On a Boxing Day, I was sitting by the ocean on the Gold Coast reading a great book “Desert Walker” – a memoir of Dennis Bartell who writes about his explorations of the Australian continent. It made me want to go and explore Australia and learn about different places.
My manuscript, Desert Walker, is a journey from my childhood through to my adult years. It is a true story of my many and varied exploits into the Australian Outback, interspersed with chapters of my personal life. Australia is a rugged and beautiful land, a veritable adventure playground for explorers and pioneers. As an Australian Outback Adventurer I have been fortunate enough to explore much that this great Country has to offer.
– Denis Bartell
But firstly I wanted to learn more about the ill-fated Expedition of 1860 by Burke and Wills, Bartell mentioned in his book.
There were 4 main reasons for The Victorian Exploring Expedition (as it was originally called): search for an inland sea, the quest for new grazing land, scientific discoveries, and fame and glory. There was also a prize of £2000 for the first non-indigenous people to cross the Australian continent from south to north.
Robert O’Hara Burke was chosen as the leader of the expedition. Second-in-command was George James Landells, and third-in-command was William John Wills. On 20 August 1860, the explorers left Melbourne for the Gulf of Carpentaria carrying some 21 tonnes of equipment. Camels were used for the first time on a big scale because of their ability to go for long distances with a little water.
In the first depot in Menindie, Landells has resigned after a conflict with Burke. Burke appointed Wills as the second-in-command and split the party there, taking only part of the people (7 including Burke) and supplies to Coopers Creek. The remaining group under the command of William Wright was going to follow soon.
At the Coopers Creek Depot Camp 65 Burke was supposed to wait for the party and supplies from Menindie but knowing that another explorer John McDouall Stuart was heading for the Gulf as well, Burke decided to leave the depot before group’s arrival. On 16 December 1860, Burke, Wills, Charles Gray and John King left Coopers Creek for the northern shoreline. They took supplies for about three months and left the rest of the men at Camp LXV under the command of William Brahe. Burke left instruction that Brahe should wait for three months, or for as long as his own supplies lasted. The four explorers reached Flinders River on 9 February 1861, Burke and Wills tried to get to the coast but couldn’t make it.
At the conclusion of report, it would be well to say that we reached the sea, but we could not obtain a view of open ocean, although we made every endeavour to do so.
Robert O’Hara Burke
The return journey was disastrous, explorers had food left for 27 days, but it had already taken them 59 days to travel from Coopers Creek and tropical monsoon downpours of the wet season were slowing the progress of the return. Charles Gray died (the party took 1 day to bury him) and the others got back to the Coopers Creek camp only to find that rest of the depot party had departed just hours earlier leaving some supplies dug under the tree with a sign on the tree “DIG”. Brahe waited 18 weeks instead of 13 as Burke directed and begun his return earlier that same day.
Depot, Cooper’s Creek, April 21, 1861.
The depot party of V.E.E. leaves this camp to-day to return to the “Darling”. I intend to go S.E. from Camp 60, to get into our old track near Bulloo. Two of my companions and myself are quite well; the third – Patten – has been unable to walk for last eighteen days, as his leg has been severely hurt when thrown by one of the horses. No person has been up here from the “Darling”. We have six camels and twelve horses in good working condition.
Sunday, 21st April, 1861
Arrived at the depot this evening, just in time to find deserted. (…) We and our camels being just done up, and scarcely able to reach the depot, have very little chance of overtaking them. (…) Our disappointment at finding the depot deserted may easily be imagined – returning in an exhausted state, after four months of the severest travelling and privation, our legs almost paralyzed, so that each of us found it a most trying task only to walk a few yards. Such a leg-bound feeling I never before experienced, and I hope never shall again.
William John Wills
On 23 April Burke, Wills and King set off heading towards Mount Hopeless – the closest outpost. In a meantime, Brahe and Wright met on a way between Coopers Creek and Menindie and both went back to Coopers Creek Depot on 8 May 1861. As the mark and date on the tree were unaltered, Brahe and Wright assumed that Burke had not returned, while Burke, Wills and King were only 56 km away. After that, on 30 May 1861 Wills went back to Coopers Creek Depot for a “last look”, completely unaware that anyone else had been there.
Having no food the men became increasingly dependent on the generosity of the local Yantruwanta people, who brought them fish and cakes of nardoo, an edible seed. Burke and Wills were so weak and died shortly. King buried Wills and set out again to join the Yantruwanta. King found a group of Aboriginees willing to give him food and shelter and in return he shot birds to contribute to their supplies. As he later described it, they treated him as ‘one of their own’ for two and a half months, until a relief party sent from Melbourne discovered him on 15 September 1861.
Finding that my stock of nardoo was running short, and being unable to gather it, I tracked the natives who had been to the camp by their footprints in the sand, and went some distance down the creek, shooting crows and hawks on the road. The natives, hearing the report of the gun, came to meet me, and took me with them to their camp, giving me nardoo and fish. They took the birds I had shot and cooked them for me. (…) They also used to assist me in making gourley, or breakwind, whenever they shifted camp. I generally shot a crow or hawk, and gave it to them in return for these little services. (…) From this time to when the relief party arrived they treated me with uniform kindness, and looked upon me as one of themselves.
Total of seven men lost their lives during the expedition.
Below is a documentary about this expedition. It shows how tragic this expedition happened to be. If you would like to dig in more deeply, please check the book “Robert O’Hara Burke and the Australian Exploring Expedition of 1860” by Andrew Jackson. The author wrote the report just 1 year after the event and based information on diaries of explorers and reports from Royal Commission. You can find an ebook on Internet Archive or audiobook on LibriVox.
- State Library of Victoria \ Dig: the Burke & Wills research gateway
- National Museum of Australia – Burke and Wills collection
- Environment.gov.au – Burke and Wills expedition sites included on the National Heritage List
- Robert O’Hara Burke and the Australian Exploring Expedition of 1860 (audiobook) at LibriVox
- Robert O’Hara Burke and the Australian Exploring Expedition of 1860 (ebook) at Internet Archive
- Australian Dictionary of Biography