Story transcripts

A Glorious Disaster

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Reporter: Charles Wooley
Producer: Nick Greenaway

It's one of those odd and very Australian quirks that we tend to create our legends from ratbags and failures.

Ned Kelly is a hero. Our greatest pride is the defeat at Gallipoli.

And our most famous explorers are Burke and Wills.

These two blokes failed dismally in their attempt to be the first Europeans to cross this country.

But we admire them anyway because, hey, they gave it a damned good shake.

To mark the 150th anniversary of that ill-fated expedition, Charles Wooley retraced their footsteps, taking along a famous actor, a historian and a modern-day explorer for company.

And what Charles discovered was a very different Robert O'Hara Burke from the one he learnt about at school.

Read the webchat transcript

PHOTOS: Charles Wooley tackles the outback with Jack Thompson

Full transcript:

STORY -

CHARLES WOOLEY: Paradise is not a word often applied to Australia's harsh inland, but it's the best word to describe Coopers Creek today. In the wake of drought-breaking rains, it's a meandering, pulsating, ribbon of life, running from Queensland down into South Australia. It's almost impossible to conceive of it now as the barren wilderness graveyard in which our two most famous explorers, Burke And Wills, perished.

JACK THOMPSON: It's so beautiful.

DR JONATHON KING: It's just unbelievable that anyone would die in this Garden of Eden.

JACK THOMPSON: But they did.

CHARLES WOOLEY: I've come to the banks of the Cooper with actor Jack Thompson and historian Dr Jonathan King - two men determined that Australia embraces the real story of Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills, setting the record straight 150 years after they set out to be the first Europeans to cross the country.

DR JONATHON KING: Well, Burke and Wills are household names because it was a tragedy. John McDouell Stuart - hardly anyone's heard of him - and he was the first to cross the continent successfully, one year later. It's like Gallipoli. Everybody remembers Gallipoli because we lost 8,709 men in a disastrous campaign, which we lost and had to retreat from. It's rather like Burke and Wills.

CHARLES WOOLEY: Retreat was the last thing on the minds of Burke and Wills in 1860. There was a continent to conquer and they were the men to do it. Just as crucial, their financiers, the Royal Society of Victoria, were desperate to beat South Australia's man, John McDouall Stuart, to whatever prizes lay in the unknown inland. It was a scramble for central Australia, wasn't it?

DR JONATHON KING: Well, there was a big chunk of unclaimed land in the north, just under the Gulf, and everybody wanted to get it, and the Victorians thought, "we'll grab it, and Burke is our man."

JACK THOMPSON AS ROBERT O'HARA BURKE: Well, if it's a race he wants I'll give him one!

CHARLES WOOLEY: Did you like playing Burke?

JACK THOMPSON: I loved playing Burke.

JACK THOMPSON AS ROBERT O'HARA BURKE: I mean to cross this country...

CHARLES WOOLEY: It's hard to imagine anyone else playing Robert O'Hara Burke than the inimitable Jack Thompson.

JACK THOMPSON AS ROBERT O'HARA BURKE: And I mean to walk every step of the way!

CHARLES WOOLEY: What did you learn from playing Burke?

JACK THOMPSON: Oh, I learnt that he was a romantic, a man who was ambitious. He was also - he was also a stubborn and slightly cruel fool of a man.

CHARLES WOOLEY: The story of Burke and Wills is a heroic and tragic tale, but also a deeply personal one for Jack Thompson.

DR JONATHON KING: Jack Thompson's not Jack Thompson. Out here, Jack Thompson's Robert O'Hara Burke, and that's what he is.

JACK THOMPSON: "Trust us to learn the truth," they said...

CHARLES WOOLEY: There's also a strong family connection. Jack's father, the Australian poet John Thompson, is best known for his Burke and Wills poem, 'Into the Interior'.

JACK THOMPSON: "Their horses dying and their camels lost "Until the silences, "The sand and the stone possessed them all "And took them and absorbed them into the truth "Which they had dared to seek."

CHARLES WOOLEY: Yes. And, so, on the 20th of August, 1860 with Burke as expedition leader and Wills as navigator, the explorers departed from Melbourne's Royal Park. Their aim - to traverse the continent from south to north and discover what lay between.

JACK THOMPSON: It was an extraordinary event and people went out to see them off, huge crowds to farewell this expedition of all expeditions. It was like Cape Canaveral. It was the blast off into outer space. So, there was this wonderful sense of mystery heading out into this great - truly, into this great unknown.

CHARLES WOOLEY: This was an exciting new era of exploration, the Australian sun now rose over a very strange beast, indeed. 26 camels were imported from India for the mission. Here was an animal designed for desert exploration - the Toyota of its time - capable of lumping nearly half its body weight and running on much less food and water than a horse. This is the way to go?

ANDREW HARPER: This is definitely the way to go. Anywhere in the inland of Australia a team of pack camels is the best, in my view, form of transport. Certainly from the point of view of finding out about what's going on on the ground.

CHARLES WOOLEY: Andrew Harper is a modern explorer, a naturalist, and a cameleer. As far as he's concerned, this beast of burden was exactly the right animal for Burke and Wills's expedition. It was a radical new idea when Burke took off with camels.

ANDREW HARPER: Oh, totally. To import these exotic animals and head off into the Interior, that was a huge thing in itself, let alone the actual objective of the expedition.

CHARLES WOOLEY: So the technology was right. What went wrong?

ANDREW HARPER: Look, I think it was rushed - the planning and the initial execution. Once they got over the Murray, they were on their own. Every decision they made could have been life-threatening, as indeed it turned out to be.

CHARLES WOOLEY: In hindsight, the expedition was doomed to failure, not least because of a series of errors of judgment made by Burke under a coolabah tree at Coopers Creek - the famous 'Dig Tree', which they reached in November, 1860, 12 weeks into the expedition.

DR JONATHON KING: This is one of the sacred sites for European history in Australia. It's the place from which they set out for the Gulf, it's the place to which they returned, and all of the heartache and the tragedy and the disappointment took place here, at the Dig Tree, so it's of enormous symbolic significance for the Australian history.

CHARLES WOOLEY: Like generations of older Australians, I grew up with the legend of Burke and Wills and this, the Dig Tree. I remember it as yellowing pictures in high school history books. It's taken me more than half a lifetime to get to see the real thing and, strangely enough, it's much as I imagined - a piece of living history. But what has changed in the intervening period is the way we've come to regard Burke and Wills. Undoubtedly they were brave men, but we have to face the fact that they didn't have much of a clue.

JACK THOMPSON AS ROBERT O'HARA BURKE: I'll not sit here swatting flies whilst that little drunken arse of a Scotsman beats me to the Gulf.

CHARLES WOOLEY: Obsessed with beating McDouall Stuart,, Burke unwisely decided not to wait for fresh supplies and cooler weather. Leaving team member William Brahe in charge of the Dig Tree base camp with instructions to wait three months, Burke and Wills, along with Charles Grey and John King struck out for the Gulf.

JACK THOMPSON AS ROBERT O'HARA BURKE: We'll give them a show they'll never forget!

CHARLES WOOLEY: 2,300km return journey, on foot, in the height of summer, on half-rations. Amazingly, perhaps, they reached the Gulf in February 1861.

JACK THOMPSON AS ROBERT O'HARA BURKE: It's saltwater, Mr Wills. It is the sea!

CHARLES WOOLEY: But elation must have been tempered by the reality that now they had to make it back to the Coopers Creek base camp.

DR JONATHON KING: And they were buggered, Jack, weren't they?

JACK THOMPSON: Look, they might as well have been on the moon.

DR JONATHON KING: Yeah, but they were buggered. Four months and four days walking to the Gulf and back on foot, they were absolutely exhausted.

CHARLES WOOLEY: What was the expression they used? Beat up?

DR JONATHON KING: Done for.

CHARLES WOOLEY: Done for.

JACK THOMPSON: Done for.

CHARLES WOOLEY: They made it back to Coopers Creek on April 21, only to find the camp abandoned and the word 'dig' carved into a coolabah tree. Incredibly, the waiting party had pulled out only hours before, leaving behind some buried supplies.

JACK THOMPSON AS ROBERT O'HARA BURKE: Today, this morning, after four months, they left today.

CHARLES WOOLEY: Today, the carvings on the tree have all but faded away. But as for 'dig' wherever, it's not there, is it?

JACK THOMPSON: No, you can just see 65, which is the number of the camp.

CHARLES WOOLEY: Are we thinking of this as a site of a heroic tragedy or a dark comedy of errors?

JACK THOMPSON: Oh, in a way, it's much more a dark comedy of errors. I mean when you know that it's only hours before that Brahe's party moved on, it's bizarre rather than heroic, isn't it?

CHARLES WOOLEY: In the Victorian State Library lies an historical treasure trove, including Burke and Wills's last diary notes, where Burke records his grief at being abandoned and his fears they were too exhausted to catch the retreating party. Instead, fatally, he decided to set out for an outstation at Mount Hopeless, more than 200km away.

JACK THOMPSON: Set out to walk across there, keep walking, we'll go a long way before we get to Mt Hopeless.

CHARLES WOOLEY: Yeah, I mean that's amazing, isn't it?

CHARLES WOOLEY: Fancy deciding...

JACK THOMPSON: That's right

CHARLES WOOLEY: .. that you will go to a place called Mt Hopeless?

JACK THOMPSON: "Yeah, look mate, you know what we should do? "We've run out of everything. "You know what? Let's go for Mt Hopeless!"

CHARLES WOOLEY: Yeah, that sounds good. Would Burke worry about us laughing at him?

JACK THOMPSON: Where is he? The bastard's here somewhere, mate. (LAUGHTER)

CHARLES WOOLEY: But what really sealed the fate of Burke and Wills was their basic ignorance of bush skills and native tucker. It's now thought they poisoned themselves by eating flour they prepared from seeds of the local Nardoo plant.

DR JONATHON KING: One of the many mistakes Burke made was not trusting the Yandrawandra people 'cause the Yandrawandra people were bringing fish in. They could see these white fellas were in trouble and they were coming forward with the fish. Burke would grab his pistol and shoot over their heads. I mean, what a nutter you'd have to be to do that when you're dying of starvation and the blackfellas are trying to help you.

CHARLES WOOLEY: I'm afraid that you're shattering my childhood illusions here.

DR JONATHON KING: They need to be. We need to learn from history's mistakes or we'll make them again.

CHARLES WOOLEY: Only one man out of the party of four which made it to the Gulf lived to tell the story. The bodies of Burke and Wills were eventually retrieved and given a state funeral back in Melbourne, thousands of kilometres away from the lonely monument at Coopers Creek, which marks the place where Robert O'Hara Burke died 150 years ago.

JACK THOMPSON: It's very moving.

CHARLES WOOLEY: Yeah, I can see that you're affected by it. Does that happen with a lot of your roles?

JACK THOMPSON: Oh, a bit. Not quite as much as Robert O'Hara. I've been to his house. I've looked at his life.

CHARLES WOOLEY: Yeah, here you are. Well that's, of course, because you're such a Burke-like character yourself in many ways.

JACK THOMPSON: Oh, and a romantic at heart. Yeah, I think that this is a beautiful place to die.

CHARLES WOOLEY: But we have miles to go before we sleep.

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