The major natural attractions on the Dig Tree Circuit
are definitely the Cooper Creek waterholes. This includes Queerbidie, Cullyamurra, Burke and Bullah Bullah waterholes. But travellers are also lured to this remote part of Australia
for many other reasons, noteably to experience first hand the place where, arguably Australia
's most famous explorers
, Burke & Wills made their last stand.
The area is set amongst the beautiful Innamincka Regional Reserve and like an oasis in the middle of a desert, offers a lush watery paradise set against an arid Australian outback. The area is not only historically significant but is also culturally rich and has spiritual significance for several Aboriginal groups such as the Yandruwandha, Yawarrawarrka and Dieri people. Responsible and balanced management of the area is currently in place to protect the area’s wildlife, cultural and historic values as well as the cattle industry and vital energy reserves
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The area is sustained by the Cooper Creek, which is part of the Cooper Channel system. These wetlands sustain many species of fauna, including waterbirds, Dingoes, Red Kangaroos and reptiles such as Sand Goannas and Bearded Dragons. It is also home to the world’s most venomous snake – the Inland Taipan. You may also see tortoises, frogs and water rats along the Cooper and bats at night. Flora consists of Majestic Northern Red River Gums lining the banks of the Cooper Creek. In other areas of less water grows Coolibah (Eucalyptus microtheca), lignum and saltbush.
Burke and Wills Expedition
Before 1860, there were only a handful of explorers
that penetrated inland and subsequently not much was known about the north and north-west of Australia
. It was at this time that Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills led an expedition with the intention of crossing Australia
from Melbourne in the south to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north – a total distance of around 2,800kms. The expedition set off from Royal Park, Melbourne on 20th August 1860 and was viewed by around 15,000 spectators. They took 23 horses, six wagons and 27 camels imported from India especially for the mission. Supplies consisted of about 6 tonnes of firewood, enough food to last a couple of years, a cedar-topped oak camp table with chairs, rockets, flags and much more totalling about 20 tonnes.
Burke decided not to take up the offer from Captain Francis Cadell to transport the supplies to Adelaide and then by ship up the Murray and Darling Rivers. This would have set them up on a more northerly position and provided some relief for men and animals, but instead, everything was loaded onto the six wagons. It seemed the expedition was ill-fated from the very start because one wagon broke down before it had even left Royal Park and another two broke down at Essendon. Also, heavy rains and bad roads made travelling through Victoria
difficult and time-consuming.
The party finally reached Swan Hill on the Murray River on 6th September 1860. They soon arrived in Balranald on 15th September 1860, where it was here they left behind some equipment and a few men. At Bilbarka during the first week of October, Burke and his second-in-command Landells, argued after Burke decided to dump the 270 litres of rum that Landells had brought to feed to the camels. At Kinchega on the Darling, Landells resigned from the expedition and then followed by the expedition's surgeon, Dr Hermann Beckler. This left Wills being promoted to second-in-command.
Burke was concerned that experienced explorer John McDouall Stuart might beat him to the north coast, he started to grow impatient with the slow progress. When the party finally reached Menindee on 12th October 1860, Burke split the group. Taking seven men with him and a small amount of equipment, the plans were to push on quickly to Coopers Creek and then wait for the rest of the party to catch up. On 19th October 1860, they left Menindee, guided by a country man hired from Kinchega Station named William Wright. At Torowotto Swamp, Burke ordered Wright to return to Menindee to bring up the remainder of the men and supplies, whilst Burke and his small party continued on to Coopers Creek.
By 1860, Coopers Creek was the last frontier of explored land by the Europeans, with the river system having been visited by Captain Charles Sturt in 1845 and Augustus Charles Gregory in 1858. Burke arrived here on 11th November 1860 and formed a depôt at Camp LXIII (Camp 63) while they conducted some reconnaissance to the north. A setback soon struck as a plague of rats ate all the provisions that were not suspended from trees. This forced the men to move camp where they formed a second depôt further downstream at Bullah Bullah Waterhole. This was Camp LXV (Camp 65) and it was here that they built a stockade naming it Fort Wills. Since the hot Australian summers can reach over 40 degrees Celsius, it was believed that Burke would wait at Coopers Creek until the cooler months of March the following year. Burke, however only waited until 16th December 1860 before making a dash for the Gulf of Carpentaria, leaving William Brahe in charge of the Depôt with Dost Mahomet, William Patton and Thomas McDonough.
Heading for the Gulf
Four men, Burke, Wills, John King and Charles Gray set off for the Gulf with six camels, one horse and enough food to last three months. On 9th February 1861, they reached the Little Bynoe River, but they couldn’t reach the ocean because of the endless swamps and impenetrable mangroves in their way. Burke and Wills decided to leave behind the camels with King and Gray at Camp CXIX (Camp 119) and make a dash through the swamps, but after 24kms they decided to turn back. By this stage they had only 5 weeks of food left, about half the amount needed to get back to Coopers Creek. To make matters worse, the wet season broke and the tropical monsoonal rains started. Some camels were soon unable to continue and had to be shot and eaten, including their only horse. Supplies were running very low and their equipment was abandoned at a number of locations. Charles Gray fell ill, but Burke and the others thought he was faking it. On 25th March 1861 and on the Burke River near today's town of Boulia, Gray was caught stealing skilligolee which is a type of watery porridge and Burke beat him as punishment. Gray died on 17th April 1861 of dysentery at a place they called Polygonum Swamp. While the possibility that Burke killed Gray has been discounted, the severity of the beating Burke gave has been widely debated. Burke, Wills and King stopped for a day to bury Gray and to recover some strength from exhaustion and hunger. They finally reached Coopers Creek on 21st April 1861 but the camp was already deserted.
The other mission led by William Wright to bring up supplies from Menindee to Coopers Creek was having terrible problems of its own. A lack of money and too few pack animals to carry the supplies was the main reasons why he had not set out until the end of January. To some researchers, it was this delay that subsequently resulted in the deaths of Burke and Wills. The hot weather and lack of water meant the party moved incredibly slowly and three of the men, Dr Ludwig Becker, Charles Stone and William Purcell died from malnutrition on the trip. On his way north, Wright camped at Koorliatto Waterhole on the Bulloo River while he tried to find Burke's tracks to Coopers Creek. While he was there he met Brahe who was on his way back from the Cooper to Menindee.
Although Burke had asked Brahe and the depôt party to remain at the depôt camp on the Cooper for three months, the party actually waited for over four months. They decided to move out because they were running low on supplies themselves and were starting to feel the effects of scurvy. Even though they believed Burke would not be returning from the Gulf, Brahe decided to bury some provisions before leaving Coopers Creek and he carved a message on a tree to mark the spot
. The day that Brahe decided to leave the depôt was Sunday 21st April 1861 and was the evening of the very same day when Burke, Wills and King finally arrived back at the now deserted Coopers Creek. Unfortunately, Brahe had left in the morning – a mere 9 hours earlier. Wills and King dug up the cache of supplies and read a letter explaining that Brahe and his party had given up waiting and decided to return to Menindee.
Heading to Mount Hopeless
Burke, Wills and King and the two remaining camels were exhausted and they had no hope of catching up to the main party. They decided to rest and recuperate whilst living off the supplies which had been left in the cache. They decided to try to reach Blanchwater Station near Mount Hopeless – the furthest outpost of pastoral settlement in South Australia
at the time. This would mean travelling southwest through the Strzelecki Desert for 240kms. They wrote a letter explaining their intentions and reburied it in the cache under the marked tree in case a rescue party visited the area.
While Brahe and his party were on their way to Menindee, they met up with Wright and his party trying to reach the Cooper with the supplies. They both decided to go back to the depôt camp and check to see if Burke and his men had returned. When they arrived on 8th May 1861 the camp was again deserted as Burke, Wills and King who had already left for Mount Hopeless was already 56kms away. It was back at the camp that fate took another bad turn for the expedition. Brahe and Wright – although quickly inspecting the undisturbed stockade, did not think to check on the buried cache containing Burke’s letter. Assuming that Burke had not returned, Brahe and Wright soon returned to Menindee.
John King Survives
Lack of water prevented Burke, Wills and King from reaching their destination and after walking 72kms through the Strzelecki Desert – decided to turn back. Around the end of June 1861, Burke and Wills died along the Cooper Creek. John King was very weak and near death but was assisted by Aborigines who helped him survive. He was finally saved by a rescue party led by Alfred Howitt on 15th September 1861.
The Dig Tree
A Coolibah (Eucalyptus microtheca) is the type of tree that Brahe blazed at the depôt camp to mark the location of the buried supplies on the banks of Bullah Bullah Waterhole. The exact inscription that Brahe carved is not known. It is variously recalled to be "DIG under" or "DIG 3 FEET N.W." or "DIG 40 FEET N.E." or a combination of these. The dates blazed indicated the date of arrival and the date of departure "Dec 6-60" carved over "Apr 21-61". The camp number was also cut into the tree, "B" over "LXV". As a result of the blaze on the tree and the subsequent popularity of the book "Dig" written in 1935 by Frank Clune, the tree became known as The Dig Tree.