10 October 2000

Adventurer Henri Gilbert may soon become as well known to Australian school children as explorers Burke and Wills, Charles Sturt, Blaxland, and Matthew Flinders.

The French journalist is believed to be the first white person to walk across Australia from west to east coasts, in the late 19th century. (Surveyor John Forrest's 1870 expedition ended in Adelaide and was conducted with the help of several horses, while Gilbert's travels were solely on foot).

However, until a chance discovery by a University of Queensland academic three years ago, Gilbert was largely forgotten by history.

Dr Colin Dyer, a research adviser to the University's Romance Languages Department, came across M. Gilbert's original, handwritten diary, scrapbook, maps, photographs and newspaper articles in a library fittingly named after another famous Australian explorer, the John Oxley Library in Brisbane.

"It was one of the Library's first acquisitions but no one is sure how it came to be there," he said. "I only came across it as a catalogue reference on screen to a scrapbook and diary, so I had to have a look."

Dr Dyer has translated the century-old diary which has been published for the first time by Melbourne University Press as A Frenchman's Walk Across the Nullarbor 1897-98.

He said it was a significant information source about Australian life, geography and Anglo-French relations 100 years ago.

Gilbert, 32, set off from Fremantle in August 1897, arriving in Brisbane in December 1898. He often relied on local people for food, water and shelter during his journey. Unlike others to traverse Australia, he walked the distance unassisted by camels, horses or vehicles. Carrying a 38 kilogram backpack, and wearing out nine pairs of boots in his travels since Paris, he walked across the Nullarbor Plain following the telegraph line, in the middle of summer.

M. Gilbert sent regular articles about his journey back to two French daily newspapers, La Depeche de Toulouse and Le Radical Algerien.

Dr Dyer said the Australian trek was part of Gilbert's attempt to walk around the world by May 1900 and win a #10,000 bet put up by a Parisian syndicate.

"He left Paris on foot in February 1895 to walk around the world with special instructions not to beg his way or solicit help, but with permission to work. By the time he arrived in Australia, he had already walked through Spain, the Middle East, India, and Singapore," Dr Dyer said.

"Gilbert became something of a celebrity. When he reached Adelaide, more than 2000 people assembled at the General Post Office to greet him. His diary is packed with Australian newspaper clippings about his travels. He constantly talks about the wonderful hospitality of Australian people who open up their homes for him en route.

"He had his diary authenticated by people along the way including stationmasters, postmasters, hoteliers and even Sydney Consular staff. These entries also make fascinating reading. One person describes Gilbert as emerging from the desert ?very hungry and thirsty, bedraggled, footsore and weary'.

"He talks about the harshness of the climate and countryside. Even though Gilbert had been a soldier in Algeria, he describes the Australian trek as the ?most suffering I have ever known'."

Dr Dyer said M. Gilbert became so well known, several people were arrested for impersonating him in order to obtain free food, drink and accommodation.

"Not every one was nice to him. Camping in the bush just outside Albany in Western Australia, he claimed he was chloroformed and robbed of all his possessions by two men. Left for dead, he penned a rough will, only to be rescued by a local family," Dr Dyer said.

"He came close to death again when he collapsed from dehydration while following the telegraph poles through the Nullarbor Plain, but was again rescued by an explorer who carried him on the back of his camel until he could get help."

One of the last Australian newspaper articles about the adventurer appeared in The Brisbane Courier (now The Courier Mail) dated December 30, 1898. His photograph was also published in the Darling Downs Gazette a few days earlier.

He also planned to write a book about his experiences, but nothing was heard of the adventurer after he left Brisbane bound for China. Dr Dyer has written to every fourth person with the Gilbert surname in his birth region of Nantes, France, and has tracked down M. Gilbert's birth certificate, but has been unable to discover his fate, or whether he indeed collected his bet.

Dr Dyer, a specialist in contemporary French social and economic history, who joined UQ in 1968, has given postgraduate seminars at a number of French universities including Nice, and Bordeaux. His books include La France revisitee (Denoel, Paris), 1989, marking the bicentenary of the French revolution.

Media: For further information, contact Dr Colin Dyer, telephone 07 3365 2270 or email: communications@mailbox.uq.edu.au.