Robert O'Hara Burke
and William John Wills
were among the first men to cross the Australian continent
The journey, which consisted of travelling over thousands of miles through the harsh Australian outback, was the brainchild of a group of Victorian citizens eager to enhance the colony's reputation in the nations 'Exploration stakes'.
Burke was chosen to lead the expedition. He had no experience with exploration, and had little knowledge of the Australian bush. However he was a highly respected member of the community and well known for his ability to handle men, being the police chief at Castlemaine.
Wills was declared second-in-command after reaching Menindee and yet again had no experience with exploration, yet he had studied science and astronomy.
On August 20th, 1860, fifteen men including Burke and Wills set off on a trip that would go down in Australian history. Before the party even reached the borders of the colony, Burke decided their party consisted of too many men and would be more likely to reach the Gulf of Carpentaria with just eight men.
Seven men, including original second-in-command and camel master George Landell, and a large portion of supplies were left behind at Menindee. Menindee is a small town in Western New South Wales and would be the final outpost of civilisation the party would pass through on the trip up North.
The eight men remaining in the party proceeded North, led by William Wright, the only experienced bushman in the party. Shortly after departing Menindee, Wright suggested he turn back and bring up some of the heavier stores. Burke allowed Wright to do so but for reasons unkown, Wright delayed his departure from Menindee by one day. Burke had given Wright clear instructions to follow the party up immeadiately. Being an impatient and restless character, he decided the party would continue on without Wright.
The party was split once again upon reaching Cooper's Creek. Those that were left behind were ordered by Burke to build a stockade and wait three months until his return.
From here on the party consisted of just Burke, Wills, Charles Gray and John King. So far they had only travelled half the way to their desired destination.
These four men then travelled over 1500 miles through the harsh Australian desert. It took the nine weeks to finally reach the Gulf of Carpentaria, leaving a mere four weeks to return to Cooper's Creek. Burke realised the four men had no hope of reaching Cooper's Creek in time and reduced the group's rations in half.
Will's diary reveals that the men were forced to slaughter their livestock for food. Soon they became lethargic and sick. Gray was the first to die; it took Burke, Wills and King one whole day to bury Gray in a shallow grave they dug with bare hands.
The party which had initially consisted of fifteen men was now reduced to three. These men returned to Cooper's Creek four months after their departure. The three men they had left behind had deserted the stockade; however under a tree blazened with the word 'dig' the party found supplies and a note which revealed the three men left behind had departed Cooper's Creek just a few hours earlier.
After a few days rest, the trio was found by a group of nomadic Aborigines who aided the explorers with food and kept them alive for a few weeks before disappearing back into the bush.
Days later, Wills was too weak to continue travelling. He asked that his diary be buried and a revolver left by his side. Soon after Burke also passed away.
King was found by a search party some time later. He was the only surviving member of the party to make it to the Gulf of Carpentaria and return to Melbourne to tell the tale.