Queensland Road Trip, May 2022
Let’s go on a road trip! Come with us to Townsville and west on the Savannah Way to Karumba on an adventure in far north Queensland.
On 20th August 1860 an expeditionary party of 19 men set off from Melbourne with the goal of travelling across Australia from south to north. Led by Robert O’Hara Burke and William Wills, their destination was the Gulf of Carpentaria.
173 days later, on 9th February 1816, four of the original party reached the Little Bynoe River in far north Queensland. Here they set up Camp 119. John King and Charles Gray stayed at the camp while Burke and Wills continued north in an attempt to reach the gulf. With their way ahead blocked by swamps, Burke and Wills turned back after 24 kilometres and the decision was made to return south.
The expedition ended in disaster, with food supplies running out and illness and exhaustion taking their toll. Gray died in April 1861, while Burke and Wills died in June. John King owed his survival to a group of Aboriginal people who gave him food and shelter. He was found by a search party on 15 September 1861 and eventually returned to Melbourne, but he never fully recovered from the physical effects of the expedition and died in 1872.
The site of Camp 119, the final camp of the party on their northern route, is located 38 kilometres from the town of Normanton. The explorers and their fateful journey across Australia are commemorated by a set of plaques and information boards.
While Gray and King waited for Burke and Wills to return from the gulf, they blazed 15 trees at the campsite. A couple of the marked trees are still alive and the location of each of the others is marked with metal poles or plaques.
The expedition may have ended in failure but the explorers’ efforts left an important legacy. Five further expeditions, all travelling in different directions, were sent to search for the lost men. The knowledge gained during all these journeys contributed to the development of inland Australia.
The town of Normanton was settled in 1867, just six years after that first exploration. With the discovery of gold in the region, the building of the railway and the development of the fishing industry, Normanton flourished.
After paying our respects to the Burke and Wills expedition at Camp 119, we made our way to Normanton. Unlike those unfortunate explorers we had no trouble finding lunch, at the iconic Purple Pub on Landsborough Street.