Australian legend or murder mystery? Explorers Burke and Wills met their end on the maiden crossing of the nation's hostile Outback, but a long-buried Aboriginal tale could rewrite history.
It is 150 years since Victoria, then a colony of the fledgling convict outpost, sent Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills on their ill-fated mission to cross Australia from south to north.
The "migaloo", or white man, had not yet reached Australia's north coast and it was an ambitious voyage into the unmapped and unknown.
Burke and Wills led a group of 19 men from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria, an epic 3,250-kilometre (2,000-mile) journey by wagon, camel and horse, but the two died on the return trip along with five others in the unforgiving deserts of central Australia.
Celebrated as Australian legend and taught in schools from a young age, orthodoxy has it that the men perished from dehydration, hunger and exhaustion after becoming stranded at Coopers Creek.
But the first-ever inquest into their deaths, starting on Saturday to mark 150 years since their demise, will explore the possibility that the pioneering duo met a more sinister end.
Historian Darrell Lewis has been working in Australia's Outback for 40 years, taking oral histories from indigenous tribes, and says he has uncovered evidence that Burke was shot by John King, the only member of the mission to make it back to Melbourne alive.
A land prospector or "squatter" touring the area in 1875 met an Aboriginal woman who claimed to have witnessed the shooting, and he detailed her story in his journal, which Lewis unearthed about two decades ago.
"She said that one white man was stooping over a fire cooking a bird, a duck or something, and the other one shot him in the side," Lewis told AFP.
"The squatter was quite shocked because the standard story back then, and ever since, was that they got weaker and weaker from lack of food and exhaustion and gradually died."
Lewis said the woman's "description of the shooter answered in every way to a description of King", according to the squatter, and cast real doubt on the official version of events.
"There were certainly questions asked at the time by various people in the media saying King's got something to hide, he's not telling the truth, he has a secret," he said.
"Whenever they tried to get King to talk he'd answer one or two questions and then he'd break down and he'd say it's too painful to remember, that mentally he couldn't do it, and he got away with it."
The 1860-61 expedition was the most lavish ever attempted in Australia -- still 40 years from Federation -- with 20 tonnes of equipment including two years' worth of food and a boat to sail on what was rumoured to be a vast inland sea.
The group included five Britons, six Irishmen, four Indian soldiers, three Germans and an American, and only King survived the entire crossing from Melbourne to the Gulf and back again.
Though it "didn't quite go right" and Burke's planning and management style were problematic, he and Wills were celebrated as national heroes and went on to become part of Australian legend, said inquest convenor Robb Stanley.
"There's something like 42 books with Burke and Wills in the title, that's how much it is part of our myth and legend and psyche," he said.
The inquest will hear from a range of witnesses on the various theories, which include death from beriberi (thiamine deficiency) or scurvy, general starvation and management failings by Burke, an ex-military officer.
Some farmers even claim to have been told by Aborigines that the men were massacred by local tribes, and the coroner will hear expert evidence about their interactions with the local indigenous people.
By the time the explorers' bodies were found in 1863 they had been reduced to bones and no one would have been looking for proof of a crime, Lewis said. Even a stray bullet would have been unlikely to raise suspicions.
The murder story did not surface until a decade after the official inquiry ruled the men died from starvation, a "whitewash" no one was anxious to revisit, he added, particularly given King himself was by that time dead.
The inquest is due to deliver its findings in October.