Alan Moorehead: Cooper’s Creek

April 21, 2014

Another fascinating second-hand acquisition, this book was written over half a century ago, to mark the centenary of the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition which set out to cross Australia from south to north in the 1860s. Although they succeeded in making it to the Gulf of Carpentaria, they died on the return journey.

As I read, I was struck by the similarity between their story, and that of Scott’s tragic journey to the South Pole. Both achieved their goal, both died on the way home. Scott and his colleagues died a few miles from safety, trapped by the weather. Burke and Wills, in desperate straits, arrived very belatedly at a support camp which their colleagues had left a mere nine hours before, after waiting for months and finally giving up hope that they were alive.

I’ve read some accounts, but not many, of the exploration of Australia, and what has stuck in my mind is the sense of it as a totally alien continent to the first travellers. It was completely unknown to any other nation before European sailors finally encountered it; its only inhabitants were the natives, who had been alone there for thousands of years. Nobody knew what might lie in the interior of the vast continent: there was even speculation that there might be a huge inland sea in the centre. The harshness of the terrain and the climate (Burke and Wills record temperatures  between 60 and 70 degrees Celsius!) reminded me of the accounts of travellers such as Thesiger and Bertram in the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, but they had guides who knew the terrain.

Moorehead’s account is clear and well-written, given the relative scantiness of the information available to him; there was a bit too much detail given to the investigations and commission of enquiry after the loss of the expedition, adn I would have liked even more detail to the maps that accompanied the text.


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