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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mackay, Donald George (1870–1958)

by David Carment

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Donald George Mackay (1870-1958), explorer, was born on 29 June 1870 at Yass, New South Wales, son of Alexander Mackay, owner of Wallendbeen station, and his wife Annie, née Mackenzie, both Scottish born. Major General James Alexander Kenneth Mackay was a brother. Donald was educated at Wallendbeen Public School and at Oaklands School, Mittagong. After a brief engineering apprenticeship he worked as a jackaroo for his father until he died in 1890; his inheritance provided a substantial private income. In 1890-99 Mackay travelled extensively throughout the world and tried prospecting for gold in western New South Wales.

In July 1899 he and Alec and Frank White left Brisbane to bicycle round Australia. Though Frank had to abandon the attempt Mackay returned to Brisbane in March 1900 in a record-breaking time of 240 days after an 11,000 mile (17,703 km) ride through scarcely known areas.

Mackay married Amy Isabel Little on 16 April 1902 at Homebush, Sydney. Their home at Port Hacking was a base for fishing, motoring, sailing and further travel. He led and financed an expedition to Papua in 1908 to investigate the headwaters of the Purari River. During the following decade he sailed a yacht in the South Pacific and visited New Zealand and the Dutch East Indies.

In 1926 Mackay financed and accompanied the first of several expeditions to the Northern Territory when, with the anthropologist Dr Herbert Basedow he went into the Petermann Ranges by camel. In 1928 they explored in Arnhem Land. In 1930, 1933, 1935 and 1937 Mackay supervised aerial surveys of Central Australia, the first of which in 1930 discovered the large lake that the Commonwealth government named after him. The surveys produced far more useful maps than had previously existed. Copies of all Mackay's maps and reports were donated to the Commonwealth government and the Mitchell Library, Sydney.

Criticism by Mackay of the harsh treatment of Aborigines, reported in the British press in July 1933, caused official denials; Prime Minister Lyons and S. M. (Viscount) Bruce expressed concern at the harm done to Australia's reputation. Mackay offered to withdraw his comment if Lyons could prove that the treatment of Aborigines had been humane.

Appointed O.B.E. in 1934 and C.B.E. in 1937, Mackay in his old age won deserved recognition as 'the last Australian explorer'. While his journeys lacked the significance of some earlier ones they did much to increase knowledge of remote areas. A powerfully built man, he was well known for his generosity, physical fitness and qualities of leadership.

Mackay died on 17 September 1958 at Sutherland Shire Hospital and was cremated after a Presbyterian service. A widower, he had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Basedow, Knights of the Boomerang (Syd, 1935)
  • F. P. Clune, Last of the Australian Explorers (Syd, 1942)
  • M. Durack, Sons in the Saddle (Lond, 1983)
  • Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, Report of Meeting 1911 (1911)
  • Home (Sydney), Jan 1928, Jan 1929
  • New Nation Magazine, June 1928
  • Land, Farm and Station Annual, 1938
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Feb 1937
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 18 Sept 1958
  • Northern Territory News, 12 Nov 1983
  • D. Mackay papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

David Carment, 'Mackay, Donald George (1870–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 27 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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