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Quarrels on the road had led to the resignation of up to 13 men - including Burke’s original second-in-command, George James Landells. Wills, originally the group’s third-in-command, received a promotion into Landell’s now-vacant position.
The group made camp on the banks of the Darling River, where Burke made the controversial decision that only six men and fifteen camels would continue the journey north to Cooper’s Creek.
Camp at Cooper’s Creek
At Cooper’s Creek, Burke decided to whittle his team down further in a last-ditch attempt to reach the Gulf. He was still frustrated by the company’s lack of progress, and the approach of summer was set to slow things further. Just four men - Burke, Wills, Charles Gray and John King - continued north, with Burke leaving William Brahe in charge of the remaining camp and supplies. Brahe was ordered by Burke to wait just three months for the team to reach the Gulf and return, though Wills, hired as a navigator, secretly cautioned Brahe that four months might be more realistic.
Brahe and his team waited four and a half months for the party’s return, but in the end missed them by mere hours.
An Australian first
Only Burke and Wills made it all the way to the gulf, leaving the other men to look after the camels at the Flinders River delta. Eventually, the mangrove swamps became too dense to pick through and no member of the team made it all the way to the sea.
Concerns about the return journey meant the group couldn’t stop to celebrate. They’d taken 59 days to travel from Cooper’s Creek to the Gulf and now had only 27 days’ worth of food left to return the same distance.
The group lost two animals to the muddy ground on their way back, and eventually had to kill a horse and a camel to eat. They also began hunting and gathering to supplement their meagre food supply, which led Burke and Gray to catch and eat a local snake.
Both became ill, but Gray suffered more acutely and eventually died on the 17th of April. The group arrived at Cooper’s Creek just four days later to find the camp deserted - though supplies had been buried under a tree, which was marked with the word ‘dig’. A field book later buried by the explorers’ records their disappointment:
Our disappointment at finding the depot deserted can be easily imagined - returning in an exhausted state, after four months of the severest travelling and privation, our legs almost paralysed so that each of us found it a most trying task only to walk a few yards.
Despite their disappointments, the explorers call the news of Brahe’s team’s health pleasing, and describe supplies left for them as ample. Refreshed by a good supper, Burke made the decision not to follow Brahe’s team, and instead sets a course for south by south west, apparently heading towards Mount Hopeless. He buried a note explaining his intentions in the hole vacated by the supplies, but failed to make any new markings on what would become known as 'The Dig Tree'.