Burke & Wills Web
The online digital research archive of expedition records
© 2020

by Eliza Berry

Australian Explorers in Rhyme
Brisbane: Gordon and Gotch.


Burke & Wills

The thousands cheer, the banners wave,
The glorious sun shines down,
When Burke and Wills, the gentle, brave,
Set forth to seek renown,
With Landells, King, and fated Gray,
All smiling in farewell;
The woes are hid on that bright day,
That future annals tell.

His party strong, with fatal speed,
O' Hara Burke divides,
To Wright, the stranger, gives the lead,
And all the camp confides;
But ill-requited is the trust,.
And pregnant of mischance;
That blunder caused their deaths unjust,
Our pity does enhance.

Advancing now with seven men,
He reaches Cooper's Creek,
And all despatches from his pen,
Good news and hopes bespeak;
But sore they chafe at Wright's delay,
Whose time has long been due,
For having found Menindie gay,
He slights, his promise true.

Imprudent now is Burke's resolve
His men to subdivide,
For thus do greater ills involve,
And chances worse betide.
With three assistants, leaving Brahe
The Depot to command,
Brave Burke and Wills, with King and Gray,
Their mission take in hand.

In August (sixty) had been made
The start from Melbourne town,
And now upon their course delayed
December's beam comes down;
Then Brahe enjoined three months at most
To wait for Burke's return,
They face their goal, the northern coast,
To reach the 'Gulf' they burn.

Now resolute their rapid march
Beneath the tropic beam,
Till palms luxuriant overarch
Cloncurry's welcome stream.
From Cooper's Creek through plains well grassed,
With water all the way,
Their journey of six weeks had passed
Unnoticed day by day.

Cloncurry followed, meets a stream
That eager they explore,
For at its mouth, they rightly deem
Is Carpentaria's shore;
But camels weak, provisions low
Their hearts must heavy be,
With half three hundred miles to go
Before they reach the sea.

The horse and camels bog and fall,
And Burke and Wills, alone,
Encounter sufferings would appal
The veriest heart of stone
But triumph is at last in store,
The continent is crossed ! ----
The 'Flinders', at the northern shore,
In salt morass is lost

What matter flood and noxious damp,
When victory is theirs?
Why trouble that the mangrove swamp
Their view of sea impairs ? ---
For they have reached the flowing tide,
The breathe the salt sea air,
And with a glorious sense of pride,
They leave a record there.

Now joined again with King and Gray,
To Cooper's Creek they bend,
Predicting sad how best they may
Their slender stores extend;
But hopeful yet while health remains,
Although allowance small,
They hasten through the tropic rains
Which now incessant fall.

'Twas February twenty-first
Had seen them start for home,
In March the truth upon them burst,
That evil days must come:-
The camels killed to eke out food
And sickness on poor Gray,
Fresh woes upon each day intrude
And hunger marks his prey.

Exhausted, starved, but hopeful still,
That help may yet be near,
The leaders, with heroic will,
Their weaker comrades cheer;
But hope for one is now no more,
The slowly dying Gray:
His last words said long days before,
He gently sinks away.

That 'tis foreshadow of their own,
How little thought have they,
While Burke and Wills his death bemoan,
And smooth the lonely clay;
Or that this duty-call obeyed,
Would prove their last sad knell
Ah ! but for these few hours, delayed,
What different tale to tell!

With effort born of hope's last gleam,
The final stage is done,
When, oh, too horrible to dream,
They find that Brahe is gone ! --
Despairing 'coo-ees' rend the air,
For answer, echo's call;
No tents for weary limbs are there,
Deserted, silent, all.

Their horror now to realize
Needs no heroic. pen,
Its bitter truth speaks from the eyes
Of three despairing men
Poor Wills, in searching finds a tree
Marked 'Dig three feet to west',
They dig, and food and letter see .
Within a hidden chest.

And, ah, but started on that day'
The abject three now learned,
When near five month's had passed away,
And Burke had not returned;
Advised by Wills to follow on,
'Twas pity Burke denied,
For Brahe had but a few miles gone,
His camp by sickness tried.

The diary of gentle Wills,
A record clear and true,
Details the sufferings, straits, and ills
Their hapless fate pursue;
In evil hour does 'Burke decide
Mount Hopeless route to take;
For now with stores afresh supplied
His sanguine hopes awake.

Down Cooper's Creek as slowly wends
Their solitary way,
The hardest heart some pity lends
To martyrs such as they;
Weak, ragged, soiled, with almost shame
Each meets his comrade's face,
Though feeling they to others' blame
Their present woes must trace.

Now stooping over desert plain
To gather black 'nardoo',
Again reduced by hunger's strain,
For natives' food to sue;
See Wills of scientific lore
Now 'jerking' camel's meat,
Now searching wide the heavens o'er
For path to guide their feet.

Of 'nardoo grinding' from the tribes
The secret now they hold,
A native food that Wills describes
As tasteless, dry, and cold;
At last within the hut he lies,
But useful still to grind
He speaks of weakness in surprise,
But murmur, none, we find.

Last hope, poor Burke and King, depart
Reluctant from his side,
And Wills beholds with aching heart
His leader's broken pride;
Now near, sufficient for eight days,
Nardoo and water stand;
The farewells are a long, last gaze,
And wave of feeble hand.

Two days upon the weary quest,
And Burke succumbs in pain;
He creeps beneath a bush to rest,
No more to rise again ;
With King he leaves his watch in care,
And then his last command:
That he shall lie unburied there,
A pistol in right hand.

Two heirlooms now has King in store,
For friends a sad 'goodbye',
Of gentle Wills we see no more,
Who waits the hour to die ;
Expecting calm the Master's call,
Within that 'gunyah' shed ---
Oh, lightly let our footsteps fall
Beside a hero dead!

Now back to Wright who pretext sought
To gloss his long delay,
And fearful of some mischief wrought,
Made speed on meeting Brahe;
They searched the Depot o'er and o'er,
But strange, no traces found,
While Wills, by complication sore,
Had once again been round

The end of June in sixty-one,
Saw hunger lay them low,
While horsemen swift by Wright sent on,
Took news so fraught with woe:
Six months since Burke had disappeared
Within the forest gloom,
What wonder anxious thousands feared,
And guessed aright their doom ?.......

Alfred Howitt

.......One universal feeling swayed
The colonies at large,
That active search at once be made,
With leading men in charge.
First Howitt from head-quarters sent,
Explorer fit and brave,
With party strong his steps are bent
The lost to find, or save.

Next Queensland prompt gives welcome aid,
With Landsborough in the van,
While Walker from Rockhampton laid
His great north-central plan ;
From Adelaide McKinlay's band,
With Hodgkinson, our own,
His vigorous 'second in command
Are on the centre thrown.

O'er toilsome sands, through scrub and plain,
Did Howitt take his way,
Exploring tracks long weeks in vain,
Accompanied by Brahe ;
Success at last his efforts crowned,
When near the lone Barcoo,
In native hut poor King was found,
Who tears of pity drew.

A wasted shadow, squalid, weak,
In tattered remnants clad,
With laboured breath essays to speak
To eager listeners sad;
And fearful is the whispered tale ---
Starvation, death, and woe,
That from those trembling lips so pale,
Comes, faltering and slow.

Restored by European food,
Poor King becomes their guide
To Wills' lone grave, who buried rude
Reposes where he died;
And sadly now they seek the spot
Where one more hero lies,
Where Burke's remains neglected rot
Beneath the withering, skies.

They tender fold in 'Union Jack',
And mark a second grave;
King's sable friends reward, then back
And woful news they gave ! ---
The long procession slowly moves,
The death-bell sadly tolls;
And monumental marble proves
The worth of two brave souls......

McKinlay and Hodgkinson

.......McKinlay next with Hodgkinson
From Torrens to Barcoo,
And Gregory's track the keep upon,
Till near Lake Kallhi-View;
By natives' hut a grave is found,
Enclosing 'white man's' clay;
The bones within the lonely mound,
Were those of hapless Gray.

Now Hodgkinson with tidings sent
Returns with news of King;
Then east and west their steps are bent,
Through summer, autumn, spring
Where lakes reflecting first white man,
Tempt limbs unduly warm,
And 'parrot, pigeon, pelican,
Alliterative swarm.

Impatient now they wait for rain,
To make the northward move,
Through weary weeks the hope is vain,
And clouds deceptive prove;
But come at last, the start is made
Through flats and hills of sand;
And sickness soon is on them laid,
With floods on every hand.

Through stony creek and spreading flood,
By forest, range, ravine,
Till at the Leichhardt's mouth they stood,
But steamer none was seen;
McKinlay's band of dauntless will
Ten months from, Adelaide,
Had weeks of toil and hunger still,
Ere Burdekin was made.......


.......In the 'Victoria' steamer north,
With Norman in command,
Did Landsborough go bravely forth
To search throughout the land ;
Near ' Barrier Reef' mishaps prevailed
Their ' tender' being wrecked,
And Norman then, his stores curtailed,
Did ration lists correct.

From Brisbane had the start been made
In August, 'sixty-one',
But being now thus sore delayed,
And plans infringed upon,
October found them working still,
Beside the 'Albert' stream,
While Norman strove with right good-will,
To further Landsborough's dream.

With three white men and 'black boys' two,
And horses for the stores,
Brave Landsborough bade his friend adieu,
And left the northern shores ;
South-west the 'Gregory' met and named,
And many a stream beside,
Where threatening savages untamed
His patience sorely tried.

Of Burke and Wills no traces found,
He makes his final move,
With light equipment south-west bound,
Their lives or deaths to prove
The Flinders, Warrego, Barcoo,
Beneath his gaze unfold,
And Melbourne reached, a hero true
In Landsborough is extolled !

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© 2020, Dave Phoenix