Idiot explorers: Discovery, deception, and death

Travel inspiration

11 May 2017

By | 11 May 2017

In their quest for fame, Burke and Wills took a writing desk into the outback and Blanchard and Jeffries flew their hot air balloon wearing just their underwear

Since mankind got adventurous and wandered out of Africa, people have always wanted to see what’s over the horizon. Some explorers hacked through dense forests, some sailed, some attempted to cross baking desert or frozen tundra, while others took to the skies in balloon or plane. A number – Amundsen, Cook, da Gama, Hillary, Lindbergh, Columbus – are, rightly or wrongly, seen as heroes for their apparent success (*cough* Columbus *cough*). Many, many more however perished through bad planning, bad luck or just by blundering blindly into catastrophe. Here, I attempt to salute some of the lesser-known band of brave/foolish people who believed fortune and glory was just over the next rise, and also shed light on two people who won their renown … Barely.

The Burke and Wills Expedition

A monument to Burke and Wills stands in the Australian town of Castlemaine – Kim Britten / Shutterstock explorersA monument to Burke and Wills stands in the Australian town of Castlemaine – Kim Britten / Shutterstock

I’m going to start with a personal favourite. I don’t know why I like this story. I know I shouldn’t. It’s a tale of hardship, failure and death. But there are so many little details to it that make it seem both ridiculously improbable and maddeningly amateurish.

The idea was to explore the interior of Australia, about which basically nothing was known. So, in 1860, Robert Burke and William Wills were chosen to lead a team of 19 men from Melbourne 2,000 miles north to the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria. One of the reasons they were so optimistic was Thomas Maslen’s 1831 map predicting the existence of a huge inlet in the north-west of the continent leading to a vast inland sea in the centre with river deltas snaking their way east from there. The expedition would be sure to come across these rivers, and with them new, lush pastures on which to settle and cultivate crops.

Burke himself was a curious choice. An Irish ex-soldier with no experience of either exploration or bushcraft, he decided that rather than take cattle with them to drive and slaughter when necessary (as was traditional), they’d take three wagons of dried meat. Also, arrestingly, he decided that both a cedar writing-desk and a Chinese gong would be essential to their success.

Heavy rain made the roads muddy and heavy going, and by the time the party had reached Menindee, 470 miles north of Melbourne, five of the officers accompanying them had resigned, 13 men had been fired and eight more hired in their place. Those 470 miles had taken two months. The regular mail coach usually took just over a week.

Here, Burke decided that he, Wills and the hardier men and animals would push on to Cooper Creek – the most northerly point Europeans had managed to get to by this point. They reached it without major issue and set up a camp and storehouse. It was November, the height of the Australian summer, and Burke was advised to wait until at least March before continuing. And wait he did – until the following Sunday, when he split the group again. He, Wills, the now-third-in-command Charles Gray, and John King continued north. The men remaining at Cooper Creek were told to wait for four months.

It was tough going and Burke, Wills, Gray and King ended up shooting and eating their three camels and last remaining horse as food supplies ran low. After two months, they decided to turn back, despite the fact that they only had only three weeks of food left and no animals. Both Burke and Gray caught dysentery, but Burke was convinced Gray was faking. After Gray was caught stealing a tiny amount of watery porridge, Burke beat him. A couple of days later, Gray was dead. (It should be noted here that no-one believes that Burke actually killed Gray, but the ferocity of the beating is still debated).

Upon finally returning, virtually dead, to Cooper Creek and finding it to have been abandoned (apparently mere hours earlier), Wills buried his diary, journals and pistol next to a tree – now known as the Dig Tree after the word that was carved on it – and they each set out on various sorties to find help. One day, while King and Wills were away, Burke foolishly shot his pistol at the local Yandruwandha tribe who, unbeknown to him, had been trading with the camp before it had been abandoned.

They set out north together one day until Wills decided he could go no further, and was abandoned at his own behest. Burke and King continued until Burke too finally laid down and expired. John King was eventually rescued by the same Yandruwandha tribespeople at whom Burke had fired. The inland sea was never found.

Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries

A stamp printed to honour the success of Blanchard and Jeffries, from the Khmer Rouge's Kampuchea – Shutterstock explorersA stamp printed to honour the success of Blanchard and Jeffries, from the Khmer Rouge’s Kampuchea – Shutterstock

In the mid-to-late 1700s, ballooning was all the rage. The possibility of lighter-than-air travel had been proven in Paris by the Montgolfier brothers, and now France was abuzz.

Enter Jean-Pierre Blanchard. Born in Normandy, Blanchard lacked a formal education, but had a bit of a flair for engineering and aeronautics. He conducted a few tests in balloons he had built himself which attracted little attention, but did grant those watching the unexpected sight of him throwing a cat out of the balloon’s basket attached to a silk parachute Blanchard had made. If any of those people watching had known Blanchard, they would have known that lobbing a cat out of a balloon was the tip of the iceberg…

Feeling unappreciated in his homeland, in 1784 Blanchard went to London with his balloons and proceeded to demonstrate them to the delight of onlookers, including one Dr. John Jeffries, an American living in London with a great interest in aeronautics. After talking for some time, Blanchard agreed to take Jeffries up in his balloon, and the pair drifted from London to just outside Dartford in Kent. By the time they’d landed, Jeffries had already promised to put up the £700 Blanchard insisted it would cost for a cross-channel attempt. It would prove to be a very trying decision.

Blanchard had already alienated a number of sponsors, including English surgeon Dr. John Sheldon who had paid to be taken up in a balloon tethered to the earth in order to take scientific readings with some equipment he’d designed and built himself. When Blanchard decided their ascent wasn’t fast enough, he dumped the doctor’s prized equipment unceremoniously over the side. Jeffries only realised what he was letting himself in for when he arrived in Dover on the agreed date – January 7th, 1785 – to find that Blanchard had somehow managed to barricade himself inside Dover Castle, his pride refusing to let him believe that his American sponsor would want to be a part of an historic attempt to fly to Blanchard’s home country, despite the fact that Jeffries himself was funding the entire thing.

Unperturbed, Jeffries hurried down to the dockside and persuaded a group of sailors to come and help him break down the door Blanchard had barricaded himself behind, before somehow convincing one of the governors of the castle to act as an intermediary between himself and the recalcitrant Frenchman (after promising to pay for the door, one assumes).

Eventually, grudgingly, Blanchard was persuaded to take Jeffries along and they headed out to the cliff tops where a crowd was waiting, eager to see the spectacle. Blanchard had rigged the balloon up with a pair of oars that he believed would help to steer the craft, and Jeffries had brought his own weather measuring equipment as well. As soon it had been established that the weight would be too much to get the thing off the ground, Blanchard insisted that Jeffries’ things should be left behind. Still there was too much weight. Adamant that his steering oars were essential, Blanchard refused to get rid of them, and it looked for a time that he would get his wish for a solo crossing; that is, until Jeffries – by this time, you would suspect, thoroughly annoyed by the whole charade – ordered Blanchard to remove his coat. Reluctantly, he did so, only to reveal that he was wearing a large leather belt with a number of heavy lead weights tied to it.

Finally the two men set off, and slowly drifted out over the Channel. It became immediately clear that the balloon was still too heavy. They nearly ditched in the sea a number of times, as everything that could be jettisoned, was. The first things to go were Blanchard’s absurd oars, followed by any supplies they had and, eventually, so desperate were they not to hit the water in sight of France, their own clothes. They eventually landed (or, more accurately, got tangled in a tree) in the Forêt Domaniale de Guînes just outside Calais. Freezing cold and virtually naked, they were soon discovered by a crowd of onlookers and a couple of local dignitaries who had seen them drift by. Luckily they’d also seen the faintly comical state the pair appeared to be in and they supplied Blanchard and Jeffries with some suitable clothes.

After the historic crossing, Jean-Pierre Blanchard became a national hero, was awarded a lifetime pension by Louis XVI, and spent the rest of his life demonstrating his balloons around the world, including in front of George Washington in what was the first ever balloon flight in the Americas. At a demonstration near The Hague in the Netherlands, Blanchard suffered a heart attack while flying and fell from the basket of his balloon. He sustained injuries from which he never truly recovered and died in his sleep around 12 months later, aged 55.

John Jeffries lived for another 34 years after the historic flight, returning to his hometown of Boston and working on machines and techniques for weather forecasting. His birthday, February 5th, is now known as National Weatherpersons’ Day.