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Chapter 15: Trapped at the Cooper...

Burke had decided not to follow Brahe back to Menindee along their outward track, but to follow down the Cooper and Strzelecki Creek on A C Gregory's 1858 track to the cattle station at Mount Hopeless. They rested a few days to recruit themselves and the camels and then they buried the camel box with a note and their journals. Afraid that the Aborigines might dig it up, they raked the ground and covered the hole with horse and camel dung, just as they had found it. The three men and two camels set off following Cooper Creek downstream.

Gregory had gone from Cooper Creek along Strzelecki Creek to Baker's Station at Mount Hopeless in less than a week with few problems. Burke and Wills however had difficulty locating where the Strzelecki branched off from the Cooper. They made several forays into the dry desert south of Cooper Creek, but were unable to find any water so they kept returning to the deep permanent waterholes of the Cooper that were an oasis in Sturts Stony Desert.

On Sunday 28th April 1861, Landa, one of the two remaining camels got bogged at Minkie Waterhole and they were unable to free the stricken animal. Landa was shot and as much meat as possible was removed and dried.

On the 7th May, Rajah, the last camel refused to get up even without a saddle or load. Burke and King shot the animal and dried what was left of its flesh. Without acamel to carry water, the men could not travel away from Cooper Creek. Wills wrote of their predicament :

We have been unable to leave the creek. Both camels are dead and our provisions are done. We are trying to live the best way we can, like the Blacks, but find it hard work.

The men occasionally camped with the Yandrawandha people and often the Aborigines offered the explorers gifts of fish and a small cake they made from nardoo. Nardoo (Marsilea drummondii) is a small four-leafed clover with a seedpod called a sporocarp. The Aborigines ground these up and cooked them with water to make a small cake or watery gruel. The explorers spent some time looking for the tree where the nardoo seeds could be harvested without much success, until on the 17th May they crossed a sandhill and saw a flat covered in nardoo. This caused great excitement for the men, as they now felt they could support themselves by making nardoo cakes whilst waiting for a rescue party to reach them.

Winter was approaching and the weather was turning cool, with the nights being intensely cold. The explorers' clothes and boots were in tatters and afforded the exhausted men little protection in the cold weather.

The three men camped on the Cooper around Tilcha Waterhole, mainly at a place they called Junction Camp. At the end of May, Wills left Burke and King here and returned to the Depot Camp at the Dig Tree to deposit his journals and leave a note explaining to any rescue party that the men were camped about 30 miles downstream. He reached the Dig Tree on the 30th May and wrote :

No traces of any one except blacks having been here since we left. Deposited some journals, and a notice of our present condition.

Brahe and Wright had been back to the Dig Tree, but because they believed Burke and Wills hadn't returned they hadn't altered the blaze or dug up the camel box. Because Wills believed no one had been back, he didn't alter the blaze either, but carefully reburied the camel box with his note and raked dung across the top to hide it from the Aborigines.

It took Wills a week to return to Burke and King at the Junction Camp. He found that whilst he was away, Burke had been cooking some fish when a gust of wind had set light to their gunyah (bough shelter) and all their possessions had been burnt except for a revolver and a gun. They decided to move camp to be near the Yandruwandha so they could get fish and nardoo from the Aborigines. However the Aborigines moved camp regularly and the explorers often found their camps deserted.

For the next couple of weeks they gathered nardoo and pounded it for food and followed the Aboriginals for fish and shelter as much as possible. However they all gradually became weaker and suffered much from the cold weather. On the 20th June, Wills wrote :

I am completely reduced by the effects of the cold and starvation. King gone out for nardoo. Mr Burke at home pounding seed; he finds himself getting very weak in the legs. King holds out by far the best; the food seems to agree with him pretty well.

…I cannot understand this nardoo at all; it certainly will not agree with me in any form. We are now reduced to it alone, and we manage to get from four to five pounds per day between us. The stools it causes are enormous, and seem greatly to exceed the quantity of bread consumed, and is very slightly altered in appearance from what it was when eaten.

The men were becoming extremely weak, Wills' pulse was down to 48 and his arms and legs were reduced to skin and bone. They were too exhausted to gather enough nardoo seed to sustain themselves, so at the end of June 1861, it was decided that Burke and King would head up the creek to find the Aboriginals, leaving Wills in a gunyah.

On the second day of travelling up the creek, Burke became too weak to continue, so he and King camped near Mulkonbar Waterhole. King collected nardoo for dinner and they shot a crow. In the morning, Burke was unable to get up and he asked King to place his pistol in his right hand and leave him unburied when he died. At about eight o clock that morning, Burke died. His last note read :

King has behaved nobly and I hope if he lives he will be properly rewarded.

King has stayed with me till the last. He has left me, at my own request, unburied, and with my pistol in my hand.

Burke’s grave at Coopers Creek.

King stayed with Burke's body for a few hours then returned to the gunyah where they had left Wills with a fewdays supply of nardoo cakes.

When he returned he found Wills was dead. The Aborigines had taken some of Wills' clothes and placed the boughs of the gunyah over his chest. King buried him in the sand then took off to find the Yandruwandha in the hope that they would give him food. King was all alone on Cooper's Creek and hundreds of miles from the nearest white man.

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