The Burke and Wills Expedition
We take our history very seriously here at Casey Australia Tours and enjoy immersing our passengers right into the mix of it. This year we are following the path of Burke and Wills from south to north starting in Melbourne. But first a little history…..
In 1860 the Government of South Australia offered a prize to the first expedition to cross the Australian continent from south to north.
Policeman, Robert O’Hara Burke led an expedition which left from Royal Park, Melbourne on 20 August 1860. The contingent of the Burke party was complete with 18 people, 25 camels, 22 horses and some wagons. This was the first expedition in Australia to use camels as a means of transport.
Burke was serious about his preparedness and took a two-year supply of food, as well as a phenomenal number of shoes 80 pairs to be precise, beds, hats and buckets, as well as some firewood.
After trekking for 8 weeks the expedition reached Menindee, this is where news reached Burke that John McDouall Stuart was going to attempt to cross the continent from south to north also. Men were left to assist Stuart to reach Coopers Creek where Burke was waiting. Though five weeks passed and they did not arrive.
After these delays and sickness and death reached their camp the remaining men stopped at a place called Bulloo before reaching Cooper Creek, in the meantime Burke became increasingly impatient to win the race of the first white man to cross south to north.
As John Stuart never arrived, Burke set out with William John Wills, John King and Charles Gray with a minimal horse, camels and supplies for a few months. Four men were to remain at Cooper Creek and wait three months for their return.
With still a large amount of distance to travel, it took Burke and his party took a total of eight weeks to get from Cooper Creek to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Though with failure imminent they did not see or reach the sea as the swamps and mangroves blocked their path.
As they began the immediate return journey to Cooper Creek, supplies were short supply with a camel and Burke’s horse making the ultimate sacrifice. It was not long following Charles Gray got sick and died.
Arriving at Cooper Creek, the weary souls found a deserted camp. The team waited for 5 months and had departed in despair not knowing what happened to the small contingent, small amounts of food were buried in a box near a tree with a sign of “DIG”. The letter inside indicated that the men had left only hours beforehand thinking they must have all died on their road to making history.
Burke, Wills and King were too weak to follow Brahe on foot. Wills buried his notebooks and left a note telling where the group were heading, but no one thought to make a sign at the Dig Tree to indicate that they had been there and were still alive. This was a costly error of their part as some of the men returned and with no indication that the team that headed north
were not returned, simply departed once again
In the meantime, Burke, Wills and King made their way towards Mount Hopeless with intentions of catching fish, many aboriginal people helped these men with food, though Burke didn’t trust them and chased them away and fired his rifle at them.
By 1 July 1861, Burke had died of starvation as the remaining company were sick and starving and Wills died a few days later.
King was a little luckier who was cared for by the Yantruwanta people, until he was found a few months later, on September 15 1861, by other explorers.
The leader of the party that rescued King, a man called Howitt, was instructed to bring back the bones of Burke and Wills so that a public funeral could be held.
At the time it was the biggest funerals ever seen in Melbourne, a large pension was given to the families of Burke and Wills and to King. Though with the hardships endured and following a long bout of ill health, he did not live very long. The Aboriginal people who cared for him were also rewarded.
Though it seemed like a doomed expedition with not seemingly finishing it completely it was written in history as Burke and Wills – the first men to cross Australia from south to north and we will be following their footsteps in August if you would like to come along.