Big John: the extraordinary adventures of John McKinlay 1819-1872, by Kim Lockwood. (Melbourne: State Library of Victoria, 1995)
Burke and Wills, with King and Gray, were the first whites to cross the Australian continent from the southern coast to the northern coast. They didn’t make it back. Who was second? Most people will say John McDougall Stuart, on the third of his epic journeys in 1862. They are wrong. A 6ft 4in Scot named John McKinlay beat him by two months. McKinlay led the South Australian Burke Relief Expedition, one of four sent out from the south, east and north to look for the missing explorers. In doing so he crossed the continent, got back safely, did not lose a man, was reduced to camel’s feet soup to stay alive, and had a row with his second-in-command, who resigned in disgust, but was forced to stay with the 10-man party to the end. McKinlay also managed the first-possibly the last-transcontinental droving feat, taking with him 100 sheep as ‘stores on the hoof’. Four years later he had a much closer escape. Sent to the Northern Territory to seek a better site for settlement than the existing Escape Cliffs, he set out into Arnhem Land at a disastrous time of year-the middle of the wet season. With 14 others he was marooned on a hillock for six weeks by impenetrable sheets of water, finally made it to the East Alligator River and, under attack from Aborigines built a remarkable punt from saplings and horsehide. With only a small amount of dried meat and with their fresh water turning putrid from its rubber containers, they rowed downriver to the sea. Tides and currents took them as far as eight miles out from the coast, but by non-stop rowing they made it back. After six days and nights of this hell they landed, starved and exhausted, on the beach at Escape Cliffs-six months after they had left. Big John tells McKinlay’s story. It is told without frills, but with plenty of action. Apart from being a ripping yarn, it is a genuine and important contribution to the body of Australian historical literature.
The twon of McKinlay in Central Queensland is named after this John McKinlay.