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Chapter 14: The two support parties...

What had happened to the Depot Party under Brahe and the Menindee Party under Wright ?

Brahe had waited the three months Burke had asked him to and then waited an additional month and five days. As soon as Burke had left they occupied themselves building a stockade of saplings around Burke's tent in order to protect their equipment from being pilfered by the Yandruwandha Aborigines. Each day was spent taking the horses and camels further and further away to feed whilst keeping a guard over the supplies. Wright never arrived from Menindee with the additional men and supplies and Brahe, Patten, McDonough and Dost Mahomet were alone and isolated at Bullah Bullah Waterhole over the long hot summer of 1860-1.

Patten began to complain of scurvy and a sore leg he sustained when thrown from one of the pack-horses. His condition steadily worsened until Brahe decided if Burke did not return soon, they would not have enough supplies to return to the Darling with. On the 1stApril 1861, Brahe got Patten to shoe the horses whilst he was still able, Patten then took to his bed. The horses began to stray farther and farther in search of food and the natives became more troublesome, stealing a camels packsaddle and tearing it to pieces. Both Brahe and McDonough started showing signs of disease and Brahe wrote in his journal :

There is no probability of Mr Burke returning this way. Patten is in a deplorable state, and desirous of being removed to the Darling to obtain medical assistance, and our provisions will soon be reduced to a quantity insufficient to take us back to the Darling, if the trip should turn out difficult and tedious. Being also sure that I and McDonough would not much longer escape scurvy, I, after most seriously considering all circumstances, made up my mind to start for the Darling on Sunday next, the 21st.

They left the Depot Camp on the morning if the 21st and travelled just 15 miles up the Cooper. The horses and particularly the camels were in a poor shape and once loaded with provisions, did not travel as well as Brahe had hoped. They cut across the Gray Range and at Camp 52 at Coolabaree Waterhole on the Bulloo River they came across fresh horse and camel tracks. These belonged to William Wright and the Menindee Party who were struggling to get to Cooper Creek with the remainder of the stores and equipment.

William Wright had bid farewell to Burke at Torowoto Swamp and headed back to Menindee. When he got there he found the Dr Beckler had moved the stores to a more suitable campsite at the junction of the Darling River and Pamamaroo Creek. (This campsite is still there today, although the irrigation works of the Kinchega Lakes project have changed much of the surrounding land. It is signposted as Burke and Wills' Campsite, although Burke and Wills never camped here, just the Menindee Party under Dr Beckler.)

At this camp at Pamamaroo, Wright met two mounted troopers who had just ridden in from the Exploration Committee in Melbourne with urgent dispatches for Burke. They asked for directions and headed north to Torowoto Swamp with Dick, an Aboriginal guide. Five weeks later, Dick staggered back into the Pamamaroo Camp and told Dr Beckler that Lyons and McPherson, the two mounted troopers were stranded at Torowoto Swamp and their horses were dead. Beckler, a sepoy named Belooch and an Aborigine named Peter set out at once to rescue the two troopers.

It was the 5th of January 1861 before Beckler returned with the troopers and much of the surface water that Burke had relied on when heading north was drying up rapidly in the summer sun. Before heading off into the unknown, Wright wanted the Exploration Committee to confirm his appointment and he needed more money to purchase additional animals and pack saddles to carry the supplies to the Cooper and purchase more dried meat, as much of the jerked meat and expedition biscuit had gone rancid. Wright also wanted to put his family on the steamer to Adelaide before he left Menindee. One of the men, Hodgkinson, formerly a journalist with the Melbourne Age and who had joined the VEE at Burke's request, offered to ride back to Melbourne to secure the additional funds from the Exploration Committee. He left on the 19th December, arrived in Melbourne at Christmas and was back in Menindee by 9th January. By the 26th January, three months after Burke had left, the Menindee party under Wright was ready to leave to take the supplies northwards to the Cooper.

Wright's progress northwards was painfully slow. He had fresh animals that had only just been broken in, water was hard to find and often they had to drink green stagnant pools of mud. There was no surveyor in the party, so once they were north of Torowoto they had to follow Burke's track to find the Cooper. As this track was over three months old it was difficult to find and over the Gray Range impossible to follow. Plagues of rats attacked the men and stores at every camp and Aborigines harassed them constantly. The men quickly succumbed to the poor water, heat and diet.

Wright was forced to scout ahead for the track and send back for water, so the men and animals travelled immense distances without making any forward progress. The camp names reflect the despair - Desolation Point, Mud Plain, Rat Point. By the time they had reached Koorliatto Waterhole on the Bulloo River, Dr Becker the artist and two of the men, Charles Stone and William Purcell were desperately ill. Wrights forward progress was halted in order to care for the invalids, but on the 22nd April, (the day after Burke returned to the Depot Camp and the day after Brahe had left it), Charles Stone died. The next day William Purcell died.

The grave of Becker, Stone and Purcell at Bulloo.

Dr Ludwig Becker, the 52-year-old German born artist and naturalist died on Monday 29th April 1861. He had joined a scientific expedition in order to collect species never before seen and paint landscapes of new and exciting lands. Instead he was made to walk and work like the ordinary men, was not allowed to carry his specimen boxes and samples and had to paint in the evening when his normal camp duties had been completed. He died and was buried by a lonely waterhole in southwest Queensland.

On the same day that Becker died, Brahe came across Wright's party and placed himself under Wright's command. Wright was keen to see the Depot Camp at the Cooper, so he and Brahe rode back over the Gray Range to the Cooper. They arrived at the Dig Tree on the 8th May 1861, but the blaze was unchanged and there was no indication that Burke had been back there, so the two men stayed for half an hour and returned to Bulloo.

Wright then packed the remaining men and animals and turned south for the Darling. On the journey, Patten, the blacksmith who had been at the Depot Camp all those months and had been the first to complain of sickness, finally died. Wright, Brahe and the men reached Menindee on the 18th June 1861 and Brahe rode on to Melbourne to break the news that Burke and Wills had headed north to the Gulf of Carpentaria and had not been seen since.

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© 2017, Dave Phoenix