Descendants of explorers who headed out on the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition have gathered to remember their departure from Melbourne 150 years ago.
Victorian Governor David de Kretser unveiled a plaque near the cairn which was belatedly erected in 1890 to commemorate the expedition, which had aimed to collect data on flora, fauna, climate as well as find new water sources and pastureland.
Burke and Wills were among a party of 19 men, including five scientists, who set out to trek 5000km from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria and back, to become the first to cross the continent south to north.
The expedition left from Royal Park, at about 4pm on August 20, 1860, watched by around 15,000 spectators.
Seven men perished, including Burke and Wills, who died of starvation at Cooper Creek in Queensland on the return journey.
Only one man, John King, travelled the entire expedition and returned alive to Melbourne.
The five-times great nephew of William Wills, 25-year-old Fitzroy North student Brendan Wills, said his heritage was
something he cherished.
“It’s something I’ve always been very proud of – it’s a huge honour when you think about what a great national event it was,” Mr Wills told AAP.
At this stage, none of his predecessor’s exploration genes have washed through to the younger Wills, but he says 2011 will be the year when he ventures overseas.
Three women in the audience were descendants of the mayor of the day Richard Eades, who farewelled the expedition, while another was a five-times great granddaughter of explorer Charles Brahe.
Mr de Kretser told the 200 at the commemoration the expedition made a wide array of scientific observations “capturing invaluable land, water flora and fauna data along the way”.
“The expedition at the time must have been both a terrifying and exhilarating prospect for those involved, faced with the challenge of navigating a fierce, vast and beautiful land,” he said.
“Notwithstanding the tragic events that transpired, the 150th anniversary of the Burke and Wills expedition provides us with the opportunity to reflect on the remarkable scientific achievements that came out of the expedition.”
The trek is being retraced again this year by the Across Australia Environmental Expedition, which will document environmental changes over the past 150 years.