The Burke and Wills expedition, led by Robert O’Hara Burke, an Irish soldier and police officer, leaves Melbourne on August 20, 1860, ultimately becoming the first expedition to cross Australia from south to north, finding a route across the continent from the settled areas of Victoria to the Gulf of Carpentaria.
After the South Australian explorer John McDouall Stuart reaches the centre of Australia, the Parliament of South Australia offers a reward of £2,000 for the promotion of an expedition to cross the continent from south to north, generally following Stuart’s route.
The expedition leaves Melbourne on Monday, August 20, 1860 with a total of 19 men, 27 camels and 23 horses. They reach Menindee on September 23, 1860 where several people resign, including the second-in-command, George James Landells, and the medical officer, Dr. Hermann Beckler.
Cooper Creek, 400 miles further on, is reached on November 11, 1860 by the advance group, the remainder being intended to catch up. After a break, Burke decides to make a dash to the Gulf of Carpentaria, leaving on December 16, 1860. William Brahe is left in charge of the remaining party. The small team of Burke, William Wills, John King and Charley Gray reach the mangroves on the estuary of the Flinders River, near where the town of Normanton now stands, on February 9, 1861. Flooding rains and swamps prevent them from seeing the open ocean.
Already weakened by starvation and exposure, progress on the return journey is slow and hampered by the tropical monsoon downpours of the wet season. Gray dies four days before they reach the rendezvous at Cooper Creek. The other three rest for a day when they bury him. They eventually reach the rendezvous point on April 21, 1861, nine hours after the rest of the party had given up waiting and left, leaving a note and some food, as they had not been relieved by the party supposed to be returning from Menindee.
They attempt to reach Mount Hopeless, the furthest outpost of pastoral settlement in South Australia, which is closer than Menindee, but fail and return to Cooper Creek. While waiting for rescue Wills dies of exhaustion and starvation. Soon after, Burke also dies, at a place now called Burke’s Waterhole on Cooper Creek in South Australia. The exact date of Burke’s death is uncertain, but has generally been accepted to be June 28, 1861.
King survives with the help of Aborigines until he is rescued in September by Alfred William Howitt. Howitt buries Burke and Wills before returning to Melbourne. In 1862 Howitt returns to Cooper Creek and disinters the bodies of Burke and Wills, taking them first to Adelaide and then by steamer to Melbourne where they are laid in state for two weeks. On January 23, 1863 Burke and Wills receive a state funeral and are buried in Melbourne General Cemetery.
(Pictured: Burke and Wills Statue on the corner of Collins and Swanston Street, Melbourne)