Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Dig Tree: The Story of Burke and Wills by Sarah Murgatroyd

Wow, Robert O'Hara Burke and Dr. William Wills were quite possibly the unluckiest explorers ever. If this story weren't nonfiction, it would be hard to believe the big twist at the end.

When I was twelve, I read Cooper's Creek by Alan Moorehead, a novelized middle grade version of the story of Burke and Wills, the first men to nearly succeed in crossing the continent of Australia across the Outback, from South to North. I was recently reminded of this and wanted to revisit the story, and when I saw this adult nonfiction book complete with a terrific quote from Bill Bryson, I had to have it.

It is a straight-up history, not novelized at all with no reconstructed conversations, and Ms. Murgatroyd points out where historical facts are missing and details can only be guessed at. Yet, it is a riveting and heartbreaking story, if also at times ridiculous. The mid-1800s were a time of great exploration as unknown lands were quickly disappearing, and therefore explorers having to take on bigger challenges with bigger risks. The race for the North Pole and exploration in the wilds of South America were nearly all that was left, as the American West was quickly, if sparsely, becoming populated and even Australia was colonized. And yet the middle of Australia remained a great unknown. Was there a vast inland sea? Was it a barren desert? Were there acres of farmland and grazing land going ignored? Many wondered at what lay beyond the Flinders Ranges but the land had defeated those who had tried to find out. Finally, a carrot was offered that would not be easily ignored: the laying of an international telegraph line from the Northern coast that needed to somehow get to one of the cities along the Southern and Eastern coasts. Both Adelaide and Melbourne decided they wanted this, and both put up groups of men to try to forge a way across the continent to the north.

The Outback is very inhospitable. Bitterly dry, with plants that cut up your ankles and feet, swarms of mosquitoes and flies, occasional boggy, swampy areas, unending sand dunes, it is nearly as difficult to traverse as Antarctica, if filled with mostly opposite problems. (The one problem they both shared: starvation.) Yet it is beautiful and Aboriginals have lived there for tens of thousands of years, so obviously the obstacles can be overcome. The two competing groups of explorers had very differing theories on how to go about this. Stuart, from Adelaide, had already explored halfway up the continent previously, and he took just a handful of trusted men, horses, and the bare minimum of supplies (although not skimping on food.) It took him three tries, getting further each time, but Stuart eventually was the first to cross the continent. Burke and Wills from Melbourne took about 40 men with camels and wagons as well as horses, and a shocking amount of supplies. And yet this crew, the best outfitted and equipped, failed miserably. They came within 30 km (18 mi) of the coast two years before Stuart did, and didn't reach it. How did things go so terribly wrong?

Smoothly written with obvious great research that doesn't bog down the narrative, this is the rare history book that will keep you awake at night, wondering how the participants get to the inevitable ending. It is a testament to a great writer that, even when you know the outcome, you are still anxious and hoping for a different set of events than you know happened. If you love history or exploration and are interested in a story you've not heard before, The Dig Tree is the book for you.

These photos of the Outback were taken by me on my recent trip to Australia. We were in South Australia just south of the Flinders Ranges, which is the southernmost tip of the Outback, and this was the middle of winter in the rainy season. This is as green as the Outback gets.

I bought this book at an independent bookstore in Australia.

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