First published on 20 Mar 2012. Updated on 14 Jun 2012.
By the end of the 1850s gold had transformed Melbourne from a primitive port to the most opulent colonial city in the southern hemisphere.
As the city’s wealth grew so did its ambition. The idea of a transcontinental expedition to unravel the mysteries of Australia’s ‘empty heart’ came from the pompous, powerful Royal Society based (as now) on La Trobe Street, which secretly had designs on Melbourne as HQ for a telegraph wire to Europe, and also on annexing for Victoria a parcel of unclaimed land in the 138-141 meridians near north-west Queensland.
In 1860 they advertised for volunteers on the Victorian Exploration Expedition. Over 700 applied, but Robert O’Hara Burke – pig-headed, often nude and notorious for getting lost walking home from the pub, was an odd choice as leader.
Burke was an Irish Protestant who had served, bizarrely, with both the Catholic Austrian Army and the Russian 7th Hussars in Italy. He was a rake, who had danced, gambled, hunted and wenched his way through Europe, flattering in three languages. Now a court-martial and failed gold-digging claim had found him a policeman at Beechworth, 260km northwest of Melbourne.
William Wills was a perfect foil for Burke. Just 26 when appointed the expedition’s surveyor and astronomical observer, the shy Wills had come to Victoria at the height of the gold rush in 1853 but, smitten with the land, had instead immersed himself in the earth and stars. A born scientist, he now sought life in the harshest void on earth.
Farewelled by a crowd of 15,000, Burke and Wills set forth at the head of 19 men, 26 camels, 23 horses and six wagons carting 21 tonnes of supplies on a journey of at least 5,000km.
It was the golden age of overland exploration yet Australia had revealed its secrets reluctantly. Burke and Wills quickly found out why. As road gave way to mud, and valleys bled into plains, the explorers’ massive cargo crushed morale. By Day 56, mutiny had cost Burke half his team and, worse, blinded him to the dangers ahead. Vainglorious Burke set his men a hellish pace. The expedition pushed on, beyond civilisation, into the ‘shimmering veil’ of the desert. It was October: waterholes were shrivelling, a furnace
wind was whipping, the sun roared warning.
Back in Melbourne, newspapers kept the city hanging on every melodramatic report. The awful truth was far away, lost in the spirit world, crunching across saltpans, ignoring the ancient lessons of the indigenous tribes. Burke, Wills and camel sepoy John King were alone: the rest had orders to wait four months at Coopers Creek.
Against all odds, the explorers reached the sea and turned for home. Alas, their colleagues had departed just hours earlier, leaving only a giant coolibah marked ‘Dig’ with a few buried supplies.
Shattered and emaciated, the men limped on, clinging to life only by the kindness of the few Aborigines who brought them food. But it was hopeless. Burke and Wills perished in the desert; victims, said The Age, of “an excess of bravery”.
Their funeral was the most glorious spectacle Victoria had seen. Over 100,000 saw the cortege crawl 5km from Royal Society Hall to Melbourne Cemetery where Burke and Wills were interred: side by side to the last.
1820 Robert Burke born Galway, Ireland
1834 William Wills born Devon, UK
1851 Victoria severs ties with NSW
1860 Expedition departs Melbourne from Royal Park, Aug 20
1861 Burke & Wills reach the sea, Feb 9
1861 Burke, Wills & King return to ‘Dig Tree’ April 21, to find camp abandoned
1861 Death of Burke & Wills, Jun 26
1861 King rescued Sep 15 after 80 days with Yandruwandha
1863 Burke & Wills buried Jan 21, Victoria’s first state funeral
1865 Statue erected to Burke & Wills on cnr of Collins & Russell Sts (now on Swanston St)
1873 John King dies in St Kilda