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Down Under, an Epic Tale of Human Folly

October 06, 2002|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

THE DIG TREE: A True Story of Bravery, Insanity, and the Race to Discover Australia's Wild Frontier, By Sarah Murgatroyd, Broadway Books, $24.95

For a great read, for a history lesson you didn't know you needed and for a fascinating probe of what can come of greed, idiocy, valor, good luck and bad timing in the middle of a large, empty and unfriendly continent, step this way, please, to Sarah Murgatroyd's first book.

"The Dig Tree" is about an 1860-61 expedition that was supposed to be the first to cross Australia overland, south to north. The tree of the title plays a role so pivotal and excruciating that no novelist would dare put it on a page. Yet the story, even though I knew it would end badly, kept me up reading until 2 a.m. one night. The book is everything the expedition wasn't: shrewdly paced, thoroughly researched and over too soon.

Here is Murgatroyd describing Menindee, an outpost at the desert's edge on the banks of the Darling River: "As the summer heat melts the landscape into a quivering canvas of deception, the only solid point of reference is found around the riverbank, where lines of river red gums stand like sentinels guarding the precious water of the Darling.... To stare across the dunes, screwing up your eyes against the dust and the sun, is like gazing at an overexposed photograph. Only rain will restore the balance."

To enjoy the book, it's not necessary to know much about Australia, except that in this part of the 19th century--as the Civil War was beginning in the U.S.--its entrepreneurs and provincial politicians were vying over where the first transcontinental communication cable would be laid. Heavy bets were made that the cable, and economic development, would follow the route of the first successful north-south expedition.

At the book's center is Robert O'Hara Burke, a transplanted Irishman chosen by a committee of Melbourne's most important men to lead this expedition north to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Burke was spectacularly unqualified for the job, having been a policeman for most of his career, but he had allies in the right places.

The result was that an epic task and a lavish budget (including imported camels) were handed to a man whose judgment and endurance truly blurred the line between brave and foolish.

From the beginning, big things went wrong. Burke squandered resources and made impetuous decisions that ultimately cost several men their lives, yet succeeded in crossing the continent once and almost twice before his luck ran out. (This success, however, was thanks in large part to the skills of navigator William John Wills and the charity of Aborigines Burke viewed as inferior.) The committee back in Melbourne had several chances to stop the trouble from deepening, but at every turn did too little too late.

But this story soon widens to include much more than one overblown personality. Drawing from diaries and her own travels along the route, Murgatroyd deftly sketches half a dozen expedition members and their changing environs, along with the concurrent adventures of Burke's far more competent rival, John McDouall Stuart.

Because Australia and North America have so much in common as upstart British offshoot societies (awesome landscapes, idealized frontiersmen and decimated native peoples, to begin with), any tale of old Australia also works as a western in thin disguise, and gets you thinking about more universal themes.

And thanks to the strange characters and events of this particular fractured journey--in the last, desperate days, the expedition's beleaguered men are in three parties, starving and groping through the wilderness for one another in the shadow of Mt. Hopeless--we have something more than a B-movie western. We have John Ford, Ken Burns and the Coen brothers, metaphorically together at last amid butchered camels and spinifex plants.

In Murgatroyd's expert telling, everything good, bad and weird that happened among the men of Burke's expedition hints wisely about human folly and open space everywhere.

The worst thing about this book is that it is the author's last. Murgatroyd, an England-born radio journalist who moved to Australia in 1993 and began the Dig Tree project in '99, fended off cancer throughout the researching and writing of this book and lived to see its publication in Australia. She died on March 26, just 34 years old.

*

CALIFORNIA WINE COUNTRY, By Randy Leffingwell (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola), Voyageur Press, $29.95

Here's a coffee table book you may be tempted to lug along in the car.

Along with its evocative color photography--beyond the usual manicured green vineyards, Leffingwell is an enthusiastic student of winery architecture--this book is full of service information, delivered in a way that works, whether you're an oenophile or not.

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