Friday, November 19, 2010
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Thursday, September 23, 2010
Dushka Silichhi: Insight
EXPLORERS STILL LIVE ALONG TRACK
Although 150 years may seem like a long time to most readers it is just the blink of an eyelid out here on the 1860 Burke and Wills track where many local residents are still talking about their links with the great explorers.
It seems every town in Victoria or southern New South Wales has a local character with connections to the mythical but ill-fated anti-heroes who passed this way heading for the Gulf of Carpentaria trying to be first to cross the continent.
Inspired by the Gillard government’s $9. 9 billion offer to regional Australia we are giving a badly needed voice to the outback in the spirit of the Independents who helped form the new government in return for help for the bush. We are retracing Burke’s journey all the way from Melbourne to the Gulf for an environmental audit on film using the detailed journal of Wills to report on changes and challenges specifically for the federal environmental minister Tony Burke’s “Caring For Our Country” program, to which we have applied for financial assistance to help offset the costs of our self-funded mission.
But everywhere we go locals flock to our two colourfully decorated Pajeros (standing in for camels) and our Get Around Campers (standing in for horse-drawn wagons) with stories some taller than others. It actually started in Melbourne where the book keeper at the Melbourne Club claimed Burke set off on the expedition without paying his drinking bills but conceding those responsible did cough up although many decades later. There are similar clams in Essendon Burke’s first camp where the local historical society claims he left his shaving mirror behind hanging from a tree (now in their museum). Locals in Lancefield proudly pointed out the large rock memorial beside the road but said Burke ‘did a runner’ from the local butcher after getting as much meat as he could carry for his hungry explorers. The angry butcher proved faster than the great caravan of 24 camels, 23 horses, 19 men and a long string of wagons and got his money.
Further up the track near the fabled crater painted by Burke’s artist Ludwig Becker, Paul Dettmann of Baynton, near Mia Mia appeared out of nowhere s pointed to the crater and claimed, “My great great grandfather fell in with Burke’s party, showed them this local crater and walked with them from here up towards the New South Wales border, planning to walk to the Gulf”. Says Dettmann, “But even before they reached the border he worked out that Burke was not a qualified bushman, so he dropped out of the party”.
It was just as well because the incompetent Burke lost seven brave explorers who died unnecessarily on that badly planned and executed race to the Gulf, including himself. Yet according to local farmer Paul Haw of Boort, the trip north in 1860 should not have been too difficult as Burke actually followed the Aboriginal tracks and had he listened would have been guided by Aboriginals all the way to the Gulf. “But he was not the sort of bloke who listened to locals let alone to Aborigines” said Haw.
At Mt. Hope station near Boort, where Ludwig Becker painted Pyramid Hill local grazier Peter Barker took me into the darkened bedroom of the great leader and in hushed tones pointed to the old brass bed in which the slumbering Burke had snored, the blind that had not been raised since for fear of waking his sleeping ghost, and the bullet holes in a window from shots fired by his angry men fighting over rum rations which Barker said may have explained why Burke left Mt. Hope in a hurry.
Nevertheless any connection with the ill-starred Burke seems worth boasting about and Ron Duryea a shearer of Balranald rode up on his bike at a great speed to our parked convoy and blurted out, “My great great grandmother cooked for Burke here at the old Wharf Hotel, down by the Darling River – come and I’ll show you where” he said leading us off on his trusty two wheeled steed.
Right or wrong – and Buke stories are a bit like Ned Kelly’s suit of armour as everyone seems to have an original one – Duryea showed us the old hotel site, described the menu on offer, Burke’s culinary preferences and the spot where – to save weight Burke had auctioned such vital supplies as lime juice and fish hooks; the lack of which would claim lives including his own.
Just past Turlee Station heading north where locals claimed Burke had dumped one of his wagons which had disappeared in the Mallee scrub, Patty Byrnes at Wamberra Station revealed how her great great grandmother had fed the hungry Burke cooking on Arumpo Station which her family owned in 1860 . Her generous great great grandfather also carted some of Burke’s excess baggage up to Menindee to hep the overloaded explorer whose vision splendid had inspired him to leave Melbourne with a piano and oak dining room table.
At the tiny hamlet of Pooncarie local publican Trevor Bigg who said Burke had actually paid his drinking bills at the pub showed us the old wharf site by the Darling River where Burke’s entourage had camped.
But it was in Menindee – the last great base camp in 1860 - that Burke burst back into life because Tom Paine’s hotel is still there – more or less. It has had the odd fire like most bush pubs but owner Wayne “Bungy” Williams showed us Burke’s bed room “where he actually slept for the last time in a bed before he died in the desert” and also a disparaging convict arrow he had carved in a moment of protest on a beam. Burke is everywhere in Menindee, the riverside camp site is still there, the gum trees on the river bank which Ludwig Becker had painted and which Ballarat artist and Becker expert Leslie Sprague had driven up especially to photograph proving the trees are still there from Becker’s painting with. There is the grave of the Moslem cameleer from Burke’s party Dost Mahomet’s who settled in Menindee then died there and Ah Chung’s bakery where Mahomet had worked.
But the last word – and perhaps the most accurate now we were closer to the front line - really went to Noeline Ratcliff whose ancestors have owned the pub, since Burke was still known in the town. Asked what she thought of the great explorer she said “Do you want the truth ? I think he was an idiot. Anybody who sets off north from the last outpost of civilization into the scorching desert in the summer would have to be a total idiot . No wonder he died a terrible death out there”.
But now it was time for us to go north where we believe the stories will become even taller as we enter the deserts where visitors can only expect to encounter regular doses of bulldust.
Jonathan King is leading the 150th anniversary Burke & Wills Environmental Expedition, supported by The Age.
Saturday, September 11, 2010
Instead of camels the 2010 Burke and Wills Environmental Expedition is using two Mitsubishi Pajeros to travel from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the original 1860 exploring party which was the first to cross the continent of Australia.
“Having used the Pajero to cross Australia myself on family trips from the nineteen eighties I know they are reliable”, Dr. Jonathan King, the expedition leader told journalists at the 20 August departure from Melbourne’s Royal Park 150 years to the day that Burke and Wills left with their camels and from the same spot.
“As a father of four young children I drove our trusty “Pajo” as the kids called it from Melbourne to Uluru and then right up to Kakadu and deep into Aboriginal territory” said Dr. King “and some days we drove 1000 kilometres a day on back roads without seeing another car – so we had to have faith in the vehicle”.
Dr. King said he even allowed his children to learn to drive on the remote dirt tracks where on some days they drove for hours at a time perched up on pillows as they were so young. “That is why our kids are such good drivers today, they learnt in the open spaces behind the wheel of a rugged Pajero” he said.
Speaking at the 20 August departure, expedition patron Jack Thompson said the environmental expedition being conducted with the aid of the Pajeros was “a timely audit of the countryside which will enable us to see just how much the bush has altered since Burke and Wills reported on the outback 150 years earlier”. Thompson, who played the role of Burke in the 1985 classic film “Burke and Wills,” said Wills had written a very descriptive diary which Dr. King and his team would use as a basis for comparison. “The bush needs friends” Thompson said, “as we have used it pretty hard in the last 150 years and we have to make sure we can use it productively for another 150 years”.
The famous actor also said there were many environmental issues to be examined along the 1860 track including feral pests like rabbits, foxes, pigs, goats, camels and cane toads all causing damage to the soil. It was time, he said, to repair the outback along the track of Burke and Wills and replant trees and vegetation to keep the topsoil intact so that it does not blow dust storms onto Sydney like it did in September 2009.
Dr. King’s honorary team of four environmentalists – the same number as Burke’s - includes himself as the Director, Documentary Film Presenter and journalist ; and also his deputy Steve Broomhall, the Outback Operations Manager and Stills Photographer who was a stockman on the legendary Brunette Downs cattle station; Michael Dillon, the world renowned film maker who is Director of the Documentary Film being produced for Channel 7 and who has filmed on Mt. Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb this mountain – the highest in the world; and Ben Beeton, the Expedition’s Artist in Residence who has served on many outback projects and who will be recording the environment through which they pass.
They have also named their two Pajeros after Burke’s horse “Billy” and Burke’s camel “Raja” and painted these names on the front of the vehicles. They also fitted two trailers to the Pajeros courtesy of Get Around Campers of Gordon, Victoria to carry their film equipment, tents, sleeping bags, camping gear and supplies. Fully outfitted, and with supplies of food stashed in the two huge 60 litre Engel fridges, fuel and water, these modern adventurers can travel in the Outback for long periods of time in relative comfort. The original expedition was plagued by shortages of food and water and moved through the landscape under extraordinarily arduous conditions. Telstra has provided the modern expedition with satellite phones and are paying for the data transmission in case they need to make or receive calls outback.
After leaving Melbourne in their two Pajeros, the four adventurers started following Burke’s route as faithfully as possible interviewing old timers along the track whose ancestors had met Burke and Wills or who had inherited their stories. They drove to Moonee Ponds, where they parked the Pajeros for the first night stop over camping nearby with Victorian Operations Manager Christine Lasowski and husband Henry and where they spent time interviewing local environmentalists fighting to preserve local creeks and MP Kelvin Thompson, Member for Wills .
They then followed the route through driving rain with the Pajeros performing well despite their heavy load to different places Burke visited or stopped at including in order Bulla, Clarkefield, Lancefield and Mia Mia where they stayed with Heather and Andrew Paterson at the Burke & Wills Winery right on the original Burke and Wills track. The intrepid adventurers enjoyed conversation and splendid glasses of Dig Tree and Burke & Wills wines deep into the night. They also visited the memorial to John Dighton the farmer who became the first Australia to fly a powered plane in the early nineteen hundreds. The people of Mia Mia also put on a 150th anniversary festival to greet the modern expeditioners with Land Care displays explaining how the locals were caring for the land today. They also visited the Mia Mia Art Exhibition celebrating the 150th anniversary of Burke and Wills where Jonathan interviewed the artist and TV presenter Peter Russell-Clark and bought a painting of the two 1860 explorers he had done called “Ghost Riders in the Sky”.
After Mia Mia the Pajeros pulled the smart purpose-built trailers past Bendigo where they interviewed local experts on film about conserving the water in the rivers. Pressing onwards to Boort, they visited Mt. Hope Station where Burke had stayed and also Pyramid Hill which Burke’s artist Ludwig Becker had climbed and from where he painted a view of Mt. Hope.
The first of the resident environmentalists then visited their campsite - Alfred Hupermann, a specialist on the rising salt levels and Doug Small a specialist on environmental issues in that part of Victoria. They explained in great depth the impact settlement had had on the environment over the last 150 years and what local farmers were doing to improve their land and ensure production for future generations.
The famous “Fish Lady” Fern Hames then joined the Pajeros as the next environmental specialist. She spoke about the need to study riverine ecology and the interactive part played by various species including native fish. Such studies will help protect and build up the native fish populations in rivers like the Loddon which the expedition visited. Fern displayed models of Murray Cod and Silver Perch and explained the strategies that were being developed to protect these species against introduced species like European carp
The expeditioners then interviewed old Laurie Martin who confirmed how difficult it was to catch fish in the Loddon compared to the old days when he would catch more than sixty a day “just sitting by the bank of the river”. Another local Ollie Jane confirmed the decline in native fish stock and blamed this on dams, reservoirs and pollution. He went on to explain how the rivers were being repaired for future generations.
Moving on to Swan Hill in the tracks of the earlier explorers Dr Jonathan King interviewed local Aboriginal elder Ivy Bell whose tribal people were living on the track in 1860. She reflected on the enormous cultural and social changes that occurred to the detriment of her people after early pioneers swept into the country in the wake of early exploration. She pointed out that over the ensuing years much of indigenous culture had disappeared. Although she blamed ignorance and racism Ivy said things had improved in recent years and she had high hopes for future generations of Aborigines who would not suffer from the same discrimination she had suffered from.
Then it was time for the Pajeros to pull the Get Around Campers trailers over the mighty Murray River and into New South Wales. That proved a lot easier than ferrying across the thirty or forty camels, horses and heavy wagons and equipment that Burke and his team struggled with at the same spot 150 years earlier.
Although Jonathan suggested they try and drive the Pajeros across the water – just as he had done with his children back in the nineteen eighties in the outback when crossing shallow rivers – he was persuaded to use the interstate bridge.
Once in NSW the expedition drove the Pajeros on to smaller bushy tracks where Burke and Wills had actually travelled inland west from Balranald. While in Balranald they met Ron Dueyea a shearer whose great grandmother had cooked the meals for Burke and Wills when they stopped in Balranald. As Dr. King remarked “It just shows how close our history is when a .local comes up to you in the street and explains their family connection with explorers from 150 years ago!”
Striking out across the Mallee and driving through Mulga Scrub country the Pajeros took to the gravel roads as smoothly as if they were on bitumen despite the heavier weight on the towbars exerted by the camper trailers. “It just goes to show” Jonathan said “I was right to select Pajeros for this challenging expedition. Their suspension is terrific, and being able to move from H2 to H4 at speed makes for stable and safe driving in sand and gravel”.
Whilst staying at “Turlee”, a 145,000 acre sheep station, they interviewed owner Des Wakefield. Speaking on camera for the documentary of the expedition Des said, “Well, like most graziers we’ve learnt to live with the weather. These days they call it climate change. But for 37 years we’ve been coping with fluctuating weather patterns by adjusting our stock numbers to the seasons. Our stocking strategies have always been closely tied to climate and with well-planned stocking and supplementary feeding strategies we’ve found we can run a good business.”
Driving over to Wamberra the expedition interviewed on film the most visionary pastoralist they had met to date – Patti Byrnes. Patti’s great grandmother had also cooked for Burke and Wills when they camped on her ancestor’s property Arumpo Station and her great grand father had carted supplies for Burke up to Menindee. She explained how she was saving native vegetation and protecting native species like the Mallee Fowl by building large reserves on her land and reducing stock levels to give the land a chance to recover from past levels of over-stocking. Working with indigenous people she has built fences around their reserves to protect the Mallee Fowl and native trees, shrubs and bushes – the names of all of which she knew off by heart.
Hearing that heavy rains were forecast the expeditioners then decided to follow local advice and drive a couple of hundred kilometres through the Belah and Mulga trees to Mungo National Park and then on to Pooncarie which was the first inland village on bitumen. Although the Pajeros and their trailers would have got through despite the forecast rain the party decided to play it safe and not get caught on these sticky roads. Because four-wheel drivers and heavy vehicles can cause enormous damage to these clay-based roads during and after heavy rain, there was also the possibility of road closures being enforced to prevent damage.
It does pay to get local advice because no sooner had the Pajeros reached the bitumen at Pooncarie than the skies opened up and it rained steadily all night as the happy campers lay snugly in their sleeping bags inside the Get Around, safely in Pooncarie.
Now after more than one inch of rain the expedition members are waiting for the rain to stop and then – even though they have two trusty Pajeros which can cope with muddy roads and would undoubtedly get through – they will resume their trek up to Menindee, where Burke and Wills established their first major base camp after leaving Melbourne.
It may take days for the rains to stop and then they have to wait at least two more days for the gravel roads to dry out before they set off deeper into the outback again but they are more than happy to wait in the sure knowledge that come what may once the roads have been declared open by the authorities they will get though to Menindee and then resume their drive to the Gulf of Carpentaria. As deputy director and Outback Operations Manager Steve Broomhall said “We may have to set off along wet roads eventually but at least our Pajeros will not get bogged like Burke and Wills camels did and we wont have to abandon them like the explorers had to do with one of their camels because they could not get the camel out of the bog. From my experience of years in the bush – come hell or high water I know our Pajos will make it for sure”.
Friday, September 10, 2010
Report from Minindee.
Although it may seem like a long time ago, Melbourne’s 1860 Burke and Wills expedition is still being talked about along their track especially where this colourful and controversial circus stopped at little towns or properties where little else seems to have happened since.
Take Ron Duryea, a shearer of Balranald for example. Riding up to our colourfully decorated Pajeros on his bicycle stopping at our Burke and Wills signage he blurted out, “My great great grandmother Elsie, was cook at the Wharf Hotel on the river and cooked for Burke when he stopped on his way to the Gulf – and that’s fair dinkum, come, I’ll show you where the pub was”.
Right or wrong – and like Ned Kelly’s suit of armour there are many Burke and Wills stories out here on the track – Ron showed us the hotel remains, described the menu on offer and Burkes culinary preferences, all handed down orally Aboriginal style through generations. Hard to document admittedly, but what he lacked in evidence he made up for with passion. For Ron this was clearly the biggest event in the history of the Duryea family and he was glad we stopped to hear the news.
|The Wharf at Balranald and hotel where Burke wined and dined in 1860 a big event for the town still recalled to this day by descendants like Ron Duryea|
Mind you the visionary Byrnes is an exception because so much has actually happened on her nearby property Wamberra which she now owns, in the last 150 years. For a start she and her husband Ned have de-stocked dramatically from the unsustainable old days when settlers following Burke in the late nineteenth century cleared as much land as they could, put as many sheep into their paddocks as possible then when the soil wore out added fertilizer to maximize returns.
“For some years now we have been regenerating native vegetation by creating stock-free reserves protected by fences erected with indigenous support and the land has responded beautifully returning to its original pristine condition” she said showing us around her showcase property. Byrnes also shelters threatened species including more than 100 Mallee Fowls building mounds in the peace and quiet of her reserves. Although pioneering this sustainable strategy successfully she wants help from the government to combat increasingly large herds of feral goats which were certainly not there when Burke and Wills came through in 1860.
Of course there have been many other changes since Burke and Wills came along this track including more feral pests - rabbits, foxes, pigs, camels (some may have escaped from Burke’s herd) and cane toads – not to mention a host of feral weeds taking over the wide brown land.
Victoria’s Native Fish Strategy Co-ordinator, Fern Hames who visited our camp near Kerang for Department of Sustainability and Environment claimed 90% of fish had disappeared from the rivers since Burke and Wills passed by thanks to dams, weirs, tree clearing and introduced species like Carp.
Visiting environmental consultant Alfred Hupermann blamed salination for declining productivity around Boort but Ngyampaa elder Beryl Carmichael at Menindee blamed mines for damaging land along the Darling River. “It’s terrible what miners have done to our sacred sites digging up traditional land, putting roads everywhere and disturbing the spirits of our ancestors.” Says Carmichael, “ Something has to be done to stop the destruction of our environment”.
And that is why we are mounting this investigative expedition. Patron Jack Thompson says it is “a timely audit of the countryside to see how much the bush has suffered since Burke and Wills described the outback 150 years earlier and how we can repair it”. Thompson who played the role of Burke in the 1985 classic film “Burke and Wills” said Wills wrote a very descriptive diary which can be used as a basis for comparison. “The bush needs friends” said Thompson a former stockman “as we have used it pretty hard in the last 150 years and we have to make sure we can use it productively for another 150 years. It’s time, to replant trees and vegetation to keep the topsoil intact to stop dust storms hitting Sydney like September 2009.”
Our honorary team of four environmentalists – the same number as Burke’s - includes Steve Broomhall, outback operations manager, former stockman on Brunette Downs; Michael Dillon, documentary cameraman for Channel 7 who filmed on Mt. Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary and Ben Beeton Artist in Residence who with Dillon is reporting to Arts Victoria’s Culture Victoria website for schools: http://www.cv.vic.gov.au/
Having converted our Get Around Campers to computerized film and photographic studios, editing suits, editorial offices we are producing reports comparing today’s environment with 1860, interviewing stakeholders to give the outback a timely voice that will help guide the expenditure of the $9.9 billion allocated by the Gillard government for regional Australia.
Monday, September 6, 2010
Some of Neil’s songs have gained deep acceptance across the broad community such as with his new song, “Endless Dreams” (Burke & Wills). This new song, together with many other original songs Neil has written include;
“I’ll Stand Alone” (Ned Kelly),
“Out of the Ashes-Into the Sun” (Vic Bushfire Tribute),
“Perfect World” (Humanitarian),
"Shearing the Rams" (Tribute to the great painting of Tom Roberts and the early shearing industry)
“The Filling of our Lakes" (Environmental inflows of the Murray & Darling River system)
and many others.
Neil can be contacted on Mobile 0427 176 742
“Endless dreams” (Burke & Wills)
Words & lyrics written by Neil Higgins.
All rights reserved Neil Higgins 2010.
Journey to the centre, Discovery of the red earth
Entering the place of the Spirit land, Is there any hope for return.
Wagon wheels in motion, Camel trains move forward
Burke & Wills set upon an unknown course, Are there any lessons to be learned.
Journey to the centre, Calling of the ‘Red Earth’
Expedition trekking on an unknown course, Is there any hope for return.
And as the cavalcade rolled out of Melbourne toward the plains
From the ‘Great Southern Ocean’
through the Sandy Desert to the ‘Northern Seas’.
This great exploring conquest then had set out to fulfil the dream
To break through the ancient heartland
held in the interior desert scene.
Journey to the centre, Destined for their glory
Burke & Wills trekking on an unknown course, Is there any hope for return.
Timeless geographics offer the serenity unexplained
From the banks of the sleepy River ‘Darling’ - to the oasis of the ‘Cooper Creek’
Overland exploratory within a land that holds no scale
Through the home of the ‘Yandruwandha’ People, to the Northern ‘Gulf’ they now had trailed.
Journey to the centre, Discovery of the red earth
Now re-entering the Spirit land, Is there any hope for return
Is there any hope for return
Journey to the centre, Discovery of the red earth
Now re-entering the Spirit land, Is there any hope for return.
Confusion at the ‘Dig Tree’ spells their glory and their fail
The death of Burke and Wills tells a grim and torrid tale.
While ancient Tribal Laws respect the Nature and the land
John King found his salvation, in ‘Yandruwandha’s Tribal hands.
The Spirit of the land beholds the hardship and the pains
A Spirit that is free fills the heart with Endless Dreams.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Thursday, August 12, 2010
Michael Dillon - multi award-winning documentary filmmaker will be capturing the environmental expedition on film. The Burke and Wills team are ecstatic to have such a well-respected filmmaker join the team.
Michael's work can be seen at his website http://www.michaeldillonfilms.com.au/ including details of his latest award-winning documentary "A little Bit Mongolian"
Friday, July 2, 2010
It is also heartening to receive letters of support from all levels of our country's government.
Click on the link to see the letters
The Hon. Peter Garrett
The Premier of Queensland - Anna Bligh
The Premier of NSW - Kristina Keneally
Many thanks to you all,
Yes, in 1860 Burke and Wills might have blazed a trail across Australia opening up the outback for settlement by pastorilists, cattlemen, farmers and miners but now 150 years later they are lending their famous – household - names to repairing the damage done to the outback by our overuse of this land.
In fact the Burke and Wills Environmental Expedition is using the household names of these great explorers and their 150th anniversary to mount a fact-finding tour of the outback to find out from local stakeholders what the environmental problems are and what needs to be done to repair any environmental damage they may have been done.
These environmental issues that stretch from Melbourne to the Gulf could include: toxic waste dumps, polluted creeks and rivers, foreign weeds displacing native grasses, excessive tree felling, soil erosion, salination, rabbit plagues, feral goats, wild camels, destructive cane toads, and the environmental problems caused by drought, excessive rains and floods etc etc
The Burke and Wills Environmental Expedition is inspired by the wonderful poem that tells us so much about the unpredictable climate conditions in Australia by the twentieth century poet Dorothea Mackellar(1885 –1968)
The love of field and coppice,
of green and shaded lanes,
Of ordered woods and gardens is running in your veins.
Strong love of grey-blue distance, brown streams and soft, dim skies-
I know but cannot share it, my love is otherwise.
I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons, I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror- the wide brown land for me!
The stark white ring-barked forests, all tragic to the moon,
The sapphire-misted mountains, the hot gold hush of noon,
Green tangle of the brushes where lithe lianas coil,
And orchids deck the tree-tops, and ferns the warm dark soil.
Core of my heart, my country! Her pitiless blue sky,
When, sick at heart, around us we see the cattle die -
But then the grey clouds gather, and we can bless again
The drumming of an army, the steady soaking rain.
Core of my heart, my country! Land of the rainbow gold,
For flood and fire and famine she pays us back threefold.
Over the thirsty paddocks, watch, after many days,
The filmy veil of greenness that thickens as we gaze.
An opal-hearted country, a wilful, lavish land -
All you who have not loved her, you will not understand -
Though earth holds many splendours, wherever I may die,
I know to what brown country my homing thoughts will fly.
Our aim is to help this beautiful country recover from the problems created over the last 150 years and also survive the challenges of climate change – and we hope you can help us by volunteering you ideas, energy and resources.
OUR JOURNEY IS AN EPIC JOURNEY INTO HISTORY
But this time we want Aboriginal people to lead us, tell us about their outback so we can learn from them before it is too late; because of the greatest ironies of the epic 1860 Burke and Wills expedition from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria was the utter contempt with which the explorers regarded the Aborigines, without whom they could not have reached their destination nor survived as long as they did in the inhospitable outback.
The explorers may have distrusted ''the blacks'', shot at them and spurned offers of friendship, but the Aborigines kept coming back to help them. Biting the hand of friendship almost to the last, Wills described these tribes as "mean-spirited and contemptible in every respect". Admittedly he changed his tune when the Aborigines were his only source of food while he was dying of malnutrition, but even then he wrote: "I suppose this will end in our having to live like the blacks for a few months."
In the end, by repeatedly refusing to reframe their attitudes towards Aborigines, the explorers sealed their own fate. Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills died of malnutrition beside Cooper Creek in this Aboriginal land of plenty where the Yandruwandha people had lived for thousands of years. Only one member of the party, John King, who joined the Aborigines, survived to tell the tale.
Yet 150 years later, hospitable Aboriginal tribal elders and leaders along that 1860 track are getting ready to roll out the red carpet again - this time to welcome a 2010 expedition retracing the route of Burke and Wills for an environmental audit.
Following the same timetable and route, this fact-finding Environmental Expedition is to leave Melbourne's Royal Park on August 21 2010, aiming to reach the Gulf by February 11 – if weather conditions, rain, floods and finances allow us to. That is the end of the actual Environmental audit but the party may then return to Cooper Creek by April 21, 150 years to the day after Burke's party arrived.
In 1860, the explorers were asked to focus on land and water - with Burke commissioned to find land and water that could be exploited by pastorilists In 2010 this Environmental Expedition aims to assess the damage to that land and water after 150 years of use, and to work out ways to repair that damage. Some ‘lush pastures’ are now arid ground and some rivers Burke had to swim across are often now bone dry.
Under the executive leadership of patron, actor and environmentalist Jack Thompson, specialist environmentalists using detailed maps provided by Hema Maps will try to follow the 1860 route and timetable more or less travelling in two four-wheel-drive vehicles one provided by Hema Maps (Nissan Patrol) the other by adventurer, bushman and still photographer Steve Broomhall (Nissan Navara)
CARING FOR OUR COUNTRY
The Environmental Expedition also plans to work with specialists from the Australian Conservation Foundation who will explain environmental issues along the rack and recommend solutions. The EE has also asked Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett for financial help through his Caring for our Country program.
The 22-week expedition is being organised into eleven fortnightly legs. The size of the expedition will depend on what funding the organisers are able to raise from government and corporate sponsors.
A journal documenting the environmental changes and issues, along with the documentary film record of interviews and problems, will be presented to federal and state governments.
This time, however, aware of the damage Europeans have done along the track since 1860, compared to the original Aboriginal inhabitants Thompson and his expedition will be seeking the advice of Indigenous leaders. Expedition adviser and Reconciliation Australia co-chairman Professor Mick Dodson says this expedition will fare well if it "seeks the expertise, leadership and assistance of the many indigenous groups already working on environmental issues along the track".
As Menindee-based Aboriginal elder ''Aunty'' Beryl Carmichael of the Nyampa people told me during a recent reconnaissance trip: "We will give you a traditional welcome like you never had, with dancing and singing in our language. We will welcome you with open arms and embrace you all. We've got a lot of environmental problems up here, and if you are coming to help us repair the damage, we will work shoulder to shoulder with you because we have a lot of work to do."
Thompson and his team will also be going out of their way to consult local indigenous rangers such as Birdsville's Don Rowland, manager of Simpson Desert National Park, who is already engaged in repairing some of the damage and is happy to share his inherited indigenous knowledge. Burke and Wills would have survived if they had allowed Aboriginals like Don Rowlands helping them as his letter below confirms.
Don Rowlands letter of support:
This generous approach of the Aborigines recalls the unqualified help provided by tribes along the track in 1860. According to Wills, the main journal keeper, writing in February 1861, Aborigines often offered directions on the best route to the Gulf. "We passed three blacks, who, as is universally their custom, pointed out to us, unasked, the best way ahead."
Aborigines also fed the dying explorers on two consecutive days in April 1861 when they returned from the Gulf. "As we were about to start this morning,'' wrote Wills, ''some blacks came by, from whom we were fortunate enough to get about 12 pounds [five kilograms] of fish." Next day: "We had scarcely finished breakfast, when our friends the blacks, from whom we had obtained the fish, made their appearance with a few more and seemed inclined to go with us and keep up the supply." Later, "they also intimated that if we would go to their camp we could have any quantity of nardoo [a plant that could be ground with stones and eaten as a paste] and fish".
This was not all. In May 1861 Wills reported: "As I was about to pass the blacks' encampment they invited me to stay; I did so and was even more hospitably entertained than before, being on this occasion, offered a share of a gunyah [shelter] and supplied with plenty of fish and nardoo, as well as a couple of nice fat rats - the latter found most delicious; they were baked in their skins."
The basic food staple nardoo kept the explorers alive for months, and could have sustained them indefinitely - had they learnt how to prepare it so it did not cause beriberi (a deficiency of thiamine, vitamin B1), from which they died. Moreover, as Burke noted on December 20, 1860, north of Cooper Creek: "We made it to a creek where we found a great many natives; they presented us with fish, and offered us their women."
Although Burke rejected the offer of female companionship, the Aborigines, undeterred by this puzzling response, invited them to dance in corroborees around the campfire. As Wills wrote: "A large tribe of blacks came pestering us to go to their camp and have a dance, which we declined."
Apart from food, the Aborigines repeatedly offered the stricken explorers accommodation in their camps, setting aside gunyahs, and when survivor John King was the last man standing they assigned him to a sub-group of three men in the Yandruwandha tribe with whom he shared the same gunyah. Later still, they gave King a Yandruwandha woman, Carrawaw (or Karrawa), from the eaglehawk totem group as a girlfriend, or ngumbu, with whom he had a daughter known as "Yellow Alice", or "Miss King", born in 1862.
Without the generous attention they received, Burke and Wills would never have made it to the Gulf or back to the Cooper. As it was, they were lucky to get through Queensland's Selwyn Range as some young warriors who wanted to kill them were only stopped by tribal elders who overruled the youngsters and demanded safe passage for the ''whitefellas''.
Even though Aborigines had killed previous explorers and attacked Burke's rival, John McDouall Stuart, that year, Burke and Wills did not realise the dangers. Wills wrote: "They are troublesome and nothing but the threat to shoot them will keep them away; they are however, easily frightened, and although fine-looking men, decidedly not of warlike disposition."
Yet had the Aborigines decided to spear these invaders, the naive explorers could have been killed in an instant. The South Australian Register dated November 26, 1861, even reported a grisly outback discovery of "the bones of white men having been killed and partly eaten".
Burke and Wills spent the last few days before they died seeking Aboriginal help, as Wills wrote on June 29, 1861, just before he died. "We are going up the creek to look for the blacks, it is now our only chance of being saved from starvation."
When Burke died at the end of June, reported King, "on seeing his remains the whole party wept bitterly, and covered his bones with bushes". But right to the end Burke had shot at Aborigines if they came near his camp uninvited or stole items as small as an oil cloth. The explorers were, of course, worried Aborigines would steal food or equipment essential to their survival. Most of all, however, these mid-19th century explorers were conditioned by the shared cultural perception of the day that Aborigines were ''ignorant and godless savages''.
So they failed to learn the language, and unlike Augustus Gregory and Ludwig Leichhardt, did not ask Aborigines for information about their planned route or water supplies along the way. Nor did they engage Aboriginal guides as had Matthew Flinders and Phillip Parker King, who both hired Bungaree to take them around the Australian coast in the earlier part of the same century.
The 2010 expedition will encounter very different conditions - and difficulties. In 1861, Burke and Wills' choices ultimately left them at the mercy of a harsh landscape. The new expedition will plot a landscape in retreat - and the thwarted efforts of traditional owners to reclaim it.
"Oh, we have so many environmental problems,'' Aboriginal elder Beryl Carmichael says. ''The water is disappearing from the rivers down here, as greedy people take it out further upstream. Apart from rare wet seasons our Menindee lakes are drying up. Mining companies are destroying the topsoil with their growing network of roads, undermining the vegetation and desecrating our spiritual connections with our land.''Nevertheless, she promises to teach members of the expedition about the land and its precious water and how to preserve the environment for the next generation.
Further up the track, park manager Rowland told our visiting environmental expedition scout Steve Broomhall that he would help our team review myriad environmental problems he is dealing with and report back to government on what needs to be done to preserve this fragile region.
So although the Environmental Expedition may have its work cut out, it should be able to make a worthwhile study of the environmental issues along that 1860 track. . And it will have a greater chance of success because this time not only will the expedition be consulting indigenous Australians to begin with, but the environmentalists will be guided by the region's original inhabitants from start to finish - hopefully with a very different outcome to 1860.
THE HISTORICAL STORY AND IMPORTANCE OF LEARNING LESSONS FROM THE PAST
As Victorians get set to mark the 150th anniversary of the epic Burke and Wills Expedition, a casual observer could be forgiven for asking why anybody would want to remember – let alone commemorate - a disastrous outback expedition on which the two leaders died unnecessarily because of a string of mistakes all of which could have been avoided.
TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY
Yet like the misadventure at Gallipoli the triumph and tragedy of the Burke and Wills saga seems to grow stronger as it recedes further into the past. Both events were ill-conceived missions of questionable value, riddled with mistakes, involving venturing into unknown and poorly researched territory, achieving very little, costing too many lives and generating scandals, public outcry and investigations. Yet both enjoy a tightening grip on the hearts of our young nation which seems more interested in losing itself in gallant historical failures than celebrating spectacular successes.
There is a very fine line between bravery and stupidity. And when high profile heroes die through stupidity official observers often mask their fatal mistakes by presenting their deaths as gallant, glorious even mythical; blinding present and future generations to the harsh reality and tempting fate. For successive generations could make the same mistakes going into un-winnable battles like Afghanistan on far-flung shores under foreign leadership, or venturing foolishly into the vast waterless deserts of the Australian outback unprepared.
This is why it is so important to remember - but for the right reasons. By revisiting the harsh realities for each new generation we can separate truth from fiction and explode unfounded myths. Any SWAT analysis presenting a balance sheet will certainly confirm Burke and Wills actually achieved a great deal on their mission as well as failing miserably.
Commissioned to cross the continent from south to north, searching for useable land and water, they set out from Royal Park on 20 August 1860. Their leader Robert O’ Hara Burke, 39 was a Beechworth police officer recently migrated from Ireland, single, but in love with a 16 year actor Julia Matthews (to whom he had proposed in vain) performing in a comic drama at the Princess Theatre called Handy Andy. His deputy William Wills, 25, a recent migrant from Devon was a surveyor at the Melbourne observatory.
In his colourful farewell speech covered by The Age ( established just six years earlier) Burke proclaimed., “No expedition has ever started under such favourable circumstances at this. The people, the government, the committee all have done heartily what they could do. It is now our turn; and we shall never do well till we justify what you have done by showing you what we can do”.
Burke’s party of 19 men comprised medical doctors, artists, geologists, naturalists, botanists, cooks and German scientists, Afghan camel drivers and Hindu sepoys. Their wagons, horses, and camels were hopelessly overloaded with unnecessary supplies and took three slow months to reach Menindee, via Swan Hill. On 19 October Burke - impatient to get to the next base at Coopers Creek - split up the party hurrying ahead with eleven men. He appointed William Wright who he met at the Menindee pub, to lead the support party with the main supplies.
The advance party reached Coopers Creek in three weeks but waited in vain for William Wright who refused to leave Menindie as he had not be paid nor received written confirmation from Royal Society of Victoria’s Exploration Committee. On 16 December the impatient Burke set off on “a dash for the gulf” leaving William Brahe in charge of Coopers Creek asking him verbally to wait just three months after which Burke would be dead. Alarmed at such bravado Wills secretly begged Brahe to wait four months. Burke set off with Wills, Charles Gray and John King, who looked after the camels, with six camels and one horse heroically reaching the Gulf on 11 February – two months into Burke’s allocated three months – before turning around and dashing or rather dragging themselves back south.
Exhausted having walked most of the way on reduced rations they lost Gray, their horse and some camels yet made it back to Coopers Creek on 21 April – four months and four days after leaving. Unbelievably the same day Brahe had given up returning south a few hours earlier. Brahe had left food buried in a trunk under a tree he marked DIG but that did not last and by the end of June 1861 both Wills and Burke died of malnutrition nearby. Having second thoughts Brahe had returned not long after but because Burke had reburied the trunk without leaving a message Brahe did not know he was dying nearby. King befriended Aboriginal tribes who cared for him until he was rescued on 15 September returning to Melbourne where he told a disbelieving city the terrible truth.
Triumphant and tragic through it was on a SWAT analysis they nevertheless were first explorers to cross the continent; demonstrated great courage and physical endurance; Wills successfully navigated through vast uncharted deserts; they avoided attacks by Aboriginals who killed other explorers; their scientists took observations, collected samples, wrote journals and reports adding significantly to scientific knowledge; expedition artists recorded Aboriginal life and they opened up the outback for pastoral use.
Conversely the RSV’s Exploration Committee had selected the wrong man for the job as Burke had never left the settled districts, could not navigate by day nor get directions from the southern cross by night, never kept a regular journal, failed to put orders in writing or leave messages; split up his party; appointed unknown deputies; underestimated the time to Coopers Creek and back and necessary supplies; failed to find bush tucker, catch fish, shoot game or accept supplies offered by kind Aborigines who he shot at.
It may all sound unworthy of such mythical heroes but these are the mistakes we can learn from. The Japanese, and Russians may whitewash unsavoury military history but we can dignify the sacrifice of Burke and Wills by confronting mistakes and remembering them for the right reasons for the benefit of new generations.
IMPORTANCE OF LAND AND WATER- THEN AND NOW
More importantly for today’s environmental crisis we can also learn from the mistakes we have made exploiting that useable land and water discovered by Burke and Wills.
Which is why the privately funded group of committee environemtalists is planning an Environmental Expedition under the patronage of Jack Thompson – who played Burke in the 1985 classic “Burke & Wills” - along the 1860 track to report on and recommend remedies for damage inflicted over the last 150 years. Working with Indigenous Rangers, environmentalists and volunteers along the track this expedition will investigate and highlight over grazing, salination, erosion, exhausted and/or contaminated water sources, feral weeds, camels, cane toads etc.
These issues are as pressing today as exploration was in 1860 and the RSV believes this is an appropriate way of remembering Burke and Wills, honouring the indigenous supporters and the our fragile outback. Supported in principle by Indigenous Leaders, the Minister for the Environment, relevant state premiers and the Australian Conservation Foundation this expedition provides a timely opportunity to put something back after 150 years of mistakes.
- Jonathan King
- Inspired by his passion for history Dr. King is an extraordinary Australian who has led an extraordinary life. An award-winning author of 25 books on Australian History, he has written thousands of articles for newspaper and magazines, produced and presented more than 20 TV documentary films, appeared on hundreds of tv shows and acted as resident historian on many radio programs. Fighting for the environment since 1988 he helped fund and organize the first national summit of the Australian Conservation Foundation, worked for the United Nations's Environment Program and as director of Sting's Amazon Rainforest Foundation. But Perhaps Dr. King's greatest achievements have been his award-winning live re-enactments of great historical events, including most famously, the privately-funded 1988 Australian bicentennial re-enactment of the First Fleet -Australia's largest ever live spectator event (est audience 3 mill). In 1988 he was presented with Australian of the Year Award (Victorian division) and in in 1989 the Australian Achiever Award by the Prime Minister Bob Hawke for his fleet which was also voted best event of the Bicentennial Celebrations. www.jonathanking.com.au