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  • THE BURKE AND WILLS EXPEDITION
    Some thoughts from Peter Harris, Welder's Dog

    Something terrible happened. If you stand in front of the huge painting by John Longstaff, you'll be overwhelmed.
    And you will begin to get a sense of the personal tragedy of this ill fated expedition.

    Burke and Wills Longstaff
    Burke and Wills arrive back at the DIG tree. Sir John Longstaff. Victorian Art Gallery

    With the hindsight of 150 years we can make all sorts of judgements and point out the errors of their ways, but as a musician I reflect on the human elements of such events. The excitement and the ultimate despair.

    Most people know of the deaths of Burke and Wills on the expedition, but few would know of the deaths of other members. So I'd like to introduce you to a delightful, creative, observant member of the expedition who also tragically died, far away from the focus of Burke and the Dig Tree.

    His name was Dr Ludwig Becker. He was a scientist, naturalist and artist. He was in his fifties when the expedition set out and not really a strong man. This reveals the strange makeup of the expedition, which apart from being a kind of race, was also planned to be a scientific expedition.

    I'm going to take a look at the expedition through the eyes of Ludwig Becker, who was a miniaturist painter. His many paintings and sketches are quite small with intricate detail. I think he was also one of the first European artists to capture the spirit of the alien Australian landscape.

    The following details are from Becker's own works which were painted and drawn on the expedition. They are part of the La Trobe Collection housed in the Victorian State Library.

    THROUGH THE EYES OF DR. LUDWIG BECKER
    As painted on the Burke and Wills Expedition

    Burke and Wills expedition by Ludwig Becker The Horses and Camels didn't get along so they travelled in two lines with Burke inbetween on his white pony.

     

    Artists Tent by Ludwig becker on the Burke and Wills expedition
    The Artists Tent at one of the many campsites

     

    Wakool River Ludwig Becker
    Camp by the Wakool River

     

    Small Pigeon near the Darling River by Ludwig Becker
    Intricate details sketched by the artist must have taken time. As the expedition turned into a race, these artistic excursions became a hindrance to Burke, and he insisted that the scientists share in heavy manual labour.

     

    Campsite by Ludwig Becker Local campsite near Swan Hill area, in de-tribalised country.

     

    shells collected by Ludwig Becker
    Details of collected shells.

     

    River by Ludwig Becker
    Darling River

     

    campsite by Ludwig Becker
    junction of Bamamorrow Creek and the Darling River

     

    Cave Art by Ludwig Becker
    Cave Art

     

    Heat Haze by Ludwig Becker
    Capturing the desert heat haze

     

    Mt Hope by Ludwig Becker
    Mt Hope area.

     

    Tribal family by Ludwig Becker
    Local Tribe watching the camels.

    Ludwig Becker died needlessly in another part of the vast land, after the expedition became fragmented. But his wonderful observations are still with us and give us a rich insight into aspects of the expedition.

    THE SONGS.
    I have written a number of songs and instrumental pieces over the years about the Burke and Willd expedition. Some of the songs were originally produced by Cleon Dennis for the ABC and sung by Mickey Leyton with backing from Kerry Biddell, the Sydney String Quartet, Don Burrows, Charlie Munro and a number of other Sydney jazz musicians.

    With Welder's Dog I perform three of these with a more intimate accompaniment.

    SONG 1
    BURKE'S SONG

    Burke was a handsome, dashing, soldier policeman. He fell in love with an actress and proposed to her. She said she would tell him her decision when he returned from his famous expedition. He had a small locket with him, presumably a reminder of her. He was known for his outlandish actions which included riding some miles to swing cheekily on the gate of a rather pompous judge. He had fought as a mercenary soldier, and was a respected policeman in the goldfield.


     

     

    BURKE'S SONG

    I'm Robert O'Hara Burke
    And I come from Castlemain
    And Irish is my temper, as Irish is my name.
    I've travelled 'cross the seas
    And I've been a soldier bold
    And I keep the tempers in control of the men who dig for gold.

    A seeker of adventure
    I heard the canons' roar
    A-calling me to battle in a European war.
    The fire in my soul is stirred
    By a challenge to be met
    There's many a tale to tell because the fire's burning yet!

    I've heard they want a man
    To lead an expedition bold
    Across the rugged land
    And seek the mysteries of old.
    I'm a man who's brave and spirited
    There's little that I fear
    I'll lead that expedition and by the stars I'll steer.

    There's many a danger to be met
    Before my journey's done
    O'er land as yet unconquered underneath a blazing sun.
    But danger holds a romance
    For an Irishman so bold
    I'll have a story when I'm through that's never before been told!

    by Peter Harris
    with help from Judith Harris
    © 2010

     

    SONG 2
    HOW MANY DAYS?

    Burkes last instructions to Brahe, back at a base camp was that if he was not back by the agreed date ion three months, he would probably have reached the ocean and hailed a passing vessel to return to Melbourne by sea.

    It took the little party of Burke, Wills, King and Grey a gruelling two months to actually reach the Gulf. They knew they were there because they made camp by a salty tidal creek. Burke, desperate to see the shore,repeatedly tried to find a way through the thick mangroves but was defeated each time. He eventually gave up and began to face the prospect of making the return trip through colder conditions with dwindling supplies of food.

    This song explores how Burke must have felt at this point.

    HOW MANY DAYS

    How many days?
    How many days
    Have I been travelling 'cross the land?
    Through the burning sand
    And now the never ending rain
    Washes through my brain
    And makes me long
    For clear blue skies - hey hey hey!

    How many times?
    How many times
    Have I been tempted to go back?
    Leave this crazy track
    Before my failing strength is gone.
    But something tells me that I must
    Travel on - hey hey hey!

    And now I sit.
    And now I sit
    Beside a river with a tide.
    Knowing that the never ending sea
    Is close at hand.
    Longing just to see those lonely miles
    Of ocean sand - hey hey hey!

    by Peter Harris
    © 2010

    Dig Tree
    The Dig Tree

    SONG 3
    ENDLESS FLIGHT

    It seems so cruel now, the relentless and unforgiving bush. Burke headed back to the base camp on Cooper's Creek. The three months he had allowed for the crossing and back was now two thirds gone. The food was two thirds gone.
    Their clothes were in tatters and they faced a chilling winter. No doubt he remembered telling Brahe to leave after three months. And there was only one month left to return the same journey.

    The hardships were immense. Burke limited the rashions down to starvation level. In desperation they ate a large snake. Grey, who was older than the others took ill. When he was found pilfering from the party's food supply Burke gave him a thrashing. Grey died and the weak party, no doubt full of remorse took a full day to dig him a shallow grave.

    But eventually, they heroically did make it back to the depot, starving, freezing and exhausted, to find it deserted. A sign carved into a tree told them to dig. They found some food and a note saying that Brahe and his party were in good health and had left to return south that very morning. Burke knew they had no strength to follow on foot and try to catch them. Their animals had died. So dejectedly they made camp.

    In fact, Brahe's party was in poor health and one man was so ill he was strapped to a horse. That night they were only a few kilometres down the creek. But it didn't matter now. Fate was delivering another twist to the long saga. Burke, Wills and King regained a little strength and then decided to head along the creek to try and find a distant homested.

    They never made it and it wasn't long before Wills and then Burke died. Wills, just a young man, entered diary notes right up until the moment he died. Burke lay down beside Coopers Creek and told King not to dig him a grave, knowing the 19 year old was too weak. Perhaps he was remembering the day they took to dig a grave for Grey. The day they lost that would have saved their lives and set a very different record for history. He asked King to place his pistol in his hand and to read him some verses from the bible.

    The gamble was over. They played and lost.

     

     

    ENDLESS FLIGHT

    In a tree by the silent creek
    The lonely mopoke cries,
    But his run is left too late and the fieldmouse dies.

    In a flash the mirror breaks
    Sending ripples through the skies
    And the pretty silver fish is the darter's prize.

    Oh the pelican drifts in endless filght
    And the coolabah shivers in the wind tonight.

    Well the dealer takes his place
    And he calls the gambler's name
    And he lays the cards face down for the final game.

    And the stakes are running high
    As the dealer makes his call
    And the gambler takes his throw and loses all.

    Let me lay above the stoney earth
    Hear the final cry of the parrot's mirth.

    By the quiet water's side
    Neath the spreading stately tree
    Read a verse from the Holy Book to comfort me.

    For my time is running out
    Like the ebbing of the tide
    Place my pistol in my hand and stay by my side.

    Oh the pelican drifts in endless flight
    And the coolabah shivers in the wind tonight.

    by Peter Harris
    © 2010


    Cooper's Creek
    Somewhere along this beautiful stretch of water, Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills left this earth.