Burke & Wills Web
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& the Australian Exploring Expedition of 1860

Andrew Jackson
London: Smith, Elder & Co.
(Ferguson 10857)

Chapter 10

  • The Object of the Expedition accomplished. Messrs. Burke and Wills prepare to return to Cooper's Creek.
  • Particulars furnished by King.
  • Diary of the Return Journey.
  • Arrival at Cooper's Creek.

The incidents related in the preceding field-book (No. 9) refer to a journey on foot undertaken on the 9th of February, 1861, by Messrs. Burke and Wills, with the view of reaching, or at least obtaining a sight of, the open sea. In this, however, they were disappointed, in consequence of the swampy nature of the ground near that part of the coast, which rendered their progress extremely tedious and difficult. They proceeded, however, about fifteen miles down the Flinders river, keeping as near to its banks as possible, when, finding that the tide ebbed and flowed regularly, and that the water was quite salt, they determined on returning. They had successfully accomplished the great object of their mission, by ENTIRELY CROSSING THE AUSTRALIAN CONTINENT FROM SOUTH TO NORTH.

The reduced state of their provisions rendered it absolutely necessary that they should return to Cooper's Creek as soon as possible; and on the 12th of February, having rejoined King and Gray, who had been left at Camp 119 in charge of the camels, all prepared to commence their glad journey Homeward.

They started on the 13th of February. The weather was very wet, for it had been raining continually, and the camels were up to their knees in mud, so that their stages for a considerable time did not exceed four or five miles a day. This circumstance no doubt interfered with the regularity of the entries in the diary.

Before returning to the Diary, it may be well to furnish the following particulars given by the survivor King in his evidence before the Royal Commission.

Immediately after starting, the allowance of provisions became considerably reduced, and the party were obliged to rely very much on the portulac. They had at first five camels (*Footnote; The camel 'Golah' had been left behind on 30th January), and the horse 'Billy', but were, in the course of their journey, obliged to kill three camels as well as the horse; for the animals became knocked up, and the flesh helped to save the party from starvation. Two walked and two rode, so as to spare the camels as much as possible. .

Gray first began to complain, and gradually grew worse. King was then attacked with pains in the legs and back, which he attributed to the fatigue of walking and the short allowance of provisions; for they were at last reduced to a quarter of a pound of flour each daily, a little dried camel meat, and such allowance of portulac as they could gather. King, however, recovered himself a good deal. Mr Burke was ill for a little time, from having eaten part of a large snake which they had killed; but he got better. Mr Wills suffered the least.

Gray ultimately died, about four days before the party reached the Depot at Cooper's Creek. He had complained of suffering from dysentery, although a usual well-known symptom of that disease did not appear ; and this circumstance, joined to his accounts of himself, as compared with what was felt by the others, led them to believe that he was shamming. It was also discovered that he was in the habit of secretly consuming more than his fair share of rations, when the sufferings of the whole party from famine were very great; and for this offence, King states that Mr Burke gave him “six or seven slaps on the ear." But the party were all on good terms even after this circumstance, and when Gray's illness became matter of certainty, his companions were as kind to him as, poor fellows, it was in their power to be. They buried him as decently as they could; it must affect the stoutest heart to know that survivors were all so extremely weak, that it as was much as they could do to dig his grave: indeed, they were obliged to halt a whole day for that purpose. When it is added, as will appear hereafter, that the delay of this very day caused additional suffering to the party, and resulted in the loss of the lives of both Messrs. Burke and Wills, language becomes too feeble to describe the painful sensations to which the mournful reminiscence gives rise.

Journal of the return from Carpentaria to Cooper's Creek.
(Transcribed by Mr James Smith.)

Tuesday, February 19, 1861.-Boocha's Camp.

Wednesday, February 20, 1861.-Pleasant Camp 5, R.

Thursday, 21 February. Recovery Camp; 6 R.
Between four and five o'clock a heavy thunderstorm broke over us, having given very little warning of its approach. There had been lightning and thunder towards S.E. and S. ever since noon yesterday. The rain was incessant and very heavy for an hour and a half, which made the ground so boggy that the animals could scarcely walk over it; we nevertheless started at ten minutes to seven A.M., and after floundering along for half an hour halted for breakfast. We then moved on again, but soon found that the travelling was too heavy for the camels, so camped for the remainder of the day. In the afternoon the sky cleared a little, and the sun soon dried the ground, considering. Shot a pheasant, and much disappointed at finding him all feathers and claws. This bird nearly resembles a cock pheasant in plumage, but in other respects it bears more the character of the magpie or crow; the feathers are remarkably wiry and coarse.

Friday, 22 February. Camp 7 R.
A fearful thunderstorm in the evening, about eight P.M., from E.S.E., moving gradually round to south. The flashes of lightning were so vivid and incessant as to keep up a continual light for short intervals, overpowering the moonlight. Heavy rain and strong squalls continued for more than an hour, when the storm moved off W.N.W. The sky remained more or less overcast for the rest of the night, and the following morning was both sultry and oppressive, with the ground so boggy as to be almost impassable.

Saturday, 23 February. Camp 8 R.
In spite of the difficulties thrown in our way by last night's storm, we crossed the creek, but were shortly afterwards compelled to halt for the day on a small patch of comparatively dry ground, near the river. The day turned out very fine, so that the soil dried rapidly, and we started in the evening to try, a trip by moonlight. We were very fortunate in finding sound ground along a billibong, which permitted of our travelling for about five miles up the creek, when we camped for the night. The evening was most oppressively hot and sultry, so much so that the slightest exertion made one feel as if he were in a state of suffocation. The dampness of the atmosphere prevented any evaporation, and gave one a helpless feeling of lassitude that I have never before experienced to such an extent. All the party complained of the same symptoms, and the horses showed distinctly the effect of the evening trip, short as it was. We had scarcely turned in half an hour when it began to rain, some heavy clouds having come up from the eastward in place of the layer of small cirro-cumuli that before ornamented the greater portion of the sky. These clouds soon moved on, and we were relieved from the dread of additional mud. After the sky cleared, the atmosphere became rather cooler and less sultry, so that, with the assistance of a little smoke to keep the mosquitoes off, we managed to pass a tolerable night.

Sunday, 24 February. Camp 9 R.
Comparatively little rain has fallen above the branch creek with the running water. The vegetation, although tolerably fresh, is not so rank as that we have left; the water in the creek is muddy, but good, and has been derived merely from the surface drainage of the adjoining plains. The melaleneus continues on this branch creek, which creeps along at the foot of the ranges.

Monday, 25 February. Camp 10 R.
There has been very little rain on this portion of the creek since we passed down; there was, however, no water at all then at the pans. At the Tea-tree spring, a short distance up the creek, we found plenty of water in the sand, but it had a is agreeable taste, from the decomposition of leaves and the presence of mineral matter, probably iron. There seems to have been a fair share of rain along here, everything is so very fresh and green, and there is water in many of the channels we have [crossed].

Tuesday, 26 February. Caple-tree Camp;11 R.

Thursday, 28 February. Reedy Gully Camp; 12 R.
Came into the Reedy Gully Camp about midnight on Tuesday, the 26th; remained there throughout the day on Wednesday; starting at two A.M. on Thursday.

Friday, 1 March, 1861. Camp of the Three Crows; 13R.

Saturday, 2 March. Salt-bush Camp; 14 H.
Found Golah. He looks thin and miserable; seems to have fretted a great deal, probably at finding himself left behind, and he has been walking up and down our tracks till he has made a regular pathway; could find no sign of his having been far off, although there is a splendid feed to which he could have gone. He began to eat as soon as he saw the other camels.

Sunday, 3 March. Eureka Camp; 15 R.
In crossing a creek by moonlight, Charley rode over a large snake; he did not touch him, and we thought that it was a log until he struck it with the stirrup iron; we then saw that it was an immense snake, larger than any I have ever before seen in a wild state. It measured eight feet four inches in length and seven inches in girth round the belly; it was nearly the same thickness from the head to within twenty inches of the tail; it then tapered rapidly. The weight was 11 [and a half] lbs. From the tip of the nose to five inches back, the neck was black, both above and below; throughout the rest of the body, the under part was yellow, and the sides and back had irregular brown transverse bars on a yellowish brown ground. I could detect no poisonous fangs, but there were two distinct rows of teeth in each jaw, and two small claws of nails, about three-eighths of an inch long, one on each side of the vent.

Monday, 4 March. Feasting Camp; 16 R.
Shortly after arriving at Camp 16 we could frequently hear distant thunder towards the east, from which quarter the wind was blowing. During the afternoon there were frequent heavy showers, and towards evening it set in to rain steadily but lightly; this lasted till about eight P.M., when the rain ceased and the wind got round to west; the sky, however, remained overcast until late in the night, and then cleared for a short time; the clouds were soon succeeded by a dense fog or mist, which continued until morning. The vapour having then risen, occupied the upper air in the form of light cir.-stratus and cumuli clouds.

Tuesday, 5 March. Camp 17 R.
Started at two A.M. on a S.S.W. course, but had soon to turn in on the creek, as Mr Burke felt very unwell, having been attacked by dysentery since eating the snake; he now felt giddy and unable to keep his seat. At six A.M., Mr Burke feeling better, we started again, following along the creek, in which there was considerably more water than when we passed down. We camped, at 2.15 P.M., at a part of the creek where the date trees (*Footnote: Probably Livistonas) were very numerous, and found the fruit nearly ripe and very much improved on what it was when we were here before.

Wednesday, 6 March. Camp 18 R.
Arrived at our former camp, and found the feed richer than ever, and the ants just as troublesome. Mr Burke is a little better, and Charley looks comparatively well. The dryness of the atmosphere seems to have a beneficial effect on all. We found yesterday, that it was a hopeless matter about Golah, and we were obliged to leave him behind, as he seemed to be completely done up and could not come on, even when the pack and saddle were taken off.

Thursday, 7 March. Big-tree Camp; 19 R.
Palm-tree Camp, No. 104 Latitude, by observation, coming down, 20° 21' 40".
There is less water here than there was when we passed down, although there is evidence of the creek having been visited by considerable floods during the interval. Feed is abundant, and the vegetation more fresh than before. Mr Burke almost recovered, but Charley is again very unwell and unfit to do anything; he caught cold last night through carelessness in covering himself.

Friday, 8 March. Camp 20 R.
Followed the creek more closely coming up than going down. Found more water in it generally.

Saturday, 9 March. Camp 21 R.
Reached our former camp at 1.30 P.M. Found the herbage much dried up, but still plenty of feed for the camels.

Sunday, 10 March. Camp 22 R.
Camped at the junction of a small creek from the westward, a short distance below our former camp, there being plenty of good water here, whereas the supply at Specimen Camp is very doubtful.

Monday, 11 March. Camp 23 R.
Halted for breakfast at the Specimen Camp at 7.15 A.M., found more water and feed there than before; then proceeded up the creek and got safely over the most dangerous part of our journey. Camped near the head of the Gap in a flat, about two miles below our former camp at the Gap.

Tuesday, 12 March. Camp 24 R.

Wednesday, 13 March. Camp 25 R.
Rain all day, so heavily that I was obliged to put my watch and field book in the pack to keep them dry. In the afternoon the rain increased, and all the creeks became flooded. We took shelter under some fallen rocks, near which was some feed for the camels; but the latter was of no value, for we had soon to remove them up amongst the rocks, out of the way of the flood, which fortunately did not rise high enough to drive us out of the cave; but we were obliged to shift our packs to the upper part. In the evening the water fell as rapidly as it had risen, leaving everything in a very boggy state. There were frequent light showers during the night.

Thursday, 14 March. Camp 26 R; Sandstone cave.
The water in the creek having fallen sufficiently low, we crossed over from the cave and proceeded down the creek. Our progress was slow, as it was necessary to keep on the stony ridge instead of following the flats, the latter being very boggy after the rain. Thinking that this creek must join Scratchley's, near our old camp, we followed it a long way, until finding it trend altogether too much eastward, we tried to shape across for the other creek, but were unable to do so, from the boggy nature of the intervening plain.

Friday, 15 March. Camp 27 R.

Saturday, 16 March. Camp 28 R. Scratchley's Creek.

Sunday, 17 March. Camp 29 R.

Monday, 18 March. Camp 30 R.

Tuesday, 19 March. Camp 31 R.

Wednesday, 20 March. Camp 32 R. Feasting Camp.
Last evening the sky was clouded about nine P.M., and a shower came down from the north. At ten o'clock it became so dark that we camped on the bank of the creek, in which was a nice current of clear water. Today we halted, intending to try a night journey. The packs we overhauled and left nearly 60 lb. weight of things behind. They were all suspended in a pack from the branches of a shrub close to the creek. We started at a quarter to six, but were continually pulled up by billibongs and branch creeks, and soon had to camp for the night. At the junction of the two creeks just above are the three cones, which are three remarkably small hills to the eastward.

Thursday, 21 March. Humid Camp, 33 R.
Unable to proceed on account of the slippery and boggy state of the ground. The rain has fallen very heavily here to-day, and every little depression in the ground is either full of water or covered with slimy mud. Another heavy storm passed over during the night, almost [extinguishing] the miserable fire we were able to get up with our very limited quantity of waterlogged and green wood. Having been so unfortunate last night, we took an early breakfast this morning at Camp 33, which I had named the Humid Camp, from the state of dampness in which we found everything there; and crossing to the east bank of the main creek, proceeded in a southerly direction nearly parallel with the creek. Some of the flats near the creek contain the richest alluvial soil, and are clothed with luxuriant vegetation. There is an immense extent of plain, back, of the finest character for pastoral purposes, and the country bears every appearance of being permanently well watered. We halted on a large billibong at noon, and were favoured during dinner by a thunderstorm, the heavier portion of which missed us, some passing north and some south, which was fortunate, as it would otherwise have spoiled our baking process, a matter of some importance just now. We started again at seven o'clock, but the effects of the heavy rain prevented our making a good journey.

Friday, 22 March. Muddy Camp, 34 R.
Had an early breakfast this morning, and started before sunrise. Found that the wet swampy ground that checked our progress last night was only a narrow strip, and that had we gone a little further we might have made a fine journey. The country consisted of open, well-grassed, pebbly plains, intersected by numerous small channels, all containing water. Abundance of fine rich portulac was just bursting into flower along all these channels, as well as on the greater portion of the plain. The creek that we camped on last night ran nearly parallel with us throughout this stage. We should have crossed it, to avoid the stony plains, but were prevented by the flood from so doing.

Saturday, 23 March. Mosquito Camp, 35 R.
Started at a quarter to six and followed down the creek, which has much of the characteristic appearance of the River Burke, where we crossed it on our up journey. The land in the vicinity greatly improves as one goes down, becoming less stony and better grassed. At eleven o'clock we crossed a small tributary from the eastward, and there was a distant range of considerable extent visible in that direction. Halted for the afternoon in a bend where there was tolerable feed, but the banks are everywhere more or less scrubby.

Sunday, 24 March.Three-hour Camp, 36 R.

Monday, 25 March. Native-Dog Camp, 37 R.
Started at half-past five, looking for a good place to halt for the day. This we found at a short distance down the creek, and immediately discovered that it was close to Camp 89 of our up journey. Had not expected that we were so much to the westward. After breakfast, took some time altitudes, and was about to go back to last camp for some things that had been left, when I found Gray behind a tree eating skilligolee. He explained that he was suffering from dysentery, and had taken the flour without leave. Sent him to report himself to Mr Burke, and went on. He, having got King to tell Mr Burke for him, was called up, and received a good thrashing. There is no knowing to what extent he has been robbing us. Many things have been found to run unaccountably short. (Smith's transcription ends here: the rest of this text is derived from the published versions of the journal) Started at seven o'clock, the camels in first-rate spirits. We followed our old course back (S.). The first portion of the plains had much the same appearance as when we came up, but that near Camp 88, which then looked so fresh and green, is now very much dried up; and we saw no signs of water anywhere. In fact, there seems to have been little or no rain about here since we passed. Soon after three o'clock we struck the first of several small creeks or billibongs, which must be portions of the creek with the deep channel that we crossed on going up, we being now rather to the westward of our former course. From here, after traversing about two miles of the barest clay plain, devoid of all vegetation, we reached a small watercourse, most of the holes in which contained some water of a milky or creamy description. Fine salt bush and portulac being abundant in the vicinity, we camped here at 4.30 A.M. When we started in the evening, a strong breeze had already sprung up in the south, which conveyed much of the characteristic feeling of a hot wind. It increased gradually to a force of five and six, but by eleven o'clock had become decidedly cool, and was so chilly towards morning that we found it necessary to throw on our ponchos. A few cir. cum. clouds were coming up from the east when we started, but we left them behind, and nothing was visible during the night but a thin hazy veil. The gale continued throughout the 26th, becoming warmer as the day advanced. In the afternoon it blew furiously, raising a good deal of dust. The temperature of air at four P.M. was 84° in the shade. Wind trees all day.

Tuesday, March 26, 1861. Salt-bush Camp

Wednesday, March 27, 1861. Camp 39 R.

Thursday, March 28, 1861. Camps 40 R.

Friday, March 29, 1861. Camp 41 R.
Camels' last feast; fine green feed at this camp: plenty of vines and young polygonums on the small billibongs.

Saturday, March 30. Camp 42 R. Boocha's rest.
Poor Boocha was killed; employed all day in cutting up and jerking him: the day turned out as favourable for us as we could have wished, and a considerable portion of the meat was completely jerked before sunset.

Sunday, March 31. Camp 43 R. Mia Mia Camp.
Plenty of good dry feed; various shrubs; salt bushes, including cotton bush and some coarse kangaroo grass; water in the hollows on the stony pavement. The neighbouring country chiefly composed of stony rises and sand ridges.

Monday, April 1, 1861. Camp 64 R.

Tuesday, April 2, 1861. Camp 44 R. Thermometer broken.

Wednesday, April 3, 1861. Camp 45 R. Salt Meat Camp.

Thursday, April 4, 1861. The Plant Camp.

Friday, April 5, 1861. Camp 47 R. Oil Camp.
Earth and clayey plains, generally sound and tolerably grassed, but in other places bare salt bush, and withered.

Saturday, April 6 1861. Wild Duck Camp. Camp 48 R.
Earthy flats, cut into innumerable water courses, [succeeded by] fine open plains, generally very bare, but having in some places patches of fine salt bush. The dead stalks of portulac and mallows show that those plants are very plentiful in some seasons. [Towards noon came on] earthy plains and numerous billibongs.

Sunday, April 7, 1861. Camp 49 R.
The next day the water and feed much dried up, and nearly all the water has a slightly brackish taste of a peculiar kind, somewhat resembling in flavour potassio-tartrate of soda.

Monday, 8 April. Camp 50 R.
Camped a short distance above Camp 75. The creek here contains more water, and there is a considerable quantity of green grass in its bed, but it is much dried up since we passed before. Halted fifteen minutes to send back for Gray, who pretended that he could not walk. Some good showers must have fallen lately, as we have passed surface water on the plains every day. In the latter portion of to-day's journey, the young grass and portulac are springing freshly in the flats, and on the sides of the sand ridges.

Tuesday, 9 April, 1861. Camp 51 R.
Camped on the bank of the creek, where there is a regular field of salt bush, as well as some grass in its bed, very acceptable to the horse, who has not had a proper feed for the last week until last night, and is, consequently, nearly knocked up.

Wednesday, 10 April, 1861.Camp 52 R.
Remained at Camp 52 R all day, to cut up and jerk the meat of the horse Billy, who was so reduced and knocked up for want of food that there appeared little chance of his reaching the other side of the desert; and as we were running short of food of every description ourselves; we thought it best to secure his flesh at once. We found it healthy and tender, but without the slightest trace of fat in any portion of the body.

Thursday, 11 April 1861.
Plenty of water in creek down to this point.

Friday, 12 April 1861.
Extensive earthy plains, intersected by numerous watercourses.

Saturday, 13 April, 1861.
Small watercourses lined with lakes. Plenty of saltbush and chrysanthemums on either side. Camped on Stony Desert.

[Note by transcriber.- Up to this point it appears from Mr Wills's field-book, the expedition never passed a day in which they did not traverse the banks of, or cross, a creek or other watercourse.]

Sunday, April 14, 1861.

Monday, 15 April, 1861.
It commenced to rain lightly at five a.m. this morning, and continued raining pretty steadily throughout the day. Owing to the wet and the exertion of crossing the numerous sand ridges, Linda became knocked up about four o'clock, and we had to halt at a claypan amongst the sand hills. [The party seems to have crossed a creek near a native camp, about ten AM.]

Tuesday, 16 April 1861.

Wednesday, 17 April, 1861.
This morning, about sunrise, Gray died. He had not spoken a word distinctly since his first attack, which was just as we were about to start.

Thursday, 18 April, 1861. [Another creek and native camp were passed.]

Friday, 19 April, 1861.
Camped again without water, on the sandy bed of the creek, having been followed by a lot of natives who were desirous of our company, but as we preferred camping alone, we were compelled to move on until rather late, in order to get away from them. The night was very cold. A strong breeze was blowing from the S., which made the fire so irregular that, as on the two previous nights, it was impossible to keep up a fair temperature. Our general course throughout the day had been SSE.

Saturday, 20 April
No entry appears under this date, for now the weary travellers strained every nerve to reach their goal; and it may readily be imagined with what excited feelings they looked forward to the welcome hour which was to restore them, happy and exulting, to their home and friends once more. We learn from King that they had had no provisions, except the dried horse-flesh, for fifteen days previously; and on this day they were allowed to eat as much as they chose, not having the remotest shadow of a doubt that the morrow would bring them to a full supply of food and clothing, and to a happy meeting with the companions they had left behind.

On the 21st they pushed on thirty miles. Mr Burke rode one of the camels, Mr Wills and King the other. The poor animals, doubtless, did their best, imagining that they too were approaching a land of plenty. Mr Burke was a little in advance ; and it is touching now to read how he often said, “I think I see their tents ahead;" how he called out the names of his men several times, fondly expecting to hear their voices in reply; but not receiving any answer, supposed that they must have merely shifted to some other part of the creek. Alas! on arriving in the evening at the Depot, to their consternation, they found it deserted. On the morning of that very day, the hearts of the men left at Cooper's Creek had yielded to fears for their own safety, and they were gone !

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