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Australian Explorers, Defeated by Incompetence

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

More than three quarters of Australians live within 20 miles of sea, and there are good reasons for that. The interior is blisteringly hot, dry, and hostile to the existence of human life. The first settlers clung even closer to the coastline with very few daring to venture into what was known as the “ghastly blank.”

Over thousands of years, the country’s Aborigines had learned how to survive the fierce conditions of the outback, but the newcomers from Europe died quickly.

Australia's Simpson Desert.

Australia's Simpson Desert.

The Lure of Australian Gold

By the mid-1850s, it was dawning on the colonists that they had landed in a place that contained fabulous mineral wealth. They had already found gold. What other prizes might lie in the “ghastly blank?” Diamonds as big as oranges could be sitting on the ground waiting to be picked up.

The Royal Society of Victoria decided an expedition into the unknown was needed and began raising funds for the venture. The grand plan was to find a route from south to north across the continent, a journey that would go, in part, through the Simpson Desert.

The Burke and Wills website notes there were several reasons to send a team into the bush: perhaps it “would discover new species, new discoveries of gold and minerals, new and fertile lands for grazing, the extension of the boundaries of the small colony, the establishment of a telegraph line to London, the pride of being the first Colony to unlock the secrets of the interior …” The level of excitement was high; pity the level of expertise wasn’t also high.

Choosing an Expedition Leader

When you’re heading off into the wild hot yonder you need someone leading with some experience in exploration. The Royal Society picked policeman Robert O’Hara Burke, a man with no bushcraft.

Robert O'Hara Burke.

Robert O'Hara Burke.

Burke had a few other negatives to his name as outlined by the Library of Victoria: he was “… a stickler for military discipline and procedure, but notoriously slovenly and eccentric in his personal life. He was moody, impulsive, and liable to emotional outbursts when he felt his authority to be threatened.”

The second-in-command was George James Landells, a man with a slightly more respectable resume for the expedition. He had some experience in animal husbandry and his function was to look after the camels and horses needed for the trek.

William John Wills had some useful training as a surveyor and he coupled this with qualifications as a surgeon. He was appointed third-in-command.

Expedition Leaves Melbourne

On August 20, 1860, the expedition left Melbourne, the speeches of dignitaries, the playing of brass bands, the cheers of thousands, and the prayers and invocations of clergy still ringing in their ears.

The expedition starts.

The expedition starts.

The party contained 19 men, 23 horses, 26 camels, and six wagons. The provisions they took with them were supposed to last two years and included lots of preserved meats, fruit, and vegetables as well as 1,500 lbs of sugar. That bears repeating―1,500 pounds of sugar. In addition, there were thousands of pounds of forage for the animals and a well-stocked armoury.

Items entirely superfluous to needs were also to be hauled to the Gulf of Carpentaria 3,200 km to the north. They had rockets and flares supposedly to signal for help although the nearest assistance would be hundreds of kilometres away. A Chinese gong and inflatable cushions?

Bill Bryson (In a Sunburned Country) notes they also took “a stationery cabinet, a heavy wooden table with matching stools, and grooming equipment …” However, Bryson adds “On the plus side … they … had outstanding beards." But, they ignored the cardinal rule of surviving in the bush, which is to innovate, make do, and travel as light as possible.

The celebratory send off, attended by 15,000, fizzled a bit when one of the wagons broke down before it even left the departure ground. The following day two more wagons went wobbly as the expedition plodded on through winter rains and along muddy tracks.

Slow Progress

After two months, the expedition had reached Menindee, 750 km from Melbourne. The regular mail coach usually did the trip in about two weeks. Second-in-command Landells and Burke got into a fierce argument and the former quit. Two other officers resigned and 13 men were fired. Replacements had to be found and Wills was promoted.

Burke split his forces, sending a group back for more supplies.

Some stores and equipment were dumped and the rest loaded onto the camels and horses. Instead of riding, the men had to walk. They set out for Cooper's Creek and made good time in getting there. The smart thing to do was to set up a base camp, wait for more supplies to be brought up, and sit out the heat of summer. Burke did not do the smart thing.

Dash for the Gulf

Once again, Burke divided his team. He selected Wills and two other men to make a lunge for the Gulf of Carpentaria. They had 12 weeks worth of food, but after six weeks and far from the coast, they decided to push on. They came tantalizingly close to reaching the ocean but could not get through the impenetrable mangrove forest. They now faced getting back to Cooper's Creek with only one third of their supplies left.

Before long, they started shooting their camels for food; but fresh meat doesn’t stay fresh for long when the temperature hits 50 C (120 F). One of the group of four, Charles Gray, suddenly dropped dead. The other three stumbled on, half starved, and arrived back at Cooper’s Creek almost five months after leaving.

The Last Trek

The men they left behind broke camp that morning convinced there colleagues had died. Burke decided to make for the ominously named Mount Hopeless, where there was a police outpost. It was 240 km (150 miles) southwest.

They encountered Aborigines who tried to help the men but Burke chased them away and shot at them. Burke died on July 1, 1861, and Wills followed him a few days later.

The death of Burke.

The death of Burke.

The last survivor, John King, had no qualms about being friendly towards Aborigines who nursed him back to health and looked after him until he was found by other explorers three months later.

Back in Melbourne, the public waited for the triumphant return of the heroic explorers. The news of the fiasco came as a bitter blow.

The Age summed up: “The entire company of explorers has been dissipated out of being like drew drops before the sun … The whole expedition appears to have been one prolonged blunder throughout.”

Bonus Factoids

  • In the fine British tradition of gloriously incompetent explorers, Captain Robert Falcon Scott made a complete hash of trying to be the first to reach the South Pole. He and his four companions used horses to haul the supplies they needed to survive. The animals were totally unsuited to harsh polar conditions and died. Eventually, all five men ran out of food and froze to death.
  • British officer Colonel Charles Stoddart was another ill-prepared explorer. In December 1838 he was sent to Bukhara (now in Uzbekistan) to enlist the support of the emir Nasrullah Khan. Unfortunately, Stoddart had not bothered to acquaint himself with local customs, and managed to offend the emir. Instead of bowing he remained seated on his horse and saluted and blundered into several other diplomatic gaffes. For these grave breaches of etiquette Stoddart was tossed into The Bug Pit, which was a place as unpleasant as its name suggests. A rescue mission of one man, Captain Arthur Conolly of the cavalry, did not arrive until November 1841. Conolly also proved inept at smoothing Nasrullah Khan’s ruffled feathers, and ended up in prison as well. On June 17, 1842 both men were brought out into a public square where they dug their own graves before being beheaded.


  • Burke and Wills Web
  • Dig. The Burke and Wills Research Gateway. State Library of Victoria, undated.
  • “Ludwig Becker - Artist of the ‘Ghastly Blank’ ” Eva Meidl, Australian Heritage, March 2006.
  • “In a Sunburned Country.” Bill Bryson, 2000, Doubleday.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor

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