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The Dig Tree: The Extraordinary Story of the Ill-fated Burke and Wills 1860 Expedition Paperback – 6 Jan 2003

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Product details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC; New edition edition (6 Jan. 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0747562989
  • ISBN-13: 978-0747562986
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 3.1 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 110,053 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

For Australians, the Burke and Wills Expedition of 1860-61 provides the great epic in the story of the European exploration of their continent. Like many epics of 19th-century European exploration across the world, it has taken on some of the elements of myth. The heroic struggle to achieve the aim of crossing the continent from north to south. The even more heroic deaths on the impossible return journey. The one survivor of the expedition staggering out of the wilderness months later, alive only because of the generosity of the aborigines. All of these elements possess a mythic quality in the imaginations of many Australians.

Sarah Murgatroyd's book looks beneath the myths to find the truth about the ill-fated expedition. Some of the truths are not very flattering, particularly to the expedition's leader, Robert O'Hara Burke. Burke was "a man who had never travelled beyond the settled districts of Australia, who had no experience of exploration and who was notorious for getting lost on his way home from the pub." Unsurprisingly, he made a series of disastrous decisions that, effectively, doomed all but one of the men who accompanied him on the last leg of the journey to death in the desert. By his blinkered refusal to accept the help offered by the aborigines of the region he turned his back on the one remote hope of survival. Yet The Dig Tree is not a simple de-bunking of a heroic myth. Murgatroyd, in a compelling, page-turning narrative, reconstructs the expedition in such a way that the genuine heroism of men striving against impossible odds and against their own limitations emerges. Her descriptions of the last days of Burke and Wills, as they realise that they cannot survive, are very moving. Her clear-sighted view of the follies and farce of much of the expedition, in the end, does more justice to those involved than any amount of mythologising.--Nick Rennison --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"Sarah Murgatroyd tells an exciting story" -- The Historical Novels Review, Augsut 2002

"excellent book" -- The People 15th February

'A beautifully told story' -- Sunday Telegraph

'Exhaustively researched and beautifully written, insightful and entertaining, and will be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in exploration history' -- Adventure Travel

'Murgatroyd demonstrates a profound understanding of topography and climate in this gripping tale' -- Sunday Times

'Murgatroyd picks her way with forensic care through a tangle of flawed characters, fatal near-misses, betrayals, dignified last words and dubious maps' -- Evening Standard

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Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 8 April 2002
Format: Hardcover
The sense of foreboding for the perilous expedition starts building from the first page and is sustained right until the end of the book, even after the outcome is revealed. This book abounds with interesting trivia. Did you know that 80% of Australia's population lives within 30km of the coast even today? Did you know that after many camels were shipped in to help cross the outback, so many escaped that Australia now has the largest non-disease ridden camel population in the world - so much so that they are to this day shipped back to Saudi for racing? The main protagonists of the adventure are sharply drawn in concise, powerful writing that only requires a single sentence to give you a sense of who these people are. The hero, Burke, is "a tall, flamboyant Irishman with flashing blue eyes and a magnificent beard". Wills on the other hand is described as "an intelligent, dependable, abstemious young man with a talent for surveying and a strong sense of duty". The contrast between the natures of the two men serves as a constant theme in the book as they together pursue their exploration of the outback. The Dig Tree draws on a tremendous amount of research material and is insightful in its presentation of issues as diverse as gold prospecting in Melbourne, the progress of disease caused by nutritional deficiencies and the history of the Aborigines. A thoroughly riveting read, this book feels like an education in Australian history but above all the writing that sustains the narrative is beautiful and haunting: "giant rock undulations run down like waves...there is nothing but dessicated brown earth running towards a string of sharp white salt lakes on the horizon".Read more ›
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 16 Mar. 2002
Format: Hardcover
"The Dig Tree" opens with a quote from Charles Sturt, written twenty years before the famous Burke & Wills expedition set out to discover what lay beyond the inhabited edges of Australia. Sturt challenged anyone to look at a map of Australia and not wish to be the first to arrive in the centre of the country. Inspiration indeed to the explorers of the 19th Century and to an armchair explorer such as myself today.
Sarah Murgatroyd's account of the ill-fated expedition demonstrates meticulous research and a considerable capacity to imagine how the men must have felt facing dire situation after dire situation in the wild, uncharted heart of Australia. Eccentric, full of false confidence, a natural magnet for bad luck, and yet persistent in the face of anything that came his way, Burke led his team to tragic ends. Murgatroyd writes with rueful humour, describing for example their inadequate provisions which included an oak table and chairs and a bath, but pitifully few water bottles.
Woven into this fascinating story are her vivid, poetic descriptions of Australia, which have inspired me to make a trip as soon as possible.
A tragic adventure story told with humour, empathy and contagious enthusiasm.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on 26 Dec. 2005
Format: Paperback
Australia's desolate interior evokes much legend. Dominating the legends are the traverses of European explorers in the region. Among these legends, that of Burke and Wills retains a lofty status, one Sarah Murgatroyd may have forever toppled. She has given the tradition of explorer heroics a strenuous airing with this book. Few reputations are left unsmirched, but her real assault centres on the incompetence of the expedition's leader, Robert O'Hara Burke.
The author relates how Burke left Melbourne, Victoria, in 1860 with several ambitions, muddled instructions and devoid of capabilities to manage the task. Behind his straggling team were a cabal of businessmen intent on extending Victoria's borders. Beyond that, they also hoped to initiate a telegraph line route to Asia, thence to London. In competition with Adelaide to the west, both cities had sponsored expeditions to traverse the continent from south to north. Others had made the attempt, but the travails of crossing a land intolerant of blundering had thwarted them all. Burke was aware of a major competitor in the figure of Charles McDouall Stuart who had nearly succeeded before turning back. Burke, among other things, saw the enterprise as a race - which he intended to win.
Murgatroyed demonstrates how that aspect, among others, doomed the expedition from the beginning. Burke's undue haste led to launching the trek at the worst time of year. He quarreled with subordinates, sacked members of the team and scorned delays occasioned by scientific studies. His fatal error was in dividing the group, ultimately leaving most of his companions behind to make a dash to the northern sea. It was the fragmenting of the expedition that led to conflicting priorities and delays.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Uganda on 11 May 2003
Format: Paperback
I have, of late been reading and re-reading books on Australia for a project I am currently undertaking. These include Knightley's tour de force 'Australia - Biography of a Nation', Pilger's culpa nostra 'A Secret Country',Bryson's light-hearted travelogue 'Down Under' and many others. The Dig Tree, written by a young English woman suffering as she suffered the advanced stages of cancer, a painful irony as she described the last moments of so many others, is quite the most delightful work of non-fiction I have read in many a year. Sadly, we will hear nothing more from this meticulous and humorous writer as she died on 26 March 2002 just as this, her first book, was published. But never mind the sentimentality, this is a must-read if you want to make any serious attempt at understanding the emerging Australian nation and the importance of exploration as well as inter-colonial rivalries and corruption. Murgatroyd is a master of atmosphere and one can almost feel the heat and the dust, the flies and the despair. On top of all this she has such a deliciously dry sense of humour that at times her little jokes just about sneak up on you. Get your hands on a copy and enjoy a grandstand seat on one of the most tragi-comic episodes in human endeavour.
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