Three pale strangers

Three pale strangers

Starvation in a Land of Plenty: Wills’ Diary of the Fateful Burke and Wills Expedition

by Michael Cathcart

National Library of Australia, $39.99 pb, 213 pp, 9780642277909

The white explorers who first penetrated the interior of this continent were exceptional men. White Australians of the time considered them heroes, performing an essential role in identifying opportunities for exploitation, settlement, and commerce. Mostly, the explorers were heroic – determined, tough, single-minded, and stoic in the face of enormous hardship. They also needed bushcraft, that elusive ability to ‘read’ the landscape, the weather, vegetation communities, and animal behaviour, so as to improve the quality of the daily judgements needed for survival. Success under these conditions requires a clear vision and a strong, intelligent, and organised leader. John McDouall Stuart and Augustus Gregory come to mind as examples; Robert O’Hara Burke does not.

In 1860, just weeks before this, the largest – and supposedly best-equipped – exploration party was due to leave Melbourne, Burke was appointed leader of the Victorian Exploring Expedition (aka Burke and Wills). Its task was to determine the nature of the country between that already traversed in the 1840s by Charles Sturt (essentially the Lake Eyre basin) and Ludwig Leichhardt (south of the Gulf of Carpentaria). As has become well known, aspects of the expedition were shambolic and it ended in tragedy, with a total of seven lives lost, including Burke and Wills.

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Peter Menkhorst

Peter Menkhorst

Peter Menkhorst is a Melbourne-based zoologist specialising in mammal and bird ecology and conservation, particularly in devising recovery strategies for threatened species, and guiding their implementation. He has published extensively in both scientific and popular literature, including Mammals of Victoria (1995), a definitive book on the subject, and A Field Guide to the Mammals of Australia (2001, now in its third edition). Peter is currently part of a team preparing a new field guide to Australian birds for CSIRO Publishing.

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