« A Group’s Story | Main | Last Stand of the Kalkadoons »

The Burke and Wills Expedition

“…in the west lay the tremendous unexplored tract, an area some 1600 miles long by 800 miles wide, bounded by the 20th and 32nd degrees of latitude and the 115 and 140 degrees of longitude: an area more than half the size of Europe. This was ‘the ghastly blank’.” (Cooper’s Creek, Alan Moorhead)

Although the regions on the eastern coast of Australia grew rapidly, the interior of Australia had proved an intimidating challenge for exploration. ‘Terra incognito’ was a formidable place and it wasn’t until 1845 that an intrepid explorer by the name of Charles Sturt was successful in penetrating the continent as far north as the Simpson Desert.

You may be asking yourself, “Why bother at all? This is a new country to the European settler with plenty of land for farming with easy access along the coast.” However, these southern settlements were separated from Britain and Europe by a two months’ sea voyage. There also remained the possibility of opening trade with southeast Asia from a northern port, if the country could be traversed from south to north, to establish one

On August 20, 1860, Robert O’Hara Burke, a former policeman, and William John Wills, Burke’s second-in-command, set off from Melbourne, bound for the Gulf of Carpentaria. The expedition team consisted of an assorted group of surveyors, botanists, and camel drivers. This use of camels was a ‘first’ in the exploration of the new territory, validated by the fact that they had been used successfully in the Sahara and other arid regions.

Upon reaching Cooper’s Creek near the border of present Queensland and New South Wales, it was determined that Burke, Wills, Charles Gray and John King would continue the journey north, while William Brahe and the rest of the team waited at Cooper’s Creek. As this was Burke’s only link with the outside world, he instructed Brahe to remain at the location for at least three months. Burke thought this ample time to complete the trek. The four set off, a 1500 mile walk to the Gulf and back. “They could not simply move ahead on a previously mapped-out course. They had to alter their direction when swamps and ridges blocked the way, they had to watch the flight of birds that might lead them to a waterhole, they had to know the right moment when it was time to call it a day.”

On February 10, they reached an area a few kilometers inland from the Gulf. However, thick mangrove swamps prevented their progress; brackish, undrinkable water and an eight inch tidal flow in from the sea was their only clue that they had reached their destination. They set off for the return to Cooper’s Creek, one month’s food rations to sustain them on a trip that would take them over two months’ time.

Imagine the hardships that they faced, the most intimidating being the lack of food. Gray died on April 17. They buried him the next day. Resuming their travel, the remaining three men struggled into Cooper’s Creek on the afternoon of April 21. The camp lay silent, but the signs pointed to a recent occupation. The words ‘DIG, 3 FT. N.W., April 21, 1861’ were emblazoned on a tree. Upon the removal of the box at the base of the tree, Burke found rations of food and a note from Brahe indicating that he and the rest of the expedition had left Cooper’s Creek. Burke observed the date on the note. It was April 21! Brahe and his men had departed for the south only a few hours earlier!

Unable to connect with Brahe’s team, Burke, Wills, and King existed in the area of Cooper’s Creek until their food ran out. Repeated attempts to strike south toward the settled areas around Mount Hopeless prove fruitless. Burke and Wills perished while King was the only survivor. He was discovered by a rescue party living with an Aboriginal group in the area. It was determined that he, too, would have died within days if not discovered.

The tragedy of the Burke and Wills Expedition has lifted them to a higher place in the annals of exploration. Overcoming great odds, they successfully traversed the continent south to north. Missing rescue by only a few hours and the subsequent tragedy on the Cooper has become, perhaps, more important than their conquering of ‘the ghastly blank’.



TrackBack URL for this entry:

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on August 16, 2001 7:11 PM.

The previous post in this blog was A Group’s Story.

The next post in this blog is Last Stand of the Kalkadoons.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Powered by
Movable Type 3.35