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The Gulf back to the Cooper, 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, 21 May 1870.

Page 648.

Messrs Burke and Wills returned to Camp 119 on the forenoon of the 12th and Mr Burke said:

We have vainly tried to get a glimpse of the sea; but we have accomplished our task for here is the tide. Our rations are running short and it is not worthwhile to incurr any further risks for a nominal object when the actual work is achieved.

I may add that we saw numerous pelicans and other sea birds.

Our store of rations on turning southward consisted of 83 lbs flour, 31 lbs pork, 35 lbs dried meat, 12 lbs biscuits, 12 lbs rice and 10 lbs sugar. Somewhat enfeebled by our arduous journey across the continent, we nevertheless began to retrace our course with feelings of cheerfulness and pride. We had fulfilled the work we had undertaken to perform and had solved the problem in attempting the solution of which so many brave men had perished. We had no longer the excitement of hope to sustain us, but we were still animated by the anticipations of returning home and receiving the congratulations of our friends. Our stock of provisions, it is true, was very scanty, but some privation would be endurable, because every step we took would bring us nearer to the bounds of civilisation and nearer also to cooler regions than those in which we then were.

Our journey back to Cooper's Creek offers little ground for comment. At first we found the ground so boggy that we made but little headway. This however, we afterwards compensated for by forced marches. The herbage was drier than on our up journey: and all the incidents which occurred are so accurately noted in Mr Wills diary, that it is unnecessary for me to repeat them.

On our return journey from the Gulf, our stock of provisions became so greatly reduced that on crossing the ranges, about twelve days travel from the sea, we were put on short rations. Our daily allowance for a month was ¼ lb of flour, 10 sticks of dried camel's flesh and as much portulac as we chose to gather. Two of us rode and two walked, alternately the whole way back; and both Gray and myself suffered severe pains in our legs and back. We experienced no lack of either water or grass on our homeward journey. Our mode of securing equality in the distribution of rations was this; Mr Burke used to apportion them in four plates, which he would cover with a handkerchief or towel, and then, on turning our backs upon them, we would signify the number of plate we chose.

On the evening before his death, Gray travelled seven miles on a camel and passed a sleepless night.

Next morning, April 17, 1861 , we found him dead. We remained a day to bury him, but were so weak that we could with difficulty accomplish it. But for this untoward delay, we should have reached the Depot before Brahe and his party quitted it.

The day previous to our arrival at Cooper's Creek, we were allowed to eat as much dried meat as we chose, so confident was Mr Burke of finding the Depot party there and of obtaining plenty of provisions.

I may add that our disappointment at finding the Depot abandoned seemed to excite a feeling of merriment in the mind of Mr Wills, whose philosophy was essentially that of Mark Tapley.

We arrived with two camels only, after a forced march of 30 miles. We were all exceedingly weak, but animated by the expectation of obtaining immediate succour. Mr Burke was a little ahead of us and frequently fancied he could detect the gleam of the tents in the distance, but was cruelly undeceived when reaching the spot. Even then, however, he imagined that the party must have shifted to some other position on the creek, as the possibility of their departure was scarcely entertained. Had we followed them up we should have been saved. We found in the "plant", 50 lbs flour, 50 or 60 lbs oatmeal, 20 lbs rice, 15 lbs dried meat and 50 lbs sugar.

During my residence among the blacks, I acquired an imperfect knowledge of their language and a partial insight into their manners and customs. They appeared to be destitute of both a religion and of a priesthood. They treated their wives very kindly and were extremely fond of their children. The married couples had separate gunyahs and conjugal fidelity seemed to be rigidly observed. In travelling, the males of the tribe carried the chief burdens, such as the fishing nets and the primitive stone mills with which they pound the nardoo; the women merely carried the "peechee", a utensil composed of the bark of trees in which they gathered the nardoo. At night they used to lay their nets, which were about 10 yards long and two broad, in the creek, and on examining them in the morning they usually found a large haul of fish. These, when grilled on the fire, they would devour ravenously. I have seen one man eat as many as thirty for breakfast. At supper, also, they would eat to repletion and fall back on the spot where they had squatted and sink into a profound sleep. They manifested a great horror of waste and would pick up any morsel of fish or nardoo that fell from their fingers, and swallow it with avidity, dirt and all. Because I was less careful and more scrupulous, they would be very angry with me. Towards the very old members of the tribe, they behaved with marked disrespect and most undefilial scorn, contemptuously flinging them articles of food, as much to say, "We begrudge supporting you, now that you are too aged or infirm to support yourselves". The women were perfectly naked, but their instinctive modesty constantly betrayed itself in the presence of the other sex. My gunyah was in the centre of the camp and thither the women whose arm I had relieved, used to come and gratefully "yabber" to me by the hour.

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