We have now to deal with an exploring expedition of greater notoriety than that of any similar enterprise in the annals of Australia, though its results in the way of actual exploration in the true meaning of the term were quite insignificant. The expedition could not reasonably hope to reveal any new geographical conditions; for the nature of the country to be traversed was fairly well-known: there was no such expanse of unknown territory along the suggested course of travel as to justify the anticipation of any discovery of magnitude. Both Kennedy and Gregory had followed much the same line of route when tracing the course of the Barcoo and Cooper's Creek, a short distance to the eastward. The only apparent motive for the expedition seems to have been not particularly creditable, the desire to outdo Stuart, who after nearly accomplishing the task might well have been allowed the honour of completing it. But Time is after all the great arbitrator: Stuart re-entered Adelaide successful, on the same day that the bodies of Burke and Wills arrived for shipment to Melbourne.

Robert O'Hara Burke was born in the county of Galway, in Ireland, in 1821. He was the second son of John Hardiman Burke, of St. Clerans, and was educated in Belgium. In 1840 he entered the Austrian army, in which he rose to the rank of Captain. In 1848 he joined the Royal Irish Constabulary, but five years later emigrated to Tasmania. Thence he went to Victoria, where he entered the local police force, and became an Inspector. Such was his position when he was offered the command of the expedition which ended in his death.

William John Wills was born at Totnes, in Devonshire. He was the son of a medical man, and after his arrival in Victoria, in 1852, he led for a time a bush life on the Edwards River. He was later employed as a surveyor in Melbourne, and then became assistant to Professor Neumayer at the Melbourne Observatory, a post he quitted in order to act as assistant-surveyor on the ill-starred journey.

Sentiment, and an hysterical sentiment at that, seems to have dominated this expedition throughout. There was no urgent necessity for Victoria to equip and send forth an exploring expedition. Her rich and compact little province was known from end to end, and she had no surplus territory in which to open up fresh fields of pastoral occupation for her sons. But her people became possessed with the exploring spirit, and the planning and execution of the scheme was a signal indication of national patriotism. And if sense and not sentiment had marked the counsel, the results might have conferred rich benefit upon Australia.

The necessary funds were made up as follows: 6,000 pounds voted by Government; 1,000 pounds presented by Mr. Ambrose Kyte; and the balance of the first expenditure of 12,000 pounds made up by public subscription. But the final cost of the expedition and of the relief parties amounted to 57,000 pounds. And the exploratory work done by the different relief parties far and away exceeded in geographical results the small amount effected by the original expedition.

A committee of management was appointed, and to his interest with this committee Burke owed his elevation to the position of leader. He seems to have been supported by that sort of general testimony which fits a man to apply for nearly any position; but of special aptitude and training for the work to be done he had none. He was frank, openhearted, impetuous, and endowed with all those qualities which made him a great favourite with women; moreover, his service in the Austrian army had given people an exaggerated notion of his ability to command and organize. It would appear on the whole that his appointment was due solely to the influence he wielded, and to his personal popularity.

Wills appears to have been a man gifted with many of the qualities essential for efficient discharge of the duties and responsibilities appertaining to the post he held; but his amiable disposition allowed him to be influenced too readily in council by the rash and foolish judgment of his impetuous superior. If, for instance, he had persisted in combating Burke's incomprehensible plan of leaving the depot for Mount Hopeless, the last fatality would never have occurred.

When the expedition left Melbourne, it was amid the shouts and hurrahs of acclaiming thousands, who probably had not the faintest idea of the easy task that the explorers with their imposing retinue and outfit had before them. In fact, with all the resources at Burke's command, a favourable season and good open country, the excursion would have been a mere picnic to most men of experience. A number of camels had been specially imported from India at a cost of 5,500 pounds. G.J. Landells came to the country in charge of them, and had been appointed second in command. Long before they left the settled districts, Burke quarrelled with him, whereupon he resigned and returned to Melbourne. There he openly declared that under Burke's control the expedition would assuredly meet with disaster. Wills was then appointed second by Burke, and Wright, who was supposed to be acquainted with the locality which they were approaching, was engaged as third, another most unfortunate selection. Besides those already mentioned, there were Dr. Hermann Beckler, medical officer and botanist, and Dr. Ludwig Becker, artist, naturalist, and geologist, ten white assistants, and three camel-drivers.

The expedition in full reached Menindie on the Darling, where Wright joined them. On the 19th of October, 1860, Burke, Wills, six men, five horses and sixteen camels, left Menindie for Cooper's Creek. Wright went with them two hundred miles to indicate the best route, and then returned to take charge of the main body waiting at Menindie. On the 11th of November, Burke with the advance party reached Cooper's Creek, where they camped and awaited the arrival of Wright with the rest. Grass and water were both plentiful, and the journey had hitherto proved no more arduous than an ordinary over-landing trip.

The long delay and inaction worked sadly upon Burke's active and impatient temperament, and he suddenly announced his intention to subdivide his party and, with three men, to start across the belt of unknown country - a distance of five hundred miles at the furthest - that separated him from Gregory's track round the Gulf. Although his lavish outfit had been purchased specially to explore this comparatively small extent of land, he thus deliberately left it behind him during the most critical part of the journey. He had with him no means of following up any discoveries he might make, and his botanist and naturalist and geologist were also left behind. He killed time for a little while by making short excursions northward, and then, on the 16th of December, impatient of further delay, he started with Wills and two men for Carpentaria. The others were left, with verbal instructions, to wait three months for him. Thus, dispersed and neglected, he left the costly equipment containing within itself all the elements of successful geographical research. Certainly this was not the plan that had been anticipated by the promoters and organisers. We have now, at this stage, the spectacle of the main body loitering on the outskirts of the settled districts, four men killing time on the banks of Cooper's Creek, and the leader and three others scampering across the continent, all four of them utterly inexperienced in bushcraft.

As might have been expected the results of the journey are most barren: Wills's diary is sadly uninteresting, and Burke made only a few scanty notes, at the end of which he writes: "28th March. At the conclusion of report it would be as well to say that we reached the sea, but we could not obtain a view of the open ocean, although we made every endeavour to do so."

Shortly condensing Wills's diary, we gather the following account of their route. The first point they intended to reach was Eyre's Creek, but before arriving at it, they discovered a fine watercourse coming from the north, which took them a long distance in the direction they desired to follow. This watercourse, which McKinlay afterwards called the Mueller, began in time to lead their steps too much to the eastward, in which direction lay its source. They therefore quitted it and kept due north, following a tributary well-supplied with both grass and water. This tributary led them well on to the northern dividing range, which they crossed without difficulty, coming down on to the head of the Cloncurry River. By tracing that river down they reached the Flinders River, which they followed down to the mangroves and salt water. They were, however, considerably out in their longitude, for they thought that they were on the Albert, over one hundred miles to the westward.

Having sighted salt water, if not the open sea, they commenced the retreat. Gray and King were the two men who were with Burke and Wills; and for equipment they had started with six camels, one horse, and three months' provisions. Short rations and fatiguing marches now began to tell, and during the struggle back to the Depot, there seems to have been an absence of that kindly spirit of comradeship that has so often distinguished other exploring expeditions fallen on evil days.

Gray became ill, and took some extra flour to make a little gruel with. For this infringement of rules, Burke personally chastised him. A few days afterwards, Wills wrote in his diary that they had to halt and send back for Gray, who was "gammoning" that he could not walk. Nine days afterwards the unfortunate man died, an act which is not often successfully "gammoned."

But to bring the miserable story to an end, at last on the evening of the 21st of April, 1861, two months after they had reached the Gulf, they re-entered the depot camp at Cooper's Creek, where four men had been instructed to await their return, only to find it deserted and lifeless. Keenly disappointed, for though they knew they were behind the appointed time, they had still hoped that some one would have waited for them, they searched the locality for some sign or message from their friends, and on a tree saw the word DIG carved. Beneath this message of hope they were soon busy digging, and before long they unearthed a welcome store of provisions and a letter, which ran: -

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 South-East from Camp 60 to get on our old track at Bulloo. Two of my companions and myself are quite well; the third - Patton - has been unable to walk for the 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.


*[Footnote] Victorian Exploration Expedition.

Unfortunately, this was so worded that when Burke found it the same night, it gave him the impression that the depot party were all, with one exception, fairly well; and that, with fresh animals just off a long rest they would travel long stages on their homeward march. As a matter of fact, on the evening of the day that Burke returned, they were camped but fourteen miles away. But this was only the first of a series of singular and fatal oversights - that almost seemed pre-ordained by mocking Fate.

Burke consulted his companions as to the feasibility of their overtaking Brahe, and they both agreed that, in their tired and enfeebled condition, it was hopeless to attempt it. Burke proposed that instead of returning up the creek along the old route to Menindie, they should follow the creek down to Mount Hopeless in South Australia, following the route taken by A.C. Gregory.* Wills objected to this, and so did King, but ultimately both gave in, thereby signing their death warrant; for if they had remained quietly at the depot, they would have been rescued.

*[Footnote.] See Chapter 18.

After resting for five days, and finding their strength much restored by the food, they started for Mount Hopeless, ill-omened name. Before they left, Burke placed in the cache a paper, stating that they had returned, and then carefully restored the ground to its former condition. The common and natural thought to mark a tree or to make some other unmistakable sign of their return, does not seem to have occurred to either of the leaders. It will be seen further on how this scarcely credible omission was a main factor in deciding their fate.

As they progressed slowly down the creek, one of the two camels became bogged, and had to be shot where it lay. The wanderers cut off what meat there was on the body, and stayed two or three days to dry it in the sun. The one camel had now to carry what they had, except the bundles that the men bore, each some twenty-five pounds in weight. They made but little progress; the creek split up into many channels that ran out into earthy plains; and at last, when their one beast of burden gave in, they had to acknowledge defeat, and commenced to return. After shooting the wretched camel and drying his flesh, the men tried to live like the blacks, on fish and nardoo, the seeds of a small plant of which the natives make flour. But the struggle for existence was very hard; they were not expert hunters, and the natives, who were at first friendly and shared their food with them, soon out-grew the novelty of their presence, began to find them an encumbrance, and constantly shifted camp to avoid the burden of their support.

On the 27th of May, Wills went forward alone to visit the depot and deposit there the journals and a note stating their condition. He reached there on the 30th and wrote in his diary that "No traces of anyone, except blacks have been here since we left."

But while they were absent down the creek, Brahe and Wright had visited the place, and finding no sign of their return, and the cache apparently untouched, had ridden away concluding that they had not yet come back. This was the note that Wills left: -

May 30th, 1861. We have been unable to leave the creek. Both camels are dead. Burke and King are down on the lower part of the creek. I am about to return to them, when we shall probably all come up here. We are trying to live the best way we can, like the blacks, but we find it hard work. Our clothes are going fast to pieces; send provisions and clothes as soon as possible.

The depot party having left contrary to instructions has put us into this fix. I have deposited some of my journals here for fear of accidents.


Having done this, and once more carefully concealed all traces of the cache having been disturbed, Wills rejoined his companions in misfortune. Some friendly natives fed him on his way back to them.

During the intercourse that of necessity they had with the natives along Cooper's Creek, they had noticed the extensive use made by them of the seeds of the nardoo plant; but for a long time they had been unable to find this plant, nor would the blacks show it to them. At last King accidentally found it, and by its aid they managed to prolong their lives. But the seeds had to be gathered, cleaned, pounded and cooked; and in comparison with all this labour the nourishment afforded by the cakes was very slight. An occasional crow or hawk was shot, and a little fish now and then begged from the natives. As they were sinking rapidly, it was at last decided that Burke and King should go up the creek and endeavour to find the main camp of the natives and obtain food from them. Wills, who was now so weak as to be unable to move, was left lying under some boughs, with an eight days' supply of nardoo and water, the others trusting that within that period they would have returned to him.

On the 26th of June the two men started, and poor Wills was left to meet death alone. By the entries in his diary, which he kept written up as long as his strength remained, he evidently retained consciousness almost to the last. So exhausted was he that death must have come to him as a merciful release from the pain of living. His last entries, although giving evidence of fading faculties, are almost cheerful. He jocularly alludes to himself as Micawber, waiting for something to turn up. But it is evident that he had given up hope, and was waiting for death's approach, calm and resigned, without fear, like a good and gallant man.

Burke and King did not advance far. On the second day Burke had to give in from sheer weakness; the next morning when his companion looked at him he saw by the breaking light that his leader was dead.

The last entries in Burke's pocket-book run thus: -

"I hope we shall be done justice to. We have fulfilled our task but have been aban - - . We have not been followed up as we expected, and the depot party abandoned their post...King has behaved nobly. He has stayed with me to the last, and placed the pistol in my hand, leaving me lying on the surface as I wished."

Left to himself, King wandered about in search of the natives, and, not finding them, the lonely man returned to the spot where they had left Wills, and found that his troubles too were over. He covered up the corpse with a little sand, and then left once more in search of the natives. This time he found them, and, moved by his solitary condition, they helped him to live until rescued by Howitt's party on September 15th.

Meanwhile the absence of any news from Wright, in charge of the main body, was beginning to create a feeling of uneasiness in Melbourne. A light party had already been equipped under A.W. Howitt to follow up Burke's tracks, when suddenly despatches from the Darling arrived from Wright, telling of the non-arrival of the four men. Howitt's party was doubled, and he was immediately sent off to Cooper's Creek to commence a search for the missing men. He had not far to go. On the 13th of September he arrived at the fateful depot camp on Cooper's Creek, with Brahe. He immediately commenced to follow, or try to follow, Burke's outward track, but on Sunday the 15th, while still on Cooper's Creek, King was found by E.J. Welch, the second in command of the relief party. Welch's account of the finding of King is as follows: -

"After travelling about three miles, my attention was attracted by a number of niggers on the opposite bank of the creek, who shouted loudly as soon as they saw me, and vigorously waved and pointed down the creek. A feeling of something about to happen excited me somewhat, but I little expected what the sequel was to be. Moving cautiously on through the undergrowth which lined the banks of the creek, the blacks kept pace on the opposite side, their cries increasing in volume and intensity; when suddenly rounding a bend I was startled to see a large body of them gathered on a sandy neck in the bed of the creek, between two large waterholes. Immediately they saw me, they too commenced to howl and wave their weapons in the air. I at once pulled up, and considered the propriety of waiting the arrival of the party, for I felt far from satisfied with regard to their intentions. But here, for the first time, my favourite horse - a black cob known in the camp as Piggy, a Murray Downs bred stock-horse of good repute both for foot and temper - appeared to think that his work was cut out for him, and the time had arrived in which to do it. Pawing and snorting at the noise, he suddenly slewed round and headed down the steep bank, through the undergrowth, straight for the crowd as he had been wont to do after many a mob of weaners on his native plains. The blacks drew hurriedly back to the top of the opposite bank, shouting and gesticulating violently, and leaving one solitary figure apparently covered with some scarecrow rags and part of a hat prominently alone in the sand. Before I could pull up I had passed it, and as I passed it tottered, threw up its hands in the attitude of prayer and fell on the sand. The heavy sand helped me to conquer Piggy on the level, and when I turned back, the figure had partially risen.

"Hastily dismounting, I was soon beside it, excitedly asking: 'Who in the name of wonder are you?' He answered, 'I am King, sir.' For the moment I did not grasp the thought that the object of our search was attained, for King being only one of the undistinguished members of the party, his name was unfamiliar to me.

"'King,' I repeated. 'Yes,' he said; 'the last man of the exploring expedition.' 'What! Burke's?' 'Yes,' he said. 'Where is he - and Wills?' 'Dead, both dead, long ago,' and again he fell to the ground.

"Then I knew who stood before me. Jumping into the saddle and riding up the bank, I fired two or three revolver shots to attract the attention of the party, and on their coming up, sent the other black boy to cut Howitt's track and bring him back to camp. We then put up a tent to shelter the rescued man, and by degrees we got from him the sad story of the death of his leader. We got it at intervals only, between the long rests which his exhausted condition compelled him to take."

As soon as King had recovered enough strength to accompany the party, they went to the place where Wills had breathed his last; and found his body in the gunyah as King had described it. There it was buried. On the 21st Burke's body was found up the creek; he too was at first buried where he died. Howitt, after rewarding the blacks who had cared for King, started back for Melbourne by easy stages. On his arrival there he was sent back to disinter the remains of the dead; a task which he and Welch safely accomplished, bringing the bodies down by way of Adelaide.

Dr. Becker, Stone, Purcell, and Patton were the others whose lives were sacrificed on this expedition, so marked with disaster. These victims received no token of public recognition of their fate, although a public funeral was accorded to Burke and Wills, and a statue has been erected to their memory in Melbourne.

The foolish and unaccountable oversight of Burke and his companions in not marking a tree, or otherwise leaving some recognisable sign of their return at the depot, seems to have led Brahe astray completely. He states his side of the case as follows: -

"Mr. Burke's return being so soon after my departure caused the tracks of his camels to correspond in the character of age exactly with our own tracks. The remains of three separate fires led us to suppose that blacks had been camped there...The ground above the cache was so perfectly restored to the appearance it presented when I left it, that in the absence of any fresh sign or mark of any description to be seen near, it was impossible to suppose that it had been disturbed."

The story of the lost explorers created intense excitement throughout the other colonies. Queensland, as the colony wherein the explorers were supposed to have met with disaster, sent out two search parties. The Victoria, a steam sloop, was sent up to the mouth of the Albert River in the Gulf of Carpentaria, having on board William Landsborough, with George Bourne as second in command, and a small and efficient party; another Queensland expedition, under Fred Walker, left the furthest station in the Rockhampton district; and from South Australia John McKinlay started to traverse the continent on much the same line of route as that taken by the unhappy men.