State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 22 October 1978


Melbourne to Mendindie: A Tourist's Guide Based on the Diaries of Ludwig Becker1.

Because of the familiarity of the Burke and Wills story to every Australian, the following outline (which draws heavily on the journals of Dr. Ludwig Becker the official diarist and naturalist of the expedition at its outset) hopes merely to pinpoint the track of the explorers camp by camp from Melbourne to Menindie, to enable the interested tourist to follow them a century later in latter day comfort.
From Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria, the route taken by Burke and Wills covers 1,800 miles. Their Cooper's Creek base is almost midway, or about 900 miles from either coastal extremity. Menindie is about 400 miles to the south of Cooper's Creek and 500 miles from Melbourne (taking the explorers’ route). Beckoning the adventurous to attempt such a coast to coast crossing, were the benefits that would flow from the construction of an overland telegraph line making possible telegraphic communication between Western Europe and the settled areas of south-eastern Australia. Less substantial, but just as timely was the hope that the unknown centre of the continent would be made to reveal great areas of new fertile grazing land, there for the taking. For the expedition members, there could have been little expectation of great material reward no matter how successful the outcome might be. Caught up in the great surge of public enthusiasm for the venture, and with the very real element of danger serving only to spice the romance of a journey into the unknown, men flocked by the hundred seeking the privilege of very moderately paid membership of the party.
Although the Melbourne to Menindie phase of Burke's journey has been overshadowed by the drama and tragedy of the later stages, it has both significance and interest, contributing greatly to an understanding of how the great expedition that set out so impressively, ended so disastrously.
The expedition assembled in Royal Park, Melbourne, with tents for the men, stores and equipment, and buildings for the animals. Five officers had been appointed by the Royal Society of Victoria: Robert O'Hara Burke (the Leader), George James Landells (second-in-command), Dr. Herman Beckler (botanist and medical officer), Dr. Ludwig Becker (naturalist) and William James Wills (navigator). Accompanying them were ten assistants (selected by Burke from 700 applicants): Ferguson (foreman), Brahe, Creber, Drake-ford, Fletcher, Langon, McDonough, Patton, Cowen and King. In addition, there were the three ‘sepoys’ who had been brought from India with the camels: Dost Mahomet, Samla and Beludge. The twenty-four camels, twenty-three horses and seven wagons formed a caravan about a quarter of a mile long. The draught horses pulling the heavily laden wagons restricted the party's speed to about three miles an hour, with an average of twenty miles per day anticipated.
In Ludwig Becker, artist and naturalist, the unusual times had produced an unusual man. A Hessian of aristocratic background and connections, a former army officer, a much-travelled man of excellent education and wide-ranging interests, his wanderings from country to country had eventually brought him, at the age of 43, to Australia in 1851. His intense interest in the world about him, enabled him, in his records of the journey, to provide a lasting legacy for the country of his adoption.
Becker went to Royal Park on Sunday, 19th August, 1860, to take charge of the camp for the night. On the following day the expedition assembled in marching order, ready to move. First they went north ‘in the direction of the Sarah Sands Hotel’, singing ‘Cheer, Boys, Cheer!’ Then they re-crossed the park to the south gate, where the cavalcade ‘passed round the cattle yards and the swamp’, and, ‘issuing from the south gate of the park, went down behind the manure depot and thence on to the Sydney road’, taking the road to Essendon.
Over ten thousand people had gathered to farewell them after they had left the park.

Portion of the application of Ludwig Becker to join the Exploration Expedition, April 1860.

The Lord Mayor wished them God Speed, Burke replied in a very few words, a camel ran wild, walked on a small child and upset a stout policeman, and the great expedition was on its way — at 4 p.m., several hours later than planned.
From here to Balranald it is possible to identify each camping place, and the journey can be followed, day by day. Adopting the usual custom, the explorers numbered each camp. Essendon was Camp I, and the most northerly camp on the Gulf or Carpentaria was Camp CXIX. Menindie (Pamamaroo) was Camp XXXV, and the next, at ‘Burke's Cave’ in the Scope Range about twenty miles to the north, was Camp XXXVI.
In accordance with his instructions from the Society, Becker each evening described in his journal the country through which they had travelled during the day and included reference to other ‘subjects of interest’. This arrangement will be followed in the ensuing commentary, Becker's observations being supplemented from other sources and attention being drawn to more recent ‘subjects of interest’ than were available for comment in 1860. As befits their national importance, the original records of the Burke and Wills expedition are now carefully preserved in the LaTrobe Library, Melbourne. There Becker's journal and the fine collection of his drawings and paintings, often completed in the face of discouragement and difficulty, keep fresh the memory of a man of many gifts and unwavering professional integrity.
This camp was just beyond the toll-gate in Mt. Alexander Road (now Puckle Street intersection). Immediately opposite the Moonee Ponds Bowling Club, the spot is now marked by a concrete block bearing an inscription. The camels spent the night beside a water-hole that is now the lake in Queen's Park, while the horses and wagons camped a little further on where the E.S.&.A. Bank is now situated on the corner of Napier and Fletcher Streets. All along the route, the smell, snorting and appearance of the camels disturbed horses unused to them. Some of the wagons did not arrive until the following morning, one having broken down and the others being delayed.
Bailliere2 (to whose 1865 Directory occasional references will be made) mentioned that Essendon then had two hotels (the Lincolnshire Arms and the Essendon) and a population of 1813 persons, and added that ‘there is a good race course in the district’. Flemington race course still attracts approving notice.
By Inverness, Becker meant the Inverness Inn on the outskirts of the Bulla township.
The departure from Essendon had been delayed by the search for a horse lost during the night and by waiting while Burke returned from ‘important business in town’. This appears to have been appealing once again to the young actress, Julia Matthews, to marry him. Burke, as district inspector of police based in the goldmining town of Beechworth in north-eastern Victoria, had fallen violently in love with Julia when she, a young actress of 18, came to Beechworth with a tent show for a brief season. With Julia unwilling to enter into a hasty marriage with an impulsive Irish policeman twice her age, and with her parents not anxious to lose the £30 per week she attracted to the box office, Burke's suit did not prosper, though she is said to have finally agreed, while the expedition waited at Essendon, to consider Burke's proposal and give him an answer when the journey of exploration had been completed. They never met again, and the final page of the tragedy that so strangely enveloped them was not turned until sixteen years later when Julia died of yellow fever during a successful tour of the United States.
The explorers’ route from Essendon would have followed the Bulla Road, parting from the road to the Bendigo diggings where the Mt. Alexander Road traffic swings left to go on to Bendigo. The site of the former Inverness Inn is readily recognised, it being on a triangular piece of land where the road to Konagaderra (and formerly on to Sydney) leaves the road leading on to the Bulla township. Above the old hotel site, aeroplanes now follow their flight path to Melbourne International Airport (Tullamarine). This deviation from the main road to Romsey would have been necessary to avoid the steep approaches to the Deep Creek
(the Saltwater, or Maribyrnong Creek) at Bulla, which the heavily loaded wagons could never have negotiated.
At Inverness, they crossed the track followed by Hamilton Hume and W. H. Hovell when, in 1824, they journeyed from Lake George by the Murrumbidgee to the western shore of Port Phillip. Burke's party most probably camped at the spot used by Hume as a camping place and now identified by a monument. This was close to a tributary of the Moonee Ponds Creek, and not far from the Inn. While the inn-keeper would have welcomed the explorers, and other customers attracted by the expedition, he would probably not have welcomed the camels too close to the Inn — nor their effect on his other customers’ horses.
Bailliere (1865) described Bulla as a township of about 200 people with three hotels. The coach stop was at Frost's Deep Creek Hotel.3
Before the party left Inverness (Bulla), Samla, one of the Indians, received permission to resign because his religion would not permit him to eat the meat supplied. Becker touched by his plight, remarked that ‘the poor fellow looked very poorly indeed, having had nothing for the last three days but bread and plenty of work’. Three of the wagons became so badly bogged that they were left at Bulla to follow on later. They overtook the main party at Swan Hill.
Crossing the deep valley of the Deep Creek, probably at Konagaderra, and then the Emu (Belinda) Creek, they arrived at their next camp at Gardiner's wet and cold after travelling in continuous rain. ‘No tea; no fire; we slept in the wet’, Becker wrote. Their camp site is on the Belinda Vale property of Sir Rupert Clarke, beside the creek at the rear of the homestead, where a clump of trees can be seen in the little valley a mile or so to the east of the road to Romsey. The dead stump of a tree marked by the explorers, and the two magnificent oaks said to be planted by them, remain after more than a century, close to a small bluestone cottage that is now the oldest building on the property.
Captain Robert Gardiner, a neighbouring property holder and whaling captain, hastened the following morning to provide hospitality for the party and fodder for the animals without charge. His mansion, completed in 1882, now the home of Mrs. E. H. Rea and her son, Mr. Derek Rea, is situated on the main road adjacent to the Training and Proving Wing of the Defence Department.
They continued north through forested country, over slippery black volcanic soil that reminded Becker of soft-soap, to Lancefield. This was then beside the Deep Creek at the foot of the Great Divide, about two miles north of its present situation; a busy township with such things as a brewery, brick kiln, several shops and hotels and a population of about 300.
When the railway from Lancefield Junction (Clarkefield) was mooted, the old township started to die as the present Lancefield began to grow on its new site. The impressive three-storey hotel on the highway was built on the confident, but erroneous, assumption that the railway station would be established near by. The 14 1/2 mile branch line, completed in 1881, closed in 1956.
Only one building remains of the old Lancefield — formerly Mustey's butcher's shop, close to the road junction just beyond the bridge over the Deep Creek. The butcher who sold meat to Burke's party was the grandfather of Mr. Charles Mustey who still occupies the original premises as a residence.
Moving out of the valley of the Deep Creek (to which old residents still refer as the Saltwater), they crossed ‘the Big Hill’ (the Dividing Range, for which Becker, sensitive and responsive to community thought, preferred the local name). With a grade of one in seven, both ascent and descent proved difficult for the wagons. They left the Three Chain Road to reach Dr. Thomas Baynton's homestead, Darlington. Behind them, at the foot of the descent was what Becker significantly referred to as ‘the Accommodation Paddock’. There he was touched by the
kindness of a poor family who offered them tea and milk as they waited with the camels for the wagons to overtake them. The Three Chain Road follows the track from Echuca to Melbourne established by the bullock teams in the 1840's, and is still mentioned with capital letters.
At Baynton, their camp site is still marked by a small clump of Osage Orange trees between the present homestead and the road, close to Pohlman's Creek, apparently the original site of the homestead. Thomas Alexander Browne (‘Rolf Boldrewood’) had lived at Darlington as a boy when his father, Captain Sylvester Brown(e), held the run before Dr. Baynton's occupation of it.
Next morning, Becker was astonished to see an extinct volcanic crater between their camp and the Three Chain Road, and he sketched the expedition passing through it on their way out of ‘Darlington’ to pass over ‘the desolate Spring Plains’ to Mia Mia. They crossed ‘the Major's Line’ for the first time, reached Mia Mia and camped by the Spring Creek. Here Burke decided to rest the expedition for two days, with the officers staying at the Mia Mia Inn. This inn was situated behind the existing bluestone ruins of a later inn built after the township was surveyed in 1859.
At Mia Mia, they had their first experience of crowds of curious visitors from all directions, not greatly welcomed by Burke, but the reports and letters of some of these visitors are now a source of both interest and information.5 One of these, who had to sleep in the diningroom of the inn in an atmosphere of fried bacon and eggs mixed with tobacco smoke, wrote that the camels looked like fowls trussed for cooking as they crouched beside the road with their legs folded under them. Another described the three-hour preparation for the road each morning.
At Mia Mia, the unique Iron Bridge over the Campaspe (said to be a military replica from the Crimea, brought to Australia after the war on the steamer Edina) is close to the spot where Major Mitchell forded the river in 1836, naming it after a courtesan of Alexander the Great and driving in a survey peg to mark both the spot and the occasion. This link with the Crimea is a reminder that Burke, a professional soldier, had obtained leave of absence from the Police Force to resume military service in the Crimea, only to find the war ended before he could take part. Close to Mia Mia on the road from Lancefield is a monument to more recent pioneers. This is the Aeroplane Memorial to the Duigan brothers,6 pioneers of flight in Australia who constructed and flew the first Australian aeroplane in 1910.
The explorers are credited with having, as they left Mia Mia, unwittingly carried out one of the recommendations from the Royal Society, that they should sow seeds as they went to mark their route. Artichoke thistles, which had not been seen in the district before that time, appeared soon after they had left and became firmly established in the locality, the first seeds, it is thought, having been brought in the fodder consumed by the camels.
Going north from Mia Mia, they crossed what was then the Wild Duck Creek but is now the Derrinal Water or Lake Eppalock, this being the first time the camels were taken through water. Then crossing the Melbourne-Bendigo road near Matheson's Hotel, they made camp some two miles along the ‘old bush road’ leading to Goornong and Barna-down, probably close to the Heathcote Park Dragway on rising and comparatively drier ground. This old hotel is less than a mile to the north of the present township of Knowsley, though then the maps showed only Matheson's.
Donald Munro Matheson established this hotel in 1852, and by 1853 it had become a flourishing resting place for travellers to and from the Bendigo goldfield. Well situated at the junction of two busy roads, it thrived as a staging point for the coaches, providing a most useful service until the railway to Heathcote went through from Bendigo in 1888. About that time, another hotel was built in the new township and eventually Matheson's ceased trading.
The old hotel has been preserved in good condition, with only the minor change of two rooms having been added to its southern
end. Now known as Cosmo, it has been in the hands of the White family since about 1903, and is occupied as a private residence.
Four hours after leaving Matheson's Burke and his party reached the Campaspe River at Barnadown (the Clare Inn) and crossed on Kennedy's punt, camping on Kennedy's paddock in a bend of the river. Crowds of ‘curious loving people’ (the expression is Becker's) flocked from nearby Bendigo (where the township alone had more than 15,000 people) to see the expedition, especially the camels. That evening, John Harney, a wealthy landowner and a Bendigo City Councillor, entertained Burke and Lan-dells with prominent Bendigo citizens at his Adelaide Vale estate a mile or so up the river. Edmund Kennedy, the proprietor of the Clare Inn, and Mrs. Kennedy welcomed the party and provided free fodder for the animals.
This river crossing is marked by a stone memorial, commemorating the passing of the expedition, near the southern approach to the present bridge. Relics of the punt (downstream from the bridge) and parts of the old hotel surviving from the coaching days, with the impressive brick stables being of particular interest, are preserved by the present owner of the property, Mr. Edmund Kennedy, grandson of the first Kennedy licensee.
Situated on the main Murray Road, a stock route-from before 1840, Barnadown with its steam flour mill and three district hotels was a busy centre for road traffic until the Melbourne-Echuca railway bypassed it in 1864.
This stage took the explorers across to meet the Piccaninny Creek at Myles Patterson's Piccaninny Creek or Kamarooka homestead. This stream, which starts as the Bendigo Creek, eventually becomes the Mt. Hope Creek.
Crowds of sightseers from Bendigo again gathered to see the expedition leave the Clare Inn. One wrote later of the ‘beautiful park-like country’ where the camels ‘with their lofty pack-saddles mingled with the tall gum trees’7 as they entered the Campaspe River grazing run of Thomas Robertson. Robertson's mansion, now the home of Mr. William Ellis and of interest to the National Trust, is so close to the Campaspe that its architect included a dike to hold back flood waters. About two miles onward from the inn, the travellers unwittingly passed the grave of a shepherd murdered by the aborigines in 1839, already forgotten in 1860 but destined to be vividly recalled by a chance discovery in 1978.8
About eight miles north of the Clare Inn, the explorers, according to local tradition, rested at the old Elmore Hotel, on the route established for the movement of stock and then also for coach travel, which had been in business since 1846. The old hotel gave its name both to the parish and to the present Elmore township some three miles to the north. Three days before the explorers passed through, it had been held up by bushrangers. A cairn is proposed to mark the site of the hotel which the construction of the railway from Melbourne to Echuca eventually made redundant.
Although Burke had been assured at Barnadown that twelve miles travel would bring them to Patterson's, they reached this camping place over after twenty-four miles of toil across the plains. Becker attributed this to their having been given faulty information, but they had plainly lost their way, probably by following the coach track to the north-east after leaving the Elmore Hotel. For Becker, the Terrick Terrick Plains commenced after leaving the timbered country near the Campaspe, and he was impressed by the plains as the expedition moved westward in the afternoon sunshine. In the shimmering heat, the mirages produced uncanny effects, and the miles of lush grass appeared to him like ‘a calm ocean with green water’.
Visitors from Bendigo again invaded the travellers’ camp at Patterson's, delaying their departure next morning for Dr. Hope's Terrick Terrick No. 2 station when horses took fright at the camels, overturned a wagon and injured two of the sightseers. From Patterson's they followed the creek downstream (from bend to bend) until they
eventually moved out of its valley at Mt. Hope.
Much of Patterson's homestead complex survives as Kamarooka Homestead, now the home of Mr. T. Mudie, the large woolshed, the former jackaroos'9 quarters and an example of wattle-and-daub construction being of special interest.
As Burke led his party for twelve miles across the Terrick Terrick Plains (entering the area described by Major Mitchell during his expedition in 1836 as Australia Felix),10 the Terrick Terrick Hills seemed in the mirage to float in the air. Not restricted by fences, the party took the most direct and practicable route to the homestead of Dr. John Pearson Rowe on the west bank of the creek and close to the most easterly tip of the range. Today it is most easily reached by travelling east from Mitiamo, then downstream in a northerly direction. A brick remnant of the old homestead standing on a rise among sheoaks is easily recognized. The property, now known as Oak Ridge, is the home of Mr. F. Thomas. Some idea of the extensive homestead complex necessary to operate a remote grazing run in the early days can be gained from the remains of the many buildings formerly on Terrick Terrick but long since disappeared.
Dr. Rowe, a chemist from Lancashire, had crossed from Hobart in 1846 to live the remaining 32 years of his life as a squatter,11 almost solely on the Terrick Terrick Plains. A man of prominence and influence in the squatting age, he controlled at various times a total of almost half a million acres. Taking up the Restdown Plains run (106,922 acres) in 1852, he made his home beside the Campaspe River. The following year, he built nearby on the bank of the Campaspe a hotel, quaintly named The Apples, to accommodate the many drovers and prospectors passing through. Around this hotel grew the township of Rowechester, now Rochester, so named by the Governor in compliment to its founder. Dr. Rowe held Terrick Terrick No. 2 for thirteen years, and Becker commented that the doctor was present to welcome the expedition when it halted there.
Becker noted Dr. Rowe's use of local building materials, and was impressed by the large dam constructed on the creek, of which the bluestone spillway is an impressive survival. Settlers further downstream resented this interference with the flow of the stream and attempted to destroy the dam by explosion. Becker remarked on the discoloration of the stream resulting from the puddling by thousands of miners in and around the Bendigo goldfield.12
Here the explorers made their first contact with tribal aborigines who camped near them at Dr. Rowe's but could not be tempted to come near them, the blacks being especially apprehensive of the camels. To them, the camels were ‘bunyips',13 and to be feared accordingly. No mention was made in the expedition's records of the two fenced but un-named graves whose occupants now rest forgotten close to the homestead.
The party remained two days with Dr. Rowe before moving further down the creek to Mount Hope.
As did the members of Burke's party, the modern traveller finds Mt. Hope becoming ever more prominent on the plain as he moves northward from Dr. Rowe's former home. Now occupied by Mr. and Mrs. C. V. Wilson, the large old Mt. Hope homestead has been preserved intact. Situated impressively on a sheltered plateau on the eastern side of the mount, it is approached through an entrance on the northern side.
The mount greatly impressed Becker, its massive blocks of stone reminding him of ‘pre-adamic whales and elephants’. There was a spring-time profusion of flowers and insects among the rocks. He sketched the station hut and was shown the ‘subterranean chamber’ at the north-west foot of the mount that had once been used as an illicit distillery. From the summit, where Major Mitchell had stood twenty-four years before surveying his ‘Australia Felix’, Becker sketched Pyramid Hill to the south-west.
Like many other grazing runs at the time, the Mt. Hope and Mt. Pyramid run was absentee owned. The superintendent of the run, Mr. W. Downes Chomley, who proved
a warm and generous host to the travellers, still features significantly in the history of the district.
Twenty miles through rain brought them to the homestead of Abraham Booth and John Holloway on the Loddon River, then five miles from Kerang (but now eight, for a new Kerang developed three miles downstream from the old). Burke decided to remain at this camp, Tragowel (a native name), for two days on account of the soaking they had suffered.
Burke, Landells and Becker slept at the Holloways. Burke passed the time playing the piano. This piano is now at the Tyntynder Homestead, the property of Mr. Rothwell Holloway, a grandson of John Holloway. Most of the men slept in the large kitchen. Becker recorded as ‘a curious fact’ the method adopted by Landells to dry his sodden boots (filling them with burning charcoals), and he regretted that McDonough killed a large carpet snake (‘not a venomous animal’) that emerged from a log on the kitchen fire around which the men were sitting.
Tragowel is now the home of Mr. Johannes Bos. The present homestead was built in 1922 on part of the same sandhill that provided the site of the explorers' camp. A ‘hut of logs for travellers and strangers’, built in 1861, disintegrated only in recent years; although there are a number of interesting old buildings at Tragowel, none have survived from the time when the expedition rested there in 1860.
One thing that remains is the Tragowel Swamp. Evidence of its appeal for the aborigines before the white invasion is provided by the many discoveries of middens, graves and artifacts, the black people having found it a rich source of food.14 The swamp is now a Wild Life Sanctuary, and there are plans to flood it permanently.
Kerang in 1865 was a small village of about eighty persons ‘on the coach road from Sandhurst (Bendigo) to Swan Hill’.15 This was the new Kerang, the survey for a railway (completed in 1885) having finally fixed the site for the town on its present location.
Leaving Tragowel, the expedition crossed the Loddon using the bridge at old Kerang (three miles downstream, where it would have been aligned with the ‘old Echuca road’), then went on another eight miles to camp beside the Reedy Lake homestead on the eastern shore of the lake. Today the lake is plainly named on the adjacent Murray Valley Highway as a Wild Life Sanctuary.
The Reedy Lake property is absentee owned, but access by those interested in its history can be arranged through the Kerang Historical Society. The beautifully situated old home at Reedy Lake, now a ruin, once shared with the Lake Bael Bael homestead the administration of one of the largest grazing runs (370,000 acres) in the State. The oldest section, of drop-log construction, is of such historical significance that its preservation, even if at great cost, is now considered desirable.
Murrabit run, excised from the Reedy Lake run in 1851, was held by Thomas Alexander Browne from 1862 to 1863. Browne's homestead was on the southern shore of Lake Boga, where its original stable and smithy still survive.
Between Kerang and Reedy Lake, red-bricked Summerhill stands beside the highway as one of the oldest buildings in the district. Local tradition asserts that here, in the oldest room of the house, a bluestone kitchen with a massive fireplace, Thomas Alexander Browne (Rolf Boldrewood), conceived the plot of Robbery Under Arms, the author's home being only fifteen miles distant.
Eighteen miles further brought the expedition to a camping spot between Lake Tutchewop and Lake Boga, beside a clump of trees left untouched for over a century afterwards. This was quite close to Lake Boga.
Becker briefly visited Lake Boga as the expedition passed by. This fresh-water lake
had great appeal for the district aborigines before white settlement. Mr. William Hayes and Mrs. Hayes, holders of the former T. A. Browne homestead property, have an extensive knowledge of the history of the area and even of the earlier homestead on the present site that had been designed for defence against attacks by the aborigines.
At Swan Hill, the party camped on the site of the present lawn tennis courts. Swan Hill was then a township of about 150 people who, led by Dr. Benjamin Gummow, Mrs. Gummow and Police Superintendent Henry Foster, provided hospitality and assistance to the explorers.
Burke remained for five days at Swan Hill to allow the wagons bogged at Bulla to overtake the party and to lighten the loads carried by auctioning redundant stores. Three more assistants were employed: Alex McPherson (a saddler from Epsom), Charles Gray (an ostler from a Swan Hill hotel) and William Hodgkinson (a Melbourne journalist with outback experience).
Arthur Feldtmann, in his history of Swan Hill, contributes generously to the picture of the expedition's arrival in, stay at and departure from Swan Hill; and a fitting complement to his written record is supplied by Swan Hill's Pioneer Settlement, opened in 1966, a unique collection of items associated with life in the area since the earliest days of its settlement.
After crossing the river by punt, the party camped within sight of the township. Burke remained in Swan Hill for the night as the guest of Dr. and Mrs. Gummow. The gaiety of the farewell to the explorers by their Swan Hill friends was tempered by thoughts of the dangers they were soon to encounter, even the regimental Burke being affected by the occasion.
The Swan Hill community was possibly unique in planning a memorial to the expedition soon after it passed on its outward journey. Construction of a memorial obelisk was actually commenced, but difficulties arose that prevented its completion. The present memorial, overlooking the spot where they crossed the Murray River on the punt, was not proposed until some fifty years later and unveiled in 1914.17
Thirteen miles down the river, they camped at Spewah, referred to by Becker as ‘Mr. McKenzie's out-station’. Today, the probable vicinity of their camp site can be approached by following the highway some six miles north of Swan Hill, then turning off the highway to cross the Murray on the punt at Spewah. The ‘back-water of the Murray’ to which Becker refers encloses Spewah Island a mile or so to the north of the punt.
Becker sketched an aboriginal camp near that of the expedition, but could not tempt the black people to come near them.
Becker noted in his journal that, soon after leaving Spewah, the party was joined for a time by an ‘extremely well mounted lady on horseback dressed in a black riding gown’. She proved to be Miss Ann Jones, the well educated daughter of a hut keeper for local shepherds, her father having been formerly Acting Governor of Fernando Po!18 ‘Rather a strange thing’, commented Becker, ‘in such an out-of-the-way place.’
After having halted at Poon Boon Lake (six miles beyond what Becker referred to as ‘McKenzie's head-station’, and nineteen miles from the Spewah camp), Becker and the others with the camels were ordered on to camp at Talbett's punt on the Wakool, ten miles beyond Poon Boon Lake. Their food and tents having been left with the wagons, they slept in the open beside their fires after eating at the hotel across the river.
Burke, Wills and the others with the wagons enjoyed the hospitality of the Mc-Kenzies at Poon Boon homestead, the remains of which can still be found on the east bank of Poomah Lake. ‘Big’ John Mc-Kenzie supervised the Poon Boon station for its owner, C. N. Bagot. Only thirteen miles from Spewah, they were sixteen miles from Talbett's, but they were easily able to cover this distance the following morning while the camels crossed on the punt.
Burke, when leaving Tragowel, had been presented by his hostess, Mrs. Jane Holloway, with a bundle of religious tracts to sustain him amid the dangers and difficulties that lay ahead. These he acknowledged with ‘a pretty speech’. Before the expedition left Poon Boon, Wills parted with his family Bible as a gift to Mrs. McKenzie. Burke, apparently not to be outdone, and with another ‘pretty speech’, presented Mrs. McKenzie with the tracts he had received from Jane Holloway.19
Today, the former Wakool Crossing, where Henry Talbett established his punt, is the small township of Kyalite. Another hotel stands close to the site of the original building in which Henry Talbett set up as publican and storekeeper. The punt, of which there is evidence of the ramp cut into the river bank, has been replaced by a ‘lift span’ bridge designed originally to permit the passage of river steamers in times of high floods.
After taking the whole expedition across the Wakool on the punt (the wagons having overtaken the camels during the morning), and passing first through pines and then through Mallee scrub, they camped on the open plains nine miles from Talbett's. Talbett's Lake, to the east of their route, is still so named.
Eighteen miles on from their camp on the plains, they came to the Murrumbidgee which they crossed on what Becker described as ‘a miserable punt’ and camped close to the river not far from the magnificent Moreton Bay Fig trees now growing close by. This punt was replaced by a lift span bridge in 1880. Becker noted that the township had about twenty-four buildings (school, hotel, blacksmith's shop and sundry others), the building materials being bark and timber, calico and paper.
From Melbourne to Balranald, the expedition had moved as a unit, only occasionally divided, with progress recorded by the consecutive camp numbers used by Wills as the official navigator throughout the journey. After Balranald, Becker on horseback for the first twelve days piloting the slow-moving wagons, enjoyed the opportunity to see the country at close quarters and to record what he saw.
This record will follow Becker and the dates and stages of his diary until his commentary ceased at Menindie.
In two hurried days at Balranald, Burke again lightened their loadings by jettisoning more stores including fifteen hundredweight of sugar (probably unrefined, and so of greater nutritional value), and, amazingly, their whole stock of lime-juice. He also dismissed two of his original assistants (Ferguson and Langon) and a more recent recruit, McIlwain. Ferguson, who had proved unsatisfactory as foreman, refused demotion from his position with its salary of £200 per annum to that of assistant for only £120. Langon and McIlwain seem to have supported Ferguson, and Burke was possibly glad to be rid of the three.
With an advance party using the camels, Burke reached the Darling on 25th September, eight days after leaving Balranald. Becker, travelling first with the wagons and later with the pack camels, took fifteen days to complete the same journey, and his day-to-day progress can be followed from his daily diary.
After three days, Becker was nearly sixty easy miles from Balranald. On the fourth day, the open Mallee scrub merged with the first of the sandhills that were to bedevil them, and soon his references to ‘exhausted drivers and worn-out horses’ were of daily occurrence. Next day, the seven wagons pulled by thirty-seven draught horses (‘overworked and under-fed’) made only five miles in two hours. The sixth day was even worse, the horses resting every ten yards while the men cut a path through the Mallee. The following day, toiling through the sandhills at the rate of one and a half miles per hour, they were guided by a young aborigine on the first wagon while the oldest tribesman ceremoniously led the way on foot. On the eighth day, acutely short of water, they arrived at Arumpo station in a sudden thunderstorm. (This day, Burke had reached the
Darling and was planning steamer transport up to Menindie.)
After resting for four days at Arumpo, Becker and his companions set out to pick up Burke's track, assisted by an aborigine who told them that he had seen ‘the big emus with four legs’ one day ahead of them, and on their twelfth day out from Balranald they camped at Gobanna. There they met Burke and Brahe who had returned from the Darling with pack camels to share the loading, and in two days they transferred five tons from the wagons to the camels, allotting 400 Ib. to each camel. Burke now announced that each man's personal luggage must be limited to 30 Ib., that every man must walk (‘inch for inch’) to Carpentaria, and that Becker and Beckler must cease all scientific work and share the labour of the assistants.
Fourteen days out from Balranald, Becker (though ill, and the oldest man in the expedition) led three camels over the hills of loose sand for twenty-four miles without a halt. A similar twenty-four miles on the fifteenth day brought them to the Darling at McPherson's station (actually Tarcoola, owned by John Leckie Phelps, for whom Mc-Pherson acted as supervisor), then a further five miles upstream to the camp established at Bilbaka (or Bilwaka, Camp XXX, now Pooncarie), where an anticipated short stay dragged on for nine days.
Becker's physical distress in his new labouring duties, after having dragged his camel 48 miles in two days earned him no compassion from Burke who commented privately, ‘Loading camels and then marching them twenty miles is no joke … The first two days of it nearly choked poor B … and I think he will not be able to stand it much longer …’.20
Wills, reporting from Camp XXX on the Darling, gave a concise account of the area between the Murrumbidgee and the Darling, commented on the unusually good season they had been fortunate enough to experience. Becker, who saw much that Wills missed or thought of no importance, added in his journal an enrichment of detail that brings into sharp contrast the official accuracy of the navigator as opposed to the warm interest of the naturalist.
Burke had intended to stay five days at Bilbaka, again redistributing the loads from the wagons (which were not taken beyond Tarcoola). On the third day at Bilbaka, the camels strayed while being grazed in the bush. Men sent in search of them became lost, then other searchers for these became lost also. This farce continued until on the eighth day the camels were found by an aborigine to whom Burke was said to have paid £5. Burke, infuriated by the delay, quarrelled violently with Landells. On the same day, news of Stuart's return from the Centre to Adelaide reached them.21
Eventually the steamer Moolgewankee loaded goods and stores of the expedition to carry to Menindie, and on 11th October Burke at last led the party out from Bilbaka on their five-day stage to Menindie.
Becker, on his first day, led three pack camels for 22 miles to a camp 15 miles south of the Cuthero homestead. Overtaken by darkness, they struck matches to find the track, and even Landells was staggering as they stumbled into the camp a little before midnight, with their camels still to be unloaded. On the second day, Becker (now on horseback) went ahead with Burke, passed Cuthero station (on the other side of the river) and selected a camp site 25 miles from their previous halt. Becker noted the unusual beauty of the ‘Mallee Sand Cliffs’ where high flood waters of the Darling had undermined the adjacent sandhills. Their third day took Burke and Becker, after a nine hour ride, to their next camp. Becker, probably restricted by Burke's anxiety to press on (and his impatience with scientific observation), noted only the sight of ‘a fine specimen of guano, two and a half feet long’.22
As their fourth day began, Becker suffered a painful injury when his horse trod on his foot, but ‘in agony, rode on’. Three hours later, he and Burke arrived at Kinchega23 station, found the Moolgewankee at anchor (it being Sunday), swam their horses across the river and met William Wright for the first time. Wright, formerly manager of Kinchega, had just relinquished that position following the sale of the property. Next day, Burke went ahead to Menindie with the
horses, arriving just before the steamer with their stores, and leaving most of the expedition at Kinchega. Menindie, sketched by Becker, consisted of Paine's hotel (now Maiden's, with much of the building as Becker saw it), Cadell's store, a kitchen and two native gunyahs. A huddle of primitive huts completed the settlement.
Becker's entry in his diary for the following day, (Tuesday, 16th October), merely records that the camels that day crossed at Kinchega, that Landells and Beckler had resigned, that Wills had been made second-in-command, and that Wright had been added to the expedition. This was a disastrous day for the expedition. After a drunken disturbance involving the Kinchega shearers and some of the exploration party, and the discovery that of the sixy gallons of rum (for the camels!) with which they had set out, only twenty gallons remained, Burke dismissed four men (Creber, Cowen, Drakeford and Fletcher). Following this, after a violent argument about swimming the camels across the Darling at Kinchega, Landells resigned. Then Beckler resigned also in support of Landells. Eight of the original members of the expedition had now left it and another, Beckler, awaited only a replacement for his resignation to become effective. To fill the vacant places, Burke appointed William Purcell, Charles Stone and John Smith (station hands at Kinchega).
During the next three days at Kinchega, Burke ‘most injudiciously’24 divided the expedition, taking seven men (and Wright as guide for part of the way) to set up a depot at Cooper's Creek. The others left at the Darling were to follow under Wright's leadership without delay.
When Burke moved out of Menindie to lead the way across the continent in midsummer, the organizational structure of his expedition had already come tumbling down. After reaching Cooper's Creek and establishing a depot (Fort Wills, Camp LXV), he quickly tired of waiting for Wright to lead in the rearguard from the Darling. On 16th December, 1860, leaving Brahe at the depot with McDonough, Patton and Dost Mahomet to await his return, he led Wills, Gray and King on a dash to reach the Gulf of Carpentaria. One their return journey, after having reached the Gulf at the end of January 1861, Gray died in the desert. Starving and exhausted, they regained the depot at Cooper's Creek on 21st May, only to find it abandoned. Brahe, after four months, unable to wait longer, had left to retreat to the Darling only a few hours before Burke and his companions returned. Burke and Wills died beside the Cooper in June, 1861. King, befriended by the blacks, was found alive by Howitt's rescue party on 15th September of the same year.
Wright's rearguard had moved eight miles upstream to the Pamamaroo Creek, established a camp and remained there for three months. Wright himself lived on at Kinchega, with occasional visits to Pamamaroo, uncertain of either his instructions or his authority, awaiting impotently the return of a small party sent on to overtake Burke with a so-called urgent dispatch from the Society in Melbourne, then of another party sent to rescue the first from imminent death some 200 miles out in the desert.
On 22nd January, 1861, Wright led his party out from the Darling, facing in midsummer the 400 miles to Cooper's Creek. They were found halted and defeated by Brahe and his three companions eighty miles south of their destination as Brahe was retreating from the depot. In mid-April, Pur-cell and Stone, and then Becker, died. On the way back to Menindie, Patton died, and the survivors were fortunate to reach Menindie on 18th June.
After the Royal Commission had inquired into the causes of the tragic end of the venture, accepting the fruitless but necessary task of allocating responsibility, there remained the more positive duty to compensate those who had been involved in the mass sacrifice.
Compensatory grants of money for specific losses were perhaps the easiest to assess, especially in the prevailing atmosphere of sorrow and guilt. More difficult was the problem of allotting credit, particularly the task of deciding which names should survive in the annals of the nation. The names of
Burke and Wills have been accorded a well-earned place in the Australian heroic legend, with Charles Gray a rather shadowy figure beside them. King is remembered, somewhat ambiguously, as ‘the only survivor’.
Burke, knowing that to be remembered is the most valued form of recognition for dangers faced for the common welfare, allocated names of his followers to geographical features discovered by his expedition. Few of these names survived, but the mapmakers, apparently respecting Burke's most personal wishes, retained the names of the Cloncurry River and of Julia Creek; the former after the titled Cloncurry family closely associated with Burke's family in Galway, the latter a final and lasting tribute to Julia Matthews.
It was in the rash of memorials that appeared across the country that the main problem arose. Ballarat, for instance, included Becker among the dead, but not Purcell, Stone or Patton, and King is named as ‘the only survivor’. If Becker qualified for inclusion (though he did not reach Cooper's Creek), then why not the others who died with the expedition? And why not recognise as ‘survivors’ those who, after seeing their comrades die in the desert, themselves narrowly escaped death before regaining the rugged security of Menindie?
Wright, of course, served a more useful purpose as a public scapegoat than as a hesitant hero, but this should not obscure the fact that the Burke and Wills epic involved not only the deaths of two men (or three, including Gray) but of seven. In the sorrow and anger of the shocked public reaction as the extent of the tragedy became known, the words of John McDouall Stuart when, on 27th June, 1860, he decided to turn back to Adelaide from north of the Centre, could have had a sobering effect: ‘If my own life were the only sacrifice’, wrote Stuart, ‘I would willingly risk it to accomplish my purpose.’25
One unsung survivor of the expedition, Dost Mahomet, received belated and deserved recognition. His lonely grave beside the road to Broken Hill, on the outskirts of Menindie, is well cared for and marked by an inscribed stone provided in recent years by the local community.
A century after the Great Northern Exploration Expedition, the tumult and the shouting have died sufficiently for the quiet voice of Ludwig Becker to be heard. His conscientiously compiled records of the journey, addressed at first to the Royal Society of Victoria, are now being rediscovered, reaching a wider public and enabling those who wish to do so to follow this unusually gifted man along his track from Melbourne to Menindie.
B. J. Blanchen


This paper was prepared originally for presentation to a meeting of the Box Hill Historical Society in May 1978.


Robt. P. Whitworth (comp.), Bailliere's Victorian Gazetteer and Road Guide … Melbourne, F. F. Bailliere, 1865 p. 137.


Ibid p. 62.


Stephen H. Roberts, The Squatting Age in Australia, 1835–1847 Melbourne, M.U.P., 1970 pp.148 et seq.


Bendigo Advertiser, 27–29 August 1860.


John R. Duigan, with the collaboration of his brother, Reginald C. Duigan, of Spring Plains, built and flew near their home the first aeroplace to achieve controlled flight in Australia. Their machine, which on 7 October 1910, flew a distance of 196 yards at an altitude of twelve feet, is now on permanent display in the Science Museum of Victoria.


Bendigo Advertiser, 30 August 1860.


Mr. John Randell, Melbourne historian and the last owner of Kimbolton station (part of the Campaspie Plains run on which the shepherd had been employed) linked the discovery with a letter dated 6 June 1839 from Captain Charles Hutton of Campaspie Plains, to Capain Lonsdale, the Melbourne magistrate, reporting the murder of a shepherd Hugh Bryan and a hut-keeper James Neill, both in his employ, by aborigines on 22 May 1839 near the site of the present Barnadown bridge. Bryan's remains were found when his shallow grave was accidently uncovered in April 1978.


‘Jackaroo’ (Jack; Kangaroo) has from the time of the squatters been an Australian colloquialism denoting a trainee, typically of wealthy parents, on a sheep station.


Arhur Feldtmann, Swan Hill, Adelaide, Rigby, 1973 p.2.


In the early days of Australian settlement, ‘squatter’ was a perjorative term directed at those who occupied public grazing lands with out title. As squatters became men of substance, the term, gaining respectability as it went, acquired a peculiarly Australian connotation to indicate a sheep farmer on a large scale.


Alluvial miners ‘puddled’ the gold-bearing alluvium from their mines in or beside the nearest streams. Grains of gold remained to be recovered when the lighter sludge held in suspension while the puddle was agitated, was carried off downstream to be deposited as the rate of flow slackened. By 1859, the sludge from the Bendigo puddlers’ dams was choking streams for miles to the north and had become a problem for the government of the colony.


The bunyip, in the mythology of the Australian aborigines, was a fabulous monster, sometimes a rainbow serpent, that lived in swamps and lagoons.


Frederick S. Grinton, Pastures New, Kerang New Times, 1970 p.78.


Bailliere's Victorian Gazetteer, op. cit. p.203.


Feldtmann, op. cit. p. 106.


Ibid. pp.107–108.


The small island of Fernando Po in the Bight of Biafra was, for a time, though owned by Spain, administered for that country by the English government.


‘Madam’, said Burke in his ‘pretty speech’ to Jane Holloway, ‘you alone have thought of our souls as well as our bodies. Let us hope that if our bodies perish our souls will be saved’. The episode is quoted by Mrs. Ann (Holloway) Whelan, great-grand-daughter of Jane Holloway whose delight in relating it is well remembered by her descendants. Mrs. McKenzie, aged only 23 when she received the Bible, retained possession of it, until her death at the age of 96 in 1933.


Alan Moorehead, Coopers Creek, Melbourne, Macmillan, 1977 pp.44–45.


John McDougall Stuart, formerly a government surveyor in South Australia, three times attempted to lead an exploration party northward from Adelaide to cross the continent. His first attempt took him beyond the centre before he reluctantly turned back on 26 June 1860. A second attempt (1860–1861) was also unsuccessful, but in a third attempt he reached the sea near Port Darwin on 24 July 1862. The route followed by the Overland Telegraph line is substantially that mapped by Suart on these journeys.


Goanna is an Australian corruption of ‘iguana’ applied to a large type of monitor lizard. Becker, unfamiliar with local usage, spelt the word as it sounded to him, ‘guano’.


Kinchega station, one of the largest of the former grazing runs (of more than one million acres in its heyday), and one of the oldest in the area, dating from the early 1850's, became Kinchega National Park of 108,655 acres in 1967. The cessation of grazing is encouraging its return to its natural state.


The Burke and Wills Commission appointed to enquire into ‘the sufferings and death of Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills, the Victorian explorers” reported inter alia that ‘the expedition, having been provided and equipped in the most ample and liberal manner, and having reached Menindie, on the Darling, without experiencing any difficulties, was most injudiciously divided at that point by Mr. Burke’.


William Mardman (ed.), The Journals of John McDouall Stuart during the years 1S58, 1859, 1860, 1861 and 1862 … London, Saunders Otley & Co., 1865 p.220.

Please note: Some endnote links are inactive as they were missing from the text in the original printed edition.