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» Cooper's Creek to Carpentaria

Cooper's Creek to Carpentaria

The advance party, under Burke, arrived at Cooper's Creek on 11 November 1860 - at last they were on the verge of unexplored land, terra incognita. The camp they made here was the 65th of their journey, and was identified by roman numerals 'LXV' cut into a tree with an axe. The explorers had to depend on finding fresh water on their way to Carpentaria, and so began to scout the region around the Cooper to find the most promising route north. Wills and another member of the expedition,Thomas Macdonough, almost perished on one of these forays when they allowed their camels to wander off and were forced to return to Camp LXV on foot, marching 48 hours straight.

News of Stuart spurs Burke on

It soon became clear that Burke, despite earlier statements, did not intend to wait for Wright to bring up the rest of the men and supplies from Menindie. He was alarmed to learn that another, more experienced, explorer - John McDouall Stuart - had come close to crossing the continent, and was preparing to try again. Burke selected Wills, John King and Charlie Gray to set off in advance of the party. They drew supplies for about three months, and left the rest of the men at Camp LXV under the command of William Brahe.

Burke's precise orders to Brahe later became a matter of intense controversy - the Leader was too slovenly to make a detailed order in writing, and verbal accounts of his orders differed depending on who was telling the story. However, Brahe later made a good case that Burke had indicated he should wait for three months, or for as long as his own supplies lasted, and after that would be free to return to Melbourne.

Four head for Carpentaria

On 16 December, Burke, Wills, King and Gray set out from Camp LXV. They were lucky in their choice of route, and in the weather - the rains were good, and fresh water was abundant. Their encounters with Aborigines were benign, and the terrain was not difficult. Despite these good conditions, after six weeks' march - their projected point of return - they were still short of the northern coast.

They pressed on, and around 9 February they found themselves on the Flinders River. The water was salty, and showed a strong tidal rise and fall which told the explorers that they were near the sea. Leaving King and Gray with the camels, which could not be got through the swampy mangrove country, Burke and Wills took three days' supplies and set out to break through to the coast. They advanced another 15 miles before admitting defeat. As Burke wrote in his notebook during the return, 'It would be well to say that we reached the sea but we could not obtain a view of the open ocean, although we made every endeavour to do so'.