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Fine map of Queensland and contiguous parts of New South Wales and South Australia, illustrating the Burke & Willis expedition.

After the South Australian explorer, John McDouall Stuart had reached the center of Australia, the South Australian parliament offered a reward of £2,000 for the promotion of an expedition to cross the continent from south to north, generally following Stuart's route.

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 south-north leg was successfully completed, except that they were stopped by swampland 3 miles from the northern coastline, but owing to poor leadership and bad luck, both of the expedition's leaders died on the return journey. Altogether, 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.

Robert O'Hara Burke (1821- 1861) was an Irish soldier and police officer, who achieved fame as an Australian explorer. The expedition party was well equipped, but Burke was not experienced in bushcraft. A Royal Commission report conducted upon the failure of the expedition was a censure of Burke's judgement.

William John Wills (1834 - 1861) was a British surveyor who also trained for a while as a surgeon.