James Cook University Media release – “Walking with Burke and Wills”

JCU Media release, July 22nd 2008 Phoenix 0804

A postgraduate student from James Cook University in Cairns is jumping feet-first into his doctoral research, by walking from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria — a journey of 3,250 kilometres.

History student David Phoenix will follow the route taken by explorers Burke and Wills, whose tale of bravery and blunder ended in death at Cooper Creek in 1861.

“Burke and Wills may not be Australia’s most successful explorers, but they are certainly our best known,” Mr Phoenix said. “Although it’s almost 150 years since they set off, their story still captures the imagination.”

By placing himself in the landscape traversed by the two explorers, travelling at a similar pace and at the same time of year, Mr Phoenix hopes to gain insight into the role the landscape played in how the expedition progressed, and why it ultimately failed.

“Because the human side of the drama is so compelling, the landscape and its effect on the conduct of the expedition has been neglected,” he said. “It’s often overlooked, or described stereotypically as the ‘hostile wilderness’ that explorers had to face.”

Mr Phoenix said test walks conducted in two previous research projects, in which he examined the expedition’s records while travelling the route, had shed fresh light on the story.

“It’s often supposed that after returning to the Dig Tree, the explorers didn’t travel far, but in fact they made a couple of lengthy journeys in an attempt to save themselves,” he said.

“They were trying to find Strzelecki Creek which would lead them to safety. After walking the area with Wills’ journals and other records, it’s clear to me that not only were they unable to identify the creek, but at one stage they actually walked across it.

“They thought the creek was a permanent water course, but they crossed it at a dry floodplain. I believe that’s where they came undone and this ultimately that led to their deaths.”

Although land use along the route has changed since 1861, Mr Phoenix said much of the topography remained unchanged.

“The landscape can tell us a lot about why they made the decisions and choices they made,” he said.

The weather, however, is likely to be quite different. “Burke and Wills travelled in an exceptionally good season, when Wills wrote that the grass grew as high as their shoulders,” Mr Phoenix said. “I’ll be walking through land that has seen years of drought.”

Burke and Wills were the first explorers to cross the continent, and Mr Phoenix has been unable to find records of anyone who has walked from Melbourne to the Gulf in the century and a half since. He expects his journey to take six months, walking six days a week.

Although he is leaving Melbourne at the same time of year, his walk is not a re-enactment of the famous expedition.

“I won’t be taking 19 men, 27 camels, eight pack horses, one riding horse, six wagons and 34 wagon horses,” he said.

“I’ll have a friend driving a 4WD support vehicle, and we’re travelling on a shoestring budget.

“Re-enactment is not the point. My aim is to walk the same country, investigating the cultural landscape to see what it tells me about their journey.”

David Phoenix will depart from Royal Park, Melbourne, at 4.00 pm on Friday, 1st August. Burke and Wills left the Park at the same time of day on 21 August, 1860.

One Response to “James Cook University Media release – “Walking with Burke and Wills””

  1. Michael Trout says:

    Dave and Annie
    Well it is getting close to Christmas hope all is well for you. I heard you are in Boulia bloody long way yet good luck will be great to see you all when you gt back you mad bugger. What have you planned next???? A trip accross the continant???/
    Talk soon Michael

Leave a Reply