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In 1860–61, Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills led an expedition of 19 men with the intention of crossing Australia from Melbourne in the south, to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, a distance of around 3,250 kilometres (approximately 2,000 miles). At that time most of the inland of Australia had not been explored by non-indigenous people and was completely unknown to the European settlers.
The expedition left Melbourne in winter. Bad weather, poor roads and broken-down wagons meant they made slow progress at first. After dividing the party at Menindee on the Darling River Burke made good progress, reaching Cooper Creek at the beginning of summer. The expedition established a depot camp at the Cooper, and Burke, Wills and two other men pushed on to the north coast (although swampland stopped them from reaching the northern coastline).
The return journey was plagued by delays and monsoon rains, and when they reached the depot at Cooper Creek, they found it had been abandoned just hours earlier. Burke and Wills died on or about 30 June 1861. Several relief expeditions were sent out, all contributing new geographical findings. All together, seven men lost their lives, and only one man, the Irish soldier John King, crossed the continent with the expedition and returned alive to Melbourne.