Camels in the outback
Photo: Nick Tatarnic
BURKE AND WILLS EXPEDITION
The Burke and Wills Expedition departed Melbourne on 20 August 1860 with a team of 19 men, 50 camels and horses, some wagons and drays and a large collection of supplies.
On 11 February 1861 four members of the party – Robert O’Hara Burke, William Wills, Charley Gray and John King – reached the Gulf of Carpentaria crossing the continent from south to north.
The purpose of the trip was set out in the Royal Society of Victoria’s instructions to Burke which were vague. These involved searching for good pastoral country on the western border of Queensland and exploring the inland. Burke, an Irishman, Victorian policeman and former member of the Irish military, succeeded in being the first European to cross the continent but died on the return trip.
Burke’s final instructions were sent after the expedition had departed. They involved scientific curiosity, commercial initiative mixed with a sense of excitement. Victoria was determined to achieve the honour of reaching the Gulf of Carpentaria before South Australian explorer, John McDouall Stuart.
The party consisted of three officers: Burke, George Landells the camel master, and William John Wills surveyor and meteorologist; two German scientific officers, Ludwig Becker naturalist and Herman Beckler medical officer and botanist; a foreman and nine assistants and the camel-drivers.
Burke selected Wills, King and Gray to accompany him to the gulf and left four men, under the command of William Brahé, at Camp LXV at Cooper Creek. He took provisions for 12 weeks, six camels and a horse, which he used only as pack animals.
While the party managed to reach the Gulf, it was a gruelling trip in the summer heat. Gray died on the way back. When the starving explorers returned to Cooper Creek on 21 April 1861, they found it deserted. Brahé’s party had left that day for Menindee, with six camels, 12 horses, all the clothes and most of the food.
Burke decided that they could not catch up with the party and decided to go to Mount Hopeless station, 150 miles (241 km) away. They set off in that direction, leaving a message at Camp LXV.
Meanwhile Brahé, feeling uneasy about having left his post, decided to return to Camp LXV, which he reached 15 days after he had left it. He did not observe the signs that Burke had returned and did not find his message. Brahé departed, this time for good, for Menindee. Burke, Wills and King were too weak to get far on their journey to Mount Hopeless. They remained by Cooper Creek, hoping to be rescued before they starved, but only King lived long enough to be found by Alfred Howitt’s search party from Melbourne, which arrived in September 1861.
King returned to Melbourne with the rescue party. King and others of the expedition party, William Wright, Beckler and Brahé, faced a Royal Commission in Melbourne in 1862. The Royal Commission criticized Burke for having divided his party at Menindee.
Burke achieved the aim of the expedition to reach the Gulf of Carpentaria. Indirectly, discovery was promoted. Although Burke’s exploration trip was a failure, solid gains in geographical knowledge and understanding of the value of the land for pastoral settlement by Victorians were made by the explorers Howitt, John McKinlay and William Landsborough, who led parties in search of him.
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The Royal Historical Society of Queensland is trustee for the Dig Tree Reserve supported by Nappa Merrie Station and the Bulloo Shire Council.