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This Day in History

Australian Explorers

Sunday, April 21, 1861. :   Explorers Burke, Wills and King stagger into their base camp at Cooper Creek upon their return from the Gulf of Carpentaria, and find it deserted.

     Robert O'Hara Burke and William Wills led the expedition that was intended to bring fame and prestige to Victoria: being the first to cross Australia from south to north and back again. Their purpose was to find a route which could pave the way for a new telegraph line to be laid from Darwin to Melbourne, making Melbourne the centre of Australia's communication with the rest of the world.

The party departed Melbourne in August 1860, farewelled by around 15,000 people. The exploration party was very well equipped, and the cost of the expedition almost 5,000 pounds. Because of the size of the exploration party, it was split at Menindee so that Burke could push ahead to the Gulf of Carpentaria with a smaller party. The smaller group went on ahead to establish the depot which would serve to offer the necessary provisions for when the men returned from the Gulf. In November 1860, Burke and Wills first reached Cooper Creek, where they established a base camp. From here, they made several shorter trips to the north, but were forced back each time by waterless country and extreme temperatures. It was not until mid-December that Burke decided to push on ahead to the Gulf, regardless of the risks. He left stockman William Brahe in charge with instructions that if the party did not return in three months, Brahe was to return to Menindee.

The small party consisting of Burke, Wills, King and Gray finally reached the northern coast in February 1861. After being prevented from seeing the sea by mangroves, the group immediately turned around and began the long and arduous trip back to Cooper Creek - a trip which Gray never completed. The trek to the Gulf and back took over four months, and during that time Gray died. A full day was spent in burying his body.

Finally, on 21 April 1861, the remaining three men staggered back into the base camp at Cooper Creek, and found it deserted. They discovered lettering freshly blazed on the coolibah tree at the depot, giving instructions to dig for the supplies Brahe had left. Among the supplies, they discovered they had missed the relief party by just seven hours - about the amount of time it took to bury Gray.

The tragedy of the situation was that, after digging up the cache, the men then attempted to move on further down Cooper Creek, but failed to leave further messages emblazoned on the Dig tree indicating that his party had returned and were now making for Mt Hopeless. When Brahe returned to check the depot several weeks later, he found no evidence of Burke's return, and saw no need to dig up the cache beneath the tree. Had he done so, he would have found evidence of Burke and Wills' return. Shortly after this, Wills returned to the Dig Tree to see whether a rescue party had arrived. Wills buried his journals and a message informing any potential rescue party of his location down the creek, but again failed to leave any message on the Dig Tree.

In the end, both Burke and Wills died. Only King survived, aided by Aborigines. He alone helped to piece together the fateful events of the expedition, and how the parties had missed each other at the base camp.

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