Burke and Wills Treasure Hunt
THE last great historical treasure in Australia – the lost cache of journals and equipment buried by Burke and Wills at the Plant Camp – will this month be retrieved by a team from Townsville.
Army engineers from 3CER have been asked to help and the project will be joined by a team of 10 Queensland Government archeologists.
The expedition, which will leave on September 17, is the brainchild of Townsville resident, former RAAF leading aircraftsman George Koulakis.
He has asked the Army to help by mounting a detachment of 35 combat engineers and support soldiers to use their military training and equipment to systematically search the restricted site in remote western Queensland.
George leads the Cameleers, a not-for-profit organisation established specifically to conduct projects like this one.
He hopes to take up to six former military men or women on the trip to help run the camp, while the professionals conduct the search.
They will be joined by elders from the Mithika tribe, traditional land owners in the piece of desert where, in 1861, the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition abandoned most of the equipment carried on camels.
The archeologists will be responsible for protecting the artefacts as they are recovered.
The expedition will, literally, be searching for buried treasure in the desert.
George Koulakis with a blazed Burke and Wills tree in Mithika country
George Koulakis views artefacts, some of which are pictured above, at the historical Burke and Wills display at the Royal Society of Victoria
Part of a discarded Burke and Wills water container found by a stockman in 2008 fetched more than $280,000 at auction and this cache contains all of William John Wills’ invaluable navigational equipment and the remainder of his journals detailing their journey.
Part of the rationale behind seeking Army support is to ensure everything retrieved on this expedition is returned to the Commonwealth.
The wooden box containing the equipment is buried near a marked tree at the famous Plant Camp.
The Plant Camp is the last significant Burke and Wills camp to be found.
It was the camp where expedition leader Robert O’Hara Burke ordered Wills to discard all of his equipment to try to prolong the life of their last remaining camel as they struggled back to the Dig Tree where they hoped to be resupplied at their base camp.
As every Australian learns in primary school, they were nine hours too late, and all but one member of the expedition perished. George became fascinated by the existence of the Plant Camp when he led a cathartic motorbike journey in 2014 for five former ADF members.
They followed the Burke and Wills route from Melbourne to Normanton and back.
“We were basically broken military people – four men and one woman – riding broken military motorbikes,” he said.
“All the bikes and people made it to the finish and we had a new respect and passion for Burke and Wills.”
He made an eight-part video documentary about the trip (search for The Burke and Wills Adventure on YouTube).
When he conceived the idea of trying to find the famous Plant Camp, he was astonished to learn its location was marked, and had already been explored by academics.
Retired Burke and Wills academic PROF Frank Leahy discovered in the 1980s the reason for the difference between the locations on the route detailed by Wills in the journals already recovered, and the actual locations of found Burke and Wills camps.
It was a mechanical clock that was losing time.
“Wills calculated his position using a sextant and timepiece but, because the clock was losing time, his longitude was always wrong,” George said.
Once PROF Leahy realised the problem, it was a relatively simple calculation to correct the error, and pinpoint the Plant Camp.
PROF Leahy and three fellow academics visited the site in 2007 and, in a cursory search of the area, found more than 400 Burke and Wills artefacts.
He also found the marked tree at the Plant Camp.
Queensland Government officials declared the area a restricted site in 2011 and access is strictly limited.
CO 3CER LTCOL John Daunt said the assistance asked of the Army fitted in well with the unit’s normal training objectives, but the nature of activity, falling outside usual training areas and involving civilian and state government organisations, required higher level approval before a commitment could be made. There was already a requirement for soldiers to conduct remote area deployment in preparation for disaster response operations and the systematic grid search of the area was the sort of task always included in regular training for the unit’s combat engineers. A decision on the Defence Aid to the Civilian Community request is expected in coming weeks to confirm the task.
George said it was uncertain where any material that might be recovered would be housed and displayed.
“It could go to the Queensland museum, a museum in Melbourne, or to the Royal Society of Victoria that originally sponsored the Burke and Wills expedition,” he said.
George and his team will document the expedition and everything that happens at the Plant Camp and send regular updates. Check out the first video by clicking here, and come back often for updates.