By 1860 the telegraph was turning the world into a global village but Australia was isolated. The race was on to see which city would be the terminus for a cable.
South Australia had the advantage of being the most direct line to the north but goldrich Victoria answered the challenge.
The Victorian Exploration Committee decided to cross the continent using two dozen Indian camels imported by horse trader George Landells. Expedition leader was Castlemaine police superintendent Robert O’Hara Burke, who had never been beyond settled Victoria and who was notorious for getting lost coming home from the pub.
Burke chose men with the right connections rather than exploring experience. One good decision was to appoint 26-year-old Englishman William Wills as surveyor, the only one who could navigate. Camel man Landells was second in command. Instructions were to set up a Cooper Creek depot and then travel north to Leichhardt’s track.
The expedition ran into heavy rain making camp gear sodden and grinding the wagons to a halt. It was also dangerous to ride the camels. Burke left the running of the camp to Landells while he found the nearest pub or farmhouse instead of camping. He decided to set up a new depot at Menindee on the Darling, arriving October 14.
There Burke ordered new second-in-command Wills to tell Landells he was fired. Landells stormed off to Melbourne where he trashed Burke’s reputation. The expedition was heading 600km north to Cooper Creek in the hottest time of the year. Burke split his expedition taking seven men and most of the horses and camels with him. The rest would wait for further instructions.
Burke took local bushman William Wright as a guide and after 10 days reached Torowoto Swamp 250km north of Menindee. Burke ordered Wright to return and bring up the remainder of the camp while they continued to Cooper Creek. After 23 days they reached the creek system and summer rains made it a rich green environment.
They found a magnificent waterhole but no obvious way north and a plague of rats gnawed their gear forcing Burke to move to Depot 65, where the Dig Tree stands. There was no sign of Wright so Burke decided to dash to the Gulf. On December 16, 1860 he left William Brahe in charge of Depot 65 and took six camels, one horse and three men (Wills, John King and Charles Gray) with him. Burke asked Brahe to stay three months but Wills pleaded with him to stay four.
They followed the Creek north hitting the gibber plains. They travelled before the day heated up then rested in the camels’ shadow before continuing in the evening. Each night King laboriously hacked the letter B and the camp number into the bark of a tree. He looked after the camels while ex-sailor Gray did the work around camp.
Travelling 25km a day, by December 23 they found the Coongie Lakes, but they got lost in the Channel Country until they found the Diamantina which led them to the Georgina system and the north coast. With the country improving they reached modern-day Boulia when a camel rolled on Wills’ equipment and damaged his calculations. They went through Kalkadoon country and on January 27 they passed the site of Cloncurry (named for Burke’s cousin) and headed north-west via the Corella river.
Amid stifling humidity and spectacular storms on the horizon, a camel fell into a bog and was abandoned. They followed the Flinders to the coast, but the shoreline remained invisible in thick trees. The camels could not travel in the muddy estuary and Gray and King made camp at Camp 119 at the Bynoe and Flinders river junction while Burke and Wills tried to find the ocean.
The terrain was impassable mangrove swamps which Burke and Wills had neither the time nor energy to cross. They got 20km from the coast when they were forced to turn around without seeing the sea. Burke was satisfied the committee would accept they had completed the mission and crossed the continent but their problems were only beginning. – End of part one. See part 2 here