Burke & Wills Web
The online digital research archive of expedition records
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& the Australian Exploring Expedition of 1860

Andrew Jackson
London: Smith, Elder & Co.
(Ferguson 10857)

Chapter 6

  • Journey to Cooper's Creek. Choice of a Site for Depot.
  • Mr Burke's first Journey and Return.
  • Mr Wills proceeds Northward.
  • Loss of three Camels.
  • Mr Burke's Final Arrangements.
  • Instructions to Brahe, and Despatch to the Committee at Melbourne.

Guided part of the way by three blacks, who had been procured at Torowoto, the explorers found no difficulty in reaching Cooper's Creek-a sort of inland lake or watercourse, about four hundred miles from Menindie. From the date of their leaving Melbourne, they had been in the habit of numbering each stage, or encampment; and these numbers, by the time they arrived at the Darling, had reached as far as thirty. Torowoto was numbered thirty-five, and the spot at which they first struck Cooper's Creek, on the 11th November, was marked as Camp fifty-seven.

They spelled (or rested) here one day, and then resumed their journey along the Creek, occasionally resting two days at a time, during which intervals Mr Wills went out to feel the way before starting again. They formed their first Depot at Camp sixty-three, remaining there a fortnight. From this place Mr Burke made a short trip northward with Brahe; but not finding any water away from the Creek, they were obliged to return the second day. Mr Wills and McDonough then went out, taking three camels with them, and travelled northerly for nearly ninety miles without finding water. On the third day they began to return; but on encamping that night, the camels unfortunately strayed away, and were lost. Mr Wills speaks of the occurrence in the following extract from a letter to his sister:

Cooper's Creek, December 11, 1860.

My Dear Bessy,
This will probably be the last opportunity I shall have to write to you before I return, and I will take the opportunity to do so. You must excuse this being written in pencil; it is troublesome writing in ink, it dries up so confoundedly fast. I enclose you some seeds from the Australian desert. Tell rnamma she must excuse .me writing her: she must read this, and fancy it is hers also. I have not even time to write to my father. The journey has hitherto been but as a picnic party, but I fear we shall have some heavier work soon. I have had a slight specimen of it lately. I went out for a few days to explore the county to the north-east, accompanied by one man and three camels. I had left the man in charge of the camels while I went to make some observations. When I returned I found the man had allowed the camels to stray. I tracked them for some distance, but found they had gone homeward. There was nothing for it but to walk back, so we started at seven AM next day. After walking about ten miles we fortunately found some water, and we continued on until eleven AM. We then rested, as it is trying to travel with the heat 130° in the sun, and 112º in the shade…..We walked eighty miles in less than fifty hours, including stoppages. It is astonishing how a walk like this gives one a relish for a drink of water. For water such as you would not even taste, one smacks their lips as if it were a glass of sherry or champagne. We had but half a pint between us for the last twelve miles. We have no idea of being out for three years as I supposed. I calculate on being in Melbourne in August at farthest.

The following is McDonough's account of the loss of the camels:

When we came to the camp that evening the moon was rising, and Mr Wills wanted to take an observation. I went to let out the camels. They were very much done up, and not inclined to feed. We were almost without water at the time. We had some in bags, but they were leaking, and when Mr Wills was taking the observations, I let out the camels, and returned to cook our supper. Then Mr Wills and I sat down to supper. I noticed the camels going into the scrub. I went and brought them back to within about thirty yards of our camp. They were not hobbled. Mr Landells had left the hobbles, and said they were no use to them. (*Footnote; This seems incorrect, for hobbles appear to have been subsequently used by the party). In about ten minutes I went to look after the camels. It was then dark. I could not find them, so called Mr Wills, and we went in search of them. We searched until twelve o'clock at night, and could get no trace of them. We returned to camp. Mr Wills laid down and had a short sleep, desiring me to call him at two o'clock in the morning, and to make a few johnny cakes. He said, "If we do not find the camels, and do not get back, we are lost." In the morning we went to a rim about fifteen miles off, which we reached a short time before day, thinking that we might see the camels coming down the valley. Mr Wills looked through the opera-glass, but could see nothing of them. We walked back to our camp. We had a little bread and water. We did not like to light a fire for fear of the blacks, so we made up our swag (*Footnote; Our burdens). I had a large Colt's revolver, and thirty-five pints of water in a goatskin bag. Mr Wills had three or four johnny cakes, a Trench's revolver, and a pocket compass. We proceeded towards Cooper's Creek, and in about seven or eight miles found a small pool of stagnant water, from which we drank a great deal, and filled the goat-skin bag. We then proceeded, walking eight hours and resting four, until we reached the creek. The last night we camped we had no water, as the bag leaked, and Mr Wills and myself were very much done up, in consequence of carrying it.

After this Mr Wills was obliged to go back with King, to recover the saddles and other things that were left when the camels strayed away. Meanwhile, the Depot was removed two stages farther on, to Camp 65, in order to avoid the ravages of numbers of large rats which infested the first Depot, making sad havoc among the stores.

Early in December Mr Burke made arrangements to solve the problem of crossing the continent from sea to sea, by proceeding to the Gulf of Carpentaria on the northern coast. To increase their stock of provisions a horse was killed, and the meat 'jerked'; that is to say, deprived of bone and fat, and dried in the sun. Subsequently to this, another of the horses broke his leg, and was shot, the flesh being added to the quantity previously dried. Mr Burke then formed the following advance exploring party:

R O'H Burke, leader;
W J Wills,
John King,
Charles Gray,
six camels,
one horse.

Patten, McDonough, Dost Mohammed, six camels, twelve horses, and the remainder of the provisions, were left behind in charge of Brahe, with instructions to remain at Cooper's Creek until the return of Mr Burke's party, or until the provisions should run short, and not to leave unless from absolute necessity.

The following is the despatch written to the Committee at this time, and left with Brahe to be forwarded by the first opportunity:

Cooper's Creek, December 13, 10 o'clock.

I have the honour to report that the Expedition under my command left Torowoto on the 31st of October, and arrived at Cooper's Creek on the 11th November; men, horses, and camels well. The road from Torowoto to Wright's Creek is good, but from Wright's Creek to the point where we struck Cooper's Creek, it is in some places very stony, although not by any means impracticable. From the 11th of November we travelled slowly down the creek until the 20th of November, in order to recruit the strength of the animals. On the 20th we arrived at what I conceived to be an eligible spot for the Depot, and we remained there (Camp 63) until the 5th instant, when we were driven out by the rats, and obliged to remove, lower down to the place from whence I now write (Camp 65), and where I have permanently established the Depot. The feed upon this creek is good, and the horses and camels have greatly improved in condition; but the flies, mosquitoes, and rats which abound here, render it a very disagreeable summer residence. From Camp 63 we made very frequent excursions, in order to endeavour, in accordance with instructions, to find a practicable route northward between Gregory's and Stuart's tracts, but without success. Mr Wills, upon one occasion, travelled ninety miles to the north, without finding water, when his camels escaped, and he and the man who accompanied him were obliged to return on foot, which they accomplished in forty-eight hours. Fortunately, upon their return, they found a pool of water. The three camels have not yet been recovered. I am satisfied that a practicable route cannot be established in that direction, except during the rainy season, or by sinking wells, as the natives have evidently lately abandoned that part of the country from want of water, which is shown by their having sunk for water in all directions in the beds of the creeks. I also think that it would be very desirable to establish the route to Cooper's Creek, and from Cooper's Creek to the north farther to the westward, as the eastern or upper part of the Creek, up to Camp 63, runs through earthy plains, which, even now arid in fine weather, are very difficult to travel over, but in winter or during wet weather they must be quite impassable for horses and cattle. I have, therefore, left instructions for the officers in charge of the party, which I expect will shortly arrive here, to endeavour during my absence to find a better and shorter route between the Depot (Camp 65) and Wright's Creek, or between the Depot and the Darling. I proceed on to-morrow with the party, to Eyre's Creek. (*Footnote; Burke, Wills, King, Gray, six camels, and one horse). And from thence I shall endeavour to explore the country to the north of it in the direction of Carpentaria, and it is my intention to return here within the next three months at latest. I shall leave the party which remain here under the charge of Mr Brahe, in whom I have every confidence. The feed is very good. There is no danger to be apprehended from the natives if they are properly managed, and there is, therefore, nothing to prevent the party remaining here until our return, or until the provisions run short. I did not intend to start so soon, but we have had some severe thunderstorms lately, with every appearance of a heavy fall of rain to the north; and as I have given the other route a fair trial, I do not wish to lose so favourable an opportunity. We are all in good health, and the conduct of the men has been admirable. Mr Wills co-operates cordially with me. He is a most zealous and efficient officer. I have promoted Mr Brahe to the rank of officer. The position he is now placed in rendered it absolutely necessary that I should do so. He is well qualified for the post, and I hope the committee will confirm the appointment. I have given instructions to Mr Brahe to forward this letter by the first opportunity.

I have, &c.
R O'Hara Burke, Leader.

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