On August 21, 1860, in the most lovely season of the year that of early spring the citizens of Melbourne crowded to the Royal Park to witness the departure of the most liberally equipped exploring party that had yet set out to penetrate the unknown regions of Australia. Their object was to cross the land from the South to the Northern Seas, a task which had never before been accomplished, as well as to add to the scientific knowledge of the interior.
The expedition started under the leadership of Robert O'Hara Burke, who began his career as a cadet at Woolwich, but left at an early age to enter a regiment of Hussars in the Austrian service, in which he subsequently held a captaincy.
When this regiment was disbanded, in 1848, he obtained an appointment in the Irish Constabulary, which he exchanged for the Police Force of Victoria in 1853, and in this he was at once made an inspector.
A Mr Landells, in charge of the camels, went as second in command, and William John Wills, an astronomer and surveyor, as third.
Wills was the son of Dr William Wills, and was born at Totnes, in Devonshire, in 1834; he was cousin to Lieutenant Le Viscomte, who perished with Sir John Franklin in the Erebus.
In 1852 the news of the wonderful gold discoveries induced him to try his fortune in Victoria; but he soon became attached to the staff of the Melbourne Observatory, where he remained until selected for the post of observer and surveyor to the exploring expedition.
From the time that the expedition first took shape the names of these leaders were associated in the minds of the people with those of other brave men who had toiled to solve the mystery that lay out in the great thirsty wilderness of the interior. Some of them had tried, and, failing, had returned broken in health by the terrible privations they had met with. Others, having failed, had tried again; but the seasons and years had rolled on since, and had brought back no story of their fate.
Therefore, as late in the afternoon Burke, mounted on a pretty grey, rode forth at the head of the caravan, cheer after cheer rang out from either side of the long lane formed by the thousands of sympathetic colonists who were eager to get a last glimpse of the adventurers.
Immediately following the leader came a number of pack horses led by the European servants on foot; then Landells and Dr Beckler mounted on camels; and in their train sepoys, leading two by two twenty-four camels, each heavily burdened with forage and provisions, and a mounted sepoy brought up the rear.
At intervals after these several wagons rolled past, and finally when nearly dusk, Wills and Ferguson, the foreman, rode out to their first camping-ground at the village of Essendon, about seven miles distant. Before the evening star, following close the crescent moon, had dropped below the dark and distant hill range, the green near the church was crowded by the picturesque confusion of the camp.
Above the fires of piled gum-tree bark and sticks rose soft plumes of white smoke that scented the air fragrantly, and the red light of the flames showed, as they would show many times again, the explorers' tents in vivid relief against the coming night.
The horses and camels were unloaded and picketed, and the men sat at the openings of their tents eating their supper, or stood in groups talking to those anxious friends who had come out from Melbourne to say the last good speed, or to repeat fears, to which imagination often lent the wildest colouring, of perils that awaited the adventurers in the great unknown land. The wet weather which set in soon after their start made travelling very slow as they crossed Victoria, though at that time all seemed to go well with the party.
On fine days Wills found he was able to write his journal and do much of his work whilst riding his camel; he sat behind the hump, and had his instruments packed in front of it; thus he only needed to stop when the bearings had to be carefully taken.
They halted for several days at Swan Hill, which was their last resting-place before leaving the Colony. They were very hospitably entertained there by the people. This may have had something to do with the ill-content of some of the party when on the march again, as at Balranald, beyond the Murray, Burke found himself obliged to discharge the foreman, Ferguson. The plan of their route had to be changed here, as they were told that all along the Lower Darling, where they intended to travel, there was absolutely no food for their horses, but a plant called the Darling Pea, which made the animals that ate it mad.
Burke was at this time constantly irritated by Landells refusing to allow the camels to travel the distance of a day's march, or to carry their proper burden; he was naturally full of anxiety to push on while the season was favourable, and impatient and hasty when anything occurred to hinder their progress.
Landells insisted upon taking a quantity of rum for the use of the camels, as he had heard of an officer who took two camels through a two years' campaign in Cabul, the Punjab, and Scind by allowing them arrack. He had also been sowing dissension in the camp for some time; and, in short, the camels and the officer in charge of them seemed likely to disorganise the whole of the enterprise.
Complaints were now continually reaching Burke from the managers of the sheep stations through which they passed, that their shearers had got drunk on some of the camels' rum, which had been obtained from the wagons. He therefore, at last, determined to leave the rum behind. Landells, of course, would not agree to this, and in the end sent in his resignation.
In the course of the same day Dr Beckler followed his example, giving as his reason that he did not like the manner in which Burke spoke to Landells, and that he did not consider the party safe without him to manage the camels. Burke did not, however, accept the Doctor's resignation. This happened shortly before they left Menindie, the last station of the settled districts, and it was impossible to find anyone to take Landells' place. Wills was, however, at once promoted to be second in charge.
Burke now divided the expedition into two parts one to act with him as an exploring party to test the safety of the route to Cooper's Creek, which was about four hundred miles farther on; the other to remain at Menindie with the heavy stores, under the care of Dr Beckler, until arrangements were made to establish a permanent depot in the interior.
The advance party of eight started on October 29, under the guidance of a man named Wright, who was said to have practical knowledge of the 'back country.' They were Burke, Wills, Brahe, Patten, McDonough, King, Gray, and Dost Mahomet, with fifteen horses and sixteen camels.
When this journey was made it was immediately after one of those wonderful seasons that transform these parts of Central Australia from a treeless and grassless desert to a land where the swelling plains that stretch from bound to bound of the horizon are as vast fields of ripening corn in their yellow summertide.
Riding girth high through the lovely natural grass, from which the ripe seed scattered as they passed, or camping at night surrounded by it, the horses and camels improved in condition each day, and were never at a loss for water. Sometimes they found a sufficiency in a natural well or claypan; or again they struck for some creek towards the west or north, whose irregular curves were outlined on the plain by the gum-trees growing closely on its banks.
Nowhere did they experience great difficulty or serious obstacle on their northward way, though sometimes, as they crossed the rough ironstone ranges which crop up now and then on this great and ever rising table-land, there was little feed, and the sharp stones cut the feet of the animals as they trod with faltering footsteps down the precipitous gulleys, out of which the floods had for ages torn a path. As they followed the dry bed of such a path leading to rich flats, they would come upon quiet pools deeply shaded by gums and marsh mallow, that had every appearance of being permanent.
After they had been out ten days and had travelled over two hundred miles, Burke had formed so good an opinion of Wright that he made him third in charge, and sent him back to Menindie to replace Dr Beckler whose resignation was now accepted in command of the portion of the expedition at that place. Wright took with him despatches to forward to Melbourne, and his instructions were to follow up the advance party with the heavy stores immediately.
Burke now pushed on to Cooper's Creek; and though the last part of their journey led them over many of those tracts of country peculiar to Australia where red sandy ridges rise and fall for many miles in rigid uniformity, and are clothed for the most part in the monotonous grey of salt and cotton-bush leafage, yet they saw before them what has since proved to be one of the finest grazing lands in the world. Still, as they went on, though the creeks and watercourses were more frequent, everywhere they showed signs of rapid drying up.
The party reached the Cooper on November 11, and after resting for a day, they set about preparing the depot. For about a fortnight from this point Burke or Wills made frequent short journeys to the north or north-east, to feel their way before starting for the northern coast.
On one occasion Wills went out taking with him McDonough and three camels, and when about ninety miles from the head camp he walked to a rising ground at some distance from where they intended to stop to make some observations, leaving McDonough in charge of the camels and to prepare tea.
On his return he found that the man had fallen asleep, and that the camels had gone. Night closing in almost directly prevented any search for the missing animals.
Next morning nothing could be seen of them, though their tracks were followed for many miles, and though Wills went to some distant hills and searched the landscape on all sides with his field-glasses.
With a temperature of 112°F in the shade, and the dazzling sun-rays beating from a pallid and cloudless sky, they started on their homeward walk of eighty miles, with only a little bread and a few johnny cakes to eat, each carrying as much water as he could.
They feared to light a fire even at night, as it might have attracted the blacks; therefore they took it in turn to sleep and watch when the others rested; while the dingoes sneaked from their cover in the belts of scrub, and howled dismally around them. They reached the depot in three days, having found only one pool of stagnant water, from which they drank a great deal and refilled the goatskin bag. Wills was obliged to return afterwards with King to recover the saddles and things that were left when the camels strayed.
For some time Wright had been expected to arrive with the caravan from Menindie; yet a whole month passed and he did not come.
Burke who had now become very impatient at the loss of opportunity and time, determined to make a dash across the continent to the sea. He therefore left Brahe a man who could travel by compass and observation, in charge at Cooper's Creek depot until Wright should arrive, giving him positive instructions to remain there until the return of the exploring party from the Gulf of Carpentaria, which he thought would be in about three or four months.
Burke started northwards on December 16, in company with Wills, King, and Gray, taking with them six camels, one horse, and provisions for three months, while Brahe, three men, and a native were left at the Creek with the rest of the horses and camels.
The expedition was now in three parts, and Wright, who perhaps knew more about the uncertainty of the seasons and the terrible consequences of drought than any of the party, still delayed leaving Menindie with his contingent, though he well knew that as the summer advanced the greater would be the difficulty to travel.
He had become faint-hearted, and every day invented some new excuse for not leaving. One day it was that there were not enough camels and horses to carry the necessary provision; the next, that the country through which they must pass was infested by blacks; the next, that he waited for his appointment to be confirmed by the authorities at Melbourne; and all this time he knew that Burke depended solely upon him to keep up communication with the depot from the Darling. Finally he started at the end of January (summer in Australia), more than a month after his appointment was officially confirmed, and more than two months after his return from Menindie.
For the first few days after Burke and Wills set off they followed up the creek, and though the banks were rugged and stony, there was plenty of grass and soft bush near. They soon fell in with a large tribe of blacks, the first they had seen, who followed them for some time, and constantly tried to entice them to their camp to dance. When they refused to go the natives became very troublesome, until they threatened to shoot them. They were fine-looking men, but easily frightened, and only carried as a means of defence a shield and a large kind of boomerang.
The channel of the Creek was often quite dry for a great distance; then a chain of magnificent water-holes followed, from whose shady pools pelicans, black swans, and many species of duck flew up in flocks at the approach of the travellers.
After a few days they reached what seemed to be the end of Cooper's Creek, and, steering a more north-easterly course, they journeyed for some time over great plains covered by dry grass-stalks or barren sandy ridges, on the steep sides of which grew scant tufts of porcupine grass; sometimes following the lines of a creek, or, again, travelling along the edge of a splendid lagoon that stretched its placid waters for miles over the monotonous landscape.
Even the stony desert they found far from bad travelling ground, and but little different from much of what they had already crossed. Yet ever before them there, from the sunrise to its setting, the spectral illusive shapes of the mirage floated like restless spirit betwixt heaven and earth on the quivering heat-haze.
On January 7 they crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, and their way beyond it soon began to improve.
In the excitement of exploring fine country Burke rushed on with almost headlong feverishness, travelling in every available hour of the day, and often by night, even grudging the necessary time for food and rest. He walked with Wills in front, taking it in turn with him to steer by a pocket compass.
Before they left each camp its number was cut deeply into the bark of some prominent tree. Wills kept the little record there is of their journey, and as they went it was the duty of King or Gray to blaze a tree to mark their route.
They passed now over many miles of the richly grassed slopes of a beautiful open forest, intersected by frequent watercourses where the land trended gradually upward to the distant mountain-range. Sometimes they had to go out of their course in order to avoid the tangle of tropic jungle; but onward north by east they went, beneath the shade of heavy-fruited palms, their road again made difficult by the large and numerous anthills that give these northern latitudes so strange a solemnity and appearance of desolation.
After leaving Cooper's Creek they often crossed the paths the blacks made for themselves, but had hitherto seen nothing of the natives. One day Golah, one of the camels (who were all now beginning to show great signs of fatigue), had gone down into the bed of a creek to drink, and could not be made to climb its steep sides again.
After several unsuccessful attempts to get him up, they determined to try bringing him down until an easier ascent could be found. King thereupon went on alone with him, and had great difficulty in getting him through some of the deeper water-holes.
But after going in this way for two or three miles they were forced to leave him behind, as it separated King from the rest of the party, and they found that a number of blacks were hiding in the box-trees on the banks, watching, and following them with stealthy footsteps.
It now became a very difficult matter for the camels to travel as the heavy rains that had fallen made the land so wet and boggy that with every footstep they sank several inches into it.
At Camp 119 Burke left them in charge of Gray and King, and walked on to the shores of Carpentaria with Wills, and took only the horse Billy to carry their provisions.
They followed the banks of a river which Burke named the Cloncurry. A few hundred yards below the camp Billy got bogged in a quicksand bank so deeply as to be unable to stir, and they had to undermine him on the creek side and pull him into the water. About five miles farther on he bogged again, and afterwards was so weak that he could hardly crawl.
After floundering along in this way for some time they came upon a native path which led through a forest; following it, they reached a large patch of sandy ground where the blacks had been digging yams and had left numbers lying on the surface; and these the explorers were glad enough to eat.
A little farther on they saw a black lying coiled round his camp fire, and by him squatted his lubra and piccaninny yabbering at a great rate. They stopped to take out their pistols in case of need before disturbing them; almost immediately the black got up to stretch his limbs, and presently saw the intruders.
He stared at them for some time, as if he thought he must be dreaming, then, signing to the others, they all dropped on their haunches, and shuffled off in the quietest manner.
Near their fire was a worley (native hut) large enough to shelter a dozen blacks; it was on the northern outskirt of the forest, and looked out across a marsh which is sometimes flooded by sea-water. Upon this were hundreds of wild geese, plover, and pelicans. After they crossed it they reached a channel through which the sea-water enters, and there passed three blacks, who silently and unasked pointed out the best way to go.
Next day, Billy being completely tired, they short-hobbled and left him, going forward again at daybreak in the hope of at last reaching the open sea. After following the Flinders (this country had already been explored by Gregory) for about fifteen miles, and finding that the tide ebbed and flowed regularly, and that the water was quite salt, they decided to go back, having successfully accomplished one great object of their mission, by crossing the Australian continent from south to north.
After rejoining Gray and King on February 13, the whole party began the return march. The incessant and heavy rains that had set in rendered travelling very difficult; but the provisions were running short, and it was necessary to try to get back to the depot without delay.
The damp and suffocating heat that brooded in the air overpowered both man and beast, who were weak and weary from want of rest; and to breast the heavy rains and to swim the rapid creeks in flood well-nigh exhausted all their strength.
Day after day they stumbled listlessly onward; while the poor camels, sweating, bleeding, and groaning from fear, had their feet at almost every step entangled by the climbing plants that clung to the rank grasses, which had rushed in magical growth to a height of eight or ten feet.
If for a moment they went to windward of their camp fires they were maddened by swarms of mosquitoes, and everywhere were pestered by ants.
Wonderful green and scarlet ants dropped upon them from the trees as they passed; from every log or stick gathered for the fires a new species crept; inch-long black or brown 'bulldogs' showed fight at them underfoot: midgets lurked in the cups of flowers; while the giant white ant ate its stealthy way in swarms through the sap of the forest trees from root to crown.
Every night fierce storms of thunder crashed and crackled overhead, and the vivid lightning flaring across the heavens overpowered the moonlight.
Gray, who had been ailing for some time, grew worse, though probably, as they were all in such evil plight, they did not think him really ill.
One night Wills, returning to a camp to bring back some things that had been left, found him hiding behind a tree eating skilligolee. He explained he was suffering from dysentery, and had taken the flour without leave.
It had already been noticed that the provisions disappeared in an unaccountable way; therefore Wills ordered him back to report himself to Burke. But Gray was afraid to tell, and got King to do so for him. When Burke heard of it, he was very angry, and flogged him.
On March 20 they overhauled the packs, and left all they could do without behind, as the camels were so exhausted.
Soon after this they were again beyond the line of rainfall, and once more toiling over the vast plains and endless stony rises of the interior.
At the camp called Boocha's Rest they killed the camel Boocha, and spent the whole day cutting up and jerking the flesh that is, removing all bone and fat and drying the lean parts in the sun; they also now made use of a plant called portulac as a vegetable, and found it very good, and a great addition to their food.
For more than a week it had become very troublesome to get Gray to walk at all; he was still in such bad odour from his thieving that the rest of the party thought he pretended illness, and as they had to halt continually to wait for him when marching, he was always in mischief.
The faithful Billy had to be sacrificed in the Stony Desert, as he was so reduced and knocked up that there seemed little chance of his reaching the other side; and another day was taken to cut up and jerk his flesh.
At dawn on the fourth day before they reached the depot, when they were preparing to start they were shocked to find poor Gray was dying.
His companions, full of remorse for bygone harshness, their better natures stirred to the depths of humanity by his pitiful case, knelt around to support him in those last moments as he lay stretched speechless on his desolate sand bed. Thus comforted, his fading eyes closed for ever as the red sun rose above the level plain.
The party remained in camp that day to bury him, though they were so weak that they were hardly able to dig a grave in the sand sufficiently deep for the purpose.
They had lived on the flesh of the worn-out horse for fifteen days, and once or twice were forced to camp without water. Though the sun was always hot, at night a gusty wind blew from the south with an edge like a razor, which made their fire so irregular as to be of little use to them. The sudden and cruel extremes of heat and cold racked the exhausted frames of the explorers with pain, and Burke and King were hardly able to walk. They pushed on, only sustained by the thought that but a few hours, a few miles, now separated them from the main party, where the first felicitations on the success of their exploit awaited them, and, what was of greater importance to men shattered by hardships and privation, wholesome food, fresh clothing, and the comfort of a properly organised camp.
On the morning of April 21, with every impatient nerve strung to its utmost tension, and full of hope, they urged their two remaining camels forward for the last thirty miles; and Burke, who rode a little in advance of the others, shouted for joy when they struck Cooper's Creek at the exact spot where Brahe had been left in charge of the depot.
'I think I see their tents,' he cried, and putting his weary camel to its best speed, he called out the names of the men he had left there.
'There they are! There they are!' he shouted eagerly, and with a last spurt left the others far behind.
When Wills and King reached the depot they saw Burke standing by the side of his camel in a deserted camp, alone.
He was standing, lost in amazement, staring vacantly around. Signs of recent departure, of a final packing-up, everywhere met the eye: odd nails and horseshoes lay about, with other useful things that would not have been left had the occupants merely decamped to some other spot. Then, as one struck by some terrible blow, Burke reeled and fell to the ground, overcome by the revulsion of feeling from exultant hope to sudden despair.
Wills, who had ever the greater control of himself, now walked in all directions to make a careful examination, followed at a little distance by King.
Presently he stopped, and pointing to a tree, into the bark of which had been newly cut the words
April 21, 1861
he said: "King, they are gone! They have only gone to-day there are the things they have left!"
The two men immediately set to work to uncover the earth, and found a few inches below the surface a box containing provisions and a bottle.
In the bottle was a note, which was taken to Burke at once, who read it aloud:
Depot, Cooper's Creek,
April 21, 1861.
The depot party of the Victorian Exploring Expedition leaves this camp to-day to return to the Darling.
I intend to go S.E. from Camp 60, to get into our old track near Bulloo. Two of my companions and myself are quite well; the third Patten has been unable to walk for the last eighteen days, as his leg has been severely hurt when thrown by one of the horses.
No person has been up here from the Darling.
We have six camels and twelve horses in good working condition.
When the leader had finished reading it, he turned to the others and asked if they would start next day to try to overtake Brahe's party.
They replied that they could not. With the slightest exertion all felt the indescribable languor and terrible aching in back and legs that had proved fatal to poor Gray. And, indeed, it was as much as any one of them could do to crawl to the side of the creek for a billy of water.
They were not long in getting out the stores Brahe had left, and in making themselves a good supper of oatmeal porridge and sugar.
This and the excitement of their unexpected position did much to revive them. Burke presently decided to make for a station on the South Australian side which he believed was only one hundred and twenty miles from the Cooper. Both Wills and King wanted to follow down their old track to the Darling, but afterwards gave in to Burke's idea. Therefore it was arranged that after they had rested they would proceed by gentle stages towards the Mount Hopeless sheeprun.
Accordingly, on the next day Burke wrote and deposited in the cache a letter giving a sketch of the exploration, and added the following postscript:
The camels cannot travel, and we cannot walk, or we should follow the other party. We shall move very slowly down the Creek.
The cache was again covered with earth, and left as they had found it, though nothing was added to the word 'Dig,' or to the date on the tree; which curious carelessness on the part of men accustomed to note every camping-ground in this way seems unaccountable.
A few days after their return they started with the month's supply of provisions that had been left.
They had every reason to hope, with the help of the camels, they might easily reach Mount Hopeless in time to preserve their lives and to reap the reward of their successful exertions.
It will be remembered that when Burke formally appointed Brahe as officer in command of the depot until Wright should arrive, he was told to await his leader's return to Cooper's Creek, or not to leave it until obliged by absolute necessity. Day after day, week after week passed, and Wright, with the rest of the stores from Menindie, never came. It was more than four months since Burke's party went north, and every day for the last six weeks Brahe had looked out anxiously for their return.
On one hand he was worried by Patten, who was dying, and who wanted to go back to the Darling for advice; on the other, by McDonough's continually pouring into his ears the assurance that Burke would not return that way, but had doubtless by this time made for some port on the Queensland coast, and had returned to Melbourne by sea; and that if they stayed at the depot they would all get scurvy, and in the end die of starvation. Though they had sufficient provisions to keep them for another month, they decided to start on the morning of April 21, leaving the box of stores and the note hidden in the earth which the explorers found on their return.
Following their former route towards the Darling, they fell in with Wright's party at Bulloo, where they had been stationary for several weeks, and where three of the men had died of scurvy.
Brahe at once put himself under Wright's orders; but he did not rest until Wright consented to go to Cooper's Creek with him, so that before abandoning the expedition he might feel assured that the explorers had not returned.
Wright and Brahe reached the depot on May 8, a fortnight after the others had left, and Brahe seeing nothing above ground in the camp to lead him to think anyone had been there, did not trouble to disturb the box which he had originally planted as Wright suggested the blacks would be more likely to find it; therefore, running their horses several times over the spot, they completed by their thoughtless stupidity the most terrible blunder the explorers had begun. Wright and Brahe then rejoined the camp at Bulloo, when all moved back to Menindie, and reached that place on June 18. Brahe at once set off for Melbourne, and by this time everyone there seemed to be alive to the necessity of sending out to look for the explorers.
Two steamers were despatched to the Gulf of Carpentaria, and a relief party, in charge of Alfred Howitt, up to the Cooper.
From South Australia an organised expedition of twenty-six men, with McKinlay as leader, was already engaged in the search, as well as several smaller parties from the neighbouring colonies.
Burke, Wills, and King, much revived with the rest of a few days and the food they had found at the depot, left for Mount Hopeless, with the intention of following as nearly as possible the route taken by Gregory many years before. Shortly after their departure Landa, one of the camels, bogged at the side of a water-hole and sank rapidly, as the ground beneath was a bottomless quicksand; all their efforts to dig him out were useless, and they had to shoot him where he lay, and cut off what flesh they could get at to jerk.
They made a fresh start next day with the last camel, Rajah, only loaded with the most useful and necessary articles; and each of the men now carried his own swag of bed and clothing. In addition to these misfortunes they had now to contend with the blast of drought that lay over the land; with the fiery sun, that streamed from cloudless skies, beneath which the very earth shrunk from itself in gaping fissures; with the wild night wind, that shrieked and skirled with devastating breath over the wilderness beneath the cold light of the crowding stars.
For a few days they followed the Creek, but found that it split up into sandy channels which became rapidly smaller as they advanced, and sent off large billabongs (or backwaters) to the south, slightly changing the course of the Creek each time, until it disappeared altogether in a north-westerly direction. Burke and Wills went forward alone to reconnoitre, and found that the land as far as they could see stretched away in great earthy plains intersected by lines of trees and empty watercourses.
Next day they retraced their steps to the last camp, and realised that their rations were rapidly diminishing and their boots and clothing falling to pieces. Rajah was very ill and on the point of dying, when Burke ordered him to be shot, his flesh being afterwards dried in the usual manner. Some friendly blacks, whom they amused by lighting fires with matches, gave them some fish and a kind of bread called nardoo. At various times they had tried to learn from the blacks how to procure the nardoo grain, which is the seed of a small clover-like plant, but had failed to make them understand what they wanted. Then Wills went out alone to look for it; but as he expected to find it growing on a tree, was of course unsuccessful, and the blacks had again moved off to some other branch of the Creek.
The terrible fate of death from starvation awaited them if they could not obtain this knowledge, and for several days they all persevered with the search, until quite by chance King at last caught sight of some seeds which proved to be nardoo lying at the foot of a sandhill, and they soon found the plain beyond was black with it.
With the reassurance that they could now support themselves they made another attempt to reach Mount Hopeless. Burke and King each carried a billy of water, and the last of the provisions was packed up in their swags; but after travelling for three days they found no water, and were forced to turn back to the Creek, at a point where though they knew it not scarce fifty miles remained to be accomplished, and just as Mount Hopeless would have appeared above the horizon had they continued their route for even another day. Wearily they retraced their footsteps to the water and to the prospect of existence. They at once set about collecting nardoo; two of them were employed in gathering it, while one stayed in camp to clean and crush it.
In a few days Burke sent Wills back to the depot to bury the field-books of their journey north in the cache, and another letter to tell of their present condition. When Wills reached the spot he could see no trace of anyone having been there but natives, and that the hiding-place had not been touched. Having deposited the field-books and a note, with an account of their sufferings and a pitiful and useless appeal for food and clothing, he started back to rejoin Burke, terribly fatigued and weak from his long walk. It had taken him eleven days to cover the seventy miles to and fro, and he had had very little to eat.
However, to his surprise, one morning, on his way back he heard a cooee from the opposite bank of the Creek, and saw Pitchery, the chief of the friendly blacks, beckoning to him to come to their camp. Pitchery made him sit down by a fire, upon which a large pile of fish was cooking. This he thought was to provide a breakfast for the half-dozen natives who sat around; but to his astonishment they made him eat the whole lot, while they sat by extracting the bones. Afterwards a supply of nardoo was given him; at which he ate until he could eat no more. The blacks then asked him to stay the night with them; but as he was anxious to rejoin Burke and King, he went on.
In his absence Burke, while frying some fish that the natives had given him, had set fire to the mia-mia (a shelter made by the blacks of bushes and trees). It burnt so quickly that every remnant of their clothing was destroyed, and nothing saved but a gun.
In a few days they all started back towards the depot, in the hope that they could live with the blacks; but they found they had again disappeared. On again next morning to another of the native camps; but, finding it empty, the wanderers took possession of the best mia-mia, and Wills and King were sent out to collect nardoo.
This was now absolutely their only food, with the exception of two crows which King shot; he alone seemed to be uninjured by the nardoo. Wills had at last suddenly collapsed, and could only lie in the mia-mia, and philosophically contemplate the situation. He strongly advised Burke and King to leave him, as the only chance for the salvation of any one of them now was to find the blacks. Very reluctantly at last Burke consented to go; and after placing a large supply of nardoo, wood, and water within easy reach, Burke said again:
I will not leave you, Wills, under any other circumstance than that of your own wish.
And Wills, again repeating 'It is our only chance,' gave him a letter and his watch for his father. King had already buried the rest of the field-books near the mia-mia.
The first day after they left Wills Burke was very weak, and complained sadly of great pain in his back and legs. Next day he was a little better, and walked for about two miles, then lay down and said he could go no farther. King managed to get him up, but as he went he dropped his swag and threw away everything he had to carry. When they halted he said he felt much worse, and could not last many hours longer, and he gave his pocket-book to King, saying:
I hope you will remain with me till I am quite dead it is a comfort to know someone is by; but when I am dying, it is my wish that you should place the pistol in my right hand, and that you leave me unburied as I lie.
Doubtless he thought of King's weak state, and wished to spare him the labour of digging a grave.
The last of the misfortunes that had followed the enterprise from the outset, misfortunes in many cases caused by the impatient zeal of its leader, was drawing to its close. Tortured by disappointment and despair, racked by starvation and disease, he lay in the desert dying.
Flinging aside the last poor chance of succour, renouncing all hope that he might yet live to reap the reward of his brilliant dash across the continent, he met death
With the pistol clenched in his failing hand,
With the death mist spread o'er his fading eyes
He saw the sun go down on the sand,
And he slept and never saw it rise.
King lingered near the spot for a few hours; but at last, feeling it to be useless, he went on up the Creek to look for the natives. In one of their deserted mia-mias he found a large store of the nardoo seed, and, carrying it with him, returned to Wills. On his way back he shot three crows. This addition to their food would, he felt, give them a chance of tiding over their difficulties until the blacks could again be found. But as he drew near the mia-mia where he and poor Burke had left Wills a few days before, and saw his lonely figure in the distance lying much as they had left him, a sudden fear came upon him.
Hitherto the awful quiet of these desolate scenes had little impressed him, and now it came upon him heavily. The shrilling of a solitary locust somewhere in the gums, the brisk crackle of dry bark and twigs as he trod, the melancholy sighing of the wind-stirred leafage, offered him those inexplicable contrasts that give stress to silence.
Anxious to escape thoughts so little comprehended, King hurried on, and essayed a feeble 'cooee' when a few yards from the sleeper. No answering sound or gesture greeted him. Wills had fallen peacefully asleep for ever.
Footprints on the sand showed that the blacks had already been there, and after King had buried the corpse with sand and rushes as well as he was able, he started to follow their tracks. Feeling desperately lonely and ill, he went on, and as he went he shot some more crows. The blacks, hearing the report of the gun, came to meet him, and taking him to their camp gave him food.
The next day they talked to him by signs, putting one finger in the ground and covering it with sand, at the same time pointing up the Creek, saying 'White fellow.' By this they meant that one white man was dead. King, by putting two fingers in the sand and covering them, made them understand that his second companion was also dead.
Finding he was now quite alone, they seemed very sorry for him, and gave him plenty to eat. However, in a few days they became tired of him, and by signs told him they meant to go up the Creek, pointing in the opposite direction to show that that must be his way. But when he shot some more crows for them they were very pleased. One woman to whom he gave a part of a crow gave him a ball of nardoo, and, showing him a wound on her arm, intimated that she would give him more, but she was unable to pound it. When King saw the wound he boiled some water in his billy and bathed it. While the whole tribe sat round, watching and yabbering excitedly, he touched it with some lunar caustic; she shrieked and ran off, crying 'mokow! mokow!' (fire! fire!) She was, however, very grateful for his kindness, and from that time she and her husband provided him with food.
About two months later the relief party reached the depot, where they found the letters and journals the explorers had placed in the cache. They at once set off down the Creek, in the hope still of finding Burke and Wills. They met a black who directed them to the native camp. Here they found King sitting alone in the mia-mia the natives had made for him, wasted and worn to a shadow, almost imbecile from the terrible hardships he had suffered.
He turned his hopeless face upon the new-comers, staring vacantly at them, muttering indistinctly words which his lips refused to articulate. Only the remnants of his clothing marked him as a civilised being. The blacks who had fed him sat round to watch the meeting with most gratified and delighted expressions.
Howitt waited for a few days to give King an opportunity of recovering his strength, that he might show them where the bodies of his unfortunate leaders lay, that the last sad duty to the dead might be performed before they left the place.
Burke's body had been dragged a short distance from where it originally lay, and was partly eaten by the dingoes (wild dogs). The remains were carefully collected, wrapped in a Union Jack, and placed in a grave dug close to the spot.
A few weeks later the citizens of Melbourne, once again aroused to extravagant enthusiasm, lined the streets through which the only survivor of the only Victorian Exploration Expedition was to pass. 'Here he comes! Here he comes!' rang throughout the crowd as King was driven to the Town Hall to tell his narrative to the company assembled there. 'There is a man!' shouted one 'There is a man who has lived in hell.'
A few months later Howitt was again sent to Cooper's Creek to exhume the bodies of Burke and Wills and bring them to Melbourne. They were honoured by a public funeral, and a monument was erected to their memory
A statue tall, on a pillar of stone,
Telling its story to great and small
Of the dust reclaimed from the sand-waste lone.