. In November 1897 he came down with pneumonia and after a few days of illness died in obscurity and neglected at Coolgardie. William W. Mills would experience a very similar lot 15 years later.
Giles achievements as an explorer had been negative in the sense that he did little more than confirm that a large part of the inland was dry, sun baked and almost uninhabitable. He discovered no gold, no minerals, no water, no worthwhile pastoral lands nor anything else of value. Yet for courage, determination, endurance, generosity, fortitude and professional skill, he was superior to most other explorers.