An iconic Australian story of exploration, tragedy and triumph

Australian icons - Explorers Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills

Melbourne, 20 August 1860.

In an ambitious quest to be the first Europeans to cross the harsh Australian continent, Robert O’Hara Burke, William Wills and 17 others, together with 20 tons of equipment carried on six wagons, 23 horses and 26 camels, set off to traverse our continent from south to north.

With kind permission of the publisher, we are delighted to bring you this extract from Peter FitzSimon’s book about the expedition Burke & Wills.

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A long journey awaits, and so off they go, moving at that fair clip always engaged in by men through the ages when they are turned for home. Within 30 minutes their breakfast campfire is no more than a small smudge on the horizon far behind them, and by 40 minutes it has been swallowed entirely.•

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At this very moment, Burke and his party are just 14 miles away. They are so exhausted that, for the first time on the entire journey from Cooper’s Creek to the Gulf and back, they stop walking and get on
the camels, with Mr Burke climbing aboard the groaning small camel, Landa, while Mr Wills and King cling to the doubly groaning, but at least larger, Rajah.

They push on along the creek.

Nearly there now!

It has been a long, hot, exhausting day. But why not push hard, when the object of their dreams – the Depot at Cooper’s Creek – is so near at hand? And it is not just the usually undemonstrative Robert O’Hara Burke who feels it, this rising sense of joy, of relief, it is that he seems to feel it most of all. He takes his natural place in the lead, and sets a fair clip for the last mile into camp. For perhaps even the camels feel it, too, knowing that succour and rest is near at hand if they can just get there.

The sun has just gone down, as Burke gets to within a couple of hundred yards of their camp.

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‘I think I see their tents ahead,’ Burke calls back with uncharacteristic fervour.

And now he calls the names of the men he knows must be waiting. ‘Coo-ee . . . Brahe! Coo-ee . . . McDonough! Coo-ee . . . Patten!’ (There is no call for Dost Mahomet.)

For the moment, there is no reply, which is a bit odd.

Still, entirely undaunted, Burke continues to charge forth to find . . . no one. Emptiness. Not even an echo to their cries in the wilderness. Just a light breeze . . . blowing wistfully through an abandoned and entirely disinterested camp.

‘I suppose they have shifted to some other part of the creek,’12 Burke offers hopefully.

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The cicadas roar ever louder.

Wills concedes it as a possibility.

They roar. Oh, they roar.

Perhaps the men had moved camp in search of better feed?

But no. Now that they look more closely, it is to see there is fresh dung scattered about, and certain things like barrels and shovels tossed aside here and there, and a good rake up against the stockade that would most certainly have been taken with them if they had merely just moved a mile or two up or down the creek. No, this looks distinctly as if they have . . . gone for good, gone on their long journey to the south.

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For the moment, the leader simply wanders around in a state of ‘bewildered astonishment’ that, one more time, he has arrived just that little bit too late, and that instead of the succour they had so earnestly hoped for, strived for, they remain . . . all alone . . . in the wilderness, with, yes, their only remaining supplies being ‘a pound and a-half of dried meat’ – the last of poor Billy.

For his part, John King is equally devastated, but cannot help but notice Mr Wills’s strange reaction. For the effect of the whole situation on Mr Wills, he would recount, was ‘to excite a feeling of merriment in the mind of Mr Wills, whose philosophy was essentially that of Mark Tapley’. (Tapley being Wills’s favourite character in Charles Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit, with a philosophy that ‘there’s no credit in being jolly’ when everything is going well. Therefore, Tapley deliberately sought adversity ‘to come out strong under circumstances as would keep other men down’16. What greater test of this ambition is the current circumstance of William Wills? Fate has laughed at him, now he laughs at his fate.)

Wills dismounts with difficulty – it is no easy thing for a seriously weakened camel to bend at the knee and lower itself to allow the seriously weakened man atop to dismount gracefully – and is staggering around himself, when he sees it.

Upon a coolabah tree, just above the bank of the creek, is clearly marked the word:

DIG

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From the cuts in the tree, fresh sap is weeping.
Wills, observant as ever, looks down at the ground and surrounding trees, in search of more clues.
There! Another weeping inscription on a tree just a few yards off. He walks over to get a closer look.

On one side is Brahe’s initial and the camp number:
B LXV

Around the other side of the tree is pure torment:
DEC 6-60
APR 21-61
. . .
. . .
‘They have left here today!’ he calls to the others.

His words echo in their very souls and it is a moment before the cruel implications of this information can be fully comprehended. It is staggering, extraordinary, impossible to believe . . . but believe it they must, for when King puts his hand down above the ashes of the fire it is to find it still hot. There is even a tiny flame flickering from the end of one log! They must have left just hours ago.

Wills falls to his knees, soon joined by King, as they push away the horse dung and scrabble at the loose dirt, beneath where the word DIG has been carved. Within a minute, they find a camel box, and quickly prise off its lid, as the still dazed Burke stares down upon them. Inside, mercifully, they find welcome supplies of flour, rice, oatmeal, sugar and dried meat, ‘a few horse-shoes and nails, and some odds and ends’, together with a corked bottle.

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‘Whatever instructions there are,’ Mr Burke says quickly, ‘will be in that bottle.’

Without a word, King dashes the bottle against a tree trunk, and hands Mr Burke the note inside.

After scanning the contents, which confirm that Brahe’s party left mere hours earlier, Mr Burke informs the others there is at least some good news.
‘The Depot party is in good condition,’ he says, ‘except one man, Patten, who is suffering from the kick of a horse . . . The animals are all in good working order . . .’

Handing the note over, Wills and King read it for themselves. The Brahe party really has left just that morning, to return to the Darling. Extraordinarily, there has been no sign of Wright in the entire time they’ve been away. Brahe and his men have got six camels and 12 horses in good working condition, which means . . . that even though they only left hours earlier, they are surely too far away by now. Every hour would be taking Brahe’s party three miles further away from the Gulf party at the Depot.•

In fact, at this moment, given Patten’s perilous state, Brahe and his men are no more than 14 miles upstream of the Depot, or three hours hard march. Not too far at all. What’s more, the animals are not in the condition Brahe had thought.

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‘I had not travelled half-a-dozen miles when I found that [the horses and camels] were hardly able to travel,’ Brahe would recount. ‘I had to lighten the loads the first day, and they were but very lightly packed with water bags.’

A concerted effort by Burke, Wills and King – or even just the strongest of them, King, on foot, following Brahe’s fresh tracks – on through the night, ’neath the three-quarter moon, might catch them. It might at least bring him close enough to them that Brahe’s party would hear a rifle shot, bearing in mind how far the sound of such a shot can travel at dawn. But that is not the way the note reads to the trio. They are exhausted men, on completely spent animals, who have travelled 30 miles on this day. If they can do that, how far away must the fresh Brahe and his group be, notwithstanding that they would be travelling with many supplies?

The short answer, likely, is too far.

For now, Mr Burke individually asks both Wills and King, for once,
their views.

‘Are we,’ he rumbles, ‘able to proceed up the creek in pursuit of the party?’

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Without hesitation, both men reply, ‘No.’

‘I thought it my duty to ask you,’ Burke nods, ‘but [even if you could], I myself would be unable to do so.’

With one glance, neither Wills nor King are surprised, for the leader looks just as they feel: not totally at the end of their tether, but they can certainly see the tether’s end from where they stand, and would be sure to find it only a short way up the creek.

Burke, clearly feeling the weight of his decision to remain at the Depot, rather than try to chase Brahe’s party, reiterates his feeling on the matter. ‘It would be madness to attempt to follow them, as the men are in good order and the camels in good order . . .’

It really is unimaginable to set out now.

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They have missed them, and there is nothing to be done for it. And in fact, so crushed are they by how close they have come that, as King would note, ‘It was as much as any of us [could do] to crawl to the creek for a billy of water.’

That at last done, however, they can help themselves to such supplies as have been left them – to make ‘a good supper of some oatmeal porridge and sugar’26 – an oh so welcome change from the dried horse- meat they have been solely existing on for breakfast, lunch and dinner over the last fortnight. (And in fact, King would even note that, starving as they are, the first sight of the food lifts them a little, recounting, ‘we did not mind it very much, as there was plenty to eat’. Their major disappointment in terms of the supplies left is the lack of clothes, as they now wear little more than stinking and shredded rags.)

Upon discussion around their sad campfire that night, Burke determines that their best hope will be to stay here for at least a couple of days. And he has also determined their next course of action.

‘I have decided,’ he says, ‘we should try to make Mount Hopeless. I have been assured by the Committee in Melbourne, that there is a cattle station within 150 miles of Cooper’s Creek.’

Mr Wills and King take his words in.

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Their best hope, nay only hope, is a station in north-east South Australia at a place called . . . ‘Mount Hopeless’?

Once more, these are extraordinary times. Never before has Mr Wills ventured an opinion, one way or another, on any pronouncement made by Mr Burke. He has been simply content to follow orders.

But this time he speaks unbidden, albeit in deeply respectful terms. ‘I am not inclined to follow this plan,’ says he. ‘I wish to go down by our old track.’

It seems to Wills that even though Mount Hopeless is the closest settlement, the safest way is to push down Cooper’s Creek, before heading to Torowoto Swamp and then to Menindee.

No one asks King his views. But he silently agrees with Mr Wills.

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Mr Burke listens to Wills, but then makes his case. The simple fact is that while Menindee is some 500 miles away on the other side of the perilous Grey Range, if they stick to their old track – and they would have no native guides this time, to help them find what little water there might be – Blanchewater station, right by Mount Hopeless, is at the other end of a creek, and is a much shorter distance. Our limited supplies will only last 40 days at most, and so are unlikely to take us through to Menindee, and Augustus Gregory has already demonstrated that survival, in extremis, lies in these parts by way of Mount Hopeless, and in 1858 he had managed it in less than a week.

Now, it is not that Mr Burke’s case is compelling. But he is the leader, he has decided, and that is that. True, the previous year, in the bright winter sunlight on the greensward of that small church in Essendon, Mr Burke had faithfully promised that he would do as Dr Wills had requested, when it came to William: ‘If you ask his advice, take it’. And yet now, when their very lives are at stake, when a course is asked of a born surveyor, the boy who ran through Hampton Court maze as though he had designed it himself, Mr Burke asks, but does not take Wills’s advice. That same evening, that same conversation, Dr Wills had said to Mr Burke, ‘Should he see you going to destruction, he will follow you without a murmur.’

Sure enough, in the face of this life or death decision, William Wills does not murmur. He simply begins to plot the best route from here to Mount Hopeless . . .

At least, Mr Burke says, they may stay here for a couple of days to gather themselves, and regain some of their strength, before pushing on. 

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Through it all, Wills remains almost unnaturally calm, with King observing, ‘he never once showed the slightest anger or loss of
self-command’.

In fact, Wills is simply hiding his high emotions well, which is typical of him. As they settle down for the night, Wills takes the opportunity, first, to pen his thoughts in his diary.

Our disappointment at finding the Depot deserted may easily be imagined; returning in an exhausted state, after four months of the severest travelling and privation, our legs almost paralysed, so that each of us found it a most trying task only to walk a few yards. Such a leg-bound feeling I never before experienced, and I hope never shall again. The exertion required to get up a slight piece of rising ground, even without any load, induces an indescribable sensation of pain and helplessness, and the general lassitude makes one unfit for anything.

As exhausted as he is, Wills’s thoughts turn guiltily to poor Gray. How many times had they looked askance at his shambling gait, his constant insistence on resting, his slowness to get going in the mornings and thought him ‘shamming’. It is with great shame that he realises Gray was simply suffering, two or three weeks earlier, what they are suffering now. How lucky they are, to have been able to get to at least this point, with some fresh supplies, before the worst of it has come upon them. Already they can feel the beginnings of some strength returning to their limbs, some of the stiffening lifting, as their bodies react to taking in something other than dried Billy. It is so sudden and so strong that both Burke and Wills talk of it, how it is ‘a most decided relief and a strength in the legs greater than we had had for several days’.

On this night, a wedge-tailed eagle from its position high in the sky might be able to spot several flickering lights in the night, to go with the impossibly sparkling panorama of stars above.

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There directly below are the three tightly placed fires of Burke and Wills, and their faithful trooper, King – a fire for each of them is the best way to keep warm on cold nights, each man lightly curls his body around the small corral of flames. Just 14 miles down the path to Menindee is the rather larger and cheerier fire of Brahe and his companions. Another 125 miles away over the Grey Range, is Wright’s party at Bulloo, still stranded there, after several excursions to the north have failed to reveal either Burke’s forward track or any supplies of water. Besides, it is anyone’s guess where they actually are. ‘Wright,’ Dr Beckler would note, ‘had no way of telling whether we were not already on a part of Cooper’s Creek as none of us were able to make astronomical observations – although from all we knew, Cooper’s Creek had to be quite distant from Bulloo.’

And those other sparkles across the vast wilderness? They are the Yandruwandha people, who have not only survived, but prospered in these parts for something like the last 18,000 years. To them, it is just another night of the Dreamtime or Pukudurnanga. Their bellies are full, in this land where food abounds in this season of plenty. Their families are secure in the gunyahs and among their kin. All is right with the world, as the spirits of the Dreamtime play across the sparkling night sky.

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Burke and Wills, by Peter FitzSimons, is available in hardback, audio and digital formats from the publisher Hachette Australia, which kindly provided this extract exclusively to Starts at 60. Click here for details.