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Exploring their Way out of a Paper Bag

Burke and Wills ill fated expedition across Australia will fail, thanks to drunken camels

In a desperate race to find arable land in Australia, not to mention fame, fortune, and chicks, the Victorian government (located in south Australia) commissioned a group of well-meaning but foolhardy men to cross the continent from north to south. This challenge had stymied the country's best explorers, so the government decided to assign it to losers: an ex-police officer named Robert O'Hara Burke,[1] and failed medical student and would-be astronomer William Wills. The expedition party was rounded out by gentlemen who had never seen a day of the backcountry in their lives; some had mates on the committee, another secured his position by purchasing the necessary camels. They were "pre-eminently ignorant of frontier... or bush life, and subsequently wholly unfit for an expedition of that kind."[2] These idiots got their heads together and tried to guess how real explorers would do the job -- since there weren't any in the room.

Food for thought, but not much else

Provisions for the expedition were modest at best. For 19 men for six months, they took 18,000 pounds. Based on earlier expeditions, they would have needed at least 22,000 pounds. Their equipment was, on the other hand, absurdly newfangled and ridiculously excessive. It included an oak table with cedar top, twelve dandruff brushes for camels, six pairs of tailor's scissors and, incredibly, ten pack saddles and ten pairs of hobbles for oxen, even though they weren't taking any oxen with them. A lack of planning and realistic victualling is symptomatic of nearly all explorers,[3] and in this case was to prove disastrous. With these paltry supplies, they headed south.

The Big Blue

blue n. (Australian slang) argument, row. -The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary

Almost immediately, arguments wreaked havoc with the group. Accusations of conspiracy were part of daily life, and everyone bickered with everyone else. Burke upset Landells, second in charge of the expedition, by insisting the camels carry more weight. Landells loved his camels and had selected them himself: we envision him stroking their humps and saying "there, there, honey". The man, astonished at the affront, claimed Burke's interference with the camels was"a stretch of despotic power not to be endured for a moment". Burke (and us, too, frankly) believed Landells treatment of the camels was pampering if not malingering.

The camels themselves were wilful and mischievous, disappearing from time to time with varying levels of success. This caused the adventurers to waste precious hours searching for them, sometimes days. However, the real problem was that the camels were half pissed, that is to say, drunk. The expedition had taken some 60 gallons of rum for the camels, which, according to Landells, "revived" them when they were tired and hungry. However, other members of the party took to "reviving" themselves, and Burke went berserk when he found out.[4] He demanded the rum be left behind, and, fed up, Landells petulantly tendered his resignation.

William Wills, astronomer, stepped in to fill the vacuum Landells left behind. His lack of experience was balanced by his adoration of Robert Burke (who never could ignore a flatterer) and an obsequiousness that made him few friends with the other team members.

An ill-fated journey
An ill-fated journey

The race is on

Dissenters replaced by toadies only a quarter-way through the expedition, Burke decided he was carrying too much dead weight and ditched all but seven of the exploration team. This allowed him to get rid of the men he didn't like or didn't choose, the weaker animals, and a vast quantity of equipment and supplies. Against the advice of locals and more experienced contemporaries, Burke set out for Coopers Creek with summer approaching. Coopers Creek was roughly half way to the final goal of the northern shore. It sits on the cusp of two deserts and is dry, hot and uncharitable. Burke took a considerable risk in pushing the men to Coopers Creek with the hottest part of the year approaching, but figured he'd better get a move on before Landells and the others badmouthed him when they got back to civilization. Burke also heard that John McDouell Stuart, an experienced explorer, had backing from the South Australian government and was setting out to beat him to the finish line on the north coast. Stuart had a good track record, and Burke was worried, so he humped it for Coopers Creek. Thus, to avoid humiliation and defeat, Burke pushed onwards, into sure humiliation and defeat.

The South Australian press did a lot to incite rivalry between the two expedition headquarters in Victoria and South Australia. They published a poem, which, rather prophetically as it turns out, stated:

Oh, Mr Burke 'Tis risky work
To see the northern coast,
Then have a care Or else prepare
To be a desert ghost.
'Mid sand and stones
You'll leave your bones
'Tis said, if all be true,
For says report,
You're not the sort,
To take the party through.

Ominous indeed.

Some People Just Don't Believe What They Read in the Papers

Never one to listen to the wisdom of the press, Burke set out for Coopers Creek in high spirits. He was fortunate. The wet season had been extremely wet, and there was plenty of fodder for the animals. The weather was mild, topping 90F only twice. He allowed no rest days, and pushed his men from dawn until as late as 11:00 pm. After 23 days he and his entourage reached Coopers Creek, with the loss of only one camel. Thanks to some requisite toadying, Burke and Wills got along admirably, and their harmony filtered down through the rest of the crew. While Burke wrote to the committee that he had discovered valuable new pastoral land with plenty of water, Wills noted that there had been no permanent water for some thirty-six miles. This discrepancy should have tipped them off, but did not.

The group reached Coopers Creek in November, and started searching the northern plains for water. They sent four expeditions, yet none found enough water to sustain a practical route. At one point, thinking their camels exhausted, the party allowed them to slip out of sight. The camels then kicked up their heels and ran all night, causing Wills to note dryly "that they were not quite so much done up as they appeared to be."

The Camels Didn't Like It
The Camels Didn't Like It

Summer was almost upon them, and the thermometer soared from 90F to 105F in the shade to 140 in the sun. Yet there was still a month before the heat really set in, and in his customary fashion, Burke ignored the seasons, split the party to an even smaller size, leaving a depot of men and food behind. They finally reached the mangrove swamps that border the northern coast on February 9, and with no ceremony, simply scratched the letter 'B' into a tree and turned around, without ever catching a glimpse of the ocean. The worst was yet to come.

Homeward Bound, Sort of

The men faced a severe problem. It had taken them two weeks longer than they anticipated to reach the northern shore, and they now had roughly a quarter of the provisions they had left with. They'd had plenty of opportunity to replenish their stores from the native fauna, but Burke's relentless pressure to keep moving had left them little time to do so.

The trek home was hopelessly slow. Tropical monsoons kept them grounded for hours at a time, the animals were exhausted and the men were tired, wet and starving. Disease started to take its toll; Burke was its first victim with a savage bout of dysentery. They all started suffering pain in their legs and backs, possibly due to vitamin B1 deficiency. One member, Gray, suffered colds and severe pain. The others resented his illness, suspecting him of playing possum.

Finally, when he was unable to walk, he was strapped to the back of a camel. On April 17, he died. The remaining three, Burke, Wills, and King, headed for the food depot near Coopers Creek.

Home Despot

They had been away for eighteen weeks, more than a month longer than Burke had asked the support crew to wait at the depot. Nevertheless, Burke fully expected the depot to be manned, and claimed, rather overconfidently it would seem, to be able to see their tents as they approached.

They arrived in the evening of April 21, 1861. The depot was deserted. The three men held out hope for a while, but soon came to accept they were on their own. Wills saw a tree with an inscription carved into the trunk 'DIG 3 FT. N.W. APR 21 1861'. They dug down and found a chest filled with provisions, and a note from Brahe assuring them that the others were all well. They had missed them by just hours. Burke decided not to follow them, even though they were likely scant miles away. None of the men were up to the journey. A few days later, they tried to follow their companions, and then natives, but grew fatigued and returned to the depot. Burke and Wills both died swiftly from exhaustion and malnutrition.

King himself, amazingly, survived with the help of the local Aboriginals who allowed him into their tribe, and fed him while he convalesced, he stayed with them for some months, until he was finally rescued, and returned as the only surviving member of the expedition, to tell his tale to the Victorian government, and, of course, the press.


In classic Australian style, the finding of the remains of Burke and Wills was heralded as 'thrilling news', and caused a tide of joyous celebration throughout Victoria. In the last hundred and forty years, their images have been immortalized by Sydney Nolan, their statues are honored in Melbourne, their names are part of the local mythology, and their story taught to school children as an example of great Australian endeavor, that is, the dooming of oneself through poor planning and prissy hubris.


  1. Burke had been disgraced in the army for going AWOL and missed a crucial battle in 1848. As a police officer his chief duty was to defend a greedy and corrupt employer who continually reduced the pay and working conditions of his employees. The employer, Bruce, happened to be on the expedition selection committee.
  2. Bonyhady, p.57
  3. Early explorers were commonly undersupplied, sixteenth century sailors travelling to the Indies were often reduced to eating leather. Scott and Mawson ate their sleigh dogs in Antarctica.
  4. "To go burko" is an Australian expression which means to throw a tantrum.


  1. Tim Bonyhady. Burke and Wills: From Melbourne to Myth. , .
  2. Michael Cathart, Michael Cathcart, C. M. H. Clark. Manning Clarks' History of Australia : Special Anniversary Edition. Paul & Co Pub Consortium, 1998.
  3. Tim F. Flannery. The Explorers : Stories of Discovery and Adventure from the Australian Frontier. Grove Press, 2000.

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