James Riley emigrated to New South Wales in 1838. He was just 19 years old when, in 1840, he joined James McArthur and Count Paul Strzelecki, on the rough trek across the Australian Alps that 'discovered' Gippsland (although Angus McMilllan had already trekked through the area the year before).
The expedition aimed to find land suitable for grazing cattle close to the coast, and took the explorers from the Goulburn plains in NSW, south towards the Australian Alps. James McArthur's Aboriginal servant, Charlie Tarra, was the party's interpreter and guide.
The expedition crossed the Australian Alps, where Strzelecki climbed and named Mt Kosciusko, Australia's highest mountain. They continued south to the Omeo Plains, then west towards Corner Inlet, their intended destination.
By then, the men and their horses were exhausted and short of food. With only enough food for four days, Strzelecki changed course and headed for Western Port. He thought the distance was about 32km, but it was actually over 110km.
The explorers abandoned their horses and most of their equipment, but still ran out of food fairly quickly, and were forced to eat koalas:
In the country through which we passed there was but one animal, it is the size of a small dog and lives in trees, it is called the monkey or native bear. These we procured sometimes by shooting, sometimes by the native climbing the trees after them. We ate them raw when we could not make a fire...
– James Riley, 1840
The Gippsland Standard, 18 December 1912.
After 22 days, they emerged from the bush at Corinella. When they reached the old Western Port convict settlement, it was occupied by escaped convicts from Van Diemen's Land. The explorers were exhausted and starving, so the convicts gave them all the food they could spare.
The party finally reached an outlying cattle station, where they recovered before continuing on to Melbourne. Strzelecki made a number of maps of their route, two of which he gave to Riley. One bears the inscription, ‘To Riley, from your fellow monkey-eater. Strzelecki.'
In 1841 Riley took up a squatting run on the Wannon River. He became a successful pastoralist and a prominent citizen in Geelong and the Western District. He died in 1892.