Outback with Bourke

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Nardoo may look like the lucky four-leaf clover, but the aquatic plant was the undoing of Robert O'Hara Burke and William Wills. The leader and deputy of the first expedition to cross Australia from south to north had returned to their Coopers Creek depot, in Central Australia, on the eve of April 21, 1861-nine hours after a relief party had decamped. With rations running low, the explorers resolved to "live like the blacks," Wills wrote, but sought sustenance in a paste ground from nardoo spores instead of the wildlife that thrived around the creek. Local tribes baked the paste into a kind of bread-and rid it of a vitamin B-robbing toxin. Burke and Wills consumed theirs raw-and died of starvation on full stomachs in an oasis where Aborigines had thrived for millennia.

Australian academics, artists and outback dwellers have long regarded the Victorian Exploring Expedition as a disaster brought about by its leaders' failure to understand the outback or its indigenous inhabitants. But to 19th century settlers, Burke, a flamboyant Irish police officer, and Wills, his stoical English surveyor, were heroes. The Shakespearean sweep of missed opportunities that resulted in the deaths of seven men ignited public interest like no other episode in Australian colonial history, and inspired an outpouring of paintings, poems and pantomimes.

While generations of Australian schoolchildren were served up a simple story of derring-do-or disaster-the expedition's complexity makes it ripe for reinterpretation, says art historian Tim Bonyhady: "There's been an unfortunate tendency to reduce the story to two blokes." Now an exhibition at the National Library of Australia in Canberra, curated by Bonyhady, and a book by British journalist Sarah Murgatroyd are bringing other expedition players to the fore. The Dig Tree: The Story of Burke and Wills (Text; 372 pages) details the plotting of powerful men who, Murgatroyd says, organized the tragedy and covered up the truth. "Burke and Wills: From Melbourne to Myth" (also the title of Bonyhady's 1991 book about the explorers)-which opens March 27-showcases the overlooked men who, Bonyhady says, helped turn failure into success, and examines what successive generations have made of the legend.

When Burke led the Victorian Exploring Expedition out of Melbourne's Royal Park in August 1860, two-thirds of the continent remained unexplored. Gold gave Australia's newest colony the means to investigate what was commonly called "the ghastly blank." Promoters gave many reasons for the expedition: the discovery of new grazing land; controlling an overland telegraph line that would link Australia with Asia; finding out what happened to explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, who disappeared in 1848. The press voiced another: a race to beat John McDouall Stuart, who had set out from South Australia with the same goal of crossing the continent.

An expedition veteran, the Scotsman traveled light. Not so the Victorians, who set out with 21 tons of equipment, including a wagon that converted into a boat, four enema kits and a cavalcade of camels which, writes Murgatroyd, "received a level of care normally reserved for visiting English opera singers." But delays and disputes saw the progressive shedding of men and supplies. By the time Burke and Wills set out for the last 1,500 km to the Gulf, they had just two companions, six camels and a horse.

Conditions favored the explorers on their trek north. Traveling south, "the camp names told the story," writes Murgatroyd, "humid camp, muddy camp, mosquito camp." Also in distress were the back-up parties Burke had left in the desert: disease and malnutrition claimed four lives. What followed were mischances few fiction writers could imagine. When Burke discovered the Camp LXV Coolibah tree carved with the message "Dig under 3 ft. northwest," his relief party was only hours away, but he insisted on trying a new route home. He was only kilometers from the Cooper campsite when his would-be saviors returned. They headed off without uncovering Burke's note or leaving a sign for Wills, who returned alone to bury his journals.

The royal commission into the explorers' deaths blamed the relief-party leaders. It should have blamed the Royal Society which organized the expedition, argues Murgatroyd. Unearthed in the State Library of Victoria's archives, letters from a leading member of the powerful clique reveal a Machiavellian plot, she says, to take over a large tract of unclaimed territory in what is now western Queensland. The headstrong Burke was renowned for his bad sense of direction, but "any sensible explorer would not have agreed to lead a reckless dash for the Gulf," she says. That he was acting under official orders goes some way to rehabilitate the novice explorer's reputation, but "he can never be exonerated for his unwillingness to learn from the Aborigines. He walked through the outback with blinkers."

That wasn't true of the German scientists he was quick to discard. Burke disliked Ludwig Becker and Hermann Beckler and put them to work as camel hands. Botanist Beckler still managed to amass hundreds of plant and bird specimens, while Becker produced 80 drawings and watercolors that are "unparalleled in 19th century Australian art," says curator Bonyhady. As he lay dying in a camp that was, Becker wrote, "a very hell," the naturalist made seven microscopically detailed paintings, including one of the long-haired rats that chewed at his feet.

Bonyhady hopes the display of such work will "dispel the deep-seated view that the expedition was a failure." Also of note were the achievements of the four parties dispatched to find Burke and Wills. Not only did the would-be rescuers open up millions of hectares for pastoralists and miners, they also brought back the first substantial, documented collection of Aboriginal material exhibited in the colonies, including a nardoo cake which, Bonyhady says, "is now the oldest surviving piece of Aboriginal food."

Public interest extended to the remains of the explorers' last animals: the lower jaw of camel Linda; the hoof of horse Billy, mounted in silver and turned into a paperweight. But the most popular relics were the explorers themselves. So many women offered to look after John King on his journey back to Melbourne that the only survivor of the four men to cross the continent had to be locked in his bedroom at night. Some 100,000 people viewed Burke and Wills' remains, placed in glass-topped coffins at the Royal Society's headquarters. Those with enough influence were allowed to handle the bones.

The explorers' state funeral was modeled on that of the Duke of Wellington. England had military heroes; Australia made do with heroes who battled nature. "Without the tragedy on the Cooper," Alan Moorehead wrote in his 1963 bestseller, Cooper's Creek, Burke and Wills "would have remained rather minor figures." Bonyhady disagrees. While they are often cited as proof that "Australians are just a nation of failure worshipers," he says, "Burke and Wills did actually cross the continent." Murgatroyd, who retraced the explorers' footsteps in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, says she admires "their sheer physical achievement: they marched for 14 hours a day, every day."

World War I provided Australia with new paragons of courage and self-sacrifice: the Anzacs. Three decades on, artist Sidney Nolan spearheaded a Burke and Wills revival, but he had no interest in restoring the explorers as heroes. The first of the three Burke and Wills series he produced between 1947 and 1985 portray an obsessed, arrogant leader and his deflated deputy. Nolan also shifted their deaths to the red desert landscape where Australians, Bonyhady says, expected their explorers to die.

Out on the Cooper, the Dig Tree is healing itself of its carvings. When Murgatroyd first came across the tree on a 1994 camping trip, she didn't know its story: the signboard had been washed away. Now, she is editing a new version of Wills' journals; Bonyhady's forthcoming book will further chronicle the explorers' epic odyssey. Burke and Wills may no longer be heroes, but Australians can't let a good story die.