Discovery of King with the natives.
Image: Howitt Samuel Thomas Gill State Library of New South Wales


When the other members of the gulf party were dead, John King survived because he was helped by the local Aboriginal people.

King had joined the British Army at aged 14 as a boy soldier. While serving in India he was engaged to oversee the cameleers and 25 camels for the Burke and Wills expedition.

King was a hard worker. The Aboriginal people said King did women’s work as they observed him unloading the camels, setting up the campfire and blazing trees. Along with Charley Gray, King was chosen by Burke and Wills for the push to the gulf. On the return journey through flooding rains, bogged camels, mosquitoes and rations halved and halved again, King was the only one strong enough to dig Gray’s grave when he died.

When Burke, Wills and King returned, half starved, to the Dig Tree and found their supply party had left nine hours earlier, their only hope of survival was with help from the local people. For two months they wandered around the Cooper getting weaker and weaker, living like the Aboriginal people and accepting their help. But the Aboriginal people were wary of ‘trigger-happy Mr Burke’ so gave them ‘a parting gift of fish and left them to it’.

Burke died first with King beside him to the end. In his last letter Burke wrote,’King has behaved nobly and I hope he will be properly cared for’. A grieving King buried Burke then went downstream to find Wills – also dead. King survived on nardoo until the Aboriginal people returned. Later he described how they showed him ‘great compassion’ when they realised he was alone.

Stories have been passed down how the local people fed and protected King until Howitt’s search party arrived. King owed his life to these kind people. He returned to a hero’s welcome in Melbourne but his health was shattered. He died 10 years later age 33.

The Dig Tree web site is presented by The Royal Historical Society of Queensland.

To find out more about visiting the Dig Tree go to Explore Bulloo and Outback Tourism.

The Royal Historical Society of Queensland is trustee for the Dig Tree Reserve supported by Nappa Merrie Station and the Bulloo Shire Council.