In 1860 an expedition set out from Melbourne in an attempt to cross the country south-north, to the Gulf of Carpentaria, led by Robert Burke. The "last outpost of civilisation" at the time was the town of Menindee, on the Darling river in western New South Wales. The whole crew got on the grog there for about eleven weeks, during which time second in command George Landell (who apparently enjoyed feeding rum to the camels) quit after a row with Burke and was replaced by William Wills.


William Wright also joined the expedition and guided them toward Coopers Creek, before returning to Menindee to collect more supplies. However, two months later he had not returned. Burke tired of waiting and set off north for the gulf, along with Wills, John King and Charles Gray. As the song says, they made it to the gulf, and four months later, on April 21st 1861, Burke, Wills and King made it back to Coopers Creek. Gray had perished five days earlier. When they arrived the campsite was deserted, with a message carved on a tree: "DIG". So they dug, and found some food supplies and a message that the company had, after waiting six weeks longer than they had been ordered to, given up and left that very morning. (As the company returned to Menindee, they met Wright coming the other way, finally bringing the promised supplies.)

Burke and Wills died out there, and King managed to survive by finding a local aboriginal tribe and staying with them until he was eventually rescued.

Of course, by surviving, King denied himself the immortality conferred on Burke and Wills. The trip is always referred to as the "Burke and Wills expedition" and there's statues of them all over Melbourne. King is pretty much forgotten. I'd never heard of him until I was at a Neil Murray show where the history behind Menindee was explained.

As far as the song goes, the narrator must be either Wills or King, as he gets to the gulf and back, and refers to "Mr Burke". I'd guess he's meant to be King.

Incidentally, Neil was at the pub in Menindee when he wrote the song.

The following link may also be of interest:

Thanks also to Oli Draper for digging up some info on Wright for me.