The Dig Tree

Sarah Murgatroyd

Read January 2007

America has Lewis and Clark; Australia has Burke and Wills. Well, except, not exactly. Lewis and Clark successfully made it across a plush continent; Burke and Wills failed. Lewis and Clark (at least in mythology) paved the way for a westward expansion; Burke and Wills tried, but those few who tried to follow realized just how foolish a mission it was. Lewis and Clark exploited the knowledge of the natives along the way; Burke and Wills...well, remember, they failed?

Australia was happenin' in the 1860s. They had just about turned off the spigot of convicts from England (a detail that Murgatroyd curiously misses), so good was the living presumed to be (what kind of penalty is to send someone to a place where they're better off?). The settlement had been expanding outward from Sydney to the south coast. And yet, communication remained a problem, with news traveling rapidly along the Empire routes to Darwin, but then being impeded by the continent. A telegraph route was necessary, and to the winner would go considerable spoils. The newly ambitious Melbourne, eager to demonstrate its independence from Sydney, bid to chart the route for that wire. Thus, Burke and Wills.

Except it wasn't really the Burke and Wills expedition when it set out, and they went at the wrong time, and they were awfully prepared, and they weren't seasoned explorers, and they had awful leadership, and they were manipulated by city fathers, and... Every expedition has a similar story to tell, but the details are always suppressed by either spectacular success or spectacular failure: in either case, you get reduced to a set of capitals (Lewis and Clark; Burke and Wills; Shackleton; Scott (oh, and jolly good on old Oates)).

But the tracks that time covers historians unearth, and few stories are as compellingly, as beautifully, and as thoughtfully told as this one by Sarah Murgatroyd. She traverses their path herself, and her feel for the land is evident even as she completely erases her own presence from the book (a refreshing change from