It’s so hot out here even your shadows can’t be bothered standing up. Rock hard ground slams at the souls of your feet, slender trees seem to withhold their shade, and if the watchful crows had lips they’d be licking them overhead.
We are standing at a rather ordinary looking tree trunk contemplating two blokes called Burke and Wills.
Camp 119 on 12th February 1861 was where it all came undone.
This was the northernmost camp of the explorers ill-fated expedition in the race to reach the Gulf of Carpenteria.
It was here Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills, John King and Charley Grey (plus 5 camels and one exhausted horse) made their most northerly camp on their expedition to cross inland Australia in the late 1800’s. They’d set off from Melbourne, a party of 17, with such fanfare. And here they were … making poor bush tucker choices, lamenting their over-packing and pissing each other off. (Hey, that happens to the best of us!).
Their wretched expedition was an expensive debacle, costing several lives including their own. There’s the romanticised version, and there’s the hard facts …. read them all and you’d have to concur that theirs was a ballsy venture spiced with a liberal dose of ego.
I imagine that even the bark of the very trees gave a resigned sigh as expedition member John King blazed their initials to indicate this was their 119th camp of their expedition. Their supplies were running out, they were plaqued by ill-health and a succession of failures.
The blaze of glory in which they departed from Melbourne as they set off to open trade routes through vast portions of Australia was beginning to look like an environmental and scientific pipe dream.
Their dwindling party must have felt such utter despair upon realising this was the campsite at which they must soon bring the expedition to an end. It was from here Burke and Wills pushed on in haste to get to the Cape. They came within just 5 km of reaching their target before turning round, defeated by boggy and impenetrable bush, and returned to Camp 119 on 12 February, 1861 to collect the remaining members of the expedition.
Fifteen trees were blazed to indicate their camp site…though we could only see a few remaining today.
They are enough however to whet my appetite for more Burke and Wills anecdotes. And here’s one that caught my eye.
When Wills passed away he asked King to leave him unburied with a pistol in his hand. I’m guessing he also asked him to pass him his “Keep Calm and Carry a Pistol” t-shirt from his saddle bag.
For many modern day explorers on the Savannah Way, Camp 119 is a site of reverence, and head-shaking incredulity.
We alight from our air-conditioned 4 wheel drives admiring their fateful expedition, yet strangely in awe of their determination in such harsh conditions. Unlike them, we have eskies filled with food and we’ll all reach our destinations tonight. For all their misadventures, we have Burke and Wills to thank for opening up the south to north access – they were the first.
I raise my well chilled Nalgene bottle to them.
The Burke and Wills Camp 119 is just 30km out of Karumba heading towards the Savannah Way towards what we now know as Burketown. For us this was our first foray into Savannah Way dirt roads.
Beyond this lies the town of Gregory Downs and beyond that Adels Grove. We’re pushing on today with greater success than Burke and Wills so we’ll stick to blazing a trail instead of a tree.
*Check back in later when the camel’s deliver internet access and I’ll be able to download images!