Explorers, such as the Englishman Matthew Flinders and the Frenchman Nicolas Baudin, had mapped most of Australia’s coast by the mid-1800s.
The vast interior of the continent, however, remained unexplored by Europeans. To encourage exploration, the Royal Society of Victoria sponsored an expedition to cross Australia from south to north.
In August 1860, an Irishman named Robert O’Hara Burke led a party of 15 men, 28 horses, and 27 camels into the interior. The animals carried tents, guns, equipment, and stores of salted meats, lime juice, and flour, enough to feed the expedition for a year and a half.
More than 10,000 people turned out in Melbourne to see the men off. Burke told them, “No expedition has ever started under such favorable circumstances as this.”
But within a month, Burke had argued with his second in command and dismissed him, promoting an Englishman named William John Wills in his place. In late October, Burke realized that the increasing summer heat was drying out the landscape around him (in the Southern Hemisphere, the summer months are November, December, and January).
In order to make it easier for the animals to forage, he decided to divide his party in two. Burke went ahead with Wills and six other men and their animals.
The other party lagged behind, and Burke decided to continue on to the northern coast without their support. He divided his group again, this time making the final push with three other men. It took them less than two months to travel 750 miles to the sea. They passed through the sands of the Stony Desert and fields covered with spiny grass.
At the beginning of February, Burke and Wills could smell the salty ocean, but swamps and showers drove them back. The men were disappointed at not seeing the ocean but thrilled to have succeeded in crossing Australia.