When I got back from Australia in mid January I hadn’t had enough of reading about the country (see my blogs on A Town Like Alice and Going Down Under) so ordered The Dig Tree: The Extraordinary Story of the Ill-fated Burke and Wills 1860 Expedition by Sarah Murgatroyd. Having travelled the length of the Stuart Highway and heard snippets of the great explorers of the continent along the way, I wanted to know more about what was indeed one of the most ill-fated expeditions of all time.
You just wouldn’t organise an expedition like this. I should know, having done a course in my first year Geography degree on geographical exploration. First of all the leader wasn’t a great leader and did not have the requisite skills. Secondly, the expedition committee did not have the welfare of those setting out at heart. Thirdly, don’t try and pack the kitchen sink when setting out across a desert. I could go on. This tale is brilliantly told and even though you know when you start that it doesn’t end well, you are rooting for the protagonists to make it safely to the north coast and back.
What I didn’t know before I read this (spoiler alert) was how absurdly close they came to being OK. If it wasn’t true you would never believe that Burke and Wills missed being saved by literally a few hours. It is tragic and really frustrating when you’re reading it – you just want them to stay where they are so that they can then be rescued a few days later when they miss another chance for survival.
It also gives a sense of what a vast continent Australia is, as well as how stupid many European explorers were in their attitude to the Aboriginal people, who knew very well how to survive in this landscape and were in most cases more than happy to share their knowledge. There is just something about The Outback that I can’t leave alone – it keeps drawing me back. This book was a lovely way of doing that virtually, away from the cold dark days of February in England.