Deadly Landscapes

When I was young I read Alan Moorehead’s imagining of the tragic Burke and Wills’ foray into vast Australia. It’s a story with the lot.

Moorehead had seen Sidney Nolan’s explorer paintings. Moorehead believed it was the desert itself that was at the heart of the Burke and Wills tragedy.

| Dust covers for Alan Moorehead’s Cooper’s Creek, Sidney Nolan and Nicholas Chevalier paintings |

Moorehead’s first paragraphs is a beauty:

Here perhaps, more than anywhere, humanity had had a chance to make a fresh start … Nothing in this strange country seemed to bear the slightest resemblance to the outside world: it was so primitive, so lacking in greenness, so silent, so old … A kind of trance was in the air, a sense of awakening infinitely delayed. In the midsummer heat the land scarcely breathed, but the alien white man, walking through the grey and silent trees, would have the feeling that someone or something was waiting and listening.

There is a tradition of artists documenting this tragedy. The best of the lot was Ludwig Becker, who was living it.

| Ludwig Becker, Bearing South, Crossing the Terrick-Terrick Plains, Aug 30, 1860 |

Becker’s notation on the watercolour refers to the horizon with its Fata Morgana – a type of mirage where you see very complex optical distortions.

| River Darling and the mouth of the Bamamaroo Creek, at sunset, Dec 19, 1860 |.

In his notes he refers to this watercolour: The glowing rays of the setting sun gilded every leaf of the beautiful group of trees around & opposite the depot. I selected a point 500 yards lower down the river, and, looking towards our camp, eastwards, I found that bit of nature so rich and poetical that I saw no necessity for asking my fancy or imagination to lend me a hand while painting the scene now before you.

One of his last letters is so very sad: I am extremely sorry not having received even a single line from you, especially, in regard to the few things so much wanted by an observer in nat. history. I never received the two small books having reference to Goulds work on birds. I fear I shall leave for the Interior with only an outfit consisting of a few colors & sketch-books, and two small geological hammers.

He died at the Koorliatto Waterhole, Bulloo Downs, of scurvy in April 1861.

Julia Ritson

One comment

  1. Anonymous

    I love this. I heard a radio doc last year about the Burke and Wills expedition on ABC Radio. They were trying to find what they believed to be a huge water source in the middle of the country. A huge lake or a river. The further they got inland, the dryer it got. They had debated as to whether they would take a boat with them on the trip for when they got to the water.
    I cannot even imagine.

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