Burke and Wills set out from Royal Park in Melbourne on August 20th, 1860, as leaders of an expedition aiming to be the first to cross the continent from south to north. It was an impressive start: 19 men, 23 horses, 26 camels, and six wagons.
Eight months later, on April 21st, 1861, Burke, Wills and one other member of the party, John King (aged 22), having achieved their ambition, staggered exhausted into the campsite on Cooper Creek. They had completed a round trip of some 2800 kms from Cooper Creek through uncharted territory to the Gulf of Carpentaria near present-day Normanton, and had done it in the summer. The rest of the party had been told to wait at Cooper Creek for thirteen weeks. They had waited eighteen weeks, and were running short of food. They surmised that Burke, Wills and King had probably perished. So they buried some supplies, carved the famous “DIG” message on a nearby tree, and left to return south, just nine hours earlier than Burke, Wills and King arrived. The three quickly realised they had no hope of catching the others.
Burke and Wills both died near Cooper Creek several weeks later. King lived on with local Aborigines, and was found by a search party in September of that year.
Burke and Wills’ remains were found in 1862 and returned to Melbourne in December of that year. On the afternoon of 21 January 1863, the City of Melbourne literally came to a standstill as its citizens watched the funeral procession of Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills, as it wound its way through the city and finally up Elizabeth Street to the Melbourne General Cemetery. This was the first State Funeral held in Australia.
150 years on, the Burke and Wills Historical Society will conduct a commemorative wreath laying ceremony at the Burke and Wills Statue, City Square, Corner of Collins and Swanston Street, Melbourne, on Monday 21 January 2013 commencing at 1.30 pm. All those interested in this important commemoration of the saga of the Burke and Wills Expedition are invited to attend.