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The online digital research archive of expedition records
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by Howard Milligan, © 1978.

A sprig of light, Volume 2 : Taxi tales & Burke and Wills,
Geelong West.
n.d., circa 1978.

Four sweltering months to the gulf and back
then Burke, Wills and King
shuffled into the empty camp
on the banks of Cooper's Creek

The base party had finally left
just seven hours before,
carving on a helpless tree
'Dig for buried stores'.

So Burke, Wills and King
fatally changed direction,
to the station south and west
across an unknown section.

Dragging their disappointment
from the lonely Depot tree,
they turned away from Cooper's Creek
into waterless savagery.

With stone-red hundreds and thousands
the only thing on earth,
the curve of the plain was solemn
it extended its fearful dearth.

Forty three miles it took
for the bareness to turn them back
to the only gleam of survival,
the tree-loaded Cooper's track

So again near Innarninka
their shrivelled bodies came
to complete their long exhaustion,
and chew the cud of blame.

There was no Trading Post then
for men who were starving and weak,
but they at least had water
in the reaches of the creek

For like a brother to the Murray,
it has just as wide a bed
between steep entwining banks
where the crowding trees are fed.

The neatly-ordered mind of Wills
was the first to recede.
Asking to be left behind
so that the others could move on,
he lay in a rough native hut
near bushy bean-seed trees
and the tallness of big river gums;
good companions for a death that lingers.

Burke's end was later
some heavy miles further on
where there is grandeur in the river.
A great width of water
enlivens the swans and pelicans
and the shrieking snow-clouds of cockatoos;
the white sand is spilled like a beach
between the coolibahs.

Here he could lie upon
the long hardship of the journey,
the many-tiered tragedy
of tangled chance just missing chance,
how they were drawn forward
only by the will,
for months the ceaseless strong slogging on.

All he can do now
is watch across to the west,
w here the transforming brilliance of orange light
from the apparent dying of the sun.

King now critically alone,
made himself acceptable again to the blacks;
wandering with them on the Cooper.
It was only their responsive kindness,
that kept him living
for another two months,
until reclaimed by the whites.

center of this finality,
its redness of land
drenched with purple
of their blood;
where the iron paths of their feet
soon became
the iron crossing of these inland roads.

www.burkeandwills.net.au Burke & Wills Web The digital research archive of expedition records
© 2020, Dave Phoenix