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Last Days

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William Strutt - King grieving over Burke
Parliamentary Library of Victoria

Wasting no time Burke, Wills and King set out from Camp LXV on 22 April 1861, hoping to reach settled outposts in South Australia which were much closer than Menindie. They filled in the cache-pit, but left a note of their own in case someone returned to examine it. Burke's note stated that they had moved down the Creek and were badly in need of food and clothing.

Brahe and Wright, having met and conferred in Bulloo, decided to return to Camp LXV for one last look. They arrived there on 8 May, but spent only a quarter of an hour looking around. They saw no sign that any other Europeans had been there since they left, and so did not bother to dig up the cache, which now contained the notes from Burke and Wills, who were at that moment some 35 miles down the creek.

As if this were not enough, Burke later sent Wills back to Camp LXV for another 'last look'. He arrived on 30 May, completely unaware that anyone else had been there, and buried - presumably in the cache - some of his journals and another note imploring anyone who might read it to send help.

Aborigines offer food

After their return to the Cooper, the men became increasingly dependent on the generosity of the local Yandruwandha people, who brought them fish and cakes of nardoo, an edible seed. Burke, apparently galled by this dependence on 'inferiors', had jeopardised the relationship by rudely refusing a gift of fish. Left to fend for themselves, the explorers finally found banks of nardoo fern and confined all their efforts to gathering the seed. They failed to understand, however, that nardoo seed, if not correctly prepared, is toxic and robs the body of vitamin B1. This leads to death from malnutrition.

The death of Burke and Wills

The nardoo quelled their hunger, but Wills was puzzled by their inability to derive any real nourishment from it. By late June, Burke could no longer move. He asked King to place a pistol in his hand and leave him unburied, and died where he lay. King set out to get help from the Aborigines but was unsuccessful, and by the time he returned to camp, Wills was also dead. King buried Wills and set out again to join the Yandruwandha. As he later described it, they treated him as 'one of their own' for two and a half months, until a relief party sent from Melbourne discovered him on 15 September 1861.