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Paperweights and coat button polishers

In April 1861, the explorers Robert Burke and William Wills — sick, starving and desperate to survive — abandoned their surveying instruments and other ‘non-essential’ items in outback Queensland and continued south on their ill-fated journey.

Almost 150 years later, in a discovery being proclaimed as the holy grail for Burke and Wills enthusiasts, a Melbourne academic claims he has found some of the equipment buried in a creek bed hundreds of kilometres inland from Brisbane.

The site, known as the Plant Camp, is integral to the Burke and Wills story because it tells of the increasingly desperate state of mind of the explorers who were unwell, low on supplies and had to abandon everything but their food after a camel died.

At that stage a party of four, the men struggled on from Plant Camp to Cooper Creek (also known as Cooper’s Creek) in South Australia, only to find their support party had given up on them hours earlier. All but one of the explorers, John King, died.

Melbourne academic Frank Leahy discovered the buried instruments in 2007, after a painstaking search that began more than 20 years earlier. Now Mr Leahy and the Royal Society of Victoria want the Queensland Government to declare the site a heritage area.

Items recovered include rifle and revolver bullets, a spirit bubble used for surveying, buckles from belts or strapping, a canvas and leather sewing kit containing pliers and needles, hinges, latches and a paperweight.

“Reading about Burke and Wills and their paperweight,” writes Paul Oxenham, of Haberfield (in a wry note in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Column 8), “reminded me of the ill-fated expedition led by Franklin to find the north-west passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

“After his ship was trapped in ice, part of the expedition set out across the ice, dragging a whale boat to be used when they reached open water.

“Unfortunately most of the party died before rescuers found them and their boat, which contained, among other necessities of life, coat button polishers.”

As I prepare for my next road trip I’m trying to be careful as usual about what I take on board, but I feel sure I’ll also end up with a few ‘essential’ paperweights and coat button polishers of my own …

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