THE WORLD'S WORST WORST EXPLORER; with 20 Tons of Luggage (Including 12 Dandruff Brushes) but Not Enough Food, British Adventurer Robert Burke's Bid to Walk across Australia Was a Risible Disaster. Now Two Top Explorers Are Recreating the Journey of a Man Who'd Get Lost Crossing the Road

Daily Mail (London), March 9, 2010 | Go to article overview

THE WORLD'S WORST WORST EXPLORER; with 20 Tons of Luggage (Including 12 Dandruff Brushes) but Not Enough Food, British Adventurer Robert Burke's Bid to Walk across Australia Was a Risible Disaster. Now Two Top Explorers Are Recreating the Journey of a Man Who'd Get Lost Crossing the Road


Byline: by Annabel Venning

UNDER a blazing sun on the desolate bank of a muddy creek in the midst of the yellow Australian desert, William John Wills wrote to his father.

His wasted limbs barely able to support him, his pulse growing slower and fainter, he nonetheless found the strength to write: 'These are probably the last lines you will ever get from me. We are on the point of starvation... My spirits are excellent.'

The letter was dated June 27, 1861. It is likely that Wills, a young scientist from Devon, survived for a few days afterwards, his tongue sticking to his dry mouth, his eyes dazzled into semi-blindness, too weak to fend for himself. His remains were found three months later.

Ten miles away, Wills's two companions, who had reluctantly left him behind at his urging to seek help, were facing their own deaths.

John King, a young English soldier, and Robert O'Hara Burke, the leader of the expedition that had set out from Melbourne ten months earlier, had stumbled on through the sand, growing weaker until Burke could go no further. He lay down to compose one last letter.

'Goodbye my dearest sister,' he wrote. 'King has behaved nobly, and -- stayed with me till the last. He has left me, at my request, unburied, and with my pistol in my hand.'

His splendid expeditionary uniform hanging from his emaciated body, the huge eyes that had once charmed the ladies of Melbourne now staring into the sandy distance, he whispered to King: 'It is a comfort to know that someone is by.' These were his last words. He died some hours later, still clutching his revolver.

King stayed with the body for several hours, weeping bitterly, before finally wrenching himself away from his dead leader, and dragging himself onwards in search of the nearest Aboriginal tribe, with whom lay his only hope of survival. He was 370 miles from the nearest white settlement.

What had brought those three men so far from home, to suffer such a terrible fate into the empty heart of a continent?

It is 150 years since the expedition -- which cost Burke, Wills and five other men their lives -- set out from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria on Australia's north coast, a return journey of 4,000 miles. They had hoped to chart one of the great unexplored wildernesses.

Their cavalcade, initially 500 yards long, comprised 19 men, 26 camels, 23 horses, and wagons carrying 20 tons of supplies and equipment which included cedartopped dining tables, as well as 12 dandruff brushes and four enema kits.

No wonder the men hold the same significance in Australia as do Scott and Captain Oates in Britain: tragic heroes, who tried to conquer a wilderness and died nobly in the attempt.

To mark the anniversary, modern-day British adventurers Ben Fogle and James Cracknell plan to follow in the footsteps of Burke and Wills later this year.

A crowd of 15,000 turned out to wave off the original expedition from Melbourne's Royal Park on August 20, 1860. An air of confident excitement pervaded. 'Never did an expedition set forth under brighter auspices,' gushed the Press.

This was the great era of exploration: Livingstone had recently crossed Africa. Now it was Australia's turn to be revealed, for that 'ghastly blank' beyond the coastal fringes to be charted, observed, and its features given English names.

Burke, who had told friends 'I will cross Australia or perish in the attempt', made a short speech. Then, wearing his top hat, he mounted his charger Billy. To the applause of the crowd and the sound of the band playing Cheer, Boys Cheer, the expedition moved off.

The hopes of a colony went with them. As well as glory there might be riches to be had: fertile lands, minerals or gold.

Another explorer, John McDouall Stuart, a diminutive Scotsman with a weakness for whisky, had already penetrated Australia's centre, and would soon make his own attempt to reach its north coast. …

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THE WORLD'S WORST WORST EXPLORER; with 20 Tons of Luggage (Including 12 Dandruff Brushes) but Not Enough Food, British Adventurer Robert Burke's Bid to Walk across Australia Was a Risible Disaster. Now Two Top Explorers Are Recreating the Journey of a Man Who'd Get Lost Crossing the Road
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