Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Dig tree - a rendezvouz gone wrong

       In 1860 two explorers - Robert O'Hara Burhe and William John Wills lead a group of 19 men to explore the inlands of Australia, by the time a big mystery for the Europeans. Their goal was to start from Mellbourne and reach the gulf of Carpentaria and then go back using camels and horses. Such an expedition was a big event by the time, there was even an award for the first person to cross the continent ordered by the government of South Australia; so a crowd of 15 000 gathered to send them away.
        Burke, a former policeman was the actual leader and the most enthusiastic member of the party; Wills, the main surveyor and only 27 was more level-headed and practical.  In the beginning everything went normal,  they had food supplies for two years and the horses and camels were fine. When they approached Cooper creek (the last place visited by previous expeditions) Burke grew impatient with the slow speed, the difficult terrain and their plan which included long rests.Then a rumour reached them, that Charles Stuart, another famous explorer, has taken the challenge to cross the continent first. So instead of waiting in their base camp at Cooper creek  for the end of the hot summer and for additional supplies to arrive as was the plan, Burke decided to start for the Gulf right in the middle of summer. He took the healthiest camels and horses and left together with Wills and 2 other people and left William Brahe in command at the base camp, instructing him to wait 3 months for them. However, Wills who had a more realistic view of what lied ahead secretly instructed Brahe to wait at least four months for their return.
       So the expedition went north through the hot stony desert. Finally in February they reached the gulf (or at least the swamps at its southern end) and started back. However dysentery and the rugged terrain slowed them down and they were not able to reach the base camp in the 4 months period.
       At the base camp William Brahe waited for 4 months and a week and then left with the others, after their supplies got scarcer (because the additional ones still had not arrived) and after one of his men injured his leg. However, conscious that his colleagues may come after all he put some supplies in a crate and buried it down at the place of the camp, carving "DIG" and some small instruction where (accounts differ of what exactly was written under the big DIG sign) on the trunk of an eucalyptus tree. Exactly 9 hours after Brahe left, Burke and Wills reached the base camp and found it deserted and from the note in the supplies they found out that Brahe had left on the morning of the very same day. However the camels were so tired that they did not have a chance of reaching the others, so Burke decided on following a different route to Melbourne and the three remaining men left the camp again. Meanwhile on his way back Brahe met with the finally arriving supplying party and together with its leader William Wright returned back to the base camp to see if Burke and Wills have returned, and again found it deserted. Since the signs on the threes were unaltered they assumed that the others had not arrived and then went home.
        Burke and Wills slowly made their way south, however the heat and starvation took their toll. Apparently Burke refused to depend on the "uncivilized" natives for food and rudely refused a gift from them so they stopped trying to help. After a 2 tragic months first Wills and then a day or so later Burke died from starvation and vitamins deficiency (because they actually ate a plant that depletd the body from vitamin B1). Tha last remaining member, John King somehow managed to convince the aboriginals of his good intentions and dying state and they helped him survive until two months later a rescuing party found him.
      Today the Dig tree is an important (although not easily reachable) monument , however the sign "DIG" is no longer visible. Close to it there is another three with the face of Burke carved into it (again a little overgrown).

Coordinates: 27°37'25"S, 141° 04'32"E
Google Maps
Wikipedia Article
The whole story at the state of Victoria library

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