In search of the lost graves of the Burke and Wills ex­pe­di­tion.

4 x 4 Australia - - Contents - WORDS AND PHOTOS RON AND VIV MOON


IT MUST BE one of the loneli­est graves in Aus­tralia, hid­den by the trav­esty of his­tory, the re­mote­ness of the Aus­tralian in­land and the vast­ness of one of the big­gest pri­vately-owned cat­tle prop­er­ties in the Out­back. And to get there isn’t a walk in the park, with our Pa­trol stir­ring up the deep bull­dust which bil­lowed be­hind us like a heavy, dark smoth­er­ing cloak of fine grey pow­der.

The track we were fol­low­ing was more a set of cow­pats than a 4WD route across the flat, dry black-soil plains, and none of the tracks shown on ei­ther of our GPS units had any sim­i­lar­ity to the tracks on the ground. That was prob­a­bly not sur­pris­ing as we were on the flood­plain of the Bul­loo River in south­west Queens­land, and any track lasts only as long as the next silt-laden flood oozes down this out­back river.

We came to a dam or turkey nest tank, its high banks a marker look­ing more like a small mesa on these flat lands. Here amongst the churned-up dust of a few thou­sand cat­tle, most of whom were milling around us, we lost the track com­pletely. We cir­cled the en­closed wa­ter point a few hun­dred me­tres out from the tank, bump­ing across the crab­hole coun­try, be­fore pick­ing up the track once more, this time

head­ing east to the dis­tant tree-line of the main chan­nel of the Bul­loo River.

We had re­ceived per­mis­sion from Bul­loo Downs Sta­tion to visit the grave of Dr Lud­wig Becker, one of the sci­en­tists and the artist of the Burke and Wills (B&W) 1860-61 ex­pe­di­tions, and now we were try­ing to find this lonely grave. In fact, two other mem­bers of that fate­ful ex­pe­di­tion are buried here as well – Charles Stone and Wil­liam Pur­cell – and all had died from the ef­fects of scurvy and the pri­va­tions they had suf­fered in this lonely place. All had been part of the ‘Sup­ply Party’ that had been told to fol­low Burke’s main party up to Cooper Creek from Menindee, but this slower mov­ing band of men and an­i­mals had struck dif­fi­cult times and had been rel­e­gated to a for­got­ten side­line in Aus­tralian his­tory.

For our visit we had first phoned the man­ager and then vis­ited the homestead and, af­ter re­ceiv­ing a brief­ing on ‘biosecurity mea­sures’ that we needed to fol­low (as well as nearly be­ing at­tacked and eaten by a bloody big pig dog), we were given a rough mud map and di­rec­tions to the grave. But, like most mud maps which make per­fect sense to the per­son who drew them, you need to take them with a grain of salt and add a bit of in­tu­itive guess­work and luck to make them work. On the ground our route swung north then back to the east, where we floun­dered amongst some lignum scrub be­fore we picked up the main track once more and turned south for the fi­nal bumpy drive to the Koor­li­atto Water­hole. On the edge of this long, muddy stretch of wa­ter the Sup­ply Party be­came trapped here for around a month in March/ April 1861, only mov­ing on when war­like Abo­rig­i­nal bands be­gan ha­rass­ing them.

To­day, a small fenced grave lies a short dis­tance from the water­hole be­side the trees that line the river­bank, while the bar­ri­cade the ex­plor­ers had built for their pro­tec­tion from Abo­rig­i­nal at­tack, sadly, there is no sign of it. It’s a lonely, iso­lated spot rarely vis­ited by any­one, but we were happy we had made the ef­fort. Af­ter check­ing out the nearby dry­ing water­hole, well down from its max­i­mum level but still with a lot of wa­ter in it, we back­tracked to our camp on the Bul­loo – near where to­day’s main dirt road crosses the chan­nel – and watched the sun sink into obliv­ion.

We had left Mel­bourne a cou­ple of weeks pre­vi­ously and had


bat­tled wet, slippery dirt roads for much of our time through north-cen­tral Vic­to­ria and across the bor­der into NSW. From Bal­ranald we took the old Prun­gle Mail Road be­fore skirt­ing along­side the Dar­ling River to Poon­carie and on to Menindee, which was the first town on the Dar­ling and the old­est Euro­pean set­tle­ment in west­ern NSW.

Of course, the town has a cou­ple of pubs, the most fa­mous be­ing the Maidens Ho­tel, where ol’ Burke ensconced him­self for a few days while split­ting his ex­pe­di­tion. The rest of Burke’s party were camped at Pa­ma­ma­roo Creek, near the lake of the same name, well away from the at­trac­tions and vices of the ho­tel. We camped out at the lake as well, where there are dozens of spots along the wa­ter’s edge to en­joy; but with to­day’s speed of trans­port we slipped back into the Maidens for a beer and a meal one night.

At Menindee, the grave of one of the Burke and Wills cameleers can be found. Dost Ma­homet had been re­cruited by George Lan­dells when he was or­gan­is­ing camels from In­dia for the ex­pe­di­tion. Ma­homet and three other camel han­dlers had ac­com­pa­nied B&W from Mel­bourne, and Ma­homet had gone to Cooper Creek and the de­pot there with the main party. Re­turn­ing from the Dig Tree with Brahe (who’d been in charge of the De­pot Camp at the Dig Tree), Ma­homet had stayed at Menindee look­ing af­ter the camels and equip­ment that Wil­liam Wright had also brought back from Koor­li­atto Water­hole to the Pa­ma­ma­roo De­pot.

Al­fred Howitt, in charge of the search party sent out by the Vic­to­ri­ans to find B&W, had reached Menindee in early Jan­uary 1862, and, just a cou­ple of days later, one of the bull camels at­tacked Ma­homet, where he lost the use of his arm, which ef­fec­tively dis­abled him for life. Ma­homet ap­pealed to the Vic­to­rian gov­ern­ment for com­pen­sa­tion but was only ever paid £200 (about $20,000 in to­day’s money). He re­turned to Menindee and worked in the lo­cal bak­ery and, when he died in 1881, he was buried just out of town where he used to pray each day. To­day his grave lies be­side the Bro­ken Hill road just a short dis­tance from the cen­tre of Menindee, and in 2006 the lo­cal shire re­stored the head­stone and fence around the gravesite.

From Menindee we headed north and, from Ti­booburra, we again took a lesser-used route and headed up via Wom­pah Gate through the fa­mous Dog Fence, where we crossed the bor­der into Queens­land; then we turned east along the Thar­go­min­dah Road to our sub­se­quent search for Becker’s grave.

Af­ter swing­ing through Thar­go­min­dah and turn­ing west we stopped at the Noc­cun­dra Pub, camp­ing down on the water­hole of the Wil­son River. From there we headed to the Cooper Creek and on its north­ern bank we stopped at the fa­mous Dig Tree, where much of the drama of the B&W ex­pe­di­tion played out.

You prob­a­bly know the story of what hap­pened here – if you don’t, have a read of the book by the late Sarah Mur­ga­troyd, The

Dig Tree. In amongst the plethora of books by nu­mer­ous peo­ple over the 150-odd years since the ex­pe­di­tion, this is one of the best and most read­able.

We then headed for In­nam­incka and camped on the Cooper on the ‘town com­mon’ in the shade of some tall old red gums, mak­ing sure we weren’t too close to any over­hang­ing branches. This is a top spot to camp what­ever you en­joy about in­land Aus­tralia, and ev­ery­one should come to this idyl­lic stretch of wa­ter some­time in their life. Of course, the In­nam­incka pub is a mighty fine at­trac­tion and al­ways a top spot for a coldie and a meal, es­pe­cially on a Sun­day night when the weekly roast is on the menu.

If you are into the B&W saga, though, then there is no more im­por­tant place to visit. Spend a few days wan­der­ing the creek, not only vis­it­ing the Dig Tree but also check­ing on the places where Burke and Wills both died. It’s also here where John King, the sole sur­vivor of the party that reached the Gulf, was found.

While Will’s grave site and the spot where King was dis­cov­ered are down­stream from the small town­ship, Burke’s grave is east of the town be­side a water­hole just down­stream from Cullya­murra Water­hole, one of the long­est and deep­est stretches of wa­ter to


be found any­where on our in­land. Most of the time the tracks to these sites are graded and very dusty, but when heavy rain is in the area or the Cooper floods then the ac­cess tracks get closed off.

The bod­ies of the ex­plor­ers and the sur­vivor, King, were found in Septem­ber 1861 by the re­lief party led by Howitt. Howitt had buried the bod­ies of Wills and Burke and then re­turned to Mel­bourne, but he was back on the Cooper in Fe­bru­ary 1862, tasked with the job of re­cov­er­ing the bod­ies of B&W and tak­ing them back to Mel­bourne.

Char­lie Grey, who was the fourth mem­ber of the small party that crossed the con­ti­nent to the Gulf, lies buried some­where near or at Lake Mas­sacre, west of In­nam­incka and south of the track that leads to Coongie Lakes. There’s quite a bit of con­jec­ture about Char­lie’s fi­nal rest­ing spot, but there is a plaque on a steel post at Lake Mas­sacre, near where a tree blazed by the ex­plorer John Mckin­lay was dis­cov­ered. Mckin­lay had been sent out by the South Aus­tralian colony to search for the B&W party in late Oc­to­ber 1861 and had found the grave of a Euro­pean here; pos­si­bly Grey’s. Mckin­lay, fear­ing the worse, gave the dry lake the ‘Lake Mas­sacre’ moniker.

We have been to this lonely site a cou­ple of times over the years, but if there is a grave here it is hard to find. Some­time in the 1950s or early ’60s, Alex Towner, an early B&W devo­tee, had erected a sign close to the north­ern end of the lake on a tall steel pole, while a friend of mine, the late Roger Col­lier, be­lieved he found the grave and the tree blazed by Mckin­lay that marked the site of the burial, in 1983; oth­ers aren’t so sure! We went back to­gether in 1993 (see 4X4 Aus­tralia Oc­to­ber 1993 is­sue) and found the sites again, but on our most re­cent visit a few years ago we found nei­ther the tree or the sign. You need spe­cial per­mis­sion of the lo­cal sta­tion and the NP&WS (Na­tional Parks and Wildlife Ser­vice) to get to here and, while there are no ob­vi­ous tracks to the lake, a fence line will get you close to the

south­ern shores of the ephemeral la­goon.

From In­nam­incka we headed north to the Gulf, where there is one other grave as­so­ci­ated with the B&W ex­pe­di­tion. But you can’t come this far when you have an in­ter­est in the B&W ex­pe­di­tion and not take the short di­ver­sion to B&W Camp 119 on the edge of the By­noe River. This was B&W most northerly camp and the one where leader Burke and his young 2IC, Wills, walked to and reached the Gulf; al­though, be­cause of the man­groves, they couldn’t see the sea. While that was a bit of a bug­ger for them, to­day it is easy and we had headed to Nor­man­ton and then Karumba to en­joy a view of the ocean and the set­ting sun – a mag­i­cal mo­ment in our cross­ing of the con­ti­nent.

The ill-fated ex­plor­ers turned south from here and headed back to their de­pot at Cooper Creek, walk­ing into the his­tory books ... not as the most suc­cess­ful ex­plor­ers Aus­tralia has seen, but cer­tainly the best known.

The last and most northerly camp of B&W was dis­cov­ered by Fred­er­ick Walker, who was the leader of one of the two par­ties sent out by the Queens­land colony at the time. Walker had gained a pretty no­to­ri­ous rep­u­ta­tion while in charge of the Na­tive Mounted Po­lice in Queens­land dur­ing the 1850s, but he was a good, tough bush­man. Leav­ing Rock­hamp­ton in Au­gust 1861 he headed for the Gulf, where he ren­dezvoused with Cap­tain Nor­man of the HMCSS Vic­to­ria, which had also been sent out by the Vic­to­ri­ans to look for B&W. Walker dis­cov­ered traces of the B&W ex­pe­di­tion on the Flin­ders River, as well as their most northerly camp on the By­noe River where he blazed a tree and mapped the site. He later went on to sur­vey the route of the tele­graph line that came ashore at Bur­ke­town. While here he caught black­wa­ter fever, dy­ing a few days later in 1866, not far from the homestead of Flo­rav­ille Sta­tion, close to the falls on the Le­ich­hardt River.

We con­tin­ued west­ward from Camp 119 and camped on the Le­ich­hardt River near the falls of the same name. There was hardly a trickle of wa­ter over them; al­though, large pools lay at the base of the now dry cliffs. Close by is the grave of Fred­er­ick Walker, and the sta­tion al­lows ac­cess to the site. We took the main track into the homestead and then, a few hun­dred me­tres be­fore the main build­ings on the prop­erty, swung left onto a graded track which led a short dis­tance to Walker’s fi­nal rest­ing spot.

We paid our re­spects and, with our en­joy­able trav­els in find­ing the graves of these early brave pi­o­neers over, re­luc­tantly turned south; but that’s an­other story for an­other time.

Biosecurity pro­tects prop­er­ties against pests and dis­eases. Trav­el­ling through the Sel­wyn Ranges, close to the orig­i­nal B&W tracks.

Dust bil­lows be­hind the trusty Pa­trol, on the long road west.

The Burke & Wills party camped north of Menindee in 1860.

Becker’s grave must be one of the loneli­est head­stones in Oz.

Above: Burke was buried near here. Be­low: Tree blazed by Fred­er­ick Walker. John Mckin­lay cre­ated the ‘Lake Mas­sacre’ moniker.

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