Cooper’s Creek; the opening of Australia by Alan Moorehead


I was expecting the usual description of the grueling journey of an explorer by this Australian author of The Blue Nile and The White Nile, but it is the story of an expedition that went badly from the very beginning.  The leader, Burke, made a number of bad decisions and was a divisive personality, the Committee that commissioned the expedition did not step in when they should have, and worst, an incompetent man was hired to bring the vital rear-guard supplies along. 

Three members of the expedition did make it from Melbourne across the unknown (to Europeans) interior to the Gulf of Carpentaria, but only one of them, a man named King, survived.  The second in command, William John Wills, is the most sympathetic character of the book; his records are the only detailed information of the undertaking and the countryside.  A transcript of part of his diary is available online from the National Library of Australia here

After the group traveled about one-third of the distance, some members quit and a man named William Wright was hired to bring supplies north.  The smaller group of eight then made their way to a spot about halfway across the continent when Burke split the group further.  Four men continued while the remaining four were to await the arrival of the supplies which never arrived. The four who remained at the base camp began to run short of supplies and were not well.  They concluded the Burke and Wills group would not return and left for the first camp.  The excruciating part of the story is that they left on the very day the Burke, Wills and King (the fourth man had died) made it back to the camp.  Here is a link to a painting the captures the moment of their arrival at the deserted camp.

Although the scientists originally hired to record information about the landscape did not go further than the first camp, the information Wills recorded was useful and as a consequence, people began to settle in those areas.

This story caught the imagination of the public and a commission investigated the causes for the failings of the expedition.  This picture of the memorial statue of Burke and Wills is on a website describing their journey which was retraced by distant cousins of Wills.

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