Colonial Flat is one of the most important historic sites in the whole area and in fact in Australia.
This relatively small area is the place where during one crucial period everything seemed to happen. Not only is it the site of the Landsborough Tree, and the grave of the Firefly, but this area on the banks of the Albert has an immensely rich list of other associations.
The maritime explorer, Commander John Lort Stokes rowed past the flat in search of fresh water in August 1841. Taking a boat from the Beagle, he went up the Albert and was delighted to find fresh water in a branch later named Beames Brook by Leichhardt.
Stokes was impressed ‘…Of the importance of our discovery there could no longer be any doubt, and the exhilarating effect it produced on all was quite magical, every arm stretching out as if the fatigue they had experienced had suddenly passed away … Onwards we hurried the influences of the tide being rarely felt … at the end of three miles no change was perceptible and we began to congratulate ourselves on at last having found a stream that would carry boats towards the point it was always my ambition to reach, the centre of Australia.’
Gregory must have ridden past it on the North Australian Expedition, in 1855. This was mounted by the British Government and the Royal Geographical Society, years before October 1, 1861, when Landsborough went in the barge from the Victoria to find the channel into the Albert so the badly disabled Firefly could be manoeuvred to its last resting place. The Gregory party included the tireless artist Thomas Baines, who has left a rich legacy of paintings and drawings made on the expedition.
It was also the site of the Depot Camp established during the Burke and Wills searches; the place to which naval martinet Captain Norman, running late for his meetings with Walker and Landsborough, returned to the camp only to find that Walker and his party of troopers, who arrived early in December, had impatiently departed. Norman was left to face a very cranky Landsborough, furious at the delays.
Walker, sent by the NSW Government, had been Commandant of the Native Mounted Police before his career was smashed by booze. This energetic and supremely competent bushman found the trail of the missing Burke and Wills and located the camp that they had made before trekking to the tidal channel. If they were lost, they must be well to the south by then and there was no reason to believe that having found their way thus far, they could not find their way back.
Another part of the immense effort to find Burke and Wills, was the party sent by the South Australian Government, led by John McKinlay, who reached the Gulf to the west of the Albert. He had left Adelaide on August 16, with instructions to get to the Cooper, meet with Howitt, and failing this to continue north, keeping a sharp look out for minerals and precious metals on the way.
McKinlay arrived after everyone else had gone. He did not meet Howitt and missed Norman at the Albert River. The Victoria had sailed. So McKinlay marched east to the sea and returned by ship to Adelaide.
The irony of all this effort and cost was that Burke and Wills were long dead and lying out along the Cooper.
Of that disastrous expedition, which departed from Melbourne with so much fanfare, only King was left alive to be found by Howitt, who led the party searching the western region. Howitt had left Swan Hill, Victoria, early in July 1861 and found the survivor King on September 15.
Burke and Wills had died between the last days of June and the first day or two of July 1861. There was no possibility of informing the other search parties, given the remoteness of the area and the total lack of any kind of communication.