Discovery sheds light on Burke and Wills

IN APRIL 1861, the explorers Robert Burke and William Wills – sick, starving and desperate to survive – abandoned their surveying instruments and other non-essential items in outback Queensland and continued south on their ill-fated journey.
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Almost 150 years later, in a discovery being proclaimed as the holy grail for Burke and Wills enthusiasts, a Melbourne academic says he has found some of the equipment buried in a creekbed hundreds of kilometres inland from Brisbane.

The discovery could rehabilitate the tarnished image of Wills, whose credentials as a surveyor have been maligned.

The site, known as the Plant Camp, is integral to the Burke and Wills story because it tells of the increasingly desperate state of mind of the explorers, who were unwell, low on supplies and had to abandon everything but their food after a camel died.

At that stage a party of four, the men struggled on from the Plant Camp to Coopers Creek in South Australia, only to find their support party had given up on them and left just a few hours earlier. All but one of the explorers, John King, died on the journey.

The Melbourne academic Frank Leahy discovered the buried instruments last year after a painstaking search that began 20 years earlier.

Dr Leahy said Wills used a combination of dead reckoning, a compass and astronomical observation to keep exhaustive records that ultimately showed a high degree of accuracy.

"Wills was a great surveyor, there is no doubt about that," he said. "His reputation suffered very unfairly."

Dr Leahy and the Royal Society of Victoria have asked the Queensland Government to protect the site and declare it a heritage area to prevent fortune hunters descending on it. Items recovered from the site include rifle and revolver bullets, a spirit bubble used for surveying, buckles from belts and strapping, a canvas and leather sewing kit containing pliers and needles, hinges and latches and a paperweight.

If authenticated, the surveying instruments used by Wills on the trip would be not only of enormous scientific and historical significance, but also of financial value, after the development of a lucrative market in Burke and Wills artefacts.

Two years ago a Burke and Wills water bottle sold at auction for $286,000 and a breastplate connected to the expedition sold at auction in Sydney last month for $180,000.

The hunt for Plant Camp began in earnest in the mid-1980s, when Dr Leahy, principal fellow in the Department of Geomatics at the University of Melbourne, took Wills’s own co-ordinates and surveying records and overlaid them with sophisticated spatial analysis, corrected them for error (which he calculated by comparing Wills’ records with the co-ordinates of identified sites) and worked out where the camp should be.

In 1986, during one of many trips to the area, he discovered a blazed tree – a tree with its bark cut back, which the explorers used to mark each camp – surrounded by terrain described by King to a commission of inquiry into the expedition.

"By using the astronomical records made by Wills and descriptions in his journals of camps along the route, I decided this had to be the place," Dr Leahy told the Herald . "It is the Plant Camp, there is no doubt about it, and finding the equipment there proves it."

The Burke and Wills Society is aware of the claimed discovery of the Plant Camp, which Dr Leahy reported in the December issue of the Journal Of Spatial Science , but has so far not endorsed it as authentic.

The society’s president, David Corke, said yesterday that the recovered items could belong to Burke and Wills, but until a sextant or astronomical survey instrument was found, the society would not accept the site as authentic. "It is still up in the air as far as most of us are concerned," Mr Corke said.

The location of the discovered items made sense, he said, but it was a large area that was difficult to search. The material had also been scattered, although this could have been caused by flooding in the creek or because it was moved by Aborigines.

The hunt for the camp has sparked intense rivalry among Burke and Wills historians and items so far have been recovered by Dr Leahy, as well as by the former Victorian surveyor- general Ray Holmes, who Dr Leahy took to the site in 2005.

"To his credit and persistence, Ray Holmes returned several more times with his family and he uncovered the spirit bubble that was part of Wills’s astronomical equipment," Dr Leahy said.

He has attempted to verify the items through various means, but says the most convincing evidence was from cross-checking the discoveries against the list of stores taken by Burke and Wills when they left Melbourne on their expedition.

"The material we have found was scattered at a distance of up to two kilometres from the blazed tree, most probably because the bag eventually split and its contents dispersed."