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Readers note: This is an excerpt from the Trailblazers: Australia’s 50 Greatest Explorers exhibition, developed in 2015. This content was written as a brief biography on why this person was included in the exhibition.
Polish-born nobleman, scientist and keen explorer Paul Edmund de Strzelecki had the honour of naming mainland Australia’s tallest mountain, Mount Kosciuszko.
Born on 20 July 1797, Strzelecki didn’t finish school but, possessing a keen mind, taught himself geology. After spending a short time in the Prussian army, he sampled minerals and soils in North and South America, then travelled through the Pacific islands to New Zealand. He reached Sydney in April 1839, with letters of introduction to Governor George Gipps.
Strzelecki dreamed of completing a geological survey of Australia, and set out on expeditions that zig-zagged across New South Wales as far as 250 kilometres inland. He discovered traces of gold near Hartley and Wellington – possibly the first to do so – but Gipps asked him to keep this quiet in the interests of discipline in the colony. He climbed the highest peak in the Australian Alps, naming it after Polish leader Tadeusz Kosciuszko, then continued south through the area he named Gippsland (after the governor).
Things went awry after the expedition, which included James Macarthur and James Riley, passed the La Trobe River. On the edge of starvation, they abandoned the horses and all their specimens and survived for three weeks thanks mainly to their Aboriginal guides, Charlie Tarra and Jackey. They reached Melbourne in May 1840, completely exhausted.
From Melbourne, Strzelecki went to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), where he was received by Governor and Lady Franklin. He traversed a large part of Tasmania on foot, examined islands in Bass Strait and documented much of the state’s geology, including coal deposits.
Over the summer of 1842–43, he collected specimens in the north of New South Wales before heading to England via China and Egypt. He became a British subject in 1845 and published his Physical Description of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land, for which he received the Founder's medal of the Royal Geographical Society.
Paul Strezelecki made friends easily, was an excellent administrator and thorough scientist. He is commemorated by a large bronze statue on the shore of Lake Jindabyne in the Snowy Mountains, donated by the Polish Government in 1988. South Australia’s Strzelecki Track and Victoria’s Strzelecki Ranges also honour him.
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