The Dig Tree is an important site in Australian history and in the sorry saga of the Burke and Wills Exploring Expedition. Set on the bank of Cooper Creek, it is a popular camping spot for Australian tourists and the place where we stopped for our second night on our way to Birdsville for the Big Red Bash. It is a peaceful spot. It is almost 160 years since the ill-fated expedition and the landscape has changed little since Burke and Wills first clapped eyes on it and yet, it is a stark reminder of the need to respect the outback.
The Burke and Wills Story
Robert O’Hara Burke was the leader of a Victorian expedition to cross the Australian continent from Melbourne, on the south coast of Victoria, to the Gulf of Carpentaria, on the north coast of Australia. Leaving Melbourne in August 1860, the team experienced a series of calamities, including broken wagons, torrential rain, rat plagues, starvation and disease.
Three months after leaving Melbourne, Burke established a Depot Camp on the bank of Cooper Creek, where the Dig Tree is now located. From the Depot Camp, Burke set out with three men (William John Wills, Charley Gray and John King) to continue on to the Gulf of Carpentaria. The men left at the Camp were instructed to wait for four months.
Burke and Wills did make it to the Gulf, although they didn’t quite get to the open ocean. However, the journey had taken two months and 2/3 of their rations. Gray died on their way back to the Depot Camp and when they finally staggered into the camp, it was deserted. Finding a coolibah tree emblazoned with the words: DIG (the Dig Tree), they discovered buried provisions and a note explaining that the rest of the team had left – just that morning.
By this time, King and Wills were so weak they could barely crawl, so instead of following the departed team, Burke, Wills and King followed the Cooper Creek and this is where Wills, and then Burke, eventually died. Of the four men who set out from the Depot Camp, John King was the only one to make it back to Melbourne. He only survived because he was taken in by an Indigenous tribe, who cared for him until he was found by a Relief team in September 1861.
The bodies of Burke and Wills were eventually recovered and buried in Melbourne where they received a state funeral – the first for Victoria – and in their honour, the expedition was renamed The Burke and Wills Exploring Expedition.
The Dig Tree is believed to be about 200-250 years old and is now protected by a board walk and guard rail. On a tree nearby, there is an image of Burke’s face, carved by John Dick in 1898.
Brave or Foolhardy?
Seven men died.
Three men, Burke, Wills and King, walked a total of 5,000 km from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria and back to the Depot Camp at Cooper Creek.
But… Relief teams mounted by Victoria, South Australia and Queensland did succeed in surveying and mapping areas of the interior, which up to that point, were unknown to the white community.
This is just a brief summary of a story that is both fascinating and tragic and you can discover more about Burke and Wills here. From the Dig Tree we head north to a small town called Betoota, with a population of …0. But that’s next time.