The story of Australia — XXXII
A grim fight for life
On February 9, 1861, Burke and Wills had reached the coast, having accomplished the task of crossing Australia from south to north. Though sadly in need of rest, shortness of provisions made it imperative that the members of the expedition should return to the depot on Cooper’s Creek with all possible haste. On February 21 Burke, Wills, Gray, and King, with six camels and one horse, turned their faces to the south, and commenced the journey which fate decreed should end so tragically.
Unfortunately for the brave party, incessant rain made travelling so difficult that it was not possible to cover more than four miles a day. Four of the camels got into difficulties while crossing the marshy wastes, and precious time was lost in the unavailing efforts to save them. Soon the men were reduced to starvation rations. Journeying under such conditions their plight became pitiable in the extreme. Gray fell ill and had to be carried on the back of a camel. A few days afterwards Wills wrote in his diary that they had to halt and send back for Gray, who was pretending that he could not walk. Nine days afterwards death released Gray from his sufferings, and the condition of his surviving companions may be judged from the fact that they had to rest for a day after the exertion of digging his grave.
They struggled on, buoyed up with the knowledge that the depot could not be far distant. Wills wrote in his diary: “Shot a pheasant, and much disappointed at finding him all feathers and claws. Much disappointed.” The horse had already been killed, and for 15 days they had lived on the dried flesh. At last the depot was sighted, and with thankful hearts they staggered over the last few miles.
But their hopes were dashed. The depot was deserted, not a soul was there to welcome the returned explorers or to attend to their wants. For a time they were dazed, and Burke broke down completely. “It was as much as one of us could do to crawl to the side of the creek for a billy of water,” King related later. They searched for some sign or message from their friends and at last Wills discovered some words on a tree: “Dig — April 21, 1861,” ran the message. No time was lost in following the instructions, and before long they unearthed a box containing provisions and a letter.
The letter disclosed that Brake and his men had left just seven hours before Burke had arrived at the depot. It stated that the party had remained four months, that Wright had not come with supplies from Menindie, that the blacks had been troublesome, and that the provisions were exhausted. Burke knew that it was useless in their weakened state to try to overtake the party, although, as a matter of fact, they were encamped only 14 miles away.
After resting for a few days Burke determined to push on, and suggested that instead of following the old route to Menindie they should make for Mount Hopeless, where several pastoral stations had been established. Wills objected to this. It was true, he said, that Menindie was 400 miles away from the depot, but then they knew the road and were sure of water all the way. But Burke would not be overruled, thereby signing their death warrant, for if they had chosen to stay at the depot they would have been saved. Before continuing the journey a letter stating that they had returned, was buried in the hole which had contained the provisions, and the and the ground was restored to its former condition. For some unaccountable reason no mark or sign was cut on a tree to proclaim their return, and this oversight on the part of both leaders was without doubt the main factor that decided their fate. Mount Hopeless was 150 miles away, and Burke was confident that it could be reached without much exertion.
Next week: Last scenes of tragedy.
The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 3 February 1935, p. 29