Robert O'Hara Burke (1821-1861), together with William John Wills were the first men to cross Australia from south to north. They both died of starvation in tragic circumstances on the banks of Coopers Creek.
Burke was born in Ireland. In 1848, he joined the Irish police. After migrating to Australia, he became inspector of police in the gold-mining areas. Wills, an Englishman, was a surveyor.
Burke and Wills were sent by the Victorian government to travel from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria. No one knew what was in the centre of Australia. Some people even believed that there could be an inland sea. They took enough food to last for 2 years and 6 tonnes of firewood. There were 28 horses and wagons and 24 camels. These camels were well suited to the harsh desert conditions through which they would be travelling. They took 80 pairs of shoes, 20 camp beds, 30 cabbage tree hats, 57 buckets, brandy, preserved fruit,vegetables and firearms. They also carried with them beads to use as gifts to give to the aborigines. The expedition was very well equipped. If Burke had been a better leader, perhaps it would have been successful.
It was surprising that Burke was chosen as leader. He was impatient and made some very bad decisions. He had no experience in exploration and was not a good leader. He had little knowledge of bushcraft and no experience of how to live off the land. When Burke quarrelled with his second-in-command, Landells, he appointed Wills as second-in-command. Wills was a good bushman.
The party set off on the long journey, but it was too slow for Burke. He started to leave supplies and equipment behind so that they could go faster.
Gregory, who was an experienced explorer had previously warned Burke not to travel until the middle of summer, to avoid the heat. However, Burke was afraid that Stuart who was sent by the South Australian government, would get there first and decided not to wait. When they reached Menindie (on the Darling River in New South Wales), Burke decided to go ahead with a party of 8 men to set up a depot at Cooper's Creek (half-way between Melbourne and the Gulf of Carpentaria). He left Wright in charge of the rest of the party and told him to follow in a few days.
Burke and his party reached Coopers Creek early in November. They set up a depot and waited for the others to arrive. However, 6 weeks later there was still no sign of them. Leaving Brahe, 3 other men and some of the animals, Burke decided to make a dash to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Brahe was told to stay at Coopers Creek and wait for them to return. He was told to stay for as long as possible and not to leave unless it was absolutely necessary.
On 16 December, Burke, Wills, King and Gray set off from Coopers Creek to set off on their dash for the Gulf. They had 6 camels, 1 horse and 12 weeks' supply of food with them. The men walked and the animals carried the supplies. It was a long hard journey and the men had to put up with incredible heat, thunderstorms and wet, boggy conditions. They reached the Gulf in early February and were the first to cross the continent from south to north. They then began their journey back. Day after day, they were held up by rain and their food supply was becoming low. Gray was caught stealing food and was beaten by Burke. The men and the animals were exhausted and they only had one month's supply of food left. Gray became too weak to walk and died. After burying him, they had to rest for a day before they had the strength to continue. By now they were very weak. Finally on April 21 Burke, Wills and King arrived back at the depot at Coopers Creek, but it was deserted. There was only a message cut into a tree:
DIG - 3 FEET N.W.
When they dug, they found a letter and some supplies. The letter told them that Brahe had left with the rest of the men just a few hours earlier. They had waited for four months and had left only that morning. Burke thought about going in pursuit, then thought it was hopeless. Burke, Wills and King were too exhausted to catch up with Brahe. The three survivors were in bad shape and their legs were almost paralysed. It was difficult to walk more than a few metres. They decided to rest, eat some of their supplies, and then head for a cattle station 240 kilometres away. They still had 2 of their camels left.
Meanwhile Brahe and his depot party met up with the main group and he decided to go back to Coopers Creek to make sure that Burke and Wills had not come back. When he arrived, everything seemed exactly as he had left it and so he decided to return to Melbourne to organise a search party. Brahe thought that the explorers had died and so unfortunately did not leave any horses or supplies.
Meanwhile Burke, Wills and King realised they could not make the long trip. Their supplies were running out and the last camel had died so they returned to Coopers Creek. In his diary written while he was dying, Wills bitterly blamed Brahe for not leaving pack animals and some provisions. At Coopers Creek, they were unable to find enough food and grew weaker. The three men survived for several weeks on nardoo seed and fish given to them by friendly aborigines. Burke and Wills died at the end of June while waiting to be rescued. King was later found by a search party. He was living with a tribe of friendly aborigines who had given him food and shelter. He died 9 years later at the age of 31. The bodies of Burke and Wills were recovered by the search party and buried in Melbourne.
This expedition was a tragedy. If they had not wasted a day burying Gray, they would have reached the depot before Brahe left. If the explorers had stayed closer to the aborigines, they could have survived. If Burke had been a better bushman, they could have survived on the banks of a creek stocked with fish. If Brahe and Wright had been more observant, they could have seen that the explorers had dug beneath the DIG tree. If Wright had brought up the supplies as ordered, they would have had enough supplies. Burke and Wills died a lonely death and are possibly Australia's most famous explorers.