Chapter 12: Return to the depot...
The heavy rain made the ground so boggy that progress was incredibly slow. Some days they only made a mile or two and some days they were unable to travel at all. It took a month to get back to the mountain ranges around Cloncurry and even then they were forced to shelter in a cave to avoid the torrential tropical downpours. On Wednesday 13th March 1861, Wills wrote :
|Rain all day, so heavily that I was obliged to put my watch and field book in the pack to keep them dry. In the afternoon the rain increased, and all the creeks became flooded. We took shelter under some fallen rocks…we had soon to remove them [the camels] up amongst the rocks, out of the way of the flood, which fortunately did not rise high enough to drive us out of the cave; but we were obliged to shift our packs to the upper part…|
and on the next day :
|The water in the creek having fallen sufficiently low, we crossed over from the cave and proceeded down the creek. Our progress was slow, as it was necessary to keep on the stony ridge instead of following the flats, the latter being very boggy after the rain…we tried to shape across for the other creek, but were unable to do so, from the boggy nature of the intervening plain.|
Generally the party kept to their outward track, making a detour to the east hrough the mountains near Cloncurry. Even south of the ranges the effects of the monsoonal weather were slowing their progress. On Thursday 21st March 1861 Wills called their evening camp Humid Camp. He wrote :
|Unable to proceed on account of the slippery and boggy state of the ground. The rain has fallen very heavily here today, and every little depression in the ground is either full of water or covered with slimy mud. Another heavy storm passed over during the night, almost extinguishing the miserable fire we were able to get up with our very limited quantity of waterlogged and green wood. We started again at seven o'clock, but the effects of the heavy rain prevented our making a good journey.|
Charley Gray saw a large snake which he killed with a stirrup iron. They found the snake to be eight feet four inches long and weighing 11½ lbs. The camp that night was called Feasting Camp as they dined on the snake, however Burke soon felt very ill with dysentery and was unable to continue on the next day.
By the 25th March they were back on the Burke River near today's town of Boulia. They called a halt for the day and Wills was returning to the previous days camp when he came upon Charley Gray behind a tree eating flour from the rations. Wills wrote :
|I found Gray behind a tree eating skilligolee. He explained that he was suffering from dysentery, and had taken the flour without leave. Sent him to report himself to Mr Burke, and went on. He, having got King to tell Mr Burke for him, was called up, and received a good thrashing. There is no knowing to what extent he has been robbing us. Many things have been found to run unaccountably short.|
The extent of the thrashing Burke gave Gray has been the subject of conjecture ever since. It has been reported as everything from a few slaps with the open hand to such a severe beating that King said he would have "killed Burke himself had he had a pistol nearby". Gray, the oldest of the party, had been complaining of being ill since he caught a cold leaving the Gulf. Wills believed that Gray was "gammoning" (shamming or pretending to be ill.).
One of the camels was abandoned because it became too weak to carry on and two of the others were killed and their meat was jerked in the sun. On Wednesday 3rd April 1861 they killed the third camel, leaving just two camels and Billy the horse. In order to reduce weight the men planted (buried) all their equipment and instruments. They took just food with them with the intention of returning to the Plant Camp to recover their instruments later. This Plant Camp, near Bilpa Morea claypan north of Birdsville has never been located.
On Wednesday 10th April they camped by the Diamantina River and killed Billy, Burke's favourite horse. Wills wrote :
|Remained at Camp 52 R all day, to cut up and jerk the meat of the horse Billy, who was so reduced and knocked up for want of food that there appeared little chance of his reaching the other side of the desert; and as we were running short of food of every description ourselves; we thought it best to secure his flesh at once. We found it healthy and tender, but without the slightest trace of fat in any portion of the body.|
On Tuesday 16th April 1861 they camped at a polygonum swamp, in the morning they found Gray dead in his swag. They spent the day at the swamp digging out a shallow grave for him.
They then travelled back upstream along the Cooper for the next four days, on the final day taking it in turns to ride the two remaining camels. In the evening of Sunday 21st April 1861 they approached the Depot Camp they had left four months and five days ago.