as told to Edwin Welch at the Cooper Depot, September 1861.
Original item held at the State Library of New South Wales, ML C332, CY Reel 1115, Edwin James Welch, 'Diary of Howitt Expedition, 26 June - 6 December 1861.
Mr Burke, Mr Wills (Surveyor), Grey, and King left the depot at Camp LXV on Cooper's Creek on the 16th December 1860 with provisions for 3 months, taking 6 Camels + 1 Horse.
Pursuing a steady course northwards, they reached the Gulf of Carpentaria on the ___ ___ remaining only 3 days on account of the short allowance of provisions, having left 1 Camel
They returned by a different route, hurrying as much as possible to reach the Depot before the provisions were all consumed. On the way back they killed the Horse and two Camels for Meat, and lost one camel, leaving them with only two to finish the journey. They had of course to walk and throw away everything, with the exception of what little food they carried. Mr Wills's instruments &c.- &c.- were buried in the desert. Two days before reaching the depot, and Gray gave in, telling them when he turned in at night that he felt he could not live until morning; he went to sleep and never awoke, being perfectly exhausted and reduced by starvation. With great difficulty they managed to dig a grave about 3 feet deep in the sand and buried him.
The remaining three pushed on at once for the Depot and to explain the narrative from here it is necessary to go back a little. When Mr Burke and party left the Depot on Cooper's Creek, he left there a small party in charge of stores &c.-, comprised of Mr Brahe, Baltani (sepoy), McDonough, and Patten, with instructions to wait for three months at any rate and longer if they could, but he confidently expect to return within the time named. This party remained until the 21st of April, 1861 when in consequence of one man (Patten) being in a dying condition, and the others suffering slightly from scurvy, Mr Brahe the officer in charge, having more than fulfilled the time mentioned, thought it prudent to retire into the settled districts, in the hopes of saving of Patten, and more over the length of time since the departure of the expedition had led him to conclude that they had either failed in their object, or returned to the settled districts by a more convenient route.
He accordingly buried all the provisions he could spare, and with the aid of camels and horses returned to Bullo, where he joined Mr Wright's party. He left the depot camp at 10.00 AM proceeding eastward, and Mr Burke, Mr Wills and King reached the same camp at 7.00 PM on the evening of the same day. They saw the date cut in the tree, and the recent tracks, but unfortunately had not strength sufficient to follow them. They were all there in a very exhausted state, owing to the want of proper nourishment and the two Camels they had with them, had with difficulty been brought in at all. In this dilemma they found the tree marked "Dig" and soon and brought to light the small quantity of provisions which had so recently been buried there. They remained at the Depot 5 days, recruiting their strength and that of the camels and in the meantime decided upon making their way into the settled districts via Mount Serle, as being the shortest, + one on which Mr Burke was supposed to have understood from the committee, he would find the best travelling, with plenty of water.
Having buried despatches, field books &c.- they filled up the hole and left it as before, without leaving any external mark of the visit. (This fact will to a certain extent explain our having supposed it to be undisturbed, and for Mr Brahe, who was again at the place with Mr Wright a fortnight afterwards, had not noticed the disturbance, neither did he when we passed last week, and seeing nothing to indicate Mr Burke's return we of course concluded that it was untouched.)
On leaving the camp, they pursued a westerly course down the creek, making easy stages and finding themselves much improved. Unfortunately in endeavouring to crossed the creek, previous to striking south, one of the camels got bogged in a quicksand and united efforts for upwards of 24 hours, were not successful in extricating him. They accordingly shot him and cut off as much of the flesh as they could carry, which they stopped and dried.
This with his loading they shared amongst themselves to carry, and travelled very slowly. The remaining camel however, was rapidly giving in, and shortly afterwards was unable to get up off his knees. This consummated their misfortunes. They had to kill this beast also, and take as much of the meat as they could, and each with a heavy swag proceeded on their way.
They followed a branch creek for some miles to the southward which they found eventually lost itself in the channels of an earthy plain, and accordingly had to retrace their steps to the last water left. All were beginning to feel more or less the effects of these numerous hardships, and hoarding of their small remaining stock of provisions made their way on to the main creek, with the intention of recruiting there for a short time preparatory to making another attempt. Unhappily however each succeeding day found them weakened, and as their short rations were finished, they had to adapt the means of living like the natives.
Their principal article of food under these circumstances, was a seed called by the natives "Nardoo" which is indeed a stable amongst the natives themselves. This is a small seed, found in great abundance about the creek and in fact in nearly all the wet or swampy ground to the Nd. of Torowoto. It grows on a small plant about 6 inches in height, looking something like clover, and as it ripens drops the seeds upon the ground. These are swept up, grounded between two stones, and sifted with the rough means at command; the residue is then made up in balls with water, and heated on the ashes. This sort of bread, with a few fish which they had given them at times by the natives, who were very friendly, kept them alive. They ocasionally succeeded in shooting a crow or hawk happening to come near their camp, but were too weak to seek for game.
During this time, poor Wills made a trip to the Depot on foot, between 30 + 40 miles, to bury some more of his books in the plant. On this trip he underwent great hardship and exposure, and returned to the camp exhausted. The weather was very fine, days very warm, but the nights very cold and as they had a very scanty supply of clothing they felt the changes severely. Wills became so bad that he could not move out of his the gunyah. Burke and King were gradually getting weaker, but the latter managed to keep them supplied with nardoo, which he also had to pound and cook, the others being unable. Wills apparently suffered most; the Nardoo passed through him as soon as eating, with great pain and he was totally unable to rise from the ground.
Matters had now become so serious, that Burke and King, the two strongest, consented at the urgent request of Wills, to leave him and seek for the blackfellows, as being a their only chance of salvation, by procuring food. The idea of separation was not a pleasant one, but seeing that they had no hope of saving either his life for their own, they consented, and after leaving a supply of nardoo, water and firewood within his reach, they departed. At this time, as he himself describes it, his pulse was at 30, and he felt he could not last long, but looked forward with hope to the return of his comrades.
Mr Burke and King proceeded up the creek, anxiously looking for the natives but unfortunately he could not see any. After going about 12 or 15 miles, the former gave in and told King he could not possibly manage to go any further. King however succeeded in persuading him to another attempt, which proved but a short one, + he again sank on the ground. As luck would have it, at this spot they found a nardoo patch from of which King succeeded in extracting enough flour to make a small ball, and was fortunate enough to shoot a crow. Of this repast they both partook heartily, and Burke expressed himself much refreshed, but still too weak to proceed. The night was very cold, which they felt severely, more especially King, who had no clothing save a dilapidated pair of flannel trousers and the remains of a pair of boots.
During the night Burke said he felt comfortable, but that he was dying + extracted a solemn promise from King, that when dead, he would on no account bury or cover his body, but leave it as he died, uncovered, this pistol placed in his right hand. He gave no motives for this very extraordinary request, but made a note to that effect in his memorandum book to exonerate King from any blame. He also wrote a few lines for the committee as follows:
In addition to this he wrote a few lines respecting the disposal of his property and gave the book to King. At about eight o' clock in the morning of the following day (29th of June/61) he breathed his last and King was left alone. He left the body as he had promised, and proceeded farther up the creek, with the noble object of procuring assistance for Wills, from the blacks. He continued to suffer much both from hunger and fatigue, but still prosecuted his search.
He was however unsuccessful in finding the natives themselves; but on camping one night in one of their deserted gunyahs, he had the good fortune to find a large supply of nardoo which had been left behind by the owners. With this he determined to return to Wills, which he succeeded in doing in four days, having spelled two days to recruit his strength at the spot on which he found the seed, shooting a crow also at the same place.
To his great consternation and dismay he found that poor Wills had also died. He found him lying in the gunyah just as they had left him, apparently some days dead, and many articles of clothing having been stolen by the blacks, who however good for their disposition, are always found incorrigible thieves.
He had now no alternative but to remain where he was, + accordingly erected another gunyah close to the spot, in which he camped for a fortnight, subsisting upon the nardoo which he had so luckily found when up the creek. This being nearly finished, he covered up the body as well as his strength would admit, with boughs and sand, and again wandered off in search of the natives.
He luckily soon fell in with the tribe, who were very kind to him for the first two days, but finding that he had nothing to give away, they signed him to go. Knowing however that his only chance was in remaining with them, he determined on doing so + pertinaciously followed them about from one camp to another, until they at last began to look upon him more as one of themselves, + showed signs of pity for his desolate condition. He gave them to understand that other white men would eventually come for him, and they allowed him to remain with them, the women supplying him with a share of nardoo, and the men with a share of fish. By the aid of his gun he sometimes got a crow or hawk, and but reserved as much as possible his ammunition, in case of need.
Living in this state, we found him, more like an animated skeleton than anything else, and a complete blackfellow in almost everything but the color.