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BOOKS OF THE MONTH FOR 2017

 

 
9780733634109
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RRP  $49.99
$39.05

Burke and Wills

 

Book Description: The iconic Australian exploration story - brought to life by Peter FitzSimons, Australia's storyteller.

'They have left here today!' he calls to the others. When King puts his hand down above the ashes of the fire, it is to find it still hot. There is even a tiny flame flickering from the end of one log. They must have left just hours ago.

Melbourne, 20 August 1860. In an ambitious quest to be the first Europeans to cross the harsh Australian continent, the Victorian Exploring Expedition sets off, farewelled by 15,000 cheering well-wishers. Led by Robert O'Hara Burke, a brave man totally lacking in the bush skills necessary for his task; surveyor and meteorologist William Wills; and 17 others, the expedition took 20 tons of equipment carried on six wagons, 23 horses and 26 camels.

Almost immediately plagued by disputes and sackings, the expeditioners battled the extremes of the Australian landscape and weather: its deserts, the boggy mangrove swamps of the Gulf, the searing heat and flooding rains. Food ran short and, unable to live off the land, the men nevertheless mostly spurned the offers of help from the local Indigenous people.

In desperation, leaving the rest of the party at the expedition's depot on Coopers Creek, Burke, Wills, Charley Gray and John King made a dash for the Gulf in December 1860. Bad luck and bad management would see them miss by just hours a rendezvous back at Coopers Creek, leaving them stranded in the wilderness with practically no supplies. Only King survived to tell the tale. Yet, despite their tragic fates, the names of Burke and Wills have become synonymous with perseverance and bravery in the face of overwhelming odds. They live on in our nation's history - and their story remains immediate and compelling.

Why Our Staff Love Burke and Wills:
History buffs know that often truth is far stranger than fiction, and although the 19th century overflowed with incredible adventure stories, few reach the tragic absurdity of Burke and Wills. Setting out from Melbourne in 1860 with the goal of crossing the inland to the Gulf of Carpentaria, these two men were notoriously inexperienced and unprepared. Their expedition team was poorly built; lacking in skills and mismatched in temperament. They carried a surreal collection of inappropriate gear, and a sense of Victorian formality that failed in that most informal space, the outback desert. Seven of the team, including the leaders, needlessly met their deaths, and the resulting controversy led to a Royal Commission.

This is a story of colonial hubris, poor project management, epic miscommunication and massive self-delusion. Many books have been written on this story, but Peter FitzSimons brings more depth to the characters, showing how their certain personal traits sowed the seeds of disastrous decisions. He examines the institutional ambitions behind the team's formation and funding, and how the desire to conquer the "ghastly blank" in the middle of the map was Empire's only consideration.

FitzSimons brings his trademark sense of verve and yarn to this tale, and this may be his most entertaining history yet. You'll enjoy this rich story. It is a perfect storm of crazy thinking and really bad luck. This book will have you stopping constantly to mutter "Oh my God!", perhaps facepalming, and then reading it out to others. Pushing 700 pages, it is also a very handsome and weighty tome, perfect for balancing in the summer hammock.

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