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Taking it to the edge: Land: John McKinlay - Burke & Wills Relief Expedition

Burke and Wills Relief Expedition

''So minutely does this native know all their movements, that he has described to me all the waters they passed, and others at which they camped, and waters that they remained at for some time, subsisting on a sort of vetch seed [nardoo] that the natives principally use here for food, …''
McKinlay, John McKinlay's Journal of exploration in the interior of Australia (Burke Relief Expedition) Melbourne, FF Bailliere, [1862] page 22

The expedition led by Robert O'Hara Burke and organised by the Royal Society of Victoria is not within the ambit of this website on the exploration of South Australia except in the way it was an example of rivalry between the colonies in the race to find a route for the Overland Telegraph Line. 

However, when it became apparent that the Burke and Wills expedition was in difficulties, the South Australian government offered assistance and equipped the South Australian Relief expedition under the command of John McKinlay.  With five men, 22 horses and 4 camels, and a flock of sheep for meat,  McKinlay and his party was to set out from Adelaide via the south-west channel of the Barcoo (Cooper Creek) through Stuckey's crossing between Lakes Gregory and Blanche and then to Lake Hope.  After checking whether Burke had returned to Cooper Creek he was to proceed to Eyre Creek and onto Central Mount Stuart.  In this way the South Australian government hoped both to help in the search for Burke, but also to gather more information about their own country.  McKinlay further was directed to examine the country on the western shores of Lake Eyre, and to the west of Stuart's route.  The expedition left Blanchewater (Lake Blanche) by 25 September 1861.  At Lake Hope the party began to hear rumours of Burke's fate.

Gray's body found

At Lake Cudye-Cudyena (now Coogiecooginna Lake) 27 64'S 139 56'E McKinlay established a depot.  He then led a small party to the north-west to Lakes Canna canta-jandide and Moolion-dhurunnie and from there to Lake Kadhi-baerri where a white man's grave was found.  McKinlay exhumed the body, which is generally believed to be that of Charles Gray of the Burke and Wills expedition.  Under threat of attack McKinlay buried a note for future searchers, collected some relics to assist in identifying the body and returned by the quickest route to the depot.  The site was named Lake Massacre and McKinlay found the country around well grassed and watered.  McKinlay sent a report of his findings back to Blanchewater with Hodgkinson who was also to collect more provisions.  When Hodgkinson returned the expedition learnt that Alfred Howitt the leader of another search expedition, had discovered the fate of the Burke and Wills expedition.

To the Gulf

McKinlay then decided to examine the country to the north.  Despite travelling during the summer, McKinlay's party had no trouble finding water, unlike Sturt's expedition of 15 years previously.  Finally on 19 February 1862 the expedition crossed into Sturt's Stony Desert, heading for Eyre Creek.  Here the country was little different from Sturt's time.  On the 24 February Hodgkinson resigned as 2nd in command and two days later it rained and the party had to contend with flooded flats.  The desert was transformed and beyond the desert the pastures were rich indeed.  Creeks became boggy, but the flour had run out: their diet was now only jerked beef and any bush food they could find, either vegetable or animal.  By 17 April McKinlay had crossed the watershed with all the creeks flowing northwards.  On 13 May the expedition reached as near to the Gulf of Carpentaria as was possible because of swamps, and from there proceeded to Port Denison (Bowen) on the Queensland coast whence they returned to Adelaide by sea.  McKinlay had ignored that part of his instructions which directed him to explore the Lake Eyre to Central Mount Stuart region, or the country west of Lake Eyre. He did however prove the practicability of droving sheep and cattle across the country. 

He had also shown the worth of camels in the outback with their ability to travel over sand dunes and even stony desert and their instinct for finding water. McKinlay found another virtue in the height of the camels which kept provisions and the expedition's ammunition above water when crossing flooded creeks.

Following the exploratory work both Stuart and McKinlay and their favourable reports on the territory covered, the British government, at the urging of the South Australian government annexed the land north of 26 degrees , and between 129 degrees and 138 degrees longitude to South Australia.  It would be known as the Northern Territory of South Australia.  This was officially proclaimed on 6 July 1863.

Grave of a white man found
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McKinlay decides to build a punt
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McKinlay finds other traces of Burke and Wills
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McKinlay's route from Adam Bay to the East Alligator
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The expedition reaches Escape Cliffs
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