My last disastrous exploring expedition was to the Panamanian jungle, about a year ago. This time I crossed Australia from Melbourne to the northern coast and back with the 1860-61 Burke and Wills expedition, courtesy of Alan Moorehead’s Cooper’s Creek (1963). Wikipedia has a simple, useful map of the route.
Nineteen men were part of the expedition at some point of other; a third of them died, including the leaders Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills; only one, John King, actually made it across Australia and back.
Cooper’s Creek is the site of the story’s tragic end. The expedition established an outpost at the creek. The leaders and a couple of other men pushed on to the coast through unexplored country. Those remaining at the outpost waited for four months, suffering from malnutrition and scurvy, for the return of the exploring party, abandoning the post exactly one day before the starving Burke and Wills and King staggered into the camp. Sympathetic aborigines kept the exploreres alive for a time, but only King lived long enough to be saved by a rescue party.
As I have asked before, why are these terrible stories of hardship and struggle so satisfying to read in comfort? I suppose I find the story of survival most appealing, of Burke and Wills hanging on and King actually making it, but the body count, and the bureaucratic bungling, and the wrong turns, and the truly bad luck, certainly heighten the tension.
Alan Moorehead is a clear and efficient writer. He freely mixes documents, second-hand history, and his own observations – the book, as is typical of the genre, ends with an account of Moorehead’s own tracing of the expedition’s path. Moorehead has a good sense of the explorers’ point of view and a good eye for strangeness:
He [an indigenous Australian] was very friendly, despite the fact that he had painted his body like a skeleton, but when they tried to find out from him if he had seen any white men with camels he could not understand. (Ch. 12, 141)
The poor camels are an element of strangeness brought by the expedition to Australia from India at enormous expense. Moorehead writes that “by the end of the century there were 6,000 of them” in Australia, but they were rare by the time of his visit in the 1960s (Ch. 15, 203).
The spectacle of human folly; I suppose that is the attraction of adventure books, catastrophic or heroic. Without heroic fools like Burke and Wills, nothing would happen.
Page numbers are from the 2010 Skyhorse Publishing edition.
Tomorrow, Emma joins me for Henry James and Washington Square.