Burke and Wills expedition. Careful what you wish for!

Expedition Aim:

The ‘Australian’ explorers set out in 1860 to navigate across the Australian Continent from Melbourne in the south to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north. A feat hitherto never completed by Migaloo (white fellas) and a journey of 3250 kilometres (2000 miles) in one direction.

This post is not really about the much renowned and researched Burke and Wills expedition in its entirety. No. This post is about the memorial to this epic undertaking that I stumbled across one day whilst exploring in the regional city of Castlemaine in Victoria, Australia.

Burke and Wills expedition. Castlemaine memorial.

Travel is my greatest passion. So much so that it also became my career. I travel to learn and observe to understand. And when I travel I love to wander with my camera slung over my shoulder and pace set to saunter. In fact I am a complete pain to travel with such is my sloth-like pace and penchant for taking photos. Lots of photos!

And so it was that I was exploring the regional town of Castlemaine, about one and a half hours drive north west of Melbourne, on my own. It is a delightful place where city and country successfully fuse. Where a battered farm ute replete with tethered working dog may be parked next to a BMW  and neither vehicle-owner seem to judge the other. In fact they are more likely to be in the local cafe sipping a coffee together rather than leering. It’s got a great vibe.

Castlemaine Victoria

After a day of exploration and photography I was about to head back to Melbourne when I spotted a monument of some kind from my car and decided to detour for a looksie. As you do when travelling and I’m very glad I did. I parked my car and went to investigate what tuned out to be an impressive Burke and Wills expedition memorial.

burke and wills expedition
Castlemaine commemorates the Australian explorers

Robert O’Hara Burke.

Burke was born in Ireland in 1820 before emigrating to Australia in 1853. In 1858 he became the Police Superintendent in Castlemaine before being appointed to lead the ill-fated Victorian Exploring Expedition which embarked from Melbourne’s Royal Park on August 20, 1860. Their mission was to become the first Europeans to traverse the interior of Australia from south to north. A goal that was successfully completed but that ultimately would cost Burke and his third-in-command Wills their lives on the return leg.

burke and wills expedition
Leaving from Melbourne on August 20, 1860.

What I noted most about the memorial was that it was erected in 1862. So less than a year after their tragic end. I also read with interest that the monies needed to construct such a grandiose structure had come from the inhabitants of Castlemaine themselves. So clearly the Burke and Wills expedition became instant folklore that has managed to transcend more than 150 years. Today the story is as compelling and hewn into the fabric of Australian history as it ever has been.

burke and wills expedition

Australian Explorers?

Well not quite. Burke was Irish and Wills English but the story has become as Australian as Vegemite^! Any why not? It’s a ‘ripping yarn’.

burke and wills expedition
The scale of the epic journey across Australia.

It has dynamism, adventure, heroism and ideals. But also, like any great tale, bad calls, high drama, callous in-fighting and ultimately incredible ‘bad luck’. Fate records that there was mere hours between life and death for the eponymous leaders. Burke and Wills and one other, John King, arrived back at their staging camp of Cooper’s Creek on 21 April, 1861 where they believed the rest of their party would be waiting for them. And they had been.

They had been until that very morning. The morning of 21 April, 1861. They had left the morning of the day that Burke, Wills and King returned. Only nine hours separated the parties.  Nine hours after 5000 kilometres (3100 miles)! The staging party had waited more than four months when in fact Burke had asked them to wait for only three.

Burke had been ambitious and sought fame, and a very generous payday, should he have been successful. Ultimately he was never to see a cent nor perhaps could have he ever imagined the stratosphere that his fame would rise to because of the tragic ending. Another lesson and tale perhaps of the mantra

Be careful what you wish for!

^ Vegemite is now owned by Americans. But you get the picture.

My Submission into the Daily Post Photo Challenge. This theme ‘Careful’.

More Information.

An excellent site focussed on all aspects of the Burke and Wills expedition. A digital archive. Burke and Wills web.

Dave Phoenix actually retraced this walk in 2008/09. Pleasingly with much better success! Follow his journey.


Travel is my passion and also my career. I’ve spent my entire working-life in the travel industry with roles as diverse as tour guide, travel agent and marketing manager for some of the worlds largest travel brands. My favourite city in the world to visit is NYC and France is my most beloved country to explore. I travel to learn and observe to understand always with camera in hand.

2 thoughts on “Burke and Wills expedition. Careful what you wish for!

  1. Heroes or racist incompetents? My perception tends to blow in the winds of the viewpoint of whichever documentary I last watched. Must admit though there is something rather special about visiting their grave. A sort of “Wow, Burke and Wills are really there” Interesting post.

    Liked by 1 person

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