Burke and Wills expedition [chapter 31 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton]

[Editor: This is chapter 31 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton. Published in The Sunday Mail, 27 January 1935.]

The story of Australia — XXXI

Burke and Wills expedition

In September, 1858, Mr. Ambrose Kyle, of Melbourne, offered £1000 towards equipping an expedition to undertake the task of crossing the continent from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Public interest was immediately aroused. £5000 was publicly subscribed, and the Victorian Parliament voted £6000 as its share towards the enterprise. A committee of the Royal Society was entrusted with the task of organising the expedition, and, as it had a large sum at its disposal, the arrangements were carried out on a lavish scale. Twenty-five camels were imported from India, and everything possible was done to secure the success of the expedition.

The appointment of a leader was more difficult than had been anticipated, but eventually the honour was given to Robert O’Hara Burke, who had held the position of inspector of police in the colony. He was a man of exceptional ability, but there were others whose wider experience in exploration entitled them to prior consideration. It was a great tribute to this heroic and faithful man, but his appointment has been generally regarded as a mistake. His second in command was Landells, and others of the party were W. J. Wills, surveyor and astronomer; Beckler, botanist; Becket, artist, and 10 assistants, of whom it is only necessary to name Charles Gray and John King.

On August 20, 1860, the party left Melbourne amidst scenes of wildest enthusiasm, and everything promised well. Burke’s instructions were to travel first to the Darling, from there to Cooper’s Creek, and then to strike northwards to the Gulf of Carpentaria. The Murrumbidgee was soon reached, and it was while travelling along its banks that Burke’s difficulties began. Quarrelling broke out among the party, and Burke dismissed one of the men. Landells, who refused to acknowledge Burke’s leadership, resigned, and returned to Melbourne.

Wills was appointed in his place, and he proved an able and loyal friend. Throughout the expedition he scarcely left his side, and his name will always be associated with that of his leader.

Party divided

Menindie, on the Darling, was reached at last. Here Burke decided to form a depot and divide the expedition into two parts. Selecting Wills, six men, and 15 camels, he made preparations for a speedy journey to Coopers Creek, where he intended to set up his main depot. He planned to follow Sturt’s old route, but he was strongly advised not to do so by a Mr. Wright, the manager of a station in the district, who offered to conduct the party by a better track.

On November 11 Cooper’s Creek was reached, and Burke lost no time in making preparations for the arduous journey that lay in front of him. Final orders were given that an assistant named Brake and the rest of the party, were to remain at the depot for three months, and, if by that time, he had not returned, they must return to the Darling and send a relief party. Meanwhile Burke awaited the appearance of Wright with the rest of the party; but when, after six weeks’ delay there, he had not arrived, he could restrain his impatience no longer, and determined to dash into the interior and cross the continent at all hazards.

Dash into interior

On December 16 he set off for the north coast taking with him Wills, King, and Gray, together with six camels, one horse, and provisions for 12 weeks. It is a strange fact that the lavish equipment that had been brought specially to explore the last 500 miles was left behind during this most critical part of the journey. At first all went well. The natural water supplies, if not plentiful, were sufficient for their needs. The party travelled a north-westerly course by way of the McKinlay Range, discovering and naming Gray and Wills creeks, Mount Standish, which have since become prominent land-marks.

Soon afterwards they discovered a stream flowing north, and this led them to the northern watershed, which they crossed, coming down on the head of the Cloncurry River. This river led them to the Flinders, which they followed down to the mangroves and salt waters. On February 9 they had reached the mouth of the Flinders, having made a complete crossing of the continent.

In his diary for March 28, 1861, Burke wrote: “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.”

The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 27 January 1935, p. 29

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