Burke & Wills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Australia’s Most Famous Explorers

Written by Peter Fitzsimons
Review by Marina Oliver

This is an account of the first successful crossing of Australia, south to north, from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria, in 1860. In meticulous detail we have the arguments for the exploration, the selection of Burke as leader, despite his total lack of exploration experience, the journey itself, the deaths from lack of water or food, and the aftermath. The expedition was a triumph of determination and perseverance, but also a catalogue of mismanagement and tragedy, right from the start. Fitzsimons tells it all, quoting extensively from letters, the transactions of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria, newspapers and more. There were many mistakes and poor calculations, by the Institute beforehand and the leaders of the exploration during the trek, and afterwards a thorough shifting of the blame.

The writing is clear and fluent, the story easy to follow despite the complicated chronology from the many different sources. It is a detailed and copiously researched account looking at all aspects of the venture. We can see the amazement of the people when camels are imported (and the terror of the horses which ran away), the chaotic shambles of the departure, the bleak but often beautiful landscape, the determination of men, often seriously ill and undernourished, not to give in, the triumph for Burke and Wills at finally reaching the Gulf, and the desperation of the men facing so many difficulties and final death.