burke & wills book review

Keen Duffy followers will remember that in a recent review of a Charles Darwin biography, I hailed the great workbook reviewers do by holding authors to account and keeping them honest:


Well, there is one way authors can fight back…….

They can write a STONKING BIG BOOK! They are almost unreviewable!

The King of STONKING BIG BOOKS in Australia is Peter Fitzsimons.

It wasn’t always like this. Fitzy’s biography of former Wallaby captain John Eales, published early in his writing career, is a mere 350 pages. It was written back in 2001 and Fitzy acknowledges the efforts of only one principal researcher. Fast forward to “Burke & Wills” published at the end of 2017 and Fitzsimons is a publishing machine. Fitzy’s own name is in STONKING BIG letters across the front cover!

He acknowledges at least four researchers plus subject matter experts who have helped him put together this impressive book of 700 pages (including extensive footnotes).

One can imagine that if he wrote another John Eales bio today, Fitzy would easily get to 500 pages. In fact, his researchers would probably want to talk to me! You see, I went to primary school with John Eales! Well……………….., he was in the year behind me. One of his sisters was in my grade. My aunt and uncle lived in the same street as the Eales family. I even played a bit of cricket against him.

So I am sure Fitzy’s researchers would be all over me like a rash should he tackle John Eales II.

Wait right there!

Maybe they might want to know about ME!

Maybe they might write a book about ME!

I could be a John Eales spin off!……..

What about all the research needed for a tome like Burke & Wills?

I guess we all secretly hope that some of the fame of the people we write about might rub off. What do you reckon Fitzy? Playing seven Tests for the Wallabies can only get you so far, right?

So with all his researchers, a naughty reader might wonder how much effort Fitzy puts in. Well, I think I can safely say that Fitzy is laughing, provoking, challenging back at you on almost every page of this book. How can I tell? If you have heard Fitzy on the radio or seen him on TV, you will know he is no shrinking violet. I once heard Fitzy recite Jack Nicholson’s famous rant in the movie, “A Few Good Men”. You know the one:


He was speaking at a rugby lunch some years ago. Just imagine Nicholson with a red bandanna and you would not be far off. When he writes about the Royal Commission into the deaths of Burke & Wills, I can see Fitzy getting equally fired up.

Fitzsimons brings passion to his story telling. He is unashamedly more the story teller; less the writer. More the playwright; less the historian. He writes his books in the present tense. He quotes directly from newspapers, diaries and letters of the time. This is the sort of book you can pick up and read aloud. He aims to bring history alive and if his style gets more people reading history, then that can only be a good thing.

But I am afraid Fitzy that I am going to gloss over all your work on the background to this great expedition through Australia’s heart, how Burke got the gig to lead it and its triumphant departure (complete with camels) from Melbourne’s Royal Park. I am going to skip over the whole South Australia v Victoria thing (John McDouall Stuart was making a rival trek from South Australia), the discontent amongst the men on the expedition (to the point where Burke even challenged the guy in charge of the camels to a duel) and their constant battle against the harsh conditions of the Australian bush. I won’t challenge whether they really made it to the Gulf……everybody seems happy they made it to the tidal bit – not the open ocean. I won’t mention the famous DIG tree, how the aboriginals at Cooper’s Creek kept one very fortunate explorer alive, the Royal Commission or the state funerals of Burke & Wills.

Did Burke & Wills beat Mr B?

There is just no way Fitzy I am going to review the whole of your STONKING BIG BOOK! I am only going to review…………………………. the back of the dustcover.

But a very poignant back cover it is. In fact, I think this is the essence of the Burke & Wills story:

“’They have left here today!’ he calls to the others…..when King puts his hand down above the ashes of the fire it is to find it still hot. There is even a tiny flame flickering from the end of one log! They must have left just hours ago.”

In my ignorance, I always thought these words must be referring to a search party sent out to find our intrepid explorers. No! John King (along with Charley Gray) had travelled to the Gulf with Burke and Wills as part of a smaller advance party.

You see Burke had decided to split his expedition group. A group was to stay at what was known as “the Depot” in Cooper’s Creek. They were to build a stockade in the middle of nowhere and protect the supplies from the aboriginals so that there was food for the advance party when it returned. William Brahe was in charge of this group.

Another group was to travel back to the town of Menindee on the Darling River to bring up further supplies. This group was led by a larrikin named William Wright. Burke had seen fit to appoint him third in command of the group, but until his appointment was approved by the Exploration Committee back in Melbourne, he decided to stay in Menindee for 2 months, before he set off following Burke & Wills’ fading tracks.

When King made the comment above, he was not part of any search party. He was talking to Burke and Wills and they were returning home. Brahe had decided, after waiting for them for 4 months and five days, to leave the Depot and head back to Menindee THAT VERY DAY – 21 April 1861.  ……..#$6&*!

Now if this was to happen today, King would just ring Brahe on his mobile. Telstra’s network would pick it up and……….ok, maybe not……..A satellite phone! That would do it!

But Burke, Wills and King (Gray had died) were weak and starving. They had trekked 2000 miles from Melbourne to the Gulf and another 1000 miles back to Cooper’s Creek. They were out of supplies. They had even eaten the camels and horses they took with them and they were largely surviving on native food and the goodwill of the local aboriginals. In 1861, they had no way of knowing where Brahe’s group was even though they had left the same day.

The scenario of the day is best captured by my favourite few passages in the book:

“On this night, a wedge-tail eagle from its position high in the sky might be able to spot several flickering lights in the night, to go with the impossibly sparkling panorama of stars above.

There direct below are the three tightly placed fires of Burke and Wills, and their faithful trooper, King – a fire for each of them is the best way to keep warm on cold nights, each man lightly curls his body around the small corral of flames. Just 14 miles down the path to Menindee is the rather larger and cheerier fire of Brahe and his companions. Another 125 miles away over the Grey Range, is Wright’s party at Bulloo, still stranded there, after several excursions to the north have failed to reveal either Burke’s forward track or any supplies of water…..

And those other sparkles across the vast wilderness? They are the Yandruwandha people, who have not only survived but prospered in these parts for something like 18,000 years. To them, it is just another night of the Dreamtime or Pukudurnanga. Their bellies are full, in this land where food abounds in this season of plenty. Their families are secure in the gunyahs and among their kin. All is right with the world, as the spirits of the Dreamtime play across the sparkling night sky.”

Fitzsimons has written about 30 books. In fact, I might call each one a “Fitzy”. If you haven’t read a Fitzy before, make this your first one! All Aussies should know more about this fascinating story.

Or you might like to read the latest Fitzy……….another STONKING BIG BOOK………about war hero General Monash:


The great thing about reading a STONKING BIG BOOK is the sense of achievement when you finish. And if you need the team from Duffy the Writer to help you celebrate, just drop us a message!

Get into this beast of a book here a bargain if you go on price per kilo!

burke and wills by Peter fitzsimmmons