Discoveries In The Interior 1860-1886

Burke and Wills. In the year 1860 a merchant of Melbourne offered

L1,000 for the furtherance of discovery in Australia; the Royal Society

of Victoria undertook to organise an expedition for the purpose of

crossing the continent, and collected subscriptions to the amount of

L3,400; the Victorian Government voted L6,000, and spent an additional

sum of L3,000 in bringing twenty-six camels from Arabia. Under an

ommittee of the Royal Society, the most complete

arrangements were made. Robert O'Hara Burke was chosen as leader;

Landells was second in command, with special charge of the camels,

for which three Hindoo drivers were also provided; W. J. Wills, an

accomplished young astronomer, was sent to take charge of the costly

instruments and make all the scientific observations. There were two

other scientific men and eleven subordinates, with twenty-eight horses

to assist in transporting the baggage. On the 20th August, 1860, the

long train of laden camels and horses set out from the Royal Park of

Melbourne, Burke heading the procession on a little grey horse. The

mayor made a short speech, wishing him God-speed; the explorers shook

hands with their friends, and, amid the ringing cheers of thousands of

spectators, the long and picturesque line moved forward.

The journey, as far as the Murrumbidgee, lay through settled country,

and was without incident; but, on the banks of that river, quarrelling

began among the party, and Burke dismissed the foreman; Landells then

resigned, and Wills was promoted to be second in command. Burke

committed a great error in his choice of a man to take charge of the

camels in place of Landells. On a sheep station he met with a man named

Wright, who made himself very agreeable; the two were soon great

friends, and Burke, whose generosity was unchecked by any prudence,

gave to this utterly unqualified person an important charge in the


On leaving the Murrumbidgee they ascended the Darling, till they reached

Menindie--the place from which Sturt had set out sixteen years before.

Here Burke left Wright with half the expedition, intending himself to

push on rapidly, and to be followed up more leisurely by Wright.

Burke and Wills, with six men and half the camels and horses, set off

through a very miserable country--not altogether barren, but covered

with a kind of pea, which poisoned the horses. A rapid journey brought

them to the banks of Cooper's Creek, where they found fine pastures and

plenty of water. Here they formed a depot and lived for some time,

waiting for Wright, who, however, did not appear. The horses and camels,

by this rest, improved greatly in condition, and the party were in

capital quarters. But Burke grew tired of waiting, and, as he was now

near the centre of Australia, he determined to make a bold dash across

to the Gulf of Carpentaria. He left one of his men, called Brahe, and

three assistants, with six camels and twelve horses, giving them

instructions to remain for three months; and if within that time he did

not return, they might consider him lost, and would then be at liberty

to return to Menindie. On the 16th December Burke and Wills, along with

two men, named King and Gray, started on their perilous journey, taking

with them six camels and one horse, which carried provisions to last for

three months.

Rapid Journey to Gulf of Carpentaria. They followed the broad

current of Cooper's Creek for some distance, and then struck off to the

north, till they reached a stream, which they called Eyre Creek. From

this they obtained abundant supplies of water, and, therefore, kept

along its banks till it turned to the eastward; then abandoning it, they

marched due north, keeping along the 140th meridian, through forests of

boxwood, alternating with plains well watered and richly covered with

grass. Six weeks after leaving Cooper's Creek they came upon a fine

stream, flowing north, to which they gave the name "Cloncurry," and, by

following its course, they found that it entered a large river, on whose

banks they were delighted to perceive the most luxuriant vegetation and

frequent clusters of palm trees. They felt certain that its waters

flowed into the Gulf of Carpentaria, and therefore, by keeping close to

it, they had nothing to fear. But they had brought only three months'

provisions with them; more than half of that time had now elapsed, and

they were still 150 miles from the sea. Burke now lost no time, but

hurried on so fast that, one after another, the camels sank exhausted;

and, when they had all succumbed, Burke and Wills took their only horse

to carry a small quantity of provisions, and, leaving Gray and King

behind, set out by themselves on foot. They had to cross several patches

of swampy ground; and the horse, becoming inextricably bogged, was

unable to go farther. But still Burke and Wills hurried on by themselves

till they reached a narrow inlet on the Gulf of Carpentaria, and found

that the river they had been following was the Flinders, whose mouth had

been discovered by Captain Stokes in 1842. They were very anxious to

view the open sea; but this would have required another couple of days,

and their provisions were already exhausted; they were, therefore,

obliged to hasten back as quickly as possible. The pangs of hunger

overtook them before they could reach the place where King and Gray had

remained with the provisions. Burke killed a snake, and ate a part of

it, but he felt very ill immediately after; and when, at length, they

reached the provisions, he was not able to go forward so quickly as it

was necessary to do, if they wished to be safe. However, they recovered

the horse and camels, which had been greatly refreshed by their rest;

and, by taking easy stages, they managed to move south towards home. But

their hurried journey to the north, in which they had traversed, beneath

a tropical sun, about 140 miles every week, had told severely on their

constitutions; Gray became ill, and it was now necessary to be so

careful with the provisions that he had little chance of regaining his

lost strength. One evening, after they had come to a halt, he was found

sitting behind a tree, eating a little mixture he had made for himself

of flour and water. Burke said he was stealing the provisions, fell upon

him, and gave him a severe thrashing. He seems after this never to have

rallied; whilst the party moved forward he was slowly sinking. Towards

the end of March their provisions began to fail; they killed a camel,

dried its flesh, and then went forward. At the beginning of April this

was gone, and they killed their horse. Gray now lay down, saying he

could not go on; Burke said he was "shamming," and left him. However,

the gentler counsel of Wills prevailed; they returned and brought him

forward. But he could only go a little farther; the poor fellow breathed

his last a day or two after, and was buried in the wilderness. Burke now

regretted his harshness, all the more as he himself was quickly sinking.

All three, indeed, were utterly worn out; they were thin and haggard,

and so weak that they tottered rather than walked along. The last few

miles were very, very weary; but, at last, on the 21st of April, they

came in sight of the depot, four months and a half after leaving it.

Great was their alarm on seeing no sign of people about the place; and,

as they staggered forward to the spot at sunset, their hearts sank

within them when they saw a notice, stating that Brahe had left that

very morning. He would be then only seven hours' march away. The three

men looked at one another in blank dismay; but they were so worn out

that they could not possibly move forward with any hope of overtaking

the fresh camels of Brahe's party. On looking round, however, they saw

the word "dig" cut on a neighbouring tree; and, when they turned up the

soil, they found a small supply of provisions.

Brahe had remained a month and a half longer than he had been told to

wait; and as his own provisions were fast diminishing, and there seemed,

as yet, to be no signs of Wright with the remainder of the expedition,

he thought it unsafe to delay his return any longer. This man Wright was

the cause of all the disasters that ensued. Instead of following closely

on Burke, he had loitered at Menindie for no less than three months and

one week, amusing himself with his friends; and, when he did set out, he

took things so leisurely that Brahe was half-way back to the Darling

before they met.

Sufferings. On the evening when they entered the depot, Burke,

Wills, and King made a hearty supper; then, for a couple of days, they

stretched their stiff and weary limbs at rest. But inaction was

dangerous, for, even with the greatest expedition, their provisions

would only serve to take them safely to the Darling. They now began to

deliberate as to their future course. Burke wished to go to Adelaide,

because, at Mount Hopeless--where Eyre had been forced to turn back in

1840--there was now a large sheep station, and he thought it could not

be more than 150 miles away. Wills was strongly averse to this proposal.

"It is true," he said, "Menindie is 350 miles away, but then we know the

road, and are sure of water all the way." But Burke was not to be

persuaded, and they set out for Mount Hopeless. Following Cooper's Creek

for many miles, they entered a region of frightful barrenness. Here, as

one of the camels became too weak to go farther, they were forced to

kill it and to dry its flesh. Still they followed the creek, till at

last it spread itself into marshy thickets and was lost; they then made

a halt, and found they had scarcely any provisions left, while their

clothes were rotten and falling to pieces. Their only chance was to

reach Mount Hopeless speedily; they shot their last camel, and, whilst

Burke and King were drying its flesh, Wills struck out to find Mount

Hopeless; but no one knew which way to look for it, and Wills, after

laboriously traversing the dry and barren wastes in all directions, came

back unsuccessful. A short rest was taken, and then the whole party

turned southward, determined this time to reach the mount. But they were

too weak to travel fast; day after day over these dreary plains, and

still no sign of a hill; till at length, when they were within fifty

miles of Mount Hopeless, they gave in. Had they only gone but a little

farther, they would have seen the summit of the mountain rising upon the

horizon; but just at this point they lost hope and turned to go back.

After a weary journey, they once more reached the fresh water and the

grassy banks of Cooper's Creek, but now with provisions for only a day

or two. They sat down to consider their position, and Burke said he had

heard that the natives of Cooper's Creek lived chiefly on the seed of a

plant which they called nardoo; so that, if they could only find a

native tribe, they might, perhaps, learn to find sufficient subsistence

from the soil around them. Accordingly, Burke and King set out to seek a

native encampment; and, having found one, they were kindly received by

the blacks, who very willingly showed them how to gather the little

black seeds from a kind of grass which grows close to the ground.

With this information they returned to Wills; and, as the nardoo seed

was abundant, they began at once to gather it; but they found that,

through want of skill, they could scarcely obtain enough for two meals a

day by working from morning till night; and, when evening came, they had

to clean, roast, and grind it; and, besides this, whatever it might have

been to the blacks, to them it was by no means nutritious--it made them

sick, and gave them no strength.

Whilst they were thus dwelling on the lower part of Cooper's Creek,

several miles away from the depot, Brahe had returned to find them and

bring them relief. On his way home he had met with Wright leisurely

coming up, and had hastened back with him to the depot; but when

they reached it they saw no signs of Burke and Wills, although the

unfortunate explorers had been there only a few days before. Brahe,

therefore, concluded that they were dead, and once more set out for

home. Meanwhile Burke thought it possible that a relief party might in

this way have reached the creek, and Wills volunteered to go to the

depot to see if any one was there. He set out by himself, and after

journeying three or four days reached the place; but only to find it

still and deserted. He examined it carefully, but could see no trace of

its having been recently visited; there could be no advantage in

remaining, and he turned back to share the doom of his companions. He

now began to endure fearful pangs from hunger. One evening he entered an

encampment that had just been abandoned by the natives, and around the

fire there were some fish bones, which he greedily picked. Next day he

saw two small fish floating dead upon a pool, and they made a delicious

feast; but, in spite of these stray morsels, he was rapidly sinking from

hunger, when suddenly he was met by a native tribe. The black men were

exceedingly kind; one carried his bundle for him, another supported his

feeble frame, and gently they led the gaunt and emaciated white man to

their camp. They made him sit down and gave him a little food. Whilst he

was eating he saw a great quantity of fish on the fire. For a few

minutes he wondered if all these could possibly be for him, till at

length they were cooked and the plentiful repast was placed before him.

The natives then gathered round and clapped their hands with delight

when they saw him eat heartily. He stayed with them for four days, and

then set out to bring his friends to enjoy likewise this simple

hospitality. It took him some days to reach the place where he had left

them; but when they heard his good news they lost no time in seeking

their native benefactors. Yet, on account of their weakness, they

travelled very slowly, and when they reached the encampment it was

deserted. They had no idea whither the natives had gone. They struggled

a short distance farther; their feebleness overcame them, and they were

forced to sink down in despair. All day they toiled hard to prepare

nardoo seed; but their small strength could not provide enough to

support them. Once or twice they shot a crow, but such slight repasts

served only to prolong their sufferings. Wills, throughout all his

journeyings, had kept a diary, but now the entries became very short; in

the struggle for life there was no time for such duties, and the grim

fight with starvation required all their strength.

At this time Wills records that he cannot understand why his legs are so

weak; he has bathed them in the stream, but finds them no better, and he

can hardly crawl out of the hut. His next entry is, that unless relief

comes shortly he cannot last more than a fortnight. After this his mind

seems to have begun to wander; he makes frequent and unusual blunders in

his diary. The last words he wrote were that he was waiting, like Mr.

Micawber, for something to turn up, and that, though starving on nardoo

seed was by no means unpleasant, yet he would prefer to have a little

fat and sugar mixed with it.

Death of Burke and Wills. Burke now thought that their only chance

was to find the blacks, and proposed that he and King should set out for

that purpose. They were very loath to leave Wills, but, under the

circumstances, no other course was possible. They laid him softly within

the hut, and placed at his head enough of nardoo to last him for eight

days. Wills asked Burke to take his watch, and a letter he had written

for his father; the two men pressed his hands, smoothed his couch

tenderly for the last time, and set out. There, in the utter silence of

the wilderness, the dying man lay for a day or two: no ear heard his

last sigh, but his end was as gentle as his life had been free from


Burke and King walked out on their desperate errand. On the first day

they traversed a fair distance; but, on the second, they had not

proceeded two miles when Burke lay down, saying he could go no farther.

King entreated him to make another effort, and so he dragged himself to

a little clump of bushes, where he stretched his limbs very wearily. An

hour or two afterwards he was stiff and unable to move. He asked King to

take his watch and pocket-book, and, if possible, to give them to his

friends in Melbourne; then he begged of him not to depart till he was

quite dead: he knew he should not live long, and he should like some one

to be near him to the last. He spoke with difficulty, but directed King

not to bury him, but to let him lie above the ground, with a pistol in

his right hand. They passed a weary and lonesome night; and in the

morning, at eight o'clock, Burke's restless life was ended. King

wandered for some time forlorn, but, by good fortune, he stumbled upon

an abandoned encampment, where, by neglect, the blacks had left a bag of

nardoo, sufficient to last him a fortnight; and, with this, he hastened

back to the hut where Wills had been laid. All he could do now, however,

was to dig a grave for his body in the sand, and, having performed that

last sad duty, he set out once more on his search, and found a tribe,

differing from that which he had already seen. They were very kind, but

not anxious to keep him, until, having shot some birds and cured their

chief of a malady, he was found to be of some use, and soon became a

great favourite with them. They made a trip to the body of Burke, but,

respecting his last wishes, they did not seek to bury it, and merely

covered it gently with a layer of leafy boughs.

Relief Parties. When Wright and Brahe returned to Victoria with the

news that, though it was more than five months since Burke and Wills had

left Cooper's Creek, there were no signs of them at the depot, all the

colonies showed their solicitude by organising parties to go to the

relief of the explorers, if, perchance, they should be still alive.

Victoria was the first in the field, and the Royal Society equipped a

small party, under Mr. A. W. Howitt, to examine the banks of Cooper's

Creek. Queensland offered five hundred pounds to assist in the search,

and with this sum, an expedition was sent to examine the Gulf of

Carpentaria. Landsborough, its leader, was conveyed in the Victoria

steamer to the gulf, and followed the Albert almost to its source, in

hopes that Burke and Wills might be dwelling with the natives on that

stream. Walker was sent to cross from Rockhampton to the Gulf of

Carpentaria; he succeeded in reaching the Flinders River, where Burke

and Wills had been; but, of course, he saw nothing of them. M'Kinlay was

sent by South Australia to advance in the direction of Lake Torrens and

reach Cooper's Creek. These various expeditions were all eager in

prosecuting the search, but it was to Mr. Howitt's party that success

fell. In following the course of Cooper's Creek downward from the depot

he saw the tracks of camels, and by these he was led to the district in

which Burke and Wills had died.

Several natives, whom he met, brought him to the place where, beneath a

native hut, King was sitting, pale, haggard, and wasted to a shadow. He

was so weak that it was with difficulty Howitt could catch the feeble

whispers that fell from his lips; but a day or two of European food

served slightly to restore his strength. Howitt then proceeded to the

spot where the body of Wills was lying partly buried, and, after reading

over it a short service, he interred it decently. Then he sought the

thicket where the bones of Burke lay with the rusted pistol beside them,

and, having wrapped a union jack around them, he dug a grave for them

hard by.

Three days later the blacks were summoned, and their eyes brightened at

the sight of knives, tomahawks, necklaces, looking-glasses, and so

forth, which were bestowed upon them in return for their kindness to

King. Gay pieces of ribbon were fastened round the black heads of the

children, and the whole tribe moved away rejoicing in the possession of

fifty pounds of sugar, which had been divided among them.

When Howitt and King returned, and the sad story of the expedition was

related, the Victorian Government sent a party to bring the remains of

Burke and Wills to Melbourne, where they received the melancholy honours

of a public funeral amid the general mourning of the whole colony. In

after years, a statue was raised to perpetuate their heroism and testify

to the esteem with which the nation regarded their memory.

M'Douall Stuart. Burke and Wills were the first who ever crossed

the Australian Continent; but, for several years before they set out,

another traveller had, with wonderful perseverance, repeatedly attempted

this feat. John M'Douall Stuart had served as draughtsman in Sturt's

expedition to the Stony Desert, and he had been well trained in that

school of adversity and sufferings. He was employed, in 1859, by a

number of squatters, who wished him to explore for them new lands in

South Australia, and having found a passage between Lake Eyre and Lake

Torrens, he discovered, beyond the deserts which had so much

disheartened Eyre, a broad district of fine pastoral land.

Next year the South Australian Government offered L2,000 as a reward to

the first person who should succeed in crossing Australia from south to

north; and Stuart set out from Adelaide to attempt the exploit. With

only two men he travelled to the north, towards Van Diemen's Gulf, and

penetrated much farther than Sturt had done in 1844. Indeed, he was only

400 miles from the other side of Australia, when the hostility of the

blacks forced him to return: he succeeded, however, in planting a flag

in the centre of the continent, at a place called by him Central Mount

Stuart. Next year he was again in the field, and following exactly the

same course, approached very near to Van Diemen's Gulf; being no more

than 250 miles distant from its shores, when want of provisions forced

him once more to return. The report of this expedition was sent to Burke

and Wills, just before they set out from Cooper's Creek on their fatal

trip to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

It was not until the following year, 1862, that Stuart succeeded in his

purpose. He had the perseverance to start a third time, and follow his

former route; and on this occasion he was successful in reaching Van

Diemen's Gulf, and returned safely, after having endured many sufferings

and hardships.

His triumphal entry into Adelaide took place on the very day when

Howitt's mournful party entered that city, bearing the remains of Burke

and Wills, on their way to Melbourne. Stuart then learnt that these

brave explorers had anticipated him in crossing the continent, for they

had reached the Gulf of Carpentaria in February, 1861; whilst he did not

arrive at Van Diemen's Gulf until July, 1862. However, Stuart had shown

so great a courage, and had been twice before so near the completion of

his task, that every one was pleased when the South Australian

Government gave him the well-merited reward.

Warburton. In a subsequent chapter it will be told how a line of

telegraph was, in 1872, constructed along the track followed by Stuart;

and as the stations connected with this line are numerous, it is now an

easy matter to cross the continent from south to north. But in recent

years a desire has arisen among the adventurous to journey overland from

east to west. Warburton, in 1873, made a successful trip of this kind.

With his son, two men, and two Afghans to act as drivers of his

seventeen camels, he started from Alice Springs, a station on the

telegraph line close to the tropic of Capricorn.

The country immediately round Alice Springs was very beautiful, but a

journey of only a few days served to bring the expedition into a dry and

barren plain, so desolate that Warburton declared it could never be

traversed without the assistance of camels. After travelling about four

hundred miles, he reached those formidable ridges of fiery red sand in

which the waters of Sturt's Creek are lost, and where A. C. Gregory was

in 1856 compelled to turn back. In traversing this district, the party

suffered many hardships; only two out of seventeen camels survived, and

the men were themselves frequently on the verge of destruction. It was

only by exercising the greatest care and prudence that Warburton

succeeded in bringing his party to the Oakover River, on the north-west

coast, and when he arrived once more in Adelaide it was found that he

had completely lost the sight of one eye.

Giles and Forrest. Towards the close of the same year, 1873, a young

Victorian named Giles started on a similar trip, intending to cross from

the middle of the telegraph line to West Australia. He held his course

courageously to the west, but the country was of such appalling

barrenness that, after penetrating half-way to the western coast, he

was forced to abandon the attempt and return. But when three years

afterwards he renewed his efforts, he succeeded, after suffering much

and making long marches without water. He had more than one encounter

with the natives, but he had the satisfaction of crossing from the

telegraph line to the West Australian coast, through country never

before traversed by the foot of civilised man. In 1874 this region

was successfully crossed by Forrest, a Government surveyor of West

Australia, who started from Geraldton, to the south of Shark Bay, and,

after a journey of twelve hundred miles almost due east, succeeded in

reaching the telegraph line. His entry into Adelaide was like a

triumphal march, so great were the crowds that went out to escort him to

the city. Forrest was then a young man, but a most skilful and sagacious

traveller. Lightly equipped, and accompanied by only one or two

companions, he has on several occasions performed long journeys through

the most formidable country with a celerity and success that are indeed


His brother, Alexander Forrest, and a long list of bold and skilful

bushmen, have succeeded in traversing the continent in every direction.

It is not all desert. They have found fine tracts of land in the course

of their journeys. Indeed, more than half of the recently explored

regions are suitable for sheep and cattle, but there are other great

districts which are miserable and forbidding. However, thanks to the

heroic men whose names have been mentioned, and to such others as the

Jardine Brothers, Ernest Favenc, Gosse, and the Baron von Mueller,

almost the whole of Australia is now explored. Only a small part of

South Australia and the central part of West Australia remain unknown.

We all of us owe a great debt of gratitude to the men who endured so

much to make known to the world the capabilities of our continent.