Burke and Wills

Burke and Wills were Australian explorers who perished while exploring the land between central Australia and the Gulf of Carpenteria in 1860. Their endeavours have been both admired and criticised. They represent the pioneer spirit but also the calamity that can so easily befall even the greatest of explorers. Their plight highlights the extraordinary risks that the early pioneers took to explore the unknown lands dispite miscommunication, bad judgement and simple errors.


In 1860 Robert O'Hara Burke, William John Wills and a small party, left Melbourne in search of suitable grazing land between Central Australia and the Gulf of Carpentaria, on the request of the Victorian Government. Prior to the expedition no white man had ever ventured into inland or central Australia and the 2,800 kilometres (1,750 miles) expected to be travelled, was daunting to say the least. The expedition left Melbourne in 1860 and travelled to Menindee on the Darling and then onto a depot at Cooper's Creek.


For the journey the 19 men carried nearly 20 tonnes of supplies and equipment, including 6 tonnes of firewood! All of these provisions were carried on 6 wagons, but this proved to be a disaster. One wagon didn't even make the start of the expedition whilst two others broke down at Essendon. Before long it was realised that the wagons were simply slowing down the journey. Roads were by no means great and the wheels of the wagons struggled in the mud during the heavy rains. Burke decided to load provisions onto camels to make the journey faster, despite some men having to now walk. The mood of the men was starting to disintergrate and it was soon clear that many were not happy with Burke's decisions. In October, Landells (second in command) resigned, followed shortly after by Dr Hermann Beckler (the surgeon). Wills was now promoted to second in charge. With a great deal at stake (£2000 ) Burke was growing ever so impatient with the slow progress of his team.

Coopers Creek

So when they arrived at Menindee, Burke decided that they should split into two teams. He and seven others would head to Coppers Creek as fast as possible and wait there, whilst the other team (with the majority of provisions) made their way slowly.

On reaching Cooper's Creek, Burke set up a depot and scouted around while waiting for the second team. It was intended that the party would wait until the summer months had passed before continuing their journey, but Burke grew impatient and decided to leave for the Gulf of Carpentaria in December. Again the team split up with Burke, Wills, Gray and King setting out for the Gulf while the remaining party, led by Brahe, stayed at the depot.

Gulf of Carpentaria

By February, 1861, Burke, Wills, Gray and King had successfully made it to the Gulf of Carpentaria, well, close enough. They had made it to the Flinders River delta before swamp land hindered their progress.  Burke and Wills continued for another 24kms before giving up and returning to Gray and King. By this stage, however, food and supplies were running periously low and they decided to head back to Coopers Creek.

Disaster Upon Disaster

As feared, on the way back they ran out of food and were forced to kill 3 of their camels (Golah Sing, was abandoned earlier when it refused to go any further) and their only horse Billy. Equipment was ditched along the way as they struggled along. Further to their grief, the wet season had arrived and they were subjected to monsoonal rains. Nearly two months had passed when Gray began complaining of illness. Everyone believed he was faking. When Burke caught Gray stealing some porridge he was beaten up by a weary Burke. Less than a month later Gray was dead (dysentry). His body is believed to buried somewhere near Massacre Lake, in South Australia.

Return to Coopers Creek

This left only a  party of three to struggle back to the depot at Cooper's Creek. When they eventually arrived back to the depot, Sunday 21st April 1861, they discovered that Brahe and his team had left. What they didn't know was that Brahe had  left Coopers Creek earlier the same day. However, before leaving, Brahe had buried some provisions and written a note to Burke and Wills telling of his groups intentions. Brahe had buried the cache under a tree and marked its location with the words to the nature of  "Dig under"  carved into the bark.
After Burke retrieved and read the note, he realised he had missed the team by only 9 hours. Exhausted and with only two camels remaining he knew it would be impossible to catch up with the Brahe's group. A decision was made to stay at camp to recuperate before heading to a settlement at Mount Hopeless.

Mount Hopeless

Before leaving on April 23rd, Burke added a reply to Brahe's note teling them of their plans and placed it back in the same location for when Brahe returned. Burke unfortunately forgot to re-mark the tree to indicate that the team had returned and read Brahe's note. The three then continued on to Mount Hopeless in South Australia, (240kms away) rather than take the original route. The route they chose meant they would have to cross the Strzelecki Desert (not wise).

Last Time at Coopers Creek

In the meantime Brahe had caught up with Wright, who was heading, with fresh supplies, to Coopers Creek. They both decided to  return together to check if Burke's party had returned. On their arrival there appeared to be no sign of them and therefore didn't bother to check to see if the supplies had been touched. Wright and Brahe left to rejoin the main party at Menindee. Meanwhile Burke, Wills and King were 56km (35miles) away, struggling to survive in the extreme conditions. The last two surviving camels (Rajah and Landa) had died, leaving them to carry only a small amount of rations. With little choice the three were eventually forced to return once more to the Coopers Creek depot on the 30th May 1861. Wills dug up the cache and found it untouched and assumed that Brahe had not returned. The Yandruwanha people (Cooper Creek locals) took pity on the white men and gave them fresh food, including beans called 'padlu', fish and baked rats. Wills placed his journals and diary in the cache at "Dig Tree" in case they wouldn't survive.

Death of Burke and Wills

The three continued to live side by side with the Yandruwanha people but grew progressively weaker. Burke and King returned to check "dig tree" at the end of June to see if a rescue party had arrived. Unfortunately Burke died , leaving King to bury him, before returning to check on Wills. On his return King found Wills lifeless body at Breerily Waterhole. Alone and near death, King was taken in and kept alive by a tribe of Yandruwanha Aborigines, until he was found by a search party lead by Alfred William Howitt. It took the search party several days to find a distraught and sickly King, on September 15th, 1861, living amongst the local aborigines. He returned to Melbourne where he lived until his death 9 years later.

State Funerals

Following an enquiry into the deaths of Burla and Wills, Howitt was given the task of returning to Coopers Creek to recover the bidies. On their return Burke and Wills were given a State Funeral on 23rd of January 1863 with over 40,000 people in attendance. They are both buried in Melbourne General Cemetery. Robert O'Hara Burke was 40 and John William Wills was 27 years of age when they perished.