15.9.12

Sarah Murgatroyd - The Dig Tree

Rating 8.0

It all started with a BBC documentary about what is either known as the "Dead Heart" or the "Red Heart" of Australia: an extension of mountain ranges, deserts, salt lakes and bushland stretching out for thousands of miles between Perth and Sydney (West-East) and Melbourne and Darwin (South-North).

The documentary mentioned the golden age of explorations which in the 19th century helped in mapping out inner Australia, a part of the country bigger than continental Europe. An enormous mass of land where the local Aboriginal populations lived for thousands of years but where no Australian colonists and settlers dared to venture for almost a century.
Too harsh and hostile the heart of Australia when compared to the nature and climate of the towns blossoming up along the coastline from Adelaide to Brisbane.

Then, something interesting happened: the young Aussies decided to look beyond their towns and thus begun having a look into the core of their new mysterious land. And the competition for supremacy among the states of Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia led the wealthy citizens and the local governments to finance "scientific" expeditions in the heart of the continent. The funny thing is that most of the first Australian explorers were actually foreigners: Germans, Scots, Irishmen and Englishmen.


Some of these explorers genuinely thought that inner Australia could have been a promised land, with inland seas, hidden civilizations, mythological beasts, green pastures, huge forests and all sort of precious resources. Alas, Australia was not Africa and most of these adventurers had to struggle very hard to come back alive reporting about an endless and silent desert in the outback.
Some expeditions kept a low profile approach to the bushland involving a half dozen of men, horses and essential supplies under the command of clever expert explorers. Other explorations were lavish, equipped with all sorts of paraphernalia and sometimes ill-driven by swashbucklers who had no knowledge of the bush and would have been able to get lost going for a picnic.


The Dig Tree, which I bought in Brisbane, is the fascinating and nail-biting account of the most famous trip into the great Australian beyond, the Wills and Burke expedition of 1860.
An expedition led by the Barry Lyndon-esque Irish policeman - Robert O'Hara Burke - chosen by the Royal Society of Melbourne due to "his vocation to command". An expedition involving dozens of camels shipped from India with their drivers and all, tons of superflous equipment (oak tables, a boat, 270 litres of rum) and a wild bunch of adventurers with no experience at all into the wild. An expedition following a man who didn't even bother to write a diary or to leave written instructions to his subordinates but who was madly in love with a 16 year old actress he left behind in town and to whom he decided to leave all of his possessions (graciously minus the debts).


The final goal? Crossing the whole continent from south to north reaching the Gulf of Carpentaria and coming back to Melbourne bringing tidings on the possibility of exploiting natural resources and opening new trade routes. All of this disguised into the pretext of a "scientific mission".
No surprises that the whole party ended up pretty tragically with most men, camels, scientific instruments and supplies being left behind by Burke who eventually died of starvation in a place where the Aborigines lived happily and well-fed.

And even if Burke and his men never reached the shores of Carpentaria ending up engulfed by mangroves and thus giving up their goal, they became national heroes with statues, songs and paintings dedicated to their memory.
That's why the story of Wills and Burke is very well known Down Under and this book written by Sarah Murgatroyd (a British journalist who prematurely died) will probably embitter many an Australian in showing how much Burke and his party did wrong and how amateurish the whole expedition was in the first place.
One can object that it's quite easy to look at the matter in a critical way now that the red heart of Australia is no more terra incognita, but some of the mistakes and miscalculations of Mr Burke were simply too spectacular to be ignored.

Sarah Murgatroyd doesn't despise the Wills and Burke expedition in its whole, but delivers what I believe is a fair, well-documented and deft-written account of this controversial page of Australian history.
The author here is able to take you along with the explorers and manages to dig into the personal stories of William John Wills, Robert O'Hara Burke and many others of their men with an excellent background work to put the expedition in the contest of its age. Thumbs up, then!

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