Monday, April 9, 2012

Plunging into the Australian desert with Burke and Wills - despite the fact that he had painted his body like a skeleton

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.


  1. Oh, I do so love looneybird explorers. My favorites are the Arctic and Antarctic ones, but I've branched out recently. Noble, heroic, looney and doomed! I am just stepping outside and may be some time.

  2. It's the sheer pointlessness of their undertakings and sufferings which we appreciate when we're sitting by the fire with a glass of whiskey. That's why I always prefer African adventures, since the Africans tended to greet the White Man's undertakings with the same sense of amused bewilderment.

  3. The pointlessness explanation fits this expedition perfectly. At first, there is something of a point, but the point recedes and vanishes. Burke and Wills could, at any time, have turned around to re-provision, but the arbitrary and nearly meaningless goal was to get to the coast.

    The generally friendly and bewildered indigenous people make this story a lot like an African adventure. Or perhaps it is the fact that Moorehead's other books are about the exploration of the Nile.

    Jenny, I do not want to guarantee that this particular book is the state of the art on the topic, but it would fit right in with those other books if you want to trade one kind of bad terrain for another.

  4. Disaster stories are always more dramatic than success stories. The news stories about the centenary of Titanic are an example of this.

    Burke and Wills are still famous here in Australia. There is a statue of them on one of Melbourne's main streets. They were not actually the first to cross Australia. Robert Mcdouall Stuart did so earlier. He has a highway named after him, but the Burke and Wills story is better known precisely because it ended so badly.


  5. Moorehead has a paragraph or two on the history of that statue.

    My understanding is that Stuart's successful crossing of the continent was in 1862. John King was back in Melbourne by the end of 1861, making him the first person to have gone there and back.

    Not to knock the indefatigable Stuart - he not only made it back himself, but did not lose any men. What's a good book about his expeditions?

  6. The camels reminds me of Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond.
    It starts off in London, with those memorable opening words:
    "'Take my camel, dear,' said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass." (3)

    A couple of chapters later, our aunt Dot & the gang gets ready to head off to Turkey, where they plan to travel from Istanbul to Trabzon. They feel "rather low" about not finding a ship that will let them bring along their camel, when "we heard of a Turkish cargo ship that took camels, as well as other animals (so that we should not feel odd, having the only animal, though we might feel odd that ours was a camel), so we booked passages on it from London to Istanbul.

    "This ship mainly took cargo round the Mediterranean ports and to such places as Vigo, Antwerp, Rotterdam and London, and so few people could get on to it that, instead of its being odd to be a camel, it was pretty odd to be a human being." (22-23)

    Page numbers are from the NYRB paperback. I like to imagine that fifties London was rife with sexagenarians riding about on camels.

  7. Rife, absolutely. I like to imagine that, too.

    The Towers of Trebizond sounds pretty great.

  8. I wrote my earlier comment off the top of my head. I now realise that I got some facts wrong. You are correct that Stuart's crossing was in 1862. I have also found that his first name was John. I have not read any full length books about either about Stuart or Burke and Wills. I am pretty sure I learnt about them at school, and seen things on TV etc. As I have mentioned there is a lot more about Burke and Wills because their expedition was a disaster.


  9. I will keep an eye out for a book about Stuart's expeditions. He was an amazing figure.