Burke and Wills

Comprehension Activities

Burke and Wills’ route: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burke_and_Wills_expedition#/media/File:Burke_and_Wills_Track.png
Learn more: https://burkeandwills.slv.vic.gov.au/
John McDouall Stuart: http://johnmcdouallstuart.org.au/
Books, TV shows, movies:


It was the most expensive, tragic, mistake-riddled expedition in Australian history… and for some reason, it’s better known than any other. This is your Squiz Kids Shortcut to Burke and Wills—the podcast where we dive into the who, what, when, where, why and how of the big news stories. I’m Amanda Bower.

And I’m Bryce Corbett.

Way back in August, 1860, two of Australia’s most famous explorers left Melbourne on a journey to become the first white people to travel from the south to the north of Australia. Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills, whom we remember just as Burke and Wills, sort of made it there … but they never made it back. A little over ten months after they left to the sounds of a marching band, they died in the bush of malnutrition, exhaustion, and possibly poisoning.

Today, we’ll take you through WHO were Burke and Wills, WHAT went wrong on their expedition, and WHY they are so famous.

Listen carefully – there’s a Squiz at the end!

Okay Bryce, we’re definitely going to need the Squiz Kids time machine for this. (time machine noise) We’re going back… way back… to Melbourne in 1860.

It’s goldrush time…

And Melbourne has become the richest city in Australia, thanks to the gold. It’s grown quickly and has a population of around 140,000. But there are still no cars, no planes, certainly no GPS… and none of the white settlers actually know what’s in the middle of Australia. There’s a theory that there could be an inland lake… and there’s a race on to be the first to find out.

The South Australian government has offered a massive reward to anyone who travels through the middle of the continent…

…And the Victorian Exploration Committee wants to beat them. They raise a huge amount of money to send Australia’s most expensive expedition north from Melbourne, heading to the Gulf of Carpentaria. I’ll put a link in your episode notes to show the route. Once they had the money, they needed a crew.

They chose Robert O’Hara Burke, a policeman from Ireland, to lead the expedition.

Burke had no experience in exploration, and no bushcraft skills. Imagine organising a boat trip, and appointing a captain who doesn’t know how to sail. Burke had a big personality and he was decisive … but as we’ll learn, he made some deadly decisions. William John Wills, an English surveyor and surgeon, did have bush and exploration experience… but he was a man who followed orders, even if he disagreed with them. Wills was chosen to be Burke’s third in command. And let me just take a moment here to say… William Wills? What were his parents thinking?

Anyway… on August 20, 1860, to the sound of a marching band, Burke and Wills’ enormous expedition got underway. There were 28 horses, 27 camels brought in specially from India – the first time they’d been used in Australian exploration – 19 men, 6 wagons, 21 tons of supplies… and 4,800 kilometres to go.

Burke and Wills are on their way. But Amanda, you said Wills was THIRD in command. Who was second? And why don’t we hear about him instead of Wills?

Because that guy got so furious with Burke’s leadership, he quit early on. Let’s learn WHAT else went wrong on this deadly expedition.

The first problem was that the expedition took WAY too much stuff. Australian explorers with experience knew that the best approach was to travel light, so that you could travel quickly and spent as little time as possible in the harsh interior. Burke took along an oak table with two chairs… dandruff brushes… even a gong to ring at mealtimes!

With 21 tons of supplies loaded up – that’s 21,000 kg—the wagons broke down on the very first day. It took the expedition two whole months to travel just 750km to Menindee, at the time the last settled area in Victoria.

The regular mail coach did the same route in a week! So Burke made the decision to dump some of the supplies… including the lime juice.

Oh no… the lime juice?

As everyone knew back then, lime juice prevented scurvy – a disease you get when you don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. Two of the expedition’s five officers quit after Burke made the decision to dump provisions, which is a fancy word for supplies, and Wills was promoted to second-in-command…

And it was at Menindee that Burke decided to split up his party.

That’s right. He’d gotten word from Melbourne that he needed to hurry, so he took the fastest horses, the seven fittest men, and some camels, and set out for a place called Cooper Creek. He left most of their supplies, and their Aboriginal guide, behind.

Oh dear. Burke had little respect for Aboriginal people and their knowledge, so unlike other explorers, he chose not to travel with them and make use of their knowledge and help.

Which isn’t very smart when you have literally no experience in the country you’re heading towards, and Aboriginal people have survived there for tens of thousands of years. Now Bryce, this podcast would go on for hours if we dissected everything that went wrong, so let’s summarise:

  • When they got to Cooper Creek, Burke split up the group again, but gave vague instructions to those left behind on what they should do. Four men, including Burke and Wills, raced to make it to the north coast.
  • Wills thought it would take four months to get to the coast, and back to Cooper Creek. BUT… Burke thought it would be less, and took just three months of supplies. One of the four men, Charles Gray, died of starvation, exhaustion, and – you got it- scurvy. The remaining three had to resort to eating their animals. They DID make it to the north coast… kind of… the mangrove swamps were so thick they couldn’t actually see the sea, but the water was salty, so they called it a win. Then they headed back to Cooper Creek.
  • But Wills had been right – it took longer than three months. After four months, the Cooper Creek group decided they had to leave, so they buried supplies under a tree, and scratched “DIG” into the tree so that if Burke’s group was still alive, they would find them.
  • Tragically, Burke, Wills, and John King arrived just seven hours later. They dug up the supplies, but for some reason Burke decided that instead of heading back on the track to Menindee, where rescuers would have found them, they’d go a different way that he thought was faster. Wills disagreed, but—he always followed orders. When rescuers came looking, Burke, Wills and King were only about 40 km away.
  • And that shortcut Burke had taken them on was no good. They were starving, exhausted, and they had to turn back around. The indigenous Yandruwandha people had been helping them find food and water, but Burke fired his guns over their heads, and not surprisingly, they stopped trying to help.
  • The three men had seen the Yandruwandha eating a plant called nardoo, so they did the same. But they didn’t prepare it properly—the indigenous people could have shown them, if Burke hadn’t fired his gun at them—and so the Nardoo was actually poisoning them. Some time in late June, 1861, Wills knew that he was going to die. He insisted that Burke and King leave him and carry on. A few days later, Burke died too. The Yandruwandha then took pity on King, and sheltered him for 77 days until rescuers came. When Burke’s and Wills’ bodies were recovered and brought back to Melbourne, they were given a hero’s funeral, and 40,000 people came.

Amanda, that’s something that I find surprising. I mean, Burke made SO many mistakes, and in total seven men died on this dreadful expedition. Why were they thought of as heroes? WHY are they still so famous today?

Well, Burke and Wills did win that race to cross Australia from south to north. AIthough honestly, I find it a bit unfair that we say “Burke and Wills”—I mean, John King was there through all of it too, and he actually survived! Sadly, though, the trip ruined King’s health, and he only lived another ten-and-a-bit years, to the age of 33. Imagine that… he was only 21 when he set out on this crazy journey. A second reason that Burke and Wills are famous is that they created valuable maps, and observed and recorded new species. The only reason we have that information is that before he died, Wills buried all his journals at what is still known as the “DIG” tree … the one at Cooper Creek.

And I suppose their story is appealing because it’s a bit like a movie—you have a dangerous challenge, flawed characters, a punishing landscape, lots of conflict and drama…

Absolutely. And lots of lessons learned about what NOT to do on an expedition. Sometimes you remember the tragic stories better than the happy ones – just look at ANZAC Day, or Romeo and Juliette. There have been movies made about Burke and Wills… books, poems, and songs written… I’ll put some links in your episode notes.

And what ever happened to those South Australian explorers?

They weren’t first to reach the north, but John McDouall Stuart’s expedition was the first to go from south to north AND come back again… and with absolutely no loss of life, thanks to McDouall Stuart’s experience. It does seem crazy that Burke and Wills are a household name, but that McDouall Stuart far less so – even though he’s known as Australia’s greatest inland explorer. Let’s right that wrong, and put a link in your episode notes to more information about him.

I can feel another shortcut about him coming…

The S’Quiz
This is the part of the podcast where you get to test how well you’ve been listening…
1. What job did Robert O’Hara Burke have before he was picked to lead the ill-fated expedition?
2. What crucial supply did Burke dump, causing disease later?
3. What is the name of the South Australian explorer who successfully made it from south to north, and back again?