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Cooper to the Gulf, 1861

'The following narrative, taken down from King's own lips, shortly after his return from the glorious but ill-starred expedition which resulted so fatally to its leaders, has never yet seen the light. It is now published, partly as a not unimportant contribution to the geographical literature of Australia, but chiefly because it will be found to contain some interesting descriptions of the country lying at the head of the numerous rivers which discharge their waters into the Gulf of Carpentaria. Excepting the occasional substitution of a more expressive word for that employed by King, we are assured that the narrative is a faithful transcript of his viva voca account of what he saw and suffered.'


Saturday, 14 May 1870.

Page 614.

On New Years morning, 1861, we had been for an hour upon the road, when we heard the muttering of natives, and presently numbers of them congregated on the sand hills and commenced “yabbering” and hallooing. They were armed and appeared to be digging into the sand hills for rats. Mr Burke rode off to conciliate them by the present of a few handkerchiefs and succeeded in pacifying them. After about two hours after starting, I was fortunate to discover a sheet of water running east and west, which Mr Burke did me the honour to name King's Creek. This water hole was about fifty yards long and about thirty broad and about twelve feet deep. Here we camped in order to give the camels rest and Mr Burke remarked, 'We are now sure of Carpentaria. One more waterhole and we are safe.' The country for a mile and a half to the eastward consisted of good salt bush plains, the banks of the creek being fringed with polygonum and portulac. Northward, and to the extreme east, stretched a stony desert – a dead, dreary and desolate flat.

Next morning, at breakfast time, the blacks came down to visit us. A grizzled old man, who appeared to be their chief and who was armed with a spear, advanced from the throng and accosted Burke. And here I might take the occasion to remark that the blacks here as elsewhere, seemed instinctively to recognise Mr Burke as the leader of our party, and invariably addressed themselves to him. The old chief pointed in the direction of the smoke to the north-west, giving us to understand there was water there and that he was uneasy at our presence. He dug his spear into the ground and gesticulated vehemently to the black fellows behind him, who seemed to be much amused by his grotesque animation; and he became so excited that he foamed at the mouth. We discharged a revolver over their heads, which induced them to retreat fifty yards. They wore no clothing; but their loins were encircled by a grass belt, from which they hung a tassel. In this belt were stuck their boomerangs. They employed slings composed of woven grass, smeared with gum, for the purpose of hurling stones at the cockatoos, which came down to drink at the water holes, and this they did with unerring effect.

An hour later the blacks returned to the camp unarmed and we gave them some damper, beads and lucifer matches. When we ignited one of the latter, they would commence clapping their hands, stamping their feet and looking towards heaven, crying out “Moko !” (fire). We saw no women with this tribe. They were fine, athletic fellows, and I may state generally that the physical aspect of the natives improved as we traveled northward. These blacks were going in a south easterly direction and made signs that we should find water to the north west; we parted and saw no more of them. By observations taken by Mr Wills, it appeared that we were now 70 miles to the eastward and 5 miles to the northward of Sturt's furthest. Mr Burke, who was always cheerful, hopeful and merry, on learning this, observed' “We have now a fair start. I believe this stony desert is very patchy and that we shall find water every two or three days: we can now say that we are in No Man's Land.” We shot plenty of ducks hereabouts. When disturbed they would fly off to the south east. We found the ants and mosquitoes extremely troublesome.

Our course on the 2nd January lay to the northward. We observed sand ridges to the westward running north and south for about two miles. The stony desert was visible to the east and north. This we came upon when we had been about three and a half hours on the road. Not a trace of vegetation could be seen, nothing but a bare, dead level. Towards evening, however, we discerned a few bushes ahead and found that they skirted the margin of a dry channel in which we camped for the night without water. Bronze-winged pigeons were numerous on the wing, flying from east to west. The camels found but scanty feed and we regaled them with a little oatmeal and sugar. At night there was something awful in the profundity of the silence, by contrast with which the slightest stir among our little party, the movement of a camel, and even its respiration, had a startling distinctness of sound. The purple sky, so intense in its depth of colour and so thickly studded with glittering stars, seemed to gather more closely round us and to be nearer to us, while the brilliant transparency of the atmosphere enabled us to look into space as it were and partially to fathom its depths with the naked eye. No language can describe the beauty of the sunsets in these latitudes. Evening after evening they would arrest and fascinate our attention by their magnificence by the gorgeousness of the colour which the western sky assumed, by the magical changes they underwent, by the fantastic and capricious forms which the clouds adopted, the solemn hush which followed the disappearance of the sun, and the gradual but rapid decline in brilliance of the hues which flushed that quarter of the heavens. Every morning the glorious cloud pageant presented itself to our delighted eyes under new aspects and every evening it left it in a stupor of admiration. The brief twilight followed and darkness speedily supervened. I must not omit to mention one singular phenomenon which we all observed and which excited Mr Will's special attention. From the time of leaving King's Creek until we crossed the ranges – that is to say, for the space of six days – we saw every morning three small clouds directly ahead of us. They seemed to melt away before noon, but they reappeared at the same point in the heavens, though not always under the same shape, with the utmost regularity the next morning. “There are the white clouds again !” was our exclamation every morning for as week; and we quite missed their customary appearance when they had ceased “to marshall us the way which we should go.” None of us could account for the phenomenon, which made a great impression on us at the time. In this part of the desert the surface was sprinkled with mussel and pariwinkle shells, together with a few quartzose pebbles.

On the 3rd, the country commenced gradually to rise, but not a blade of grass or a trace of vegetation. Nothing but the black desert – a plain of sterile gloom. We were the central figures of a vast circle and look to which point of the horizon we would, not another object broke the dreadful uniformity of the prespect. The ground beneath our feet was hard and hot and the sky overhead glowed like a dome of silver from which the pitiless sun poured down upon us a blaze of dazzling light and a stream of torrid heat. There was such a desolate sameness in our course, such an utter absence of all land marks by which to measure our progress that we scarcely appeared to advance at all. We swept the horizon as eagerly for the purpose of catching a sight of some object, as though we were on board a vessel upon the open sea and anxiously looking for a strange sail. Our thirst, of course, was intense; and the allowance of water to each man, on this and the following two days, was eight pints. Every hour during the heat of the day, Mr Burke would call out, “Water !” when each of drank half a pint, but it was quite warm and disagreeably oily flavour was communicated to us by the bags in which it was conveyed. After traveling for twelve hours, we reached some mud plains and observed a couple of emus to the northward. We also saw a good many bronze-winged pigeons making for the west. We crossed several dry channels all trending in that direction. There were a few tufts of dry grass and some scanty polygonum. We reached the spot where the emus had been feeding and found they had been eating a bush bearing fruit somewhat resembling the gooseberry, and which became very plentiful as we traveled northward. In the latter part of this day's march we saw some large mounds of stone and clay, not artificial.

Our course on the morning of January the 4th, lay over extensive mud plains covered with salt bush and furrowed by the dry channels of water courses. We found plenty of the long seed bearing grasses previously referred to and passed some deserted gunyahs. There were flocks of pigeons feeding on the plains and 50 or 60 of these birds would rise at once, circle round, and fly to the westward. After traveling for three hours, we again came upon the desert; but towards evening we observed the surface stones getting smaller and the shells becoming more numerous; betokening a change in the physical aspect of the country. For the last three hours, the plains over which we went gaped with huge fissures in which the camels would sink knee deep. On that evening Mr Burke observed' “We shall have a desperate push tomorrow. How many days will the camels hold out ?”. I replied that we might calculate upon them for three; for although the water was running short, they exhibited no craving for it, while the horse, which was allowed two buckets a day, was so eager for it that he would endevour to pull the tin pots in which we were boiling our tea, off the fire. We camped for the night on the mud plains.

Next morning we set out before breakfast, still traversing mud plains. As we were evidently approaching another patch of desert, Mr Burke altered our course to the north-west. Saw numerous bronze-winged pigeons flying to the east and returning to the west. After crossing mud plains all day, we saw towards evening, about five miles ahead of us, a line of trees running from north to south and west to east. The camels sniffed water in the distance, but having enough for our present use, we camped on the spot which Mr Wills designated as Green Island. It was a mound about 50 yards in diameter, covered with rich grass and gum trees, among which we found some deserted gunyahs, a dry creek running round it. The horse and the camels, however, found water and satisfied themselves, and Gray was dispatched to the timber where he found a beautiful creek. He saw some pelicans there and the smoke of native fires, recently abandoned. There was an abundance of portulac, but we did not at this time know its value.

Next morning we moved up to the creek, which we found to be lined with large box trees, under the root of one of which we found a great wasps nest. The creek expanded into a water hole, 250 yards long, 50 broad and very shallow, in which we washed the camels. Immense flocks of small birds of brilliant plumage came to drink at this spot and extensive salt bush plains stretched away on either side. Here we obtained some crayfish.

I believe this creek this creek to be a continuation of King's Creek and I think if we had altered our course to the north-west earlier, we should have struck it and followed it up.

Entering the tropics, we came upon a beautiful patch of heavily timbered country, with creeks (mostly dry) running in all directions. Flowers now began to display themselves in great profusion, the large white lily figuring very prominently among the other wild flowers. While we were encamped we saw smoke rising to the eastwards.

On the 8th, a violent thunderstorm broke over us, so that we had to strip and fold our clothes in the camel's packs. We started early with a load of water, determined to be independent of all creeks and water courses.

We passed at this time through some of the richest country and finest scenery I ever saw. We were knee deep in grass and portulac and it was impossible to restrain the ravenous appetites of the camels, or to exaggerate the delight they testified at such luxuriant feed. We saw some kangaroos, but could not succeed in shooting any. About 50 yards from the clay pan on which we camped was a fine creek, which we did not observe until we were about to start next morning. We fell in with a new description of tree, growing about 7 feet high. The branches began to issue from the bottom of the trunk and the foliage is thick and drooping like the willow. The leaf resembles that of a gooseberry and it has a kind of down upon it. The pea which it bears we ate, and found it palatable. This tree occurred right through the tropic to the Gulf of Carpentaria. We dug a well at the camp, hoping to find it full on our return.

Just before arriving at a spring on the 10th, we came upon some gunyahs, with the fires lighted. And some spears lying about. The natives had evidently decamped but recently. They were not visible, however.

Patten's Creek (or rather river) is one of the noblest streams we met with on the journey and is as wide as the River Murray. Another creek we named Dost Mahomed's Creek, after one of the sepoys we had left at the Depot. The mountain ranges visible in the east now began to assume a more imposing character. We had not crossed the creek half an hour before we heard the blacks halloing after us, and we subsequently fell in with two, who fled from us in terror.

The soil in the tract of country over which we passed next day resembled the rich black peat of the Irish bogs, with a slight admixture of gravel. There was plenty of surface water and nearly all the creeks were full. The face of the country was enamelled with flowers, all of which were entirely new to us. They were rich in colour and one plant bore a profusion of blossoms of different hues. Cotton bush abounded and we met with several of the native orange trees, the first of which was green and about the size of an ordinary peach; the leaf a dark green. We observed numerous gunyahs on the sides of the ranges towards which we were approaching and we noticed an abundance of wild turkeys.

On the 13th our course lay nearly due north and for about eight miles we traversed a rich flat.

On the 14th we wound our way through some ranges, which opened out upon a picturesque and pastoral country. Extensive amphitheaters were richly carpeted with succulent grasses, while the hills which enclosed them were lightly timbered with the mallee scrub, as likewise with the native orange tree, bearing a fruit resembling the Indian mango, with a similar, though smaller, stone.

The camels were very fond of this fruit and around a native camp which we passed were strewed fragments of the rind and stones. We noticed the black cockatoo for the first time since leaving the Darling, and birds of the most brilliant plumage flashed and sparkled in the sun and when they settled round the water holes to drink, they looked like a circlet of blazing jewelry. We made a good march this day and camped in the bed of a creek running east and west, with white gum trees fringing its banks. By scooping in the sand, as we had observed the natives had done, we obtained an abundance of clear, cold water. Messrs Burke and Wills ascended one of the neighbouring mountains, but could see nothing but a succession of ranges stretching from east to west.

Next day found us still threading our way among the ranges, creeping round their spurs wherever practicable. All the hollows were knee deep in grass and we recognised, not without emotion, the old familiar English nettle, but a stingless variety of that plant. Pigeons and turkeys were plentiful. We usually followed the water courses, but finding them trend too much to the eastward, we climbed over the shoulder of one of the mountains and found ourselves on something like a cul-de-sac. Messrs Burke and Wills clambered up to the top of a hill, and discerned six pillars of smoke to the northward. Finding a north-westerly course impracticable, we made for the west and were again arrested by the mountainous character of the country. However, we followed up the course of a creek for eight miles, until we found running water, and camped for the night on a pellucid pool. The bed of the creek was covered four inches deep with black sand and masses of granitic rock rose out of it. In fact, in most of the creeks in this region, black sand abounded. Mr Burke offered £5 to the first of us who should wash out a speck of gold, but we were unsuccessful. Nevertheless, I have no doubt of its existence, as the appearance of the country was thoroughly auriferous. We saw plenty of quartz veins cropping out of the ground. On the east side of the creek and extensive grassy plain stretched away to the feet of the mountains on that side; while along the margin grew some large gum trees, partially destroyed by the native fires. Portulac grew in profusion on the plain and the ranges were well covered with vegetation, masses of rock obtruding through the surface at intervals. On the west bank of the creek the ranges commenced rising abruptly from the border of the channel. These ranges now began to assume such imposing forms and to offer such an intricate labyrinth to the explorer, that for the first time Mr Burke's cheerfulness wavered and he seemed disheartened by the prospects before him.

Next day we halted in order to give the camels a spell, to repair the waterbags and to prepare for the arduous task before us. Paraqueets and hill parrots, resembling those I have seen in India came down in great numbers to drink at the water; and we were delighted with the scenery by which we were surrounded. These plateau were sufficiently elevated above the sea to render the heat of the climate very endurable, and the interchange of rugged mountains and smiling valleys were picturesque in the extreme. Mr Wills ascended one of the mountains in the hope of discovering a gap to the northward, but the attempt was ineffectual.

On the 17th January we pursued the course of the creek, intending to steer for the direction in which we had observed the volume of smoke and so long as we could keep in the hollows, all of which were channelled by creeks with water holes in them, our course was smooth enough; but the camels were severely tried in scaling the spurs of the mountains, over which we had to drag them in single file. White, black and grey cockatoos swarmed, as also did the native pheasant, one of which Mr Wills shot. It's plumage was dark, with a crested head, a long body and a long tail. We used to see it running up the trunks of trees in the hollows of which it appeared to have it's nest. In a pool of water, scarcely four inches deep, and which was very hot, and in rapid process of evaporation, we found some fish, about five inches long and two broad, very bony and apparently dying with the heat. The ranges at this part of our journey were very irregular, running from east to west and thence trending southward.

We made a long stage and camped in the bed of a creek without water; but observing some white cockatoos perched on a rock and on a tree which over hung it, we made for the spot and on scraping in the sand, some clear, cold water welled up immediately, in which we detected a mineral flavour.

Next day we took a northerly course skirting the foot of the ranges as far as was practicable. We saw a chain of mountains ahead, of a more majestic character than any we had passed and concluded that we were approaching the Dividing Range, as it subsequently proved to be. Great quantities of ironstone presented themselves and the specimens we picked up were so heavy that they must have been almost entirely composed of pure iron. Quartz veins, thinly crusted with red clay, cropped through the soil incessantly and all the surface appearances indicated that the soil was rich in mineral wealth. From any of the neighbouring eminences the aspect of the valleys, waving with verdure and channelled by meandering creeks, was winning in the extreme. The kangaroo and wallaby revelled in abundance and at every 40 or 50 yards we startled wild turkeys from their lairs. It seemed a pity that a soil so fertile, a climate so bland and a scenery so lovely should be unknown to any but ourselves, and in fancy we though of the change which this prospect would undergo when human settlement should have extended so far. Cottages nestling in orchards white with bloom; the water mill arresting the course of the mountain torrent and turning it to good account; shepherd's huts speckling the hill side; the village church cresting a green knoll; the quartz crushing mill and the iron works; the corn filed and the vineyard - these were the details of the picture which I sketched in my minds eye as eventually replacing the solitude which now spread before us. Towards evening, following down the water course, our progress was arrested by a range rising abruptly in front of us, so we struck off to the east, gradually gaining a higher elevation as we proceeded, until we reached a plateau, on which we found it expedient to camp and this was the first time since entering the tropics that we had camped away from water. Mr Burke climbed up the range in one direction and Mr Wills in another, but discerned nothing but ranges hemming us in at all points. At night a terrific thunderstorm broke over and around us. We were literally enveloped by it and the lightening was vivid and the rattling thunder resonant in the extreme. The downpour of rain, however, supplied us with water for the horse and camels.

On the 19th, when the fog rolled off at sunrise, I was fortunate to discern a pass, which Mr Burke did me the honour to name King's Gap, and through which I caught a glimpse of a green valley and gleaming water beyond. Burke says, "Let us have at it !" and at it we went. The height of the Dividing Range, as ascertained by barometrical measurement, was 2,500 feet. Here we threw away the camel's shoes, which we had found to be utterly useless, and we travelled for a mile and a half to the westward before we could find a practicable path to the pass. When we did so it was along the narrow channel of a small water course lined with dense mallee scrub. At length we emerged upon a platform of rock, from which we looked down upon a precipitous descent of 400 feet, so rugged and abrupt that it made us pause and for a moment recoil from the attempt to clamber down its declivitous sides. Mr Burke asked me if I thought the camels could do it and as I replied in the affirmative, we scrambled down one by one and reached the plain below in a quarter of an hour. Although the horse carried no pack he was considerably bruised by the descent, whereas the camels accomplished the work nobly, causing Mr Burke (who on setting out had conceived a prejudice against the use of camels), to remark that this was another illustration of their great value. Mr Wills named the route we took the Camel's Path. I should state that among the ranges we had seen several natural caverns, and that on issuing from the through King's Gap, Mr Burke called our attention to some isolated boulders, resembling in form and position the logans or rocking stones to be met with in various parts of Great Britain. Looking down upon the grassy plains beneath, herds of kangaroos were visible and the soil was manifestly increasing in fertility. The creek which had led us to the gap was one of the sources of the Cloncurry (or as we afterwards discovered it to be), the Flinders River . There were permanent water holes in natural basins among the rocks and these were full of beautiful fish, some of them 1 lb. in weight. The mosses at the waters edge were likewise covered with spawn. We saw volumes of smoke to the east and west and after getting into the plains made a fair days journey. In our progress down the creek we observed a profusion of wild flowers, including the white garden lily, the small pink, the tulip and something resembling the bluebell. Numerous creeks flowed into the Cloncurry both from the E and W and the water holes in some of them were so deep that we had great difficulty in crossing them. We camped at the junction of two of these creeks.

On the 20th we followed a north-easterly direction across a well grassed plain.

From the 21st to the 25th of January we were continuously engaged in following up the Cloncurry Creek, still threading a mountainous country intermingled with well grassed plains, out of which rose the graceful form of the date palm in great numbers.

On the 26th we crossed a slight range running from east to west. The moonlight in this region was very brilliant, its lustre resembling that of a soft daylight, and every object assumed a novel beauty and a peculiar charm when touched by its tender radiance. Cool sea breezes lowered the temperature to a point that was almost chilly by contrast with the torrid heat of the day and the profound stillness which surrounded us added to the impressive beauty of the lovely scenery, in the midst of which we camped.

So deceptive was the light that about half past one on the morning of the 27th, Mr Burke roused us from sleep and gave the order to start, under the impression that morning had dawned; nor did he discover his mistake until everything was ready for our journey, which we therefore prosecuted, following along the bends of the creek by moonlight and still pursuing a north-easterly course.

On the 28th, the plains which stretched away from us to the east and west appeared to be well grassed and sprinkled with box trees and groups of salt bush, but the creeks were lined with gum trees.

Next day one of the camels got bogged. Natives appeared in all directions, cooeying to us from the tops of the trees so that Mr Burke was apprehensive of an attack from them, but they refrained from any overt acts of hostility. We saw several camps, but no natives on the ground. They had all taken to their umbrageous citadels. The creek occasionally expanded into large water holes, about 60 yards long and four feet deep, and the banks were bordered with gum trees. We found a bush about ten feet high, bearing a fruit resembling the currant, but rather larger, sweet in flavour, and destitute of either stones of seeds. Adjacent to the creek, which expanded in proportion as we drew nearer to the north, the plains were devoid of timber, but richly grassed and presenting an abundance of portulac.

On the 30th, after making several unsuccessful attempts to extricate the camel from the bed of the creek, it was found necessary to leave him behind. The grassy plains through which we passed were traversed by native paths resembling bullock tracks. Volumes of smoke were discernable to the east and west. There was a good deal of salt bush around camp and we killed a large snake and several goannas.

Next day we still kept to the creek, which in this part was almost dry, though receiving three tributaries – two from west and one from the east. Some low ranges were visible to the north west . The general aspect of the country underwent no change. Plenty of kangaroos and birds innumerable enlivened the landscape; and the native pheasants were also very numerous.

On the 1st of February we were still tracking the creek, on the east bank of which were mud plains sprinkled with salt bush, while the opposite country seemed to be well grassed.

On the day following the country began to rise and the bed of the creek, along which we usually travelled, except when it made a bend, was broken up into numerous channels. The water we found to be strongly impregnated with iron. Wild turkeys and Sturt's pigeons abounded here and at the root of a tea tree, we discovered a spring of beautiful water. Finding the creek trending too much to the eastward, we provided ourselves with a supply of water. The precaution, however, was unnecessary, for the next day found us still to be by its side, winding through grassy plains and penetrating a small forest of dwarf gum trees and rejoicing in the partial shade which even these afforded.

On the 4th, very little timber was visible and the plains stretched away to the horizon. We saw smoke ahead; and the mosquitoes began to annoy us horribly.

Next morning, when about five miles on the road, we discerned a low range to the NW. A running stream of beautiful water entered the creek from the west. About ten miles from the spot on which we camped the previous evening, the water in the creek was continuous to the Gulf, though narrow and shallow; nevertheless we found it impracticable to ford it. From Camp 115, we could see the tablelands to the east and the intervening plains were luxuriantly clothed with grasses.

On the 6th it rained heavily and it was at this stage of the journey that we began to experience a cold northerly breeze. Saw some kangaroos and turkeys.

When we had been about seven miles on the road, on the 7th, Mr Wills remarked' “We are now in the explored country; and so far as I can calculate, upon the Plains of Promise.” We passed over a splendid tract of country in which we found a species of wild vine, bearing a red berry, having an acrid and nauseous flavour. From the roots we obtained a sort of spurious yam which was not at all savoury. Here the creek became irregular, and its channel was broken into gullies, with masses of rock jutting out of its banks, so we were obliged to keep at some distance from it. It was joined by a creek from the east in which direction we perceived some stony rises, where the wild turkeys appeared to swarm. The water in the main channel was very shallow and all the timber on its banks, quite dead. It was one of the most singular spectacles I ever saw. There was not a live tree to be seen. The white withered trunks, with their forked branches and snake like roots, were the image of desolation; and the effect was weird and spectral and eerie in the extreme. I should think they must have been like “the blasted pines” Manfred speaks of, “wrecks of a single winter, withered in a moment by a blaze of lightening.”

On the 8th of February we must have crossed Gregory's track of September 1856, but could find no trace of it. Herds of kangaroos were disporting on magnificent plains, heavily timbered in places with box. The banks of the creek were rocky and its bed widened, although the volume of water appeared to be less. At the side were little pools of brackish water and there were other evidences of the influence of the spring tide reaching this point.

Next day it rained in torrents and we began to keep an eager look out for a view of the sea. We kept away about two miles to the eastward of the creek, but struck into it again at night. The water was quite salt and it was evidently within the ebb and flow of the tide. The country again opened out into grassy plains to the east and west and tablelands were visible to the east.

On the 10th of February we camped about a quarter of a mile to the south of Billy's Creek and as we knew that we were within a comparatively short distance of the Gulf of Carpentaria, Messrs Burke and Wills set forward by themselves, in the hope to strike the course. Their journey has been narrated by Mr Wills.

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