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by Edwin James Welch

Edwin James Welch, The Tragedy of Cooper's Creek
ML:MSS 314/225 filed at A1928 (ML CY1115) n.d, c. 190-?, Angus & Robertson Collection.
State Library of New South Wales

Chapter VIII

Despatch of a search party
The rescue of King

In the meantime, people in Melbourne and throughout the colony generally were exhibiting increasing anxiety as to the safety of the Expedition which had started from the Royal Park amid so much display, and with such good prospects of success. For it must be remembered that nothing had been heard from, or about them, since the receipt Of Burke's last despatch from Menindie in October of the previous year, an interval of eight months.

Pointed articles appeared in many of the leading papers, few of them complimentary, calling upon the Committee to shake off their lethargy and take some steps in the direction of ascertaining its fate, or the possibility of rendering assistance; and these were forcibly backed up by a voluminous correspondence from all quarters. The result being that Alfred W Howitt was chosen to lead a search party towards the Gulf - and a better man could not have been selected from among the numerous applicants for the post - Howitt was an experienced bushman with an established reputation as an explorer, both in South Australia and the wilds of the Gippsland Ranges. He was, moreover, a recognized leader of men, and withal an accomplished gentleman of many valuable scientific attainments. He entered upon his duties with promptitude and decision, and left Melbourne on the 26th June 1861, with a party of seven composed of Edwin J Welch (surveyor and second in command) W.F. Wheeler (medical officer), A. Aitken and Weston Phillips (two tried bushmen who had been with him on previous expeditions), W. Vining and J. Sampson (also known to him as men to be depended on in any difficulty), and P. Calcutt (recommended by the Committee). Supplied with ample stores, saddlery and arms, and authorized to spare no expense in prosecuting the search, the party left Melbourne by rail as far as it could then take them, thence by special coaches to Swan Hill, on the Murray, where horses were to be purchased and all details arranged.

But before reaching that point, a surprise awaited them in meeting with Brahe, at the "Durham Ox", on the Loddon, hurrying to Melbourne with Wright's despatch. From him the following information was received:

Mr Wright is at Menindie with eight men, having been joined by the Depot party from Cooper's Creek. Becker, Purcell, Stone and Patton are dead. Mr Burke left Cooper's Creek for the north on 16th December, taking with him Mr Wills, King and Gray. Since that date nothing has been heard of them. The natives proved hostile at Wright's Camp on the Bulloo, and country for 150 miles was waterless. Two of his camels and three horses died, and one horse was lost.

He also told of his return to the Depot with Wright, and their entire want of success in finding any trace of the missing men. Howitt at once decided to return to Melbourne with Brahe, to receive further instructions that might arise as a result of this important information, and sent the party on, under Welch, to Swan Hill to await his arrival. After an absence of six days Howitt returned accompanied by Brahe who was to act as a guide to the Depot, and with orders to push on as rapidly as possible and proceed to the relief of the missing men, as far as the Gulf, if necessary.

Horses were purchased and all arrangements completed within a week, and on 13th July Swan Hill was left behind and the actual journey commenced. It is not proposed to offer any details of the progress to Menindie, that part of it being over well known settled country which presented no difficulties in the way of transit. The Depot at that place was reached on the 30th of the month, and all stock, stores and equipment taken over by Howitt, Wright's services being dispensed with. There was much work to be done in weighing and packing bags, branding horses, &c., and it was found impossible to make a. final start until the 14th August, when only a short distance was covered, owing to the freshness of the newly purchased horses, many of them being unaccustomed to carrying packs, and the invincible objection they had, not only to the proximity of camels, but to a smell of them from a distance. These camels were the ones brought in by Wright from the Bulloo, thirteen in number, and most useful animals they proved to be, carrying heavy loads and giving very little trouble. The only complaint that ever arose in connection with them was consequent upon their being of mixed sexes, for which only the purchaser could be held responsible. But it caused them to be occasionally evil-tempered and intractable, and originated many scenes of disorder with occasional loss of stores through damage to the packs. That, however, by the way all other respects the work went smoothly and well, the weather kept moderately fine and it was not until the crossing of the Stokes' Range had to be accomplished that any delay occurred. Then it was unavoidably necessary to camp for the purpose of shoeing some of the most tender-footed of the horses which were becoming lame.

Burke's outward track had been left on the southern side of the range and a shorter route taken with the object in view of getting to the Depot as soon as possible. Cooper's Creek was reached on the 8th September and followed down day after day, a good look out being kept for signs, but none were seen. On the 13th the Depot, where Brahe had waited for more than four weary months for Burke's return, was reached and narrowly inspected by Howitt, Welch, and Brahe, in company. The stockade stood intact, the word "Dig" on the tree looked as fresh as though it might have been cut that day, the ashes of three or four small fires, such as the blacks build, were in evidence, and partially indistinct, camel tracks were plainly visible around.

Contemplating the scene for a few moments, Brahe said:

The blacks have been here, as can be seen by the ashes of their fires; the tracks were made by the camels I had with me; the ground has not been disturbed where the plant was buried, and everything looks exactly the same as when I left it!

Neither of the other men were in a position to question the accuracy of his statement, and Howitt merely said:

Then I shall certainly not disturb it, as we do not need the rations and they may come in handy later on.

On the evening of the second day after this, the site of Camp 31 was fixed on the southern bank of a very wide and deep waterhole in the creek, close to a high, tangled growth of dead marsh-mallows, suggestive of a former flood. The water was covered with wild fowl of sorts including a great number of pelicans, one of which the blackboys who were brought from the Darling, shot, and off which they made a hearty supper, leaving a huge pile of feathers to mark the situation of the camp. This incident is referred to for a reason which will appear later.

The following day, Sunday, 15th September, marked the end of the search, and supplied all the evidence required to understand the appalling nature of the catastrophe which had overtaken the dauntless leaders of the Expedition. From early morning onwards a great many natives were visible, their heads sometimes popping up from among the long tussocky grass close at hand, and suddenly disappearing, but all moving down the creek in the direction in which the party were travelling. At one point a large number had gathered, on the opposite bank and shouted vigorously, at the same time pointing farther down and waving their arms in a most excited manner, all of which was mistakenly attributed to curiosity, perhaps not unmixed with dread of the threatened invasion of their territory.

Presently Howitt struck what appeared to be a fresh camel track, and taking one of the black boys with him to help follow it, left instructions with Welch to continue the course down the creek, until he returned. This was done, until a dense body of natives, between three and four hundred, were seen by Welch to be massed in a compact body in the wide sandy bed of the Creek between two very large waterholes. He was at this time some three or four hundred yards in advance of the main body of the party, which was not visible on account of the intervening timber. Not understanding the display of force, and doubting its pacific intentions, he decided to halt until the others arrived, but his horse took a distinctly opposite view of the situation and acted in accordance with his early training among the cattle camps on which his youthful years had been spent. With a sudden rush he headed straight for the shouting, shifting mass of humanity in the creek, plunged down the steep scrub-covered bank, nearly unseating his rider, and was only partially checked by the heavy sand when he reached the bottom. In the meantime, the blacks still shouting, waving their weapons, and gesticulating wildly, withdrew backwards to the opposite bank, leaving one forlorn looking figure, resembling nothing so much as a scarecrow, standing motionless on the sand.

As Welch approached, the figure sank to a kneeling posture, threw up its hands in the attitude of prayer, and toppled over as if dead. Jumping from his horse Welch excitedly queried:- "In God's name who are you, and where did you come from?" After a short interval the answer came in muffled tones:- "Its King, the last of the Exploring Expedition. "Then, where are Burke and Wills?" And in a wild burst of tears, the answer was, "Dead - both dead - take me away with you."

Two revolver shots in the air, the preconcerted signal for help, soon brought assistance from the men, who carried him up the bank, formed camp, and despatched the other black boy to run Howitt's track and bring him to the scene. A small tent was pitched, the doctor took him in hand, washed and scrubbed him down with brandy, and remained with him until he collapsed in a violent fit of weeping and then went quietly to sleep. This discovery was but the beginning of the mournful end, but it was sufficient for the time being to satisfy those present that a heart-rending tale of suffering and death remained for them to hear whenever the weak emaciated wreck of what had shortly before been a young and stalwart man should recover sufficiently to be able to tell it.

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