We wondered why the sun had set in the east and why Australia’s most fruitless, foolish expedition was also the most famous.
Three gaunt, exhausted men and two knackered camels appeared in the moonlight to our left. Or they did 154 years ago.
Burke, Wills and King staggered past us to the coolibah tree that was to become etched into a nation’s folklore and testament to forbearance and folly. Despair engulfed them as they saw the camp and stockade had been abandoned by William Brahe and the three men they had left there three months earlier.
Robert Burke, William Wills and John King had achieved the goal of the bleak and most expensive exploration expedition in a country that was not yet a nation. They had found a route to the Gulf of Carpentaria and made it back – but only to Camp 65 in the fierce inland.
In their wake lay the corpses of mysterious Charlie Gray , four camels and poor Billy, Burke’s grey horse. When the three slumped men gathered a little strength and a few wits they found dates and signs carved into blazes on the tree. On a nearby tree was the word “Dig”.
Eighteen inches under the ground they found a camel pack with dried meat, hard meat biscuits and bitter news. Brahe and Co. had waited an extra month for their return. They had left to return to Melbourne at 10am on April 21. Burke, Wills and King arrived in the moonlight nine hours later.
In February 1915, Tony and I sat alone near the Dig Tree and wondered why. We had come to the inland before the inland tourist season on our way to the South Australian coast. Savouring solitude has its price: we reluctantly resorted to fly nets as we parked on the bank of the Cooper.
We had crossed the Cooper in the Channel Country after Thargomindah and parked for the night on its bank near the Dig Tree. Around us the land was parched but the creek was powering towards Lake Eyre with a bounty of muddy water from monsoonal rain in the north.
With cold beers in hand and fly screen on head, we idly watched the creek. “It’s running the wrong way,” I said. “It’s going north.” Tony agreed and noted the sun was setting behind us in the east. We had been heading west for a few days. Perched on the Cooper bank, we felt we should still be facing west.
We checked the map and saw how the Cooper had made a U-turn below us and we had curled around to its western bank. Relieved we flicked our thoughts into the past and examined more puzzles.
Why the Royal Society of Victoria let pride drive it to make ill-considered plans to try to achieve exulted exploration status for the colony? Why did it appoint a grand party of men, horses and camels without a single explorer in it? Why did it put an Irish cop with a dubious pedigree in charge of the grandly named Victorian Exploring Expedition?
Why did Burke split the party after two months at Menindee, leaving supplies behind with Wright? Why did Wright dawdle for so long, taking five months to catch up? Why did Burke split the party again at Cooper Creek and head off in December to make a lunge for the Gulf in summer heat?
OK, they sort of made it to the Gulf without seeing the open ocean. You could understand why they decided to turn back at that point. But why did Charlie Gray die a few days after Burke gave him a thrashing for stealing flour?
When they arrived back at the Dig Tree, the three men agreed they were too exhausted to catch up with Brahe. Two days later they had recovered enough to push on. Wills wanted to follow Brahe south; Burke foolishly decided to head to Mt Hopeless, about 150 miles away. They buried a message and left. Why didn’t they leave any mark on the tree showing they had been there?
Two weeks later Brahe, who had met up with dawdling Wright and more supplies, returned to the Dig Tree. He stayed half an hour, never checked the buried box and left without leaving any mark on the tree.
Three weeks later Wills struggled back to the tree, buried his journals and left no sign he had been there. He, Burke and King had been driven back to Cooper Creek because they couldn’t find water on their attempts to reach Mt Hopeless.
Burke and Wills died about a month later. Alfred Howitt led a search party that found King, weakened but being kept alive by the local aborigines, beside the Cooper on September. Burke and Wills, dead about two months, were buried and King given a hero’s welcome in Melbourne. Another party later fetched the remains of the most famous unsuccessful explorers in Australia and gave them Victoria’s first state funeral.
The following year Howitt returned and pitched camp downstream from the Dig Tree. A bottle with a note saying the depot was downstream was buried under the tree, which was carved with the word “Dig”, initials and an arrow pointing to the new camp.
Confusion followed. Pioneers saw the Howitt “Dig” and until a few years ago it was revered as the tree where Burke and Wills dug, instead of a tree about 7.5m away which is a more likely candidate.
So the Dig Tree isn’t really the Dig Tree. We sighed over follies and had another beer. Something kept nagging at us: no matter how hard we tried we tried to get our head around it, the sun had set in the east and the Cooper was running north.