The Disputed Country - Australia's Lost Border

South Australian border sign


Did you know that the location of the border between the Australian states of Victoria and South Australia has been lost for 161 years?
Here is the bizarre tale of Australia’s first surveyed border and the on-going dispute it created.

This story is about the survey of the South Australian - Victorian border from 1847 to 1850.  It was an epic three-year saga of dogged persistence through heavy rain and flooded swamps, harrowing escapes from the waterless Mallee Country and the almost immediate destruction of the border markers by a devastating firestorm.

It was soon proven that the surveyed border was several kilometres west of the intended 141 east longitude, thus sparking a 64 year-long battle between the two states for possession of "The Disputed Territory" -- that thin slice of land between the two lines.

The immediate loss of the border markers to fire means that even today, more than a century and a half after the survey was supposed to eliminate a lawless haven for criminals, a "no man's land" still exists between the two states.

Also included in the book is the story of the erection of the rabbit fence along the border, a field guide to key heritage sites and detailed maps of the border track.

White's final mound on the south bank of Murray River

bend in border fence


Before the South Australian - Victorian border was surveyed, the east of Mt Gambier and north to the Little Desert had become a lawless haven for criminals because the border location was not marked.  It could have been in either the colony of South Australia, or the Port Phillip District of New South Wales.  The Port Phillip District was created as the separate colony of Victoria in 1850.

The men who pegged out the border line through the vast mallee desert nearly lost their lives three times:

    * once when they were stranded without water by a thoughtless visitor to their camp at Scorpion Soak
    * another time their leader, Edward Riggs White was without water and near death and only survived by drinking the black, stinking blood of his dying horse, and
    * a third time when they had to ration water in a last desperate push to reach the Murray River.  On reaching the river in 1850, White’s men mutinied after they were ordered to re-enter the desert and clear scrub to the required width either side of the line.

After the mutiny William Derrincourt, a ‘bushman’ passed by the survey camp and signed on to help Eward Riggs White clear scrub.  But a short time later, Derrincourt was almost burnt to death in a firestorm which raged through the Mallee country.  He took shelter in a shallow well, but was nearly cooked alive from the boiling fat from his dead horse which lay above him.  A couple of days later, Derrincourt stumbled naked and delirious into an aboriginal camp.  The firestorm had obliterated the border markers the survey team had just finished putting in!

The war of words over what locals called "The Disputed Territory" lasted 64 years. At the peak of disagreement  South Australia threatened to ‘invade’ Victoria and sub-divide the disputed country.  But the Victorian government threatened to arrest any such invaders and the threat was not put into action.

Eventually, the Privy Council in London ruled that Wade & White’s line was the legal border.  But since the border markers were wiped out by fire the location of this line has been lost for 160 years.  Complicating the re-survey of Wade & White's line is the loss of their original field survey books.  So there are no detailed notes as to its location, only a few scattered "fixes" from other surveyors who came later.

The border fence is certainly NOT on the border, but well inside the state of Victoria.  Erected in the period 1886 - 1889 it originally had four right-angle bends, but now has

    * two slight angle bends barely discernable to the eye, and
    * two right angle bends.

The track along the border fence is a popular four wheel drive touring destination.

John Deckert & Bob Dunn

The Book

"The Disputed Country -- Australia's Lost Border" was written by Bob Dunn in collaboration with John Deckert of Westprint Heritage Maps.  It is full colour on high quality paper with extensive photos, maps, diagrams and includes a complete index.

This easily-digested narrative is intended for tourists, historians, cartographers, local residents,  academics, surveyors and all persons interested in this amazing chapter of Australia’s heritage.

This book also covers the fascinating story of the vermin-proof border fence which was intended to keep rabbits and dingoes in the Victorian Mallee from crossing into South Australia.  The fence was completed in December 1889 and re-built in 1928 but was largely ineffective so grazing in the South Australian Mallee was always difficult.

And to add to the confusion about the position of the border, a series of blunders during the fence’s construction produced four embarrassing right-angle bends, two of which still exist today.

You can buy this book from the distributor - Westprint Maps -
To purchase this book - click here

view from Red Bluff


   old wagon near Wade's Termination Point     rough place in border track     the old vermin proof fence along border track  

What is "The Disputed Country"?

Also called “The Disputed Territory”, the “Disputed Country” was a thin sliver of land about 3 km wide, between the Australian states of Victoria and South Australia.  It lies between the 141st east longitude and a surveyed line approximately 3 km to the west of that longitude.

What was the border “dispute” about?

After the border was pegged out in the field, it was found that the markers were about 3 km too far west.  The original intention had been to peg the border along the 141st east longitude.  The South Australian Government wished to have the border re-marked along the 141 E meridian, but the Victorian Government refused to agree to this.

Why was the border survey in the wrong position?

The key reason the border was marked out farther west than was intended was because of erroneous assumptions made about the longitude of the Sydney Observatory.  Determining longitude back in the 1840s was very imprecise owing to lack of precision clocks.  At the time, the assumed longitude for Sydney Observatory’s was in error by about 3 km.  Since the Vic-SA border survey took the Sydney Observatory as its starting point –  the Vic-SA border survey was too far west by roughly the same amount.

Who originally surveyed the border?

Henry Wade, with Edward Riggs White assisting, surveyed north from the coast for 199.29 kilometres before ending the survey on 3 July 1847. "Wade’s Termination Point" is just north of the present day Bordertown, SA.

White continued the survey north from Wade’s Termination Point on 2 August 1849.  White stopped the first section of his survey on 8 October 1849 at a point approximately 8 kilometres northeast of Peebinga, South Australia.  In 1850 White continued surveying north from his 1849 stopping place and built his last cairn of stones overlooking the Murray River on 18 December 1850.

Why was the position of the border lost?

In February 1851 a gigantic firestorm wiped out many of the timber border markers.  Wade’s Line has been recovered with reasonable accuracy, but the location White’s Line [Bordertown north to the Murray River] has been lost ever since.

How long did the border dispute last?

It lasted 64 years.  Throughout the late 1800s South Australia refused to give up its claim to the Disputed Country.  The case eventually went to the Australian High Court in 1911 and was appealed to the Privy Council in London, which at the time heard appeals from the Australian High Court.  The Council’s judgment, handed down in 1914, was that the border should stay where Wade and White had originally marked it.  In other words, South Australia lost its case to have the border re-marked on the 141st east longitude.

Where is the Victoria – South Australia border today?

Because the original survey books have been lost, and most of the original timber posts were lost to fire, the location of the actual state border is not known, even today.

When will the true position of the border be re-surveyed?

The state Surveyor-General of Victoria, John Tulloch, has stated that he and the South Australian Surveyor-General [Peter Kentish] intend to re-mark the border sometime during 2011.  They will use what little information is available on the location of White’s line and make some reasonable assumptions about where the line goes between those points.  A key concern is to ensure that the determined position will sustain any legal appeals.

border sign on south bank of Murray River

Fast Facts

  1. Surveyor Charles Tyers placed his mark in the form of an arrow in the sand dunes on the Discovery Bay coast in December 1839.  Expert opinions differed on the precise longitude of his Arrow.
  2. Henry Wade began his survey at "Tyers’ Arrow" on 26 March 1847.
  3. South Australia would have ‘lost’ a further 560 metres if at the time he started the survey, Wade had taken into account an alternative value for Tyer’s Arrow calculated by another surveyor.
  4. A survey carried out in 2003 to re-locate Tyer’s Arrow has shown an error of about 10 chains in the original 1847 survey.  Thus, the border should have been another 200 metres further west than it is today.
  5. Wade, with Edward Riggs White assisting, surveyed north from the coast for 199.29 kilometres before ending the survey at Wade’s Termination Point on 3 July 1847.
  6. White began his survey at Wade’s Termination Point on 2 August 1849.
  7. White terminated the first part of his survey on 8 October 1849 at a point approximately 8 kilometres northeast of Peebinga, South Australia.
  8. In September 1850 White started surveying north from his 1849 stopping place and built his last cairn of stones overlooking the Murray River on 18 December 1850.
  9. The total distance of the Wade and White lines is 448.68 kilometres.
  10. It seems clear that Wade & White's line is not a straight line, with some minor angles, and a major change of direction somewhere in the vicinity of "Hensley's Trig point".
  11. The position of today's border is west of 141 east longitude between 2.96 km and 3.35 km.
  12. White’s Line has never been officially declared as the border between the two states.
  13. In February 1851 a gigantic firestorm wiped out many timber border markers.  Wade’s Line has been recovered with reasonable accuracy, but the location White’s Line has been lost ever since.
  14. The westerly ‘offset’ of the Wade and White line was confirmed in 1868 when accurate time signals were obtained using the newly constructed telegraph between Adelaide and Sydney.