The Australian explorers/Chapter 13

The Australian explorers by George Grimm
Chapter 13: Search Expeditions in Quest of Burke and Wills



As time passed on and no trustworthy tidings of the missing explorers could be obtained, anxiety on the part of the Melbourne public became unbearable. An active search was demanded with an urgency which was not to be resisted. A manifold effort was soon put forth on an unprecedented scale, and in this enterprise Victoria was materially assisted by the sister colonies. This combined action marks the meridian of Australian exploration, which, when finished, left little more to be done in the eastern half of the continent. Within the space of two years—from 1860 to 1862—it was crossed no fewer than six times, in as many different directions, by exploring parties. The search expeditions all took the field about the same time. Alfred Howitt was despatched from Melbourne on the footsteps of Burke and Wills; John M'Kinlay was sent from Adelaide to search the Barcoo and surrounding districts; Frederick Walker was commissioned to start from Rockhampton and proceed to the north; while William Landsborough was instructed to begin at Carpentaria, and examine the country to the southward as far as might be necessary. With a view to the support of all these parties, as opportunity might offer. Captain Norman was sent with the Victoria to form a relief depôt on the Albert River, at the Gulf of Carpentaria. There are thus four search expeditions which call for a brief review.

Mr. Alfred W. Howitt, son of William and Mary Howitt, so well known to the literature of their country, was sent from Melbourne to the Barcoo (Cooper's Creek), by the route which had been taken by the missing expedition. Near Swan Hill he met Brahe, returning with the intelligence that Burke and Wills had not appeared at the depôt. Proceeding by way of Menindie and Poria Creek the Barcoo was reached on the 8th September, 1861, and the depôt at Fort Wills on the 18th. The cache, on being opened, was found to contain papers showing that the explorers had been there since returning from Carpentaria. The members of the expedition having thereafter dispersed in different directions in quest of information, one of them soon came back with the welcome news that King had been found. The sequel had better be given in Howitt's own words:—"I immediately went across to the blacks' wurleys, where I found King, sitting in a hut which the natives had made for him. He presented a melancholy appearance, wasted as a shadow, and hardly to be distinguished as a civilized being but by the remnant of clothes upon him. He seemed exceedingly weak, and I found it occasionally difficult to follow what he said. The natives were all gathered round, seated on the ground, looking with a most gratified and delighted expression. I camped where the party had halted, on a high bank, close to the water, and shall probably remain here ten days, to recruit King before returning." The story, as given by King, is soon told. From the time he saw his companions dead to the day he was discovered by Howitt's party he had been about two months and ten days in the wilderness. He remained by himself some days before going to the blacks. Upwards of two months had thus been spent with the aborigines. Though desiring to be quit of him at first, they afterwards became very well reconciled to his company. On the whole they behaved very well to the white stranger. As soon as King was able to walk he proceeded seven miles down the creek with the relief party, and showed them the remains of Wills, which he had buried under the sand. At a distance of about eight miles further they found also the body of Burke, which was now interred with due solemnity. The object of the expedition having been thus accomplished, preparation was made for the return to Melbourne, but before starting the camp of the natives was again visited, and some presents distributed, in acknowledgment of their humane treatment of the forlorn King.

Soon after this party returned home, a second expedition was organized, under the same leader, to bring the bodies of Burke and Wills to Melbourne. After reaching the Barcoo, a considerable time was spent in the further exploration of the surrounding country. The Stony Desert was visited, and a horse captured which had been lost by Captain Sturt 18 or 19 years before. Having at length taken possession of the bodies, they first conveyed them to Adelaide, by the route which the explorers, when living, had wished in vain to travel. This part of the journey was traversed in seven days. The remains of the two men who had been the first to cross Australia were thence conveyed to Melbourne, where they were interred with every mark of respect for their noble characters, and many a token of regret for the neglect which had left them to perish in the wilderness.


Although the object which called forth all the search expeditions was completely attained by the first alone, it is yet worth while to give some attention to the other three, on account of their indirect services in the work of exploration. We shall take next in order the South Australian effort. On the 16th of August, 1861, Mr. John M'Kinlay was despatched from Adelaide, with a party of 10 men, 4 camels, 24 horses, 12 bullocks, and 100 sheep. Blanchewater, 400 miles distant, was crossed at Baker's station. The journey thence to Lake Hope was made through a dry and stony country. From this part all the way to Sturt's Stony Desert the country was poor, but contained an abundance of lakes and creeks, which were well supplied with fish. Leaving a depôt at Lake Buchanan, M'Kinlay set out for the Barcoo, again passing through a region of lakes. In the country now visited a number of natives were found wearing pieces of European clothing. A white man's grave was pointed out by the blacks and opened by the explorers. It was really Gray's grave, but they were as yet in ignorance of the true facts of the case, and were, moreover, grossly misled by the aborigines, who pointed to a lake and told them they had killed and eaten white men there. M'Kinlay, hastily concluding that this must have been the end of the missing expedition, called the place Lake Massacre, and reported accordingly to the authorities at Adelaide. Fearing that they intended to make the like quick despatch with himself and party, M'Kinlay commanded his men to fire upon them, which made the whole lot decamp. This was an unfortunate misapprehension, for the blacks, instead of meaning to be hostile, were only giving expression to their joy after a fashion of their own. It was, in fact, the same tribe that had treated King so well, and they must have been terribly surprised by such an abrupt termination to friendly intercourse. But, in the presence of such strangers as they had encountered, it was a risky thing to boast of killing and eating white men. Having returned to the depôt on Lake Buchanan, and thence sent to Blanchewater for supplies, M'Kinlay received correct information regarding the fate of the missing expedition. There was, therefore, no need of doing anything more in this connection; but, being well supplied with all necessaries, he wisely resolved to continue his journey of exploration across the continent. On the 17th of December they were again on the march, heading in a north-easterly direction, which led them through a country barren in soil, but abounding in lakes much frequented by waterfowl. These lakes were quite as much a distinguishing feature of this region as the springs had been of the country discovered by M'Douall Stuart to the east of Lake Eyre—soon to be noticed. Further travelling was rendered difficult, first by excessive rain, and next by intolerable heat. Christmas Day was spent at a splendid lake, called Jeannie, which was found to be the haunt of innumerable waterfowl. Here many natives were observed pounding the nardoo seed between two stones, which was then baked and roasted on the ashes. At this camping-ground good feed was found for the stock, and the men also were supplied with abundance of fish by the blacks. During the night their sable neighbours proved rather too noisy, but when a rocket was sent up it had the effect of causing a dead silence till morning. The next stage led on to another lake, but it was through a country containing little vegetation except polygonum, samphire, and saltbush. One journey more brought them to a magnificent lake, which M'Kinlay called the Hodgkinson, after the second leader of the expedition. A three-days' excursion from this centre ended in the discovery of quite a number of lakes, abounding in excellent fish. The expedition had now spent four months in a region of lakes, full or dry, with many creeks and flooded hollows. This was a great surprise in a country which bordered so closely on Sturt's Stony Desert, and is still one of the enigmas of the physical geography of Australia. On the 6th of January a fresh departure was made for the north, but, after weeks of fruitless toil in the midst of a drought, a return had to be made to Lake Hodgkinson, where it was resolved to remain in camp till rain fell. During this enforced delay M'Kinlay, unable to brook idleness, took a small party and made an assault on Sturt's Stony Desert, intimating that he might be absent for three weeks. Four days proved to be quite enough, as he met with nothing but dry lakes, red sand-hills, and bare stones, although he had penetrated 57 miles into this solitude. Having returned to the camp there was nothing but the unpleasant experience of waiting for rain, while the provisions were running down with an uncomfortable rapidity. Here, too, the blacks, presenting themselves in companies of 400 or 500, were anything but agreeable neighbours. The explorers also had to put up with heat, flies, ill-health, and all manner of inconveniences, till the 10th of February, when rain came and released them from confinement. They had now to flounder in the mud through a country which is described as utterly bare of grass, like a field which had been ploughed and harrowed, but not sown. On the 13th an old camp of Burke's was passed, and by the 7th of next month Sturt's Stony Desert was left behind their backs. Towards the middle of March some tracts of well-grassed country were reached, and named the Downs of Plenty. During the remainder of this month, also, they traversed a tolerably good country, which seemed, however, to be bordered by deserts. Tropical Australia was now entered upon, and during the whole of April the course lay through the most luxuriant vegetation. About the beginning of May the track of Burke on the Cloncurry was crossed. The Leichhardt River was reached during the same month. Here the country was simply magnificent, the grass being up to the horses' necks. Another stage brought the expedition to Stokes's Plains of Promise. Finally, on the 18th, they advanced to the tidal waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria, but dense forests of mangrove forbade their approach to the shore. Under date of the 19th of May, and while resting in the 60th camp, M'Kinlay wrote as follows:—"I consider we are now about four or five miles from the coast. There is a rise in the river here of six and two-thirds feet today, but yesterday it was a foot higher. Killed the three remaining sheep, and will retrace our steps on the 21st." These were the last of the 100 sheep which were started with the expedition. M'Kinlay had the credit of being the first to take sheep across the continent of Australia. They now made for the coast of the Pacific, which was struck at Port Denison, but not till a thousand obstacles were overcome and nearly all the camels and horses eaten to keep themselves alive.


On the same errand Mr. Frederick Walker, Commander of Native Police, was sent from Rockhampton to the Albert River by the Queensland authorities. Taking a party of mounted troopers, he proceeded to Bauhinia Downs, on the Dawson, where the expedition was finally organized on the 7th September, 1861. The River Nogoa was reached on the 16th, after which he pushed on through Walker's Pass to the River Nivelle. By the 27th he had made the Barcoo, which was followed down for three days, during which traces both of Gregory and Leichhardt were discovered. From the Barcoo a passage was made to the Alice through much spinifex country. After crossing the watershed between the Alice and the Thomson, a fine tributary of the latter, called the Coreenda, was met with. By the 16th of October they had got into a country of high mountains, where the natives were observed to be armed with iron axes and tomahawks. Some traces of Leichhardt were also found in this quarter. The advance was now continued through a hilly country in a north-west direction to lat. 21°, where they fell in with the head-waters of the Barkly, a large tributary, or a main section, of the Flinders River, which led them through splendid country Another fine tributary of the Flinders was soon after discovered, and called the Norman, in honour of the captain of that name who was in command of the depôt on the Albert. Nothing further of special interest occurred till the 30th of October, when they were attacked by a large party of armed natives. Walker commanded his men to fire upon them, when a dozen of these unfortunate creatures fell under his guns. There is reason to fear that the leader's experience as an officer of black troopers had led him to hold the lives of the aborigines too cheap and to forget that they were human beings, of the same blood and brotherhood as ourselves. The explorers now followed the Norman River, but had to dig in its channel for water. On the 25th of November they reached the junction of the Norman and the Flinders, the latter of which being a large and beautiful river. Here the track of Burke and Wills was discovered, leading south, but could not be followed till fresh supplies were obtained from the depôt on the Albert. Early in December the expedition came on to the Leichhardt, and then to the Albert River, the latter flowing over plains and flooded low flats, where the tracks of several other explorers were seen. On the 7th the depôt was reached and found to be under the superintendence of Captain Norman. Walker had thus made the journey in three months and twelve days from Rockhampton. In point of celerity, our annals of exploration contain nothing to beat this record. After passing thirteen days at the depôt. Walker started anew to follow up the track of Burke and Wills which he had been fortunate enough to discover. He succeeded in running it southward to the ninth camp of the missing expedition, when it ceased to be discernible, in consequence of the abundance of vegetation and the obliterating action of floods. Thinking Burke had turned off to make for the east coast, Walker altered his course to the same quarter, and made a vain attempt to follow him up. After much harassing travel he struck the Burdekin River, at Strathalbyn station, where his troubles came to an end. Making next for Port Denison, he proceeded thence to Rockhampton, which was reached on the 5th of June. The journey had thus occupied five months and two weeks. Burke and Wills were not found, of course, but much good country was discovered and the geography of Northern Australia materially advanced.


The last of these efforts to bring relief to the missing explorers was Mr. William Landsborough's expedition. The honour of being a search party has frequently been denied to this enterprise. Landsborough was plainly accused of having interested objects in view; and it must be confessed that his journal contains little to refute this charge, for it scarcely ever alludes to Burke and Wills, nor would any reader be likely to suspect that its author was in search of anyone in particular. Be this as it may, in cannot be doubted that, in all other respects, this expedition was a most fortunate one, and excelled all the rest in the extent of fine country which it brought to light. To the leader himself it must have seemed more like a vacation tour than a perilous journey through an unknown land. With a party of three white men and three blacks, Landsborough sailed from Moreton Bay to Carpentaria on the 24th of August, 1861. Starting from the shores of the Gulf, he explored the Albert River, under different names, for about 120 miles. This tract of country being exceedingly dry, and the blacks troublesome, he was compelled to return to the depôt on the Albert. Captain Norman told him that Walker had been there reporting the discovery of Burke's track on the Flinders. This route was accordingly followed from the Gulf to the source of the river, but neither the tracks of Walker nor Burke were found. After leaving the Flinders, the Thomson was followed, and then Cooper's Creek (Barcoo) was reached on the 19th of April. From this position to the settled districts a route was found without difficulty—indeed, with great ease to Landsborough. On the 21st of May, being 103 days from the start, Williams's station, on the Warrego, was reached, where intelligence was first received regarding the fate of Burke and Wills. The remainder of the journey across the continent was made by the Darling River and Menindie to Melbourne. It proved of the highest value to the squatting interest, and led to the occupation of an immense extent of country for squatting purposes. After an experience of twenty years in Australia, Landsborough testified that the best land he had seen was in the district of Carpentaria.