Two of Western Australia’s plant experts recently embarked on a 1600 km journey through the mid-west to retrace the footsteps of Sir Robert Austin’s famous expedition of 1854.
Luke Sweedman, Kings Park’s Curator of the Western Australian Seed Technology Centre and Professor Steve Hopper, Director of London’s Kew Gardens, and immediate past CEO of the Botanic Gardens and Parks Authority were searching for plant specimens.
Mr Sweedman wanted to collect cuttings for Kings Park and identify places to which he could return to collect seeds. He said the Austin expedition stopped at many remote granite outcrops and the specimens it found would be a useful benchmark to compare with what remained.
Austin’s party were the first ever Europeans to explore the Mid West interior, and were responsible for naming many geographical features including Red Kangaroo Hill, Poison Rocks and Lake Austin, as well as exploring and promoting the rich gold bearing areas of the Murchison region.
Austin’s aim was to search for ‘good country’, describing the terrain, plants and animals along the way. After a gruelling 19 week journey, he returned with about 50 plant specimens, which today serve as important historical markers of the Western Australian bush as it was in the 1800’s.
Departing on July 31, Hopper and Sweedman’s party travelled north-east from Northam by four wheel drive vehicle, visiting granite outcrops and other sites described in Austin’s journal and collecting seed from plants discovered en route.
Their journey to Fraser’s Rocks included hiking up to 30 kms in search of a population of Eucalyptus caesia, known from a 100 year old herbarium specimen that is currently lodged at the Natural History Museum in London. While no Eucalytpus caesia specimens were found in that location, the expedition has been hailed a success after the indentification of rare and previously undiscovered plant species.
Luke Sweedman said the team believed they found a new species of sedge grass at a granite outcrop in the Murchison. They also found new locations for the rare plant Granitites intangendus, a prickly shrub about 1.5m high with white flowers. This is a granite rock endemic plant with close relatives in the Queensland and Northern Territory rainforest.
They were accompanied by Rodney Garlett, a Nyoongar from the Northam region who provided an Indigenous perspective and local knowledge, much like the Aboriginal guide did on the original expedition. An artist, Rod also translated the journey into pictures. The trip took two weeks, travelling from Northam through the mid west to Mt Magnet and the Murchison River before returning to Perth.