One riding accident and a minor oversight led to the demise of two pioneering Australian explorers – Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills. They led the first expedition to cross Australia from south to north, leaving Melbourne in 1860 to the cheers of vast crowds. Equipment failure, arguments and slow progress dogged the venture, but eventually the expedition reached Coopers Creek – at the outer limit of European exploration. There, Camp 65 was established. Leaving William Brahe in charge, Burke and Wills took two men and set out for the Gulf of Carpentaria.
They made it, but the demanding journey took two months with bad weather and dwindling supplies hindering their return. One died but the other three reached Camp 65 on April 21 1861. Brahe’s depot party should have waited for 13 weeks, but actually stayed for 18. But on the morning of the very day that Burke, Wills and John King arrived, one of Brahe’s men broke a leg, an accident precipitating hasty departure for Menindee to the south. If that was bad luck, what followed was an avoidable tragedy.
Beneath a ‘Dig TYee’ Brahe buried supplies and blazed the trunk. The returning explorers retrieved the food, but rather than following Brahe to Menindee, Burke headed towards the distant cattle station of Mount Hopeless, after burying an explanatory note. Disastrously, he neglected to re-mark the Dig Tree.
Meanwhile, Brahe met up with a relief party and returned to Coopers Creek. But in the absence of any sign that the Gulf Party had survived, he again departed – though Burke, Wills and King were still close by. They abandoned their attempt to reach Mount Hopeless and also returned to Coopers Creek. Some seven weeks later Burke and Wills died on the same day. John King survived.
When: Around the end of June or early July 1861 (officially June 28 1861)
Where: Coopers Creek, Queensland, Australia
Death toll: Seven – apart from Burke and Witts, five other expedition members also died.
You should know: Wilis returned to the Dig Tree at the end of May to bury his journals and notebook in the cache, along with bitter criticism of Brahe for not leaving animals or more supplies behind – little realizing that if he had thought to blaze the tree himself, ail three surviving members of the Gulf party would already have been rescued by Brahe.