Burke and Wills
From an explorer whose failure resulted in something else important being discovered in the process we come to a pair who were, quite simply, useless. In the mid-nineteenth century, Australia was experiencing a gold rush, which led to a mass influx of prospectors from around the world to the state of Victoria. As the population of Melbourne rocketed from 29, 000 in 1851 to 139, 916 in 1861, the Australian government realised the importance of finding a route through the country’s uninhabited centre to lay a telegraph line connecting Melbourne with the East Indies, and hence the world.
Step forward Robert O’Hara Burke (1821-1861) and the fantastically-named William John Wills (1834-1861). Burke, an Irish policeman and former soldier, had never been to the Outback, and nor did he have any practical qualifications to make the 2, 000-mile journey north. Wills, similarly, was a surgeon, with no experience of exploration or the Outback. Their equipment for the expedition was predictably absurd: a Chinese gong, a heavy wooden table with matching seats, and high-quality grooming equipment for their horses. In all, the supplies weighed 20 tonnes, and 15, 000 people watched their snail-paced departure from Melbourne in August 1860.
Within days, the men were squabbling, and 6 quit on the spot. Realising how much unnecessary equipment they were carrying, items including 1500lb of sugar were discarded en route. Having ignored advice not to travel at the height of summer, it took the party nearly 2 months to walk the established 400-mile path to Menindee. There they spent the night in a hotel, rested their horses, and set off to cross 1, 200 miles of wilderness. It took another two months to march the next 400 miles, where they made camp at the furthest extremity of European knowledge, Cooper Creek.
Realising the consistently-poor pace they were travelling at, Burke and Wills set out for the coast with just three men, leaving four others at the camp with instructions to wait three months for their return. Despite the scorching sun, Burke and Wills reached the Gulf of Carpentaria in two months (twice the predicted duration), but a belt of mangroves prevented them from even seeing the shoreline. They set out to return to Cooper Creek, having consumed two-thirds of their rations, with a member of their party suddenly dropped dead and nearly starving along the way. More tragedy awaited them.
A note carved into a coolibah tree at Cooper Creek revealed that, after waiting 4 months, the others had left only that morning! Fortunately they found some buried provisions, which saved (or at least prolonged) their lives. They left after a night’s rest, burying a note where they had found the rations. A scout from the base-camp party returned later that day, but did not find this concealed missive. Burke and Wills both died trying to reach a remote police outpost, but the other member of the group, John King, survived. The expedition, which achieved nothing, had cost Â£60, 000.