Robert O'Hara Burke Traverses the Australian Continent from North to South

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Robert O'Hara Burke Traverses the Australian Continent from North to South


The period between 1830-60 in Australia was marked by a tremendous expansion of British colonial interests, from people to economic interests. It is also notable for a series of expeditions that helped the British discover what the continent's physical terrain was like. Closing this period was a tragic but ultimately influential expedition by Robert O'Hara Burke (1820?-1861).


Robert Burke's commission by the Royal Society of Victoria to traverse the Australian continent was an odd one: Burke had no experience in exploration, knew nothing about the native inhabitants he would most likely encounter, and knew close to nothing about survival methods in unknown territories. Fortunately for him, Burke teamed up with William John Wills (1834-1861), a knowledgeable bushman and more experienced traveler.

The government plan was to cross the continent from south to north, with the final destination the Gulf of Carpentaria. The straight line distance (we now know) is approximately 1,480 mi., (2,370 km) a trek that would be turn out to be incredibly arduous due to difficult terrain.

Since the party anticipated long stretches of desert, 24 camels were included in the 28 horse-and-wagon train. Thanks to an obscure government accounting clerk, we still have a partial list of the supplies that were in the wagons when they left Melbourne: 20 camp beds, 57 buckets, 80 pairs of shoes, 30 cabbage tree hats, preserved fruits, brandy, local vegetables, firearms, and 6 tons of firewood. They believed their provisions would last at least two years and would be sufficient for the 18 members of the trek. Perhaps they would have—but only in the hands of a competent leader. The expedition left Melbourne in August 1860.

Robert Burke was not the man for the job. He was impatient, unwilling to accept advice from those who were (as time would tell) far more experienced and careful than he, and a headstrong decision-maker. Early on in the journey, Burke became frustrated by the slow pace of travel, a pace in part due to the size of the party. His first mistake was to speed up travel by abandoning supplies and good equipment. He had been warned by an experienced explorer named Augustus Charles Gregory not to travel until the middle of the summer (December through February in Australia) so as to have cooler weather in the middle of the continent. However, Burke had knowledge of another party headed by Robert Stuart (1785-1848), who represented the South Australian government (the various British colonies in Australia had autonomous governments at this time) and was also headed for the Gulf of Carpentaria. When the Burke party reached the Darling River in New South Wales at a settlement named Menindie, he made another one of his errors in judgment. He chose eight men to accompany him in setting up a depot at Cooper's Creek, which was thought to be about halfway between Melbourne and the Gulf. The rest of the men were to follow in a few days.

Burke and his eight followers reached Cooper's Creek early in November, and they set up a major camp and waited for the rest of their companions to arrive. When six weeks had passed with no sign of the travelers, Burke made another disastrous decision. He elected to take three of the men (Wills, Charles Gray, and John King) and make a mad dash to the Gulf. When he left a man named Brahe and the other men behind (along with some of the animals), he instructed them to "stay put" for as long as possible.

The next four months were hot and hellish. Burke and his small group actually came very close to reaching the Gulf of Carpentaria in early February but were unable to traverse the swamps and brush lying next to the coast. In any case the men had to start back immediately because their supplies were running dangerously low. There was little comfort in knowing that they had been the first expedition to cross Australia from south to north when they might not return alive to tell anyone about their feat.

As with the trip to the Gulf, the return trip was extremely difficult, what with the incredible heat, thunderstorms, marshy terrain, very slim rations, and exhausted animals. When Gray's hunger got the best of him and he was caught stealing a bit of food, Burke gave him a beating. Eventually, Gray could no longer walk and died in his tracks. The energy it took to bury him cost the others a whole day's walk. When Burke, Wills, and King made it back to Cooper's Creek on April 21, 1861, they found it deserted with the only sign of former occupants in a message carved into a tree: DIG—3 FEET N.W. Burke and company had missed their colleagues by a matter of hours. The message carved into the tree directed the men to food that was buried nearby, along with directions on how to get to the nearest town.

Due to Burke's imprudence and some fateful circumstances, the group did not get to the aforementioned town. Rather, the party ate some of the food left for them, and then Burke and King set out for Adelaide on the southern coast. Wills stayed behind. Burke and King continued on, but Burke died of exhaustion shortly thereafter. King then returned to camp to find Wills dead. Luckily, King received help from local aborigines—native inhabitants of Australia—and managed to stay alive. When he was later found by a search party, he described his adventures living with a friendly group of aborigines who taught him how to survive in what we know today as "the outback."

Although the expedition ended so tragically, it had all the appearances of a comedy of errors. If any of the men had had the good sense to make friends with the aborigines (who obviously knew how to survive under the worst possible circumstances), they could have "lived off the land" and taken adequate breaks to recover their strength. Also, if Burke had been even mildly experienced in survival techniques, they could have survived on the banks of creeks that held fish for the taking.


The main impact of the expedition was the added knowledge it gave to colonial British authorities about the route traveled by Burke and his men. Although Australia is a small continent, two-thirds of it is desert or semi-desert. In the 1860s, when the colonial authorities wanted to know more about the continent's economic possibilities, it was essential to learn firsthand whether the interior of the continent would support the kind of life they had lived in the British Isles. They surmised that the entire future of the continent hinged on water—still the most precious of Australia's natural resources.

Although memorial statues were erected in Melbourne in honor of Burke and Wills, it seems little enough for the magnitude of their accomplishment. In light of what we know today, it was monumental. We are grateful to Wills for his diary and notes, which detailed parts of the illfated but world-famous expedition. He looked to a future well beyond his own years and, in the tradition of the genuine scientist, passed along the information that helped others forge new trails in the interior of the Australian continent.


Further Reading

Colwell, Max. The Journey of Burke and Wills. Sydney, Australia: P. Hamlyn, 1971.

Estensen, Miriam. Discovery: The Quest for the Great SouthLand. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Hughes, Robert. The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia'sFounding. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

Ryan, Simon. The Cartographic Eye: How Explorers SawAustralia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

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Robert O'Hara Burke Traverses the Australian Continent from North to South

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