Chapter 7: Dividing the party...
The town of Menindee on the River Darling was the outpost of civilisation, a shanty town of half a dozen shacks made from timber and calico. Pioneers like Captain Frances Cadell were navigating paddle steamers along the Darling as far as Fort Bourke, but this really was the edge of civilisation.
Captain Cadell had offered to transport the Victorian Exploring Expedition's stores to the junction of the Murray and Darling Rivers (which would have cost the Exploration Committee around £500), but as Cadell had opposed Burke's appointment as leader, Burke refused the offer. Consequently Burke had struggled over boggy and sandy roads, knocking up many of his animals and blowing out the budget with the additional cost of the hired wagons. Cheques from the Royal Society of Victoria began to bounce and there was uncertainty about the payment of the men's wages.
In the end it took Burke two months to make the journey from Melbourne to Menindee; the mail coach could do it in a fortnight. Dogged by poor weather and bad roads, Burke was running out of time. The summer season would soon be upon them when travel in the centre of Australia was difficult if not impossible. The wagons had slowed the progress of the party dramatically and the hiring of an additional three wagons had placed financial strain on the Exploration Committee.
Many of the animals were knocked up by the heavy travel and state of the roads and the camels had still not been tested as Landells insisted they remained lightly loaded in order to save their strength.
Burke now had only two of his original officers and six of his original men, having employed eight men whilst on the road and discharging fifteen men during the same time. He stayed five days in Menindee at Thomas Paine's Hotel, before loading the fittest animals and taking the fittest men, he split the party. Taking only a small part of the stores, he took off northwards to Cooper's Creek with seven men, telling the remainder that he would send back for them later. A local man, William Wright, who had been working at Kinchega Station, offered to lead the men as far as Torowoto Swamp, some 200 miles to the north. Splitting the party was in direct contradiction to his orders from the Royal Society, which although vague, definitely expected Burke to take all his party as far as Cooper's Creek. The instructions read :
|The Committee having decided on Cooper's Creek, of Sturt's, as the basis of your operations, request that you will proceed thither, form a depôt of provisions and stores.|