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Burke & Wills

Friday, November 12, 2010

Burke & Wills

After we had seen the Gulf of Carpentaria in a small town of Karumba, it was time to turn back and head towards the centre of Australia. On our way we were following some of the footsteps of the Australian explorers Burke and Wills. On my first trip to the Outback I read a book about their ill-fated expedition and I found it really fascinating.

Gulf of Carpenteria, Karumba

In 1860 Burke and Wills led an expedition aiming to cross the Australian continent from the south (Melbourne) to the north (Gulf of Carpentaria). At the time the inland of Australia was completely unknown and not yet discovered by European settlers. They travelled with 18 men, 25 camels, 22 horses and 20 tonnes of equipment. 

In Coopers Creek they had to set up a base camp and wait for additional supplies. At this point things started to go wrong. Burke was impatient because he wanted to be the first person to reach the north.  He decided to keep going only with 3 other men, Wills, Gray and King, 3 camels, and food for only 3 months. Burke left a man called Brahe in charge in Coopers Creek, and told them to wait for their return for 3 months. 

After an exhausting journey in the summer heat, they reached the Gulf of Carpenteria. They turned back with not much food supplies left. Animals were killed and eaten. Gray was sick, and some time later he died, although there is debate of what really happened to Gray.

Exhausted they finally reached Coopers Creek, only to find it abandoned. The rest of the men had waited for more than 4 months, but decided they have to head back because of illnesses and lack of food. They had left only 9 hours earlier. They had buried some food for Burke and the men underground, and left a message on a tree telling them to dig. This tree is now called the Dig Tree and it is a popular tourist destination. 

Burke and his men were exhausted and as they had no hope of catching up with the rest of the group, they decided to rest a bit and then head to another direction. In case Brahe would come back to search for them, they wrote a letter explaining their intentions and buried it in the same place. 

Burke & Wills statue in Melbourne

After Burke, Wills and King had taken off again towards Mt Hopeless, Brahe decided he has to go back to check if they have reached the camp. When he rode his horse to the camp, he saw that somebody had been there, but assumed it was aboriginals. As the message on the tree was unchanged, he didn't dig to see if the supplies were still there. Burke was only 56 km away. 

Burke, Wills and Gray were soon too weak to continue. Wills died and Burke soon after. King only survived with the help of a friendly aboriginal tribe. He was found a few months later. 

The story is full of irony, incredibly bad luck and mysteries. 

That night we stayed at Burke & Wills roadhouse, in the middle of nowhere and spent the evening looking at the millions of stars in the sky.

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