Perhaps the most "famous" Australian explorers were Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills, who in 1860 led a well-equipped expedition from Melbourne
to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Whilst their expedition was an impressive feat of navigation, and they did indeed become the first to make this journey, it was an organisational disaster and they failed to return alive. They earned a place in Australian folklore due to the tragedy of their journey. Their journey is also interwoven with that of John McDouall Stuart (detailed below), who also shared the same expedition goal and was eventually successful by taking a more inland route.
The Royal Society of Victoria
was a private association formed to encourage scientific research and the dissemination of new information. It was from within this group in 1857, that the suggestion was made that Victoria
should organise an exploring expedition. At the time most of inland Australia
had still not been explored, nor were there any inland settlements. Meanwhie, the South Australian government had come up with an incentive to get an expedition team to do a survey across the continent from south to north. They wanted to host the Australian terminus of the telegraph on South Australian soil so offered a reward of £2000 to the first successful person to make a successful overland journey to the Gulf of Carpentaria. When the Victorian's heard about the South Australian's goal to make the first crossing of the continent they felt challenged. The incentive of claiming Victoria
to be the first to cross the continent from south to north drove a bid to get their expedition together before the South Australians and before long they sent off a 19-man expedition led by Robert O'Hara Burke complete with 23 horses, 6 wagons, and 26 camels on August 20, 1860. The experienced South Australian explorer & surveyor, John McDouall Stuart, took up the challenge too, however his first attempt failed and he returned to re-plan the journey.
The Race North
The first stage of the Burke & Wills journey was undertaken between August - December 1860. After departing Melbourne
, they moved north and reached Menindee
. Along the way, the expedition struggled to carry their loads and so they began to offload supplies. It took much longer than expected and the delay was intolerable to Burke. In Menindee
, the party had a major hiccup resulting in an organisational restructure and the group was split to create separate supply depots.
Burke's took a smaller party swiftly onto Cooper Creek
and arrived on November 11, 1860. The plan was to wait for Wright and supplies to arrive and regroup before forging ahead further north, however news of John Macdouall Stuart's upcoming departure from Adelaide
sparked Burke on to head off before he arrived. Another organisational restructure put William Brahe in command of this base camp, whilst Burke setoff with William Wills, John King, and Charlie Grey
in a race to be the first to reach the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Only 4 men were left at the depot at Cooper Creek
, whilst the 4 intrepid explorers headed off. In hindsight, the lack of written orders to the waiting camp by Burke was a critical error. The journey to Gulf of Carpentaria coincided with the breaking of the wet season and once again progress was hampened by the size of the load. At their final camp (119 days into the journey), Burke and Wills left King & Grey
with 5 camels, whilst they took just 1 horse and 3 days provisions to make a final dash to the coast. Covering a final 15 miles
on February 11 1861, Burke & Wills reached the Gulf of Carpentaria through through slippery, boggy and almost impassable wet season conditions. They knew they were going to struggle to make it back alive and offloaded all unnecessary supplies in an effort to reach King, Grey
and the camels at camp. Meanwhile, John Macdouall Stuart was still in northern South Australia
. They had achieved their goal but now it was a matter of survival.
The Tragedy of the Journey Home
Lack of supplies, ill-health and terrible conditions had sapped their strength. Some of the pack animals died and they were forced to offload the heavy navigation instruments. The expedition was struggling to survive. Gray was found dead in his swag on the morning of 17th April and despite their desperation, Burke, King and Wills spent a full day to give him a proper burial.
Tragically, their arrival back at the depot camp they'd left at Cooper Creek
occurred just hours after the desperate departure of their waiting supply camp led by Brahe. But this was just the first in a series of ill-fated moments that ultimately, led to the death of both Burke & Wills before making it home. In a decision of desperation to save their own lives after waiting more than 4 months, Brahe's waiting party had left camp on the same morning that Buke & Wills had returned. Brahe had burried a cache of provisions under a tree marked with the word "Dig" carved into it's trunk. Upon finding the cache and a note confirming how close they had been, Burke & Wills chose to head in what they felt was the quickest way to a known settlement, rather than attempt to catch up with Brahe.
Meanwhile, Brahe led his return party back towards Menindee
and within 7 days, he met up with William Wright. Wright's party had faced a number of extreme obstacles too and had not made a progressive journey towards Cooper Creek
. The second ill-fated moment came when Brahe and Wright agreed to return together to the Dig Tree
, hoping to find Burke & Wills. They arrived on May 8, 1861 but they found no sign that Burke & Wills had already passed through, yet both groups were only within 35 miles
of one another!
In a final stroke of bad luck, Burke sent Wills back to the dig tree
one more time on May 30. Lacking the skills of bushcraft and unwilling to learn from the local Aboriginal people, Burke and Wills died in 1861 near the Cooper Creek
. Their deaths were due to eating ill-prepared nardoo seeds. King spent nearly three months with the Aborigines until a rescue party found him on September 15 1861.
Later Life & Legacy
The State Library of Victoria
holds a wonderful archive of documents, artworks and artefacts on the Burke & Wills expedition which were donated by the Royal Society of Victoria
. Other documents can be found in the National Library of Australia
, and Hermann Beckler's plant specimens from the journey were deposited with the National Herbarium of Victoria
. A monument depicting Burke and Wills, by Charles Summers, stands outside Parliament House
, and a portrait of Burke in oils by William Strutt is in the Melbourne
Club.The Dig Tree
was marked by Burke with the roman
numerals LXV (being the 65th camp of the trip) by cutting into the truck with an axe. This site is now part of Nappa Merrie
and is a popular 4WD expedition tourist site as it marks the site of the tragedy. Nearby, are the graves of both Burke and Wills, and Kings Tree within the Innamincka
Regional Reserve of South Australia
. The Dig Tree Circuit
and the Innamincka Memorials and Markers
are both Trek Notes
that will enable you to research how you can access and visit these sites.