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. The Observer of 7 November 1871 reported that it was intended that the new expedition, instead of losing time by setting out from the inland frontier of the Eastern Colonies, shall start from Mount Freeling, situated some sixty miles southward of Central Mount Stuart, thence proceeding "in a bee line" to Perth. The total distance to be accomplished will be between a thousand and eleven hundred miles, without allowing for deviations, so that the trip will be one occupying many weeks.
The charge of the party is to be entrusted to Mr. Ernest Giles, who is reported to be well qualified for the task, being thoroughly inured to bush life, and not only burning with a desire for adventure in the hitherto untrodden wilds of Australia, but also animated by a commendable and more rational anxiety "to extend the bounds of geographical knowledge." It certainly seems early in the day to name a leader, but it appears that the subject has been under consideration for some time in Melbourne, and that from Baron von Mueller Mr. Giles has obtained testimonials that set at rest all reasonable doubt as to his fitness for the post.
A man who assumes the place that Mr. Giles seems so eager to fill does so with the knowledge that he takes his life in his own hand, and that upon his energy, perseverance, and tact depend his own safety and that of the members of his party. Under ordinary circumstances this might be regarded as a sufficient guarantee that none but really qualified men would present themselves for engagement in an enterprise of so much hazard; but the well-known fact that incompetent men have been appointed to the charge of exploring parties renders special care in selection necessary.
Baron von Mueller's certificate of fitness is no doubt satisfactory so far as it goes; but it does not necessarily carry conviction to the minds of persons in other colonies who are asked to contribute towards the outfit. It is stated that £500 will cover the whole expense; but even supposing that to be the case, the subscribers ought to be assured that the money will be well spent, and that it will not by reason of the incompetency of the chosen head of the expedition be turned into a means of sacrificing life. No doubt there are considerations that divest this undertaking of some of the risk attaching to such a trip as that of Stuart; but for all that it is exceedingly hazardous.
The continent may be passing through a cycle of wet years, but to what extent this will affect the latitudes that Mr. Giles will have to traverse it is impossible to say. The opening up of the Overland Telegraph route and the establishment of stations along the line will give facilities for succour in case of necessity such as Stuart never enjoyed; but, a journey of a thousand miles through'unexplored country cannot be regarded as other than a work of peril and difficulty.
Considering that the starting point is in South Australian territory and that for three or four hundred miles the course of exploration will be within the South Australian boundary, the expedition has a peculiar interest to this colony. It may be asked 'Why expend money in the examination of more new country, seeing the thousands of square miles of unoccupied land in the North to which settlers refuse to be attracted'? Why prove the existence of new areas fit for occupancy when there is so much valuable territory lying uncolonized?
The answer to this simply is that until we are made acquainted with every part of the continent we are not in so good a position as we should be for settling the places that are known. More than this, it is not creditable to our enterprise that the maps of Australia should be disfigured by a huge blank, unrelieved by the tracing of a river, undistinguished by the presence of a name other than the hideous one of terra incognita. It seems that already about £100 has been raised by private contributions in Victoria, £50 being the gift of Baron Von Mueller, and that March next has been fixed upon for the start from Mount Freeling. It is therefore desirable that whatever liberality South Australia is inclined to display in promoting the undertaking should be displayed forthwith.
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.
The West Australian of Monday 15 November 1897 published the following article. DEATH OF MR. ERNEST GILES. November 14. Mr. Ernest Giles, the well-known explorer, died on Saturday from pneumonia, after a short illness of a week. The explorer was surrounded by his friends and passed away peacefully being conscious up till the last. He spent the last hour with his nephew, Gordon Gill, at whose house he was residing making a disposition of his few personal effects. The deceased seemed to feel his reverses of late, and the fact that the closing years of his life were spent in a Government office with a meagre salary.
Profound regret is felt here that something more was not done for this notable explorer. The funeral will take place tomorrow at 2 o'clock. Mr. Ernest Giles, the explorer, arrived in South Australia in 1849. In 1852 he joined a party to the Victorian diggings, and subsequently became a clerk in the Post-office at Melbourne.
In 1854, upon some retrenchments being made, he lost this post, but obtained another in the County Court. This he soon afterwards resigned, and joined an exploring party in Queensland. The route traversed by MacDougall Stuart from south to north across S.A., has since become the transcontinental telegraph line.
The line cuts the continent into two equal halves, which might at that date be termed respectively the explored and unexplored halves. ln 1872 Mr. Giles attempted to penetrate into the unknown portion. Starting from Chambers Pillars on the telegraph line, he discovered a host of permanent waters, ranges of mountains, and tracts of good pastoral land. He also found some extraordinary geographical features, including the Glen of Palms, (Palm Valley) winding amongst the mountains for over 100 miles, with magnificent palm trees, growing to a height of sixty feet, also a vast salt expanse, which he named Lake Amadeus after the then King of Spain, with apparently interminable obstacles prevented the further passage of the explorer in a westerly or southerly direction.
Baffled also by the disorganisation of his small party, Giles after travelling over 1,000 linear miles was compelled to return, the furthest distance reached from the telegraph line being 300 miles, at two points about 100 miles apart. Just as he had returned to his starting point, two other exploring expeditions, both of them furnished with camels by Sir Thomas Elder, were preparing to start, one being commanded by Major Warburton, whilst the other was fitted out by the South Australian Government under the charge of Mr Gosse.
Mr. Giles having placed his journal and map at the disposal of the Government, Gosse's expedition was ordered to examine the country considerably to the north of his route. The publication of Giles' journal induced some gentlemen of the Hamilton district to subscribe a new fund to enable him to pursue his investigations.
With a fresh party and equipment he again left the telegraph line at a more southerly point, not many weeks after Warburton and Gosse, who both started a good deal further north. The novel fact of three exploring expeditions running a race against each other now occurred. Warburton reached the De Gray River on the western coast with only two camels, after suffering great hardships.
Gosse penetrated to the 127th meridian, or nearly half the distance to be travelled, and then returned for about 200 miles on Giles' outgoing tracks. Giles' furthest on that occasion was also somewhere about the 127th meridian, but a good deal further south.
He was obliged to return as the party were attacked nine times by the natives, all the horses died but one, and the leader gave that one to his companion Gibson to enable him to save his life, but Gibson was never again heard of, and Giles had to walk back, arriving in a state of great exhaustion and semi-consciousness at the depot.
The distance travelled was 700 miles from the starting point. Four distinct ranges of mountains were mapped out, watercourses innumerable, and large tracts of good pastoral country. The South Australian Government contributed to the expedition, all of which however was swallowed up in paying wages and expenses.
Sir John (then Mr.) Forrest was next despatched by the West Australian Government to cross from the Murchison river in that colony to the South Australian telegraph, and he succeeded in coming upon Giles's tracks of the year before. Giles's third attempt to cross the continent was more successful.
Sir Thomas Elder fitted him out with camels for a new line of discovery. He started in May, 1875, and the country through which he penetrated proved to be one of the most terrible deserts on the face of the earth, it being necessary to travel distances of 200 miles and in one case of 323 miles without water.
After conquering all these difficulties, as well as surviving a fierce attack from the natives, the party succeeded in reaching their destination (Perth) on November 10 having travelled 2,575 miles in about five months. For the last month of the journey they subsisted chiefly on the mallee hen.
At Perth the explorers received a perfect ovation. The then Governor, Sir William Robinson, represented Mr. Giles's achievements to the Secretary of State, and a small grant of land in Western Australia was the result. Bidding adieu to his new made friends, Mr. Giles started back to endeavour to reach the South Australian telegraph line by a route 400 miles to the northward of the one by which he had just arrived at Perth.
He crossed the Murchison, the Gascoyne, the Lyons, and the Ashburton rivers, all much further up their channels than any former travellers had reached, but found very little else than stony sterile country, unfitted, as it was then believed, for the habitation of men.
After encountering many privations the adventurer managed to reach one of his former depots, whither he had wended his way in the hope of finding some trace of Gibson, who had been lost two years before. He was unsuccessful in learning anything about his unfortunate friend, but, being now within 200 miles of the telegraph line, Giles eventually reached it, having thus twice traversed Australia.
On his arrival in Adelaide he was presented with an address by the Mayor and City Council, The King of Italy sent him a decoration with the title of Chevalier. A number of minor exploring feats have also to be credited to the late Mr. Giles.
The next day the Daily News of Perth followed with this contribution; The funeral of Ernest Giles, the explorer, took place today, there being a large attendance of mourners, The body was taken to the Church of England, where the service was conducted by Archdeacon Parkes. A detachment of police under Sergeant Bellinger followed the hearse, also the members of the fire brigade while the Mayor, councillors, and the heads of the various public departments, and a large number of leading residents were at the grave, Archdeacon Parkes delivered a short panegyric over the deceased, making reference to his courage and determination in tho work of exploration. Many wreaths were placed on tho coffin,
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.