William Ernest Powell Giles was born in Bristol, England in 1835 to a merchant named William Giles and his wife Jane Elizabeth. He attended Christ’s Hospital Blue Coat School in London before the family emigrated to South Australia in 1850.
On finishing his education, Giles travelled to the Goldfields of Victoria and briefly took work as a Clerk before going to live in the western New South Wales outback in 1861. There, he learned the skills required to be a proficient bushman and engaged in several expeditions in search of farmable land beyond the Darling River.
Giles’ first organised expedition took place in 1872 when he led a small party to investigate untrodden parts of Central Australia to the west of a new overground telegraph line. The group covered a great deal of ground despite carrying few supplies and Giles discovered and named Lake Amadeus. However a lack of water and tiring horses forced the group to turn back and – despite making impressive ground – Giles viewed the expedition as an utter failure.
Giles repeated the expedition the following year with more supplies and an extra man. The party set off considerably further south than in 1872 and within a month the party had located a river in the Musgrave Ranges. However, disaster struck on April 23 1874 when Giles and a man named Alfred Gibson were scouting ahead. Gibson’s horse died and Giles sent Gibson back to camp to get help. Eight days later Giles arrived at camp on foot, exhausted and near death to find that Gibson had never made it back to camp. After a fruitless search for Gibson, the group’s supplies began to dwindle and Giles was forced to make the difficult decision to begin the return journey without him. Giles named the Gibson Desert in honour of his unfortunate friend.
Giles was spurred on by what he viewed as yet another failure to lead a third expedition in 1875. This would form the opening leg of an overland crossing from South to Western Australia in 1875 and Giles was determined to succeed. This expedition went well and Giles arrived safely at Elder’s station in Beltana where he began planning and preparing for the next stage of his mission.
Having learned from previous set-backs, Giles acquired a caravan of camels and set out on May 6th. His party narrowly avoided disaster on two occasions. Firstly, after walking 320 miles without having coming across any water, the group discovered a small hollow between sand dunes just as their supplies were running out. On another occasion, the men were forced to defend themselves from an attack by a large group of aborigines.
On November 18th 1875 the party finally completed their ambitious crossing, arriving at Perth to an enthusiastic reception. Giles stayed in Perth for two months to regain his strength before beginning the return journey that would form his fifth and final expedition. He arrived safely in Adelaide in the September of 1876.
Despite his successful third, fourth and fifth expeditions, the Australian government turned its back on Giles and he was unable to gain funding for any further projects. He published his memoirs in 1880 and was made a fellow and awarded the Patron’s Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society that same year.
Giles died on November 13th 1897. He had been first European to see the rock formations of Kata Tjuta, formally known as the ‘The Olgas’, and Lake Amadeus. It has also been alleged that Giles discovered Uluru but was beaten to the claim by competing explorer William Gosse.