The Dig Tree: the story of Burke and Wills

dig tree
The Dig Tree at Depot 65, Cooper Creek: Photo: Derek Barry

I’ve known about the infamous Burke and Wills expedition for as long as I can remember. Yet I have always resisted the story until I realised I was doing that primarily for silly nationalistic reasons: the leader of the failed expedition, Robert O’Hara Burke was a vainglorious fool from Ireland. His superior attitudes caused him and his men to starve when native people around him thrived in that harsh environment. It was Irish racism I didn’t want to acknowledge.

But my indifference to the Victorian Exploring Expedition of 1860-1861 was slowly worn away as it intersected with another study in 19th century Australian exploring failure: the disappearance of Ludwig Leichhardt a decade earlier, and in the same part of the world. I was also lucky enough to visit the Dig Tree in 2011. I lapped up the great narrative of Burke and Wills and its bad luck and “what if” moments. The final nail in the coffin of my uncaring was a move to Mount Isa this year. I cover much of the country the expedition charted, a thousand kilometres from Birdsville in the centre to Karumba on the Gulf. I am reminded of Burke and Wills whenever I drive between Isa and Cloncurry with a monument to them at Corella Creek. So I revisited the story via Sarah Murgatroyd’s excellent book The Dig Tree. The book too was a tragedy as the young BBC reporter was diagnosed with cancer while she researched it. She died in 2002 three weeks after the book was published, aged just 34.

Her story begins at a time when European Australians hugged the coast. The interior was a vast unknown. Explorers like Eyre on the Nullarbor in 1841 and Leichhardt in north Queensland in 1844-45 never went far inland. Leichhardt may later have drifted inwards but his disappearance merely added to the mystery of the “dead heart” of an inhospitable continent. Charles Sturt ventured into the Simpson Desert until defeated by vast gibber plains, giving his name to Sturt’s Stony Desert.  Yet as the 1850s progressed, the confident new gold-rich colony of Victoria decided to flex its muscles and launch a search for Leichhardt. As one newspaper said, that the interior of the continent should remain a mystery was a reproach “to the Australian communities in general but especially to Victoria”.

There was a second practical reason for opening up the centre. The telegraph was turning the world into a global village but Australia remained isolated. The race was on to see which southern city would be the terminus for a cable to the northern shoreline and on to south-east Asia. South Australia had the advantage of being the first port of call of ships and also the most direct line to the north but Victoria was leading the challenge from the other colonies.

The Victorian Exploration Committee decided to solve the problem of crossing the continent with camels and imported two dozen Indian camels from horse trader George Landells. But the expedition spluttered due to lack of funds, and South Australia got the jump, thanks to dour Scotsman, John McDouall Stuart. Stuart travelled to Cooper Creek with his near-namesake Sturt in 1844, giving him a taste for inland exploration. From 1845 to 1858 Stuart tried farming and ended up as a surveyor with the knack of finding good pastures in rough country.

He was dispatched to disprove the theory there was salt lakes to the north that would halt South Australia’s expansion. Travelling light, he discovered the area around Coober Pedy until low food supplies forced him back via new country on the Nullarbor Plain.  A year later Stuart found a chain of springs north of Lake Eyre with a ready supply of fresh water, which led him on to the interior supported by a grateful colony. When South Australia offered a prize for the first person to cross the continent, it re-awoke Victorian ambitions and sparked a search to find an expedition leader. The response was poor and the committee bickered over candidates. Stuart set off again in March 1860, determined to collect the South Australian prize.

Victoria finally came up with a shortlist, and on it was Castlemaine police superintendent Robert O’Hara Burke, recommended by a fellow officer.  The committee wasted three months trying to split the candidates, and the camels did not arrive from India until June. Finally they chose Burke, who had never been beyond the settled parts of Victoria and who was notorious for getting lost coming home from the pub.

Burke was a Galway Protestant who served for the Catholic Austrian army where he cultivated a rakish image. But when he went AWOL, he faced court martial and resigned. He joined the Irish police until he moved to Melbourne in 1853 to help a Victorian police force desperate to impose order on lawless goldfields. Burke was eccentric but popular with subordinates and took an active part in country life. He struck up a relationship with young actress Julia Matthews though her mother took her away to Melbourne. Burke had better luck cultivating important friendships including committee chair Sir William Stawell.

Burke was appointed leader of a ragtag expedition which gathered in Melbourne in July 1860. Burke chose men with the right connections rather than exploring experience. One of the few good decisions was to appoint 26-year-old Englishman William Wills as surveyor only one who could navigate. Camel man Landells was second in command. Burke’s official instructions were to set up a depot at Cooper Creek which Sturt found, and then travel north to Leichhardt’s track. On August 20, the expedition with its exotic camels was like a circus leaving town and travelled just 11kms to Essendon. Three men were sacked before they left Royal Park leaving a team of 19, all without experience in the inland.

The expedition ran into heavy rain as it moved slowly through Victorian villages making camp gear sodden and grinding the wagons to a halt. It was also dangerous to ride the camels. By the time they got to the Terrick-Terrick Plains near the Murray River leadership tensions emerged. Burke left the camels and the running of the camp to Landells while he found the nearest pub or farmhouse instead of camping. Locals crowded the camp but also took advantage to overcharge for fodder and accommodation. At Swan Hill Burke realised the expedition would have to shed baggage. He decided to set up a new depot at Menindee on the Darling and the team was reduced to 14.

The bad weather continued as they entered NSW and Burke dismissed three more at Balranald. He took a short cut to Menindee through rugged Mallee country which exhausted his draught horses. Rather than save time, the forward party had to cross the country three times to rescue the wagons. From there on, the party would walk. Landells complained the camels were overloaded before reaching the desert and was reproached for the rum he brought, supposedly as a camel pick-me-up.

Burke arrived in Menindee on October 14, Landells and the camels a day later. When he arrived Burke ordered new second-in-command Wills to tell Landells he was fired.  Landells stormed off to Melbourne where he began to trash Burke’s reputation. Menindee, in Baagandji country, was the edge of European settlement. It relied on a fortnight steamboat service to bring up supplies from Adelaide and send back wool. The expedition was heading 600km north to Cooper Creek in the hottest time of the year. Burke split his expedition taking seven men and three-quarters of the horses and camels with him. He was determined to head to the Gulf and become the first man to cross the continent. The rest would wait in Menindee for further instructions.

Burke took local bushman William Wright as a guide and third-in-command, and after 10 days reached Torowoto Swamp 250km north of Menindee. Burke ordered Wright to return to Menindee and bring up the remainder of the camp while Burke continued to Cooper Creek. After 23 days they reached the creek system and summer rains made it a rich green environment which reminded Wills fancifully of England. The creek was the home of the Yawarrawarrka and Yandruwandha peoples who lived in temporary wurley shelters moving as water and food supplies allowed. They feasted on birds, lizards, marsupials and snakes but relied on native plants such as mulga apples, native figs and an aquatic fern called nardoo which had seeds they ground into a paste and baked.

Burke’s party knew none of this but they found a magnificent waterhole where they camped without permission. Wills said natives gesticulated when they approached a waterhole but the visitors made no effort to establish relations. Lack of local knowledge would eventually cost the party dearly. Exploratory sorties found no obvious way north and Wills almost died when camel took off 130km from the Creek, leaving a long thirsty walk back. A plague of native rats gnawed their gear forcing Burke to move to Depot 65, where the Dig Tree now stands. They waited in vain for Wright to bring the camp up. The Menindee crew refused to accept Wright’s authority and letters to Melbourne went unanswered. An impatient Burke decided to dash to the Gulf. On December 16, 1860 he left William Brahe in charge of Depot 65 and took six camels, one horse and three men (Wills, John King and Charles Gray) with him. Burke asked Brahe to stay three months at Cooper Creek but Wills pleaded with him to stay four months if possible. The expedition had now divided into three.

The forward party followed the Creek north before hitting the gibber plains. They travelled as far as possible before the day heated up. Then they would rest in the camels’ shadow before continuing in the evening. Each night King laboriously hacked the letter B and the camp number into the bark of a tree. The former Irish soldier was Landell’s recruit and his dutiful calm was rewarded with a spot in the forward party. He looked after the camels while ex-sailor Gray was the strongman who did the work around camp.

Travelling 25 kilometres a day, by December 23 they found the Coongie Lakes, home of the Yawarrawarrka people, who welcomed the bizarre strangers at their waterholes. It was good progress but too slow for their rations. The terrain varied between claypans, boggy grounds and red dunes. They profusely but wouldn’t drink until rest points so felt bloated and sick, slowing them down further. They got lost in the Channel Country until they found the Diamantina River near present day Birdsville which would lead them towards the Georgina system and the north coast. They passed locals who pointed out the best billabongs. The worst of the desert was behind them.

With the country improving they reached modern-day Boulia when a camel rolled on Wills’ equipment which damaged the accuracy of navigational calculations. There was still rough country to traverse. The Standish and Selwyn ranges in Kalkadoon country remain difficult terrain today with red walls of stone dividing gorges and sharp ridges. On January 27 they passed the site of Cloncurry (named for Burke’s cousin Lady Cloncurry) and headed north-west via the Corella river. Three days later was Drop Dead Day, the point of no return of their rations, but they continued north.

It was the “build-up” to the Gulf wet season of stifling humidity and spectacular storms on the horizon. In February a camel fell into a bog and was abandoned, with a redistribution of load to the other beasts. They followed the Flinders River to the north coast, but the shoreline remained invisible in thick trees. The camels could not travel in the muddy estuary and Gray and King made camp at Camp 119 at the Bynoe and Flinders river junction while Burke and Wills tried to find the ocean.

The terrain was impassable mangrove swamps which Burke and Wills had neither the time nor energy to cross. They got 20km from the coast when they were forced to turn around without seeing the sea. Burke was satisfied the committee would accept they had completed the mission. As they turned south from Camp 119 the monsoon broke and it rained in torrents. They were continually stuck in mud. It had taken two months to get to the Gulf now the race was on to get back to Cooper Creek in another two – assuming Brahe acted on Wills’s suggestion not Burke’s.

Brahe’s men were coping with dwindling supplies, stultifying boredom and petty fights with pilfering locals who viewed the whites as unfriendly. Back in Menindee Wright finally got money and orders from Melbourne and set out north on January 26. Burke’s party headed south retracing steps to old camps. A food audit on February 12 found they had eaten three quarters of their provisions forcing them to decrease their daily ration. They supplemented this with the native plant portulac which Wills said tasted like spinach and it saved them from scurvy. But the big man Gray was declining and weakened rapidly in March. After three months they were still 1100km from the Creek. On March 25, they discovered Gray was stealing food. Burke knocked him down and Gray was banned from looking after the supplies.

On March 30 they sacrificed the weakest camel and jerked the meat. A few days later the horse gave way and they feasted on his stew.  At Coongie Lakes Gray deteriorated and after being strapped to a camel, the sailor died in the middle of the desert on April 17. They stopped a day to bury him and discarded all but the essentials. The men began to think of their homecoming as telltale signs of the Cooper came into view. On April 21 – 127 days after leaving – they arrived at Depot 65 to find it empty but the ashes of a fire still warm. Wills saw a carving on a coolabah. “DIG UNDER 3 FT NW”. It had the date inscribed – also April 21. After waiting four months and one week, Brahe had enough and his party left that same day.

Burke collapsed in the dirt, the terrible reality confronting him. They had missed them by eight hours – about the time it took to bury Gray. They followed the dig instructions and found a note with Brahe’s intention to head back down the track and it said no one had arrived from Menindee. There was also flour, sugar, tea and dried meat.

Brahe said his men and horses were in good condition so there was little chance of Burke catching up with them. Wills and King wanted to follow Brahe to the Darling but Burke took the fateful decision to head south-west to Mt Hopeless, 250km away in South Australia. Gregory used that police outpost on his 1858 journey from the Cooper to Adelaide but Burke forgot Gregory had eight men, 40 horses and plenty of supplies. King reburied the trunk to not arouse suspicions of the locals. He asked Burke if they should leave a new message on the tree. “No”, said Burke, “the word DIG serves our purpose as much as it served theirs.”

As Burke set off, Brahe’s party were not in as good shape as he wrote. Two men died at Bulloo while Aboriginal tribes taunted them. Wright’s party were no better off. The waterholes which sustained Burke had dried up and his men got stuck at Rat Point while they searched in vain for water. One of his party died and the rest were ill. On April 29 Brahe and Wright hooked up by chance at Bulloo Lakes. The combined party had numerous invalids and as they were about to retreat Brahe suggested to Wright they should dash back to the Cooper to be sure. On May 8 they reached the Dig Tree and convincing themselves they would find nothing they found the cache as they left it and assumed the footprints were Aboriginal. They did not notice a broken bottle, a rake leaning against the tree or a piece of leather cut from the stockade door. Inwardly relieved, they stayed just 15 minutes and headed south.

Burke, Wills and King were initially optimistic as they broke into their new supplies. But they suffered a bitter blow when a camel fell into quicksand and died. They only had one beast left, showing signs of fatigue. They got hopelessly lost in the rivulets of the Cooper and the barrier of high sand ridges. On the same day as Brahe and Wright’s return to the Dig Tree, Burke realised progress was impossible and they turned back to the Cooper. They had wasted two and a half weeks. They arrived back at the Dig Tree on May 30.

With supplies dwindling they finally tried to live ‘like the blacks’ but the Yandruwandha were not around to show them how. They discovered a large patch of nardoo seeds which they pounded into flour. But the Yandruwandha destroyed thiaminase (which blocks Vitamin B absorption) by washing and cooking the nardoo. By not doing this Burke’s party suffered beri-beri which induced lassitude and caused difficulty walking. Wills weakened fast and on June 21 acknowledged in his diary he would die unless relief came.

That relief was nowhere in sight. A fourth man died in the Brahe party on June 5 and they limped into Menindee on June 19. Wright took a steamer to Adelaide and Brahe brought the news to Melbourne. On June 26, 1861 Wills wrote his final letter to his father and then his final diary entry. Burke and King left him to his fate and he died within days. Burke was not much stronger and wrote his last will to his sister revoking an earlier will where he left his meagre estate to Julia Matthews. He praised King for staying with him and died that night. King set off in search of the Yandruwandha who were his only hope.

In Melbourne the committee roused into action. In a rare good decision they appointed experienced bushman Alfred Howitt to lead a rescue party. Howitt took three men and after three days they ran into Brahe on the Loddon River. Howitt was horrified at Brahe’s story and reported back to Melbourne. He was authorised to continue his journey while Queensland sent two rescue parties one by land and the other by sea. Both had the ulterior motive of claiming the new territory for Queensland.

King found the Yandruwandhu who gave him fish and a bed to sleep in. He deteriorated but clung to the hope of rescue. Howitt arrived in Menindee which had become an explorer’s town full of speculators and prospectors. He plundered from the remains of the Burke expedition and set off north arriving at Cooper Creek in just 25 days. He found camel tracks which led to Depot 65 but he too ignored the DIG sign. On September 15 one of Howitt’s men Edwin Welch was on a reconnaissance mission when he scattered a group of Aborigines, leaving one scarecrow-like figure behind. A man wearing the remains of a hat fell to the ground and raised his hands skywards. He told him his name was King, which was unknown to Welch who knew only of Burke and Wills. “King?” he inquired. Yes, King replied, “the last man of the Exploring Expedition,” and he broke down and wept.

Howitt pieced together the story of awful coincidences and missed opportunities. They gave Burke a proper burial and finally dug under the Dig Tree where they found the journals, letters and maps which would tell the story – and open up the country for white exploration. The news of King’s survival and Burke and Wills’ death became an international sensation. Victoria held a royal commission loaded in favour of the blundering Royal Society and cast Brahe, and especially Wright, as the scapegoats. Burke was a hero venerated in death, though many questioned his judgement as the full details emerged. He and Wills were given state funerals, Gray was ignored. A scarred King would remain mostly silent for the rest of his life.

In South Australia, Stuart finally crossed the continent and Adelaide got the telegraph line. Queensland extended its border to include Burke and Wills’s country from Birdsville to the coast. The eight deaths on the expedition were futile as the five rescue parties opened up all of eastern Australia for the benefit of South Australia, NSW and Queensland. Victoria was only left with a giant statue of Burke and Wills on Collins St and the beginning of a tradition of glorious but tragic failure, legends Ned Kelly and Gallipoli would later add to. The biggest losers were the Aboriginal people who owned the land and kept King alive. Cattlemen arrived to dismantle traditional cultures and the indigenous people were moved away to missions and reserves. Only their ghosts now haunt the desert sands.

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