DIG: The last history of Burke and Wills
A short story by Craig Cormick
ROBERT O'HARA BURKE waves his top hat triumphantly and leads Mr Wills and Mr King into the fortified stockade at Cooper's Creek. They've covered the last hundred miles with almost no food. Stopping only to bury Mr Grey when he died. It took eight hours to dig through the rocky ground.
Mr Grey, the sailor, who had not even the satisfaction of reaching the northern sea. Stopped short by mangroves and swamps. "It's tidal!", Mr Burke had proclaimed. "It is salty. We've reached the sea." Then he turned around and led them back into the desert.
Now they all are done in. Barely able to drag their shadows after them. Robert O'Hara Burke looks around for Mr Brahe and the men who should be waiting for him. But they are not there.
"Mr Brahe", he calls, unable to comprehend the silence.
"The ashes of the fire are still warm, sir", says King.
"That was very kind of them", says Robert O'Hara. "It has been getting very cold of evenings."
John Wills then indicates the large coolibah tree with the word 'dig' etched deeply into its bark. Still bleeding sap.
"Well we'd best dig then", says Robert O'Hara, and settles back, adjusting his top hat, while Wills and King dig. They dig until their finger nails bleed.
About three feet down they uncover a cache of food and a bottle. Wills holds it up.
"Splendid", says Robert O'Hara. "Let's breach it."
John Wills unstops the bottle and looks in. "It's a note", he says, a little disappointed.
"Read it", commands Robert O'Hara.
Mr Wills reads: "Depot Cooper's Creek. 21st April, 1861. The Depot Party of Victorian Exploring Expedition leaves this camp today to return to the Darling ... No person has been up here from the Darling. We have six camels and twelve horses in good working order. William Brahe."
John Wills stares at Robert O'Hara Burke, then looks out beyond the stockade walls and says, "They're out there. Only nine hours away. Not much more than ten miles distant."
The three men turn and look to the horizon, shading their eyes, trying to discern any movement. But their comrades might as well have been 100 miles away. Might as well have been a million years distant.
"They've forgotten us!" says Robert O'Hara in despair.
Two days later Robert O'Hara Burke awakens with a vision. He calls Mr King and Mr Wills to him.
"I have seen our salvation", he says. And he points out across the desert in a more south-westerly direction. "We will walk to South Australia — where Stuart would have gone. We will walk to the settlements there and be saved. They will carry us the rest of the way to Adelaide on their shoulders. Then on to Melbourne. We will be heroes."
King nods eagerly. "Yes, sir", he says. "We can do it."
"What settlement should we aim to reach?" asks John Wills, still charting maps in his head.
"Mount Hopeless", says Robert O'Hara. Then he points to the distance. "I know it's late", he says, "But if we set off now we should be well up the creek by nightfall."
After leaving the Cooper's Creek camp for the final walk, King's shoes fall apart. He curses silently. Eighty pairs of boots they had packed, and not a single pair left to be had. He flings the scraps of leather far from him. Walks barefoot. The hot sharp earth tortures his feet. But only for a while. Through the pain he suddenly begins to feel the earth. After hundreds and hundreds of miles of walking, he begins to feel it. And he slowly starts to understand it.
Robert O'Hara points to a distant hillock and says aloud, "I think I shall call this bluff Galway's Bluff".
"It may have a name already", says King.
But Robert O'Hara doesn't hear him.
After two days' difficult journeying they are still by the banks of Cooper's Creek. The nights are cold. But the men do not complain.
The last camel dies and they feed on its stringy flesh. The camel meat will sustain them for a small time. But now they have no means of carrying enough water. No means of reaching Mount Hopeless. They sit by the bank of the creek, their weary legs stretched out like dried out sticks on the sand. And they wait for Mr Burke's guidance. But he won't even meet their eyes.
"What shall we do?", asks John Wills one morning.
"We shall write our history", the leader says firmly.
"To what purpose?", asks Wills.
"The historians always get it wrong."
"But we have no pen nor paper", said Wills.
"Use your journal", says Robert O'Hara.
"Then one of your other books. I know you have several."
"I think we ate them several hundred miles back."
Robert O'Hara frowns a moment and looks out at the horizon, as if seeking inspiration. "Then I shall dictate it and you shall remember it", he says.
Wills nods. "I shall do my best."
"Where shall I start?" asks Robert O'Hara. "Perhaps at the point we left Melbourne, paraded by 30 cannon and three regiments of marching soldiers."
"Splendid", says Wills. "I have memorised it exactly."
"Our triumph", says Robert O'Hara talking slowly and carefully, "was in finally reaching the Gulf. We stepped out upon the white sands of the northern beaches, being the first white men to cross the continent. We mapped it and took possession of it in the name of Her Majesty and the Empire."
He has to stop telling their history then. The emotion has quite overcome him.
"Where did we bury that food?", Robert O'Hara stirs and asks John Wills.
"There was roast partridge, and cranberries, and mangoes and quail, and I seem to remember salmon and red wine also."
Wills looks at King. "Do you know where we buried it, King?", he demands.
King, eager to please as ever, blinks a little, then looks up at the sky. It is completely clear. Not a cloud in sight. As if you could see forever. "I don't recall, sir", he says, "but I do remember burying Mr Gray".
Robert O'Hara is looking around, studying the fading landscape fixedly. There's something wrong. Something missing.
"Where's young Mr King gone?", he suddenly asks.
"He went to look for the blacks", says John Wills.
"Wretch! They'll probably spear him and feast on him."
"He won't make much of a feast", says Wills. "Not enough of him." Then he considers his own emaciated body. "Still, he'd make better eating than us."
Robert O'Hara doesn't like the thought of being eaten by blacks and looks across at Wills with an angry frown.
"Wills?", he calls. "Where are you? Are you gone already?"
"I'm here", says John Wills.
"I can't see you any more."
"I'm just here."
Robert O'Hara looks carefully. He can just make out his comrade's outline against the harsh light. "You're fading away", he says.
"And you're getting fainter", says Wills. "Harder to hear."
"Then we'd best proceed with the story. Did we do the bit about reaching the ocean yet?"
"I don't think so."
"Ah, well, we stood on the white sands of the Gulf, surrounded by 50 cannons and five regiments of marching soldiers."
"The blacks have given us food", King says, arriving back at the camp.
"What blacks?" asks Robert O'Hara, feeling around for his pistol. But he can't see it. Can't even see Mr King.
"It's nardoo seed, sir", King says. "The blacks have taught me how to prepare it. They're very friendly."
"Are they indeed?" asks Robert O'Hara. "Well I don't want them being friendly around our camp. Tell them I have my gun here."
"I think they don't want us to die", says King.
"It's somewhere around here", says Robert O'Hara, still searching.
"Do you think we'll ever get back to Melbourne?", asks John Wills.
"Of course!", says Robert O'Hara strongly. "It's just beyond those mountains. If you listen you can hear the military band playing. They're waiting for us."
Wills turns his ear to the wind. He hears the low murmur of the land. The sound of sand blowing over rocks. The sound of feet walking the land. He can hear for hundreds of miles. The sounds of millions of years.
"Yes", he says, "I think I can hear it".
King prepared the nardoo paste for them and all three men ate it. It was filling enough. But it passed through them slowly and left them squatting in the sands, groaning as they endeavoured to pass monumental solid shits. They took hours to pass out of them and left them panting and exhausted.
After one particularly large stool John Wills climbed to his feet and said, "I shall name that one Mount Hopeless".
"It's the Queen's birthday today", says John Wills. Precise as ever.
"Hooray", says Robert O'Hara. "Gentlemen, I propose we climb to our feet and propose a toast to our majesty."
John Wills looks down at his legs. They will no longer support him. "I don't think I can make it", he says.
Robert O'Hara tries to struggle to his feet. But his legs prove treasonous too. "Damnation!", he says. "Damn-nation."
He is silent for a while and then says, "Never mind. Perhaps after supper."
John Wills opens his eyes. Suddenly. He thought he was dead for a moment. He got a hell of a shock to see that heaven looked just like Cooper's Creek. But then he knew he was still alive. Just.
"I think we shall die today", he says.
"It doesn't matter", says Robert O'Hara. "We will live forever. When they find our bones the whole nation will mourn. Shops will close. Men and women will turn out in their mourning suits and line the streets of the cities. And they will cry for us. A flood of water to fill this parched desert."
Robert O'Hara is completely still. But he's not dead yet. He's trying to recall something. Some vital detail of his grand history that he's forgotten.
He looks around for John Wills but can't see him.
"Will!", he calls.
"Yes", comes the feeble reply.
"Do you recall what it was that was written on the tree at Cooper's Creek. I can't quite make it out any more. There were some letters on the tree there. Did you read them?"
"Yes", he says. "I remember them."
"Did we carve them there?", asks Robert O'Hara
Wills thinks hard. "Perhaps we did", he says.
"What did they say?"
"I think it was our history."
"Good man", says Robert O'Hara. "They won't forget us now!"
[From Unwritten Histories by Craig Cormick, published by Aboriginal Studies Press.]