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» Carpentaria to Cooper's Creek

Carpentaria to Cooper's Creek

One of the notes left by Burke in the buried cache at Cooper's Creek

The failure to wet their boots in the open waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria must have taken the edge off Burke and Wills' sense of achievement. However, another problem now faced them - how could they get back to Camp LXV on the Cooper with fewer provisions than it had taken to bring them up.

Starvation, dysentery and death

On 4 March 1861, they shot one of their camels and 'feasted' on the meat. Within 26 days they had shot two more. On 10 April, Burke shot his horse Billy. The men were showing signs of severe vitamin deficiency - pains in the back, weakness in the legs. Gray was suffering particularly badly from dysentery. Caught stealing extra rations, he was 'thrashed' by Burke in a pointless exercise of discipline. Gray continued to weaken and died on 17 April. His companions, despite their weakness, spent a day burying him.

Back at Camp LXV

On the evening of 21 April, Burke, Wills and King entered Camp LXV, which was deserted. Cut into a tree was the message DIG 3FT NW APR 21 1861. They did so and found a cache of supplies, and an extraordinary message. Brahe, having waited three months as Burke directed, and having stayed on for as long as his own supplies permitted, had begun his return earlier that same day.

The men ate the food that had been left for them and decided that, rather than try to catch up with Brahe, they would slowly make their way west along the Creek and then strike out overland towards the nearest settled areas in South Australia, which were considerably closer than the depot at Menindie.

William Wright's plight

In the meantime, where was William Wright who had been left with the job of bringing supplies from Menindie to Camp LXV? Although genuinely hampered by a lack of horses and some uncertainty over the terms of his employment, Wright displayed a considerable lack of initiative. He did not set out until late January, when Burke and Wills had already begun their return from the north. Facing an extraordinary combination of obstacles - heat, lack of water, straying camels, hostile Aborigines, lack of a skilled navigator - he made such slow progress that three of the men, including Ludwig Becker, had time to die of malnutrition. He was still struggling towards Cooper's Creek when he met Brahe, who was on his way back from abandoning the camp.