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The story of Burke and Wills is one that all Australians have heard of and is a tragic story involving misadventure. Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills were the first people to cross Australia from South to North. They both died on their return trip on Cooper Creek.

Robert O’Hara Burke (1821 to 1861)

Burke

Burke was born in Ireland, joined the British army and later became a police officer back in Ireland. With the Gold Rush in Victoria in full swing, there was need for more police officers in the colony. So Burke migrated to Australia and became a Victorian police officer. He had little experience in the bush and this lake of knowledge contributed to the expedition’s failure.

William John Wills (1834 to 1861)

Wills

Wills was born in England and initially studied surgery. He was interested in gold mining in Victoria, so he migrated in 1852. He worked a few jobs before becoming a surveyor in Victoria.

The Expedition

The colonial governments offered prizes for the first south to north crossing inland. The aim was to establish a route for a north-south telegraph, which was finally built, but over 1 000 km west of the Burke and Wills expedition. The Exploration Committee of the Royal Society of Victoria decided Burke should be the leader of the expedition.

Burke was under the belief that there was a race between him and John Stuart to claim the prize, but John Stuart had canceled his expedition. This was unknown to Burke.

The expedition was an early use of camels in Australia. 32 camels were imported and 26 were taken on the expedition, the other six were left behind in Melbourne.

Nineteen men were part of the exploration party. They set off on 20 August 1860 with enough food to last two years. All of their supplies were loaded onto six wagons that broke down quite often. It took two months to travel from Melbourne to Menindee on the Darling River. Usually, a mail coach would take just over a week to make the same trip. By that point, eighteen members had been fired or resigned and another eight were recruited.

Eight members set off from Menindee to Cooper Creek, including Burke, Wills and John King. They travelled on to Cooper Creek, which is as far as European explorers had been at that time. It was originally thought that they would wait until Autumn of the next year, 1861, to continue on to the Gulf of Carpentaria to avoid travelling during the summer heat.

Burke split the group in two, leaving half at Cooper Creek, and decided to push on to the Gulf. The ones left at Cooper Creek were instructed to wait for three months before leaving for home, but Wills secretly told them to wait for four months. The three going to the Gulf took six camels, a horse and food for twelve weeks.

They made it to the Gulf and encountered a mangrove forest, so they couldn’t see the ocean. Burke and Wills left the other two behind and continued 15 km through the mangroves before turning back. Then they started their journey back.

Burke and Wills at Flinders River

They were slowed down by the wet season on the way back and their supplies started to run low. One of the expedition members, Charles Gray, died and they spent a day burying him. By this time, all of the expedition members were sick.

They arrived back at the Cooper Creek camp just over four months from leaving the camp. Those who stayed at Cooper Creek had left only hours before the others arrived. This is because some of them were ill and they were low on supplies. They left a message carved in a tree: “DIG – 3 FEET N.W”.

Buried was a message saying they had left. Burke then decided to head to a cattle station 240 km away from the camp.

Meanwhile, those who stayed at Cooper Creek recovered at Menindee, then decided to head back to Cooper Creek to see if Burke had returned. When they reached the camp, they saw no evidence of Burke’s return, so they left.

Burke and Wills were too weak to make it to the cattle station, so they headed back to the Cooper Creek camp and died shortly after. The one remaining member, John King, stayed near the camp with local aborigines for three months, until another search party found him.

John King was the only survivor of the expedition who made it to the Gulf and he was the first person to make a south to north and return crossing over Australia.

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