At the time of settlement in 1788, very little was known about the vast Australian continent, its coast and interior had yet to be comprehensively surveyed.
The extent to which the inland was unknown prompted wonderful tales. Captain-Lieutenant Watkin Tench, an observant chronicler of Australian settlement, reported:
We found the convicts particularly happy in fertility of invention, and exaggerated descriptions. Hence large fresh water rivers, valuable ores, and quarries of limestone, chalk, and marble, were daily proclaimed soon after we had landed. At first we hearkened with avidity to such accounts; but perpetual disappointments taught us to listen with caution, and to believe from demonstration only.
Imaginative tales such as these inspired a number of Irish convicts, recently arrived on the Queen, to take to the bush in November 1791. They aimed to walk to China. Before the close of the month, eighteen of the party were returned to the colony naked and starving, three had already perished.
Most of the early exploratory expeditions, however, were officially sponsored. The government had a particular interest in locating sources of water and land suitable for grazing and agriculture. Later expeditions sought to ascertain the best routes for travel and communication.
Early parties consisted of a few men, sometimes accompanied by Aboriginal guides or Europeans skilled in bushcraft. Many explorers kept journals documenting the progress of the expeditions. These often included maps and sketches. Published maps, journals and government reports were also produced.