Coopers Creek, central Australia
Burke and Wills and their companions were the first Europeans to cross the Australian continent from south to north. Tragically, they perished on the return journey. The expedition was commissioned by the Royal Society of Victoria to search for usable land and water - and, no doubt, to build to prestige of the new state which had separated from New South Wales and was growing rich in a gold mining boom.
The expedition set out from Melbourne in August 1860. By October 1860, the advance party of the exploration had reached Coopers Creek and established a supply depot.
Coopers Creek drains a large portion of Queensland on the western side of the Great Dividing Range. If there is enough rainfall, the water reaches Lake Eyre in South Australia in about nine months. This is a rare event.
Burke and Wills established Camp 65 on the bank of Coopers Creek just on the Queensland side of the border with South Australia. A party of four, including Burke and Wills set off for the Gulf of Carpentaria in December 1860.
They reached the Gulf in February 1861 and returned to Camp 65 on April 21. Only a few hours earlier, the party at Camp 65 had given them up for dead and left on the journey back to civilization. The leader of that party had, however, buried some supplies and marked a tree with the word "DIG". Burke and Wills, and the other survivor of the party which reached the gulf, King, found the supplies but they did not last long.
They left the DIG tree and while away, a rescue party arrived. But because Burke and Wills did not mark the tree to indicate that they had returned, the rescue party assumed they had perished and left.
Burke and Wills perished in June 1861, dying of Malnutrition (they did not know how to use the wild grain which sustained the aboriginals). King was eventually rescued.
The DIG tree is shown below. The Coolibah tree was already ancient when Burke and Wills set up camp and is still in reasonably good health after some 350 years of droughts and occasional floods. Our pilot and guide, Dick Lang, told us that he could still discern the word DIG when he first visited the tree in the mid-1960's, but on his next visit three years later the word was no longer visible.
The Dig Tree
A good source of information about the Burke and Wills expedition is the book "The DIG TREE" by Sarah Murgatroyd, published in 2002 by The Text Publishing Company.
by Charlie Nelson