30 MARCH 2002, Page 44

Braving the ghastly blank

Harry Mount

THE DIG TREE: THE EXTRAORDINARY STORY OF THE ILL-FATED BURKE AND WILLS EXPEDITION by Sarah Murgatroyd Bloomsbury, £16.99, pp. 372, ISBN 0747556776 For all the clichés of rugged Australians knocking back Castlemaine XXXX in farflung sheep stations across the outback, more than three quarters of them still live within 20 miles of the sea. The early settlers were even less adventurous: they clung to the coast and never dared go into the 'ghastly blank' — the huge expanse of land in the middle of the country. Even the supposed outposts of human existence were within a day's ride of the coast — the town of Castlemaine itself is only 40 miles outside the Melbourne city limits. It wasn't until 1860 that white men got to the middle of Australia.

Those white men were an Irish policeman, Robert O'Hara Burke, and William Wills, a scientist from Devon. They not only got to the middle of the country, but right to the other side and back again. Burke and Wills died on the trip, but a third member of the party, John King, made it in one piece, although he's never remembered because he made the fatal error — as far as marking a page for yourself in the roll-call of great explorers is concerned — of surviving. Al] of them may now be largely forgotten but they were heroes at the time, with state funerals in Victoria and mass public mourning.

It's surprising that they are forgotten because their trip had all the elements needed to secure a place in pioneers' Valhalla. First, they had an aim that was easily understandable crossing a continent. Their quest also had the added bonus of possible enrichment for everybody in Australia. Despite the terror of the ghastly blank, everybody thought that once it had been crossed great tracts of land would be opened up to commerce and agriculture. There was also a race on — a Scot. John Stuart, was trying to do the same trip at the same time. All in all, it was the complete prototype for the Scott-Amundsen head-tohead half a century later — there was even one member of the party who was holding the group back and so elected to die rather than be a burden. The only difference was that he stayed where he was while the others pushed on — a sort of 'I'm just going to stay here and roast my bones for a while. I may be some time.'

It's also got a nice little 'so near, but so far' angle that adds a keen edge to the tragedy, like the titillating fact for catastrophe junkies that Captain Scott was only 11 miles from safety when he died. On the way out, Burke scored his name into a tree whenever he struck camp so that he could retrace his steps on the way back to one particular tree, the agreed rendezvous with his support staff. When Burke was a month overdue in coming back, the support staff headed for home, leaving some buried sup

plies and the words 'Dig under 3 ft NW' carved into the tree. Nine hours after they left, Burke got to the so-called 'dig tree' — if the support party hadn't fled, he would have survived.

The misery of the outback may not be quite as had as the Antarctic. There's always something a bit more appealing about extreme heat than extreme cold — something to do with all our summers spent on hot beaches maybe. Still it wasn't particularly nice. The wilderness wasn't just red earth. As well as having pretty things like yellow-footed wallabies and flocks of budgerigars, it was full of bullwaddie and lancewood scrub, a combination known as nature's barbed wire. And there was not very much to eat, except for nardoo, a plant that could be ground down into a disgustingly bitter flour. They all suffered from the chronic fatigue brought on by ben-ben i — meaning 1. cannot, I cannot' — as a result of vitamin B deficiency.

And then there were the Aborigines. Much as Sarah Murgatroyd makes a brave fist of praising them for their resourcefulness and enchanting customs, they were clearly bloody horrible. One of their principal enchanting customs seemed to have been the ritual humiliation of white men, whether tearing their clothes from their dead bodies, or just staying content with making lightning trips into their camps and deftly nicking their equipment.

Despite all the drama, it's still not quite enough to sustain interest the whole time. If you're an adventure nut, the endless details about the preparation of the expedition and daily accounts of what happened, all delivered in no-nonsense straightforward prose, are fine. If not, reading The Dig Tree is sometimes a bit like running into an Australian Ancient Mariner, or a 19th-century undergraduate just back from his year off, full of stories about things that horrified him but begin slightly to bore you.

There are some engaging parts where Burke and Wills lived up to our expectations of Victorian expeditions and did some fantastically idiotic things. Musing over when to set out, they plumped for the summer. The trip might have been quite straightforward in winter. As it was, with 100-degree heat and flies everywhere, it was inevitable that some of them would end up as cairns of sun-whitened bones, occasionally gnawed by passing dingoes. Their geographical equipment was all out of whack, so that they didn't hit the north edge of Australia where they thought they were going to hit it, although even they were capable of working out that they had at least made it all the way across when they noticed the rivers going up and down with the tide. They lost their camels, and destroyed all their possessions when Burke set fire to a pan of fat. And, in the final humiliation, much more of Australia was opened up by the search parties that set Out to find Burke and Wills than the two men discovered themselves.