Stuart’s approach to exploration was in stark contrast to that of Captain Charles Sturt and others of the time.
Stuart referred to his men as his companions and did not have the military barriers of rank that Sturt had.
Stuart aimed for maximum speed, with no slow moving wagons or travelling stock for rations. Horses were his only means of transport – camels were not considered.
He did not attempt, as Sturt had, to combine detailed surveying with exploration.
His only navigational instruments carried were the watch, sextant, artificial horizon and prismatic compass. R.R. Knuckey, who later worked on the construction of the Overland Telegraph, wrote of Stuart;
He was simply a marvel for horseback traverse. His map was so correct that we used simply to put a protractor and scale on it, get the bearing and distance, and ride with the same confidence as we would ride from Adelaide to Gawler.
As Aeneas Gunn, a well-known pioneer of the Northern Territory recorded:
His expeditions were undertaken without ostentation. He took no theatrical risks nor hazardous shortcuts and he came through his journeys without tragic failures or dramatic incidents to mark them for public concern.
On the final journey, Stuart prohibited the keeping of private diaries, possibly at the insistence of his sponsors. The only exception was Waterhouse, the Government appointed naturalist. Fortunately, Stephen King made a series of sketches which he hid from Stuart’s view. They are an invaluable record – the only images of the journey.
He only used aboriginal guides, briefly on two occasions, then abandoned that idea. Stuart, to his credit, had an enlightened view of the aboriginal people – possibly due to his association with Sturt and Edward John Eyre. His journals contain many references which reveal his keen interest in their activities and characteristics. He admired the ‘bold spirit’ of a child and the planning and execution of their attack on him at Attack Creek. He was sometimes amused by their antics. It is clear however, that he encountered increased hostility when he returned for his second and third attempts to cross the continent. Fire-arms were used as a last resort to serve as a warning.
John McDouall Stuart spent half his life, 25 years, in South Australia. Mona Stuart Webster once wrote:-
The most important thing that Stuart gave his ‘ adopted country’, as he called South Australia, is the route across the Continent! The search for it dominated the later years of his life to such an extent that nothing else — health, or money, or home and family — mattered to him so much as finding a way to reach the northern shore. When he had found it, his health was gone and with it all hope of wealth or a home of his own, but to the end he was confident that he had achieved something of real value for which his name would be remembered.