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Chapter 6: To the Darling...

On the 11th September 1860, the Victorian Exploring Expedition crossed the Murray River at Swan Hill and set off into New South Wales. They couldn't manage without the additional three hired wagons, so Burke contracted them to go onto the Darling, however the additional expense was of major concern to him. By the time they reached Balranald a week later, Burke had decided to reduce the wages bill by dismissing some of the men. Initially he told the men that he had been ordered by the Committee to leave them behind, saying he hoped to be able to send for them later. However, Ferguson, the foremanchallenged Burke regarding this decision, (to a fight or a duel by some accounts). Initially, Burke promised to send for the men when he was at the Darling, however, later Burke admitted he wanted to dismiss the men. He offered to take Ferguson and Langan on at reduced salaries - an offer that Ferguson refused. In the end, Burke dismissed Ferguson, McIllwaine and Langan.

After Balranald the VEE headed for the River Darling at Bilbarka (just north of today's Pooncarie). The ground was soft and sandy and sometimes the wagons travelled at little more than one mile an hour. Dr Hermann Beckler wrote of the difficulty the wagon horses faced :

...the horses were required to draw their wagons not only through wild desert and through deep, loose sand and pathless mallee scrub; they were also required to draw them through land where there was no water...>

...the torment of the wagoners, their unavoidable shouting back and forth and the extreme agitation and strain connected with such exertion by the horses, who were already half worked to death, awakened in every one of us feelings of sympathy for the drivers and of pity for the animals...

...there was loose, red sand into which we sank over the ankles at every step. The thickest mallee conceivable hemmed in the narrow track left by the occasional traffic; overhanging boughs tore our wagon covers to shreds. It was the wildest land imaginable...

...the wagon wheels sank deep into the soil as did the horses and we were often forced to come to the aid of one or the other half-buried wagon wheel with a shovel. After minutes of gradually increasing shouting and yelling, often to the point of despair, the horses were perhaps able to pull together, only then to stop exhausted again a few paces further on. The wagoners all became so hoarse that they could hardly utter an audible word. Dozens of times the horses had to be unharnessed from one wagon in order to help another out.

When the party reached Gambanna, one of the last camps before reaching the Darling, Burke decided to lighten the load on the animals and wagons further. He announced that each man was only allowed to carry 30lbs (13kg) of personal equipment and each man had to :

'...walk, inch for inch, all the way up to the Gulf of Carpentaria.'

as the camels and the horses were required to carry stores. He told Becker and Beckler

'...now Gentlemen from this time you have to give up your scientific investigations but to work like the rest of the men, as long as you are on the road or not free from camp-duties; at the same time you have to limit your materials and other things required for your investigating.'

This was a revelation to the scientific officers who had been employed by the Royal Society to explore in the name of science. Burke didn't want the hindrance of a large scientific contingent which would slow the exploration party and he certainly didn't want the 52-year old German artist Dr Becker to make it to the north coast, as it would appear the journey was easy and anyone could make it. Burke decided to walk Becker until he gave in. In a letter to Frederick Standish, Burke wrote :

You should have seen old B- -'s face upon my announcing that all officers would have to act as working men, and that we shall only carry 30 lb weight of baggage for each man. Loading for camels then marching 20 miles is no joke. The first two days of it nearly cooked poor B- -, and I think he will not be able to stand it much longer.

Landells had called into question Burke's authority with regards to the handling of the camels. He insisted that the camels be given doses of rum to warm them and ward off scurvy. Several times the men had been into the rum, and at Phelps' Tarcoola Station the shearers had got drunk with the expedition's supplies. Matters came to a head when Burke and Landells argued over the best way to get the camels across the Darling at Kinchega. Landells wanted bring the camels across in a punt, but no suitable vessel could be found. Burke overruled Landells' authority, placing Wills in charge of swimming the camels over. Landells decided to resign from the expedition and Dr Beckler announced his resignation in sympathy for the way Landells had been treated. Wills was promoted to Second-in-command and Dr Beckler agreed to stay on at Menindee until a replacement could be appointed.

Burke knew that the rival South Australian explorer, John McDouall Stuart had returned to Adelaide after his third attempt to cross the continent. Burke would have been pleased to know he was ahead of his rival, but he also knew that Stuart never rested long in Adelaide and would soon be back on the road north.

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© 2020, Dave Phoenix