Burke and Wills: Australia’s most famous explorers

Courage, Kindness and a Generous Disposition: elements of Burke’s character according to his friends. The rights and wrongs committed and experienced on the expedition of Burke and Wills has long been a hotly contested subject. Two of Victoria’s favourite Sons continue to be revered and honoured by many: a mark of Just recognition for feats accomplished but as with so many triumphs of history, not all contributors to a success enjoy their deserved share of the spoils of success and acknowledgement or recompense for loss, injury or maltreatment.

The tale of Australia’s most famous explorers is no different………………..


As the blazing summer sun sets on Australia Day 2018, it has been 157 years since Australia’s most famous explorers, Burke and Wills, spent the day a little more than 170 miles south of the Gulf of Carpentaria as they continued on their quest to traverse Australia from South to North, for the first time in history.  Burke and Wills_The True Justice Reads - Copy

One of the fascinating aspects of this story is to see how the hostile and at best contemptuous attitudes that the explorers had towards this country’s first inhabitants changed when they met reality

Peter Fitzsimons

It had been 100 days since Burke had asked Wright (bushman and station overseer) to get the band of intrepid explorers moving north and they were finally ready to do so. Or almost ready actually, subject to squeezing their necessities into the packs on the racks mounted on the back of the highly reluctant animals they will rely on to traverse, for the first ever time in history, the land stretching from South to North Australia.

Dr Beckler (Medical Officer and Botanist) set off first at 11 am leading the 11 camels.  The second party departed in this staggered start at 1 pm comprising four recently purchased and unruly horses, carrying items that couldn’t be wedged, squashed or tied using improvised ‘packsaddles’ to the Camels and were accompanied by Smith and the native lad Dick.

One hour later William Hodgkinson and Charles Stone departed with five horses and 60 minutes after that the artist Ludwig Becker and Wright himself set off with the remaining four horses.

At nightfall, an afternoon of frustrating load-slipping and stop-starting left more than just the horses in a fit of frustration and that was probably before the party even realised that just five miles had been travelled from their departure point of Pamamaroo Camp, slightly north of Menindee.  For these men (and in a sign of the times, there were only men), 26 January 1861 wasn’t the most productive day to reflect back on.

Two days of sun beating relentless heat for more-hours-than-not later, the horses that broke loose during those five miles on 26 January 1861 were finally tracked and coaxed back.

Burke, meanwhile, had taken three men with him and broke away from the main group in December 1860.  Their freshly formed forward group gathered momentum as they pursued a then un-named river (the Diamantina River) free of the delays and logistics associated with moving two dozen animals, tents and the caravan.  The searing heat prompted Burke to decide that he, Wills and the other two would do their travelling at night, subject to an agreeably high moon, to survive the ‘ferocious furnace’ of an outback Australian Summer.

The news that Burke had split the group in Menindee raised eyebrows amongst the hierarchy and fed fears of the potential consequences of having a group of explorers separated and potentially isolated from the bulk of their supplies in such a remote and unknown territory.

The expedition had been underway since August and by 26 January 1861 Burke and his forward-party of four were a little more than 170 miles South of the Gulf.

The famous tale of these great Australian explorers has been brought to life in the present tense by the storytelling prowess of Peter Fitzsimons.  Foundations of research and more than 2000 footnotes underpin the Fitzsimons approach to making ‘the skeletons dance’ and in doing so, add depth to the rich vein of historical accounts of this important moment in history.

The use of language and terminology authentic to the era transports the reader back in time and provides a snapshot of the prevailing Victorian attitudes which highlights both the progress, and lack thereof, made in the intervening 157 years as well as the changing nature of assessing what is Right or Just against the prevailing norms and contextual influences of a point in time.

Remember, Justice doesn’t just happen.

Be Engaged. Be Informed. Be Curious.

“In history, a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind.”
Edmund Burke

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