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Following Burke and Wills across Australia

Hi Dave, Im planing on doing the Burke & Wills track next Feb.
I'm thinking of hiring a 4x4 in Melbourne, can you please tell me which is the best map to use how much water to carry and how long on average does it tak.
Last year I went from Perth to perth via the Nullarbor Port Augusta Cooper Pedy Uluru Alice Springs Katherine Darwin Halls Creek etc etc back to Perth, I was on a motorcycle.
I have a good idea of what to expect but would appreciate any advise you could give me, I will be traveling with my wife hence the 4x4, I will be traveling from the UK, thank you in anticipation.
Noel Cahill

Dear Noel,
There has been a lot of interest in people wanting to follow the expedition's track from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria. As a result I have just published a book through CSIRO Publishing which details the hitory of the expedition and then uses maps and photographs to take you across Australia in 16 chapters. the route follows publicly accessible roads and tracks and each chapter roughly equates to one day's travel.

Following Burke and Wills Across Australia

With regards to the amount of water and preparations etc., I will include an extract from my book below. However one point that I would stress is that travel in the outback in February is not advisable due to the extreme heat and monsoonal rains in the tropics. Certain roads in the South Australian outback are subject to seasonal closures between December and March as a result of the extreme temperatures.

In my book I explain:

Much of the route described in this Guide is on back roads rather than highways ... Many of these outback tracks traverse very remote country.
This Touring Guide will take you to some isolated and remote areas with limited facilities and no mobile phone coverage. You and your vehicle need to be properly prepared for such conditions. This is a journey that should only be made in a well-maintained 4WD vehicle with high clearance. If you have limited experience driving in the outback, handling and recovering a 4WD, you are advised to seek advice on how to equip your vehicle and prepare for your journey.
Much of the route is on unsealed roads, the condition of which varies depending on recent weather conditions, the amount of traffic the roads have been subjected to and how well maintained they are. Outback roads can be very rough and stony in the dry, slippery and boggy in the wet. Even in Victoria, the route includes a number of unsealed roads that are designated Dry Weather Only and which become impassable after rain.
In New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland, most roads on the route are unsealed. If the weather is wet, roads may quickly become impassable and be closed by local councils, police or state road authorities. Fines may be issued for driving on closed roads. Even sealed roads can be closed at floodways or low-level bridges. You therefore need to be self-sufficient in case you have to camp in or by your vehicle while you wait for roads to reopen. You should take this possibility into account if you have time constraints.
Generally speaking, each chapter contains a segment of the route that can be driven in a day, so allow at least a fortnight for the trip from Melbourne to the Gulf.
Although the VEE began their journey in winter and reached the Gulf at the height of the summer wet season, this timeframe is not recommended. In summer, outback temperatures can be extreme and Public Access Routes (PARs) in South Australia have summer seasonal closures for public safety. Some roads in north Queensland are closed for months during the monsoonal wet season.
The most favourable time of year to travel would be to start from Melbourne in late autumn, cross the inland in winter and reach the Gulf in the dry season.
You should always check road reports and weather conditions for each stage of your journey before setting out. A list of useful contact details is provided at

Hope this helps. Any questions about the Burke and Wills touring guide, feel free to email me: author @

Duncan McIntyre's "Ladies' Leichhardt Expedition" 1865-7


I'm hoping that there maybe a list of personnel who were members of the Burke and Wills Search Party. I have been researching my family history and have often come across stories about my Great Grandfather's brother, Mr Colin Stewart, being involved with the Burke & Wills Expedition. I have recently found evidence in a newspaper that he was a member of the Search Party and not the Expedition. We know that he would have been a very experienced bushman as he arrived in Victoria as a 2 year-old in 1841 and was raised in and around Buninyong, Victoria. Is there a list of individuals that were on the Search Party and if so how can I access the list? We would like to find proof of his involvement.

Marilyn Stewart

Dear Marilyn,
There were a number of Search Parties that were sent out in 1861-2 to look for Burke and Wills, but Colin Stewart was not a member of any of these expeditions. He was, however, a member of Duncan McIntyre's 1865 Leichhardt Search Expedition.
In 1863, Duncan McIntyre travelled from Glengower, near Clunes in Victoria to the Gulf of Carpentaria. He had been impressed with William Landsborough's description of the country around the Flinders River and wanted to lay claim to pastoral land there. (Landsborough's party had travelled along the Flinders River in 1861-2 during their search for Burke and Wills). On the homeward journey, McIntyre found "two old horses, and saw very old tracks of a party going south west. Also two trees marked L about 15 years old," which he believed were from Ludwig Leichhardt's 1848 expedition which vanished without trace.

In December 1864, McIntyre wrote to the Royal Society of Victoria (who were the organisers of the Burke and Wills Expedition in 1860) with news of his discoveries and they decided to organise an expedition to follow up McIntyre's discoveries and search for Leichhardt. The Victorian government contributed £500, South Australia £500 and Queensland £1,000. A committee of Melbourne society ladies, headed by Eliza Sophia Bromby, raised funds by public subscription, as did a Queensland ladies committee headed by Lady Bowen, wife of the Governor of Queensland. In all, the ladies raised an additional £1,500.

The "Ladies Leichhardt Search Expedition" consisted of twelve men, forty-two horses and fourteen camels. The camels were selected from the original herd that had survived the Burke and Wills Expedition and had been grazing peacefully at Longerenong Station in the Wimmera. Duncan McIntyre was selected as leader, but as he was still in Queensland buying stock, the expedition was assembled by Dr Ferdinand Mueller.

The expedition comprised:

  • Duncan McIntyre, Leader
  • Dr James Patrick Murray, Second-in-Command
  • William Frederick Barnett
  • Alexander John Barnes, William McDonald and Thomas Kelly in charge of camels.
  • Alexander Gray, Colin Stewart, John McCalman and [Stephen] Harney in charge of horses.
  • Baluch Khan and Esau Khan, camel sepoys.

They left Bullock Creek Station near Glengower in Victoria on 3 July 1865 and headed to Menindee on the Darling River to meet McIntyre. Nicholas Chevalier sketched the departure, and a lithograph of this sketch was published in the newspapers.

The Starting of the Leichhardt Search Expedition

Frederick Grosse, 1865, Image mp000900, State Library of Victoria.

Published in The Australian News for Home Readers, Tuesday 25 July 1865: 8-10.

The departure of the Leichhardt search expedition from Glengower
From a sketch by Francis H. Nixon, Samuel Calvert, 1865, Image nla.pic-an9025865, National Library of Australia.

There was also a photograph taken of the men, a copy of which was donated anonymously to the State Library of Victoria in 1959. It shows Colin Stewart with the other members of the party.

Leichhardt expedition under Duncan McIntyre.
Image H24455, State Library of Victoria

The photograph was published in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1927 with the following caption:

Leichhardt Search Expedition
Members of the "Ladies' Search Expedition," which left Victoria in 1865 to search for traces of Leichhardt.
Standing (left to right): Harvey, John McCalman, Colin Stewart, William McDonald, Kelly, Alexander Gray, John Barnes.
Sitting (left to right): William Frederick Barnett, Dr. Richard Patrick Murray, and Bendigo, a Queensland native.
The camels were named: Carcoar, Taronga, and Budgee.

(Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 5 November 1927: 13).

The expedition travelled from Glengower via Newbridge, Serpentine, the coaching stop at Durham Ox, Kerang (to cross the Loddon) and arrived at Swan Hill on 9 July. They spent five days at Swan Hill to allow the animals to rest and feed, before crossing the Murray and heading to Kyalite (to cross the Wakool), Balranald (to cross the Murrumbidgee) and then Pooncarrie on the Darling River. This route was very similar to the route that Burke and Wills had taken five years earlier. They arrived in Menindee on 9 August 1865 and camped near Burke and Wills' depot camp at Pamamaroo. Second-in-command, Dr Murray spoke highly of the men.

I cannot speak too highly in their praise, every one working as if the common interest of the expedition were theirs; and the greatest harmony and good feeling amongst them.
(Empire, Monday 11 September 1865: 5).

However when Duncan McIntyre arrived at Menindee, he was not happy with the composition of the party. He wrote,

The camels and stores left here [Menindie] yesterday (23 August) for Mount Murchison – 90 miles without water. I am going up the river to get horses and to sell the rubbish they sent up. Had they been the best horses in Victoria they would not be fit to go northward after getting here in such a season as this.
(Letter from McIntyre to Donald Campbell, dated 24 August 1865).

When they arrived at Mount Murchison, in addition to changing the horses, McIntyre also reduced the size of the party. He dismissed three of the men who were working as supernumaries: Stephen Harney, Thomas Kelly and Colin Stewart. This ended Stewart's association with the expedition, although Dr Murray noted he was sad to see the men go.

It was with regret that the limited number of hands required obliged me to part with three of them ... [they] were discharged only because they were supernumaries, and through no fault or transgression of their own.
(The Age, Monday 19 October 1865).

The party that went on from Mount Murchison was:

  • Duncan Mcintyre
  • Dr James Patrick Murray
  • John McCalman
  • William McDonald
  • Alexander Gray
  • Alexander John Barnes
  • Baluch Khan
  • Myola and Welbo, Aboriginal guides
  • Sixty-five horses, twelve camels and five tons of stores.

It may have been fortunate that Colin Stewart left when he did, as the expedition degenerated into a shambles at Cooper Creek when drought hit the party and Dr Murray was accused of drunken negligence. Many of the men were dismissed and it took McIntyre many months to resupply the party and restart the expedition.

When the expedition reached the Gulf in April 1866, McIntyre contracted Gulf Fever and died at the Gilliat River on 21 May 1866. His replacement, W F Sloman, died shortly afterwards, and a third leader, William Frederick Barnett was appointed. However, by May 1867, no traces of Leichhardt had been found and the expedition ended.

The Thomas and Anthony Belt Expedition?


Thomas Belt applied to be part of the expedition, was he successful?
If so, a quick summary of his history and any possible inputs or finds he may have contributed.
Thanking you for your reply.

Graham Schmidt

Dear Graham,
Thomas Belt submitted an application to the Royal Society of Victoria for the position of leader of the Victorian Exploring Expedition, but he then withdrew his application and left Australia, so he did not take actually take part in the expedition.
Thomas Belt (1832-1878) was an English geologist who came to Australia in 1852. In 1855 he joined the Philosophical Institute of Victoria (which later became the Royal Society of Victoria, the organisers of the Burke and Wills Expedition).

Membership of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria:
*1855 - Thomas Belt, White Hill, Maryborough, Victoria.
*1857-1860 - Thomas Belt, Meteorological Observer, Mount Egerton, Victoria.

On Wednesday, 26 November 1857 he presented a paper to the Philosophical Institute titled On the course of whirlwinds.

A meeting of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria was held last evening in the Hall of the Mechanics' Institution [Collins-street, Melbourne], at ' half past seven o'clock. There was a full attendance.

The Course of Whirlwinds
Mr Thomas Belt, Meteorological Observer, Mount Egerton, read a paper on the above subject. He noticed the fact that Melbourne lay within the range of one of the great hurricane tracts, and, reasoning from analogy, the causes of the small circular gusts of wind, so frequently to be observed in the summer season, might perhaps be found to be similar to those of those more formidable phenomena of nature known by the name of whirlwinds. Alter alluding to the general descriptive features of the eddies in question, and to their prevalence in more countries than one, the reader commented upon their apparent causes. They might be considered as the initial phases of the great whirl-storms, and were perhaps similar in their nature to the simoons of Africa. There was also a likeness between them and the phenomena and causes of typhoons and cyclones. Hitherto the reading of the barometer had been too exclusively attended to, especially in regard to cyclones; whereas, the thermometer, on the other hand, had been too much neglected.

Argus, Thursday 26 November 1857: 5.

The paper was not selected to be published in the Transactions and the Proceedings of the Philosophical Institute. but it was published in the London Philosophical Magazine.
*See: Thomas Belt, "An inquiry into the Origin of Whirlwinds," Philosophical Magazine Volume 17, Issue 111, London, 1859: 47–53.

The same evening that Belt read his whirlwind paper, Dr Ferdinand Mueller read a lengthy and detailed paper titled "The Explorations of Australia." Mueller's paper was significant as it was part of the Philosophical Institute's early attempts to organise a Victorian expedition. The Institute's president, Dr David Wilkie had just announced their intention to organise an expedition, the Exploration Committee had been established and had met three times, and Mueller's paper outlined to the public what areas were left to explore. The enthusiastic attendance at the Mechanic's Institute was more a result of Mueller's talk on exploration rather than Belt's discussions of whirlwinds.
*For a transcript of Mueller's paper, see:

Mueller and Wilkie had different ideas on how the expedition should be managed. Wilkie wanted a large, scientific expedition to cross Australia from Brisbane to Perth. Mueller thought that a small, fast expedition from Cooper's Creek to the Gulf of Carpentaria would be better. He only wanted to use horses and objected to any suggestions to import camels for the expedition. Mueller initially wanted Augustus Charles Gregory to lead the expedition, but Gregory declined, as did the second choice, Peter Egerton Warburton. By March 1860 a leader had still not been appointed, and the Honorary Secretary of the Exploration Committee, Dr John Macadam, advertised for a leader in the press.

Victorian Exploring Expedition

Gentlemen desirous of offering their services for the leadership of the forthcoming expedition are requested to put themselves In communication with the Honorary Secretary of the Committee on or before the 1st day of March ensuing.
By Order of the Committee
John Macadam, MD, Honorary Secretary,
Fitzroy Cottage, Fitzroy-square.
Royal Society, Victoria-street, Melbourne.
January 30, 1860.

Argus, Thursday 2 February 1860: 2S, column c.

Thomas Belt had been following the discussion on exploration and considered himself a suitable candidate as leader. He submitted a lengthy application (7 foolscap pages) on 1 March 1860.

Melbourne, March 1st 1860
To the Exploration Committee of Victoria

I beg to offer my services as a leader in the proposed exploration of the interior. I have for several years taken a great interest in the subject and prepared myself in various ways for the duties of such a command. In December, 1857 I forwarded to the Exploration Committee of the Philosophical Institute an offer to attempt the traverse of the Australian continent form the River Albert in the Gulf of Carpentaria to the settlements on the Southern coast.

Further study of the subject has confirmed me in the opinion that the exploration of the interior may be best accomplished by making a series of transverse journeys across the continent from the Northern coast – and I beg respectfully to forward herewith a statement of my review on the subject:-

In respect to my ability to describe the natural phenomena met with during the journey I may state that I am thoroughly conversant with geology and meteorology. I 1857 I read before the Philosophical Institute of Victoria a paper on the “Origin of Whirlwinds” which, although it was not selected by the council of the Institute for publication, met with the decided approval of the Astronomer Royal of England, and was through him published in the  Philosophical Magazine, a copy of which I enclose.

In conclusion I would respectfully remind your Committee that geographical knowledge has been extended much more by individual effort than by large and costly expeditions.
I am, Gentlemen,
Your most obedient servant
Thomas Belt

Applications to join the Victorian Exploring Expedition received by the Exploration Committee, Box 2076/1, MS 13071, State Library of Victoria.

Belt then went on to outline his ideas for the expedition. He suggested that if the Victorian Government would take him and his older brother, Anthony, by ship to the Albert River in the Gulf of Carpentaria, the two men would then cross Australia to Melbourne. He wanted one man as an armed escort to accompany them for the first 20 miles, and then he and Anthony, with 25 pack-horses would cross the continent.
He argued:

If we fail, only two lives will be lost, but all chances are in our favour; we are provided with water and food more than ample to cover the distance we have to travel. Every step of our road carries us homeward and to safety. If we never find a drop of water on the road, our animals have enough to carry those who have to bear the whole journey to their goal, and as the animals succumb they will be shot or turned adrift.

Thomas Belt, The naturalist in Nicaragua: A narrative of a residence at the gold mines of Chontales; Journeys in the savannahs and forests; With observations of animals and plants in reference to the theory of evolution of living forms. London: J Murray, 1874.

He wanted to use packhorses rather than camels, as he thought camels were untested and may be unreliable. Belt's ideas for a small, fast expedition were very different to the final composition of the Burke and Wills Expedition with its grand entourage of camels, horses, wagons and men. He thought the whole expedition would cost just £2,500 (The Burke and Wills Expedition cost £10,045/14s/01d).

On 5 March 1860 the Exploration Committee considered Belt's application, along with fourteen other candidates. They commented on Belt's courageous proposal:

When the government expedition for crossing the Australian continent was first proposed, Belt pointed out the dangers attending any attempt to travel from south to north, and promised to make the journey successfully, with his brother as his only companion, if the government would convey them to the northerly gulf of Carpentaria, and let them start thence for the south.

Your Committee have had under their consideration a lengthy communication from Mr Belt, a member of the Institute, who proposes to undertake alone an expedition from the Gulf of Carpentaria to Adelaide. All that he requires is to be landed at the mouth of the Albert River, with five horses, provided with waterbags, and a small supply of provisions and oats. He expects to be able to reach Sturt's furthest point without difficulty, and then to follow his track to Adelaide.

Your Committee need only observe that the hostility and rapacity of the natives would render it extremely hazardous for one man to undertake such all expedition, not to mention the impossibility of one man leading or driving five horses through a scrubby and it may be a waterless country. They cannot, however, withhold their admiration of the zeal and courage displayed by Mr Belt in thus offering, single handed, to undertake so difficult and hazardous an expedition.

"First Report," Progress Reports and Final Report of the Exploration Committee of the Royal Society of Victoria. Melbourne: Royal Society of Victoria. Mason & Firth Printers. 1863.

However, the Exploration Committee could not agree on a suitable candidate for leadership, and so they deferred the decision for three months. Belt then wrote to withdraw his application:

Melbourne, 10 March 1860.

Having determined to proceed on a visit to Europe, I beg most respectfully to withdraw my application for the leadership of the proposed exploring expedition.

I am gentlemen,
your most obedient servant,
Thomas Belt.

Applications to join the Victorian Exploring Expedition received by the Exploration Committee, Box 2076/1, MS 13071, State Library of Victoria.

Thomas Belt left Australia and returned to England, and he was no longer mentioned in connection with the expedition.

Additional Information:
Hi Dave,
My name is Arturo and I grew up in Nicaragua, where Thomas Belt spent 4 years and wrote The Naturalist in Nicaragua. I'm seeking information about his insect collections and photos of him or of his family or home. Unfortunately I have no idea where to begin. I live in Germany and have recently translated his book from original English into German, which will be titled Der Naturforscher in Nicaragua. I would like to illustrate his writing by placing photos of the specimens he collected and surely are kept somewhere in England ... but where? Maybe you can give me a hint where I could ask? Any information would be terrific and most appreciated.
Best wishes,
E. Arturo Castro-Frenzel, Berlin.
Sehr geehrter Arturo,
Vielen Dank für Ihr email.
Unfortunately I am not aware of any collections made by Thomas Belt, certainly not here in Australia anyway.
Thomas Belt travelled widely (England, Wales, Australia, USA, Russia, Nova Scotia, Nicaragua and Siberia) so his collections (if they still exist) could be in any of these countries. I would suggest sending enquiries to the British Natural History Museum ( and the British Royal Entomological Society (
Belt was born in Northumberland in England, and joined the Tyneside Field Naturalists Club, which is now called the Natural History Society of Northumberland (, so they may have some details about Belt's collections.
I would also suggest contacting the Northumberland and Durham Family History Society ( to see if they have details of Belt's genealogy or any photographs of Thomas and his family.
Viel Glück mit Ihrer Forschung !

Where did Burke cross Cooper's Creek ?


Hi Dave,
We have just returned from a trip to Innamincka and all the Burke and Wills sites, including the Dig Tree.  We have also read Sarah Murgatroyd's book on the expedition. However we are unable to solve the mystery of where and how Burke's final party crossed Cooper Creek on his way north to Carpentaria.  We have read that 1860 was a good year for the Cooper and that water was abundant.  So had the Creek dried up enough by the time Burke left Depot 65, to enable him to cross in between waterholes; or did Burke simply march alongside the Creek without ever needing to actually cross the Creek?

Peter and Vicki Simpson

Dear Peter and Vickie,

Burke did cross the Cooper, but he did it at his first Depot Camp (Camp 63), which is where the Cooper meets the Wilson River. The main issue which causes confusion for people trying to identify where the expedition travelled in this area is that Burke's 'first camp on the Cooper' (Camp 57) was not on the Cooper, but was actually on what is now called the Wilson River.


Burke and Wills already knew about Cooper Creek from earlier visits by European explorers; Charles Sturt in 1845 and A C Gregory in 1858. In 1845 Sturt traced the Cooper upstream, reaching a point on 3 November 1845 which he called the Macleay Plains. Sturt thought he was still on the Cooper, but by this stage the Cooper was away to the north-east and Sturt was actually on the Wilson River.

When Burke and Wills left the Bulloo River and headed west across the Grey Range, their intention was to find water near Sturt's Macleay Plains. On 11 November 1860, after several days in the ranges without water, they descended onto the plains and found a narrow watercourse (near today's isolated little settlement of Noccundra). As they were only about 30 kilometres from Sturt's furthest camp, Wills naturally thought he had found the Cooper. Consequently, Wills' field-book records 'Camp 57, first camp on the Cooper', even though they were on the Wilson River, not the Cooper, and still more than 100 kilometres from the Dig Tree.

Wilson River. A channel of the Wilson River where Burke and Wills first found water on Sturt's Macleay Plains. Burke and Wills made their 'first camp on the Cooper' on 11 November 1860 within a couple of kilometres of this spot.
© Dave Phoenix 2012.

Burke and Wills had a difficult time over the next week-and-a-half tracing the myriad of watercourses in the channel country before they reached a site downstream which Burke considered was suitable to make a depot camp. This was at the confluence of the Cooper and the Wilson, and they made Depot Camp 63 on the spur of land between the two rivers.

Burke and Wills made several reconnaissance trips to the north, so they would have had to cross the Cooper as soon as they left camp, and as there would have been water here they would have had to swim the horses and camels across to the northern bank of the Cooper each time they left camp.

The confluence of Cooper Creek and the Wilson River - the site of Burke's Depot Camp 63
© Dave Phoenix 2012.

They stayed at Depot Camp 63 from 20 November to 4 December 1860, before the long-haired plague rats (Rattus villosissimus) forced them to move downstream to their second depot camp at the Dig Tree. Wills was away on another reconnaissance trip when Burke moved downstream, so there is no record of exactly where Burke travelled between Camps 63 and 65 (~30 kilometres). He could have travelled on the south bank of the Cooper, but that would have meant crossing the Wilson and then crossing the Cooper further downstream, or he could have crossed the Cooper at the camp, which he had done several times previously during the reconnaissance trips. I suspect Burke crossed to the north bank at the camp (see the photograph above).

Once on the northern bank, Burke had no need to cross back to the south bank, and so the camps he made on the Cooper while on the way to Carpentaria (Camp 64 near Maappoo; Camp 65 at the Dig Tree; Camp 66 at Kullyu-marru (Cullyamurra); and Camp 67 at Thilka) were all on the northern bank of the creek.

William John Wills, Field-book. Wills' original field-book on the left, with an annotated copy on the right showing how Burke and Wills travelled from Camp 62 to Camp 63 on Tuesday, 20 November 1860; they left Camp LXII at 6.00 am, crossed the Wilson River at 7.30, skirted around to the north of some low hills and then reached the main channel of the Cooper at 10.15 am where they made Camp LXIII, their first Depot Camp.
William John Wills, Field Notes No. 4: Bilbarka to Torowoto to Cooper's Creek (14-20 November 1860), MS13071, State Library of Victoria.

Unfortunately Murgatroyd's book doesn't depict these events very well, but only adds to the confusion. The way she describes Burke arriving at the Cooper is more a reflection of the first time she saw the Cooper in 1997 rather than a portrayal of Burke's 1860 experience. Her description of the Cooper 'winding its way through the wilderness like a fat orange snake' has no similarity to Wills' description of their first encounter with the creek; '... at the point at which we first struck Cooper's Creek it was rocky, sandy, and dry'.

Wills had great difficulty following the Wilson River downstream and became frustrated as the channels petered out and the water dried up between the sandhills and on the black-soil plains. In addition, the place they first encountered the watercourse was in Wangkamura country, not Yandruwandha country as Murgatroyd suggests.

A note on orthography: Cooper Creek or Cooper's Creek?
I am often asked about the correct use of Cooper or Cooper's, and I tend to use them interchangeably, depending on the context.

The Yandruwandha name for Cooper Creek is Kinipapa (although because the creek is more than 1,200 km long, it has many indigenous names along its course). On 9 November 1845, the first European to see the creek, Captain Charles Napier Sturt called the creek Cooper's Creek.

Before we finally left the neighbourhood ... I gave the name of Cooper’s Creek to the fine watercourse we had so anxiously traced, as a proof of my great respect for Mr Cooper [Justice Sir Charles Cooper], the Judge of South Australia. I would gladly have laid this creek down as a river, but as it had no current I did not feel myself justified in so doing.
(Charles Sturt, Narrative of an expedition into central Australia, performed under the authority of Her Majesty's Government, during the years 1844, 5, and 6: together with a notice of the province of South Australia, in 1847, (London: T and W Boone, 1848), 2 volumes.)

Modern geographical place name guidelines remove the apostrophe and possessive 's and call the creek Cooper Creek.

So historical references to the creek will call it Cooper's Creek, but contemporary references call it Cooper Creek.


Burke and Wills' sites at Cooper Creek.


I am planning a month long expedition around Innamincka later this year and I am trying to narrow down the coordinates of the "Dig Tree".
If I have my information correctly, this is the original burial place of Burke, and Wills is a few miles further downstream from Burke.
There are several photos floating around and I am curious to have these clarified, i.e. the tree with the engraved face of Burke, also the pole that denotes the location of Wills.
Could you please assist me with this information, as the coordinates I have found so far put me about 300 miles from the actual sites.
Thanks for your time and in depth detail of their fated expedition.

Daniel Neal

Dear Dan,

There are four sites along the Cooper near Innamincka with memorials commemorating the expedition:

The Dig Tree, Queensland.
27°37'25"S, 141° 04'32"E
The Dig Tree is the site of Camp 65, also known as Fort Wills. This was the second depot camp established on the Cooper. Burke arrived here on 6 December 1860 and left for the Gulf on 16 December 1860. William Brahe was left in charge of the depot with instructions (variously recalled) to wait for three months, or four months, or as long as his provisions would last. Brahe waited for four months and one week before marking the date, camp number and dig message on a tree, and on Sunday, 21 April 1861, he left to return to Menindee. Burke, Wills and King returned to the Dig Tree that evening to find the camp deserted.

The blaze showing B-LXV (Burke, Camp 65) is still visible as it has been kept open by cutting back the overgrowing bark. The other blazes, the Dig blaze and the Date blaze have overgrown and are no longer visible. There is some uncertainty exactly what Brahe carved on the Dig blaze, and the interpretive signs recall it variously as "AH Dig under", "Dig 3FT NW" and "DIG 40FT West." Brahe recalled marking the Dig blaze on a different tree to the one with the camp number and date blazes, and evidence from Howitt's relief party confirms this, indicating that Brahe actually marked two trees at the site.
Face Tree
The Face Tree is 30 metres from the Dig Tree. It has a carving of Burke's face with the (overgrown) initials R O 'H B. The carving was done by John Dick and his wife Minnie Ghyn Thompson in November 1898. Dick originally wanted to carve the face into the Dig Tree, but John Conrick, owner of Nappa Merrie Station objected to him marking the Dig Tree. Dick carved his initials and his wife's initials into the Face Tree, and these days tourists often mistake this carving as the original Dig blaze.
Burke's Tree, South Australia.
27°43'21"S, 140°46'42"E
This is the site where Howitt buried Burke's remains on 21 September 1861. Howitt marked a tree here and the tree still stands, although the blaze has overgrown and has been buried by river sand.
Wills grave, South Australia.
27°45'20"S, 140°35'59"E
This is the site where Alf Towner blazed a tree and erected a metal post in 1948 to mark Will's grave. Mike Steel and Red Rover Tours erected a monument here in 1973. The original tree that Howitt marked at Wills' grave on 18 September 1861 has disappeared, its location is unknown and there are no known photographs of images of the tree. David Corke, former President of the Burke and Wills Historical Society, replotted Howitt's field notes and showed that Wills was in fact buried about 2.5 kilometres away from Towner's and Steel's memorials.
King's site, South Australia.
27°46'30"S, 140°40'42"E
This is the site where Howitt's surveyor, Edwin Welch, discovered John King living with the Yandruwandha on 15 September 1861. Alf Towner marked a tree here in 1948 and also erected a metal post. Joe Mack and Eric Loeffler erected a cairn here in 1973.

I have made a Google Earth .kmz file showing these locations, which you can download HERE. You will need Google Earth to view this file.


Burke's Tree


Hello Dave,
I'm the volunteer librarian of the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia. We have a piece of tree described below.  As the note says I've assumed these are not the original markings. I would be interested in finding out more about it. Hope you can help.

Part of the tree marking the grave of Robert O’Hara Burke, leader of the unsuccessful Victorian attempt to cross the continent from south to north and return. Burke and William John Wills died near Cooper’s Creek in June 1861. Carved into the tree are the initials of Alfred Howitt whose search party found the bodies of Burke and Wills in September 1861. The date 21. 9. 61 is carved into the tree and R O’H B indicating that this is Burke’s gravesite. Howitt later returned to this site to retrieve the remains of Burke and Wills and take them back to Melbourne. John McKinlay, who led the South Australian Relief Expedition found the tree marked by Howitt in December 1861 and added his initials. (The engravings appear to be copies of the originals on the main trunk of the tree). McKinlay carved his initials in the ‘burial tree’ in December 1861. The artefact is approximately 87 cm long and 8-10 cm in diameter, with the branch 50cm long and 6.5 cm in diameter.

Image reproduced courtesy of RGSA (SA Branch).

Kevin Griffin

Dear Kevin,
Burke died on Cooper Creek and was buried under a coolibah tree by Howitt in September 1861. Howitt marked the tree, as did McKinlay who visited later. Howitt returned to the tree in 1862 and exhumed Burke's remains for re-burial in Melbourne.

There appear to have been at least seven occasions when pieces of this tree have been taken as souvenirs, at least two of those pieces have been handed to the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (SA Branch).

Background to Burke's Tree.
Burke died (most probably on 1 July 1861) on the southern bank of Yidnaminkie Waterhole at Cooper Creek in South Australia. John King left him unburied as Burke had requested. King returned to Burke's body some weeks later with the Yandruwandha and they placed boughs over Burke's body. Alfred Howitt, leader of the Victorian Contingent Party, discovered King living on Cooper Creek on 15 September 1861. King directed Howitt to Burke's remains, and on 21 September 1861 Howitt buried Burke under the coolibah tree. Howitt wrote:

We dug a grave ... and interred the remains wrapped in the Union Jack ... On a box-tree, at the head of the grave the following inscription is cut;

When John McKinlay, leader of the South Australian Burke Relief Expedition heard of Howitt's discoveries he headed to the Cooper. McKinlay visited Burke's grave on 7 December 1861 and buried a bottle under the tree with a note. Although he didn't mention it in his journal, McKinlay blazed the tree with his conjoined initials (MK) and the word 'Dig' to indicate the buried bottle. When Howitt returned to the Cooper in 1862 to exhume Burke and Wills' remains for burial in Melbourne, he mentioned that McKinlay had blazed the tree (MK conjoined, DIG under in square).

Burke's Tree since 1862.
The tree under which Burke was buried was originally considered much more significant than the Dig Tree, in fact the Dig Tree wasn't even called the Dig Tree until the 1920s.

The oldest surviving image of Burke's Tree is a sketch made by surveyor Alexander Hutchinson Salmond in 1879 and it shows some of the marks made by Howitt and McKinlay. (Reference 6404 Salmond, Box 10921, Heritage Collection, State Library of Queensland). The tree was photographed for the first time by South Australian Government Photographer Emanuel Spiller in 1887. The location of the tree was fixed by Deputy Surveyor-General, J H McNamara in March 1896.

Burke's Tree is subject to deposition as a result of flooding, and the ground level has continued to rise and cover the blazes with each flood event. Howitt's blaze was covered in the 1906 flood and McKinlay's blaze has subsequently been covered as well. (The blaze has been dug out several times, but when Joe Mack dug it out in 1960, there was nothing of the original carving left to see).

Burke's Tree is at 27° 43' 16"S, 140° 46' 50" E (GDA 94).

Burke's grave,
Photograph by Emanuel Spiller, c. 1887, H1665, Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria.

Wooden souvenirs
In 1881 a drover named Henry Ledger visited Burke's Tree and "cut off a limb with a penknife while sitting on horseback" (Sydney Morning Herald, 18 January 1922: 14). The first record of a piece of Burke's Tree being placed on display was when Hiram Mildred of the Relics Committee of the Old Colonist's Association exhibited items at the Adelaide Town Hall as part of South Australia's Jubilee Celebrations in December 1886. Among the relics was a "piece of the tree under which Burke and Wills, the explorers, met their tragic death," (SA Register, 28 December 1886, pp. 5-6). Mildred claimed the piece was "cut some years ago by a pioneer squatter," (SA Register, 18 August 1887, p.3).

A third piece of the tree was sent to the mayor of Adelaide, Edwin Thomas Smith on 15 August 1887.

On Monday evening His Worship the mayor received from Mr Alfred Walker, Manager of Innamincka Station, a, branch of the tree under which Robert O'Hara Burke was buried. Mr Walker wrote "I am sending you a limb from Burke's tree. The limb represents the tree as it now stands, showing, initials, &c, as they were put on by the different explorers that came to look for Burke and Wills." The mayor intends to forward the relic to the Exhibition.
(SA Register, 17 August 1887, p. 6)

In 1903, Mr. Peate of Innamincka moved to Mildura, taking with him a photograph of the tree and "a piece of the tree also, on which is a facsimile of the inscriptions as they appear on the trunk" (Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 25 December 1903: 28). Peate notes "at various times large limbs have been cut off and portions taken away by visitors as relics."
Sidney Kidman had a piece of Burke's Tree which he cut from the tree himself sometime between 1904 and 1910. The piece Kidman had was "part of two forked branches of a tree" (Jill Bowen, Kidman: The forgotten king, 1967).

In 1929 the Government Inspector of Pastoral Leases, Cecil Goode, reported that "a vandal had sawn off a limb, five or six inches in diameter, from Burke's historic tree" (The Register News-Pictorial, 26 February 1929, p. 28).

The following year the State Library of Victoria exhibited a "portion of the tree under which Burke was buried." (Argus, 11 February 1930, p.7).

Portion of tree under which Burke was buried
[realia], wood; 14.5 cm. (diameter), H5102, State Library of Victoria.

The RGSA (SA Branch) wooden souvenir
In 1903 the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (SA Branch) were presented with two separate pieces of Burke's tree. On 20 July 1903 RGSA member A T Magarey presented "a portion of a branch of a tree at the grave of Burke and Wills at Innamincka," which had been donated by Trooper H A Schumann (Advertiser, 22 July 1903, p. 6; Proceedings of the RGSA (SA Branch) Vol. 7, 1904, p. ix). Five months later Professor Edward Charles Stirling wrote to the Society offering to loan "a branch of the tree under which Burke died," (Advertiser, 14 December 1903, p. 6; Proceedings of the RGSA (SA Branch) Vol. 7, 1904, p. x). This loan was made with the assent of Edwin Thomas Smith who had presented the piece to the museum.

It would appear from all the available evidence that the piece of wood you currently have in the RGSA collection is the one cut by Alfred Walker of Innamincka Station on or before 1887. It was sent to Adelaide in 1887, presented to the museum by the mayor, and loaned to the RGSA in 1903 by Dr Stirling (Proceedings of the RGSA (SA Branch) Vol. 7, 1904, p. xxxi). The carvings were already on the piece when it arrived in Adelaide. The piece was mentioned in 1929 by Dr Charles Fenner of the RGSA.

"The piece of tree in our rooms is from Innamincka, and is no doubt a genuine part of the tree marked by Howitt at Burke's grave" (Fenner, 'Two Historic Gumtrees Associated with the Burke and Wills Expedition of 1861,' Proceedings of the RGSA (SA Branch), Vol. 29, (1927-8), p. 5).

Fenner states the tree had a printed and framed bill associated with it which stated the piece of tree was "sent down in 1888 [sic]" (Two Historic Gumtrees, p. 6). The first known photograph of the tree shows a limb had already been removed by 1887.

The carvings on the RGSA artefact are not completely accurate, as Howitt's initials and McKinlay's initials have been transposed, and the dates are separated by a period not a forward-slash. However the conjoined initials are reproduced correctly and McKinlay's instructions to DIG are also included, which are rarely mentioned in other narratives. The artefact also shows McKinlay carved an arrow, which is not mentioned in any other archive, but most probably was carved on the original tree to indicate where the buried bottle was located. Below are two attempts at deciphering the contents of the blaze, one an enhanced photograph and the other by Dr Fenner; neither is correct.

Unidentified man and Herbert Kenny under the Dig [sic] Tree, 1887,
D3-5-86, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Sketch to show the base of Burke's tree, with Howitt's and McKinlay's 1861 inscriptions,
Fenner, Two historic gumtrees, 1929, p. 14.

Burke's Tree,
© Dave Phoenix 2016.


The Burke and Landells Expedition


What was Burke and Landells' relationship before the expedition ?


Dear Jason,

Burke only met Landells after he had been selected as leader of the expedition in June 1860. Landells had just arrived back from India with a shipment of camels, and the two men met for the first time just two months before the expedition departed.

Not a great deal is known about Landells. Research by Len Meeny into another branch of the Landells family suggests that George James Landells was born in Barbados on 5 February 1825 to George Landells and Margaret Anderson. The family lived variously in Barbados, Jamaica, Gambia and England before George James Landells moved to India around 1842. He came to Australia in 1856 aboard the SS Havannah and worked for Colonel W P Robbins of the East India Company. In 1858 he was due to leave Melbourne for Kolkata with a shipment of heavy artillery horses and was looking for something to bring back to Australia as a return shipment.

At the time only six camels had been imported into Australia, and none had been imported into Victoria. However the Victorian Parliament was considering the potential benefits of bringing camels into the colony. Landells wrote to Dr Thomas Embling, MLA for Collingwood, suggesting the government commission him to purchase twenty-four camels in India.

Although fund raising for the Burke and Wills Expedition was underway in 1858, the camels were not initially destined for use on the expedition (contrary to popular belief). The camels were purchased for the Melbourne Botanical and Zoological Gardens, where the Government Botanist, Ferdinand Mueller, was to supervise a breeding program to supply camels as pack-animals for transporting goods, as well as using some of the animals for exploration. It was originally expected that the Burke and Wills Expedition would depart long before the camels arrived from India.

Due to a series of delays raising sufficient funds and selecting a suitable leader for the expedition, the camels landed in Melbourne just before Burke departed, and there was so much excitement about the impending expedition that Burke was allowed to select as many camels as he required. He took twenty-six of the thirty-two camels available, and Mueller never got to start his breeding program.

The expedition's organisers, The Royal Society of Victoria, thought the expedition needed a camel expert to manage the animals and supervise the eight sepoys that had come over from Karachi. Landells claimed to have worked with camels for fourteen years in India and he had been receiving favourable reports in the Melbourne press for the way he had selected the finest camels and transported them safely from India. He was probably the foremost camel expert in Australia at the time, however he had strong views about how the camels should be treated and he was obstinate while negotiating his salary and conditions with the Royal Society of Victoria. Burke met Landells while visiting the camels at the Parliament House stables, and he was impressed with Landells' knowledge of the animals and the strict way he dealt with the sepoys. Burke agreed that the Royal Society of Victoria should employ Landells, even though Landells demanded a higher salary than Burke.

When it came time to prepare for departure, Burke left the selection of camels, sepoys and tack to Landells, and the two men seem to have got on well, right up until the moment of departure when Landells objected to Burke placing loads on the camels.

George James Landells,
William Strutt, Strutt sketchbook, Parliamentary Library of Victoria.


Did Burke mark a tree at Bootingee on the Darling River?


I am now the owner of  Bootingee Station and was wondering if Burke crossed the Darling near the Bootingee Homestead would he have marked a tree. The reason I am asking is I have located a deep scarfed-out box gum at a well-know stock crossing used in years gone by, not far downstream of the homestead, It has a number carved deep into the tree and is nothing like I have seeen before. I have owned property and live along the river for 35 years and never came across anything as deep and as old as this scarf in the tree looks. If you have the time I would be pleased to hear from you.

Stewart & Michelle Oates, Bootingee.

Dear Stewart,

Burke did cross the river at Bootingee, but a couple of kilometres upstream of Bootingee Station, near the Kinchega ruins. There have been a number of stories doing the rounds at Menindee recently about where the expedition crossed the river and which stations they camped at, and someone asked about the Darling River crossing in a previous question - see here.

Burke had divided the party at Bilbarka, and on Thursday, 11 October 1860 he took off up the east bank of the Darling with six men and all the pack-horses. Wills was with Burke and he kept field-notes of where they went each day. Wills shows that at 09.45 am on Sunday, 14 October 1860 they passed 50 links (100 metres) to the east of one of James McLeod's outstations (either at the spot that Bootingee Station is today, or certainly very close) and there they met William Wright who had been employed for the last three years by John Baker as manager of Kinchega Station. Captain George Bain Johnston's paddle-steamer, the PS Moolgewanke, which had most of the expedition's stores on board, had anchored here for the day as it was a Sunday. Wright told Burke of a good place to cross the river opposite his station, Kinchega. At 10.40 am the expedition swam the horses across the Darling from the east bank to the west bank about 100 metres downstream of the original Kinchega Station. The Melbourne Argus (17 November 1860, p.5.) reported the horses 'crossed the river readily, in shallow water'. After crossing the river, Burke made Camp 34-A on the river bank at Kinchega. Wills shows this in his field-book and he records the camping place as 'camped in bend of Darling at crossing place'.

With regards to blazing trees to mark their track, there is no evidence to show that Burke marked any trees at all on the expedition. Wills may have marked trees at some of their camps, and he marked a tree at Bilbarka. Any trees they did mark were at their campsites, and then only at selected campsites. I would not have thought they would have marked a tree at the crossing point, as the Darling, as the Darling had been settled for many years and there were tracks and roads already well established by 1860, and presumably all the river crossing places were well known. Therefore there would not have been any purpose for Burke to mark a tree on the Darling.

If they did mark a tree it would have Roman numerals rather than Arabic ones, and the camp at Kinchega was Camp XXXIV.

This is a scan of Wills' field-book for the day they crossed the Darling. The image is not the best quality, but the State Library are currently digitising the expedition's records and so a better image should be available shortly. At the bottom it shows the expedition leaving Camp 33 at 6.40 am, and heading north-north-east. They passed a shepherd's hut (near Keiara Station)  at 7.15 am and turned north. At 7.45 they are 300 links (60 metres) east of the Darling and five minutes later they cross a tributary (Charlie Stones Creek). McLoed's outstation (near Bootingee) was passed at 9.45 am. They reach the bend in the river just north of Billabong Creek at 10.10, and cross the Darling at 'Kinshika' at 10.30 and camp at 10.40 am.

William John Wills, Field Book No.1: Bilbarka to Torowoto (11-19 October 1860), MS13071, State Library of Victoria.


Did Burke and Wills die because they ate nardoo?


Did Burke and Wills die from the consequences of an inhibition of vitamin B1 by a toxic compound which the local people washed out from leaves by soaking overnight in water? Imitating the locals Burke and Wills were not aware of the importance of this washing and had omitted it during the preparation of their food.

Gerhard Schreiber

Dear Gerhard,

Burke and Wills were introduced to eating nardoo sporocarps by the Yandruwandha Aborigines at Cooper Creek, and nardoo became their sole source of food towards the end of their lives. It has been suggested that the Thiaminase contained in the nardoo sporocarps fatally poisoned Burke and Wills. However, there are two different proposals as to how the nardoo affected the explorers, both of which contradict each other, and consequently there are some questions over the validity of these claims.


What is nardoo?
Nardoo is an aquatic fern, resembling a four-leaf clover, and there are 65 different species in the Marsileaceae family. The nardoo that Burke and Wills ate was Marsilea drummondii. The spores of the plant are contained in a small, hard sporocarp, which is the part eaten by Aborigines (not the leaves). The sporocarp is ground to a flour and then mixed with a little water to form dough which is then cooked in the ashes, or it is mixed with a larger quantity of water and drunk as a thin porridge or gruel. Yandruwandha elder, Benny Kerwin explained to Gavan Breen how the nardoo was prepared;

Ngardu ngala, parndringa ngandra, nga pinakanga nhulu pitjili. Ngapala ngapa kurrari nga thayinga ngapali. Kathi thukali ngala thayi-rnangatji marna-ngadikinitji mandri-rnanga. Kathi thukali, walya kalpurru thalpali or walya darlamurruli, ngarru kathi thukali mandri-rnanga.
Then there is the nardoo. They crush it and then rock it in a coolamon. Then they pour the water on it and eat it with the water…They eat it by spooning it into their mouths with a mussel [shell], not with a coolabah leaf or with bark, only with a mussel. (Kerwin, 1986).

Nardoo seeds
Dried seeds and portion of Nardoo plant brought back from Cooper's Creek by John King of the Burke and Wills Expedition, [ca. 1861], [Realia] H5180, State Library of Victoria.

When did Burke and Wills eat nardoo?
When Burke, Wills and King returned to the Dig Tree on 21 April 1861, they found the food that Brahe had buried there. As they considered it sufficient to get them to Mount Hopeless, they were not initially concerned with supplementing their diet with indigenous foodstuffs.

Their first experience of nardoo was on 7 May when they met a group of Yandruwandha near Maramilya Waterhole on Cooper Creek. Burke and Wills were given 'lumps of bread, which they call nardu'. They had nardoo again on the following day, and when Burke and Wills returned to their own camp on the 9 May, Wills considered they could supplement their dwindling stores with nardoo. However they thought the nardoo was the seed of a tree, and consequently could not find any sporocarps to collect. King recalled that

Burke and Wills went in search of the natives, to endeavour to find out how the nardoo grew; having found their camp they obtained as much nardoo cake and fish as they could eat, but could not  explain that they wished to be shown how to find the seed themselves.

This is not surprising, as preparing nardoo was women's work, and as neither Burke nor Wills were initiated, or had a totem group or skin name, the Yandruwandha would have treated them as guests and given them prepared nardoo to eat, but would not have shown them the intricacies of how the women gathered or prepared the sporocarps.

On 17 May King finally discovered some nardoo sporocarps on the ground at the foot of a sandhill near Marra-tale. Wills stated 'this discovery caused somewhat of a revolution in our feelings for we considered that with the knowledge of this plant we were in a position to support ourselves even if we were destined to remain on the creek; & wait for assistance from Town.' Nardoo then became a significant part of their diet, although initially they had no way to grind the sporocarps into flour, so they boiled them and ate them whole.

On 24 May they found a grinding stone at a gunyah, and began to pound the nardoo as they had seen the Yandruwandha women do. They found it a difficult and time-consuming process, and so they mixed the ground nardoo with an equal amount of their dwindling supplies of flour. Nardoo was clearly becoming their most important food source as Wills referred to it as 'the staff of life.'

On 27 May Wills again met a group of Yandruwandha near Marrpu Waterhole, and they gave him nardoo and fish (this is the first time Wills had seen any Aborigines since 9 May). Wills visited their camp again a week later on 3 June, when he was given nardoo 'cake' as well as nardoo ‘porridge,’ which he described as 'a large bowl of the raw Nardu flour mixed to a thin paste a most insinuating article and one that they appear to esteem a great delicacy.' Wills stayed at the Yandruwandha camp for two days before they moved off upstream, indicating that Wills had better leave and go downstream. The 6 June was the last time Burke and Wills saw Aborigines before they died.

After 6 June nardoo became their sole source of food. Wills and King collected around 2kg of sporocarps a day and Burke cleaned the stalks from the sporocarps and ground them into flour. By 10 June Wills was too weak to collect nardoo, and he took over the responsibility of grinding while Burke and King harvested the sporocarps. Four days later, Burke became too weak to go out to harvest, and the task of feeding the three men fell on King.

By the 20 June Wills wrote, 'I cannot understand this Nardu at all it certainly will not agree with me in any form. We are now reduced to it alone and we manage to get from four to five pounds per day between us. The stools it causes are enormous and seem greatly to exceed the quantity of bread consumed and is very slightly altered in appearance from what it was when eaten.' Nevertheless Wills thought 'starvation on nardu is by no means very unpleasant, but for the weakness one feels and the utter inability to move oneself, for as far as appetite is concerned, it gives me the greatest satisfaction.'

Burke and Wills died during the last few days of June or the first few days of July 1861. Although the Victorian government held a Commission of Enquiry into the deaths of Burke and Wills, they reported on the circumstances that led to the explorers running out of food, rather that enquiring into the medical causes that resulted in their deaths. The Commission thought 'Mr Burke was forced into the necessity of overtaxing the powers of his party, whose continuous and unremitting exertions resulted in the destruction of his animals, and the prostration of himself and his companions from fatigue and severe privation.' As they died outside of the colony, there was no coronial inquest, and the public assumed that the explorers had died of starvation, exhaustion and dysentery or scurvy caused by the privations consequent with their exertions.
Nardoo grinding stones used by Burke, Wills and King at Cooper's Creek, 1861.
[Realia] H5103; LTRE 16, State Library of Victoria.

Would nardoo have poisoned Burke and Wills?
In 1982 Dr Tom Bergin posited that in addition to scurvy, the explorers suffered from beri-beri; a disease caused by a lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine). He demonstrated that the explorer's diet was deficient in vitamin B1, but he also suggested there were similarities between Burke and Wills' symptoms and those seen in a 1974 mass-poisoning of sheep and ovine polio-encephalomalacia, caused when one of the enzymes in nardoo, Thiaminase, destroys thiamine in the body. Bergin thought the explorers failed to prepare nardoo in the traditional indigenous manner, and as a result, had not removed the Thiaminase and had therefore poisoned themselves. Bergin suggests the correct way to remove Thiaminase was to mix the nardoo flour into dough and cook it in the coals, where the heat would destroy the toxic enzyme. Bergin did not think there was any evidence to suggest the explorers cooked nardoo bread, but merely mixed it with water and drank it as porridge. He argued that the Yandruwandha only consumed nardoo as bread and had never given the explorers nardoo porridge. They had presented Wills with porridge, but Bergin supposed this was made from the seeds of Portulaca oleracea, which Wills had mistaken for nardoo. Wills subsequently used the porridge method to prepare the nardoo, and because they did not subject the Thiaminase to heat during cooking, the toxin remained in the porridge. He concluded the both Burke and Wills died of beri-beri.

In 1994 Dr John Earl and Dr Barry McCleary also suggested that the explorers died as a result of beri-beri brought on by the consumption of toxic Thiaminase in incorrectly prepared nardoo sporocarps. Earl and McCleary made no reference to having read Bergin’s thesis, so they may have arrived at this conclusion independently as they had previously worked on the 1974 mass-poisoning of sheep and ovine polio-encephalomalacia. However they concluded that heat had little effect on Thiaminase as nardoo is well adapted to extreme summer temperatures. They thought the correct way to prepare the nardoo was to dilute it with water to reduce the effect of the Thiaminase enzyme. They suggested that although the Yandruwandha had shown Wills the nardoo porridge, the explorers prepared the sporocarps in the traditional way that Europeans prepared grain, and ground the nardoo into flour, mixed it into dough and cooked it in the coals. As they did not dilute the Thiaminase with sufficient water, it remained toxic. Earl and McCleary also concluded that Burke and Wills died of beri-beri.

Inconsistencies and further questions...
The papers by Bergin and Earl and McCleary both agree that Burke and Wills died of beri-beri which was exacerbated by the consumption of toxic Thiaminase.

Bergin argues that the correct method of preparation of nardoo to remove Thiaminase as practiced by the Yandruwandha was to subject it to heat during cooking. Earl and McCleary contradict this and suggest that the correct method of preparation as used by the Yandruwandha was to dilute the flour in water. It appears Bergin and Earl and McCleary have different and opposing ideas on how the Yandruwandha prepared nardoo, even though Wills’ journal clearly indicates he observed the Yandruwandha using both methods.

Bergin overemphasises the toxicity of nardoo. He mentions nardoo has been found to contain up to 100 times the level of Thiaminase found in other toxic plants like bracken. However he fails to mention that these high levels of toxicity occur in the leaves of the plant, which were not consumed. The sporocarps are nowhere near as toxic and only contain two to three times the Thiaminase concentrations found in bracken. In addition Bergin states that Thiaminase levels are highest in plants which have been the subject of intensive grazing, and as Brahe’s Depot Party had been at the Dig Tree for six months with six camels and twelve horses, they would have grazed the nardoo thereby increasing its toxicity. However Burke and Wills were more than 50 kilometres downstream of the Dig Tree and did not collect any nardoo from the areas where Brahe’s animals grazed. Bergin also states that nardoo is most toxic between February and May; however he fails to mention whether these dates are relevant to nardoo growth at Cooper Creek, or whether the reference was for the Gwydir Valley, where mass sheep poisonings occurred during these months. Bergin claims Burke and Wills ate the nardoo in April and May, during the times of highest toxicity, yet the explorer’s diaries show they did not begin preparing nardoo until 20 May, and most of their consumption of the plant was in the less toxic time of June.

Bergin also claims that the nardoo porridge Wills was given was actually made from the ground seeds of Portulaca oleracea. Bergin does not believe the Yandruwandha would have bothered to use the extra process of baking the nardoo flour had it been readily available as a non-toxic porridge. However Kirwan indicated the Yandruwandha did eat nardoo as porridge. Bergin also does not elaborate or explain how Wills would have mistaken the dark grey fragrant flour from portulaca seeds with the bitter yellow nardoo flour.

The chronology of Wills’ description of consuming nardoo does not fit with Bergin's hypothesis either. The first time Wills was introduced to nardoo it was in the form of bread. Wills does not mention nardoo porridge until four weeks later, by which time he has already begun harvesting and preparing nardoo himself in both bread and porridge forms.

Earl and McCleary claim Burke and Wills did not mix the nardoo into porridge, but Wills describes having a breakfast of ‘nardu porridge’ in late May, several days before he first describes been shown this method of preparation by the Yandruwandha.

Earl and McCleary also claim that Kirwan's description of not allowing the ground nardoo paste to come into contact with coolibah leaves or bark was a way of minimising contact with organic matter that would act as an endogenous cosubstrate for the Thiaminase. However they do not explain why the Yandruwandha stored the nardoo paste in wooden pitjili (coolamon bowls), and whether they would have acted as a cosubstrate.

Nardoo plants with sporocarps on a grinding stone, Cooper Creek.
Image © Dave Phoenix 2008.

Burke and Wills were almost certainly suffering from beri-beri during the later stages of their lives. However there is sufficient doubt to question whether this was the cause of their deaths. There are symptoms of the disease which were not present in Burke and Wills prior to their deaths. Beri-beri causes mental confusion and disorientation and Wills meticulous journal is maintained without error until shortly before his death. In addition beri-beri is associated with a rapid and shallow pulse, whereas Wills described a pulse of 48 shortly before his death.

It is also doubtful that the way the explorers prepared nardoo caused them to ingest Thiaminase, and therefore the hypothesis that they fatally poisoned themselves is questionable. Neither Bergin nor Earl and McCleary successfully demonstrate the Yandruwandha restricted their nardoo intake to ground sporocarps that had either been heated or diluted in water, and Wills’ diary indicates the Yandruwandha consumed both varieties. Wills’ diary also indicates that from 24 May 1861, they too alternated between the two methods, and the three explorers ate nardoo bread and nardoo porridge.

The argument that Burke and Wills did not observe the correct indigenous preparation of nardoo relies on the Yandruwandha preparing nardoo in just one particular fashion, and Burke and Wills using an alternative method to prepare their own food. However, it is clear from Wills’ diary that he observed the Yandruwandha using both methods of preparation, and the explorers used both methods of preparation in their own camp.

Because Burke and Wills were so exhausted, emaciated and most likely suffering from scurvy, the onset of beri-beri would have accelerated their deaths, but was probably not the sole cause for their demise. Additional factors such as malnourishment from a lack of calories provided by the nardoo they consumed combined with hypothermia, which is significant factor but has previously been overlooked, would also have played a significant role in their deaths.

This article is © Dave Phoenix, 2011. All rights reserved.

* Bergin, Thomas John. Courage and Corruption: An Analysis of the Burke and Wills Expedition and the Subsequent Royal Commission of Enquiry. MA Thesis, University of New England, 1982.
* Earl, John W. "A Fatal Recipe for Burke and Wills." Australian Geographic, Issue: 43, 1996: pp. 28-29.
* Earl, John W, and Barry V McCleary. 'Mystery of the Poisoned Expedition,' Nature, 368, 1994.
* Kerwin, Benny (transcribed by Gavan Breen), This is what happened: Historical narratives by Aborigines. (Eds: Luise Hercus, P Sutton). Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies: Melbourne, 1986.
* King, John. Narrative: September 1861, Alfred Howitt's diary, Notebook #255110, Box FB33, MS 13071, State Library of Victoria.
* King, John. Narrative: September 1861, Edwin Welch's Field book No 1, Box 2087/7a, MS 13071, State Library of Victoria.
* Victoria: Parliament. Burke and Wills Commission. Melbourne: John Ferres Government Printer, 1862.
* Wills, William John. Journal of trip from Cooper Creek towards Adelaide: 1861, MS 30/7, National Library of Australia.

Nardoo, Marsilea drummondii, growing at Cooper Creek.
Image © Dave Phoenix 2008.


Yandruwandha / Yawarrawarrka at Cooper Creek


Hi Dave,
I am hoping you can assist me or at least point me in the right direction.

My son (through his father’s mother) is a descendant of the Innamincka Aboriginal tribes which we are researching for a 'family tree'. I noticed in reading this site, you mentioned 'land set aside by the SA government at Cooper's Creek for the exclusive use of the Yandruwandha.' Do you know exactly where this land was situated?

I have been also been told that it was granted via the Queen / Victorian government but if my recollection is right the Queen wasn't ruling at the time?

Any information with regard to this matter and any literature relating to specific aboriginals at this time, i.e. +/-1860 would be most appreciated.

Vicki Clemow

Dear Vicki,

The land was supposed to be for a mission station on the banks of Cullyamurra Waterhole, but it was never used for that purpose and by 1875 the land had been resumed by the Crown and sold to Edward Laughton as a pastoral lease.


When John King returned to Melbourne as the sole survivor of the party of four that reached the Gulf of Carpentaria he spoke of the kindness shown to him by the Yandruwandha. Victorians were particularly taken by the respect they showed to Burke’s remains. King recalled,

they [the Yandruwandha] were very anxious … to know where Mr Burke lay, and one day … I took them to the spot. On seeing his remains, the whole party wept bitterly, and covered them with bushes.
King’s narrative, #255110, Box FB33, MS 13071, State Library of Victoria.

Finding Burke dead by Charles Summers, 1865.
One of four bas-reliefs at the base of Summer's 1865 Melbourne statue to Burke and Wills.

This description inspired Charles Summers to use it as the theme for one of the four bas-reliefs on his statue and the Bishop of Melbourne, Hussey Burgh Macartney (1799-1894), proposed establishing a Christian mission station at Cooper Creek. The Church of England thought

the interest in those poor blacks of Cooper's Creek had been deepened by the knowledge of the manner in which they treated the … explorers. Their noble conduct gave us strong call upon the members of the Church to endeavour to return their kindness. If they shewed such sympathy we should endeavour to return it.
Sydney Morning Herald, 25 January 1862, p. 5

The idea was well supported and many religious organisations and the South Australian Aboriginal Friends League donated money and equipment to start the "evangelisation of the Aborigines" (Sydney Morning Herald, 19 May 1863, p. 5).

It will be seen from the report of the Church Society that a serious effort is about to be made to establish a Christian Mission among the Aborigines. Cooper's Creek and the surrounding neighbourhood is the scene of this new enterprise. It is impossible for any humane man not to desire its success.
Sydney Morning Herald, 22 February 1862. p. 4.

Alfred Howitt (leader of the Victorian Contingent Party that found King at Cooper Creek in 1861) was contacted for advice about the best location for a mission station. He suggested his 1862 Depot Camp on Cullyamurra Waterhole (Yandruwandha = Kalya-marru) offered the best water and feed on Cooper Creek (Empire, 22 August 1863, p. 2).

Howitt's 1862 Depot CampMemorial marking Howitt's 1862 Depot Camp (C25) on the northern bank of Cullyamurra Waterhole, Cooper Creek.
Image © Dave Phoenix 2008.

Four German Moravian missionaries arrived in Victoria in December 1864, and by the winter of 1865 two of them were ready to leave Adelaide for the Cooper. They made several attempts to reach Cullyamurra, but the drought conditions meant it was the winter of 1866 before they reached the furthest outstation on the Cooper at Lake Hope. They did not progress beyond Lake Hope, and as they were not well received by the Dieri Aborigines there, they eventually retreated to the newly formed Lutheran mission on the lower Cooper at Killalpaninna. In December 1866 the Moravians moved a short distance away and established a mission at Kopperamanna.

Both Killalpaninna and Kopperamanna were in the land of the Dieri people. The land that was supposedly set aside for the Yandruwandha at Cullyamurra became South Australian Pastoral Lease 2437. This block of 252 square miles was called Callumurra and was on the northern side of the Cooper adjoining the SA-QLD border and sandwiched between Henry Colless’ Innamincka station and John Conrick’s Nappa Merrie station. Helen Tolcher (Drought or Deluge, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1986; Seed of the Coolibah: A History of the Yandruwandha and Yawarrawarrka People, Linden Park: H M Tolcher, 2003) uses a reference from Rodney Cockburn (Nomenclature of South Australia, Adelaide: Thomas, 1908) to suggest the Callumurra block was set aside by the SA government "for the exclusive use of the Yandruwandha" as early as 1862, but I have not found any evidence that the block was specifically set aside as early as that, however a search of the records in the Land Services Group, Department of Transport, Energy and Infrastructure (SA), would clarify this. There is no evidence that Queen Victoria was personally involved in the establishment of any of these mission stations, although she was definitely sovereign from 1837-1901.

There are records in the South Australian archives of the Yandruwandha and Yawarrawarrka on the Cooper from the time of European pastoral settlement, particularly the records from the police outposts, the Protector of Aborigines and Gerry Walker, who was manager of Innamincka Station from 1882. I have listed some of the published literature below. The Yandruwandha T.O.s  (Thayipilthirringuda and Parlpamadamadra dialects) have established family trees back to the 1860s – have you contacted any of the elders?

Cullyamurra Waterhole, Cooper CreekCullyamurra Waterhole, Cooper Creek. The site of the proposed Aboriginal Mission.
Image © Dave Phoenix 2005.

* Helen Mary Tolcher, Drought or deluge : man in the Cooper's Creek region, Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1986.
* Helen Mary Tolcher, Innamincka : the town with two lives, Innamincka: Innamincka Progress Association, 1990.
* Helen Mary Tolcher, Conrick of Nappa Merrie: a pioneer on Cooper Creek, Linden Park: H M F Tolcher, 1997.
* Helen Mary Tolcher, Rogues and heroes: policing the Cooper 1876-1952, [N.S.W.]: H M F Tolcher, 1999.
* Helen Mary Tolcher, Seed of the coolibah: a history of the Yandruwandha and Yawarrawarrka people, Adelaide: Openbook Print, 2003.
* Gavan Breen, Innamincka talk: a grammar of the Innamincka dialect of Yandruwandha with notes on other dialects, Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Austranalin National University, 2004.
* Gavan Breen, Innamincka words: Yandruwandha dictionary and stories, Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, 2004.
* AIATSIS, Guide to sound recordings collected by Gavan Breen, Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Studies, 2009.
* AIATSIS, Selected bibliography of material on the Yandruwantha / Yandruwandha language and people held in the AIATSIS Library, Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Studies, 2011.
* Ben Kerwin and J G Breen, 'The Land of Stone Chips', Oceania, Vol. 51, No. 4 (June 1981), pp. 286-311.
* Elizabeth Burchill, Innamincka, Adelaide: Rigby, 1964.
*Alfred William Howitt, The native tribes of south-east Australia, London : Macmillan, 1904.
* Alfred William Howitt and Otto Siebert, Legends of the Dieri and kindred tribes of Central Australia, London: Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 1904.
* Robert Brough Smyth, The Aborigines of Victoria: with notes relating to the habits of the natives of other parts of Australia and Tasmania, Melbourne: Goverment Printer, 1878. (Volume 2, Appendix D is 'Notes on the Aborigines of Cooper's Creek' by A W Howitt).
* Judy Lucas and Keith McConnochie, Aboriginal traditions and cultures of the Innamincka Region and their significance for the proposed Innamincka Regional Reserve: report of a National Estate Project, Adelaide: Deparment of Environment and Land Management, 2001.

Additional Information:
Hi Dave,
This land in question was known as the Moravian Mission Block, then Pastoral Lease 2437. If I am correct that this block was first offered to Anglican Church and another Church (?) but was rejected due to been too remote. They ended up setting up in other locations (Kopperamana & Kilalpaninna). Then the land was set aside by the SA Government for the exclusive use of the Yandruwandha people due to the humanity / kindness shown to Burke, Wills and King.

I do not know when it became Crown Land again, but I found information that around January 1875 Edward C Laughton purchased this land from Commissioner of Crown Land (SA), and in 1887 it changed hands and was purchased by Mr James Mcleod, and was then rented by Mr Conrick. It would be very interesting to view this property transaction history from 1862 - 2011.

I also believe that Howitt presented three brass breastplates commissioned by the Victorian Exploration Committee to the Yandruwandha people in appreciation of the assistance they had given to Burke, Wills and King.

Leslie Harris

Dear Leslie,

Thanks for the additional information on the Mission Block at Cooper Creek.

In 1867 the Church of England did send two missionaries to the Paroo, Bulloo, Wilson and Cooper to investigate the possibility of setting up a mission station. (Argus, 17 July 1868, p. 6). The missionaries, Holden and Shaw, reported the Aboriginal population was "scattered in small bodies, chiefly in families, over a wide area, and it seemed to be impossible to collect any large number of them in one place" and therefore it was not economically viable to set up a mission station on the Cooper. They were not specifically intending setting up at Cullyamurra and the church records do not mention the Mission Block.

The Moravian Missionaries, Walder, Kramer and Meissel, were intending to set up at Cullyamurra Waterhole, but the dry, sandy conditions between Lake Hope and Cullyamurra meant there were unable to get their drays there. They did consider staying at Lake Hope, but there was some degree of unrest between the Dieri Aborigines at Lake Hope and the missionaries, and so they moved downstream to Killalpaninna where the Lutheran missionaries had already established a mission. In 1869 the Moravian Church abandoned any plans to set up a mission at Cullyamurra.

I haven't found any records to indicate the Mission Block was then set aside for the Yandruwandha, beyond the reference in Nomenclature of South Australia by Rodney Cockburn (Adelaide: W K Thomas &​ Co., 1908). As there were no European settlers on this part of the Cooper until 1873, none of the boundaries had been surveyed and so the Mission Block only existed as lines on a map in the South Australian Lands Department. The first land surveys in the area did not begin until 1879.

Helen Tolcher charts the European ownership of the block: Although Laughton bought the block in 1875 he did not stock it as he was unsure which side of the SA-QLD border it was. When McLeod bought it in 1877 he did not rent it to Conrick, rather he found himself in conflict with Conrick who claimed much of the land as his Nappa Merrie lease, again as a result of uncertainty which colony the block was in. The situation was clarified in 1880 when the border was surveyed by William Barron and Alexander Salmond (and later Salmond with Augustus Poeppel and Lawrence Wells). In 1881 the block went to Simpson Newland and in 1886 it became part of William Campbell's Innamincka Station. Kidman bought Innamincka Station in 1908 and it is still part of SK Holdings.

Alfred Howitt distributed three breastplates to the Yandruwandha in September 1862. One of them was discovered near Innamincka in 2001 and Kerry Stokes paid $219,600 for it at auction in 2008. He donated it to the South Australian Museum in Adelaide. The second breastplate was owned by descendants of James de Pury who had been the policeman in Innamincka between 1924-8. It was purchased at auction by the National Museum of Australia, Canberra for $96,000.

Two of the three breastplates presented to members of the Yandruwandha people.

Additional Information:

There is no question here but just a wee bit of Innaminka history and King Wilpy.

I worked on Innamincka station in the early 1950's. During that time I used to visit the local Aborigines who were camped on the station waterhole, i.e. Wilpy and Mabel (I think) and there were some children also there at the time (I think these were Mabel's children, but not real sure). What I do know is that Wilpy was a very old man then and if the others that were there with him were all part of the same family then then the children were possibly his great grandchildren. I have no names for any of these people. Knowing what I know now about the family then I would taken notes etc but of course I didn't so now I rely on memory (which doesn't work too great these days).

However, what I do have as a reminder of my time there was that Wilpy made me a set of boomerangs. Before beginning the task he had to walk out into the stony country searching for the right Minaritchie tree.The tree had to have the correct curve in it to make the boomerangs from. We walked together for quite a way before locating the correct tree. I carried the axe for an hour or so before finding the correct tree. I cut down the right branch that he pointed to and he showed me where to cut it. After we got back to the waterhole wilpy set about cutting and trimming the branch and after a few days he handed me a pair of boomerangs. Being made from that particular the timber was colored in three colors. Namely dark brown, a beautiful deep red and and a cream colour.

I still have these two boomerangs on my office wall to this day and they take pride of place. I have had a couple of offers for them but refused to sell as they really mean something to me and probably nothing to buyers as they would not know anything about the area or the people.

At the same time I do not what know what will become of them after I pass on. I have told my children about the boomerangs but like all second generation children they are not interested.

So there you go eh! I hope I haven't bored you with this letter but I thought I had better tell someone about what Wilpy made. For all I know there may not be another item of any type made by King Wilpy in existence.

Sorry to bother you with such a long and possibly boring letter but I thought that someone should know that Wilpy was firstly, a very gentle man and secondly a bit of a legend as I understand it.

Cheers for now,
Warren Stoddart
Lake Macquarie NSW