About 4 pm Saturday on the afternoon of the 20th August 1860, Robert O’Hara Burke led an optimistic party of 18 personnel and 26 camels, as well as horses, wagons and up to 20 tonnes of equipment and supplies, out of Royal Park in Melbourne, in an attempt to be the first to reach the north coast of Australia. In a parting speech, Burke declared that: “No expedition has ever started under such favourable conditions as this.”
Although Burke achieved his objective of reaching the Gulf of Carpentaria, he was dead in less than a year, along with six other members of the party. Only the young John King made it all the way to the Gulf and back again, to be rescued from Cooper’s Creek by the relief expedition of the geologist Alfred Howitt. The Burke & Wills Expedition, officially the ‘Victorian Exploring Expedition’ (VEE), left Melbourne under the sponsorship of the recently established Royal Society of Victoria (RSV), which was a scientific society whose charter was to foster the establishment and growth of local scientific activity and provide a forum for scientific discussion and debate.
(Reprinted from the Journal of The Geological Society of Australia)